Monday, May 31, 2010

The Hero's Deepest Wound--A Memorial Day Plea to Ares

My father did not turn out to be a good man.

He was a brilliant child--he got fabulous grades, could play the guitar by ear, and, by the time he went to high school, he was a champion runner. But somewhere between his horrific childhood home life and his time serving as a naval corpsman during the Vietnam War, he did not, as I said, turn out to be a good man.

With a false glee, my dad used to tell the story of how, coming home one day after a high school track meet--which he won and which none of his family attended--he found that his family had moved without him. At sixteen, he wandered the desert streets of California’s “Inland Empire” for six days looking for them. When he finally found them--his raging alcoholic father, his promiscuous mother and all eight of his siblings squatting in some rathole by the tracks in Fontana, they laughed at him and told him he must have been very stupid to have taken so long.

My mother tells the story of my dad enlisting in the navy and, in the process of getting all his papers together, found the last name on his birth certificate did not match the last name of the abusive alcoholic he had grown up thinking was his dad. When he confronted his mother about this she acted nonchalant and said, “Oh yeah, your real father’s last name was Wyss--he was a DJ...I think.”

Then, in the navy, my dad served as a corpsman--officially a medic with the navy but traveling on the ground with the marines seeing to the dead and dying. Once, when I was thirteen, he dug his duffel out of the garage and showed me his gas mask, his boots with a bayonet hole in the toe and, most proudly, his white medic’s tunic still stained with the blood of some marine or other whose name, face, and fatal injuries he had long since forgotten.

All of this is to say that my dad had every right in this and any other world to be completely and totally screwed up--and he was. His depression kept him from ever holding a steady job. His anxiety led him to a devastating Valium addiction. His outwardly acted, self-hating, power-needy PTSD led him to violence and the alienation of both his daughters. All of these things together led him to die absolutely alone on March 1, 2009.

My dad was a brilliant, strong, heroic young man who valiantly served his country and the many, many young soldiers who died in his arms. I tell this story not to detract from the honorable things he did--because they are many--but I tell it to make a plea to Ares, Apollon and any of you who may know and/or love a similarly brilliant but tormented young soldier--that you may help them to heal--that the brilliance and honor may not turn into madness and ignominy.

And for those, like my father, who have already passed, send your prayers with them that in the Kingdom of Hades--in the gray Fields of Asphodel--they will be welcomed as the heroes they are and be given the courage they need to fight one more battle in that place--the battle to reclaim themselves from the terror they knew and had become.


Blessed by the Mystery,
-M. Ashley

Friday, May 28, 2010

Hubris? Meet 2x4

Let me get this out of the way right off the bat--I am a Hellene but I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a hardcore reconstructionist. I am a revivalist.

In that vein:

Although I have a deep respect for reconstructionists of any stripe, there is a certain attitude among most Hellenic recons that does not sit well with me and is one of the primary reasons I do not count myself among their ranks. A good many recons I have come in contact with tend to ascribe to the notion that it is necessary to fear and appease Theoi in order to please them. I have no doubt this was a part of the ancient mindset. My fiancee and I were watching an episode of Carnivale last night that featured a horrendous dust-bowl storm. I thought, "If you didn't have the technology to know better, how could you not attribute something like that to angry Gods?" But, the thing is, we do have the technology to know better now--to know that natural disasters are either Gaia doin' her thing to sustain and renew herself or us screwing that process up. So why do some Hellenic recons still approach Theoi as if their worship will abate the storm? Why must we hold on to the ancient belief that we worship the way we worship mainly to keep Theoi from squashing us?

In the eyes of Theoi, I believe it is more offensive to hold onto this attitude when they have inspired us with the means to know better. Perhaps it was OK for the ancients to approach them that way because it gave them some comfort in a world to which they were extremely vulnerable--but what purpose does it serve now to attribute, say, devastating tornadoes to Zeus and allow the fear of same to distance our hearts from him?

But then, I am apparently very liberal about this sort of thing--believing that, in reality, it is almost impossible to offend Theoi unless you allow hubris (your perfectionism, your intellect, your fear), to keep you from a sincere and consistent practice.

Look, Theoi know you--every gritty little earth-bound nook and cranny. Attempting to hide these from them is foolish on the face of it and will severely handicap your relationship with them. Yes, it is good and respectful to wash in the khernips before ritual or prayer, but you must come to that prayer with both of your washed hands open--holding nothing back--not even the unwashed parts, inside and out.

