Wakeful Priesthood

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As is so often the case, I am motivated to write by a discussion I have read or been a part of in internet land over the past few days and weeks. This post is no different and coincidentally, I note that Nimue has been motivated to write on a similar subject here with a slightly different slant. It is an issue I have considered and grappled with for a few years now, searching for a path that I would consider to hold the most honour. The issue is that of Pagan Priesthood.

As always within the pagan community and its many branches, gaining consensus on an issue is somewhat like herding cats. This in particular is a difficult and thorny subject, with many and varied viewpoints which seems to elicit some very emotional responses. Not least I suspect, because many pagans arrived in their chosen tradition, in part as a direct rejection of established religion and all that entails. The language of priesthood is for some, simply too close to this. Perspectives range from those who do not see the need for a priesthood at all, feeling that they do not need anyone to stand between them and the gods, those who rely on priests for teaching, ritual and guidance, and those who appoint themselves as professional priests taking on the role full time. Unlike established religions, there is no ‘church’ to appoint, pay or regulate those who take on the role and whilst there may be small groups and teaching schools who do offer training anyone can chose to undertake the role. Whilst I firmly believe this to be a strength of paganism and seriously hope we never go down that sort of C of E route and all the corruption it entails, the lack of it does create some problems of its own which require careful consideration. After all, where do the priests come from, who makes them, who ensures that they are not fiddling with the children, and further do we need them at all?

My answer to that final question; ‘do we need them at all?’ is an emphatic yes. Whilst many do feel that they do not need a priest to minister for them, having the confidence to do this themselves, there will always be times, and I can think of many in my own life when we need to hand that role over to someone who is really good at it. A perfect example is a wedding, a day when we have so many things to think of: the dress, the cake, the flowers, the ring, whether Auntie Betty is being looked after, that we need someone to do this for us. After all, we are probably not cooking the wedding breakfast or serving the buffet ourselves either. We need the day to be an ‘Occasion’, the community – our friends and family need the gathering, the moment, the spectacle, to feel the job well done, to recognise and support our moment of transition and change and this for many, requires a person who can hold the space and the focus for us to do what is needed. But priesthood is about more than the rituals and the weddings, it is about shouldering the responsibility that our traditions will continue, that we will teach the next generation the skills needed, and within that, comes the role of the teacher. There really is no substitute (I believe) for the dedicated, one to one teaching relationship that guides and mentors us through the decades of learning the skills and working through our own ego sufficiently to do it well. It is usually the pagan priests who offer (or should be offering) this kind of dedicated teaching.

So to return to the previous questions: who appoints a priest and ensures they are doing a good job? I would give four answers: The Self, The Gods, The Ancestors and The Community. Each are an important ingredient in the mix and a vital part of good teaching ensures that the student (and would be priest) has sufficient relationship with each to understand what they are taking on when they step forward. Each of these four is a post in itself, the first three arise out of our own deeply personal relationships and sense of duty, service and calling, but it is community that is perhaps most immediate. For unless the community we serve recognises us as holding the role of the priest and more specifically that we are doing it well, with ethics and honour,  no one will ask us for those services.

It is the consideration of community that leads me to the issue of payment or exchange. After all, the priest provides a service, gives up her time, incurs costs and expends emotional energy. Not only that, but people value what is given to them most when they feel that they have made equal payment in exchange. So should the priest charge? Again this is a loaded issue with many feeling that it is somehow wrong to charge money for spiritual services. Whilst I am not of this view, I do believe that we need to exercise care when mixing priestwork and money. There are a number of charlatans out there and integrity so often seems inversely proportionate to the sums of money involved. Priestwork is not the same as any other job where we can demand a living wage from an employer for the work we do and I worry when I hear folks expressing that the community owes them a living or has a responsibility to support them. Because I don’t believe it does; that responsibility rests solely with ourselves.

Priesthood is a job of devotion and service first and foremost; it has to be to retain its integrity. Sadly there are a number of folks out there offering magical healing, a way to the truth or worse, exploitation. The ethical responsibilities of the priest, working with people in sometimes extremely vulnerable spiritual situations means that it is of paramount importance that we keep our egos in check. Getting rich is one sure fire way to exaggerate, out of all sense of proportion, our own importance. I firmly believe in the principle of equal exchange and it is what I base the priestwork that I do upon. I will ask for expenses where I am out of pocket and an exchange of energy for my time. Sometimes that energy takes the form of money, sometimes it is a favour, a bill paid, food or shopping or cleaning. It will depend upon what the person has, how much they can afford and what they can offer. Not being paid the agreed price or not being paid on time is of course deeply disheartening, and frustrating and a different issue entirely. Yet,  most working within the priesthood do not expect to grow rich, I have a strong instinct that to struggle, to a greater or lesser extent, is a part of the role. Priesthood has a long tradition of simplicity, monasticism, and frugalness. It is integral, important and it keeps us humble. If we arrive in the priesthood without realising this, we may be in trouble. To what extent we struggle with day to day living is, to a certain extent, between us and our gods and the opportunities we make and create for ourselves. If we do not have enough, we are not asking enough or more likely, not clearly enough of the right people in the right way. Possibly we need to reassess our perspective on what enough actually is. But then I believe this is a good philosophy for life in general.

I chose not to work as a full time priest, because whilst I know and have known those who do, in many ways I feel the same about the career priest as I do about a the career politician. It is not sustainable in the long term and we are in danger of losing touch with the world in a way which is not healthy. Not only that but in making priesthood into a career we are in danger of losing what brought us to it in the first place and it becomes nothing more than a job like any other with it’s toil and tedium. Having other ways of paying the mortgage not only keeps our feet on the ground and helps us to remain useful in wider society beyond the small confines of our own perspectives, but it removes the sense of desperate financial need on our ministry and prevents the breeding of that dreadful sense of entitlement, loneliness, bitterness and frustration when inevitably we don’t earn enough.

