When Words Aren’t Enough

tcblogprojectgreenSo much of religion or faith is ineffable, or experiential, that when people ask me to explain something, or when I feel like I want to write a post about something, my explanation just turns into a lot of vague hand-waving and sentences peppered with “um” and “you know.”

Well, no, obviously they don’t know or they wouldn’t have asked for an explanation.

Or when it comes to describing certain parts of my religion, communication falters and breaks down. The word we have don’t really work that well so I use what we have until something better comes along. Of course, this means always adding explanations. There’s no one word I’ll ever be able to use to explain certain aspects of my path that won’t have people going “Huh?”

Godslave is one such example. I use it because so far it is the best word I have come across to describe my relationship with the Morrigan. Off and on my brain has toyed with lypiphera being a better term, but I have yet to make a final decision there. Besides, lypiphera is likely going to be more misunderstood than godslave. But so long as I continue to use godslave, I will have to field questions or assumptions like “Didn’t you give up free will?”; “So you didn’t consent?”; “You’re belittling the experiences of people who went through actual slavery!”; “How can you be a slave to a goddess of sovereignty?”

Ok, maybe that last one is hard to grok for some folks, but it makes sense in my head. Trouble is I’ve been trying to find the words to write a post that explains it for several years now and coming up empty. As for the rest, there are answers to them, but I get tired of saying them.

Godslave as a word isn’t enough, for me, but it’s all I’ve got. (Maybe someday I’ll decide lypiphera will work better, if only because it’s less likely to trigger kneejerk reactions from others.)

Or, another one: priestess, to refer to my relationship/dedication to Brighid. It is actually the best word for the relationship, but for the purposes of communication with others? It can get tricky. So many people in pagandom have different ideas of what priestessing (or priesting) is. For many, my relationship with Brighid doesn’t cut it and I’m giving myself airs.

When I devoted myself to Brighid, when I swore I’d be Her priestess, I was saying: I will do Your Work. Whatever that work is. I will do it. I will serve my community by doing it, I will serve the world by doing it. When I write a new book I’m priestessing for Her as much as when I’m helping a friend through a rough time. When I make loans on Kiva (embovining!). When I am horse (a term referring to being possessed by deity).

For some folks, though, the fact that I a) don’t lead rituals, b) don’t lead a group or coven, c) don’t do a lot of community outreach along the lines of “making pagans normal to other people”, d) don’t have clergy training, or any other small point, means I am not a priestess. Means I don’t get to take that term.

Even though priestess is enough for me, it’s not enough for others, and again I find myself having to explain everything a million times over.

When it comes to explaining experiential parts of religion, there just aren’t words to explain some of the things that happen to me. There’s nothing in our language that allows me to communicate effectively some of my experiences. Often all I can explain is the end result of my experiences — I have some sort of flash of insight that leads me to, I don’t know, associate bees with Brighid, or Manannan with the Doctor. The only way I can present these things is by saying “This is my UPG.”

I’m starting to really dislike the term UPG.

It stands for “unverified personal gnosis.” Personal gnosis is fine, but what exactly is unverified about my experiences? I experienced them. They’re verified to and by me.

Recently I was informed of the word doxa instead, which is probably more accurate and definitely looks and sounds nicer. It means “belief,” though I should likely add here that to me, beliefs are not unshakeable, written in stone. They are more ideas that shape my worldview, and change as necessary. In the future, I’d prefer to use doxa to refer to those ineffable experiences and the results they have in my life. Of course, it’s yet another word that is going to require explanation.

Language and communication are difficult. So very often, words are either not enough, or they are too much. Yet it’s all we have, and we must just keep stumbling in the dark, hoping our words work well enough to keep us from unraveling at the seams.

1 Comment


  1. I sometimes wonder if in the pagan/polytheist community we need to pick apart the terms “priest” and “clergy” to allow us to differentiate between those whose service faces the powers and those whose service faces the community. Priest, in my ear, sounds more powers-focused, while clergy sounds more pastoral. They needn’t overlap, though they surely can, and differentiated language would be really helpful in communicating what roles we’re expecting people to fill. YMMV of course. :)

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