The Nature of Sacrifice
Article ID: 6407
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,806
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Author: RuneWolf [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: July 6th. 2003
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I went to one of my favorite oracles - www.dictionary.com - to do a little prep work for this essay. I was aghast at some of the words contained in the entries for "sacrifice:"
Wow! Talk about your heavy negative energy! And yet, amongst all these harsher terms, I found: "The offering of anything to [the Gods],...consecratory rite." Ah, there we go! Much more to my liking.
As it is for so many of us of "my generation" in the Pagan community, my earliest exposure to the concept of sacrifice was the story of a nice guy who got himself nailed to a post for teaching people to love each other. (Personally, I think this sent the wrong message to my young brain: If you treat people with love, you will get nailed to a post.) We were told that this was His "sacrifice," to ensure that the rest of us could go to heaven. In turn, we were encouraged to emulate that sacrifice, so that we would be absolutely sure of going to heaven, just in case His original sacrifice was not sufficient. So right out of the gate, my earliest associations with the whole concept of sacrifice involved pain, suffering, death and a host of other equally unpleasant things.
Add to that cultural programming:
- Vic Morrow in "Combat!" looking at the soldier who had just thrown himself on a hand grenade and saying "Joey sacrificed himself for us." And is it any wonder that, to this day, when someone suggests that we "may have to make certain sacrifices," I recoil in horror?
- Or Mom wailing "Look how I sacrifice for you, and THIS is how you behave!"
It wasn't until decades after "Combat!" went off the air that I was introduced to the "other" meaning of sacrifice, the one that has come to be the most important and most relevant in my life, i.e. to make something sacred. My concept of sacrifice changed from "self-inflicted punishment" to "gift given willingly," and it is in this sense that I use the word today, except in those instances when I fall back into modern idiom and find myself telling my wife that I am not happy about having to sacrifice the health of my lower back because she can't buy anything in less than 55-gallon drums anymore...
But I digress.
One could say that, as a Witch, I strive to live a life of continual sacrifice. That is to say, I strive to make every moment of my life, every thought, word and deed, sacred. That doesn't mean that I seek to live in some "aery-faery" wonderland where everything is perfect - including me - and there is never any pain, suffering, inconvenience or conflict. Rather it means, to me at least, recognizing the inherent sacredness of life - of my life - and being aware that all of life is a gift, including those things that we would really rather not face, deal with, endure or suffer.
Yes, it is difficult to find the sacredness in the death of a loved one, or a terminal disease, or the loss of a job, or a blown head gasket or what have you. But it is there, nonetheless. I have, on occasion, touched it. One of the most painful and at the same time most sacred periods of my life was earlier this year during the process of my father's death. With all the concomitant physical, emotional and spiritual pain that my family and I endured, not least of us my father, I nonetheless was present during moments of deep love, true compassion and rich appreciation. For myself, I came to the realization during that time that the tenets of my religion as regards life, death and rebirth were no longer mere intellectual abstractions or beliefs, but had become actual experiential knowledge, true and unshakable convictions shining at the core of my spirit. I believe I could have come to this by no other path than the one I was obligated to follow during that process.
I did my best to make that time sacred, for my father, my family and myself. To make it, if you will, a sacrifice.
It is in this spirit, if not to this degree, that I try to live each day, to consecrate each day, to make each day a sacrifice to my Gods. For although each thing, each moment is in itself sacred, my awareness of things as innately sacred is not nearly so constant and ubiquitous. My perception of the sacrificial nature of my immediate reality is not something that "just happens;" rather it is a condition I must cultivate and nurture. Although every moment is innately sacred, I still must become aware of it as such. Because I am able to "effect change in accordance with" my will, or my perception, if I perceive a painful or frustrating moment as just another pain-in-the-butt, then that is all it is. If, however, I can acknowledge and accept that pain and frustration, and still perceive the sacredness of that unique moment, then it in truth becomes sacred for me.
I would be lying if I said that, unequivocally, "every breath is a prayer," and yet that is the attitude that I strive for. Every breath is a prayer, every movement a dance, every moment sacred; a sacrifice, a "making sacred." I fall short of that ideal constantly, but I keep it before my mind's eye, my spirit's eye, where such ideals should be. "Progress, not perfection," as is said elsewhere.
