I remember studying about papal indulgences in Comparative Religion in college. These were documents that the wealthy could purchase from the Church that would guarantee them entrance into heaven, even if their worldly sins had banished them to the back of the line.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Because we all sense that you can’t buy your way into forgiveness or redemption or love, let alone into the precinct of the Almighty. You can’t command your way, you can’t bribe your way. You can’t make deals with heaven, even though many of us have promised, “God, if you’ll let me off the hook on this one, I’ll never drink/cheat/steal/gorge on donuts again.”

Not the real “Moby Dick” … but close.

That’s why the Prayer to the Muse is just that—a prayer. An invocation.

We come before the goddess in humility. We set aside our vanity. We acknowledge her primacy. We are here not to bug her or importune her or cajole her or con her. We are here to seek her favor.

What does the divinity ask of us?

She asks that we be true to our gift. She asks that we respect it and give its expression everything we’ve got.

She asks that we be willing to sweat.

She asks that we be willing to undergo pain.

She asks consistency and devotion over time.

She asks that we not sell her gifts for profane purposes. (Recall the verse recounting the fate of Odysseus’ men—” … to destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun god blotted out the day of their return.”)

She asks fidelity.

She asks trust.

She asks love.

When my friend and mentor Paul Rink introduced me to the concept of the Muses, he didn’t make a big deal out of it. He did better than that. By his posture and his tone of voice, as well as his words, he expressed his absolute belief in the goddesses’ reality and in our dependence upon them and our need as artists of deference and respect and reverence toward them. This was, as I’ve said, over morning coffee at the fold-down table in the back of Paul’s camper/pickup “Moby Dick.”

I had never really thought about the words “invoke” or “invocation” before.

Since then, they’ve never left my mind.

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36 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on July 7, 2021 at 6:17 am

    I went under the etymological hood on “invoke.” Skipping past Old French and Latin, the word derives from the Proto-Indo-European *en* (“in”) and *wekw” (“to speak”). So there’s something fundamental about “speaking.” Then thinking how, in Genesis, the first action in creation was speech: “And God said, let there be light…”

    So, something about the word, about speech, about invocation… that calls forth an act of creation. Which is what we’re trying to do, isn’t it, when we’re composing our music or telling our stories or painting our canvases or chipping away all the parts of the stone that AREN’T our sculpture? So we speak. We implore. We invoke.

    With humility, we’re asking for something: an idea, inspiration, for the Muse to look upon us with pity or kindness. “We are here to seek her favor,” as Steve says up there. We’re both in search of a gift, as we also seek to give our own gifts to others: a meal we prepared; a service we provide; telling a story where “1+1=3,” as Ken Burns put it.

    Mythologist Michael Meade has written about how each human soul comes bearing gifts, and how our purpose is to find those gifts inside us — and to share them. He recounts a Mayan folk tale about how we come into the world bearing a unique gift, how that gift is then hidden from us, and our life’s work is to rediscover those gifts and share them with the world. He tells it here: https://youtu.be/OO91oq0QFFg?t=1111

    ***
    This is kind of a sidebar, but pretty interesting as long as we’re talking about deep history and language. Our friend Brad Graft (who comments occasionally here) pointed me to a PBS/NOVA documentary on “The First Horse Warriors.” His interest is more than passing, as he’s finishing his third in a historical fiction trilogy set amongst horse warriors of the Eurasian steppe (https://www.amazon.com/Chains-Nobility-Brotherhood-Mamluks-1/dp/0999633856).

    This documentary touches on the evolution of language, how much arose from these horse cultures, and the similarities across cultures reaching back more than 5,000 years. This panel gave me a little frisson of deep connections: in a word as simple as “IS”:

    English ———————– is — present day
    Armenian ——————– ē — 1600 years ago
    Latin ————————- est — 2500 years ago
    Greek ———————- ésti — 3000 years ago
    Sanskrit ——————— ásti– 3000 years ago
    Proto-Indo-European — h ésti — 5000+ years ago

    • Joe on July 7, 2021 at 6:30 am

      Oh, and on this idea of how to visualize our Muse. Is it Gal Gadot in a white peplos? Idris Elba or John Hamm in clad in cuirass? A fat little cherub with dove wings?

      I like how Stephen King pictures his…

      “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.

