Veiling & modesty

Veiling has nothing to do with my prep for Samhain, but I’ve been thinking about it and so here we go…

A while back, in the Brigid’s Forge Facebook group, someone asked about the role veiling plays in people’s practice. And, I have strong feelings about veils, their uses and their role in modesty culture, subjugation, and modern living.

First off, if, for whatever reason, you like to wear a veil – that’s your choice, fair play to you, on you go. I am making no comment on people who choose to wear the veil, a veil, for whatever reason. What I’m discussing here are the reasons why the saint or the nun might be depicted with a veil and some of the considerations in relation to the use of a veil in practice.

I don’t use a veil as a general rule. I also don’t have much use for modesty in my deities, saints or other Beings around me. I don’t have much use for physical modesty in myself either. I tend to wear comfy clothes and, if the weather gets hot, this tends to mean a lot less clothing. Of course, when the weather gets cold, I’m covered up in as many layers as necessary.

There are times when I cover my hair with a bandanna – usually if the pollen count is high. Helpful hint there, wearing a bandanna restricts the pollen getting trapped in your hair and, if you have hair like mine, less pollen then gets into your nose and eyes. So when it’s practical, yes, I will use a bandanna. I don’t think of it as modesty though – as always practicality wins the day for me.

Modesty culture though – modesty culture to me is a continuation of respectability politics, a means to control women. It’s rarely men who are expected to cover up in a certain way or ensure they don’t arouse lust in the opposite sex (yeah, same sex relationships tend not to be considered in these situations either). It’s offensive to me to suggest that I must dress a certain way to ensure the men around me don’t get inspired to rape or other forms of violence against women. I tend to put more faith in the men I know than that. I mean most of them are well familiar with the terms “No” and “Not interested” and “hell no, get off me, you prick”. Not that they’re heading out trying to pick up women all the time, but they understand the words and most of them can admire a woman without assuming dress means an invitation.

There are plenty of women (and men to be fair) who choose to dress modestly, out of choice or habit or ease. I’ve no problem with that. I do have a problem with people being ordered to dress a certain way though.

The veil can be useful in a spiritual practice though. I can see a value in donning a certain article of clothing as a signal someone is about to engage in spiritual practice. And I have in the past thrown a scarf over my head (well actually, a coat or hoodie is more likely) to give myself some privacy in a public space. I have used certain objects, certain items of clothing, certain habits to indicate to myself I’m entering a spiritual space. It takes time and practice, but it’s an important way to signal to oneself that the mundane world is being left behind, or that this is an action that has more consequences than we might immediately think of.

I wouldn’t be thinking of giving Brigid, or indeed any other deity, instructions on how I expect them to dress mind. Modestly or otherwise, it’s up to them how they choose to appear and I for one amn’t going to give them guidance. How we as humans depict them however – well that’s another story. I think I’ve ranted here before about the “sexy goddess” statues and paintings that abound on the internet. Sure, it’s grand, but when Every. Single. Statue. looks like the wet dream of a teenager, there’s an issue.

So in short, my attitude to veiling is the same as with most things clothes-related. If it’s your choice – go ahead, have fun. It can be useful. Where I start getting issues is when people start trying to force others to veil or be modest or dress a certain way or whatever. And really, seriously, trust me on this one – don’t try it with deities!!

Why does deity bother with us?

After my last post, you might be forgiven to think that the relationship with deity is for our benefit as humans. And I firmly believe that it does benefit as humans to have a relationship with deity, if only, as I said last time, to have someone to scream at in times of high pain and suffering! But why does deity bother with us?

Now, I won’t be going down the road of deity needing us to exist. I don’t think they do. But I think the deities with the most followers have the most obvious power in this world. (Of course, now we need to explore my views on “obvious power” and “this world”, but we will… eventually!)

This can be a subtle way of thinking about things, but if you look at the deities that have the most power in the world currently, I’d be look at the Christian God (2.4bn official believers), the Muslim God (1.9bn official believers), followed by 1.2bn people who are secular/agnostic/atheist/ non-religious. I’m not sure how atheism is a religion as such, but it’s listed here as part of the 3rd of the top 3 denominations… So between Christianity and Islam, we’ve accounted for 55% of the world’s population. That’s a lot of power to a monotheistic situation.

