W’ab Wednesday: In Defense of Ritual Purity

I’ve written about purity before. I think about purity a lot. I’m a w’ab priest — the word w’ab means pure, or purity. So, I’m a purity priest. I have been presented before my community as pure in the service of the gods. The purity thing is kind of my job, so I feel like it makes sense for me to think and write about it often.

Lately I’ve been poking my head out of my own community bubble. I made an auxiliary tumblr, which carries on the original name of this blog, and through that platform I’ve seen more of what independent Kemetics do with their practices. There’s some really awesome things happening for the gods. I’ve seen some truly beautiful altars, inspired rituals, powerful hekau — it’s good stuff. One thing I do notice is that purity is given far less importance. It’s fascinating, to me, to see how others conceptualize purity and preparedness for ritual. (When I say I think about this stuff a lot, I truly mean a lot.)

I will say this, as a disclaimer: when it comes to personal piety, I don’t know that ritual purity is always necessary. I’m not here to control what anyone does — even more so for those who are not within the community I serve. I can only speak to ritual purity in the context of Kemetic Orthodox state (or formal, standardized) rituals. Those are things like Senut, or the daily priest rite, or certain festival celebrations. Even further, I can only really provide insight into my own experiences, which take place in my own shrine, with my gods, in the particular manifestations They choose to reveal to me. In other words: it’s all context-specific.

That said, here is where I stand. I absolutely believe purity is necessary for state and formal rituals. I absolutely believe that purity is necessary in the presence of an open Icon of the gods. Furthermore: I absolutely believe purity can be helpful and have a positive impact on practicing personal piety.

In ritual contexts, being ritually pure puts you on something like an even playing field with the gods. The gods exist outside of the physical world. They are free from things like dirt, mud, sweat, or blood. They don’t deal with the daily frustration of commuting to work, having restful sleep interrupted by an alarm clock, or coming home to find a stack of bills in the mailbox. They aren’t bombarded by mindless advertisements, terrifying news reports, or anything else the media offers. They exist entirely outside of this paradigm.*

Purification takes all of those things away for a time. Even if I don’t physically feel different after a purification rite, I know I have been set apart from that mundane static. When ritually pure, I am meeting the gods closer to Their level, thereby strengthening our connection and my closeness to Them. In a state rite, that’s kind of the point; we come as close to the gods as we can. The benefit we get from Senut, for example, comes as much from our proximity to Them as it does our offerings and obsequies. In the case of personal piety (meaning any non-standardized, non-formal rite), it’s not a necessity, but the benefit of being closer to Their level still remains.

On the gods side: I think it makes Them a little more comfortable to deal with us when we’re coming from more common ground. It makes it easier for Them to get Their jobs done, because there’s less static getting in the way. They don’t have to use as much force to make Themselves known to us.

Some of the pushback against ritual purity comes from the idea that if you are struggling with a chronic condition, you sometimes can’t be pain-free, or anxiety-free, or dismiss the manifestation of your condition entirely. To some degree, being ritually pure requires one to be uninjured and able to focus on the rites at hand. However, purification gives us the opportunity to lessen the amount of physiological and psychological crud that we carry. It’s not something that will cure our anxiety or get rid of our chronic headaches, but I think that it lessens the amount that these things will get in the way when we try to connect with the gods — and it will lessen the amount that the gods notice the chronic conditions we carry with us as a result of living in imperfect bodies.

Ritual purity is often likened to physical cleanliness, and the motivation behind purification is likened to the need for physical cleanliness in the presence of those we respect. I’ve written about it that way before, and that will always be a part of why I think purification is important. It is worthwhile for more than just its face value, however.

And that’s my abbreviated defense of ritual purity. I cannot and I will not ever try to convince others to do things according to what I believe, but as a purity priest who has lots of thoughts about purity, I figured it couldn’t hurt to share.

* = I do believe the gods get annoyed, and frustrated, and have Their own distractions from what They are trying to accomplish. I just think it’s coming from a different place than all of our own frustrations and distractions. I also think the gods will take care of Their own business when They need to come be with us; though, I have had the experience of trying to sit in ritual with Them and being told “not now, We’re busy”. Take that as you will.

W’ab Wednesday: Purity, not Perfection.

