Reclaiming Worship as a Modern Pagan

“Worship” is a really charged word for a lot of Pagans, and rightfully so. A lot of us are converts who came from religions (and I’m mostly talking about Christianity, from personal experience) that were all about how great God was and how inherently awful we were, simply by existing. Worship in this context consisted of debasing yourself, sometimes even cheerfully, in front of an all-mighty God, proclaiming how unworthy you were of His love, and yet how grateful you were that he loved you anyway. Worship was required to stay in God’s good graces, and the alternative was an eternity in hell.

To that, I say – No, thank you!

As I’ve gone deeper in my Paganism, and especially when I became a priestess of Aphrodite, I’ve had to redefine worship. A lot of Pagans say that they don’t worship their Deities, they “work with them,” and I have found that to be true as well. I work with Cerridwyn. I work with the Lord of the Wild Woods. I even work with Ganesha sometimes. I work with Aphrodite. But I also worship Her.

Is there a difference between working with a Deity and worshipping a Deity? To me, there is. Is this distinction all that important? It depends on your spiritual path and the Deities with which you have relationships. If it’s important to them, you might need to do some personal work on your relationship to worship.

I’ve been having excellent conversations with friends on this topic for several months now, but the impetus to write this article actually came up when I was writing about prayer for 7 More Ways to Bring the Magickal into the Mundane. I started typing and realized I was getting off topic, and that this probably needed to be its own blog post.

Worship, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity.”

This feels like a pretty spot-on definition to me. When I worship Aphrodite, it is primarily focused on expressing my adoration for Her. I usually do this with a certain amount of reverence. (And a whole lot of mirth!) From an etymological view, worship comes from the Proto-Germanic root “werthaz-,” meaning “equivalent, worth, toward, or opposite,” which is where we get the Old English “weorð” meaning “worthy.” This evolved into “weorðscipe” – “the condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, honor, distinction, renown.”

This is where my definition of worship comes from, and how I use it in my spirituality. I worship Aphrodite because She is worthy of respect and adoration. Unlike my experiences with Christian worship, I don’t worship Her because I am beneath Her, because She is so much more worthy than I am, or because She has an inherent dignity that I don’t. I worship Aphrodite to celebrate Her, to honor Her, to show veneration for the values She represents, to express gratitude for Her blessings, and so that I may become closer to Her. Even the word “veneration” itself is associated with Her! “Veneration” comes from the Latin Venus, meaning “beauty, love, and desire,” and is associated with Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart. The Italian word for “worship” – venerare – comes from the same root (Venere is Venus in Italian).

To me, all of this links back to love. Love is the root of worship. Love is the inspiration – Not fear, as my time in the Southern Baptist church led me to believe. We worship a Deity because we love them, because we admire their virtues, because we respect their work in this world (and in others), and because we want to, not because we have to. Mandatory worship seems almost antithetical.

And yet…

I’ve been trying for a while now to get into the habit of mindfully giving thanks and praying before meals, but I am still wrestling with my own baggage from my Southern Christian upbringing around obligatory prayers before consuming food. I’ve been to too many extended family gatherings where we had to hold hands (which my OCD did not like, because I know my relatives did not wash their hands), and bow my head while someone said something subservient about Jesus and what awful, sinful human beings we are, and by the grace of God are made better. The person leading the prayer (typically my cousin) would then conclude with something about the food nourishing our bodies to do God’s service, Amen.

During these times, I would typically say my own prayer silently in my head, and as a little act of rebellion whisper “so mote it be” at the end instead of “amen.” As I grew older and more comfortable in my spirituality, I continued to say my own silent prayer, but I just stopped saying anything out loud at family gatherings. These were still the only times I prayed before meals.

(Side note: There was actually a time, recently after I became Pagan, when I was a pre-teen/teenager, where my grandma would ask me to lead the family prayer. That was fun. I think I did a pretty good job of ad-libbing, conveniently not mentioning Jesus, and forgetting about all the sin stuff. Though, my family eventually stopped asking me to lead the prayers, so maybe I didn’t do as good of a job as I thought.)

