Paths Between the Pillars

prayer1-277x300I’m about to let you in on one of my dirty little secrets.

Back in high school, and even college, I was “blessed” with the ability to be good in just about any area I chose. I became very used to success: being concert master of not one but two high school orchestras, getting into the college of my choice, getting grants to fund my studies, graduating from said college (one of the Seven Sisters) magna cum laude with departmental honors. Chalk it up to my double Capricorn nature, but I love titles. If I believed in sin, this would probably be one of mine. I’m driven by a (often unhealthy) need to be the best, running at the front of the pack.

Now, at the ripe ol’ age of 32, I’ve been forced to confront that this is not the reality of my life. I do many things well, but I’m not a leader. Not any more.

I’m an awesome beta.

You need a ritual written? Let me get out my pen. You need some props for a ceremony? Hold on, I’ve got some papier mache, duct tape, and extra fabric around here somewhere. You need a divination about your job? I have my cards right here. A protection charm? Let me get my origami paper. How about an editor? I can do that, too. Let me support you in your vision, let me help you create something magical, wonderful, grand. Hel, I can even delegate on good days.

Sometimes, I’d like to think I could be a priest, maybe when I’ve grown up a little more–maybe even clergy. The question is, how much of this comes from a desire to help and serve others, and how much is because “clergy” is seen as the “terminal degree” in the land of Paganistan. (See? There’s that darned Capricorn tendency again.)  It’s a rough and ugly question to ask, but if you’re not asking it of yourself, and you’re on a cleric’s path…well, frankly, you’re not a person I’d want mediating between me and my gods. Nornoriel Lokason wrote a great piece on boundaries and belonging. The following quote particularly struck me:

It is unrealistic to expect and *demand* that everybody immolate their entire beings and become some robot-priest/ess where their entire life is about the gods. This is why there are too many people who feel inadequate as laypeople, by the way, because some folks pontificating from on high are calling for standards that would be taxing even for full-time dedicated priests, never mind Average Jane or Joe.  There’s something to be said about having a work/life balance, and the sort of devotionalism in others that inspired me some years ago now admittedly squicks me the fuck out, because it looks extremely unbalanced, unhealthily so.

That sort of fanatical, “look at meeee!” devotionalism is hurtful, not only to the attention seekers themselves, but to those who would draw inspiration from their experiences. Public displays of piety polarize Pagans and Polytheists into those who would be king, I mean, clergy, and the rest of us hoi polloi. These are not leaders elected out of love by their communities. These are self-proclaimed hierophants, whose One True Way smacks of the worst qualities of paternalistic Evangelical  Protestantism.  It’s a crying shame, because the devotional path could have been viable for the lay person, a way to be close to the gods without having to serve anyone other than oneself and maybe one’s family. That’s not the tenor of the most recent conversations, though, and it’s the reason why I break out in spots at the phrase “devotional Polytheist.” Devotion is quickly becoming the purview of so-called priests, leaving the rest of us where, precisely?

I don’t know that I can truly offer any solutions to the disease of devotion. Perhaps it’s all just semantics, but more and more “devotion” has come to mean an all-consuming obsession with the gods, to the exclusion of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. For my own practice, I use the term “veneration” or “adoration” to describe what I do. When I venerate my ancestors of blood and soul, I invite them into my life to participate in my world as it is, complete with children, pets, housemates, and neighbors. I adore my gods, experience ecstasy with my spirits, all within the container of this very real, very mundane existence.

Blogging and social media create difficulties for the ego. “Likes” and comments and followers create a subconscious popularity contest.  Self-worth becomes attached to the approval of strangers sitting on the other side of the webs of light that connect our keyboards and screens to one another. Maybe inherent nature of the blogosphere itself is one reason why again and again issues are couched in terms of either/or, black/white, chicken/fish. I’ve got to believe there’s another road between the two pillars of “priest” and “lay.”  Maybe there’s a whole highway system in there, just waiting to be discovered. We’re Pagans. We’re Polytheists. We can break the binary patterns of our mother culture and create a true plurality of belief and praxis.

