Foundations: Rites of Passage

From Ree na Réaltaí‘s 30 days of Paganism/Polytheism.

Foundations: Rites of Passage – How you see the “cycles of life,” and how you view reincarnation, death, the afterlife, and milestones.

So much for the brave pride of premonition,

the worry that won’t let it happen.
You know, he said, I always knew I would die young. And then I got sober

and I thought, OK, I’m not. I’m going to see thirty and live to be an old man.
And now it turns out that I am going to die. Isn’t that funny?

– One day it happens: what you have feared all your life,
the unendurably specific, the exact thing. No matter what you say or do.

This is what my brother said: Here sit closer to the bed
so I can see you.

(from How Some of It Happened by Marie Howe)

I have to keep writing and re writing this entry, to make it worthy of Hela, worthy of my own beliefs. Death is so difficult, and even as I am writing about the stupidity and incorrectness of turning away from that and sliding into comfortable creeds about the soul after death, I start doing the same thing myself.

Regardless of belief, the what and how of death will never be certain until it happens to you. Religions may say something about the spritual realms and the soul’s continuance, but they must be taken on faith. Cultures may have practices and sayings, but they are not provable. Even to hear a hedgecrosser whose spirit can travel to those other realms, you have to take the hedgecrosser’s word. Even if you send your spirit there yourself, or pray for assurance from a Deity, you have your own doubts about your experience – was it wishful thinking, was that feeling of presence and certainty manufactured in my brain, was that wide and true-seeming world only within my dreaming mind?

When my grandfather died, I read this at his funeral:

“(from the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians) Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like those who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who are fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who are fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will come out of Heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the Archangel and the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.”

Now, he was a Catholic but I was an atheist. The phrases that rung in my mind were we who are still alive, we who are left. And the mythological passage about the second coming only highlighted the suddenly imposed distance – as far as reality from unreality. A person who has died has moved into the realm of Gods, and cannot be seen or known anymore, only believed in.

A few days previously my grandfather was in a hospice bed. He didn’t always know who was there with him, but our whole family was there. Seized by a pain, or the frustration of the drawn out end, at one point he called out to the air, “I’m ready, Lord, I’m ready!” and we all wanted so badly to feel Presence, I can’t say if we did. I have always been of the opinion that all Gods believed in and worshiped are real, or none of them are; so my grandfathers death was a huge push towards religion, for me – and I can’t deny it was because I wanted and still want certainty, or at least that I need to look for it. But is is not supposed to be easy.

Even as the greatest bulk of my religious practice right now is ancestor work, I would be flat out lying if I said it comforted me about death. I did not grow up with the beliefs of my tradition as solid as the cardinal directions. I have to take them on faith and weave them slowly into my life. I can’t say for certain if my ancestor work is only a very elaborate sort of memorial – if the spirits of my ancestors live only in my unconscious and imagination; if Ida and other Disir are simply thoughtforms nourished by the love of Her descendants.

It is imperative for me to treat those ancestors as if their spirits exist, and those Deities of death and afterlife are real, and worshiped in particular, individual ways: my doubt is mine, and should not infringe on my right actions. I phrase it because I think it is important for pagans and polytheists to voice doubt: the impression is that if one Deity is silent, you move to another – your comfort as a worshiper being paramount, and material or spiritual blessings your due from the Gods. I’m afraid it makes people shy about expressing their silence or doubt, and that hinders the development of a complete, living theology. (Henadology?)

Now even though I had in my head the sudden severing and the distance of humanity from Gods, the sermon given at my grandfather’s funeral, aside from my reading, was completely different. He was praised like Ingwi-Freyr at harvest time. He had grown up on a farm and moved to a town. He served in the Navy during the second World War. He loved my grandmother, he raised three sons. He was a welder, who spent his life from apprentice to master at one machine shop. He cooked and kept vegetarian, but taught those sons to fish, to hunt deer and turkey, and to respect their part in the natural cycles. He kept a faith that enriched his life in the world, that entire time. He was finished doing everything there was to do. He could now go and rest on his laurels in the love and remembrance of his children and grandchildren.

That is heathen to me. I know nothing for certain about the life after death, but I know my grandfather filled up his life and died content with it. I know that is all we can know with certainty, and I strive to be content with it, and to fill up my life as well.

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