When people first start establishing a devotional practice they often focus on actions they can take, such as extending hospitality, planning major holidays and festivals, and building altars and shrines.
How we think doesn’t usually rate a second glance until much later.
Here’s the thing, though. The hierarchies we carry around in our heads can completely derail our devotional work before any of those actions are even a blip on the radar. Even once we’ve got something established, those hierarchies can still spring out like a possessed jack-in-the-box and catch us unawares.
What’s a hierarchy?
Hierarchies are the systems we use to rank things by status or authority. We rank everything: jobs, physical attractiveness, workplace chain-of-command, preferred handbag brands, etc.
We learn the importance of hierarchies as soon as we learn that our parents have authority over us. As we grow we add on to and refine that initial ranking system until we have an entire series of hierarchies, all nested together in our heads.
And we automatically use them to compare ourselves to other people.
It’s a pretty simple process. We rank a bunch of things from worst to best, or least desirable to most desirable, figure out where we fit in that ranking system, and then use that as a basis for how we feel about ourselves. The higher we are in rank the better we are as people.
Given how much we rely on these hierarchies to navigate our lives, is it really a surprise that we use tend to use them for our spiritual practice, too?
That makes sense. Why is it a problem, though?
For one, it’s dead easy to start ranking the ways different people practice according to some arbitrary scale we make up, compare ourselves to that ranking, and then start drawing conclusions based on whatever we come up with.
In other words, we either think our practice is lacking because someone else out there is doing “better” or we think our practice rocks because someone else out there is doing “worse”. That’s of course a completely ridiculous comparison to make, but people do it anyway.
Lots of people have talked about that particular issue, though. A more serious problem, to my mind, happens when we start comparing ourselves to the Powers.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, too. Once we start thinking of the Powers as individuals with Their own agendas and personalities, it’s really tempting to put Them on a hierarchy just like we do everyone else. Again, it’s just habit. And since They’re always at the top of whatever hierarchy we’re working with, we’re always beneath Them.
Some folks may feel so far beneath Them that they’re too intimidated to interact with Them at all. How can we have a relationship with Them if we can’t even talk?
It’s the exact same thing that happens when we’re attracted to someone at a bar.
We see someone who pushes all our buttons, who seems like the most amazing person ever. We look at them longingly from across the room. We ask the bartender about them, maybe, or see if our friends know anything about them. We fantasize about saying something hilarious to make them laugh, having a good time, maybe even getting their number.
Then the comparisons start, and our inner monologue runs amuck. “Should I say hi? Naw, they’re outta my league. Who needs that kind of humiliation? I need to find someone attainable.” We psych ourselves out before we make a move and let our internalized feelings of inferiority hold us back.
Or maybe we see a favorite author/musician/celebrity around town and want to gush about how meaningful their work has been in our lives. Once again we fantasize about what interacting with them would be like, once again we compare their place on our internal hierarchy to our own, and once again we psych ourselves out before making a move.
If we’re inhibited by a perceived distance between ourselves and other people, how much more inhibited might we be by a perceived distance between ourselves and the Powers? And how much more likely are we to avoid interacting with Them because of it?
It takes a different form with devotional work, of course, but it’s the same idea. The self-talk sounds similar, too. “I’m a mess right now. I’m sure the Powers are busy and have better things to do than talk to me anyway. If all relationships are reciprocal, what could I possibly bring to the table that would interest Them? I’m just human! I’m not going to ask Them for help. After all, if I was as together as They deserve or expect me to be I wouldn’t even need Their help. I’ll reach out when I’m not so embarrassed. When I’m not so scattered. When I’ve got a better offering for Them. When I’ve studied more. When I’ve accomplished more. When I know what I’m doing. When I’ve sacrificed enough to earn Their attention. When I’m better. When I’m deserving. When I matter.”
It’s a vicious cycle. We feel lesser, we feel intimidated, we avoid interaction. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Avoiding interactions with Them doesn’t exactly help our devotional practice flourish.
So how can we fix that?
The answer is an easy concept with difficult implementation, but the more we do it the easier it is to keep doing it. Momentum is our friend.
Human hierarchies tend to be based on the things we can easily see and assess (socioeconomic level, appearance, accomplishments, etc). But we have to remember that the Powers aren’t human. Why would They use human-based hierarchies?
The hierarchies on which the Powers rely (at least in my experience) rank traits, or virtues, and judge off of that instead. The harder we try to meet the standards by which They want us to live, the higher the regard in which the Powers hold us. Our effort makes us worthy, not our perfection.
But what exactly do They look for?
That depends on the Powers you follow. In my experience this is loosely answered on a pantheon basis – for instance, most of the Greek deities tend to value the same set of traits, and the Norse another set – but individual Powers within that pantheon may rank those traits differently.
As usual I’d ask Them first. What do They tell you?
Beyond that, I’d suggest consulting source documents or, if possible, living traditions. Most faiths with written records have some sort of “right actions” guideline to follow, whether it be explicit or inferred. That’s a fantastic place to start sorting things out.
For instance, as someone on a more Celtic path, I do my best to use a hierarchy based on a system of Celtic values (and wow does this need to be a post all on its own!). Wiccans and Wiccan-flavored Pagans often use the Wiccan Rede or Rule of Three the same way. Those on an Asatru-type path might prefer to work with the Nine Noble Virtues, while Egyptian/Kemetic folks might look to the Forty-Two Negative Confessions.
Outside of all that I can’t think of any Power offhand that doesn’t value Authenticity, Integrity, and Hospitality in some form or fashion. If nothing else start there and see what comes to you.
Make those right actions the basis of your life, and then assess yourself accordingly. Are you keeping your word? Are you working hard to meet your goals? Are you treating yourself, other people, and the Powers with respect? Are you living authentically? That’s where you need to focus your attention. The rest is just noise.
The beauty of this system is that even missteps and mistakes are ok because we show honor by handling them appropriately. Every single choice we make allows us to demonstrate right action, and thus further right relationships with the Powers. They bring us closer together instead of pushing us further away.
Once we’ve sorted this whole issue out we can then engage the Powers from a place of security and strength, making the devotional work we do even more meaningful and effective.