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.

37 Responses to “Mysticism as vocation in modern paganism”

  1. Thank you.

  2. As both a spirit worker and a magician (I had devoted my life to magic long before I was called to spirit work) I have seen this happen in both fields. Apprenticeship in my Clan’s magical tradition is a long and arduous process of self-discover and dedication. One which brings with it major changes not only to how one lives their lives, but to the very nature of one’s energy.

    As with spirit workers, I have seen many people embark on a path of studying our magic, only to realize that a life-time commitment to its study and practice is not something they want in life.

    With both spirit work and magic, I think there are far more people who WANT to want it, than are actually called to and suited to the Work.

    Societal stigma, financial hardship, and other material concerns are a definite factor for many. However, I think it is the intense self-awareness required in magic, and the complex and challenging deity relationship and Work required in spirit work that causes many to seek more “traditional” paths.

    On the subject of spirit work, there are many I meet in my travels who are deeply drawn to my relationship with Spirit and my gods. As well as to what they see as the power involved with having a strong connection to the divine. What many who pursue that connection are shocked by is the level of WORK inherent in being a spirit WORKER.

    I recently had a woman who has been actively pursuing spirit work complain that at a gathering we were both at, she had not had a chance to just relax and have fun. There kept being Jobs she needed to see to, and she felt this was terribly unfair. I pointed out that spirit worker is not an honorary degree to put on the wall, we work, and do that work when They call us to, not when it suits us. That the gods and spirits ask things of us that we don’t necessarily want to do is something that I think causes a lot of “new” spirit workers to “wash out,” no matter how many times their elders explain in advance that it comes with the territory.

    It has been suggested to me as a magician and as a spirit worker that we should seek to make magical studies, or the journey into spirit work “easier.” That the high failure rate is proof that we (and by extension the gods) are “too hard” on people. But I don’t know that watering down our traditions is the way to go, and I don’t believe that any of us mortals have the power to make spirit work “easier” or require less sacrifice, nor do I think many of us would, even if we could.

    • You are very right – it is not just the external hardships, but the internal challenges that might scare people off. You do have to face yourself in a way most people would rather avoid. And you are never really allowed to rest on your laurels in deity/spirit relationships either, always being challenged to go deeper, further, to shatter your preconceptions, to truly and intimately know the divine, which can be painful and terrifying.

      I am always so saddened when I hear it suggested that we should make this type of Work easier, or the commitment less total, in order to attract or retain more people. We have managed to find a few humans willing and able to Work at this level for millennia, in pretty much every culture – what does it say about ours to suggest that this is no longer possible? Why must everything be easy or accessible in our culture? (You see the same thing in the arts – fewer people willing to endure the years of apprenticeship required to truly master certain skills.) But even if we wanted to do such a thing, even if we were willing to apply the titles (which are, ultimately, human constructs) to those who had not really earned it by any previous standards, it wouldn’t change what the gods and spirits expect, how they interact with those most dedicated to them, what they require and what they are willing to give.

    • I’m also a practicing spirit-worker and a magician, and I don’t know what else to add other than–yes, absolutely. I’ve found this very similarly in my own experiences. I mean, people seem to forget the “work” part in “spirit-work”. Granted, there have been times where I felt like throwing in the towel and saying “fuck it”. Good on those who have that option–some of us don’t. And in the end, the part of me that loves deep down in my gut would shrivel up and die without that connection, regardless of its extreme challenges.

      • Yeah – while there are times I might envy those who have an easier path, or one with more options, I cannot really imagine my life any other way but this. The further I go, the more it becomes clear that this is what I’m meant to be doing, for better or worse. It’s what I’m good at, and it’s what fills me up.

        • Of course, perhaps I should add that it may only be what I’m good at, and what fulfills me, because They made me that way over the years, moulded me into something that would do the Work for Them – but I did make the initial agreement, even if I didn’t really know what I was agreeing to, and in any case there’s no use fretting about that.

