Lammas 2004, Vol 3-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Reclaiming the Power of Virtue and Reverence
Summer, fires, long days with tornado afternoons -- the wheel turns. We celebrated the summer Solstice with fires for jumping and drums for ecstatic dancing and now comes Lammas, the early harvest, celebrated perhaps with a banquet or Goddess shaped loaves of freshly baked bread.
Embodied ritual is one of the things that attracts me to Goddess religions and traditions -- the ritual of the everyday; moments taken to experience awe, to be in the present, to honor the past. These rituals, in addition to community magic and ceremony, are manifestations of reverence in my life and in my relationship with the Goddess.
I continue to practice kindness as a spiritual discipline, but the other day while shelving books in the bookstore I ran across a book by the American philosopher Paul Woodruff, called Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. Reading this book I realized that kindness is not enough; kindness without reverence is like worn-out Velcro -- it makes contact but is unlikely to stick for long. I understand reverence in ritual, but I had not considered the role of reverence in my life or my daily spiritual practice. I know I have participated in ritual with reverence, but now, I'm considering the role of reverence in personal practice, Goddess religion and American society. Woodruff uses classical philosophers and modern literature to demonstrate how ritual, communal and personal, brings forth reverence as a foundation of culture. Reverence does not require religion, faith or even belief, but is it not one of the functions of religion to transmit values and codes of behavior, or virtues?
As I read more and meditated on my reading I began to wonder, what is the role of virtue in feminist thealogy? I have never heard reverence or virtue addressed directly as part of Goddess religions. These are not hot topics in pagan or feminist circles in general. Given their impact on all aspects of community, culture and change, why do we not discuss them or define them?
The word virtue comes from the Latin root vir (man), as does virile. Originally, virtue meant "moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, worth: to be a good man."(2) This original meaning may have contributed to its aversion in feminist circles (3). The use of the term 'virtuous woman' in the subjugation of women by patriarchal cultures could also turn us away from valuing virtue. The modern feminist movement is a child of modern reason and has associated religion and tradition as tools of the oppressor or as unscientific superstitions. We frequently promote irreverence in art, theatre and writing to reveal the danger and the absurdity of all the isms. The corruption of the virtues by Christendom and our reaction against that corruption may have caused us to deny ourselves a source of power available beyond and above the constraints of patriarchy.
As we celebrated the Summer Solstice, many of us included a working for personal and universal peace and profound social change in our rituals. I wonder if any of us included in our rituals a call for the Patriarchy to become rife with virtue and reverence? Some of us requested courage to fight patriarchy, but did any of us ask that our courage be strengthened by reverence? Of course I have no statistics on this, but my guess would be no. Perhaps there were spells calling for transformation in general but even though our thealogy acknowledges the Oneness of the web, our spell work tends to reflect the reality that most of us are caught in the paradigm of 'us and them'.
In our culture, reverence has become entwined with the idea of faith and belief, with respect and obedience to someone or something with power over us. Woodruff points out that this is not true reverence. True reverence as a fundamental virtue would mean that industry could no longer make choices that destroy the Earth. Violence against women and children would not be institutionally sanctioned. Poverty and world injustice would slip away. Diversity would be sought, not plundered.
When we manage to be still for a while, to go into our hearts and sit with the silence, we know the magic of the universe. From that place, without any doctrine or theology we can know ourselves as affected by and affecting everything around us. In the awe of that moment, we know ourselves as children of the Great Mother, as manifestations of the Goddess. This is the place that makes virtue and reverence possible -- this is direct, imminent connection with a power-from-within. This connection is the foundation of ethical magic, so why don't we teach the virtue of reverence? Reverence is what allows us to establish a working partnership with the elements, and surrender the compulsion to dominate them.
It is a mistake for us, particularly us women, to discount the value of teaching the virtues. We have been trained to value the ability to choose the right thing regardless of our feelings, but what if we could learn to change what we feel, change the source of the motivation? Choosing behavior because you know it's the right thing, or because of coercive consequences, is not virtuous. Virtuous responses occur when we experience the awe of being connected to everything, connected even to a power greater than self, and in that moment we know ourselves as right-sized. If we could bring this into our parenting, it would have revolutionary consequences.