However wonderful alliteration may be, it does not connect words any deeper than in sound. Purity is a state of cleanliness, and perfection is a state of being without flaw. Something that is clean may not be without flaws, and something flawless can be dirty. It’s true that sometimes “purity” can refer to a way of living, but most of the time it’s a transient state. We are impure, so we purify; then we are pure, and life renders us impure again. It’s a cycle, one that I’d say we all must go through in the course of our relationships with the gods.

Perfection is something else — something much less helpful. Perfection is the state of being without flaw, and usually that means long-term. Perfection is a constant state of being.  None of us is intrinsically perfect. We have quirks and problems that mark us as human. No matter how grave our flaws, we can still be pure. We can still clean ourselves up and go before the gods. It’s true, in shrine you can make all the right offerings, say all the right words, make all the right motions — but does that add up to perfection? Our shrines are messy sometimes. Our lives are discombobulated. Our thoughts are jumbled. We are not perfect.

Instead of agonizing over not being perfect, let’s strive to be pure in each moment. When I go to ritual next, I will be clean. I will be focused. I will offer what I have with my whole heart. When I kneel before my shrine, I will do so with love for my gods. If I should be distracted? I will refocus. I am human, and I am not perfect. But I can make myself pure for that moment.

W’ab Wednesday: Cleaning Up

So I’ve just moved into my own place for the first time. (Those of you who have been living like this for some time, feel free to read this with some feelings of superiority for having figured this stuff out already.) There’s a funny thing about living on one’s own: you have to clean everything by yourself.

Now, I’m not living entirely on my own; I moved in with my fiancé, who is thankfully adept at housework and generally maintaining a living space. And truthfully, I took keeping my own living space clean seriously when I lived with my family — so the adjustment was really only in the amount of space I have sole responsibility for. I’ve adopted a strict philosophy when cleaning: nothing good will come of trying to clean everything at once. The apartment must be cleaned in installments, one step at a time, with breaks now and then to prevent complete burnout. When I first adopted this approach, still living with my family, I found myself immediately more interested in cleaning. It became manageable first and then: fun.

Purity can be like that too. When I step back and think about all of the changes I want to make in my life, it feels overwhelming. I have old bad habits that die hard, like anyone. Changing them to make my life align more with what I believe to be “pure” is one of my goals – but doing it all at once would probably make me dissolve into a puddle of stress. Luckily, like cleaning my apartment, purifying my life doesn’t have to happen all at once. I can tackle my habits and problem areas one at a time, and eventually I will be living that balanced life I covet so much.

For example, now that I’ve tackled how to keep my apartment clean, my fiancé and I are working together to improve our physical health (eating better, being more active, things like that). After that? Something else will have popped up that needs my attention. Life does that; things that were fine one month can need attention the next. So I purify what I can, one thing at a time, and move on to the next one without making myself miserable.

A journey, a confession, a word of comfort.

Before I get to the meat of this post, I need to write a disclaimer: this post is in no way meant to be advice, counsel, or a suggestion for anyone’s practices. This is only my story, shared in support. I actually don’t recommend following my path, here. I chose it, and I know deeply how much it has helped me – but it is by far not going to be the best path for many. Please accept this post in the spirit of its writing: know that I have been there too, I still find that place sometimes, and I am standing with you.

[trigger warnings: self harm]

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The first time I wanted to do Senut, during my Beginners class, I was kicked out of shrine. My eagerness was met only with disappointment. The Jackal, even then the lord of my heart, folded His arms before me.

I told you the consequences, came His quiet reproach. My stomach ached with regret. I did know the consequences. I knew my agreement with Him. And yet, somehow I had hoped that the gods would be more lenient; maybe They would let it slide the first time, because it was supposed to be my first time.

I tried again, ending with disaster: I spilled the natron water all over my ritual script. I dropped the water bowl and shattered it in the shower. Company came by early, which put that day’s efforts to a complete end. All the while I felt Sekhmet shaking Her head gently.

Not now, not yet. You made a promise.

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Eleven years ago, I hurt myself for the first time, more out of curiosity than anything. There were an infinite number of reasons: I felt alone, I felt unwanted, I felt scared, like I could never succeed or be good enough — and on and on. By the time I found my gods (or They found me), I was feeling more stable, more healthy, and I desperately didn’t want to hurt myself anymore. But self-harm is hard to shake; it clings and nestles in the mind, directing thoughts and actions. So while I wanted to be well, I wasn’t, yet.