          • Sometimes I like to use the metaphor of the primitive hunting dog. The dog is honed and conditioned by its master to be an expert hunter, and originally these animals were common village dogs. The ones who followed the hunters out to seek quarry were the ones that ended up the hunting hounds in the end, to be directed and shaped by the hunting master to their greatest potential.

            Not sure if I’m bringing this across correctly, but it’s a metaphor that speaks to me at any rate. Guh. I’m too sleep deprived for deep conversation…but I try!

            • No, that makes sense to me. An initial display of willingness and/or inherent talent leads Them to further hone us for the Work. It’s a good metaphor.

  3. Bravo! This deserves a standing ovation! It’s great to see such an intelligent and passionate meditation on what having a spiritual vocation entails, with all of its struggles and sacrifice and constant dedication – not just that but to affirm that it’s worth all that it requires of us and is a worthwhile, even noble thing to do with one’s life. And of course what makes it even more special is that it’s not all talk with you – you have amply put in the hard work over the years and risen to every challenge that’s come your way. I consider it a great honor to you and draw inspiration from you on a daily basis. Thanks for sharing this and thanks for being one of those people who has given their all to the path.

  4. […] Dver Mysticism as a vocation in modern paganism: Yes, it is true that we do not have the same social structure that once existed in many […]

  5. I think the problem you mention is very complex… And maybe what Sannion denounced some months ago has to do about that. If people think that paganism is about healing, why would they have to “suffer”, to sacrifice anything ? They may not see that as “empowering”.

    To me it is clear that we were born in a world that is all too comfortable, and spirituality is also about comfort. And unless we face such choice as you mention, we don’t know if we will be capable. I would like to engage in such a life as you describe, and I definitely have the fiber for pure service. But despite that fact, I’m not sure that I could maje the ultimate choices if I were to face huge sacrifices. We’re in a world of bargaining, and I would like to maintain even a small part of materiality or “normality”, since it will look to me as a anchorage in “reality”. As you say yourself, we have no models, or very few. The quest is so hard that it is easy to fail, and it is so important that we fall from very high. would I be able to suffer that and yet go on ? Or would I choose something a little easier ?

    For anyone who is even only interesting by the notion of spiritual role, this reflection is crucial. And I’m not finished with it, I guess I’ve just begun in fact.

  6. We are newcomers on the spiritual stage. Other religions- religions with greater numbers and long pedigrees- have structures in place and have had them for centuries to support those within their communities who seek the Gods first. We have to be trailblazers, chopping a path where no one’s been before (in recent history, anyway) in a society that not only marginalizes us but in some cases openly works to eradicate us and we have to be patient about it. The part that bothered me about what Drew posted was not that I thought his goal was unworthy or that he may have set his goals too high but that he and the other members of Temple of the River were too impatient. They had worked and functioned in the community for seven years, three years short of a decade- which is no small thing and I tip my hat to them and their efforts; but how long did it take to build and institutionalize the first Buddhist monastery?

    • You definitely make some good points. Without knowing the whole situation first-hand, it’s hard to say exactly what was going on, but it’s true that it would probably take much longer than seven years to establish the sort of program he was talking about. And it seems that in the meantime, they were indeed fulfilling other community religious needs, holding well-attended festivals, etc., which is more than many of us can accomplish. On the other hand, I completely empathize with the frustration of not being able to find people willing to give the level of dedication required.

  7. Thank you for posting your thoughts on this, Dver. They really made me think about my own perspective on these issues!!

  8. […] recent post by Dver over at A Forest Door entitled, “Mysticism as vocation in modern paganism“, caught my eye just as I was continuing to draft my own post (started May 16th and that I […]

  9. I admire your passion for this, and empathize; I’ve long felt a pull towards monasticism. Of course, there aren’t really any pagan monasteries these days, so that’s out of the question.

