On Shrine-hoarding

I’m starting to slowly get back into my temple again for small tasks, hopefully leading up to bigger ones in the future (time and energy permitting, of course, and with the usual caveat that I need to spend my time and energy wisely between work, religion, home, friends, and the like).  As I mentioned in the last post, I’m slowly going through some of the stuff I have, either things I’ve procured or things I’ve made, and am putting some of them up on my Etsy store for others to buy and, hopefully, use in their own works.  Old woodburned placards, prayer beads, necklaces, altar supplies, even some stones and the like are things I’m putting up because…well, let’s be honest, I don’t need them.  I like them plenty, but most of these things aren’t things I’ll miss if I get rid of them.  The really important, vital, or precious stuff is going to stay mine and stay used, but then again, that’s the distinction, isn’t it?  If I use it, or if I know that I actually will use it, then it stays; if not, then it goes.

There’s a difference between stockpiling supplies for future use and simply hoarding stuff.  Raw supplies, stones, dirts, herbs, bones, beads, resins, and the like are all ingredients towards the Work that can be used in any number of ways; those are things that I can always use more of, even if I’m not running low or using at the moment, because they can come in use at the drop of a hat.  Those are things that we should all endeavor to hoard, absolutely, and use as needed.  The other stuff, on the other hand…spare crystal balls, unconsecrated statuary, beaded or otherwise handmade crafts meant for tools but never used for anything more than decoration, or other things that were made for a purpose but never really fulfilled it according to my desires, all those are things that I really have no desire to hold onto except for the sake of sentimentality or beautification.

One of the major hurdles in getting back to my temple work is that, in the…seven or so years I had to set it up, I amassed quite a bit of stuff.  Not a household’s worth, by any means, but I have shrines for the seven archangels, the Virgin Mary, my own guardian angel, the Three Kings, Hermes, Apollo with Asklepios with Dionysos, Aphrodite with Hephaistos, Saint Expedite, and Saints Cyprian, Justina, and Theocistus.  I have a small shrine to Hestia in the living room, and Demeter lives outside.  I have altars for my work for my conjuration/planetary stuff as well as my Mathesis work, and a more recent shrine to the planetary divinity of Saturn.  And all those are things I’ve kept; there are a handful of shrines or altars or other special working areas I’ve set up before and took them down either due to them having completed their purpose or things just not working out how I had planned or wanted.  And then there’s my initiation into La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (aka Santería), where I have a bevy of orisha shrines to maintain and work with (and which I’m marked to receive even more).  If I didn’t have a full-time job with a nontrivial commute, I could swing the determination and discipline to maintain all of these shrines and altars and work, but…I do have a full-time job with a nontrivial commute, and I don’t have the time.   Quite honestly (and it hurts to admit this), all the shrines I have is more than I can actually handle to maintain or keep up with.

To clarify some of my thoughts, let’s start with a bit of a distinction.  For me, an altar is essentially a working space, not meant for worship or veneration as much as actual spiritual or magical works to be done.  Conjuration of spirits, consecration of items, sacrifice of something, establishing crystal/energetic grids, those are all things apt and appropriate for an altar.  I only really have two of those, and while I like to keep them set up and ready to go, I can collapse them and set them up again or change them as needed and as desired.  Then there are shrines, which are meant for the veneration of spirits, gods, saints, or other divinities; shrines serve as a sacred seat or home for a spirit, in my mind, and are a physical representation of the relationship one has with them.  In that sense, for me to evaluate the meaning and need of a shrine is to evaluate the meaning and need of the relationship itself with the spirit of the shrine.  And that itself requires dialog with those spirits, recalling what pacts and vows one has with them, respect for and from those spirits, and honesty with oneself.