It is through reverence that we can explain the need to treat the Earth with respect. America is a county grown on land stolen from indigenous people, by religious exiles who saw dominion over land as their right. These mostly Christian men were men of belief, faith and conviction, but they were not men of reverence. They believed that the land, the Earth, could be owned. The local people valued the virtue of reverence; they did not understand the concept of owning land, for the Earth was their Mother. She was their source; she was the heart of all things and a member of the tribe.
This cosmology, in which divinity and power exist outside of self, is a cosmology where those in power make decisions whose consequences do not have a direct impact on the decision makers. These men separated themselves from nature because their religious texts defined 'man' as separate from the rest of creation. They wanted a governmental state separate from their lives, because they had fled from European church-dominated governments. This is a cosmology that demands reverence for a transcendent and separate higher power, one who promises a heaven separate from life on Earth. This is not a cosmology of earth stewardship, of experiencing heaven and awe of creation.
American capitalism grew from this cosmology of dominance and ownership, which resulted in the genocide of the people who lived here, the destruction of ancient forests and the pollution of rivers. The United States would be a very different country if those first European settlers had come with reverence not arrogance, shovels not axes. With a sense of universal connection and causal responsibility, they could have chosen to use the gifts of the Mother without destroying them. They could have chosen to use earth as the primary material for building their homes, to become a part the natural beauty and wild life, rather than setting up communities deliberately set apart from it.
In the United States, we are living the biblical archetype of the falling towers and the battle of "good' and "evil" (they even call it the 'war on evil'). The towers of illusion have crumbled to the ground, and we are being called as individuals and as communities to risk sifting through the rubble. Reverence has been lost beneath our hunger for justice and for revenge, yet reverence marks the difference between a soldier and a terrorist. When the leadership calls the enemy 'evil barbarians' it sets the tone for the behavior of the soldiers in direct contact with that enemy. American guards in the Iraq prison committed acts or cruelty, torture and humiliation in the name of freedom. If reverence and courage were prerequisites of military service, those young soldiers would have been given immunity from their cruelty. The Geneva Convention and the rules of war demand reverence. These define the ritual boundaries between a gang of thugs and a legitimate peace-keeping force.
Queer spirituality and Goddess religions do not separate the transcendent and the imminent. The Goddess is not a power outside of us. She is the power present in everything, and Her source exists inside us all. We place great value on conscious ritual and respect for the rituals of others, but there seems to be a reluctance to create and teach any code of conduct or ethical/moral guidelines. We trust that each woman will have her own moral accounting, which will mirror ours. However, when moral issues arise as conflict there is a tendency toward fundamentalist feminism, which like all fundamentalisms has the monopoly on truth -- in our case, 'woman-centered' truth. This position can never be reverent because it is closed to conversation and learning. It becomes like ordained truth which has always caused trouble between different religions. Deep reverence provides respect for all beyond personal preference and rhetoric.
In her chapter on 'Magical Ethics'(5), teacher and social activist Starhawk focuses on the need for internal censure and personal integrity. She writes:
This is the very essence of reverence and the true essence of magic. Reverence and integrity bring about heart centered 'right-action' and the desire to choose life, which is vital to the practice of magic. Integrity of the heart separates a moral community from a moralistic one.
puts the grace of the Goddess back into our relationship with the earth
and into the practice of magic. Queer spirituality asks us to remain right-sized
and embodied in our practice, because without reverence our rituals become
inauthentic, our stewardship careless. This Lammas, let's take the time
to harvest virtue and reverence as pagan values, as tools of social transformation
and inspired matrifocal spiritual practice.
(1) Woodruff, Paul Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford University Press, 2001).
(2) "virtue" Online Etymology Dictionary.
(3) Assumption here that Goddess worshiping communities are feminist!
(4) Woodruff, Paul Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford University Press, 2001) p.13.
(5) Starhawk, Dreaming in the Dark (Beacon Press, Boston) pp. 35-37.