This is one of those topics that actually is discussed publicly among polytheists and Pagans from time to time. I’m writing about it today, not because it is rarely or never talked about, but because there is such a wide spectrum of views on the subject that I would like to share my own thoughts for your consideration. You are the only one who can decide whether these thoughts are of any value for your path, but I think it is always worthwhile to hear from multiple perspectives, especially if you are still trying to figure out just what it is that you want to incorporate into your devotional practice.
I will be discussing, in an unusual level of detail for me, the subject of discernment. I hate always having to say this, but I’m gonna do it anyway because I just know that if I forget, someone will be giving me an earful at some point. There are many different ways to go about discernment. Mine is not the only way, nor the only “right” way. This is one way that you can adapt as you see fit, or set aside entirely for something else. It is based on my own beliefs which you may not share, in part or in whole. I have no doubt that many of you will disagree with some of the particulars, and that’s ok!
My personal stance is that discernment itself is not optional in the spiritual life, but you certainly don’t have to do it my way to be doing it (and if you disagree that it’s necessary at all, I’m not going to call you names and kick you out 😛 ) You may also understand “discernment” as being something else entirely from what I describe here, and that’s fine too, though I hope you will still consider my version of it as something of potential benefit, even if you choose to call it something else.
Again, as with all my posts, I hope you will take what helps you, set aside what doesn’t, and don’t let it ruffle your feathers either way.
When talking about Spirits, what is Real?
Spiritual experiences are notoriously difficult to quantify. Many people, myself included, will stress the importance of discernment, and although it isn’t cool to come out and say it bluntly, the question above is at the root of why.
Discernment, as I understand it and defined without the sugar coating, is basically just the process of coming to a decision about the true origin and relative value of whatever spiritual experience or communication you think has occurred in your life. Was the message you received solely your own wisdom, your subconscious mind, your higher self, etc, or did it actually originate from a Deity or other Spirit? Did the vision you experience take place in any kind of consensual reality with the entities who you thought were present, or were you the only one participating, even though you “saw” others in it? Was the conversation you think you had with a Deity taking place between you and that Deity, or you and what you (or your subconscious mind) only thinks They would have said? And so on.
First, I want to say that I’ve seen it argued that it doesn’t matter whether your message actually came from a Deity or whether you “really” had the spiritual experience you think you did. Supposedly, the only thing that should matter is that whatever happened was “real” to the one who experienced it.
In a way, I agree, but in another, I don’t. The issue I can’t get around is that it damn well does matter to me if you’re talking about your experience with me and other people–that is, if you happen to also be someone who views Deities and Spirits as being Persons. I am such a person.
Let’s say I have a wonderful dream that you and I went shopping at Target together, and it felt very real to me. If I then hopped on this blog or social media and told everyone about our great trip to Target, the funny things “you” said, etc., you would rightfully be appalled and offended. As far as you’re concerned, the trip never happened, no matter how real it was for me, but here I am publicizing it as though it were fact. There’s both a lack of respect here as well as a certain breach of mutual trust.
And you know what? Maybe the dream accomplished good things for me. Maybe it cheered me up, relaxed me, reminded me of the things I love about you and strengthened our friendship in that peripheral way. It was not without value in its own right. It wasn’t meaningless, at least not to me. But it’s still inappropriate for me to talk and act as though it happened outside my head and you are aware of it when, in fact, it did not, and you aren’t. It’s disrespectful to you, and misleading to the people reading it who are assuming that you know about this trip and actually said and did the things I’m reporting you said and did.
More than that, even if I keep my mouth shut about this dream, what if you insulted me in it, or hurt my feelings, or complimented me on something that you actually don’t like? In any of these scenarios, my perception of you could be altered accordingly. It may have felt very real, but is this seem fair to you, or helpful to our friendship? I need to be clear on whether my dream was just a dream or something more, and then I need to weigh and treat it accordingly.
I think there is a temptation to shrug and say “it doesn’t matter if it’s real” because the underlying assumption is that if it only happened for you, it’s the same thing as saying that it’s worthless, it’s meaningless, whatever lesson you took away isn’t important (or isn’t “as” important as if a Spirit had given it to you), etc. And that, I just don’t agree with. An experience’s worth to you as an individual is a separate value from whether it was Divine, supernatural, or otherwise external in origin.
Let me repeat and rephrase, because this is very important: if you got something out of it, it wasn’t worthless, no matter where it came from or who came up with it or who was, or wasn’t, involved. Your wisdom is not invalid because it comes from you. Your subconscious isn’t worthless. Respect yourself and your own knowing, don’t belittle them. Your experiences do matter no matter where they came from.