Early on in my Paganism, Christianity was the only reference point for worship that I had (specifically of the Southern Baptist and Presbyterian varieties). And that was NOT what I wanted in my spiritual life. Even my experience of my grandfather’s funeral when I was a child turned me away from that kind of worship.

I was crying (very loudly) during the service, and the preacher had to stop what he was doing to come over and tell me that my grandfather was in a better place now. That did absolutely nothing to comfort me, partly because my eight-year-old mind couldn’t wrap itself around how much “better” a place could be without the people you loved and partly because I didn’t really believe that. My grandad was a wonderful person, but I couldn’t imagine him singing in a choir of angels, or whatever the preacher told me he would be doing in heaven. (Having since attended several more funerals that were more about the various ways I would rot in hell instead of actually being about the person who was passing on, I can definitely say that particular type of worship is not for me.)

My views on worship started to change in college, where I learned about different faiths and even different sects of Christianity that had a more life-affirming message. I specifically remember seeing the dance performance Revelations by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater modern dance company. Here was this Christian religion that I had been brought up in, but… with feeling! There was sorrow, yes, but also joy! There was dancing and singing and it was so beautiful, I cried. The performance was moving and impassioned, and it is still one of my favorite dance pieces. It was also one of the first times I was able to see religion as a unifying and empowering force, rather than the divisive role it so often plays in the modern world.

At that point I was a solitary Pagan, and I had never really known a supportive spiritual community. That all changed when I joined my current Pagan group. I was instantly welcomed into the fold, surrounded by people with similar, uplifting views about spirituality. The first event I ever attended was called a Sunday Worship Circle. I was a little hesitant about the Worship part, but it had the word Circle in it, so I figured I would give it a shot.

My first group circle was splendid! There was no preacher, no lecture, no shaming – just a life-affirming message, a craft to make and bless gratitude journals, and lots of friendly new people to meet. It all felt so right. I found Divinity standing in a circle in nature, not sitting on a pew inside. There was always respect and reverence in our group circles – for the elements, for the Deities, for each other, and for ourselves. 

The adoration part of my worship came a few years later, when I started working with Aphrodite. I’ve written a little about how I pursued a relationship with Aphrodite in My Journey to Aphrodite – Part One, but not about much of the details. Pursuing a Goddess is a very experimental process, but one thing that became very clear to me early on was that I had to show devotion and dedication. That manifested in a lot of ways, from small things like saying more frequent prayers to larger things like more rituals and offerings.

As I got to know Her better, our relationship became more reciprocal, more casual, and more… joyous! Aphrodite popped in and out of my head all the time. That took some getting used to, but it was wonderful. I knew that connection was special, and that it should be celebrated.

I started doing things to honor Her that weren’t in the traditional Pagan offering palette. I devoted myself to learning about love in both the mundane and spiritual realms. I reveled in the tiny beautiful moments in my days, thinking of Her and honoring Her as I did so. I began paying more attention to the way I dress, and I went out of my way to wear beautiful things that made me feel sexy and empowered. I started exploring sensual movement and devotional masturbation. I wrote songs and rituals, choreographed dances, and cooked delicious food. All in honor of Her.

It was for me, too, though – because the more I fed the connection between us, the more fantastical life became. There were certainly some rough spots (see my Trials by Fire post for a taste of that). Even working with Aphrodite, not everything is rosy-tinted. She makes you take a long, hard look at your shit, and sometimes drags you through the mud to do it. Why would a Goddess of Love do this? Because loving how Aphrodite loves requires great strength – more than you can even imagine.

She is the unity of tenderness and fortitude, of darkness and light, of pleasure and pain, of ferocity and compassion. She requires both your humility and your confidence. She makes you work for what you want while She blesses you with magnificent things. She is the beauty and the mess: the tangled hair after great sex, the dirty hands from tending a gorgeous garden, the ugly cry of happy tears, and that feeling of love so big that you might explode into a million estatic pieces.

And I adore Her for it.

I worship Aphrodite because I adore Her, because I want to feel and be all of those things in my life, because She is worthy of honor and respect, and because the act of worship brings me that much closer to Her.

I worship Aphrodite because of love.

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