And we can see clear examples of numbers of followers influencing how a country or nation or even city is governed, how laws are made, how things are done, what the default holidays are, etc, etc, etc. So there is power in being the deity of a majority religion. Of course, I’d argue that a lot of those followers are in name only or because it’s default, rather than true believers, but that’s a story for another day. As an example, in Western Europe, Christmas Day is an almost universal holiday. Easter is also acknowledged in most countries. And while individual attitudes to Christianity are changing in the continent, by and large, Christian values and norms run through the daily practices of the general population. Marriage is predominantly defined (until very recently) as between a man and a woman. (There are still places in Europe where this is so, with same-sex partnerships being allowed civil unions or registered partnerships or something like that – here’s hoping it will change soon!) Polygamist marriages are illegal in most European countries and in both North and South American countries. In predominantly Muslim countries, polygamy, or polygyny at least, is allowed, whether freely or under certain circumstances (this varies from country to country and I’m way outside my swimlane here!!)

I’m hoping you’re starting to see, though, that by having large numbers of followers and by having the tenets of your religion or followers widely understood at some level in the wider population, the power this can give to a deity? Presumably, the followers of a deity would be working towards that deity’s idea of a good, just world? Or at least, that message as it get transcribed from the deity to the people following the deity. I mean, a few good charismatic religious leaders can distort the message immensely – I don’t think it says anywhere in the Bible that unmarried mothers should be abused, have their children torn away from them, buried in septic tanks, or sold to adoptive parents without their mothers’ consent? (I’ve written a bit about this here) And yet, the people who did that in Ireland were “good, Godfearing Christians”…

Messages get distorted over time as well, which is why I recommend going back to the source material yourself, as close as you can.

But back to why deities bother with humans. Aside from the power thing, and numbers do have a power all of their own, there is also the interactions of human with deity. No more than a human can love a dog or a rabbit or a pet, the deities can love us as well – and in my opinion, the balance of equality is about the same in some ways. We, as humans, can’t imagine the vast span of millennia deity deals with. We can’t imagine plans and goals reaching over centuries – in the same way your dog probably can’t really conceive of a walkies next week and not right now! The compass of understanding is on a whole different scale. And, with deity as well as with human, there are good, responsible deities and some less so… There are some that take a very active role in leading, caring for, training their chosen followers, some that take a more “benign neglect” approach and still others that appear to use up and discard their followers. Relationship with deity is not always a comfortable, bright, shiny thing. Sometimes, like a dog snapping when things cross a line, we need to stand up for ourselves. Sometimes the outcome of that might not be to our liking, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less necessary. There are some that regard us as tools (not looking at anyone here at all now!) and occasionally need to be reminded of the care required of those tools as well…

But when it comes to furthering their plans and reaching their goals, deity might not need humans, but followers can make that journey easier in some ways. There are benefits for the deity as well as the human, and while it might not be a relationship of equals, it can still involve give and take. Don’t forget that!

All of the above, however focuses on this world and not any other worlds the deity may be dealing with. In Irish paganism and tradition, we have the Otherworld (although no maps of the place!) which can be seen as the place the Tuatha de Danann went when they went under the hill (the half of the island they got after the Milesians arrive and conned them), the afterlife, a soul space we can visit… It’s many things to many people and honestly, probably best not to limit it too much at all. But it is another world, with different rules, physical and natural laws, ways of behaviour… just because a deity isn’t well known or well revered here in this world, doesn’t mean they aren’t rather more powerful elsewhere 🙂

Why bother with deity?

I’m a firm believer in reciprocal relationships. As in, any relationship I have, there’s a natural give and take from both sides. There are times when the give can be predominantly in one direction and the take in another, but that then balances out over time.

