As long-time readers of this blog will know by now, I did not enter into Polytheistic Paganism with a seething hatred for the Christian denomination (Eastern Orthodoxy) in which I’d been raised.
Participation in the faith certainly served as a cultural-preservation stratagem by my immigrant Serbian parents. As practices, going to church on Sundays and actively praying at home at our own ancestor shrine and our protecting saint’s “prayer corner” (both have to be kept near the hearth of the house, if you’re curious) was as Serbian as eating my mom’s meticulously crafted gibenica pita (a tasty feta cheese pie with layered phyllo dough).
Aside from reinforcing a sense of cultural belonging, the faith of my childhood definitely imprinted upon me two main features that have served as anchors in my subsequent personal religious evolution: (1) devotional piety expressed through four types of prayer (prayers of praise, prayers of gratitude, prayers meant to confer blessings, and intercessory prayers/petitions for Divine aid); and (2) the need for sensory stimuli in ritual—especially visual, auditory, and olfactory stimulation. I was immersed in a world where, to the accompaniment of constant, melodious antiphonal chanting in a medieval, pan-Slavic liturgical language known as Old Church Slavonic, hand-carved and painted wooden icons depicting the Blessed Mother and a panoply of saints and Archangels were lovingly fumigated with the smoke of frankincense and ritually adorned with sprigs of fresh basil, rosemary, hyssop, and oregano—the four most sacred herbs in Serbian culture—on holy days of the year.
As a nine-year-old girl, I would keenly observe my deeply devout maternal grandmother, following her as she prayed several times a day before various windows in the house, moving from east to south to west (she ignored the north). It was quite clear that she was following the course of the sun. One day when I confronted her about this curious devotional practice and she replied that she was, naturally, praying to Jesus Christ, I told her I didn’t believe her. Old Church Slavonic linguistic expert that I was, I told her how I heard with my own ears that the noun of the Being she kept addressing in her prayers was the word Suntse (Sun), not Sjin (Son).
Nana cackled at my cleverness and told me They were interchangeable in bestowing Their powers of health and vitality. So she would keep praying to Whichever One of Them took note of her piety and blessed our household. She ended this brief theology lesson by donning her reading glasses once again, pulling out the little tattered hardcover Eastern Orthodox Book of Hours from her cardigan sweater pocket so she could resume reading her prayers in front of the appropriate window for the time of day. Her discipline in carrying out these prayers on a daily basis and her joy in praying made a deep impression on my own developing devotional sensibilities. (To this day, I wonder whatever happened to her tattered little prayer book and wish I could add it as an offering to her on my ancestor altar.)
Pagans who revere at least one Deity or abide by the Wiccan duotheism of “Goddess and God,” and certainly Polytheists who aim to cultivate devotional relationships with multiple Gods, are people of prayer. Yet I’ve often wondered why the centrality of prayer in devotional practice or even in magical workings seems to be curiously lacking as a subject in any Pagan discourse. What’s the hang up? Is it just perceived as “not cool”—something people don’t want to admit to doing because acknowledging that they pray to Beings external to themselves, whether formally or not, makes them sound “weak” or incapable of handling their problems? Do people find that prayer is a “tainted” practice for them because of negative associations acquired from one of the Abrahamic religions of their upbringing?
Naturally, many people entering the Big Pagan Tent as their new spiritual home can bring a lot of baggage with them from their previous associations with monotheism. My goal is to get frank discussion out into the open as well as to provide encouragement, raising ourselves to a high vibrational level by learning from each other’s beliefs and practices. Few things elevate my spirit more than witnessing another person’s devotional practices, whether those are expressed through carefully planned rituals or spontaneous acts. Even if the Deities honored are Ones that I personally do not relate to, my Sun Sign Virgo heart leaps with joy because I can feel the love behind the act of service.
My favorite, most memorable moments of prayer since I “came out of the broom closet” more than half my life ago have included other people. Many of those moments came unbidden—usually in sudden response to an overwhelming feeling of awe, like when my friend Katie and I were arrested by the sight of the bulbous, orange full moon rising over a three-way fork in a footpath carved out of red clover in a massive meadow in southern Wisconsin on Lammas Eve, 2017. I felt the Presence of Mighty Hekate, One of my Three Patron Deities in the FOI, overtake me, and I raised my arms aloft and began shouting out a litany of praise to Her, my voice reverberating across the valley. Katie joined me. Fireflies danced about on the sultry air that night, punctuating our prayer with light. It was glorious!
This past All Souls’ Day, I had the enormous pleasure of leading a group prayer service to the skeletal Mexican folk saint, La Santa Muerte, at the Fellowship of Isis Chicago Lyceum where I regularly lead public rituals. I typed out a 10-page prayer book comprised of prayers I’d written myself to give praise to various aspects of Mí Flaquíta (“My Skinny Lady”) and shared them with my fellow devotees. Some of the prayers were formatted as call-and-response litanies, but most were recited in unison.
As I looked around the temple space, I saw beings positively alight with the energy raised from focused prayer: brows were knitted in concentration and fervent devotion, smiles creased lips, and hands were raised in joy. It was a tremendously bonding experience, not just between me and the other people present, but between all of us and La Santa Muerte Herself—but that’s exactly the point of religion. After all, the word “religion” itself means “to yoke together,” and whether you interpret that from a Right Hand Path standpoint of yoking your Self to a Divine Being external to you, or the Left Hand Path standpoint of the Divine Within, prayer is what fuels that dialogue.
So keep talking! Be blessed and be blissed: So Mote It Be!