Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Finding A Good Messenger

I recently received a few good heartfelt questions from a reader. Ms. A writes:

“I have no problem with the idea of having priests or shamans who are experts on certain deities for laypeople to go to for these sorts of things. The problem is I don't actually know any that I trust enough to give me this sort of information. Oh sure, I've met tons of people who claim to be priestesses or shamans, but in the modern pagan community, pretty much anybody can say that. I've been involved with the modern pagan community for over ten years, and I've lost count of how many 'priests' or 'high priestesses' or 'shamans' I've met at festivals, meetups, and so on. It often doesn't take long to find out many of these people are charlatans or narcissists and really are the last people I'd want to go to for spiritual advice.
And this was long before blogging became a big deal. I'm talking about just "in real life", here. After years of this, I get online, and there are all these blogs of people claiming to be priests and shamans and spirtworkers and so forth. Of course, given my previous experience, I'm immediately skeptical. Having a blog online where you can get even more attention seems like just the thing these types of people I've met IRL would love to do.
So how does a layperson sort that out ? How do I know which people calling themselves clergy are the real deal, and worthy of trusting with something so important as my relationship with my gods, and which are the untrustworthy ones?
(And I want to make clear here that I'm not saying that YOU are one of these charlatans. I actually only know you from this blog, which means that I pretty much don't know you at all, so you may be the real deal. I really don't know. That's the problem.)
My second problem is that the primary deity I worship is actually a quite popular one. In some ways that's nice, because there's tons of information on Him, and I have no shortage of people I can find online who are dedicated to Him. But what do I do when they conflict? If the deities are objective reality, they shouldn't conflict. I'm a biology professor, so I know how objective science works. The reason that the theory of evolution is accepted as fact is because all the evidence consistently points to it being true.
But what if one priest says deity X likes this, and another says actually deity X likes something completely opposite? How do I know which to believe? The name of my deity is actually used by some groups that are neo-Nazis and white supremacists, something I find completely abhorrent. But how do I know that they don't have the right idea, and my deity really does agree with all that, and those of us who are against all that are the ones who have it wrong?
The Christians already have a problem with this. Some say their deity is loving and compassionate, others say their deity wants wars and genocide. I'm afraid as modern paganism grows, we're just going to have more and more of this problem. Atheists sometimes use this as evidence that the Christian god isn't real, because if He was, He would be consistent. And to be honest, I can see where they're coming from.
I hope you understand what I mean here, because I really would like to have clergy I could trust. But then again I think of things like the Catholic Church's sex abuse problem. If a religion that organized can't manage to weed out untrustworthy priests, I don't see how modern paganism/polytheism is going to.”
Please let me know if I’m condensing this accurately: you’re feeling skeptical; you want to know of the priests, shamans and so on, who is the real deal; you see having a blog as a possibility for attention/self-inflation; what about conflict amidst priests; and what about problems regarding consistency with deities and their messages. This is a great deal of territory to cover in one post; I know I won't cover everything here, but I'll give it a go.

Skepticism is a healthy thing in that it can give us some space in which to view events and occurrences. However, skepticism can become a lens through which one views everything, even to the extent of casting doubt on what is known. For instance, a person can be skeptical to a fault: just because his feet have never touched the roundness that is a spherical earth, and just because he has never personally seen earth from outer space, the hardened skeptic might refuse to acknowledge the reality of the earth being spherical. That the earth is a sphere is an observable phenomenon, but for him to experience this he has to take the word of specialists in the field, be taught and learn to observe the phenomenon himself, or both.  The trick is in learning to navigate skepticism so it is helpful, but suspending it lightly so it will not become a hindrance. That’s a tricky tightrope walk, and it’s something we all somehow have to learn how to do in an era, in places, and in cultures that promote a skepticism about the deities that actually prevents us from seeing them, from seeing life-as-it-is, and from observing as life simply unfolds. This is a process of discernment.

As for a blog being a place for attention and/or self-inflation, that is always a possibility, however I would rank it typically a remote one. I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen ever:  it does happen. It is just that there are far, far more blogs that this does not happen to. Most blogs often find themselves in cricket-quiet cobwebbed corners of the internet, read more by friends, families, and coworkers on an occasional basis. For instance, even though you’re seeing my blog now and reading it (and I thank you!), this doesn’t mean that I have wide circulation. Also, just because a blog may have a number of “blog followers” also does not guarantee that it is being read frequently. But, this is superfluous, I think, to the matters you would like me to more fully address: figuring out when a priest or a shaman is actually doing his/her job well.