    The thing is, it’s not that neo-paganism is lacking in people who wholly devote their lives to their spirituality, but that no religion has that. I wrote my thesis on failed medieval English saints (Christina of Markyate and Margery Kempe, primarily) which involved a lot of research into anchorites, saint’s plays, mysticism, and the like. At the same time a colleague of mine was doing her thesis on the letters of Hildegard of Bingen, another famous medieval mystic. The theme that really struck me was just how mundane these women’s lives were. Hildegard wrote about papal policy, Margery was a brewer, Christina spent most of her devoted spiritual life trying to simply survive. Julian of Norwich, like your average anchorite, was a prominent teacher, meaning she had students regularly visiting her, providing for her, etc. Even in a society that supported intense spiritual devotion, these mystics spent most of their time doing decidedly unmystical things.

    As for the Indian examples, I have some experience of that. I have a friend whose family was highly devoted to a specific guru, who advised them on completely mundane things. My friend even hosted a god in her garage. Indian mysticism in general is designed to fit within the householder’s life. I don’t remember off the top of my head what text it was (Bhagavad Gita maybe?) but highly devout men were expected to raise a family and only retreat to an ashram after their children were grown up, their wives were taken care of, and ultimately were retired. I don’t think anyone could consider BKS Iyengar to be any less than fully devoted to yoga, and yet he writes constantly about his integrating it within a family life. As did his guru, Sri T Krishnamacharya. And I believe his guru before him. And so on and so forth.

    In short, I believe you’re romanticizing mysticism. In all examples that I’ve studied it’s been something that’s integrated into family/mundane life, and is healthier for it.

    Ashley, who is training to be a priest while having babies.

    • I understand how you may have gotten the impression that I am romanticizing mysticism, but let me elaborate a little.

      While I recognize the validity of your examples, I have to disagree that ALL mystics have been like that. There have been people (fewer, true, but they exist) who entirely leave behind everything in pursuit of the divine. Cave-dwelling nympholepts, anchorites confined to their cells with no human contact, shamans who live on the edge of the village and are only visited when there’s a problem.

      Furthermore, many mystics from other times and cultures didn’t *have to* completely separate themselves, because their families and their societies supported what they did. There’s a vast difference between being integrated into a culture that is animistic or polytheistic, that has a role for you, that has the same values as you – and trying to remain integrated in a culture which values consumerism, destroys nature, vilifies your religion, etc., and would require a lot of non-spiritual work in order to fit in (i.e., how many hours is one working in order to have all the trappings of a normal American life) In the latter case, it may be more necessary to sacrifice the things you were taught to want from life.

      That being said, I never meant that any mundane activities are untenable to a devoted mystic. I fully recognize the importance (and unavoidability, in any case) of chopping wood and carrying water. I don’t expect anyone to be in some ecstatic trance every minute of their waking lives. I also think plenty of the examples you give are directly related (or at least, could be) to a spiritual path – teaching, for instance, or even brewing. But that’s a far cry from, say, working a 50 hour week at a law firm so you can have a fancy house and afford to raise several children, and then expecting you can also fully delve into a mystic religious path at the same time. Ideally, one’s mundane activities should all be supporting the path, not interfering with it.

      Your example of the Indian custom of waiting until late middle age to go off on a spiritual quest is exactly my point – obviously in that case, raising a family and living in an ashram were considered mutually exclusive, you could do one and then the other but not both simultaneously. I’m just hoping some people will choose the spiritual life while they’re still young, in lieu of the other responsibilities.

      Finally, I’m not saying that you can’t be a priest and have babies. It’s quite possible that the type of priest you want to be is perfectly compatible with having a devoted home life as well. As I said, there are plenty of people who keep more of a foot in each world, and we need those people, especially in a ministerial capacity. But I think we *also* need some people who are willing to make mysticism their absolute #1 priority, people who can go further Out There because they don’t have the same types of responsibilities holding them back.

      • Thank you for thoughtful response. For the record, I didn’t say that all mystics were as I described, but that all I had studied were. Also, as I said above, anchorites weren’t confined in their cell with no human contact; the existence of the Ancrene Wisse is testament to that. At a minimum, there were a staff of people who would provide the anchorites with what they needed to survive. Anchorites were usually attached to larger churches, which were obviously tourist attractions.

