When I was a young child my imaginary friend was God. Not the loaded definition that sets off some sort of reaction in just about everyone, but something simple. Formless and boundless. Silent and wise.
When life got intense or ridiculous we hung in there together, witnessing the storms. When life got boring we stuck it out, waiting for Sunday mass to be over because the dogma always felt absurd.
My childhood friend was more like the Tao than a man with a beard. Though a man with a beard is also the Tao, whether he knows it or not.
I wonder how many other imaginary childhood friends are a relationship with divinity . . . and was I supposed to grow out of that by a certain age?
Perhaps I did grow out of it, but only temporarily. I married at the age of 26. Many years passed and my husband and I built a life, complete with children and a family business. We even lived in a house with a white picket fence. And in the back of my mind lurked the notion that if my marriage ever failed, I would devote myself to the mysteries. To the divine universe. To God. To whatever your most tolerable name is for that which cannot be named.
What I didn’t account for is that Devotion would come looking for me, that it wouldn’t wait for my marriage to fail. It wouldn’t be some hypothetical future safety net. It would hunt me down me like a lawless bounty hunter and tear my dress and ask me where the fuck I had been.
I had substituted a human relationship for one with divinity. And there isn’t a human on the planet that could fill those shoes.
What is divinity?
A list of fingers pointing at moon will not suffice. There’s too much room for misunderstanding, this is a vast and turbulent topic. So I shall wield one of my favorite weapons when facing an abstract conversation on metaphysics, the Gnostic description of God. Divinity, according to Gnosticism, can be summarized as:
“the ultimate reality underlying the cosmos”*
I love this perspective as it shakes off so much dogma and history and all things debatable. There’s no requirement of faith or worship here, there’s just acknowledging the fact that we exist, and that this existence has some sort of explanation. It leaves us with the rather basic idea that there is an ultimate reality, regardless of whether or not we know it or experience it or engage in any relationship with it.
Like many paradigms, Gnosticism wasn’t content in the long run with just a humble bare-bones definition of divinity that was easy for most people to accept. Its adherents went on to elaborate in rather bold detail about how the fundamental nature of reality originated and how it looks and feels and so forth. I’m not going to go down that road. So this is the point where there road forks and I leave Gnosticism behind, thanking it for its workable definition of God, which I will take with me on the path less traveled.
“the ultimate reality underlying the cosmos”
(The Gnostic notion of God,, it just so happens, is particularly effective when fencing with agnostics. I keep this close at hand, like a dagger hiding in my skirt, ready and waiting within reach. For we live in dangerous times where even my auto-correct wants to change gnostic to agnostic.)
So what does divinity have to do with devotion? And what does devotion have to do with freedom?
We are all devoted to something, whether we consciously acknowledge this or not. Our habits reveal our allegiance. What we give our time, energy, and attention to is what we worship . . .
Shopping/Possessions. Food. Alcohol. Smoking. Nature. God . . .
We are all in deep relationships . . . even a couch potato is committed to the couch.
Devotion is not a casual word. The definition leaves no room for casual, one cannot be casually devoted. Merriam Webster defines it as a “state of being ardently dedicated and loyal” . . . yet a word is far more than its dictionary definition. It carries implications, and those change depending on the context of the era.
Right now in the Western world it is acceptable to be devoted to work and/or to family. Attending a religious service for an hour a week or doing yoga or meditating will not raise eyebrows. But full-force teary-eyed awe-struck devotion to God/Spirit/Divinity is rare and often incomprehensible.
In this world, cults led to mass suicide and humans were burned alive and twin towers fell to the ground. Atrocities are committed by humans who believe they are doing the right thing. It’s no wonder that devotion to divinity is disparaged. Yet everything has its shadow form. We remember the darkness because the light doesn’t make the history books. People living their lives in harmony with themselves and the natural world and “the ultimate reality underlying the cosmos” is not front page news.
Devotion to divinity is dangerous.
It is far more threatening to the social order than being committed to a career or a human partnership. And that’s because of Devotion’s intimate relationship with Freedom, which depends on what one is devoted to.
Devotees answer to what they are devoted to. They surrender to the call. The alcoholic goes to the bar, it becomes a temple. The young mother ignores her own need for self-care to meet the demands of motherhood. The wife cooks her husband three meals a day for forty years. In all these relationships, the devotee’s behavior, (though voluntary) is shaped by the object of their devotion.
When I am devoted to divinity in the form of “the ultimate reality underlying the cosmos” then nothing can control me. I answer to no human. Nothing can keep me imprisoned, not even my own mind. Not my thoughts or my desires. Not my body, not my pain. Not my duties or attachments or my habits. In this form, devotion is deadly to the ego.
I answer only to what breathes me. The same force that lures petals to open in vivid displays and moves the wind through the trees and the river water over the boulders. I don’t have to name it. I feel it in the blood that runs in my veins.
I surrender to this power, yet I’m free to live my life, to pursue my goals and aspirations . . . So long as I am listening. So long as I am ready to drop everything and heed the call each time it comes, unpredictable and shape shifting and sometimes only a whisper. I bend the knee time and time again, and in doing so, find liberation. Such is the paradox of devotion, where surrender becomes freedom.
* from Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by Stephan A Hoeller