Ravenswood reminds me of the nicer blocks of my Kansas home town. I don’t know the name of the pervasive Midwestern architecture I mean here, but it is unmistakable – big not-farm houses, two or three floors and maybe five bedrooms, covered with siding in a cheerful shade of nondescript. The houses look like money and a light dusting of their owners’ personalities, externalized in lawn ornaments or plant choices. “Bless this house” framed by boxwoods, a Little Free Library just far enough off the road that one would need to walk up to it, some sort of concrete animal lurking in a yew planted slightly too close to the front porch.
It’s not a neighborhood that I ever plan to live in – too expensive, too far away from public transit – but I make excuses to walk through it, sometimes. It feels safe in that 1950s Broadway musical sort of way, which I can easily decode as “rich” and “white” and “we call police.” On hot days, when I shed my slacks and button-downs for something less formal, something that covers fewer tattoos, retirees on their lawns will pause to give me a thorough, measuring stink-eye – but we leave each other be. The most dour ones I give a nod and a smile. How do, friend? Just passing through, admiring the neighborhood. Don’t mind me.
It is on one of these walks that I find Our Lady of Lourdes.
I see it at the end of a block and change my path to get a closer look. It’s not hard; the building is massive, its bricks almost blond against the green of summer. From the shape, I can tell that it’s one of those big churches – the name escapes me. I didn’t grow up Catholic – a basilica? Or are basilicas places that the Pope has blessed? Anyway, it will be huge and ornate in the interior, beautiful in the way that I associate with specifically American churches: a little gaudy around the edges, just a bit much.
It is Tuesday afternoon. I have not entered a Catholic church by myself since I was sixteen and needed holy water for a friend. Then, the church-store purchased plastic bottle under one arm, I had felt like a thief. Now, with no intention to touch anything, the idea of going in seems somehow even more rude. It would be like wiping muddy hands on clothes hanging on a stranger’s line: perhaps they would never know, but I would have used their private, nice things for my own purposes. It seems like bad form.
I content myself with looking from the outside – examining the stained glass, the dome of the roof, appreciating what I can see. The statues on the outside of the walls are more Marian than I am used to. Her face is inscrutable above the great flowered grate of the doors. Someone has built this with love and adoration. It has the feeling of a holy place, even if it is not mine.
I make a motion of recognition and respect, a truncated version of the sign I make before statues of my own gods, and turn to continue my walk down the street. On the corner, where the alley extends past the building, the high border hedge turns into an iron fence, and a small sign catches my eye. Grotto. Adoration Chapel. I have no idea what it might be referring to and I hesitate, curious, following the arrow with my eyes.
Halfway down the alley, an old woman leans on her son and stares at me. It is clear that she is supposed to be here, just as it is clear that I am not, although I could not say why. There is something proprietary about her movements – the slow way she approaches the church, the look she gives me that says she knows I’m trouble, I’m way out of bounds. Don’t you dare, she seems to say to me – but I am still curious. There is nothing about this wide, clean alley that suggests a grotto, and the arrow is as good as an invitation. I follow it, down the alley and into a courtyard, up the stairs and into a set of red double doors in the back of the church, down a shockingly standard hallway with bland institutional paint and overfull bulletin board.
The room I find myself in is instantly, instinctively recognizable as an altar. Pictures tell me that the centerpiece is a little more than six feet tall, but I see it in my memory as a great wall of sea stone, pocked with holes and crusted with candles in red glass. An image of the goddess fills the largest of the alcoves, her hands spread in blessing, and before her altar are pews filled with people, each with their head bent in prayer.
Again, I have the feeling of being a trespasser, and this time, of being a traitor as well. I do not feel as though the goddess cares one way or the other about my presence, but her supplicants do not deserve to have a gawker interrupt their holy space. I have other alliances, gods that I love and for whom I keep my own altars. Surely they deserve the awe and reverence I feel right now more than this stranger does.
On my way out I pass the old woman, her son still strong under her arm. Her look of suspicion deepens at seeing me come out so quickly after going in. I know that I deserve it.
I keep coming back to churches. Not to “the Church” itself – we parted ways too long ago, and on terms too unkind for me to feel that call again. But when I travel, when I find myself in a new city or even a new part of this one, I will always find myself sidling up on some huge building, looking to see if I can recognize its saints. I am aware of the political and cultural circumstances that built them so large and has left them crumbling at the edges, left the frames of the elaborate stained glass splintered and rotten. I know about the shrinking communities and the reasons behind them – the community I grew up in is no different demographically and, notably, smaller by one now-city-dwelling queer. None of that lessens the draw of a holy space raised by hands that love their god, or the sadness of seeing one fall into disrepair.
I go to churches because I have no holy spaces of my own. I have gone looking for them and found myself with bowed head beside empty lots, paved roads. The holiest of moments have been stolen. In St. Paul’s Basillica I found a statue of Athena in a monument to a god in his guise of king and warrior. At the Art Institute, I came down the stairs and saw Dionysos, the full moon framed in the window over his shoulder. These are the moments I have of recognition, of being somewhere holy that is beautiful and mine, taken from its context and realigned into somewhere I can fill with praise.
