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With my diversity of religious interests, obviously I'm not an atheist. However, I do believe that it's a valid path. If I didn't have experience with deities, I probably wouldn't believe in them either; and I certainly don't worship any of the ones I consider to be obnoxious. I also understand that people can be virtuous in their own right without needing divine directives to do it.

This poem belongs to my series Path of the Paladins, which is all about faith and devotion. Except it happens to be in a world that is really, really messed up and the gods are substantially responsible for that. So what's it like for someone to turn his back on the very active gods in that setting, and manage his own morality?


Ari and the Atheist
by Elizabeth Barrette


In the village square there stood a bread-cart.
It was the sort of thing that some priests provided
to feed those who might otherwise go hungry,
so the food was always cheap,
or free if you couldn't afford anything.

Ari headed for it at once, hoping to get
a pair of rolls for her and Shahana.
Yet the fading paint on the cart was plain,
no god-sign marked anywhere that she could see.
"Who do I have to thank for this bounty?"
she asked as she selected her bread.

"Just me," said the man with a gap-toothed grin.
"I'm an atheist, girl.
You won't find any god-sign on my cart."

"But how can you not believe in the gods
when they move through the world so much?"
Ari asked. "It's obvious that they exist."

"Oh, I know they're real enough,"
the atheist said. "I ain't blind.
I just happen to think they're all a bunch of dumbasses
and I refuse to worship any of them.
I mean, look at the mess they've made of this world."

"Well," Ari said faintly,
"I suppose it's hard to argue with that."

"Anyhow, I figure if I want to have
a world worth living in, I'd best fix it myself,"
the atheist said.

So Ari gave him a coin for the two rolls
and said, "Thank you for this bounty,"
and if it was decidedly odd to say that
to a mortal man instead of a deity,
Ari kept that part to herself.

When Ari returned with their lunch,
Shahana asked who was to thank for it,
and the girl replied, "That man over there.
He's an atheist. But he makes very good bread,
and he's determined to fix the world himself."

"Well," the paladin said as she accepted her roll,
"he's doing better than some zealots I could name."

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When discussing religion, for the sake of completion, one should consider atheism among the traditions. It can be a personal path but it also has a wider culture of its own, shared tenets of belief. That does include positive beliefs, chiefly to do with human morality and the value of rational thought, not just the negative statement that there is no deity.

Atheists write poetry too. They can be snarky about slaying the sacred cows. But they can also reveal the lyric beauty of the human mind, the courage of being mortal in a worldview that does not encompass eternal life or any special divine purpose. It is enough to be human. That's special on its own. We can be marvelous, moral creatures without need for an outside source of it.


Untitled (God Died)
by Bill Barnes, an ex-Christian


God died today in the heart of another man.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
And in this soil a seed is planted.

God died today in the mind of another woman.
The black dirt, the moist earth,
From this new garden, wisdom grows.

I was always taught that God died that I might live.
I never realized how true this was.
His death nourishes the seeds of wisdom, happiness, and freedom.

This is a eulogy, a benediction.
I am saddened by my loss,
But know a better life is ahead of me.

Love and hate marked this relationship.
I loved this mythical invisible father.
I hated the crotchety old judge.

Like the child of an alcoholic,
Or a battered wife, who still loves her husband,
I am glad he’s gone, but I still miss him.

The new garden I have has wonderful plants,
But I still have to pull weeds of doubt and guilt,
It’s my responsibility now.

As a child must grow and leave the safety of home,
I have grown and left the eternal security of heaven.
I have outgrown my god, and laid him to rest.
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Given my reverence for nature, Native American spirituality is a good fit for me, and you can see a lot of that in my writing. The poem below originally appeared in PagaNet News. It draws on two instruments used for sacred music, the rattle and the flute, along with other motifs.


Shaman Song
by Elizabeth Barrette


Toward me the twilight comes rustling, rustling,
A vast black blanket beaded with stars:
Tall as the sky, the night approaches
With a rattle in each hand
susurrus, susurrus
Making everything sacred as it comes.

Ant-stones chatter in a Turtle shell,
Dry beans tumble in a gourd
susurrus, susurrus
Bringing dreams and visions.