One of the issues you raise is that of inconsistencies regarding the deities, as in when you mention how the messages from the Christian deity/ies get garbled and appears incongruent. These inconsistencies stem not from the deities themselves, but from a faulty receiver.* Two radios can pick up on the same radio signal with the same message, but if one radio is a bad receiver all the listener will hear on the other end is a broken message and static. There isn’t a question as to whether or not the announcer is inconsistent: the announcer is simply giving the message, and the announcer can give the same message in a multitude of different ways from adding jingles, different allegories or illustrations, and different verbal expressions or emotions, and so on, in hopes of delivering a message the listener will understand well…but it is the same message at heart. If the radio doesn’t pick up that message well, or has difficulty in sending that through the speakers so the listener can hear it, there could be a problem with the radio.

There can also be problems with the person who listens to the radio: if a person is in the same room, she can hear a message on the radio clearly, but if she is in a different room or doing something loud like running a vacuum cleaner, she won’t hear the radio well or the message that the radio is playing. Maybe she was too involved in other activities to actually sit and listen fully to the message, or maybe she listened to the message with her own thoughts getting in the way or biasing the message one way or another. Our own thoughts often get in the way of listening. How often have we asked someone how his day is, then mentally focused more on what we wanted to say about our own day? Bias gets in the way when we tweak a message this way or that in accordance to what we may prefer to hear. All of us do these things, which is why practicing discernment and praying for guidance are practices of tremendously good use…for everyone.

In this illustration above, the radio announcer and radio signal is a deity, the announcement is the deity’s message, the radio is a priest, shaman, oracle, diviner, and so on (a messenger), and the person listening to the radio is a layperson.

There are two matters interwoven in this issue. How does a layperson know if the messenger is picking up the best, most accurate transmission from a deity and transmitting that message well? And how does the layperson know if she has received the message well from the messenger? Let’s look at the second matter, that of a layperson receiving a message, first and then come back around to the other matter of finding a good messenger.

For the layperson receiving the message transmitted by the messenger, the layperson must ask herself: Does she know the deities to be living and extant as individual beings beyond the confines of a mind, and as such acknowledge the deities as a part of objective observable reality? And if so, does she fully realize that the deities can communicate and do communicate with people?  These questions sometimes appear on the surface to have quick answers but they actually require time, honesty, contemplation, and prayer. Sometimes the questions even require a good deal of personal development and a soul-deep change.  Without this effort, it is difficult for a person to accept the possibility that any messenger anywhere could deliver any message from any deity ever—and that mindset will never allow her to see the wide selection of functioning “radios” all around her. It would be like our skeptic above who could not accept the reality of a spherical earth.  Working with discernment can help a layperson with these questions and begin to redevelop what we have lost since our removal away from our ancient polytheistic ways. Coming into this state is preparation to finding a good radio, being in the same room as the radio with the radio on and tuned in, the vacuum cleaner turned off, and the mind ready to listen clearly.  This is an ongoing process that ebbs and flows in life, and it isn’t just the messenger who has to do the homework—a layperson has responsibilities to the deities and to their messengers, too. When one goes through this part of the work, it helps pave the way for finding a good messenger.

Once the layperson has overcome her own hurdles to listening to a divine message from a messenger, it is useful to find a good messenger. To begin this journey, prayer is useful. One can petition the deities for guidance on the matter, that they will send a good messenger and/or bring oneself into contact with a good messenger, and ask for the deities to help oneself to know when this has happened.  When a person is looking, there are a few things to keep in mind.  A priest, shaman, messenger, has to be “clean”** and live in a good relationship with the primary deities that s/he works with and for. Some outward signs to look for or inquire about include the maintenance of taboos, guidelines, or restrictions. Most priests, shamans, and messengers observe some kind of taboos, restrictions, and guidelines that they must maintain anywhere from eating or not eating certain foods, wearing certain colors or clothing, personal grooming issues such as hair cutting, having a daily regimen of devotional observances, and so on. (However, these are only outward signs of what is going on with the priest or shaman inwardly: it should be cautioned that just picking up a few taboos, prayers, or clothing restrictions does not make a person a messenger of the gods, so in one’s search for a messenger, dig a little deeper. And on the other hand, if any one of my readers claims “Yeah but Ms. Tess says I can be a priest if I just have a few taboos and stuff, so I now have a taboo on picking belly button lint and I quit eating artichokes on Tuesdays!” I will rain upon them a scathing glare. Feeeeeel it buuuurn.)

Any messenger will be able to give concrete examples of how the deities have been present in their lives and the lives of others. Sometimes if a person is sensitive, and a clear conduit herself, and practicing discernment, she may feel something different about their presences from the presences of other people, feel different when in their presences, or sense an extra presence(s) near them. Sometimes weird things happen around them: sometimes electrical problems; sometimes erratic or calming behaviors in wildlife, little children, and the elderly; sometimes different bodily sensations such as heat, cold, comfort, or discomfort; sometimes animals or insects appearing; coincidences; sometimes constantly running into or hearing about the person; sometimes dreaming about the person; sometimes a particular song keeps playing; and so on. Look for the little things. If there’s something you see as unusual which crops up around the person, pay attention to it and take it into consideration, even if it seems really small and really insignificant. You can also ask about the person in question or if the person keeps a blog, read up on their recent works.

