Establishing a regular devotional practice is one of the most important – and definitely most basic – things a polytheist can do to honor their faith and the Powers with which they engage. It can also be one of the most challenging things to wrap our heads around. Those of us who have any experience with devotional traditions are usually more familiar with seeing that work handled by specialists if we ever see it done at all, and those of us with no devotional tradition to draw on are completely lost.
Sometimes it’s not that we don’t want to do the work, we simply don’t know what work to do.
That’s actually ok. Not knowing where to start offers a fabulous opportunity to build a practice from the ground up that meets our needs.
Often we just need to get a handle on something to figure out our approach. Consider this series of posts your handle on devotions. I’m not claiming to be an expert, and my approach is in no way Trad/pantheon/culture/deity specific (outside of a little Celtic cosmology). However, it will get you started on a set of basic devotions that can be easily modified as needed or desired.
Before we talk about how to do them, though, we need to understand what they are.
What are Devotions?
“Devotion” is defined as “a feeling of strong love or loyalty”. “Devotions”, plural, are defined as “prayer, worship, or other religious activities done in private, rather than in a religious service”.
The words are related. After all, if we’re engaging in religious activities of our own volition in the privacy of our own homes then obviously we feel strong love or loyalty to some aspect of our practice.
And yet it goes beyond that. Do you remember the movie Dogma? In one scene Bethany talks to a coworker about going to church:
Coworker: “Does [going to church] do anything for you?”
Bethany: “It gives me time to balance my checkbook every week.”
Coworker: “That’s what I’m saying. People don’t go to church to feel spiritual anymore.”
Bethany: “They go to church and feel bored.”
What Bethany’s missing is a sense of engagement. The types of traditional religious services most of us are familiar with don’t really have one. The priest lectures the crowd, maybe a choir sings, and attendees either pay attention to the guy at the front or fall asleep.
Devotions are more personal, more one-and-one, and more engaging than the typical church model, and that’s a profound change is perspective.
As a hard polytheist I accept that the Powers with Whom I work are distinct individuals outside of me and that I can interact with Them. That’s fundamental – it’s what separates a hard polytheist from the other types of theists out there.
I know that if I listen, They will speak and I will eventually understand. That as long as I reach out, They will grasp my hand. That if I make time for Them, clear space in my day for Them, that They will fill up the empty places.
That’s what devotions do – they make space for the Powers to fill.
Why Should I Care?
Prioritizing a relationship with the Powers, nurturing a connection with Them, simply makes our lives better. To take it even further, by connecting with the Powers we connect with ourselves, each other, and our world in a deeper and more meaningful way.
So let’s break that down.
Connecting with the Powers Makes Our Lives Better
When I started out on this path 20 years ago damn near every book I found aimed at newbies assumed that most people were kind of lost and miserable. They were essentially magickal cookbooks – complete with lists upon lists of necessary tools and ingredients – with a veneer of faith kind of tacked on at the end. People would do the magick, notice an improvement in whatever area the magick addressed, and then have to keep doing the magick to keep the momentum going. It was a never-ending circle of “magick magick everything!”.
All this magick had to be constantly redone because it never dealt with the actual problem. Because the reason all these people were unhappy and unfulfilled? They were living out of balance with the Powers, and had spiritually advanced just enough to realize it but not enough to know what it meant or how to fix it. They were using magick to impose balance from the outside, and that never holds for long.
It’s been said that all blessings flow from Them. I don’t know if I’ll go quite that far – people have agency too, and sometimes good things randomly happen. However, I will say that the more balanced my relationships with Them become, and the more I trust where They lead me, the less magick I do. There’s no reason for me to go through a whole rigamarole when I just have to accept the multitude of gifts They offer. Nowadays the most I do is charge water with healing when I’m sick and do shielding work.
That’s not just me, either. As I’ve helped my students develop a more devotional relationship with the Powers I’ve watched their use of magick drop steadily too.
I sincerely believe – and have seen demonstrated – that a life lived in balance with the Powers is a life that works. Who doesn’t want that?
Connecting with the Powers Connects Us to Everything Else
I think many of us wrestle with feeling disconnected from the world around us. As a society we’re often closer to the people we watch on TV than we are to our neighbors, we check our phones for the weather instead of opening a window, and phone/computer interfacing often substitutes for face-to-face interaction. Polytheists have an extra disadvantage here, because our community is so scattered that getting together with like-minded people who share our worldview can be very rare indeed. Feeling disconnected and adrift is totally understandable, but can be harmful to us long-term. Fostering a connection with the Powers anchors us.
