Mysticism as vocation in modern paganism

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather poignantly the relative uniqueness of my choice to make spirit-work and devotional mysticism the focus of, and force behind, my entire life. This is, to put it mildly, not a common occurrence in modern polytheism/paganism. Of course, it wasn’t a common occurrence in ancient polytheism (or currently-practiced polytheistic and animistic religions around the world) either. Spiritual specialists have always been a very small percentage of the population, and that makes sense on many levels (not many people called to, or capable of, the Work; tribes or societies unable to support more than a few at a time, etc.). It is obviously even more difficult in our culture, which does not support us financially or emotionally in these endeavors.

But there are times I feel frustrated at the apparent lack of anyone these days willing to make that commitment. I’ve seen countless people profess a vocation of being a spirit-worker, or godspouse/godslave, or priest/ess, and then either give it up completely later on, or end up relegating it to a much smaller part of their life so that they don’t have to sacrifice having “normal” life goals like children, or a successful career, or just basic control over their own lives. Now, on a case by case basis, I understand this, I even think it’s the right decision in many instances. If this isn’t what you’re truly meant to be doing, you shouldn’t do it, period.

But when looked at as a bigger picture, one has to wonder, why is it that so very, very few people these days seem to feel the call of the gods and spirits to such a path too insistently to disregard, no matter what society or their families think, no matter the sacrifices or difficulties or isolation they will face? When I look around for role models for the life I’m trying to live, I end up having to read about sadhus in India or monks living in caves or medieval anchorites or shamans on the tundra, but can rarely find such guidance amongst my contemporaries in any new/revived polytheist traditions. (I will not say “never” because there are a handful of folks who have stayed the course over time and continue to provide wisdom and inspiration for me, but I’m not going to digress into listing them right now, though that may be another post.)

My decision to write about this now was initiated by reading Drew Jacob’s post on Patheos today, about the dismantling of his temple (and the comments it received). He described the very demanding program of study and practice that they were pursuing, and how ultimately no one they trained was willing or able to commit to it.

“As years went by, more people reached the point in their apprenticeship where they were offered the chance to initiate into draíocht (druidic practices). But they didn’t end up initiating. There were a variety of reasons: in some cases they felt it wasn’t their dán [life’s purpose]. In other cases, they simply weren’t able to put in the time commitment to pursue initiation – jobs, school, and other obligations made it difficult….All of these are excellent reasons not to embark on such a challenging path. I have nothing but the greatest respect for my students. But it did leave the Temple with a dawning realization: we were not, in fact, creating draoíthe [druids].”

Sad to read, but not surprising to me. And as I said above, I agree with Drew that the reasons are solid – if those things are a greater priority for you than the level of spiritual vocation in question. I simply lament that such is the case for almost all modern pagans (though at least the people described were self-aware enough to realize this – it’s even worse to see people claim their spiritual vocation is their first priority, but consistently act otherwise).

Phaedra Bonewits commented:

“When Isaac organized ADF, he had a training vision probably closer to yours than you would think. Twenty years ago, I would chuckle over the ambitions of his original draft ADF training program. What were the odds that someone would have the time and money available to finish what was in essence several master’s degrees in order to take a non-paying position in the community? The answer is obvious, and the ADF training plans have evolved since then with modern reality in mind.
So I’m not surprised that few took initiation in your group, that few could become draoíthe in your strict, historical sense. Because this is the twenty-first century. As Isaac often explained, the draoíthe were a social class. You learned what you learned because that’s what your family did. It was part of your life, day in and day out. Here in the twenty-first century, that kind of study and training is a luxury that must be fitted around daily life. What you presented was simply not a sustainable model for this day and age. The proof is that it could not sustain itself.”

While this certainly reflects the views of the majority of pagans today, I question that it is the only way to see things. Yes, it is true that we do not have the same social structure that once existed in many paleo-pagan cultures. Yes, a person who wished to fully devote themselves today to a path of mysticism, shamanism, druidism, etc. would have to navigate the challenges of also supporting themselves at the same time. But this does not mean it’s impossible, or that we should just give up on the idea of having mystics and shamans and druids in our religions today (or lessen our expectations for such, so that the best we can hope for is someone who does a little trancework on the weekends). It just means a lot of hard work and obstacles for those on the path. But if one can’t face those, one certainly won’t be able to face the spiritual, emotional, physical and mental challenges of the Work itself, which will tear you apart a million times whether you are being fed by your tribe or having to work an unrelated day job to pay your rent.

The main conflict seems to come from the assumption (which to me, reflects our culture of entitlement) that a person should be able to have everything they may desire in life. So, if I want to be a mystic, but I also want to own a business (or have a baby, or financial security, or a social life), I deserve to have both of these, even if both suffer as a result. If you suggest that in order to fully devote myself to the path of mysticism, I might have to set aside some of my other goals or desires, I will either stop pursuing it, or simply tack the title onto a meager set of practices that doesn’t begin to touch what could really be accomplished with full dedication.

Why must the spiritual vocation always be the “luxury that must be fitted around daily life”? Why not see the obligations and rewards of home, family and career (not to mention the elaborate trappings of a modern Western lifestyle) as the luxury, that (if desired at all) must be fitted around the spiritual vocation? Surely there must be some pagans out there who value the latter above the former.

This is not written to disparage those who have tried on a spiritual vocation and found it to not be the right fit for them (as I said, better to “know thyself” than to force or fake it). Or those who make room for some level of vocation within their lives, but do not commit their whole selves to it above all else (especially if they already have children, who deserve their full attention) – we need those people too; having more stake in this world makes them more capable of connecting with the lay members of their religion and their concerns, which can be critical for some types of Work.

Rather, this is just to say that I deeply hope that a few more polytheists and pagans today will consider the possibility of giving their lives to the gods and spirits in totality, accepting both the benefits and hardships of such a choice. To serve a community, perhaps, but also the gods and spirits themselves. That they will craft an extraordinary life in partnership with the divine, which transcends the boundaries of “daily life” in a way that can only be attained through years of practice, but serves as an inspiration and catalyst for others in their own way. That they will reject the notion that such vocations belong only to the past, but instead take their place alongside the sufis, sadhus, hermits, high priests, ecstatic nuns, nympholepts, medicine men and seidhkonas of the world, past and present. That they will carry on the Mysteries, and discover new ones. That they will explore the depth of divine union that can be realized only with unwavering commitment.

It is not an impossible or unrealistic goal in this modern age – merely one that has been devalued and doubted too often. Like many extraordinary pursuits, it is not safe or easy or guaranteed. But for a small percentage, it is the right path, the path that must be taken – and it is worth it. If you feel the call but are held back by all the voices saying it can’t – or shouldn’t – be done, let my voice be a small counterpoint to that cacophony. It can be done. It should be done. It needs to be done, for all of us, for Them.

~ by Dver on June 13, 2011.