        Anyways, I’ve been dealing with these issues in some depth lately, and really should write them up. I probably will in response to this post, so thank you for blog fodder! The long and short of it is that Neo-Paganism as a whole puts a lot of emphasis on mystical experiences without providing much guidance towards navigating them. This is partially the problem of Neo-Paganism being a large grouping of unorganized religions. Regardless, as something of a reluctant trance worker, I’ve struggled with this a lot, and have had a good deal of difficulty from my solo trance experiences. I’ve felt a call to the religious life for as long as I could remember (my first coven noticed this back when I was 15), and as the mother of a 2 year old I can firmly state that my life is more oriented to the divine now than when I had lots of free time. Just my experience. Part of why I’m in clergy training (I’m a member of ADF) now is because I want to prove that one can lead a deeply religious life while maintaining their familial responsibilities. It doesn’t hurt that I stay home.

        How exactly would having isolated intense mystics actually help Neo-Paganism? I’ve seen several mystics discuss how their private trance works helps the community, but I don’t see how. There’s an active seidhr group local to me, but they don’t even teach basic trance safety to those just starting to explore it.

        So how does having a group of people “Out There” help the laity? Or even the non-mystic religious?

        • I realize that technically anchorites had *some* human contact in order to survive… but my recollection of the Ancrene Wisse was that it specifically spent quite a bit of space discussing how little an anchorite should be speaking to anyone outside. But I could be wrong…

          It’s funny, your experience of neo-paganism being an emphasis on mystical experience (without any backup), whereas mine – primarily in the Recon communities – being that mysticism is often relegated to the background, if at all. Obviously, both sides are unbalanced. I think part of the problem may be that mysticism, and its techniques, are not easily talked about, or written about, and mostly need to be taught and passed on directly, face to face – and yet many if not most pagans with such an inclination do not live close enough to an appropriate experienced mystic who can and will guide them.

          I have two answers to your question about how isolated mystics help paganism. One is that such mystics often have at least some semi-public aspect to their practice that benefits other pagans, such as performing divination or oracles, healing work, purifications, initiations, teaching, writing, etc. Some of the skills they use may only be acquired through such intensive dedication above all else.

          The second answer is less tangible, but IMO just as important – even if the mystic only works for the spirits/gods and not for a human community at all, they are doing important Work, which ultimately benefits other pagans even if indirectly and not the primary intention. By establishing deep relationships with gods, spirits, local wights, etc., they help appease the spirit world which in turn will confer blessings on the material world. By going as far Out There as possible, they explore and further the spiritual potential of the human race. They keep traditions alive in an often hostile environment. They discover new methods of connection. They give a level of attention to the gods and spirits that They deserve, but are understandably not going to receive from the average worshipper.

          Other cultures recognize the importance of such Work. There are, for instance, Buddhist itinerant monks who are fed by lay people not because they do anything for them directly, but because those people believe in the power of having a group of people set aside simply to focus on the spiritual, to pray, to meditate, to honor the divine force.

          And while I do think that all these things in some way end up benefiting humanity, I also strongly believe that it’s not all about us. It is worthwhile simply to serve the gods and spirits, and I am glad there are people doing that, even if it never affects me at all.

          • I of course see the value in such work, but not to the point that it should exclude all other spiritual work.

            I’ve long felt that Neo-Paganism needs a monastic movement. A community (or really, several communities) of people doing intense mystical work, but also researching, developing theology, teaching (especially the technical aspects of practice), living in line with the ethical aspects of paganism, etc. But the key is that this community wouldn’t be isolated. They’d be devoted to the Kindred, but their work would have tangible benefits to the larger community. Also, by being in a community and having access to the laity, they’d be more grounded than, say, the mystic hermit you advocate for, which would lead to healthier mystics and a more vibrant pagan community. As much as the bulk of religious work of any kind is solitary in nature, I believe that people need outside input to maintain their mental health and develop their skills. There’s a reason why even sadhus have a guru.