The primary motivation of the priest must be the work we are doing for the gods and the community beyond any finacial recompense. That is not to say we should not receive fair exchange for the blood sweat and tears, and of course we all need to eat but the life of a priest was never one of ease, nor should it be. This keeps us wakeful, striving, searching, doing our best and the rewards that priesthood brings in terms of our own satisfaction, relationships with the gods and ancestors is in many ways the payment we receive for choosing to walk this road.

Place Magic

This month one of my posts has been included in the wonderful Animists Blog Carnival otherwise known as the ABC. This month it is entitled, Place Magic and is hosted by Heather at Adventures in Animism. There are loads of great articles to delve into, a kind of online magazine from animists around the world and hosted by a different blog each month. Enjoy!

Liminal places and studentship

As someone who is involved in academia and passionately loves the university environment as a teacher, it is a while since I have been a student in this sort of environment myself. Despite embarking on a very steep learning curve over the past few months simply learning to teach well (both academically and in teaching my own students of the craft), I find it worryingly easy to forget what being a student is like sometimes. Not that I feel I have ever stopped learning, in fact, that almost inexpressible need to explore, discover, analyse and synthesise is a driving force in my life. That wonderful state of feeling like you know absolutely nothing about a new subject, drinking it, drowning in it, absorbing like your life depends on it is for me, one of the most inspiring places to be, yet, sadly it is not a state that lasts or comes around all that often. It ebbs and flows with our understanding and our perceptions of what we think we understand, abating a while as we fall under the misapprehension that we know something about anything and then waiting to pounce as our meanderings take us somewhere new. I spend a good deal of my life feeling like the competent amateur rather than the expert, good at lots of things by accident rather than design. But perhaps that says more about me and my ability to self deprecate than anything else.

Sitting in lectures today, not as a teacher but as a student of education itself, studying for a masters in teaching, I found myself unutterably and deliriously happy. It took me a while to work out what I was feeling let alone figure out why. Gradually I understood that I was in that space where I realised I knew less than nothing about what was being discussed but knowing that I really wanted to! The subject that got me so excited was the ‘Threshold Concept’, it’s something that I have experienced myself and often, firstly as a young student of the craft and then later as a student midwife and regularly, although tantalisingly, not regularly enough, since. However, I had never heard this educational phenomena described before. Like many things, it only takes the right person to say it in the right way for it all to fall into place.

A threshold concept is a thing or idea that, within a subject, is absolutely key for us to grasp before we can move onto deeper understandings of a subject or discipline. Sometimes these things will be individual, things that others find easy to grasp yet, take us years to get a handle on. Others are concepts that can be named within a discipline, things that you will either get, or you wont and will likely determine whether you study a subject long term or end up teaching it yourself. Thinking of my own studies within the craft, one of my threshold concepts was undoubtedly that of realising chronically and painfully how I had an impact on every particle around me; experiencing the ‘web’, to use the poetry of animism, not as a flat weaving of threads, a piece of fabric, but as a thick, viscous substance that had no spaces, not individual things joined together by bridges, but as a living, breathing whole. The air no longer empty, but so thick and full of life that I was frightened to breathe or move lest I drown or create a tsunami. Every movement and effect was magnified and blown huge. I can remember so acutely how the walls of my understanding just crumbled. I spent the next month or two putting it all back together again in a way I could make sense of, but I quickly found I had access to a whole new level of perception I could never have imagined if I’d tried.

This is another key aspect of the threshold concept, it has the ability, once grasped, to bring us to a place of liminality where all that we have understood about a certain thing is dissolved and we have to start to rebuild our understanding about how the world works, from the ground up. The threshold concept is often described as being like a portal, once you enter it, there is suddenly a whole host of ideas and things to explore that had been blocked by not understanding the first thing; that you could never even have known were there to be explored.

The interesting thing from the perspective of the teacher (or so the theory says and it does have its critics) is that it is quite possible for the student to make passably good attempts at pretending to understand the threshold concept (I know this, as a student I have done it!). It is only by deeper analysis that the student will be found out, they may not even realise their own lack of understanding, believing they have got it, when in fact they are far from it. Perhaps for many, this is in itself a part of the learning process. I can certainly identify times when it has been the case for me. Threshold concepts are difficult, thorny, hard; we don’t like them because they make life difficult. It is rather inconvenient to have to rebuild our understandings about something, particularly if we realise we may have been wrong about it for years and subsequently have to address that. As both a teacher and a student this was a really powerful understanding.

Yet there is is something utterly wonderful (for me) about that liminal space. I guess you are either partial to having your doors blown open and spending time being profoundly uncomfortable or you aren’t. I realised that it’s what I love about being a student of anything, I don’t feel quite complete unless there’s a door missing somewhere and space to grow and explore through the portal. I tend to stagnate without it. Being a student in a learning environment with other students, maximises the potential for this.

In a religious tradition where we are often our own teachers, either because we chose it or because there aren’t that many folks around willing to teach and teach well, I think the threshold concept is a valuable asset and tool that can teach us much. But it requires honesty and consciousness to use it well, the willingness to look at where we are not honest, not understanding, pretending, or not willing to explore and push a little into why. I can vividly look back at the times when I didn’t get it, often I had the inkling I was pretending a little, desperately hoping that my teachers would believe I had groked it. The bad ones bought it, the good ones rarely did.  Of course it takes a willingness to blow the bloody doors off, even if it means being uncomfortable for a while but in my experience, the portal or rather my preferred metaphor, the rabbit hole, is always worth it no matter how strange.