I speak these things passionately because I have been guilty of them and I know firsthand how a raging, arrogant perfectionism can strangle a meaningful relationship with Theoi.  Many are the times I have needed, and received, a solid whack upside the head with a spiritual 2x4 when I have allowed that hubris, or worries over “not getting it right”, to get between me and my Theoi and stop us from talking.

I have discovered that If we humbly open ourselves up and keep calling upon Theoi, it will be given to us what it is they require of us, and usually it isn’t much except to stay in touch and honor the gifts they have bestowed.

Blessed by the Mystery,
(and the spiritual 2x4)
-M. Ashley

Family, Love, Sobriety, Travel and Gratitude

We have so many things to be grateful for in my house today. We have my fiancee's third-year AA sobriety chip presentation tonight. His actual sobriety birthday is the 23rd of May, which, as it turns out, is quite magical because it was on that date that he and I "met" through Pagan Dating last year, and this year, it was only two days prior that his son, who has lived in Thailand for the last thirteen years, came to live with us to complete his schooling. My praise to Dionysos who both entices to the vine and offers relief from it. My praise to Aphrodite for inspiring us to love. My praise to Hera who has brought our family together. My praise to Hermes and Zeus who saw the boy safely through the skies and to our home.

And finally we give thanks that my mother called yesterday to tell us that the lump in her breast was just an anomaly and not cancer after all--praise and thanks to Apollon of the healing touch and Artemis, protectress of women!

Hail all our beloved Theoi--whose blessings are innumerable and whose love is unbounded. May our eyes and hearts be ever open to you as our homes and shrines welcome you in. Hail!

Blessed by the Mystery,
-M. Ashley

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Everyday Altars: From Fridge Face to Sacred Space

A woman who is doing a paper on Paganism for one of her college courses recently contacted me asking me about the significance of the altar in Paganism. It strikes me that although human beings have been building and maintaining altars far longer than they haven't, the whole notion of a home altar dings the creep factor bell in many people approaching Paganism for the first time. I suppose an image of a long stone bench strewn with pig's blood and chicken feet comes to mind--thanks mass media! But nothing could be further from the truth.

The following was my reply:

Altars are a very personal thing and can be used for many purposes. Mainly though they are a place to pray, do spiritual work, meditate and honor the deities to whom you feel close. There is no general Pagan requirement for an altar, though certain traditions may prescribe certain things such as having the altar face east or placing items relating to Goddess on the left side and items related to God on the right. Altars can and are made anywhere, from a table, to a bookshelf, to the inside of an Altoid can--and yes, that is a current DIY trend--mini, portable altars meticulously constructed inside tiny mint cans. The only thing that I would say is absolutely common among Pagans regarding their altars is that they are regarded as a sacred place and reserved for spiritual devotion and practice--in other words, no putting coffee cups and junk mail on the altar table.

Some common things you will find on Pagan altars are: an image of the deity or deities being worshiped, items that represent that deity (such as peacock feathers for Hera or a quill pen for Thoth), a candle and/or incense, divination tools such as Tarot cards or runes, and a spiritual journal or "Book of Shadows"--though not all Pagans call it that.

People's altars tend to grow and change over time and reflect their current place in their spiritual path. For example, mine started out as very Wiccan in form and has progressed with my spirituality to now reflect my devotion to a Hellenic path.

Some Pagans have many altars in their homes dedicated to different deities and/or their ancestors, while others, limited by space or time, may only have a candle in a special reserved spot on their dresser that acts as their altar. Some also dedicate altars to specific purposes rather than deities. For example, while I have a private altar dedicated to Theoi in general, my fiancee and I also have an altar in more public view devoted to home, hearth, and love.
Humans seem to me to be natural altar makers--a process that is apparently so deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious that we do it without even realizing. If you look at most people's refrigerator doors, for example, you will usually find a natural altar to the family with pictures of loved ones, drawings, magnets that represent the personality of the family, etc. Or often people build an ancestor altar in their hallways by hanging pictures of their family members that have passed and, every time they walk by those pictures, their heart reaches out to them in love and respect.

This reaching out--a spiritual touchstone--is really the core meaning of any altar, whether built specifically with that intent by a Pagan using candles and feathers, a Buddhist with a singing bowl, a Catholic with a Saint's icon, or anyone else with a life-decorated fridge door.
May we all come to acknowledge the various altars in our lives--whether outward or deep within us, they enrich our spirits in ways we can only imagine.

Blessed by the Mystery,
-M. Ashley

*The above picture is the "Home, Hearth and Love" altar mentioned above. It is dedicated to Hestia, Hera and Zeus