Take parents for example. For most parents, their kids are mostly on the taking end for the first few decades of their lives. The parents can get joy and love back from the kids of course, but a parental role is, traditionally, a giving one. The returns are far more nebulous and hard to define than the obvious food, clothing, shelter they give out. (Please note, I’m not saying all parents do this – I am very well aware, there are truly awful, negligent and neglectful people out there and there are children who have endured a lot. There are also parents who can’t actually provide all they want for their offspring and regret this as well. Not everyone has equal experiences and I want to note that here)

But for most parents in my experience, there isn’t a checks and balances act going on. There isn’t a grand balance sheet keeping account and ticking off 1 hug = 0.5 breakfast or anything like that. But there is energy flowing both ways.

My experience of deity is something like this. No, I really don’t believe Brigid is up there in the sky, keeping accounts of everything I do or don’t do for her, and doling out rewards or punishments in accordance with that. I believe that Brigid will look out for me and help me, as best she can, for as long as I indicate I want or need that assistance. And I indicate I want or need assistance by my words, my actions, my thoughts, my prayers. And sometimes she goes with what I need rather than what I want, but that’s her prerogative. She doesn’t owe me anything.

Now there are times when we will come to an agreement on specifics. Such as, I will engage with a particular activism activity in exchange for her specific assistance in something in my life. It doesn’t ever guarantee a specific outcome cos other people have free will and need to consent. And, as well, the specific outcome I thought I wanted may not come true, but usually something else will. As far as I’m concerned, her help is real.

As an engineer though, my brain is screaming for proof of this and it’s hard to provide. And here’s where we come to a hard truth. As humans, we like to think there is a Higher Power to appeal to. Whether it’s the Christian God, pagan deities, the Universe, Mother Earth, whatever, when the shit really hits the fan, we like to have someone to appeal to for help. Now there are all sorts of psychological studies and other studies out there looking to back up or disprove Voltaire’s famous quote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him“, but there’s also some truth there as well.

While it’s nice to imagine all of us depending on ourselves and finding inside of ourselves the necessary energy, determination, fortitude to keep going when things get tough, I think for most of us (yeah, not all, but most) there are times when calling on an outside power is comforting at least. It’s important to note that in the poem Voltaire wrote, he was showing the importance of the afterlife, and punishment therein, for upholding societal order. The thinking was that the idea of eternal damnation is important for assisting in maintaining social order, since the fear of the afterlife might force most people into good and honest living. This works for a Christian view of life, but not so much for those of us who follow a different path (this might lead to some sort of partial explanation as to why non-Christians were less than welcome in Western societies over the year: how could someone be trusted to behave appropriately without fear?)

I don’t subscribe to this view, and I think it’s one that has fallen out of favour in recent years, particularly in view of the failures of Christian churches all over the world. I’ve written before on the failures of the Catholic Church as an organisation. But the view of morals and moral living still permeates a lot of Western society. (The reason I’m saying Western society here is because I have little to no experience of life outside of Europe and North America).

I will say this though -I firmly uphold the belief that there are no atheists in foxholes. (The origins of this saying are murky at best, with several origin stories discussed in the wikipedia page…) In times of extreme stress, terror, pain or loss, most of us will turn to a Divine Being of some description, whether looking for help or screaming in pain or cursing them to the nth degree… The feeling that there is something outside of ourselves to appeal to, to beg, to plead, to curse… it’s weirdly comforting.

And of course, I believe in the existence of this Divine Force. There have been too many times in my life that I’ve been saved from things through no logic or rationale for me not to believe. And I “choose” to work with Brigid as my main representation of the Divine. (“Choose” might not be the right word there, but it’s not like she holds me hostage or anything!) I also work with other Beings, as most of ye know.

In saying all that, for most of us, those “foxhole moments” are not an everyday occurrence though (unfortunately not all of us). So what, on a day to day basis, is the point of a deity? Why bother to work with them? For my own views on this: well, we are more than our physical bodies. We are ensouled, we are spiritual beings, we are forces of nature. We need to nourish and grow that part of us as much as we need to nourish and grow our bodies and our intellect. We are more than the parts that make us up. And that part, the part that is more than the parts that make us up, is the bit that the Divine gets involved in most of all.