There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. ~Rumi

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20 thoughts on “Paths Between the Pillars

  1. I reluctantly started using the term “devotional polytheist” again to describe myself more recently but I use it with some severe caveats. What I do is not what certain problematic pontificators do. I don’t believe that devotion should be this “look at me” let’s-shame-people-for-doing-it-wrong contest. I decided to start using the word devotion again because it’s a beautiful word and it’s not fair to let people who turn it on its head into something gross have the exclusive rights to use that word re: their religious practise. That said I very very very much understand the distaste with the word and preferring a term like adoration because I was there for awhile, and my decision re: the word devotion is for myself and I’m not trying to guilt you about it.

    But yeah, the devotionalist culture is squicky in some parts. A lot of parts. -.-

    “I’ve got to believe there’s another road between the two pillars of “priest” and “lay.” ”

    Meanwhile in Vanaheim hurr hurr *cough* (sorry, mind went in gutter)

    …yeah, I agree that there is actually a medium between priest and layperson. I also think there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a layperson but unfortunately it seems like most of us who are in the public eye are in some priestly type position so it can be hard for newbies to understand that there is actually such a thing as polytheistic laity and it’s a good and worthy thing, that is the backbone of our religious traditions.

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    • *nods* Yes, I asked myself whether I am in fact guilty of the perpetual tendency in the Pagan/Polytheist communities to split “hares” when a whole rabbit runs a lot faster than a half one. (The answer to that is yes, sadly.) More likely, I should just get out it the garden and stop being grumpy at the way other people are doing things on the internet. 🙂

      I remember at once point being inspired by the word “devotion” but you’re right, I’m definitely not in the place where reclaiming it would be useful in my practice. I’m very glad that it’s working for you, though!

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  2. When I read the term “devotional” it makes me think of the disconnect between those of us whose practices are centered on worshiping one or more Deities and those of us who are more centered on spellcraft. I’m not as familiar with the “devotionalist” term as it is used online, but here in my hometown, most Pagans are more interested in magic than they are in prayer and worship. Which is fine, that isn’t meant to be a criticism; it’s just that I’ve often felt a need to describe what I do as being more devotional than magical in nature (though these two spheres definitely overlap in many cases).

    I think the fact that clerical authority is a “free-for-all” in this subculture is one of the more annoying results of not being an organized religion. When there is no central authority to regulate these matters, people can do whatever they like (for better or worse). Still, I’d rather deal with that than deal with the dark side of being an organized religion.

    I agree that we could probably benefit from using more terms than just “priesthood” and “laity.” Maybe it would help if we distinguished between “family elders,” “shrine keepers” and “congregational shepherds” or something like that.

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    • I think you’re absolutely correct, that “devotion” can be a useful descriptor if you’re trying place emphasis on a different part of your practice compared to the other pagans in your area. If it works for you, great!

      The devotion/magic dichotomy is an interesting one, and ultimately false, I personally believe–but it’s an ooooold one, going back at least to the Greeks (PGM’s a good source for this) if not the Mesopotamians (little fuzzier on references here). In the ancient Mediterranean world, at least, magic was something that was done outside of the accepted societal framework for petitioning the gods–often in involved binding them to your will among other practices that we would tend to frown on today. Religion was part of the state. Magic was personal, outside of that sanctioned construct.

      At least to me, “magic” can be practiced by anyone, regardless of religion, while “devotion” indicates a particular type of interaction within one’s religious/spiritual framework. To make a rather silly analogy, magic is the xBox, devotion is inviting your mates over for beer and pizza, where the xBox may or may not come into play–Hel, you can even play the xBox by yourself!

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  3. Although I see my path as devotional- in relation both to my land and my gods, I’ve never seen these devotional relationships as being tied up with priesthood.

    I’ve never had ambitions to mediate directly between people and deities. Although perhaps I serve this role indirectly by taking people on walks, being involved in organising simple ceremonies, and by performing poems within both my pagan and non-pagan communities for both land and gods.

    I’m also not a fan of the divisions between priesthood and laity, and that so called superiors mitigating betwween people and gods could get in the way of a more fulfilling and direct relationship.

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    • It’s been really good to hear folks saying that they don’t equate devotion with priesthood. I’m wondering if perhaps it’s an artifact of American culture? (I love to blame American culture for a lot of things, this may or may not be one of them!) Or maybe its just the type of people whom the bloggosphere attracts?

      Scarily enough, the one place where I do agree with some strains of American Christian fundamentalism is that a person can have a direct relationship with their gods (of whatever flavor) without the intervention of a priest. It’s like a friend giving you a summary of a book vs. reading it for yourself, y’know? It’s a lot harder to read it yourself, sometimes, but you’ll be so much richer for it.

