Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" - Study as Prayer

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe — that unless I believed, I should not understand. – St. Anselm of Canterbury

Intellectual knowledge is the foundation - but not the entire edifice - of our relationship with God. The Torah is not telling us to reduce this vibrant connection to a sterile equation. Once a rational foundation is in place, the Torah says to "return it to your heart." We must then work on creating an intimate, deeply personal and satisfying relationship with God, assimilating what we know in our minds into our feelings. We need to use our intellect to guide our emotions. Emotions are powerful tools, but when they are in the driver's seat, we are taken into dangerous territory. Feelings can sweep us off our feet and carry us to a world of illusion - Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

Mystics in various traditions draw a distinction between intellectual knowledge and the deep insight of spiritual awakening. But this does not mean that they have minimized the importance of study and scholarship. Without a firm intellectual foundation, mysticism can degenerate into escapism and self-deception. Unable to distinguish between the Divine Light and material bubbling forth from their subconscious, untrained mystics can find themselves entranced like Narcissus at various pretty images. Instead of bringing them closer to the Gods, these visions only send them wandering down blind alleys of delusion that draw them away from practical spiritual or material work.

The better you understand your patron Deity through study of the best available sources, the easier it will be for you to distinguish between divine contact and wish-fulfillment. When you have internalized Their tales, you will be better able to recognize Their presence. You will be able to recognize Them by their behavior and demeanor and to spot an imposter spirit or a dream which originates within your mind rather than outside it. Exploring the primary sources, or academic works on the culture in question, can teach you a great deal about the role your patron Deity played in the past and can be expected to play in the present.

It will also be easier for you to identify Them by name. Instead of a vague "sun god" you will be able to distinguish between Sol Invictus, Ameratsu and Apollo – or, for that matter, between Apollo and Helios, two distinct Gods whose stories are often conflated by people with a cursory knowledge of Hellenic mythology. Many popular books present sanitized and homogenized versions of a few well-known stories. With more research, you may discover little-known roles and images that will help you put a name on your spirit-contact and get some idea of appropriate offerings.

Research can help you verify your UPG. Let's say you get a strong feeling that the pomegranate Persephone ate in the underworld was somehow connected to sterility and barrenness. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. Today most people associate the pomegranate with fertility: its round shape resembles the swollen belly of a pregnant woman, and when it is opened it is filled with seeds. But a closer study reveals that pomegranate was frequently prescribed in classical and medieval medicine as an abortifacient and contraceptive. Modern tests on rats and guinea pigs have found that adding pomegranate to the diet of female rats and guinea pigs results in a measurable decrease in pregnancies. Armed with this information, you would have evidence that your hunch was indeed the product of divine inspiration.

Study can facilitate a religious experience. The very act of compiling information about your Deity can be its own prayer. It is a meditation constrained by facts and hard data, one which is less likely to go drifting off into flights of fantasy. And if finding information can be a form of prayer, making that information available to other worshippers can be a powerful offering. Artisans and religious writers throughout history have taken difficult concepts and put them in forms which laity can understand. By digging out material from primary sources and dry academic texts and bringing them to a wider audience, you follow in their footsteps.

Like any spiritual technique, this approach can have its pitfalls. It is possible to use your learning and research to construct elaborately crafted, historically accurate delusions. As we discussed in Chapter 4, some people make a fetish of research and scholarship: their path becomes less a direct encounter with Divinity than an effort at recreating an ancient faith down to the smallest details. We will also need to keep in mind that scholarship is not a static discipline. Egyptology as it was practiced in Victorian times bears little resemblance to today's academic discipline: this century's brilliant professor may well be the next century's quaint curiosity. If our visions don't jibe with contemporary academic thought, it could be that they are wrong or it could be that our scholars are in error.

If we wish to reforge the old connections with the Gods, we will do well to understand the ways They were honored in the past. But we also need to understand that the world has changed, for better and for worse, in the long centuries since They were last honored. The trick is to create ways of veneration that are appropriate for our society and which meet the needs of both Gods and worshippers. An exclusive focus on Their ancient glories runs the risk of placing Them safely in a Golden Age and making Them irrelevant to the here and now. Ultimately we may do best to follow the lead of Reconstructionist Judaism and give the past a vote but not a veto.