Towards me the morning comes
Clear air like a flute's cry
we who, we who
The shaman darkness seeks its rest,
The rattles fall still
But I remember:
susurrus, susurrus, susurrus...
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Native American religion is diverse in detail but unified in its underlying reverence for the natural world. Each tribe has its own cosmology, beliefs, and practices. These tend to form around the specific plants, animals, and geographic features important in their home territory. Humanity is seen as a part of nature, not as having dominion over it.

Poetry from these traditions reflects that perspective, even when translated into English. Most of it evokes images of sky and earth, spirit and animal. Here's an example from the Sioux.


A Sioux Prayer
Translated by Chief Yellow Lark - 1887


Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds
Whose breath gives life to the world, hear me
I come to you as one of your many children
I am small and weak
I need your strength and wisdom

May I walk in beauty
Make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
And my ears sharp to your voice.
Make me wise so that I may know the things you have taught your children.

The lessons you have written in every leaf and rock
Make me strong!
Not to be superior to my brothers, but to fight my greatest enemy ... myself

Make me ever ready to come to you with straight eyes,
So that when life fades as the fading sunset,
May my spirit come to you without shame.
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I find Buddhism interesting, though it's not a path I follow personally. I've written a fair bit of poetry that touches on similar motifs, especially haiku. Most Buddhist poetry tends to focus on enlightenment. But there's a shadow side to the system that reveals what goes on in the unenlightened mind. Dukkha is the concept of suffering from wrong choices or thoughts, and how the harm caused to another can also complicate one's own life. So for contrast I picked a poem along this angle.


The Dukkha Path
by Elizabeth Barrette


Dread like a blast of sleet-toothed wind,
Hatred like a lake of boiling lead,
Resentment like a field of deep green nettles,
Frustration like a wall of fist-dented bricks,
Anger like a forest of pines on fire,
Sorrow like a riverbed parched to mud,
Disappointment like a mist of receding mirages,
Regret like a yard of bleached white bones,
Exhaustion like a bog without a bottom,
All laid out under a sullen sky --

These places where you have led me
Now lie before you,
Placed in your path by the actions of your own hand.
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Buddhism is an Eastern faith. It emphasizes nonviolence and the search for enlightenment. Some branches also have a tradition of "crazy wisdom," leading to things like the Zen koans. There is also a strong philosophical component.

Linji was a Chinese poet and spiritual teacher. He founded his own school of Buddhism. He used surprise to startle people into moments of enlightenment.


"If you want to be free"
by Linji

If you want to be free,
Get to know your real self.
It has no form, no appearance,
No root, no basis, no abode,
But is lively and buoyant.
It responds with versatile facility,
But its function cannot be located.
Therefore when you look for it,
You become further from it;
When you seek it,
You turn away from it all the more.
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Hinduism meshes pretty well with Paganism, both being polytheistic systems. There are some of the deities I really like. I've written a handful of Hindu-flavored poems over the years. This one features a festival, Divali; and the masnavi form.


The Festival of Lights
– a masnavi
by Elizabeth Barrette


On Danteras, Hindus shop for gold
To praise Lakshmi and her wealth untold.

Choti Divali is small and sweet;
Rice powder draws the goddess’s feet.

Lakshmi-Puja is the moon-dark night,
Welcoming Lakshmi with candle light.

For Annakoot, one hundred and eight
Types of food are laid on Krishna’s plate.

On Bhai Duj, each sister makes her mark,
Keeping her brothers safe from the dark.
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Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with strong mystical and philosophical components. It has been ranked as the world's third largest tradition. It is among the oldest organized religions. Some branches of this faith advocate nonviolence, and vegetarianism is common though not universal. A belief in reincarnation underlies many of the practices.

Akka Mahadevi lived during the 12th century. She was a devotee of Shiva, the god of destruction and rebirth. Her poems often express self-discovery and exalt spiritual over material experiences.


When I didn't know myself
by Akka Mahadevi

English version by
A. K. Ramanujan

Original Language
Kannada


When I didn't know myself
where were you?

Like the colour in the gold,
you were in me.

I saw in you,
lord white as jasmine,
the paradox of your being
in me
without showing a limb.
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Judaism isn't a tradition that I write about frequently, but it pops up from time to time in my poetry and fiction. This particular piece came out of a poetry fishbowl in which the prompter wanted something about Jewish ancestry and immigration.


These Jews, Like Sand


In the word of my ancestors, handed down to me,
In the way of my forbears, brought to this shore,
I find wisdom and endurance in times that seem hard.