Experiences with Spirits aren’t the only ones that matter, and having an experience that included a Spirit without Their willed involvement doesn’t cast the other experiences you’ve had with Them, or your relationship with Them in general, into doubt. Every instance needs to be taken and evaluated, not just in the context of your wider relationship, but on its own merits as well. No one gets it right 100% of the time, no matter how long they’ve been at this.
Before I go on, I want to emphasize that experiences are not “fake” because other p/People don’t share them. I do agree with the idea that experiences can be real for an individual even if that reality is shared with no one else. I just disagree with the part that it doesn’t matter where our experiences fall on the spectrum of consensual reality. I believe it can be harmful to our understandings of our Deities and our relationships with Them to attribute to Them actions or words that They did not choose or consent to, even if we say nothing to anyone else about it. Again–this doesn’t mean the experience had no value to the individual who had it, doesn’t mean it was “fake,” and doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.
If these experiences matter no matter what, why is it important to discern at all?
First, because of what I said before about respecting Deities and other Spirits as the independent entities with personal agency that I believe they are. If you do not share this belief, this obviously isn’t going to hold water with you as a reason.
Second, out of respect for the audience you are sharing these experiences with, who may develop incorrect or unrealistic ideas or expectations about both the spiritual life and whatever entities you name, if you are not making the origin of the experience clear (or in the very least, making your true level of certainty about it clear.)
Third, because even if you choose not to share your experience with anyone else, it will still color and influence the relationships you already have with whatever entities you think were involved. You will not come to a true knowledge of the Deity or Spirit involved if you assume They’ve done and said things that aren’t actually consistent with who They are or with the relationship They either have or want to have with you. It could also lead to deeply hurtful misunderstandings further down the road where the Deity later appears to be contradicting Themselves.
In my view, failure to discern the ideas that our experiences give us about the entities involved is a big culprit in Deities and other Spirits then being distorted into two-dimensional caricatures or stereotypes of Themselves by well-meaning devotees. It’s not the only culprit out there, but it’s a significant one and completely preventable by simply taking the time to discern rather than making assumptions.
Questions to Consider
Discerning communications and experiences involving Deities and other Spirits are slightly different in the questions that you will want to examine, so I’m separating them into two lists for your consideration. These are intended as starting points and inspiration as you figure out what discernment means for you and your path, not a comprehensive list or some kind of dogma.
When it comes to Spirit communication, you will want to consider:
- Who or what is the origin of this message/sign/omen?
- If the origin is an entity other than me, does this entity have any knowledge or awareness that this message/sign/omen happened?
- Are They willing to acknowledge that They sent the message/sign/omen?
- Have I received the message/sign/omen accurately? Am I understanding it as it was intended by its Author to be understood?
- What does this message/sign/omen tell me? What can I take away from this?
For other types of spiritual experiences, such as dreams, visions, journeying:
- Where did this experience take place?
- Who was involved?
- Do those involved know They were involved?
- Do those involved claim ownership of the behavior/words/actions I have attributed to Them?
- Am I understanding what happened in this experience correctly? For example, if I think a Deity came to me and asked me to stop wearing shoes, was this a literal request, a command, a metaphor for something else?
- What did the content of this experience tell me, and what is the value of that content to me personally?
For both: how does this communication or experience compare based on communications and experiences I’ve already discerned? Is it contradicting them? Supporting them? Fleshing out my prior understanding, or challenging it?
Please notice that the questions about value and what you can take away from these experiences or messages is a SEPARATE question in each type of situation. It doesn’t matter in terms of value whether it came from Deity or your household ghost or you alone. It could have still taught you something, given you something, or inspired you somehow…as a start. And that is NOT less “valid” or meaningful than if Freya chose to appear in your dream.
How to Answer the Questions
You now have an idea of the kinds of questions to think about when discerning, but how do you come to some sort of answer? Is certainty even possible when we are talking about things that may have taken place entirely inside your head?
I personally don’t think absolute certainty is possible in this life when it comes to matters of spirit. What we can strive for, and operate on, is a reasonable degree of certainty. There is always room for error, for misunderstanding, for imperfection, for alternate explanations for the exact same messages or occurrences. Those things will always be there because neither we, nor the Deities and Spirits we are devoted to, are perfect.
We are all individuals with strengths and weaknesses, and communication isn’t e/Everyone’s strong suit. It’s possible to practice excellent discernment and at the end of the day, or month, or decade, find out you were mistaken on some point, or many points. The spiritual life is a learning experience and a lifelong process, not a one-and-done or something you can tick off a checklist and be sure you’ve successfully accomplished it.
