Welcome back to W’ab Wednesday

Note: this post contains opinion, not doctrine of any kind, and is intended as thought-provoking contemplation rather than instructional writing.

W’ab Wednesday is a series I started for writing about purity. To recap, in brief: I am a lay priest, or w’ab priest, in Kemetic Orthodoxy. In this context, the word w’ab translates to “pure”, “purity”, or “to be pure”. My job is to be a ritual technician, and a large portion of that means maintaining something called “ritual purity” — meaning, a state of spiritual and physical cleanliness in which the highest rituals may be performed.

Ritual purity isn’t a requirement for worship of the gods. Prayer and offerings made without ritual purity still count. So why bother?

To state the obvious — the gods don’t live where we do. They live in the Duat, while we live in the physical world. When we pray or make offerings, we are trying to communicate from one world into the next. The more ritually pure we are, the more effective our interactions with the gods and the Duat will be. Impurity — things like physical dirt, Unseen dirt, distractions, etc. — is the static that interferes with our communication.

This is partly why I believe so strongly in the concept of purity as a continuum. We will never have 100% effective communication to the Duat as living humans. The more we can shed the dirt of everyday living, the closer we can scoot to operating at full capacity (which will vary from person to person).

When doing State rituals, like the priests’ rite or certain holiday rituals, we want to be sure there is as little “static” as possible — hence the requirement for more purity. There is bigger heka here, so it’s easier for the static to get in the way. Informal offerings and casual candle-lightings are harder to mess up, so the purity requirement is much lower.

The more things change…

I am no longer serving as a w’ab priest in Kemetic Orthodoxy.

I made the decision to end my service after reflecting on the changes that are coming up for me in my secular life. My career is shifting, my academic pursuits are reaching culmination, my married life still needs my attention. (Let me make it clear, in case the following paragraphs do not: I have no bad feelings toward Kemetic Orthodoxy and the House of Netjer, nor am I withdrawing my membership. I remain a Shemsu-Ankh, as devoted as ever to the community and the gods.)

When I asked about serving as a priest, I felt like starting my service before these changes came up would allow me to integrate w’ab service into my life, so that when I got busy, I would already be used to prioritizing the gods. I never could have predicted that after one year of service, my father would become seriously injured and then ill, causing my brother to move into the room that housed my shrine. I never would have imagined that the ground floor of our house would be swept by flooding, displacing me and my family for months. I never dreamed I would be getting married, nor did I have any clue that getting married would be the overwhelming, over-saturating event that it would turn out to be. Now I am finishing my Masters degree, which requires three semesters of practical training and two comprehensive exams.

Finally, a challenge I expected.

Because I had the luxury of knowing what was coming, I took some time to think about whether this would become a roadblock to my service. And the answer was yes. Spending even more time away from home, with no less need for things like laundry, food, sleep, social interaction, etc. was going to cut into the time I could devote to actually doing the work of a priest — something I had already begun to feel too cramped to accommodate.

In fact, ever since coming back after the storm, I’ve felt disorganized and aimless in my priest work. I’ve been unmotivated. I’ve loved serving the gods, but something wasn’t right. It is my hope that if it is appropriate for me to return to serving as a priest, this time to serve and honor myself will help me find direction again. While I do feel a sense of loss having given up my service, I also feel excited at the opportunity to know my gods in a freer, less business-like setting. To explore myself and my relationship with Kemet again. To simply light candles and sit in Their presence and feel like it is enough. My life is changing dramatically in so many other arenas that I cannot imagine that my relationship with the gods would not change too.

Here’s to letting change change me.

Featured image is “Sage Advice” by Randy Heinitz, licensed under CC BY 2.0

W’ab Wednesday: Ritual purity or ridiculous purity?

AKA “Yes, Netjer wants you to wear deodorant.”

When I first became Kemetic, I was obsessed with ritual purity. I was dedicated to being as ritually pure in all things as possible. I was more than a little misguided. I read somewhere that the processed chemicals present in my body washes and shampoos were technically ritually impure. I ditched my cheap grocery store products and sprung for goat’s milk soap and all-natural shampoos and conditioners. I entirely changed my daily bathing routine and offered it to the gods. I felt wonderful; I felt as though I carried some kind of purity with me wherever I went. And in the event that I had to put something on my body that included something deemed ritually impure (read: synthetic or derived from a waste product), I waited until after all rituals were finished.

This unfortunately included deodorant.

Thanks to the magic of air conditioning and cold winter climate, I never had a problem going without deodorant in shrine. Senut isn’t a particularly lengthy ritual, and my shrine never got particularly hot. I found myself feeling not-so-fresh during a few online ritual simulcasts, but since those were attended at a distance, I didn’t mind. Then I went to the House of Netjer’s annual Wep Ronpet Retreat for the first time. In August. Where many rituals took place without air conditioning.

Let me just apologize now to anyone who sat next to me during those rituals.

Eventually I took up the priesthood as a full-time w’ab priest, which meant I spent more time in shrine, more frequently. I started working full time, and also enrolled in graduate school. The time I had to spend washing up for shrine, doing the rites, and then attending to my own physical self-care, became limited. I started to skip moisturizing because I couldn’t fit it into my routine. I ignored my skincare routines. Effectively, I was avoiding anything that I would have to postpone until after shrine, because my time and energy were more limited.

