Though you may or may not agree with or understand Edward’s view-and-relation of his experience, this is a compelling story nonetheless. Knowing others comes through listening to their experiences. Knowing the world comes through the same.
Talk of Hammers and Crosses
This is a tale about a hammer, and what that hammer represents to me. This is a story of gods and of men. It starts with a man named Jesus, who was born in a town called Nazareth and nailed to a cross. Not by the same hammer as before, but by one made from roman iron.
Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church I was familiar with Christ’s crucifixion. Every Sunday morning, I would analyze the look of agony on his face as he hung above the alter, and muse over the red paint that ran from his palms, feet, and from a cut on one of his ribs. He was bare, clad in a small bit of cloth around the waist, open to the eyes of the masses like a zoo animal.
And no matter what church I went to, his face was always the same: upturned with his mouth open in pain, with eyes that never met mine.
In Sunday school I was lectured about divinity and the powers of God and his son. I was told about miracles that come about from belief; Men can walk on water, or rise from the dead, a trumpets’ horn can bring down the walls of a fortress, and a mother could rise body and soul into the afterlife.
I was told repeatedly. “God has a plan for you. He knows everything that will ever happen to you, and he designed a plan uniquely for you.”
“He knows how you will live, and he knows how you will die.”
For a while I zealously believed in God’s plan for me. I wore a cross, said my prayers before bed, learned the rosary, and I even tried to teach myself the Nicene Creed in Latin. The Roman Catholic Church provided an escape and a sanctuary during both middle school and the earliest years of high school. It served as a hideaway from the drama, anxiety, and hormonal pandemonium.
The steps where always easy to remember; sign the cross, kneel, stand, rise again, and sign the cross, kneel and pray again.
For a while I considered joining the priesthood.
So, when I say that the death of my grandfather split me to my core, I mean it made my stomach churn at the sight of a cross. Grandad was a minister and a preacher during my early childhood, and even when he stopped preaching, he was a holy man. You could walk into a room and feel his intense spirituality. When he spoke, you listened. And when he prayed you knew that there was power in his words.
I wanted to be like him, I wanted his strength of belief, and that love for other people that his ministry gave him. I wanted his confidence in God.
I was with him in the end alongside my family. I remember the way his heartbeat monitor chirped every so often, that horrible monotone “beep, beep, beep” I hated the way he breathed; his oxygen mask caught every exhale and inhale, and enhanced each one until they were a monotone gurgle.
Grandad was coherent. However, he could not move, or speak. A machine kept him alive, and painkillers kept him sedated. All we could do was wait for his brain to suffocate.
I held his hand in that little white hospital room and prayed as his pulse twitched and spasmed. I prayed the Lord`s Prayer and the Hail Mary until my voice caught in my throat.
I had begun to choke on anger.
For the first time in my life I was angry at God. My father would later say that “no one could have planned or prevented this.” but according to my childhood sermons that was a half-truth. If they were true then God knew how my grandad was going to die and he knew when and where. He knew that my grandfather’s’ heart would stop beating in his bathroom as he washed his hands after tending to his roses.
God knew that Grandad’s triple bypass surgery nine years ago was not going to do a damn thing to prevent it. Yet he allowed that scalpel to unzip my grandfather’s chest.
I found myself praying to Odin, King of the Norse Gods, and one of the gods of the afterlife.
“Take him painlessly.” I pleaded “He`s is a great man, one of my role models.”
While praying to Odin I felt as if I was having a direct conversation with him. I could feel an intimate exchange of emotion, an understanding that said even though nothing could be done for my grandfather I was not alone, my pain was being felt.
Looking back, I don’t know what spurred me to do so. I’m familiar with Viking mythology, it is something that I have studied for as long as I can remember being able to read. But I never considered the idea of worshipping the Aesir and Vanir Gods as non-fictitious beings until after Grandad`s passing.
After his death I turned away from God, Christ, and the Church. I destroyed, sold, or tucked away most Christian memorabilia in my room. I destroyed paintings, sold my bible, and broke a glass angel.
“I refuse.” I told myself “I refuse to idolize and pay homage to a deity that planned such a fate for grandad, who designed for his death to be so gruesome. Why should I recognize a deity, who made my Nanny sob into a pillow as the love of her life faded away into oblivion?”
Today modern paganism feels right to me. In contemporary Norse Mythology gods are described as beings who are living among us, almost like big brothers to humanity. The gods have wants, needs, fears and failures. And they play an active part in the activities of the world.
This expression of the divine, this level of humanization, was something that I found lacking in Christianity. Sunday school taught me that God was this supreme and iron will, and that you came to him on bended knee. In Asatru, in Heathenry, and Neo paganism you don’t have to kneel. Its permitted, but not insisted upon. Instead you lift your head high when you are speaking to your gods.
Yes, there are offerings and devotionals given to the Aesir and Vanir, but they are gods, that is what is expected. What is most important is the relationship between yourself and the deities. It is not about modeling your life after theirs, it is about accepting the existence of the gods and being a part of their lives as much as they are a part of yours.
After Grandad`s death I missed feeling spiritually connected to something, I surgically removed myself from the emotional fraternity of Catholicism and realized that I was removing the very warmth Grandad had, and that I was aspiring to hold. By cutting myself off from Christianity I emptied a part of myself that I never recognized as being filled.
Belief in the Old Gods filled that void. I have a much easier time feeling the brotherhood and energy of Neo-paganism than I ever did at a Catholic mass. The Pagan Community is full of love, respect and comradery. It doesn’t feel like a race for attention as congregated prayer does to me now.
In Heathenry a hammer is the equivalent of the Christian cross. It represents Mjolnir, the weapon of Thor, and it is commonly worn around the neck of a practitioner to ensure safety and to symbolize your brotherhood with the Gods. I have yet to buy a hammer necklace, though I do plan to acquire one in the future. And I plan to wear it with pride as a heathen.
I doubt that I will return to the Catholic Church. I acknowledge the lessons it taught me and the morals and good character it instilled. But I am still so angry.
I am angry about the death of my grandfather, a man who I childishly regarded as immortal and unchanging. I am angry that he died in the manner he did, that in return for his life of compassion, faith, and honest ministry his “thank you” was to be unable to move, unable to breathe without a machine, unable to stand up, eat, or use the bathroom. To be crippled for the last nineteen hours of his life, as his heart slowly killed itself and suffocated his brain.
I do keep a rosary, a gift from when I was confirmed. I take it out occasionally to run my fingers across the amber beads and delicate silver knotwork of its Scottish cross.
But I do not pray.
I hold it and I talk to Grandad, keep him up to date on the weather, family drama, Nanny`s latest piece of juicy gossip, or my Dads ever increasing work schedule. Neopaganism teaches that our ancestors and family walk with us, that they remain as positive influences in our future. I believe today that Grandad walks with me, that he holds my hand when I am struggling. To me he will always be that empathic old man with an infectious smile and laugh. I believe he made it into Heaven, and for the life he lived I hope he enjoys its every luxury.
I cannot walk with him beside Christ anymore.
But that is not his fault.
Edward Bishop is a passionate collector of glass tankards and is a self-taught master of skills that were last used over 500 years ago. A Maryland native, Edward enjoys laying in hammocks, thrift shopping, and writing pieces of fiction.