By Galina Krasskova
(This was originally written as a sermon for the Palm Sunday April 5, 2009 service of the Interfaith Temple in NYC. The issues involved, however, are ones every mystic, godslave, shaman, and spiritworker must at one time or another face).
St. Augustine said that ‘my love is my weight.” St. Therese of Lisieux wrote that
‘the food of real love is sacrifice.’ I’m a northern tradition shaman. I belong to a God who is all about sacrifice. I’m owned by the God Odin and through my service to Him I‘ve learned that sometimes Deity can ask terrible, frightening things of us and it’s up to us to summon the strength of love to carry us through. It’s up to us to willingly embrace the sacrifice that will in turn bring us closer to our Gods.
We’re coming up on two very important holy tides, both of which, in some way, are about sacrifice. Today is Palm Sunday, when Christ rode into Jerusalem accepting willingly and lovingly the path that would lead to His death. We’re also coming up on Passover, commemorating a time in Jewish history where followers of Yahweh were asked to give up everything and instead to trust their God to bring them out of bondage. Talk about a terrifying offering: you give Me everything and I will give you what you need. Trust me. As you can see, sacrifice is a powerful and sacred thing. We’ve also just passed a very important holy tide in my religion: Ostara, in which we welcome spring. This is traditionally a time of new beginnings and there’s no better time than now to reevaluate where we stand with our Gods and how we can serve Them better because at its heart, both love and sacrifice are about service.
The word sacrifice is really interesting. It means to make sacred. It also means ‘belonging to the Gods.” What a beautiful concept, that through our efforts, through that which we give gladly and willingly we can touch the Gods, we can enter into a loving and reciprocal relationship with Them. Now sacrifice has certainly fallen out of favor in modern society. Personally, I think that’s because of what it implies: there are no free rides, not even with the Gods, most especially with the Gods. Spirituality is hard work. God tested Abraham. He said “give me your son.” Yahweh sacrificed His own son…horribly. Think for a moment on the story of the Virgin Mary: you have a fourteen or fifteen year old girl who was told that she would bear God’s child ...in a culture that ostracized and stoned unwed mothers. By accepting the sacrifice her God asked, she was risking not just her comfort, her reputation, her future, but her very life as well. Nor are examples of such sacrifices absent from the polytheistic religions, as I well know. The God that I serve hung Himself on the Tree of life for nine nights and days in agony. The Goddess Inanna descended to the underworld where She died and it took yet another sacrifice of her beloved husband to restore Her to life. The Goddess Isis sacrificed both Her husband and Her son at various points in Her sacred canon. Sacred stories from faith after faith after faith are replete with Gods and Goddesses who sacrifice themselves, who undergo painful ordeals all to show us what spirituality may require. These sacrifices come down to one thing: love. Love isn’t some abstract ideal, it isn’t some sentimentality. Love rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. It’s like having a baby. Loving the baby is all very well but that love is expressed by cleaning and caring for the baby: by changing its diapers, by keeping its ass clean, by feeding and burping it. Love is hard, ongoing work.
I have a colleague who defines devotional practice as the art of religious love. But what does that mean? What is devotional practice? What on earth does it have to do with sacrifice. Oh, you’d be surprised. Committing to consistent mindfulness is one of the most challenge things you can ever do and devotion is just that. There are many, many ways to engage in devotional practice. What ties the various techniques such as ritual, prayer, meditation, and study together is that when engaged in regularly, they have the power to dramatically enhance one’s spiritual practices. These are the things that carry us through our sacrifices. We’re engaging in a type of devotional practice by being here together today. The secret to making it last, to reaping its benefits is to keep focusing on the Gods when we’re going about our daily grind, when life distracts us. All of these things, like regular prayer, or meditation, they help to discipline the mind and heart to the Gods, to create the necessary emotional and spiritual receptivity which can nurture and nourish spiritual life. Devotional practices are grounded in a certain interiority of practice and it is from this interior journey that one is able to establish the building blocks of true piety.
Piety. There’s a word that has fallen out of favor in modern religious circles. It comes from a Latin work: pietas, which literally means dutiful conduct, especially toward the Gods. It encompasses a broad spectrum of right relationship and right action: toward oneself, toward one’s fellow humans, one’s ancestors, and, of course, toward the Gods. It implies a way of being in the world, not out of it but in the world, here and now, and a way of mindful interaction. Essentially, piety is the thorough, all-encompassing expression of ongoing and evolving devotion. At its best, it is quiet and forthright. True piety does not rest in broad, conspicuous gestures or flamboyant, seemingly “religious” behavior. Such things would be caricatures of this virtue. Rather, real piety lies in making one’s heart open to the Gods and striving every hour of every day, as best we can to allow that awareness to govern our every deed. And we do this knowing that in our imperfection we shall fail, --- we are perfect only in our own imperfection -- we shall have set backs, and we shall have to get up, retrace our steps, and forge onward again and again and again. That’s sacrifice! Piety involves the grace on ongoing perseverance. It is this virtue that both informs and flows from ongoing devotional practice. They work hand in hand. And you know what? Through devotional practice, it is possible to fall madly, passionately and deeply in love with your God or Goddess. The key to strengthening that bond is sacrifice.
So what does that mean? Are we all expected to make burnt offerings on some high altar in the wilderness? Hardly, that would be way too easy! Sacrifice is different for every person. It can mean giving up your time, giving yourself the gift of regular discipline in prayer, in mindfulness. It can mean learning to take care of yourself and your body, because these things are precious to your Gods. It can mean consciously accepting certain taboos. I have many colleagues who are shamans and god servants within their communities who willingly (mostly willingly…sometimes we grumble) accept intense taboos. Some are forbidden by their Gods to marry. Others must maintain a partner. Some cannot hold a regular job, some have terrible health problems as a result of their work. I know one woman, also owned by Odin who had to leave her husband because he could not accept being second to her God in her life. She was called to be a shaman, a walking sacrifice to this God. And she paid for that privilege. Like love, sacrifice is rarely an abstract and it is never sentimental. It hurts, it causes a change in who you are and who you might become. Most of all it changes the dynamic of the relationship you have with your Deity. It might mean making that sacrifice in the wilderness. It can mean doing that which is difficult and doing it with an open heart. Inconvenience, my friends, is not sacrifice. The question when we approach our Gods, when we are entering into this holy service is this: will you do that which makes you uncomfortable when the One who has given you breath asks it? I have said before and I’ll say it again here; if we do the work the Gods ask us to do, They will pour blessings into our hands and often from the most unexpected of places. But we have to do our part too. It’s not a one way street.
True sacrifice is about setting aside one’s own sentimentalities, one’s ego, one’s desires. It’s about putting the God or Goddess that you honor centermost in your life and allowing everything else to flow from that holy point. We cannot give too much to our Gods. There’s a beautiful prayer by an anonymous 13th century French mystic that I’d like to share with you now. In it, she says;
“And if of some of you He requires even more,
Asks of you a payment of pain,
Praise Him more joyously still;
The great Good that awaits you
Should make your patience strong.
As a rust-covered sword soon gleams
Beneath the weight of a polishing hand,
So the soul who gives herself truly
Comes to shine with the blows of God.”
I think she had something there, I think she grasped something essential about the spiritual state, about loving and serving a God. After all, folks, if service were easy, everyone would do it.
Maestas, Silence, (2009). Walking the Heartroad. MA: Asphodel Press.
Hirschfield, Jane, (1994). Women in Praise of the Sacred. NY: Harper Perennial.