Faith, the Holy, and Paganism

I am a multiple-tradition polytheistic Pagan. My shamanic practice is  entirely Northern Tradition shamanism. The church I belong to is eclectic Pagan with mixed polytheistic worship. On top of this, over the last couple of years I have acquired a personal spiritual side path that is … well, I suppose I could call it not-very-Hindu, because it centers entirely around Shiva. Shiva is my Guru. Madguru sri Jagadguru. Up until now I’ve been a little wary, or perhaps shy, to go to him with the sort of things one would go to one’s guru for, and sit at their feet and ask hard questions. But I finally went to him because I had a question about the issue of faith in Neo-Paganism.

I didn’t want to, at first, because I figured it wasn’t his tradition, so why ask? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Shiva is very old, and He’s seen a lot of polytheism, and a lot of faith, and a lot of polytheism diluted in order to save people’s lives, and a lot of other difficult stuff around that. So He might just know something useful that I could bring with me to Paganism.

So I lit the candle on His altar, and sat with my little skull bowl in my lap, and put the rudraksha around my neck, and asked, “Sri Guru Mahadeva, why do so many Pagans have trouble with the issue of faith?” Mind you, I already had a bunch of answers thought out in my head –  social ones, political ones, historical ones – but what He said had nothing to do with any of that.

Shiva smiled at me, patiently and tolerantly. Shiva is generally very kind to me, surprisingly. I know that He is a God of destruction, and I’ve seen him in his Bhairava aspect and He can be pretty terrifying, but when Shiva wants to tell me something patiently, I get it from Ardhanarisvara – divided down the middle, half male and half female. Namaha Shivayai cha namaha Shivayah. Hail She-Shiva, hail He-Shiva. Anyway, S/He smiles tolerantly at me and says, very simply, “It is because you have no holy men and women, where people can see them.”

Of course, a hundred rebuttals ran through my head – What? But we have tons of priests, priestesses, spirit-workers, all sorts – but it quickly became clear that was not the meaning of the word. When Shiva says holy man or holy woman, that does not mean clergy. That does not mean priest or priestess dedicated to a deity or a group. That does not mean spirit-worker or shaman. That does not mean a horse, someone who carries the deity for ritual purposes. It means something much bigger, much deeper. It means – the image flashed through my mind – a human being who has entirely given themselves over to be a living embodiment of a teaching, of a divine way of being in the world. A channel for the Holy Powers who may or may not speak any words of Gods, but who just radiates all the time. Not to do, just to be.  Hollowed out by the Gods and filled with Light.

It’s true that we Pagans have no Dalai Lama, no Panchen Lama, no Jagadguru, nothing like that. When we say that there is no Pagan Pope, we are proud. That’s because when we say “Pope”, we think “central religious authority”, not “living embodiment of the blessing of Christ”. (I am not Christian and was not raised Catholic, and so this is not the place for discussion of whether the current or past Popes were actually living embodiments of the blessing of Christ. That doesn’t matter. My point stands.) We have no one whom we would line up to be touched by, because it would be a blessing just to be touched by them, and we would be able to believe that the conduit humbly saw themselves as no more than a conduit.

And if someone like that did turn up in our midst, and a small group of Pagans actually claimed that this person was one of this sort, most Pagans would immediately begin a frantic and desperate campaign to belittle them and bring them down as fast as possible … to prove that they were mo more holy than any of the rest of us grunts. Such a thing would frighten and upset most of us, not fill us with reverence. Of course, if such a person did come forth, it’s likely that they wouldn’t care, by definition. Real holy men and holy women don’t tend to care what people think of them, or what’s said about them on the Internet. But still, it’s kind of sad.

“Is it because they are better teachers?” I ask. The answer: “Great teachers are a good thing, but what holy men and holy women do for faith is not in their teaching. Even when people have never heard their words, they are anchors for the faith of the religion. Their very existence ripples that faith energy outward through the net of that practice.” I got an image of a network of people, with lighted spots like buoys in the ocean. “If every religion were to be seen like a pot full of faith … the pot gets shaken about by circumstance, and some slops out. The pot boils, and some goes up in steam. With no lid, the faithful must work hard, over and over, to refill the pot, and they constantly lose more. Holy men and holy women are like the lid on the pot – some might escape, but much more remains. You have no lid.”

Mixed metaphor, I know, but I sat there shaken. I suppose I’d hoped for an answer I could work with, an answer that would give me a direction to go make some damn change. Instead, it was an answer that I could do nothing with. “Is there anything I can do? In the meantime, while we wait for that?” I asked, a little desperately.

Another tolerant smile. “Perhaps you should just focus on doing your duties as they are given to you, and do not worry about this. All things come in their own time. Worrying about this process does not make it go any faster.” Then the candle went out, and I was alone in the room.

I know that this is an unsatisfying ending to this essay. I wish I had a better one. It may also be that Pagans will read this and say, “What does Shiva know? He’s not of our traditions. He comes from a place where they do things differently. We don’t need this.” Maybe there’s truth to that, maybe not. I don’t know everything, but this truth that was spoken rang very deep in my soul, that sort of ringing that even if you try hard to be skeptical, your gut says, “You know this is true.” So I will hold this truth, keep it deep inside me like something precious … and I’ll pray. That’s the one thing I can do. May this gift be given to the right person, someone who can handle it. May they be willing and able to take it up.

May we someday, O Gods, be blessed with anchors in our nets, lids for our pots. In the meantime, I will continue to have faith.