      “Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

      — Stephen King in “On Writing”

      • Mike on July 9, 2021 at 12:28 pm

        Joe,

        On the idea of how to visualize one’s Muse, I must reiterate something I mentioned, last week:

        Robert E. Howard visualized his as Conan, in life, standing behind him and threatening physical harm if the author told his stories poorly.

        On the idea of actions, one nitpick and one serious inquiry:

        Technically, God’s first act was the creation of the skies (or Heaven, if you prefer) and the Earth.

        As artists, are we accurate in describing ourselves as creators? You mention the old sculptor’s concept of stripping away the excess to reveal the spirit that was in the stone, all along; in such, isn’t “liberator” more apropos? To the layman audience, what we do may be unique acts of creation; but they don’t realize the (indistinct yet ever present) science behind our various crafts – the formulae and templates we manipulate to produce our work. We’re plagiarists and curators and, perhaps, con-men at least as much as we are creators.

        • Joe on July 9, 2021 at 8:52 pm

          Mike … reiterate away, amigo. Everyone is free to imagine their muse as they please, I reckon. If it worked for Howard, who can say he’s wrong? I would observe that love, not threats of violence, is what gets results with dogs, horses, and children. And me.

          I wouldn’t pretend to be a Biblical scholar, but I do try to understand these stories in the context of metaphor. When I read “In the beginning,” I’m thinking, if what we call God *has always existed*, then there is no beginning. What is always was. Yes, She created the earth, but it was without form and void. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it? She created it, but nothing was there? Undifferentiated being and nonbeing. Nothing but darkness and creative potential.

          The first appearance of differentiation, of duality, was *light* (the Big Bang?), precipitated by the Word: “And God said…”

          Creator, thief, grifter, magician, swindler, juggler, puppet, whore, archivist, transcriptionist, droplet from the ocean of consciousness, con-artist, mechanic, artist, carpenter, pack-mule, channeling medium, servant, creator… I dunno, honestly. Take your pick as to what costume you want to wear.

          • Mike on July 10, 2021 at 6:57 am

            Snake-oil salesman.

            I find it fascinating that the very founders of baconian science were religious men just trying to better understand their god and, now, modern physicists are asking the same questions.

            In the beginning, there was the word. To me, possibly the most beautiful thing about Islam is its bent on the divine host and Lucifer’s fall from heaven – Adam had been given free will, but what really pissed off the Light Bringer is that the first man was granted the power of naming. He knew what to call stuff.

            I’m no Muslim, but, in honor of the first man, I’ll call us what we are: Artists. Folk may love us from a distance and hate us, up close, but we’re neither creator nor destroyer… the singer, not the song.



      • Carolyn Montoya on July 16, 2021 at 12:58 pm

        Joe, I love your comments and especially highlighting, Stephen King’s muse comments. I felt the hair on my arms lift (electric energy flowing through me) lol. I am a Master’s Degree student in creative writing at Regis University. Writing is definitely hard work, but I love reading feelings on paper…..
        Thanks,
        Carolyn M

    • Joe on July 7, 2021 at 7:10 am

      Okay, adding one more thing. I’m always interested to notice when things appear in the view finder, which seem to resonate on a theme. I left here for my inbox, and found this in the “Light’s Daily Doses” emailer (from meditation coach and author Light Watkins, on whose podcast Steve has appeared). This seems on theme with Michael Meades’ thoughts on “we arrive with gifts.”

      ***
      Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, was once asked by Oprah to define “personal legend,” which is a term he uses throughout his book.

      He answered: “Your personal legend is the reason you are here. It’s as simple as that. You are here to honor something called the miracle of life. You can fill your days with something that is meaningless, but you know you have a reason for being here. It is the only thing that gives you enthusiasm. And you know when you are betraying your personal legend when you are doing something without enthusiasm.”

      • Brian Nelson on July 7, 2021 at 3:04 pm

        Joe,
        As always—great nuggets on which to chew. I love the ‘personal legend’…sure does seem like the greatest archeological dig of my entire life.

        I get glimpses—think I maybe onto the closest thing yet with my latest pivot into an employment agency—but the dig continues…

        Missed the last couple of Wednesdays due to a busy schedule, and it leaves me a bit off balance.

        I have found refuge here. Contemplation, mostly done ‘out loud’ with strangers, but deeply therapeutic(?), helpful at least.