We were Jews when the world was new.
We will be Jews when the world is broken and made anew.
We move as grains of sand upon the wind, and like the sand endure.

An emigrant grieves for the lost homeland,
But an immigrant rejoices in the promised land.
O my grandfathers, O my grandmothers,
I will remember that these two things are equal truths.

The bravery of a man is steadfast, strengthening the spine:
It draws on the bones of Abraham behind me.
The confidence of a woman is eternal, encouraging the heart:
It draws on the wisdom of Ruth behind me.
O my G-d, lead me always to see the way
That has been passed unto me in my turn,
That I in my time may leave landmarks in good trust
For the keeping of those to come after me.
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Judaism is among the older world traditions. It has a few different branches, particularly between orthodox and modern sects. There's a vivid streak of scholarship and debate here, which is not so common in religion. The religion has survived despite a widespread tendency toward anti-Semitism in much of the world.

Jewish poetry tends to emphasize identity and experience. Poems often explore what it means to be Jewish and how that affects a person's life. There are also poems about God and other aspects of sacred awareness.

Isaac Rosenberg was known both as a Jewish poet and a war poet, although he wrote on many other topics as well. His poems draw from a well of personal experiences, blending introspection with gritty realism. He was killed in action at age 27, leaving much undone.


The Jew
by Isaac Rosenberg


Moses, from whose loins I sprung,
Lit by a lamp in his blood
Ten immutable rules, a moon
For mutable lampless men.

The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?
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While Christianity is not one of the religions I personally follow, there are parts of it that I do like, and I have studied a fair bit of its history. I think Jesus is a pretty interesting personage and his actual teachings are a lot closer to my own ideals than most church doctrine of today. Plus of course I just like mystic poetry in general, so some of mine overlaps into this tradition. In fact it popped up as a surprise theme in one of my poetry fishbowls when I got a cluster of poems with mystic Christian motifs.

There are little hints in the Bible and other Christian lore that God isn't just for humans. God pays attention to the whole world, every bit of it, all the time.  What I like about Jesus is that he's been through so  much and can empathize with anything.  So I wound up writing this poem about Jesus interacting with a different audience.


His footprints
by Elizabeth Barrette


when Jesus walked on water,
it was never about the apostles
or the boat or the fish or the storms

it was always and only about the water,
about the Sea of Galilee itself,
about Jesus going down into the cupped hands
of the Earth to bless what was held there
as it had been made by His Father.

it was the waves who heard His sermon
as He whispered it to them while he walked,
explaining why the waters of the world
needed to be patient
with the sons of Adam
and the daughters of Eve,
that there would be a time for all lessons,
and that the waters were loved
no less than the men and the sparrows.

so the Sea of Galilee gave over
its tempest and the boatload of quivering apostles,
allowing Him to pull Peter to safety
and soothe their nervous fellows as they rowed away

and it thought,
as it carried them toward the distant shore
with its careful currents,
about what He had said to it:

that it is the slow and gentle strength of water
which makes its way through the hardest stone,
and so only patience and faith
can open a way through the soul.

these were the thoughts of the sea
as it watched the miracle unroll for its witnessing
and these are the thoughts that have remained
with it and within it down the long flow of years
ever since -- and it is quite certain,
as it lies dreaming under the pale round moon,
that it has not yet finished discovering
all that He said in that sermon.

even today, the Sea of Galilee remembers
the tender press of His warm bare feet
upon its trembling surface
as He carried the weight of the world
balanced on his slim brown shoulders

and it waits,
sighing as its waves finger the sand,
for His return.

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Christianity is one of the world's biggest religions, comprising many denominations such as Catholic, Protestant, and Episcopalian. Although all the branches share the same ultimate background, they differ greatly on tenets of belief and practices. Thus the tone of contemporary churches also varies a lot. They generally base their faith on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible.

Christian poetry is likewise extremely diverse, but there are some popular topics. One focuses on the poet's relationship with Jesus. Another admires the world as God's creation. Then there are some lovely liturgical poems focused on particular virtues or occasions. The Bible itself is written in "verses" and if you look at some sections you can see poetic devices such as repetition and allegory.