As my relationship with the gods of Kemet deepened, They began to gently nudge me about my habits. It hurt Them to see me hurting. When we had forged a strong and constant relationship, They offered me a challenge: if I hurt myself, They would consider me in the same state as though I were menstruating until any wounds healed. That was what They offered, to help me achieve my goal – and I accepted.

When I went to approach Senut for the first time, I had hurt myself the day before. They would not let me even try. It was not a punishment, just a fact. It is what They asked, and I freely accepted. I wanted Them to pat me on the back and let it slide. I wanted to be told, “We’ll let it go this time.” It didn’t happen. I learned that if I wanted to serve my gods, I needed to take care of myself.

It is never about shunning me, or putting me down for what I’ve done. It is an agreement, as clinical as a legal contract: If x, then y. It is Their intervention, Their method of teaching me a better way. As I’m typing this, it sounds harsh, and I wish I could find a way to make it sound less so. Believe me when I say, it never felt harsh. They never turn me away or fall silent for my mistakes; often They are most present in these moments. Even now, when I forget myself and reach for old habits, the rules have not changed.

And I do forget myself, and I do slip back into old cycles. I am human, and I have learned a behavior that is, unfortunately, very effective — and so I turn back to it, now and then. I have skills in place to help me choose better ways to cope with the things that would have broken me in the past, but even so: I still feel those urges, still feel the nagging at my heels that says, “this is easier.”

And then I struggle with myself, because I am a priest, and this affects more than just my purity. It affects my work, it affects my responsibilities. It is a part of what I need to consider in my personal purity assessment, before I do any rite requiring purity.

Under no circumstances is my approach appropriate for everyone. I have been actively working to break these habits for years, and abstaining from formal ritual was Their practical solution. I firmly believe, and repeat often, that purity is between you and your gods. Care for yourself however makes the most sense. Connecting with the gods is foremost how so many of us find grounding and healing when we are feeling fractured and worn, myself included. Never deny yourself the company of the gods simply because you are hurting. If that means handling purity differently than I do, good. No one else can dictate what you do in your personal shrine unless you want them to.

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Why am I writing this now? Today is Self Injury Awareness Day. I know there are other Kemetics who struggle with the same urges. Self-harm is a unique purity issue for me, and I’m sure there are other Kemetics who feel uncomfortable or impure dealing with this themselves. I am a priest in my community; I know there are people who read my blog and look up to it. I need the community to know that it is okay to struggle, that the gods will not abandon you for hurting yourself, that you can feel hurt and impure and yet zep tepi will come, the wounds will heal, and so will you.

We are given the opportunity, every dawn, to recreate ourselves. Every dawn is a new universe. If you are actively working to stop hurting yourself, remember this: that from the beginning of this creation, from the moment today’s new world came into being, you have not hurt yourself. You are made, today, as someone who has not hurt themselves at all. I find so much power in this, and I hope you can too.

Kemetic Roundtable: Ritual Purity.

This is a contribution to the Kemetic Round Table’s discussion on Ritual Purity. For more information on this new project, go here!

As a Kemetic Orthodox priest of purity (a W’ab priest), it would be easy for some to assume that since I work with purifications and purity, I therefore have an objective scale of what is pure and what is not. I want to clearly dispel that notion from the beginning: I’m not an expert in anything at all. The truth is, in my experience, purity is not cut and dry. It isn’t something that can be measured, like weight or height, nor is it binary. Purity is dependent on individual circumstances, and exists on scale of “greater” vs. “lesser”, rather than “yes” vs. “no”.

In my practice, a person is ritually pure if they have undergone ritual purifications. Some purifications are more rigorous than others. There are specific purifications for the priest’s Daily Rite, and there are specific purifications for Senut. I wouldn’t use one for the other; one is not quite clean enough, and the other is overkill. There’s also personal purification rituals – anything I do to feel spiritually, psychologically, or emotionally “cleaner”.

In all of this, I try not to seek absolutes. To use the word pure in an absolute sense carries the baggage of perfection, I find. If I am pure in an absolute sense, I am at my total best mentally and physically. Rarely is that the truth. More often than not I find my way to shrine, tired from a day of work or worn down emotionally from the tides of life, aching in my limbs or back. Sometimes it is too much, and I step back, acknowledging that my presence in shrine would not be complete. Most times, however, I wash away the day’s events with prayers, natron water, and some calming breaths, and I go to shrine to love and serve the gods.

It is a personal continuum – a constant effort to be cleaner, purer – but not a losing battle for perfection.