Wakeful Priesthood

972192_432960010134283_210332302_n[1] - Copy

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.

Advertisements

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.

Remembering the Sun

I look up from the keyboard as the shaft of late afternoon sunlight slants through the window and hits the screen of my computer, blinding it. Irritated, with a teaching session to plan, an article to write and one of my mothers threatening to go into labour, I sigh and move across the sofa as far as the lead on my laptop will let me. It allows me about 10 minutes work before the ray of sunlight again moves across my vision. Annoyed now; “I don’t have time for this!”, I jump up to move chairs, pulling the lead out accidentally as I go. My laptop flicks off and I lose the last half hour’s worth of work. I slide onto the floor wondering whether to laugh or cry in frustration. “Slow down, Priestess”, She smiles, languid from the corner of the room, all amber gold hair and a dress as grey as the stormy sea, She smells of the world outside, that I have so far cocooned myself away from for the day; “there’s time… look”. She indicates out of the window and across the field where the lazy afternoon breeze rustles the grasses in the meadow, “no rush”. I frown, I am about to retort that I don’t have time for this either, but she jokingly blows the paper I was working on across the floor. ‘Ok, enough!’ I laugh, forgetting my need to be hassled and serious. I pick up my phone, pull on my boots and head out to the pond in the meadow below. By the time I reach the gate, the sun is warm on my skin and the breeze ruffles my hair, I wonder at how I could have found it an intrusion not five minutes before. 

Reading back over my last post on sacrifice, I realise just how limited a blog post is, and just how it is almost impossible to do a subject justice in what really just amounts to a short article, usually of around 1500 words or less. It is inevitable that at some point, the writer will have to identify what their readers will understand and what deserves more full an explanation, making the decision about what to leave out more than what to leave in. Sometimes we make the right assumptions and sometimes we make the wrong ones. Either way, we have to chose what is the most pertinent and relevant otherwise we end up writing a book.

Having read today’s latest posts on the Sacrifice discussion, I realised that for those who don’t know me or my craft well, discussing the idea that something can be ‘made sacred’ might seem like I have disappeared off on an unfortunate dualistic tangent. The idea that a being (I prefer the word ‘being’ to ‘thing’) can be designated sacred or even mundane in its nature is about as at odds with animist thinking as it’s possible to be unless of course we understand that this is entirely about our perspective rather than the actuality.

At the heart of Animism, lies the experience that the world, every tiny speck of it is animate, alive, to some extent conscious of itself. This is not the simplistic perspective that is often trotted out as animism, that ‘everything has spirit’ for this is dualistic in itself, it is a language which belies a belief in spirit on one hand and matter on the other as if the two can be separated. No, this is the understanding that matter cannot exist without the humming spirit of intention, that it is this intention in itself, which forms the skeleton upon which all matter is built. To the animist, everything is sacred because everything has purpose, a sense of self, an individual ‘ishness’, a wish to be, a value and a place in the world.

So working from this principle that all is sacred, how do I then come to the understanding that to sacrifice is the art, for I do believe it is that, of making sacred? Simply, that as humans, it is impossible to live in a state where we are experiencing all to be sacred all of the time. We bumble through life, consuming without thought, swearing at the idiot who cut us up on the motorway, stressed, irritated, hurt, afraid wounded. It is hard to acknowledge any of these things as sacred, let alone understand their purpose or hear their intention, their own stories, or why something behaves as it does. It is just too difficult unless we take the time to stop and listen, paying just one or two things our full attention for a while, meditate if you like, on the relationship. For me it is my relationship with something that allows me to understand it as sacred in a very real and tangible sense and not just a theoretical one. The more difficult a situation or thing, the more important that quiet and considered meditative attention becomes.

Take the sun, that’s an easy one. As I found today, it was easy to forget its sanctity, swept up in the moment of ‘too much to do and too little time’ it became an irritation preventing my work. I forgot how often I had danced in it, lay out and sunbathed in it, thanked it for growing the beans, waking the hedgerows and evaporating water off the sea to make rain. My Goddess, of course, reminds me to slow down and take a moment to remember, pushing me off and outside to find it and rekindle my relationship, to once again find its sanctity.