At the British museum I sat at the feet of Apollo, silent for fear of what would happen if I raised my voice in song. At least in church, there are voices with mine, spirits that are also raised up in exultation, if in a somewhat different direction. But the moments feel like theft, like co-opting something for my own purposes. Surely the priest would object – and despite all of the figures on my altar that would suggest otherwise, I do not like the feeling of being a thief. Even Easter Vigil, with its bonfires and darkness, its long trance-like patterns of chanting and its sudden revelation of light, is lonely.
I do not expect this to change.
There are very obvious reasons for me to avoid Trothmoot. I don’t know anyone. It is on the other side of the country. The bathrooms are dorm-style. The Pacific Northwest is probably going to spit forth some unspeakable cryptid to eat me, personally, for trespassing. But this is the first time in a decade that The Troth will be honoring my fulltrui, my patron, and the promise of that blot alone, done by the largest Inclusive Heathen organization in the country, gets me to buy a ticket. If it is awful, I will pack up and head back to Seattle, eat a fish of some sort. It’ll be fine.
The day I leave, a co-worker tells me to enjoy my vacation. I have a hard time understanding what they’re talking about. This feels like – like a business trip, maybe. A calculated risk. I thank them, stiff in my body, and they look confused, some crucial cue missed. Then there is travel, and more travel, and by the next evening I find myself with fabric draped across my arms, setting up the vé.
In Heathen practice, a vé is a holy space, a temple. The word is the name of a god, one of Odin’s brothers, a creator of the world. In this case, the first time I actually see one, a vé is a small wooden school room, one of ten lined up in two rows about 100 yards from the main hall. They’re separated by a bank of trees, invisible from the dorms – the most direct path is through the firepit and into the trees, past what I can only assume is an elfstone on the path, and out into the large clearing where they sit.
I am one of the first people to arrive, and someone who will soon be my friend needs a hand unloading boxes full of holy objects out of the back of her van. Someone needs a hand with the stones they have carved with the symbols of Thor, heavy and not quite balanced. Someone needs me to use this hammer, the one from the altar, to help raise the spear for Tyr.
There are altar cloths in orange, green, and blue, some with great curling beasts, some that started life as children’s sheets studded with cartoon vikings. There are statues, including the two that TSA stopped me to check; the agents’ faces were impersonal and slightly uninterested as they literally touched the face of god.
There are strings of amber beads, and bags of runes, and brightly colored images that we hang from fishing nets and the walls themselves. Because we are who we are, there are drinking horns, big and small, with stands that range from simple wooden pieces to great tangled knots of antlers. I run back and forth between the buildings, carrying and fetching, tacking up and spreading out.
At the end, when we are all pleased with the array, I look around with some surprise. Here, I think, is a place that I could sing and have it be welcome. It takes me almost a day, coming back to the different spaces, to realize that I feel at home.
I do keep returning, throughout the weekend. Often I have company: someone who has not yet visited, someone who is there already when I arrive. Joining them never feels like intruding, but those moments are quiet and personal, and I do not know these people so well just yet. This is precious, the way that coming around a corner in a museum to meet the eyes of your god is precious. I do not want to share. So I seek out solitude to pour over the additions to the altars that continue to appear, to lean into the almost-tangible feeling of presence in the different spaces.
There are blóts, too – rituals where we gather, twenty or fifty strong, in front of the space. They are teeth-rattling in their own way, and I am no less hungry for them, no less moved. We pass the horn and toast until I am heady with it. The poetry of hearing others echo a love I feel is honey sweet and powerful, leaves me stumbling.
I stumble back, always, to the homes of the gods.
There is no food allowed in the vé. We are in the woods, after all, and the scat that we find across the lawn is from some large mammal that is almost certainly, within a margin of error, likely to be a deer. Offerings are to be poured out, left closed, or consumed. The last thing that we want is to come back to find the space occupied in some difficult sense of the term.
On the last day, I show up early to help take things down. At this point, I have a good idea of whose items are where – horns and cloths and hammers have drifted out and back again, moving from space to space. I start the process of gathering them up by myself, folding and unpinning as much as I can on my own.
When I open the door to the vé dedicated to the Vanir, I smell the beer immediately. It’s good stuff – cider of some sort for Freya and something dark and malty for Freyr, the sort of beer that I’d order at a new brewery. They weren’t here yesterday. Someone has done this overnight, come out past the firelight and into the dark, opened the bottles, held their own private devotion. I am careful with the evidence as I take it out to pour onto the ground, first the bottles, then the horn, that they have filled and left on Freyr’s altar.
As I am pouring out the horn, I see the deer. She is just past the next vé, grazing contentedly, hardly bothered by my presence at all. I am standing alone in the door of the holy space of a god that I associate with deer and wild things, the urge of living. She flicks an ear at me. I am not given to romanticizing animals, but it feels like a blessing.
Soon my new friends will arrive, and we will sweep and clean and organize this space back into a series of boxes, to be sent to their homes around the country. Soon I will drive away to put my statues back on their shelves and raise my horn alone. But for now I am a part of a community, and in the presence of the gods. I am just where I am supposed to be.