In Irish paganism, our deities are not necessarily omnipotent, omniscience or omnipresent (all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present). They’re a slight step closer to human than that. But that slight step closer, does not mean they are human. They have powers beyond our ken, so to speak. They are good at getting shit down. They help their people. They care for the land and the people. They are here with us, but also elsewhere. When we’re working in line with them, things get, not necessarily easier, but perhaps slightly smoother. I don’t want to downplay all the efforts that go into the work they support by saying it’s easy or easier, because that’s unfair to the people involved. But when we work in line with our deities priorities and desires, things happen.

I can only assume that if you’re reading this blog, you have a belief in deity. That’s great. But I also believe it’s important to examine why we belief in deity and what we mean when we say we believe in deity. This kind of reflection is not where I’m most comfortable – as an engineer, I much prefer the bashing things with hammers bit – but it’s still hugely important. Knowing what we believe, knowing why we believe it, realising how our beliefs change and grow over time, are all hugely important in our spiritual journeys.

So go on, examine a bit: why do you bother with deity?

Devotional

Lora O’Brien of the Irish Pagan School (www.irishpaganschool.com) discussed the notion of devotionals with me some time ago and I started writing them. The structure is simple – take a piece of scripture (in our case, a piece of our lore), discuss/ meditate on what it means, end with a prayer. It’s a way of dissecting and interrogating our lore and our stories for the meanings within, both from the times they come from and our own modern world. Grief might seem like a strange one at this time of year, but there are a lot of people, myself included, dealing with grief. And Brigid gave us a way to cope with it. I hope you don’t need to read about grief today, but if you do – you’re not along.

Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired (Author:[unknown])
section 125

But after the spear had been given to him, RĂşadán turned and wounded Goibniu. He pulled out the spear and hurled it at RĂşadán so that it went through him; and he died in his father’s presence in the Fomorian assembly. BrĂ­g came and keened for her son. At first she shrieked, in the end she wept. Then for the first time weeping and shrieking were heard in Ireland. (Now she is the BrĂ­g who invented a whistle for signalling at night.)

In either battle of Moytura (Caith Maighe Tuired), Brig only appears as someone’s mother – RĂşadán’s in this case. She has no role in the fighting, nor is she one of the movers-and-shakers. She does grant us something we may not value enough – she grants us a means to deal with grief. 

We all suffer with grief at some point in our lives and, particularly in modern society, the pressure can be there to bury the grief deeply and above all don’t let society at large see how deeply the grief goes. It doesn’t matter if the loss is of a parent, child, pet, friend… Grief is not something to be measured or allowed. Grief simply is. No matter what our beliefs, the nature of our relationship with the loved one is changed irrevocably. 

Brig offers us a way to externalise these feelings that feel so big and powerful. She literally grants our grief a voice. She understands. There is no magic club, no magic cauldron, no magic herbs to bring her son back – he is gone and in a most violent fashion. 

She knows. 

My husband & I have been trying to have a baby for four years. One year into our journey, we had a miscarriage. I had a week off work to ‘recover’. It wasn’t enough time. It wasn’t nearly enough time. I felt like I was moving in a different world to that around me. Our baby might have been the size of a pea when we lost them, but to us, to me, they were as real as if I had fed them at my breast. The world kept turning, even as I felt frozen, unable to keep up. 

A year later, I went through an initiation. Not a Brig related initiation, but nevertheless a profound and powerful experience. And during that time, the floodgates opened. On my way home from the weekend, I had a night alone in a hotel and a four hour ferry journey. During this time alone, I cried. I wailed. I sobbed. Even in my sleep, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I keened. I keened hard

It was like releasing pus from a boil. Painful, unpleasant, petrifying with the force of it, but cleansing, clearing and calming in its own way. I released the pent up force of my grief. I unleashed those feelings on the world. I gave voice, oh ye gods, did I give voice. And while my grief, my loss is still there and nothing will ever replace the hopes and dreams we had for that little pea, it’s a clean, healing grief now, not something to hold me back, but something that is just part of me.

In my time of grief, Brig, grant me the strength to use your precious gift and give voice to my pain that I mourn fully and completely those I have lost. May I never forget them, but may I also continue with my life, my grief a part of me, but not controlling me.