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      • I *think* the identification of devotion and priesthood is a hangover from Wicca. As many pagan paths are inspired by Wicca, and becoming a priest or priestess involves devoting oneself to a god and goddess, I’m pretty sure this is the origin.

        I tend to see priests as those who act as celebrants, or officiate at ceremonies for their gods. In contrast, in the ceremonies I’m involved in with my local pagan society it’s really eclectic and everybody plays a part,although if the ceremony’s for a particular deity the person(s) with the deepest connection will call to them.

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  4. Great post. 🙂 Thanks for sharing. I can sympathize with the need for titles and approval and whatnot and the strive for Power (I do work with Freya, after all.) I’m not familiar with the “devotional” term. I can guess based on the context above, but personally, it’s not something I’ve run into. I am, however, Dedicated to my goddess, which may be similar.

    It’s kind of hard for me to grok the clergy/laity dichotomy existing in Asatru/Heathenry (which is where I’m coming from). In my opinion, anyway, kind of by definition, and based on historical practices, anybody can take on the role of leading blots or sumbels or otherwise honoring the Gods. Some people might be better at it than others, or feel more comfortable doing it, but no special degree of any kind is needed.

    Using the term “dedicated” helped me avoid dealing with being initiated or leveled up somehow within a specific *trad* or group for within Heathenry, and let me go right to what I wanted to do, which was to be a connection point for people in my community to interact with Freya more easily (and vice versa). Being dedicated, I now feel like I’m trained up in a specific skill that’s of use to my community. It’s not the only skill nor the most important skill, and there are a bunch of other roles that also need to be filled in order for this whole community thing to work. But both in my mind and in my community’s opinion, the dedication gave me the approval, for lack of a better word, to focus *primarily* on Her and just do Freya-type things for whoever needs them, in whatever scenario that She is needed–Heathen, Wiccan, Christian, atheist friends, or whatever. (However, now that I’m dedicated to Her, I’m finding that trying to stick to “just Freya”, or even “just the Vanir”, or, at this point, “just the Nordic gods” is apparently not what my path is about. So who knows. Maybe it’s impossible to just be dedicated to a specific deity and to get involve in other deities’ stuff. It seems like now that I have an Official Relationship with one deity, the rest are sitting up, taking notice, and saying, “Hmm, what *else* can she do…?”)

    In any event, though, people do like to have leaders. We like to have someone with whom the buck stops. Even Heathens. Sometimes people who aren’t aiming for attention or leadership get stuffed into that role just because it’s needed in a given situation, and that person is the closest thing the community has to a leader at that time. Even something relatively minor (in the grand scheme of things, not to the person involved) like being dedicated to a specific deity or group of deities indicates a level of service greater than that of the usual Heathen; I’ve seen the “mantle of power” fall on these people specifically because there was nobody else around to take it.

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    • Good point about power vacuums. Humans are ultimately social creatures, and we certainly seem to like to have some sort of hierarchy. Now, if we could just learn how to train and keep good leaders… 😉

      To be clear, I don’t object to leaders so much, as I believe they can contribute to many areas outside of the “god-phone” arena. It’s more the obsession with priesthood that bugs me.

      I do like the term “dedicated” when describing deity relationships in particular. I tend to use it more when describing a path (“dedicated to Wicca” etc.), but I like the connotations it brings to certain types of god interactions.

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  5. A very good piece! And yet the one question that comes to mind is: Why can’t we just be Pagan and worship the Gods? Surely not everyone who has devotion and respect for the gods has to be a priest/ess?

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  6. Pingback: Magic vs. Devotion | The Druid's Well
  7. I think the laity vs. clergy concept is really irrelevant to most forms of Paganism/polytheism. I think specialist vs. nonspecialist makes more sense, and we have many kinds of specialists, many roles! I wrote a post about different types of community roles here: http://paganleft.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/functions-of-pagan-clergyleaders/
    I am honestly more of an “agnostic armchair philosopher/theologian with a polytheistic worldview trying to motivate myself to actually Do Spiritual Stuff.” I think the devotional polytheist label arose in part to distinguish from humanistic pagans (We’re the real thing dammit!) type idea.

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  8. Well, I consider myself a humanist & a polytheist, if that confuses other people, they need to study their history- “humanism” had a broader meaning than atheism long before they tried taking over the word.

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