Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Action Without Understanding Is Pointless

Action without understanding is pointless

Growing up in a household where you went to church every Sunday, I'm very aware of the practice of "action without understanding." At a young age, I remember being told "you can't eat an hour before church because you have to be pure to receive the communion," so what that meant to me at that age was, "if you don't eat breakfast before then, you get to wait for the host and suffer until after church." I remember the endless dance of "stand up, sit down, kneel, repeat," and being tapped on the shoulder for falling asleep. I remember listening as everyone sang and focusing on the fact that half of them couldn't hit the right note to save their lives. I even remember some old lady grabbing my arm and forcing me to pick up and eat a host that I had accidentally dropped on to the floor after I received my communion. Don't get me wrong, I've gotten past looking at these experiences as a negative (for the most part). I've actually come to appreciate them because they hold true as examples of piety through understanding and through action. 

As a child, these actions were simply "what you did." Slowly I learned the "why" in my Sunday CCD classes (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), but as an ignorant child they were simply things I was forced to do. The actions held no meaning for me. They didn't make me feel connected to YHVH any more than sitting on the couch watching cartoons did. In fact, I felt a closer bond to She-Ra and He-Man than I did to YHVH.  It wasn't until much later that I truly understood the reason behind each action taken during Sunday Mass. In fact, it wouldn't be until I found paganism and started trying to understand the practices I wished to emulate that I would understand any of the practices of my childhood or what they meant to my mother, the horrible singers, or the mean old woman who grabbed my arm. 

Because I work from a reconstructionist methodology, I have to utilize the various (and sometimes lacking) sources we have on the ancient Irish to attempt to understand how they honored their deities and why. Unlike the Roman reconstructionists, we don't have any remaining rituals recorded to base our spiritual practice on. We know that large gatherings took place, we know that large fires were lit, we know that cattle may have been driven between the fires and that some sort of sacrifice may have taken place. We know some gatherings were used for large meetings and depending on the gathering, tribe members would come together to celebrate for days at a time. We even have a basic grasp of why these gatherings took place, but the one thing we don't know for sure is the exact events of the rituals they may have taken part in during these celebrations of the harvest and Gods. 

We, as Irish pagans, have had to explore outside sources from groups that would have had some interaction or influence with the Iron Age Irish in order to create a ritual structure that could have worked. Because of this, I've come to appreciate the nuances of every candle lit, every word spoken, every hand motion and every moment connected with deity. Each movement now has a purpose. Each spoken phrase has a goal. Each story referenced in the lore has a point. The creation and combining from other sources to bring forward a working ritual structure brings respect for every element that goes into building it and every meaning that comes with every action demonstrated within it. It is the profound understanding as a result of that in-depth individual study and creation, that brings meaning to these actions. Without that understanding, I would be just another victim of "stand, sit, kneel, repeat" and "don't fall asleep."

Understanding without action is useless

I believe in the Gods. I've read the books on them. I understand the lore. I know the history of the Celts. I believe I understand their impact on the life of Irish inhabitants. Now what? This is something a lot of novice pagans find themselves asking. I have all of this information, but what good does it actually do for me? I believe that the Gods are there, helping in my life, but how to do acknowledge that? What was the point of studying all of this information? 

The pursuit of belief, whatever it may be, is the starting point of any spiritual journey. Once you find something that has some ring of truth to you, you examine it further. From there you look to solidify an understanding of what it is you think you believe. Once you have gotten to a somewhat comfortable point, what can you do next? Use that information to find a practice that works for you or find a group with a working tradition that fits with what you believe. 

As noted above, we know the Irish held celebrations through out the year that lasted days. We believe that the Irish Celts honored at least four days in recognition of the harvest, so what are you going to do to represent them in your own harvest celebration? Can you cook a feast for your family or friends? How about get together and play some games? Build a bonfire? Are there other traditions you want to incorporate? What did your study teach you about a ritual, if you so choose to create one?

Belief can only get you so far. Leaving it pent up inside is an option, but does that really reflect what the ancients did? The next step is to say - what did the ancients do that I can still participate in now and do it? Put your study to good use, otherwise, what was the point? This is the next step in your faith and this is the part you can pass on to your family. This is the part you can share with people of similar faith or even differing faith, depending upon the traditions you decide to uphold. This is when you reflect what you believe.  
"It reflects what social researchers have been telling us for decades: beliefs lead to behaviors, behaviors create habits, and habits shape character. So if we want right behaviors (orthopraxy), and upright character we need to start with right beliefs (orthodoxy)." - Regis Nicoll (http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/archive/1448-orthopraxy-over-orthodoxy)

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