The same is true of your relationships with Deities and Spirits; like any other relationships, these will change, grow, evolve, and your understandings of e/Each other will change, grow and evolve along with them. Something may have been true once, but isn’t anymore, whether it’s about you or the Other. Something may have been misunderstood, but was not corrected quickly enough to avoid changing the perception of you or the Other. And etc.
Further complicating matters is that there can be a certain culture clash between Deities/Spirits and humans, depending on just Who you’re talking about (or to).
So when you are discerning the above questions, it’s important to keep certain things in mind.
First, as I said, absolute certainty isn’t possible, nor is it required. Don’t drive yourself (and your Deities) crazy with the need to be “absolutely sure,” because it’s never going to happen, or on the off-chance that it does, it won’t last. There will always be more discernment to do, and more questions and potential doubts as time goes on. If you’ve taken the time to carefully consider the above points, maybe consulted the runes or your oracle deck or whatever your divination method is if the situation calls for it, and the conclusions you’ve reached are making sense to you in the context of your life and path, then it’s enough to accept the results and move forward, mission accomplished. Sometimes a second opinion may be warranted in very serious, life-changing situations (see below), but you don’t need a hundred different opinions, and more often than not, your own judgment, paired with self honesty, is more than sufficient.
Second, keep an open mind, no matter what you think you already know about the Other(s) you think are involved or about what’s going on in general. Let the message or experience speak for itself, not ideas you’ve picked up from outside of them or from other people’s experiences.
Third, keep yourself in mind. Your own baggage, your own feelings, your own hopes and fears. Discernment is an impossible task if you don’t know yourself. You need to be able to tell your voice from someone else’s, and how can you do that if you don’t know yourself? You can’t recognize when your fears are cropping up and adopting the Face you most dread them wearing if you don’t know what it is you’re scared of. So be brutally honest with yourself. What are you hoping the answer is this question or that one? What are you afraid the answers will be? Keep THOSE answers in mind, too, as you work through it.
Sometimes, the things we hope or fear really do happen outside of our heads, as it were. But many times, we unwittingly try to sabotage or delude ourselves, depending on just what your baggage is. Knowing you have this baggage, or that trigger, or this anxiety, or that hope can help you sort out what’s coming from you and what isn’t, and whether you’re viewing even those things not coming from you with a clear head.
Consulting with the Other
Many of the questions I propose center around the other Persons involved in the experience or communication.
Spirit communication can be a tricky subject, as there are a lot of opinions and a lot of proposed methods out there. I’ve written my own take on it at length before, although that post is no longer featured on this site. I may bring it back at some point. In the meantime, I would like to present a brief rundown of ways you can attempt to verify a Deity or Spirit’s participation. This isn’t total and comprehensive, but they are basic methods anyone can use.
- Ask Them. Pretty straightforward. Your specific path or faith tradition will advise you best on how you go about doing this and what kind of ritual may be involved to seek Their counsel.
- Divination. You can do your own, and I recommend trying that first. As devotional Polytheists, I think divination should be a serious tool in our arsenal. It is well worth the effort to commit to learning as well as possible at least one method–this is such common advice, I wouldn’t even know who to credit, but suffice it to say, I’m not the only one to think so! If the message or experience you receive seriously influences your perception or understanding of the entities involved or your relationships with them, or if it has life-altering implications (such as a Deity making major requests of you like divorcing a spouse, moving, quitting a job, etc.), I strongly recommend ALSO consulting a professional diviner who views divination as a serious spiritual practice AND who is not personally involved with the exact same entities you are involved with (as this can influence their objectivity). Hat tip to Beth for that good advice, which I’ve never regretted following. For a REALLY BIG request/demand, or if the “second opinion” is at complete odds with your own knowledge of the Deity/situation (or just plain “feels off”), you may want to seek two independent opinions, both of which should be sought in addition to your own divination. Remember that even diviners are fallible, and although “double checking” in some situations is entirely reasonable, MOST of the time this will NOT be the ordinary, necessary course of events. I’m referring to exceptional circumstances here.
- Request a sign to confirm whatever you are seeking verification about. Do so respectfully, it should go without saying, and be very careful about the possibility of confirmation bias if you go this route. Like any other part of discernment, this requires ruthless honesty on your own part. There is a very good article by Thenea about this topic here, I won’t try to reinvent the wheel! She also doesn’t blather as much as I do, so go read it.
- Wait and see what happens next. This one may surprise you a bit and it’s certainly not the most immediately gratifying of your options, but my experience has been that if a Deity is trying to tell you something and knows you’re listening, you will usually observe some synchronicities in your life or receive other signs that back up what They are trying to tell you or that verify They were a part of whatever you experienced. So keep your eyes open, pay attention, and be patient. The phenomenon of the “clue-by-four” is notorious for good reason. The same warning about confirmation bias still applies, though.