Sacrifice is the same, it is finding or remembering something’s value and worth to us. Or taking something that already means so very much and recognising it, and it’s intention, purpose, individuality as sacred. To the point where we understand we cannot own it. Yet the act of sacrifice is about more than that, intrinsic within it’s meaning is the act of giving up or letting it go. It is about saying to our gods, ‘this is so big and so important, I don’t want to ever forget how sacred it is, please help me remember’. Or ‘I love you so much, this is the biggest thing I have, please take it as a symbol of my devotion’. Devotion is not about imagining that the gods care for us, it’s about not minding and loving them anyway. If we let something go, return it to the keeping of the gods, we allow it to be itself, in its own intention and ‘ishness’ no longer hampered by our need or perceptions, but shared with the world to become what it will. This allows us to consciously and permanently make it sacred so that we don’t forget. We make a sacred vow which means that it cannot be taken back without consequence, there is no slipping out of sacred relationship.

Of course I cant sacrifice the Sun, but I could sacrifice suncream (not only made by big pharma, sold by large corporations, with the products of the oil industry – already a good reason) but in not protecting my skin from the sun, I am forced to remember its power. I cant ever take it for granted lest it burn me to a frazzle and with my red hair and fair skin, that’s fairly likely. 17 years ago, my vows not to eat meat began as a sacrifice, an offering to the power that is life. It was really hard and although I knew I needed to, I didn’t want to. Sacrificing meat was about remembering that all life is sacred and capable of suffering and choosing not to be a part of that wherever possible. I didn’t need it to live, so why take a life? It seemed pure selfishness. Now it is second nature, the sense of the cow or the sheep as a being, filled with life and purpose and sentience is utterly sacred to me. If I had simply made the decision to be vegetarian, I could take that back anytime I wanted, but the fact that it is a sacrifice to the gods, sacred, reminds me every day not only of why I choose not to eat meat but also of my devotion to my gods. Apologies to those uncomfortable by the vegetarian polemic, but it’s a good example of sacred vows and the sacrifices that often accompany them. For me it was about saying ‘no matter how busy or forgetful I am, I will always remember and have time for this.”

Ultimately, sacrifice, is about learning to live in a sacred way. Understanding that we cannot perceive the world as all sacred all of the time. But it is about placing the markers and sign posts along the way to help us remember, as often as possible, that it is.


The Animist’s Craft

It seems only necessary to begin fairly early on in this collection of thoughts with a post on Animism. After all I have stridently declared it to be my craft. When deciding on a name for my blog I meandered my way through a whole host of inventive nature-based permutations of ‘Druid’,’ Heathen’ and ‘Pagan’, but nothing seemed to reflect my religion and the way I practice it. Whilst I claim elements of each of these as a part of my craft (on different days each can feel totally right), none of them feel like me in their entirety and never have sufficiently, for me to use them with absolute consistency. In this year’s census I entered ‘Pagan-Druid’, as many did, feeling that it was important to enter something that would be meaningful and counted, that might change society’s understanding of the religious landscape of Britain in the 21st century, even if it did not describe me exactly. What I really wanted to enter was simply ‘Animist’ but I knew that would not be recognised in any meaningful way.

When I began my training and study of paganism, it was assuredly and confidently as a Witch. A woman of the ‘Old Religion’ of these islands, lotions, potions, cauldrons and magic. That religion, as I learnt it, was simply known as ‘The Craft’. Early on it expressed to me the artistry of the Witch, her ability to craft magic, bend nature to her will, create what she needed with the right spell. I strode out, reclaiming what I felt to be a misused and abused word, naively sure of what it meant, mistakenly believing that I knew ‘something’. Thankfully this was an idea which dissolved pretty quickly, never to return along with my delusions of grandeur, helped along their way by some good teaching with solid ethics. In many ways though, everything and nothing has changed in my understanding. I still use the word ‘Craft’ here quite deliberately, because its simplicity continues to describe my religion perfectly, but for different reasons now than it did then.