        Your comments are nearly always as meaningful, interesting, and thought provoking as Steven’s main post.
        bsn

        • Joe on July 8, 2021 at 6:56 am

          B… this is a great place to spend Wednesday mornings.

      • Kate Stanton on July 7, 2021 at 6:38 pm

        “Your personal legend is the reason you are here. It’s as simple as that. You are here to honor something called the miracle of life. You can fill your days with something that is meaningless, but you know you have a reason for being here. It is the only thing that gives you enthusiasm. And you know when you are betraying your personal legend when you are doing something without enthusiasm.”
        Thanks for sharing this, Joe. A high school English teacher gave me a copy of The Alchemist when I was 17. I was going through a bout of depression that seemed endless. She “saw” me. Paulo Coelho’s writing helped me dream of leaving a hopeless situation. I saw myself in the shepherd boy much like gamers see themselves as the adventurous Link in The Legend of Zelda. An allegory for self-discovery…
        Beautiful posts today.

        • Joe on July 8, 2021 at 6:55 am

          Kate, I’ve also got “The Pilgrimage” on my list (as well as a desire to walk the Camino). I liked his opening line in that book:

          “The customs agent spent more time than usual examining the sword that my wife had brought into the country and then asked what we intended to do with it.”

      • Aaron James on July 12, 2021 at 11:56 am

        Enthusiasm comes from the Greek, en theos: with God.

        • Joe on July 14, 2021 at 3:49 am

          Etymology pops the lid off things, doesn’t it, Aaron?

  2. Regina on July 7, 2021 at 8:32 am

    That is look ever so much like a blue bus….
    #justsaying

  3. Sam Luna on July 7, 2021 at 10:45 am

    My first encounter with what I now understand to be the Muse was as a kid, drawing in my Mom’s sewing room on summer break. There was a skylight in that room, and living in the desert Southwest we had a flat piece of foam we’d stick in that rectangular cieling hole during the 100+ degree heat of the day. But when I sat at her sewing table to draw I’d first stand on the chair and pull out that foam, and enjoy being by myself under the warm sunbeam making up stories and little comics and what not. I always did it at the same time of day, after lunch, when the light angled in just such a way. Now I know that was the Muse and I getting to know each other. It’s an appointment you make, like tuning into your favorite radio show. And if you don’t show up, you miss it, and miss out.

    • Joe on July 7, 2021 at 11:18 am

      I like it. Good story, Sam.

    • Kate Stanton on July 7, 2021 at 6:42 pm

      Sam,
      I couldn’t help but smile reading this story. I feel like I can even smell the heat of the dry desert air and see the dust filtering through the light in your window. The Muse was putting a spotlight on your work!!

  4. Linda Reed Gardner on July 7, 2021 at 11:57 am

    Love this post. So many times i now say to myself,”If you want the Muse to show up for you…”
    I’ve been listening to “Amazons ” on Audible after reading it years back. In a time when so much writing sounds as if it was rattled off into a tape recorder or tablet while driving to the Pottery Barn it is always such a pleasure to read such wonderful prose. Reminds me that English is a beautiful language.
    You’ve mentioned spending at least one year in the woods without so much as a television. Way way too much silence for most people. Not even possible to contemplate such w/out pure terror. BUT I have always assumed that is responsible for such lovely, thoughtful writing.
    Perhaps you will sometime say sometime about what that year gave you as a writer, (apart from what is in your books) and how you managed to maintain that kind of focus once you returned to the chaotic world most writers face, perhaps from choice when considering the alternative. The electronic chatter is deafening, and people expect to be able to reach you 24/7 and are quite cranky if you are not available. (I know you were home!)
    I fear we have all gotten used to this level of constant electronic stimulation and are quite lost and anxious without it. Give me my bullet points-I have lost all patience with reading more than that. The internet has affected my reading greatly-thank the gods for Audible and a long commute to work.

  5. Shane on July 7, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    Hi Linda. I really liked your comments and I can relate. I worked for a pharmaceutical company in a compliance/education function. My territory was everything west of Colorado all the way to Guam. Massive commute time and Marriott treated me like a god (as did Delta!) On the road I would have great moments of writing inspiration from the books and articles I read. Then as things got more hectic, I resorted to e-books and Audible (“Books on Tape” from my generation) and started to really lose the ability to read and retain. Needed things too quick. The pandemic slowed the rush, but now I am waiting for the moments of inspiration to return!