William Cullen Bryant was a Christian poet. His works enjoyed wide popularity in his lifetime, but have faded from cultural awareness since then. He wrote with equal appreciation of the human spirit and the beauty of nature, seeing God reflected in all these things. Below is an excerpt and a link to one of his poems.


A Forest Hymn
by William Cullen Bryant


The groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned 
To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave, 
And spread the roof above them,---ere he framed 
The lofty vault, to gather and roll back 
The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood, 
Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down, 
And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks 
And supplication. For his simple heart 
Might not resist the sacred influences, 
Which, from the stilly twilight of the place, 
And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven 
Mingled their mossy boughs, and from the sound 
Of the invisible breath that swayed at once 
All their green tops, stole over him, and bowed 
His spirit with the thought of boundless power 
And inaccessible majesty. Ah, why 
Should we, in the world's riper years, neglect 
God's ancient sanctuaries, and adore 
Only among the crowd, and under roofs, 
That our frail hands have raised? Let me, at least, 
Here, in the shadow of this aged wood, 
Offer one hymn---thrice happy, if it find 
Acceptance in His ear. 

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As you can see in the previous post, Rumi is one of my favorite poets. His ecstatic awareness tends to color my desert poetry. I have a fantasy setting, the Whispering Sands desert, that uses some Middle Eastern motifs. The poetry for that setting has a very Sufi flavor, although the underlying cosmology isn't all the same. This poem originally appeared in Emerging Visions.


A Love Like That
by Elizabeth Barrette


The rain falls on thirsty ground,
And the clouds do not ask for their water back.

The shadow stretches across the sand,
And the grove does not ask for its shade back.

The tide climbs up the empty beach,
And the sea does not ask for its salt back.

The wind roves over the open dunes,
And the air does not ask for its breath back.

The stars shine in the endless sky,
And the night does not ask for its light back.

The sand pours through the glass,
And the day does not ask for its hours back.

Imagine a love like that, and you will begin
To understand how God thinks of you.

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Sufism is a mystic branch of Islam. It focuses on surrender to the divine and on ecstatic awareness of the numinous layers of reality. You can see right away how that lends itself to great poetry, and indeed, this tradition has produced a lot of famous poets and beautiful poems. It also has wonders in dancing, music, calligraphy, painting, and other arts.

Among the masters of Sufi poetry is Rumi, whose full name appears in multiple different forms. He wrote a great deal of poetry about love, divinity, and the relationship between the two. He saw the sacred in everything, and everything revealed something sacred to him. His poetry is an intoxicating swirl of perception and consciousness. He uses luscious words and concrete metaphors to take ephemeral experiences and root them in the material world so people can understand them. This is a wonderful example of one of poetry's best tricks: bending language to make it describe the indescribable.


"Inner Wakefulness"
by Rumi


This place is a dream
only a sleeper considers it real
then death comes like dawn
and you wake up laughing
at what you thought
was your grief

A man goes to sleep in the town
where he has always lived
and he dreams
he's living in another town
in the dream he doesn't remember
the town he's sleeping in his bed in
he believes the reality
of the dream town
the world is that kind of sleep

Humankind is being led
along an evolving course,
through this migration
of intelligences
and though we seem
to be sleeping
there is an inner wakefulness,
that directs the dream
and that will eventually
startle us back
to the truth of
who we are
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I'm a Pagan poet.  I write poetry across many different topics, but this is one of my main categories.  I've been published in major magazines including The Beltane Papers, Circle Network News, Green Egg, NewWitch, PagaNet News, PanGaia, and SageWoman.  I also wrote a book, Composing Magic: How to Create Magical Spells, Rituals, Blessings, Chants, and Prayers.  It explains all kinds of magical and spiritual writing, and it has two whole chapters specifically about poetry.  Most of the examples are Pagan but I included a few from other traditions, so it generalizes well for anyone who wants to learn about writing your own sacred material.  You can find many of my Pagan poems online.

I'd like to call your attention to one in particular, "Brigid's Braid."  It has special formatting so I'm not going to try recreating that here.  The poem is designed to be read aloud by three people working together, and yes, the lines actually do braid. (That was my partner's idea, braiding the lines together.  I worked out the rest of the form on my own.)  I wrote this for an Imbolc ritual and performed it with two other officiants.  It's a good example of how the structure of a poem can embody specific traits associated with its subject; in this case, a three-part poem for a triple goddess who is associated with braids.

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