This is where my distinction between auturgic and lineage-based work comes into play.  Lineage is easy: you sign up for a specific relationship with a spirit, you’re given a set of terms and conditions to follow, you’re handed the powers and tools you need from your initiator, and boom, you’re set.  Just follow the vows you’ve signed up for, over which you have no say in except to say “yea” or “nay”, and you’re good.  Auturgy, on the other hand, is both easier and much more difficult: you establish your own parameters, vows, pacts, and agreements, and you determine how things work; you need to build your own tools and power and relationships, which can’t be handed to you because there’s nobody to hand them to you.  Most of my work is auturgic in that sense; I’ve built my shrines, I’ve consecrated my statues and talismans, I’ve set up my own protocols and rhythms of prayer and sacrifice for these spirits, and so I have say in how and when and whether these shrines should be established.  On the other hand, my Santería work is lineage-based, so I can’t just up and give Oshún a metal case to live in because I think it’d be more convenient for me; Oshún has what Oshún is supposed to have, what she wants, and what I’m obliged to give her.  More than that, I can’t ignore or just not work with my orisha, as that’d go against the agreements I signed up for with them; I don’t have say in those pacts, and to ignore them is to violate them.  That’s one of the costs—and strengths—of lineage.

But for the shrines (and relationships) that are of my own desire and design…well, there’s the hard choice of whether I want to keep them around, and if so, what really needs to stay on them.  I’ve taken down shrines before; for instance, once upon a time I wanted to set up a shrine to Hades and Persephone as part of a Hellenic approach to working with the spirits of the dead.  It never really got off the ground, even though I had all the supplies and niche set up and everything, so down it went into a box (and, if you’re interested, I still have the unconsecrated Hades statue and offering bowl, in case anyone ever wants to buy it off me).  Then there’s an erstwhile tronco I set up to begin initial work with Quimbanda spirits; I was able to make contact, such as it was, once I had my consulta, but…I never really got anywhere with that, and I didn’t have much of a purpose to work with them given the other works I had going on, and so I worked with them to disassemble the baby-tronco I had and to dispose of their implements in a way they directed and agreed to.  Point is, I’m not ashamed to acknowledge the decline or absence of a sufficiently necessary or stable spiritual relationship to where a shrine is no longer needed, and carry that through.  But, just because I’m not ashamed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad about it; sometimes I feel like I failed in maintaining my agreements and plans, and other times I feel bad because I realize that the designs and purposes I had in developing something didn’t turn out the way I hoped for and have to accept that keeping a shrine set up without maintaining it isn’t doing me or the spirit any favors.  I have a few such shrines at home that I really need to talk with to see about just that.

But even then, even for the shrines that I do want to keep set up, there’s the notion of clutter and hoarding things.  I’ve seen some beautiful shrines by other occultists and priests online, and some even in person, where there are these beautiful, intricate, elaborate setups girded by chains and beads and all sorts of everything.  You know, the highly Instagrammable/Facebook viral share-worthy pictures, the ones that are actually done up in real life and not just a temporary setup for a shadow-cloaked shot in the light of a single candle’s flame.  I love the aesthetic, but…I’ve come to realize that I have neither the space nor the means to actually do that for myself, but more than that, I’ve come to realize it’s not my style, either.  I’ve decked out some of my shrines in the past, but I don’t need to live in a city of multiple Parthenons, where each shrine’s district is filled like a forest with votive offerings or whatnot.  Especially with the influence of Santería now, I see the simple elegance of just giving what’s enough and what’s needed for a shrine.  If a particular implement is needed for the functioning of the shrine or the use of the spirit within, by all means, give it!  But decorating it like a Mardi Gras parade and accumulating everything under heaven that even has a shadow of a tangential relationship to that spirit for the sake of having it be pretty is…well, it ends up collecting more dust than it’s worth.

A shrine doesn’t need much to be effective: an image or physical representation of the spirit, maybe a place to set lights or incense, maybe some implements or tools directly associated with them that one has a strong feeling (if not an explicit or confirmed directive) to provide, perhaps some supplies to be left in the care of the spirit until it can be used in workings with or without them.  Space is at a premium, after all, in my temple room and house, and a shrine doesn’t often need that much space.  Barring specific protocols or vows, anything else is probably just decoration for the sake of the devotee and not the divine.  To accumulate more and more of those latter accouterments is just…hoarding.  Having more shrines than you need is likewise hoarding.  Both of which eventually become a burden, both to maintain the cleanliness of even a single shrine as well as to maintain your relationships with those spirits, and unless you’re actually getting something out of that arrangement, perhaps it might be better to cut back, both on the shrines as well as the stuff within them.  After all, you don’t need to be a dragon to be a devotee, and we’re not often worshiping dragons that demand devotional donations.  (Of course, if you are, then different rules apply.)