I no longer practice magic in the above sense, that bending of nature to our own ends is deeply flawed within my own understanding of animism, although I know how deeply and powerfully it works. Magic is a sad reflection of our culture that assumes that we can have anything at any cost even to another’s detriment. Who loses love or money or a car or the job so that we can find it? Somehow there will be balance, someone or something will lose out, or at least, we cannot assume that there won’t be a kick back. Should we care anyway if another loses so that we can gain? Really these questions require far more than the few hundred words I can give them in this post, but it is here that the key and central tenet to what I understand animism to be is; Everything has value. This is not the value that we as humanity might place upon it, how useful it is to us, what we can gain from it or how we might bend it to our needs, but that each thing in it’s own right, tree, stone, wasp, plastic bottle, subatomic particle, has it’s own value apart from that which anything or anyone else might place upon it. Each thing has it’s own intention and purpose, its own reason for being even if that is not clear to us. This is where I find sanctity in nature, in the understanding that everything, whether we percieve it or not is animated and alive and valuable. To use religious language it has spirit.

Magical practice then, disturbs and holds no regard for the individual purpose or value of another being. It places our own needs above that of anything else effectively disconnecting us from the threads of relationship, empathy and connection that hold us within the web. Here again, is another central tenet of what I understand to be animism, that of relationship. As an animist if I consider my sacred text to be written in the value and the inherant purpose or intention of all things, then my religious practice is the exploration of my relationship with each thing, or rather being, I encounter. Because I believe and understand it to have life and sentience, whether that is the food I eat, the rain, the sun, the car or the cat.

Relationship is vital because none of us exist within a vacuum. We are, each of us, part of and connected to a vast web by the relationships we have and create with the world around us. As consciousness grows, we begin to understand that in a very real and tangible way, what we do to the web we do to ourselves. This is not the naive and oft trotted out law of 3 fold return or ‘an it harm none, do what thou wilt’. The implication here is that divine justice will be metered out for doing bad, yet my gods do not care enough for humanity to mete out punishment. No, this is the absolute understanding that because we are created by the relationships we experience, our inner landscapes are a reflection of the world around us. The changes we effect externally become internal because our sense of separation from the world becomes diluted. We Craft our own experience of reality, perspectives and understanding of the world based on the experiences and relationships we have and I would go so far as to say that we do this absolutely and completely without exception, although much of that creativity may go on below the level of our consciousness and we may have no notion of how we have created it or can affect the changing of it. This does not mean however, that through exploration we cannot become increasingly more conscious of it and learn how.

So the ultimate and never ending journey of the animist is to expand and push back the boundaries of our awareness of relationship in order to effect those changes within ourselves, becoming more deeply aware of what we create and having the free will to decide how we do it, with the understanding of the effects we craft as we move through the web. Rather than bending nature to our will, we find a current which is already flowing in the right direction and create the relationship with it that will take us where we need to be. We follow the flows already inherent within nature, rather than fighting against them.

These powerful currents and flows within nature are my gods. They are the threads that bind the world together and unravel it at the edges. They are the solid mud of the land, the sea currents, the stillness of the darkness and the frost that strips the leaves from the trees. Sometimes I call them by the names and stories of our ancestors, most usually for me those of the Giant or Jotun folk of the English and Germanic traditions. At others they are simply the flows of nature, human and non, but that is the subject of another post entirely.

Ultimately my animism means that crucially, my gods do not care for me. I have no sense of a loving mother goddess, a protecting father god. My gods are un-gendered beyond my own perception and understanding  of the old ancestral stories , they are just nature with their own purpose and intention, their own stories to tell. They inspire within me a deep devotion through their beauty, power and enormity, yet my devotion to them is not as one who submits or worships, it is as explorer and participant in the relationship and here again, we are reaching the territory of a whole other post.

There is so much here that I feel I have not given adequate space or explanation to I haven’t even touched upon polytheism, Druidry or Heathenry in any meaningful way.  My intention is simply to give a flavour of my vision of Animism and my religious practice upon which this blog is based. A foundation upon which to explore.