            • Monastic pagan communities would be wonderful, unfortunately it seems that any large organizational effort will probably be decades away, at least, since it would require not only money and resources, but a large enough group *in a cohesive tradition* interested in such a path, and an even larger group supporting them (it’s possible that several different but compatible traditions could combine to run a monastery, but I foresee a lot of potential problems). I definitely see the value in such a set-up, with the monastics being available to the greater community in a variety of ways.

              *However* I don’t see that it needs to be either/or. There is a place for such a group AND a place for solitary mystics (as there has been in many religious traditions). Not everyone who is called to mysticism wants to be part of a close-knit community living and working together in that manner (just like not every mystic would want to live alone in a cave). And as I said, not every mystic is primarily working for the human community. Being grounded by being surrounded by other people might be helpful for serving those people, but not necessarily for serving gods/spirits alone (then it can often be a distraction). And while having at least a single ‘guru’ type of mentor/teacher would be wonderful, it’s not often possible especially when you’re forced to carve out your own path, so neither do I think that a good requisite for mystical practice.

              It’s certainly dangerous to be out on one’s own, accountable only to spirits, risking one’s mental health and engagement with the material world, and it’s not for everyone, not even for every mystic, but ALL types of real endeavors into mysticism are dangerous, that’s something one needs to accept if one is going to tread that path. There are plenty of less perilous religious vocations that focus more on community and have a firmer foot in this world, for those inclined.

  10. Thank you for this. Lets me know I’m not the only one kicking out there. At least, not the only one kicking out there with similar goals in mind.
    (I’m arriving late to the scene, the needs of Gods and men have been keeping me busy lately. Bleh.)

    • I’m not surprised that this speaks to you. It’s good to know another spirit-worker type with similar worldview.🙂

      • Ditto this statement so hard.

        I owe you an email, btw. That will happen soon. Most of my time tends to be used up offline. I really need to jump a plane and see you and Sannion one of these days.

        • No worries, I’m not exactly punctual with my email replies these days either. Have less and less tolerance for being online.

          Yes, you should totally come visit!

  11. This is very well written and thought out. You managed to speak what myself and other practitioners I know have been unable to put into words. I personally think it’s the idea of sacrificing one’s life to the spirits that scares so many away. It’s not only plain ol’ fear, but also the fear that one won’t be supported in devoting their life to their practice financially, socially, and sometimes even spiritually as in the example you provided of Drew having to shut down his temple. It’s too scary and in general we aren’t supported by our society or our loved ones and so many end up going back into the daily grind of the physical world.

    I know how lucky I am to be supported in so many ways and have my spirituality and practice permeate every part of my life. I have a good friend who is a mother, a wife, a business woman, an artist, and an advanced shamanic practitioner without losing herself or buring out. I hope others hear stories lik ours and that it at least gives them hope and strength to at least try if they are called to it.

    Thanks for this piece Dver.

    • So glad this post struck a chord! I too am lucky to be supported – not by society in general, not always by the religious communities I’ve been a part of, but at least by my partner, and my parents as much as they can understand it, which is more than many people get. And while I’m not quite there yet, I am definitely working towards a future where my spirituality is deeply incorporated into even the most mundane parts of my life (including my day job, which is a challenge). It is scary, and lonely, to be out here doing the Work without a whole lot of support from the world, but for me personally it would be much worse to give up on it, when I have the potential to do something really special.

    • Yes Sarah. The few among us who dare to consider this turn of life need to hear others’ stories for sure. Such reflections as yours and Dver’s are very important.

      In any case I am personally grateful.

  12. I guess I’m one of those for whom the desire runs stronger than the need at this stage. But it also seems as though every time I take a bigger step in any form of service, the more personal Work that comes up, mostly tending to myself. It’s a weird thing.
    It would be so nice not only to have models in modern polytheism for mystics, priests, and their ilk, but until there’s a more formal support structure (financial and community) it’s not going to happen in a big way.