Through our connections with the Land Spirits we connect to the present moment, to our bodies, to the environment, to the wind and the rain and the dirt under our feet. By connecting with the Ancestors we connect to a sense of history, to the realization that humanity really is interdependent, to every heartbeat of every person who has ever lived. Connecting with the Gods connects us to possibility and growth and change, to the joy and price of knowledge, to hopes and visions and futures.
And every single devotional act we do deepens those connections.
Even better, the more individuals find their personal balance with the Powers, the closer humanity as a whole gets to balancing with the Powers. That improves things for everyone.
Really, I think the question here is not why should we care about doing devotions, but how can we not?
The most common approach I’ve seen beginners take to developing a devotional practice seems to be going at it piece-meal, a little of this from over here and a bit of that from over there. A collage is created from different sources – even different cultures – that is in no way cohesive. The practices may even conflict, and trying to make them all fit together, and then fit into our modern life, often robs them of the very things we found appealing about them in the first place.
The biggest issue with the collage approach is that rarely do we have a cultural frame for what we use. Traditional devotional practices mirror cultural aspects even the traditional practitioners may have consciously forgotten. When we adopt a practice without understanding it, we also risk cultural appropriation. That’s never a good thing, but it’s especially bad when applied to our devotional work.
Luckily we have alternatives. Instead of acting like magpies and stealing anything shiny we can instead approach this in one of two ways.
1) We can do our very best to reconstruct ancient practices from a specific culture, relying on all the hard data available and judiciously filling in gaps with culturally-similar practices as appropriate, even if we don’t fully understand why a specific practice was significant.
2) We can learn the underlying philosophies of a specific culture as best we can and then develop a devotional practice based on those ideas, even if the specific practices themselves are historically incorrect.
For me it basically comes down to a decision between practice leading to understanding or understanding leading to practice. Both approaches have their issues and neither is inherently better than the other. I tend to go more with the second because that’s how my head works. I recommend going whichever way works with your head.
I work within a mostly Celtic cosmology of Land/Sea/Sky. My symbol for that is the triquetra:
Here we see Land, Sea, and Sky – for devotional purposes Land Spirits, Ancestors, and Gods – all balanced out in this lovely flower shape. The circle on the outside further connecting the Three Realms symbolizes movement, the energy flowing between them.
And that red splotch in the center? That’s each individual person around whom the Realms spin. (That is not to say that humans are the center of everything, because they’re not. But for now we’re focusing on one individual human perspective.)
Think of each person as the hub of their own Wheel. They are the center point around which everything in their life turns. That center needs to be steady and strong to get everything spinning correctly.
So the first step of my approach to devotions focuses on helping us find a solid place within themselves on which to balance everything else. We have to find and maintain their Centers. This is key. Because each Center is in a different place, the balance we find with each of the Realms will be different too. My approach is all about striking an individual balance, as opposed to some sort of one-size-fits-all practice.
Once we sort out our Centers, we can then establish connections to the entities already sharing our physical space – the Land Spirits – and get comfortable with maintaining those relationships. When that’s stable we can add in a connection to our Ancestors, and learn how to keep all of those relationships stable simultaneously. When the Center and established connections are strong, then we can establish connections with the Gods and balance everything together.
Achieving balance between and within the Three Realms is imperative. It takes real dedication, and this work is ever really finished. It’s not a “done once, done forever” kind of deal. Our Centers can change, requiring rebalancing. Things from the outside can make us bobble somewhere, which means we have to fine-tune the whole system again. Things with which we balance ourselves – jobs and relationships and and health, for instance – can change with our without our consent and result in a system overhaul.
Thankfully balance is, in some ways, a self-regulating system. The more balanced everything is, the harder it is to lose the balance. What once sent our whole world into a tailspin can become something more easily juggled, because it’s just one thing as opposed to everything. We’re no longer establishing the balance, we’re simply maintaining it. And practicing that balance every day gives us the skills we need to cope with variables that bobble the system.
It might sound complicated. I promise, it’s really not. I’ll take us through each one of these steps, one by one, with lots of detail. Each will get their own post, giving me space to really go into detail for each. A final post will tie it all neatly together and provide tips on establishing a regular practice that works when time, money, and energy are all limited. I’ll also provide my perspective on how to tweak these basics to suit whatever devotions will best support your personal practice.
Good here? Time to move on to finding your Center!