Many of us are raised with the notion that the process of sacrifice must be a painful one, owing I think to the story of the nice guy and the nails. In my understanding of sacrifice today, this is not necessarily true. In fact, as I have pointed out, the concept of sacrifice can be used to turn something painful into something worthwhile. I have found that, when faced with an uncomfortable situation and/or feeling, I can make a sacrifice of that situation or feeling, to offer it up to my Gods, in order to make it bearable in the manifest universe. This, I believe, is the process that many people in recovery are referring to when they talk about "turning over" something to their Higher Power. We are quite capable of enduring something difficult, but it becomes easier somehow when we make a gift of our effort to Deity.
But then, doesn't the whole notion of sacrifice as a gift to the Gods become somewhat threadbare if every single day-to-day thought, word and action is a sacrifice? Or if our only "gifts" are those situations and feelings too unpleasant for us to tolerate any other way?
In a word, yes. Or, more to the point, it would, if we did not bring the practice full-circle. I used the example of recovering people "turning over" the "bad" things in their lives. We seldom hear about someone turning over a joyous event. But when we do, our understanding deepens, for we see that, in the eyes of our Gods, all things that we experience are sacred, the "good" and the "bad," and that all are worthy sacrifices to Them. We just have to remember and practice that. In recovery or therapy, it is important to talk about the tough times in life, but it is equally important to talk about the good times. Similarly, it is helpful to offer up the trials and tribulations in our life to our Deities, but it is also important to share with Them the gifts they have given us, and the gratitude we have for those.
One should not conclude from all this that I have done away entirely with the notion of "ritual sacrifice." Oh contraire. There is another dimension to sacrifice entirely, which is a discipline in its own right. Making a sacrifice of our daily lives, of our moment-to-moment existence, to make sacred our triumphs and our tragedies is all well and good, but it is not in any sense complete or balanced. I believe we still need - at least I do - to practice ritual sacrifice, by which I mean a sacrifice that is done at a special time, with a special offering. This is the "classic" sacrifice, if you will: offering up to the Gods, for Their exclusive use and/or enjoyment, something of value that we have acquired or created especially for Them. This is where the "give 'til it hurts" school of sacrifice comes into play. This is where we cast that antique amber necklace into the bog, burn the only copy of the poem we wrote to the Goddess, decant that bottle of Dom Perignon into the sea, or other such wonderful extravagances, at once painful and ecstatic.
How much is the Goddess really worth to me? What is the price-limit on a gift for the God? Wouldn't the Gods be more pleased if I wore that necklace, published that poem, or added the "personal touch" by straining that champagne through my kidneys first?
This kind of thinking can lead to unpleasant and unproductive places, a few of which I have personally visited:
- Buying two trinkets, and giving the slightly flawed one to the Gods.
- Believing that the more expensive the sacrifice, the more pleased the Gods will be.
- Believing that the less expensive the sacrifice, the less pleased the Gods will be.
- Sacrificial keeping-up-with-the-Joneses: "But dear, the Joneses sacrificed a Lexus last Beltaine..."
And other such lunacy.
Fortunately, we are for the most part spared this sort of thing. Someone once told us "Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice..." So, bottom line, nothing is demanded of us. We are free to give whatever we want and are able to. If it is true anywhere, it is certainly true here: it is the thought that counts. Would my Goddess love a beautiful necklace, a one-of-a-kind poem, or a rare bottle of wine? Of course She would. Does She demand it? Of course She doesn't. When I give Her gifts, when I make sacrifices to Her to this extent, I do it because I want to, because it is a heartfelt expression of my love for Her and my gratitude for all She has given me. There is no other reason to sacrifice, and nothing beyond that selfsame love and gratitude is needed as a sacrifice. If I made sacrifice to Her because it was demanded, because I feared some retribution or penalty if I did not, how sincere, how precious would that sacrifice be? Whatever I give to Her now, whether it is a string of black pearls or a string of Mardi Gras beads, if I give it sincerely, with love and gratitude, it is always enough, and never too much.
My life is my Lady's gift to me, and my gift, in return, to Her. Each morning I re-consecrate my life to Her service, and then live that day the best that I can. Throughout each day I pause frequently and remind myself that each moment flows from Her, that "we all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return," that everything begins and ends in Her. Those moments, for the most part, are not filled with pomp and circumstance or high ritual, mysterious lights or Otherwordly choruses, apparitions or manifestations.
But they are always filled with Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.
In Their Service,
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