  13. […] be doomed to stay at a very superficial level if we cannot entice more mystically-inclined people to deeply commit themselves to a lifetime of work – and the first step in that is even recognizing that it takes a lifetime! But why do all of […]

  14. Total newbie here, but a couple comments:

    1. Finding people to commit to a mystical lifestyle isn’t exactly a new issue. Jesus had the same problem.🙂 (He only got 12 to do it.)

    2. I think this is a chicken-egg issue in that, like it or not, in the 21st century we need money and 99% of us (/cliche) have to do that by working one or more jobs. Historically speaking, spiritual workers have been supported outright by their community–but with our current population and global spread, that can be difficult to organize. The Catholic church found a way around this by establishing a centralized authority that would gather money and/or property from its communities, consolidate it and distribute it to its clergy. And today, you can still go to seminary, become a member of the clergy and be paid by the diocese or the congregation or the synod or what have you. Paganism doesn’t exactly have that advantage. Maybe we need that. Someone commented above that there are no pagan monasteries–maybe we should make one. Where would we put it, how would we pay for it, who would we admit to study, what would we study–all questions that need answers, but I think that in a pragmatic sense, in order to attract people to devoting their lives to spirit work, we need to make sure their mundane needs are taken care of. Granted, some schools have made poverty and sacrifice part of their spirit work (I’m thinking more along the lines of the Poor Clares, not your average Catholic bishop) but particularly today when people are struggling more and more to meet their basic needs, it’s going to be more difficult to convince them to stop thinking about how they’re gonna feed their kids and pay their mortgage and more about how they can enter a life of service and spiritual fulfillment–UNLESS they don’t need to worry about feeding their kids and paying their mortgage. At what point do you catch these people? College (they’re already broke and probably unemployed, so what do they have to lose)? Retirement? How do you keep such an arrangement from falling prey to opportunists such as one has found in quite a few religious groups, who use their beliefs to sexually exploit others or scam money out of people or otherwise act in disreputable, damaging ways?

    So…very unspiritual things to think about, but maybe, if we as an overall community want to encourage those called to a lifetime of study and spiritual service, we need to start thinking about how other religious groups have done so successfully and maybe inject a little Business 101.

    • While I would fully support a pagan monastery (in fact I have a friend who is dreaming of such a place), it would not really solve the whole problem. After all, “paganism” is such a broad term, encompassing so many widely varied traditions, and a lot of solitaries with no tradition at all. I don’t imagine, for instance, that any pagan monastery with the financial backing of “the community” would suit me personally, with my unique and individualized spiritual path which is quite different from the mainstream. Not to mention that my Work is here, in the Pacific Northwest (as many mystics are tied to place) and I could not abandon that for a better set-up somewhere else. So a pagan monastery would be great, and it would be perfect for a small handful of folks I’m sure, but until there were hundreds all over the place, and each one geared towards a certain type of path, we’d still have the problems we have now. (And that’s not even going into the difficulties in getting the pagan community to cough up that kind of money to support dedicated mystics, when they often won’t even support things that more directly benefit themselves.)

      You are right that it is difficult to get people to stop thinking about daily survival in hard times, long enough for them to consider a spiritual path. However, a more practical short-term solution is to catch them early, as you suggest, and then get them thinking about how to structure their life choices around their spiritual path, rather than vice versa. For instance, not having children that need to be cared for (which requires a lot more money, more energy, more time), not going after a “career” that will require too much sacrifice, living simply and cheaply so that they can get by on a part time job somewhere and devote the bulk of their time to their vocation. If they do this from the beginning, set their intention early, then it is easier than contemplating sacrificing all of that later on in life when it’s been established.