I started feeling stressed out and neglected, and I wondered whether the gods really cared if I put body lotion on in between finishing my purification in the shower, and starting Their rituals. It would keep my legs from itching, and being distracted by constant dry skin sounded like a detriment to purity to me. I tried it out. When the gods didn’t come screaming from Their shrines, I wondered out loud at Them whether They would mind if I fit my missing self-care in between purification and ritual. Their answer surprised me.

To summarize what They said: attending to oneself is a kind of purification too. It doesn’t do the gods any good if you walk around feeling crappy because you spent so much time in shrine that you didn’t get to pluck your eyebrows, or if your skin dries out and you spend so much time scratching your shins furiously that you start bleeding. Sometimes sacrifice is necessary. Sometimes, giving something up or making serious changes to our routine can bring us closer to the gods. And sometimes, it’s just a roadblock to doing real, important work. Or it makes us smelly and our neighbors uncomfortable.

The moral of the story is that the point of ritual purity is to avoid carrying unnecessary dirt and ickiness into the presence of the gods, both physically and metaphysically. Obsessing over ritual purity to the point where you start directly bringing these things into the presence of the gods is entirely counterproductive. Wash up before shrine, but don’t let it get in the way of living or being presentable for the ritual. Learn from my mistakes.

B is for Beautiful.

(Forgive me for the sort of semi-stream-of-consciousness ramble that this is — I have lots of complicated thoughts about beauty and purity and ma’at, and this is my best attempt at getting them out in a readable, coherent stream.)

When I think of ritual purity, I always think first of the beauty of ritual: the candlelight, the curls of incense in the air, the hushed illumination of the gods’ images.

Ma’at and purity aren’t always beautiful, though. Sometimes purity means getting your hands dirty to get them clean again. Sometimes ma’at means pain.

When my family home was flooded after Superstorm Sandy, we spent two weeks cleaning mud out of every room. The mud clung to everything. It was like a thick slime that coated the wood floors of our living room and dining room. It made it difficult to walk. It smelled. It left stains on our clothes that have never come out. I sacrificed a good pair of boots to that mud, wanting to keep it from finding its way between my toes. (It did anyway.) In spite of wearing gloves to keep the majority of the muck away from my skin, it found its way all over me. I would absent-mindedly brush hair out of my face, only to find I’d left swipes of mud all along my cheek.

Purification can be big. It can encompass numerous aspects of our lives. It is sometimes bigger than the preparations we make for ritual. Sometimes, when we do ritual in a state of purity for a long time, that purity begins to creep into our secular lives and slowly drag us into a greater state of balance. Sometimes that stings. We’re creatures of habit, us humans, and the process of realigning our priorities and our routines can be terrifying. In the process of cleaning up our lives, the “muck” sticks to us. We try to wash away the things that cause us grief, but they cling to us stubbornly; clinging to our toes despite our best attempts to keep them away. It’s not beautiful. It’s messy, and gross, and uncomfortable.

And yet: we do it anyway. Ma’at is not about being pretty all the time. Ma’at is about balance, action and reaction. Ma’at is about movement, the constant subtle shift of the scales in either direction. Ma’at is about conscious awareness of ourselves and the consequences of our actions. Whether we know it or not, we feel the subtle shifts in the scales we rest upon.

A is for Asking.

I thought I would embark on a series of meditations on ritual purity. I’m going to run through the alphabet and choose a prompt for each letter, and write up my thoughts on those prompts.

Ritual purity can be defined as the act of being clean and prepared enough to participate in or perform a particular ritual. The problem with this definition is that there is no clear boundary set for “clean and prepared enough”. What is clean enough? Is washing my hands enough? Do I need to wear certain clothes? Can they just be a fresh set of clothes, or should they be white? Can I participate if I’m menstruating, but have been ritually purified with natron and water? Can I participate if I have music playing in the background? Can I participate if my roommate is two seats over? (All questions I have myself asked, at one point in time.)

The biggest source of confusion with ritual purity is that different rituals have different requirements. A Kemetic Orthodox online simulcast worship service has totally different requirements from a w’ab priest’s state rite. The answer to the question “am I pure enough?” will have different answers in different contexts. This is where asking is useful.

When purity is a question, ask someone. Ask a priest, ask a fellow participant, ask the god you are honoring. In Kemetic Orthodoxy, w’ab priests can answer questions about formal, group ritual requirements. We can also help sort out what kind of purity you might want or need in your own personal practice, though no w’ab is an absolute expert outside of their own circumstances. If you’re doing something on your own, you can ask your god directly. The clearest way to do this is divination, but if you have a clear line of communication with your god you can just ask and listen for an answer.

Guessing is an option, but it doesn’t guarantee success. If you guess right, you don’t gain any understanding of why purity is necessary; if you guess wrong, you can offend the god, or introduce dirt and other unwanted ick into your rites. In my own experience, the gods prefer being asked. I have asked if I am pure enough for shrine on multiple occasions, and most of the time the answer has surprised me.

I think the only time you actually wouldn’t want to ask about purity is if you’re working directly with your god, and They’ve already given you the requirements. In that case, I don’t advise asking over and over again. 😉