[Essay] Theophany

For all my life, I have been spiritual. When I was twelve, even, I began training myself in spiritual arts. For five years I prepared myself for all manner of gods and spirits – but during those years, my belief in such entities was loose. I had felt brief brushes of deities against my skin. My theology was rough and vague. I had no reason to believe the gods were real and external from myself, nor did I particularly care. Either way, I thought, they brought into my life what I lacked: a guiding compass. So, for five years, I searched.

Until I was seventeen, and I met a god. I had been praying, a common practice to keep my mind occupied as I sat outside and watched the sunset. My prayers had little purpose other than to keep my lips busy and my mind at ease. I expected no divine visit or calamity.

That day, though, a god took hold of me, and he was no longer an idea or a concept. He was painfully, poignantly real.

Divine communication, even possession, is not uncommon in Paganism, though it is often taught face-to-face. I had no one then to help me understand as my eyes glossed over, as the world became painfully bright and technicolor. My body buzzed as I sat on the porch, evening light hitting the clouds and turning them gold and orange. My chest ached. It was as if I were on the brink of crying, as if I were on the edge of a spear and waiting to be pierced through the heart.

No matter how I had trained in those years for such an event, no matter how I had read or prayed, this god defied all preparation and expectation. The sun hit the clouds until they shone bright, and I had to look away from the beauty. All I gazed on as the god began to settle around me was full of beauty, though – inescapable beauty.

His presence – large, filling every molecule around me but unseen – came beside me, and though I cried and could barely breathe, I prayed. I prayed as I felt invisible feathers brush my skin. I prayed as I felt his huge claws. I could not see him as I could see the sky, but I saw with eyes I had not known I had. I saw his great beak and flaming wings, and he seemed a mountain far above me.

“Who are you?” I asked. “Who is the bird that fills the sky?”

A great rushing gale filled my ears. The sound of him stabbed into me, and through his glory I heard his name. Like ash after wildfire, it was soft, and my fear of him waned upon hearing it.

‘You have called to me, and I have come,’ he said.

My terror had quelled, but my chest was still tight. I could not look at anything without being overwhelmed, and I curled my body as I asked, “Why have you come?”

Again, the gale filled my ears.

‘I come with an offer,’ he declared.

“For what?” I asked, for then – as always – I have been too curious for my own good and not known when to be silent.

The too-hot air seared my skin again. The god said to me that I could know him, I could know his kin, I could know ecstasy – if only I were to take his hand.

I was silent then.

Years of studying, praying, and hoping, but now that a god was before me, I hesitated. I closed my eyes, hoping to be away from him, but his image only became stronger in the darkness.

This, I knew, would change my life.

Humans do not make deals with gods and spirits and remain unscathed.

The gale filled my mind again, rushing and sending my thoughts scattered until only one remained.

‘Will you accept me in?’

Only years later would I learn the significance of a request, not a demand. Only years later would I learn that my co-religionists had no choice, had no god wait for them but were instead shoved. How could I know then what such a question meant?

My studies were worthless when I was confronted with a real god.

I opened my eyes to him and held out my hand. “Yes,” I accepted.

He had been a fire on my skin, but as soon as I answered, he was a fire inside me. He began in my hands, turning them sharp-hot and itchy, leaping up my muscles until he struck my chest. All the pain and tightness in me shattered.

The world around me – the arching mountains in the distance, the pepper tree in front of our house, and the now pink-purple clouds – was now not overwhelmingly beautiful but overwhelmingly full of possibilities. For those brief minutes, I saw as the god saw. I felt this world as the god felt. I stood – unsure if it was myself or the god moving me – and my feet immediately ached.

I prayed, feeling the god leaping through my body still. May this be the right choice, I prayed. May I stay myself, I whispered.

‘You will always be yourself, little bird’, the god said, as if praying back to me.

As soon as he had come, he was away. His fires left my skin and my eyes turned to the sky. He was around me still, but fading fast, and I reached with aching fingers to hold onto him. The beauty and promise of the world around me, his glory and flames, were flowing away from me, leaving behind heavy limbs and opened eyes.

It has been four years since that day. I now know people call such an event: Divine Trauma. As if it were a wound inflicted upon us, as if the presence of a god is damaging. In a way, of course, it is. To feel and touch and know a god as real was challenging, both to my then-flimsy theology and to a wider culture that long stopped believing gods could speak to mortals. The trauma the gods grant, however, is akin to that of falling in love too fast and too far – beautiful, painful, and revolutionary to all it touches.

[written for a college class; prompt: Narrative Essay]

Thank you for reading. ‘of the Other People’ is a site dedicated to the Otherfaith, a modern polytheist religion. You can find more about us here and here. You can contact us here if you have any questions or would like to get involved.

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