That’s one of the reasons why I’m going through my temple and cutting back both on the shrines and the stuff within them.  If I’m not maintaining a relationship with a spirit, or if that spirit isn’t maintaining a relationship with me, then there’s no real need for a shrine; it’d be best to disassemble it respectfully and confer with the spirit on how and where their sacred things should be disposed of, or if they can be given to another to care for them.  (Yes, Justice, I’m aware, and I haven’t forgotten, forgive me my lateness!)  If the spirit still wants to stay and I don’t want to maintain the shrine, then an agreement can likely be brokered to pare down the shrine to a minimum, shrink it, or hold onto something to make a temporary shrine with later as needed; temporary shrines, set up on unused or other working tables, are a great way to carry out devotional work every once in a while that aren’t otherwise a full-time thing.  Otherwise, if the shrine really is to stay as a permanent installation, then I’d go through all the things on it, see what’s not necessary or essential to the shrine, and consult with the spirit on how and where to dispose of the other things that they’re okay with parting with, whether it should just be thrown out respectfully, sold, given as a gift, or used for another purpose.  It depends, and it’s a careful, sometimes heart-scouring process, but a necessary one that I need to go through.  There are some things I want to get rid of, honestly, but the spirits are adamant I keep, whether for their own use or for my own in working with them, and it requires honesty and openness to be aware of these things.

I suppose that clearing out my temple room (and the other sacred spaces in my house more generally), taking a thorough account of my spiritual relationships with my courts and pantheons, and seeing what I really need for my Work is the first step to really getting back to working with them all.  After all, I can’t go into my temple for single-minded work if I dread walking in due to all the reminders of the missed offerings, forgotten festivals, and dust gathered on them distracting me for the purpose I walked in for.  If I don’t want to be distracted, then I need to fix the distractions, and in order to do that, I need to fix my shrine situation accordingly in a way that is best for both me and them.  Only then can I be really sure about my Work, my physical and spiritual spaces, and my spirits and the relationships I have with them.  And, hey, in the process, if I uncover any goodies that I don’t need or want anymore, someone else might be lucky enough to get them for something they need or want.  Besides, I have future projects I want to plan, and should any of those require shrines or a permanent installation of some sort…well, I’ll have to evaluate if I need to give anything else up to make the time, energy, and space for it, and whether I really need to go down that route, if nothing else will do.

If you’re facing a similar situation, then it might be well for you to do a similar disassembly and decluttering of shrines and shrine stuff.  We can’t all be full-time priests tending to and taking care of all these temples of our own design; with our limited time and energy, we can only take care of what we must and what we really need to.  Be honest with yourself, and be honest with your spirits.  If you need to limit your practice to just one or two things, then let your temple or sacred spaces look and function accordingly.  Hoarding shrines may make us look cool and hardcore, but as many occultists learn at some point, we’re in this for more than just looking cool.  If you can manage that while also getting the Work done, awesome!  If not, then simplify and focus on the Work.  They say, after all, that simplicity is the highest form of elegance; some people, like myself, could do with taking that to heart.

Materialists and Spiritualists

One of the blogs I’ve recently added to my blogroll recently posted about his problems when people define being religious, spiritual, and spiritual-not-religious.  To a large degree, I agree with him; it’s simply not true that you can’t be spiritual and religious at the same time, though one can be “religious” without doing much spiritually and vice versa.  It’s complicated, but it does have some truth to it.  I know that I myself (way back when I was younger and a little more pompous than I am now) described myself as spiritual-not-religious, but now that I think back on that, I can’t say that I’d mean now what I meant then by that phrase.