It's helpful to keep in mind that some messengers can cross-train with many different deities across more than one pantheon, but many tend to have deities and/or pantheons from whom they will hear better. Many messengers can pick up messages from almost any deity at any time particularly if that deity must make herself known, but messengers typically cannot pick up on messages from every deity all of the time, and most will have particular deities with whom they are more competent and compatible.

When a messenger is the  “real deal,” things occur—anything from the spectacular to the everyday miracles: look for these signs, and have (or ask the deities for) the openness to see the signs for what they are. But don’t expect a messenger to constantly agree or validate feelings: this is not their job. Their job is in communicating what the deities want a person to hear, communicating to the deities what a person wants to tell the deities, or both. And that process doesn’t often involve a bobble-head yes.

When I speak of everyday miracles, say for instance Cass has problems at work—his boss wants him to do something that Cass finds unethical and Cass has to figure out whether or not to go along with it or start looking for another job. Cass has told no one, and not even his coworkers are aware of what’s going on. In the meantime, Cass had the opportunity to pose his question to an oracle (a messenger): “Should I go along with what my boss wants or not?” He receives what to him at the time is a cryptic response—the deity, through the oracle, says: “You will know what to do about this matter when you see the rainbow.” Cass thinks “Yeah, great. That was so not helpful.” Yet one day the next week, it pours down rain and Cass has to take a detour because his usual route home is flooded. On the detour, the skies clear and he looks up to see a rainbow. When he sees the rainbow, he also observes a large billboard, an athletic shoe ad with a dramatic close up of a foot in a shoe and the slogan “Do the right thing.” Cass decides at that moment that “the right thing” means finding another job…and…he also realizes that he knew what to do about the matter when he saw the rainbow, just like the oracle said. Sometimes it is all about the miraculous hurled thunderbolts and disembodied voices, but more often it’s about the everyday miracles. In this way, too, our guinea pig Cass realized that the oracle, the messenger, was a good one. Sometimes these seeming-riddles resolve themselves swiftly, as it did for Cass, but sometimes they can take years to puzzle out—that’s part of the lesson, and part of the journey.

This finding of good priests, shamans, spiritworkers, diviners, and messengers is also a process that ebbs and flows with life, so it may help to remember that we’re speaking of dynamic (not static) forces at work. The deities, the messengers, and the laypeople—all of these beings are in a state of flux and change, ebb and flow and interrelatedness, so once a person reaches a conclusion, she should consider that this may not be the same conclusion or decision she will have for the rest of her life. For instance, a layperson decides to go with Priest Q, and this works for a long period of time but Priest Q goes through a rocky point where he cannot serve the way he had or he needs a sabbatical, or a different deity calls him, or he is going through some private difficulties which have his attention, or he is ill, or he is not the clear channel he once was—these matters can change. He can be just as efficient or more so tomorrow or a year from now than he was last week, or he could wane in efficiency. Or the listener herself is having a rough time with things going on in her life which make it difficult for her to accept and listen to a message. Thus the process  beings again or modifies as needs present themselves. As always one should pray for guidance, and one can ask for the messenger to pray for oneself as well.

What thoughts would you, dear reader, like to share with Ms. A about these matters...?

*The trump to this matter is trickster gods and/or gods of chaos. If one of these beings is communicating, then what looks as an inconsistency is perhaps part of the message. So we have to keep this as a possibility like a juggler keeps a ball in the air.

**What is “clean” to Dionysos may not be clean to Apollo. Clean can but doesn’t necessarily mean a state of physical cleanliness. The kind of “clean” I speak of here has more to do with the messenger being a clean channel for a deity—like a straw that is open and has no blockages. Especially if you are receiving a message through oracle work, sometimes this means that the spiritworker doing the oracle work cannot interpret or add anything  to what appears on the surface to be a riddle.

Image Notes: Picture of a radio by Sindre Skrede, released into Public Domain. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply to a comment I admit I posted while feeling a bit frustrated about the pagan "community", or lack thereof. I like some of the pointers you give about what a good messenger would be like, but I'm afraid those people are probably few and far between. It's hard enough for me to find anyone who's a polytheist at all, outside the internet, which I've been trying to limit my exposure to lately.

    Though I am comforted by what you say about being guided by the deities. Maybe if the gods really wanted me to meet such a person, one would show up.

    Ms. A