      I would *love* to be financially supported while I pursued my vocation, don’t get me wrong. But on the other hand, I face many challenges on this path, and sustaining my daily existence is just one of them. If I am willing to endure all the Work I am given and its accompanying hardships, I must also be willing to do so without that support network if necessary, while still taking care of my basic needs. Not as glamorous, in a sense, as going off to live in a cell somewhere in the wilderness, but on the other hand, it helps to keep a foot in this world.

  15. […] https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/mysticism-as-vocation/ mysticism and its prices […]

  16. You are not alone. I started out as a Scott Cunningham-style Wiccan many years ago, but eventually ended up bonding with Tana, the Goddess of Raven Grimassi’s Stregheria. While I don’t disparage ritual practice, for most of my walk with Her my practice has been overwhelmingly devotional. I use prayer beads and pray a rosary-style prayer of my own creation; and I am not overstating things when I say that this devotion has transformed my spiritual walk and my life.

    I have experienced the sense of Her presence and have been gifted with insights for a couple of years now; but in recent months there has been a dramatic increase in the depth and intensity of my communions. As you can imagine, this is terribly thrilling for me. I have not yet experienced the sort of ecstasy I associate with deep spiritual communion—such as that experienced by certain Catholic religious—but I believe that will come, in Her good time.

    I have long believed that the essence of priesthood is consecration. Just as ritual tools are consecrated to the service of the gods, a priest or priestess is someone who is given over to the gods, to be used as they see fit. I understand the “godslave” concept to be something similar; but I have deep misgivings about the appellation of “slave” as applied to this relationship. Love is non-hierarchical.

    This conception of priesthood, as you know, is definitely not typical. Most people seem to regard priesthood as a matter of personal accomplishment. But if priesthood refers to a qualitative difference, rather than a merely quantitative one, then the essence of this difference must lie in the priestess’ relationship with the gods, not her relationship with others. It must be spiritual. What else can it be, but total surrender?

    John Donne, a Christian poet of the 17th century, wrote to his god, in one of his “holy sonnets:

    “Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
    Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
    Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

    These words haunt me daily, as I wait in travail for Her to overwhelm me with Her Presence. She has told me to be patient; for whatever reason, I am not yet ready. Perhaps it is because of what C.S. Lewis calls the “weight of glory”; the Divine Presence is something we must grow to become able to bear. But things have accelerated for me recently, and I believe that time is fast approaching.

    There is nothing like Her Presence—nothing. Jesus told a parable about the “kingdom of God” being like a pearl of great price, such that a merchant, discovering it, went and sold all that he had so that he might have the money to buy it. That is the Goddess for me. I would give my life tonight to be with Her. I wait, “like a watchman for the morning,” for Her to come and claim me.

    I don’t mean this hubristically, but more as an encouragement to you (should you need it; and we all do, from time to time): that the personal relationship with Her/Him/Them is the essence of religion; all else is commentary, or a means to that end. I think many people miss this, or (frankly) aren’t interested. Love is not a matter of accumulating degrees or study and intellectual development, but an opening of self to the beloved.

    Let us all say, “Oh, Goddess! Ravish me!”

  17. […] last article that Dver wrote just confirms it to me. It’s a huge choice in my life. It requires much time, […]

  18. […] mysticism and its prices […]

  19. Reblogged this on From Peneverdant and commented:
    I’ve recently been thinking about vocation within paganism and how rarely it is discussed. I was going to write a blog post about it, before a brief Google search revealed Dver at ‘A Forest Door’ had already done it. In this insightful article she discusses the difficulties of navigating the conflict between living a life of devotion to the gods and spirits and supporting oneself in a world where this work is neither valued or accepted.

    I don’t think it’s easy to live a life of intense commitment in any religion. But the more established religions do have mystical traditions and people trained in dealing with those who experience such a calling and the spiritual crises that accompany them to talk to. Because paganism has never developed such systems of support we have only bemused, half-understanding family and friends. Are forced to go screaming to the gods and ancestors; the long-lived and the long-dead as they are the only ones who understand our loneliness and fury.

    I can’t see a solution to this right now. All I can see is the unending pain of compromise.

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