  6. Chuck DeBettignies on July 7, 2021 at 3:16 pm

    I’ve thought countless times as I prayed to, tried to invoke/acknowledge the Muse what I wanted from her.

    Having Steve list for us what she wants FROM US hits like a splash of cold water! I’m so embarrassed I didn’t think of what she wants from me.

    And why should I think that I can do less than 100% of my end of the deal?!

    What was I thinking?!

    • Brian Nelson on July 7, 2021 at 10:19 pm

      Chuck,
      Agree 100%. I think that might be the difference of a 12 year old prayer, and an adult prayer or invocation. Steve would probably say the amateur prayer and the Pro invocation…

      How can I serve vs how can I be served/helped.

      I suffer and have suffered from a similar immature prayer myself. If you gimme this, I will no longer do this…I swear this time, for reals!
      bsn

  7. Brian Nelson on July 7, 2021 at 3:32 pm

    I reread today’s post and a couple of thoughts occurred to me.

    When Steve says ‘crazy right?’ about papal indulgences—I would offer ‘another damn example of executive privilege…’ baring my ‘other side of the tracks’ chip I carry. Much of this also comes from decades Soldiering when the leadership eats last—slightly living upto Steve’s definition of a ‘King’ in Gates of Fire. The wealthy should not, in a just world, be able to purchase their way into Heaven.

    The second profundity from today’s passage is how much ‘Models of appropriate behavior’ are needed in life. If Paul Ruck was in any way dismissive in his explanation of invoking the Muse, Steve might have been misdirected.

    Reminds me of going to Wednesday night teen groups for the church I attended as a kid. Frequently we’d play sports. One day, while playing basketball, I completely juked our teen leader. He was the total rock star to us—college athlete, cool, fit—who we all aspired to be. Anyway, as I cruised past him for an easy layup—he turns around and delivers a ‘Technical Foul’ to me. It was obviously done in anger—his jock was on the floor, and this young kid made him look foolish.

    That delivery of (in my 14 year old mind) was so egregious that is was the final confirmation that this Christianity stuff was BS. I have been, in many ways, shaking my fist at God since that final nail for 35+ years.

    Lastly, the true message to me from Steve’s writing is the humility in which we need to return to the Muse, God, ‘Something’ from last weeks post. That is the lesson I continue to wrestle daily. An indicator of my willingness to submit humbly is tightly correlated with the sense of gratitude I feel that day/hour/minute/nano-second.
    bsn

    • Mike on July 9, 2021 at 12:37 pm

      Brian,

      Not taking away from your experience, at all, but….

      While I’m not particularly familiar with the nuance of basketball (I grew up with hockey, and basketball is very much an antithesis of hockey), don’t intentional fouls serve a strategic purpose? Especially when preventing an “easy layup” at the cost of a potentially insignificant penalty? I obviously wasn’t there, but maybe he was just making the professional play?

  8. Maureen Anderson on July 7, 2021 at 4:09 pm

    I love thinking of the Muse as “a basement kind of guy.”

    And despite my supposed passion for March Madness, I had to look up the word “juked.”

    • Brian Nelson on July 7, 2021 at 10:15 pm

      Maureen,
      80s locker room talk…the 14 year old Brian is still alive inside me!
      bsn

    • Joe on July 8, 2021 at 6:57 am

      “I shucked when I should have jived.”

  9. George Carpenter IV on July 8, 2021 at 9:19 am

    Perhaps every day in all the things we do we can live as a prayer towards becoming who God he meant us to be and in becoming the Selves that were there in seed form all along. I have found in this journey that everything counts and that focusing and refocusing on what matters as I actually chisel away at what is false and brings more of the good stuff to the surface us helped me get through a desert time and set my sights on bringing more good art to the world to help wake it up. Love this stuff.

