Teo Bishop is a fine human being. He is one of the kindest people I have ever met. I am not upset about Teo embracing Christianity. I met him while he was on a spiritual journey and he is still on that same journey. He is still writing with the same thoughtful wonder and doubt and yearning that has endeared him to his readers, regardless of their faith.
Yet there is a theme that keeps cropping up in Teo’s writing that is driving me nuts. What is making me nuts is not Teo, and not his perspective, but the fact that in his experience of pagan and polytheist traditions he did not encounter the deep value of service he speaks of now. That makes me angry, not at Teo, but at our collective inability to properly demonstrate service as a core value of our faith.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Service is often used as a buzzword by people who want you to give without offering anything in return. I think this partly the apprentice/unpaid intern attitude we have towards newcomers to our respective faiths. Rather than treating them with respect and dignity, we often throw a mop bucket at them and expect them to earn being treated like a human being. I can’t think of any other faith that does this, Scientology excepted. A new convert to a Christian church is taken in by the congregation, taught freely, and the congregants attempt to build a personal relationship with them. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but this is the norm. We often sneer at this, saying that they will take any warm body, but that just betrays the ingrained snobbery of our traditions. I say that with full knowledge that I am among the snobbiest. Yet I also say this knowing a rabbi may turn you away three times, but he doesn’t view you as free labor, as a resource to be used.
The next reason is the reaction to the first reason. For those who do view service as vital, and abhor the misuse of the term in our communities, it becomes something they don’t talk about. I know polytheists who give away 10% of their income to charity every year. I know pagans who teach poor strangers how to cook in the aisles of the grocery store, prompted by the stirrings of their soul, so they can live well on rice and beans. I actually know a lot of these pagans and polytheists, because I have been a recipient of their generosity and overwhelming kindness. Destitute and broken in spirit, I moved to the Midwest. People took me in, gave me money, fed me, listened to me cry, gave me valuable advice, gave me rides, and helped me move stuff. Homeless and heartbroken, I was “the least of these.” Now I finally have a full-time job after a year of searching, and I am able to once more participate in these acts of service, giving to charity and being there for people who need someone.
There is a story I would like to tell Teo. I went to PantheaCon in 2011 not knowing what to expect. Most of my transformative experiences there did not come from any of the “popular” offerings. I still think about the Ekklesia Antinoou ritual I attended, and it still moves me and impacts how I practice my faith. But the thing that moved me the most, I don’t think I have ever written about. I spent a surprising amount of time with Heathens at Pcon, and I hadn’t intended to. At some point during the convention, I heard a Heathen woman do what in my Baptist days was called “testifying.”
She spoke of her heartbreak at realizing that the poor people in her neighborhood didn’t take advantage of the cheap produce at the farmer’s market because they didn’t know how to cook it. So she and her husband began offering free cooking classes at the market each week. As she spoke about the families she helped and the poverty she saw around her, she burst into tears. She spoke passionately about the need to help these people from an ethnic background very different from hers because they are the “children of Ask and Embla.”
I cried as she spoke with such passion, conviction, and compassion. This woman wasn’t working an angle. She had no book to sell. She didn’t write a blog. She didn’t teach around the country. She was an ordinary Heathen woman with deep faith doing something extraordinary. She would likely be surprised that I think about her a lot, even though I can’t recall her name. This woman wasn’t doing something for the “Pagan community.” She wasn’t even doing it for Heathenry. She wasn’t getting paid. She was doing this because her faith moved her to do this. I think about her and my life feels very small and selfish.
When I moved to the Midwest, a complete stranger invited me to their Sabbat event. They paid for me to attend. They gave me their phone number and the number of their partner in case I ever needed anything. They welcomed me with kindness, even though they didn’t know me. They never asked anything of me. They just extended generosity and kindness to a stranger in need. And they know (or I hope they do) that if there is anything I can ever do for them they just have to ask.
I could recite a really long list of acts of service and kindness I have witnessed by pagans and polytheists that are done quietly with a loving heart. I could also recite a long list of the atrocities I have seen committed by people acting in the name of “service” or “community.” One of the greatest acts of service in many polytheistic paths is being hospitable. Hospitality begets more hospitality, and builds goodwill that lasts. I have seen hospitality work its magic in my life, by deepening and building relationships with people I would never have thought I would find common ground with. I have seen acts of hospitality heal people who were broken. I have seen hospitality provide a safe refuge in a hostile world.
The Havamal speaks of the virtue of helping those in need, not just in a transitory or grand sense, but in the sense of building a relationship and fulfilling basic needs:
Not great things alone must one give to another,
praise oft is earned for nought;
with half a loaf and a tilted bowl
I have found me many a friend.
The Delphic Maxims tell us much the same:
Give what you have (Εχων χαριζου)
Love friendship (Φιλιαν αγαπα)
I know pagans and polytheists who are deeply concerned about how to be a person of service. I am among them. For many of us, it is difficult to practice service in the roles we are expected to as part of our faith communities or the “pagan community.” Those roles are often at odds with our core values and beliefs about service, hospitality, and giving. We find ourselves in a quandry, and building community not with those who explicitly share our faith, but with those who share our values. Our acts of service may not involve any overt tie-in to our faith, and may not be something we speak about in faith circles.
C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters about how it easier to corrupt a man by making him indifferent to Hitler, and hateful to those closest to him, than the reverse, and so it follows that it is easier to be concerned about the plight of strangers than it is to be kind to the people we see every single day. Being kind to your loved ones, appreciating them, and being generous with them is a higher form of virtue simply because it is harder than being kind for a moment to a stranger you will never see again. The Havamal and Delphic Maxims are mostly about that very thing: being kind to those closest to you. Shakespeare agrees with them.
Not so long ago I fell in love with a man. I fell in love with his moderate and reasonable views, sexy voice, and beautiful face, but mostly I fell in love with the fact that the very hospitality spoken of in the Havamal and Delphic Maxims was something he practiced and valued. He may have been agnostic, but he was a kind and considerate Heathen in practice. Our core values were the same, and I saw a lifetime of hospitality, generosity, and kind reciprocity with this man. I fell in love with him because he embodied the highest form of service and compassion, and, despite our parting circumstances, I still love him and his hospitable nature.
I am not angry with Teo, but I would love to take him away from the festivals and politics and blogs and have him talk with that Heathen woman from New England. The call to service he speaks of doesn’t simply exist in our traditions, it thrives. It just isn’t where you expect to find it, and rarely among the people who speak loudly of it.