I would like to add to all of the above that NOT ONE of these requires having special superpowers or being the next High Priest(ess) of the holy Whatzit. They are options that anyone can avail themselves of at need, no special wiring required…which brings me to the final point of this post.
What if I Have Nothing to Discern?
If there is anything that shreds my heart, it’s hearing from people who do their best to honor their Gods, but they feel like their Gods are not talking to them, not walking with them, not interested. They think they need some kind of special ability or talent in order to be able to hear their Deities, or worse, that their Gods just don’t care enough to bother.
There are many Gods, and I would not even dare to speak for my Own, never mind any of the Others. But I simply don’t believe that anyone for whom devotion to their Gods is a priority in their lives–whatever that might look like for you, as an individual, in your own life and circumstances–is being ignored, overlooked, or denied having any form of communion by the Deities they honor.
I do think, however, that it is entirely possible, and in fact highly probable, that the experiences they ARE having, the communications they ARE receiving, are not being recognized for what they are, either because the devotee in question has very rigid ideas about what constitutes Spirit communication/experiences, or because they simply have no idea that Deity X also does Y, or because the Deities they are reaching out to aren’t the same ones who are answering them (which has happened to me, so yes indeed, I can verify that happens too!) Thus they miss the signs of these attempts, or misinterpret them as being something else, or overlook them entirely.
There is always the temptation to compare oneself to others and others’ experiences as well. Again, I’ve written about this previously, but there are few practices more self destructive and toxic than self comparison. No matter what happened to this blogger or that friend, THEY ARE NOT YOU, and you are not them. Your path is not their path, and their path is not yours.
Look. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it because somebody’s sure got to. You don’t need to be a spirit worker or shaman or High Priest(ess) of Whatzit to develop a relationship with your Deities. There are as many ways to communicate with Them, and They with you, as there are people and Deities put together. You may not hear words, receive impressions, see visions. You may get a strange taste in your mouth when your Goddess is near, or smell something no one else can, or see a flower that never blooms in April in full blossom by your bus stop one morning. You may find yourself suddenly reminded of your God by something that it never occurred to you before would be associated with Him, or find a song unexpectedly caught in your head that you eventually realize is an amazingly apt reply to the one you sang at His shrine. You may find yourself in tears “for no reason” when you go to light Their candle; you may find yourself laughing “for no reason” when you’re trying to pray.
These kinds of messages and experiences are no less valid and meaningful and worthwhile than any mystic’s visions. They are holy, they are sacred, they are real…and they don’t require special wiring, or being the chosen one of whoever, or dedicating 24/7 to nothing but religious observance. If the Gods weren’t interested in humanity, They would not be known to humanity.
Your Gods and Spirits do not need to be making divination-worthy demands of you to be interested in you and your life, or to be accepting of your devotion. Different things are asked of each of us, and each of us walks our own unique path. You are not less because your Gods want you to wake up in the morning and make it through another day and celebrate with you that you did with a little extra smoke when you light the evening incense. That is not small. That is not poor. That is glorious. That IS the devotional life. It is a relationship lived in the trenches of the mundane. It is trudging through mud when only your heart can be in the stars.
For those of us with chronic health conditions and disabilities, this may be our holy Work. This may be our greatest offering. The God who would not accept it is not a God who is worthy of you, not the other way around. Don’t ever let yourself think that you are less, that your devotion is less, that your Gods aren’t listening, that They aren’t answering just because it isn’t in perceptible words or some particular type of experience. No.
Even those who have no such health concerns will not necessarily be called to some sort of priesthood, beyond what they practice for themselves, or to doing some great and impressive Work, and this is not inferior, not poor, not overlooked. The life you’re living? The devotion you give? The time you make for your Gods? Those are the things that matter. Those are the matter of devotion. Those are a great Work.
No matter who you are, no matter what road you are walking, you are sacred, your life is sacred, your devotion is sacred. Don’t treat yourself and your life and your devotion like garbage, but like the holy things they are. Your Gods are seeing you, hearing you, and yes, answering you, even if it is not in a voice, an omen, a vision.
And whatever else you do, do not make the mistake of confusing apparent silence with rejection or indifference. Sometimes, just as the eyes can say more than the lips could ever conjure, silence holds more meaning than words could ever convey. Invite your Gods to speak, then listen. If you can’t hear, then look; if you can’t look, then feel; if you can’t feel, then be.
Discernment isn’t easy, but the rewards–honest knowledge of both yourself and your Deities, stronger relationships with Them, better awareness of the ways They DO speak and act in your life–are abundant.
Your own insights, suggestions and questions are most welcome in the comments (please be patient with me in posting them, I moderate my comments & life’s been busy!)