  10. Linda Reed Gardner on July 8, 2021 at 10:36 am

    I’ll answer part of my own question-Reading & the intetrnet. I was an English Lit major and books were my life for years, pleasure& work.. I lived to read. And write.
    Imagine the disbelief when i discovered that I can no longer read. I am entirely serious. After the first sentence or two I am immediately bored and restless. I can make myself read the first couple of sentences, the middle few, and then I jump to the end of ms. I am overwhelming by feelings of too slow, too boring, & way way too much work to read now. WTF ?
    Couple years back I wanted to reread “The Fire From Heaven,” one of my all-time favorite Renault books, and dropped fifty dollars on a Kindle, and a little more on an Audible subscription.
    To my surprise, I can not only listen to a book BUT sit through and enjoy every fing word, No unbearable boredom whatsoever. Remarkable! A true gift from the God. I ask no more than this right now.

    • NS on July 28, 2021 at 12:21 pm

      You are not alone. Most people say pandemic was good for slowing them down. I think I became stupider in it. I can no longer read too, and I get anxiety by being near electronic stimulus of any kind more than 30 minutes. I mean, I cannot listen to even my favourite tunes when I am over my e-quota. You are lucky to like audio books. Hope the gift keeps on giving.

  11. Anonymous on July 12, 2021 at 11:42 am

    As one who’s redemption has been bought and paid for, not by papal indulgences, but at a much higher cost, there’s always been some resistance to invoking Greek gods, or any other hippy-dippy deities. That said, after years following various gurus, methods, and teachers, I’ve been left, like Van Morrison, convinced that unless someone is walking on water, I’m not taking a knee. Where does that leave a Jesus-believer, when it comes to muses?

    • Aaron James on July 12, 2021 at 11:52 am

      whoops… hit the wrong key too early… story of my life! please delete…

  12. Aaron James on July 12, 2021 at 11:51 am

    As one who’s redemption has been bought and paid for, not by papal indulgences, but at a much higher cost, there’s always been some resistance to invoking Greek gods, or any other hippy-dippy deities. That said, after years following various gurus, methods, and teachers, I’ve been left, like Van Morrison, convinced that unless someone is walking on water, I’m not taking a knee. Where does that leave a Jesus-believer, when it comes to muses?

    After fussing about it longer than necessary I asked myself simply, where did it leave Dostoevsky, Dylan, or Bach? So in inserted a page at the beginning of my 20,000 word-in novel, that read simply, “Sing in me Jesus, and through me tell the story.” It was beautiful – brought a tear to my eye then and does now. “Sing in me Holy Spirit, and through me tell the story.” What better muse could there be? I’m not looking for the muse who produces Pure Flix or blasphemous Christian pop songs. I’m looking for the muse that sang Crime and Punishment and Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.

    One of the great things about Steven is he doesn’t set himself up as a muse, a guru, or a method. He’s a pro graciously sharing some good news, regarding how he overcame his enemy – which is what I need to do.

    • Kate Stanton on July 13, 2021 at 9:14 am

      “Pure Flix or blasphemous Christian pop songs.”
      Hi Aaron! I have to laugh at this because CCM and movies can be so cheesy even if their message isn’t. I much prefer a description of being a follower of Christ. Love as a verb, and not using “Christian” to describe anything. That seems like a marketing gimmick to me. Humility. Grace and forgiveness. Peace. Acceptance of differences. Live and let live. Love your neighbor as yourself. Power hungry humans and organized religion in particular have bastardized these primitive yet beautiful values to live by. My personality and upbringing sees God this way. From my tiny place in the world…
      I respect and understand not all of us view God the same way (if they believe in a creator at all). The beauty of free will is it is our choice and ours alone.

      • madhu on July 14, 2021 at 2:25 pm

        Nicely said 🙏

  13. Joe Stilllman on July 15, 2021 at 10:46 am

    State your intentions, Muse. I know you’re there.
    Dead bards who pined for you have said
    You’re bright as flame, but fickle as the air.
    My pen and I, submerged in liquid shade,
    Much dark can spread, on days and over reams
    But without you, no radiance can shed.
    Why rustle in the dark, when fledge with fire?
    Craze the night with flails of light. Reave
    our turbid shroud. Bestow what I require.

    But you’re not in the dark. I do believe
    I swim, like squid, in clouds of my own make,
    To you, offensive. To us both, opaque.
    What’s constituted so, only pen
    Can penetrate. I have one here; let’s go.


    — Neal Stephenson – Invocation
    A sonnet to open his 3 volume 3000+ page novel The Baroque Cycle,

  14. Painter on August 24, 2021 at 12:14 am

    I really enjoyed this article.

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