Being a Hermeticist, I like to classify things into large groups.  When it comes to beliefs or the lack thereof, I go by two big classifications, materialists and spiritualists.  I define these terms specifically for how they perceive the world:

  • Materialists believe that there is nothing except the physical, tangible world around us; in other words, to them there exists only Malkuth as the whole of existence.  Among others, atheists, agnostics, and “hard science-only” people fall into this category, either believing that there is nothing else besides the material world or having the lack of belief that anything immaterial exists.  Everything that exists only exists in terms of matter and material processes, having material starts, material ends, and material changes.
  • Spiritualists believe that there exists the physical and tangible world around us in addition to other non-physical, or spiritual, worlds around, involved with, or separated from us; in other words, there are other sephiroth besides Malkuth that make up the whole of existence.  This includes people of faith, magicians, mystics, and other such people.

I further break down that group of spiritualists into three further groups:

  • Conventional religionists believe that there is more to existence than the material world, but focus only on the material.  Most common people of faith such as Christians who go to church only on Sundays or just on Christmas and Easter but are otherwise uninvolved with spiritual matters, fall into this group.  For all intents and purposes, these people are pretty much the same as materialists with a veneer of spirituality.  No explicitly spiritual action is taken by these people.
  • Mystics believe that there is more to existence than the material world, and endeavor to go to and through other spiritual places so as to reach the Divine Source/God.  This is their sole or primary purpose; in qabbalistic terms, they’re interested only in bringing things from Below to Above.  Monastics, holy men, prophets, and theurgists fall into this group.
  • Magicians believe that there is more to existence than the material world, and endeavor to go to and through other spiritual places so as to change the world down here using spiritual or material means.  This is their sole or primary purpose; in qabbalistic terms, they’re interested in bringing things from Above to Below.  Magicians, sorcerers, witches, and the like fall into this group.

Of course, I’m defining the terms “mystic” and “magician” completely on a whim for the sake of classification at this point, and it’s entirely possible that someone spiritual but not a conventional religionist is either at any given point; it’s like the difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy, or doves versus snakes; even I myself switch modes depending on what needs to be done.  This isn’t to say that a mystic or a magician can’t be faithful as would normally be reckoned, either; I know many witches or ceremonial magicians (or “magicians” in the scheme above) who also have devout practices to particular gods.  In a way, the mystics and magicians could be combined into bigger group of “active spiritualists”, while conventional religionists might be called “passive spiritualists”.

The big difference between conventional religionists and magicians/mystics is the property of spiritual action; religionists believe but do nothing, while mystics and magicians believe and do things.  Of course, if you count prayer as spiritual activity (as one should), then many conventional religionists may be considered mystics (e.g. for salvation and purity); then again, depending on the nature of the prayer, they might also be considered magicians (e.g. for financial wealth and children).  Most American Christians I know, for instance, who don’t really do much of either fall into the conventional religionist/passive spiritualist category.  This is a pretty large group, and like I mentioned before, it’s basically the same as the materialists but with a veneer of spirituality; they’re otherwise the same.  That said, being seen as religious or involved at a minimum with social religion can be very useful for some people, and I can’t fault them for that, whatever their reason may be.

So whither the spiritual-not-religious people in this scheme?  It depends on the nature of their activity.  If they do work, they’re an active spiritualist and are likely a mystic or magician (in the scheme above), either in terms of bringing good stuff up there to down here or in terms of bringing themselves and others up there from down here.  If they don’t do much at all, then they’re a passive religionist, and no better or worse than a Sunday-only Protestant.  And, perhaps more obnoxious, that’s really not saying much more than if you were a materialist with an extra social connection.

Plus, a lot of the terms many people use are colored by Christianity’s definition of spirituality and religion; not all religions, faiths, or paths use these concepts.  For instance, when performing a religion census in China and Japan, it’s incredibly difficult to classify people as “just” a Buddhist, or a Taoist, or a Shinto practitioner, or a Confucianist.  Many people are all at once, depending on their work and upbringing, and instead of asking “to what faith do you belong” when many people would say “all of the above” (which is a concept shockingly different from what most of the Western world believes), such census questions ask instead whether one has read a particular canon of texts, whether they’ve taken refuge in the Three Gems of Buddhism, whether they go to a particular temple or set of temples, whether they’ve performed priestly or monastic work before, and the like.  The answer may still be complex, but then, nobody said this was a simple matter.

So, I suppose the big question in defining someone in terms of spirituality is: what do you Do?