Mysticism as vocation in modern paganism

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 nor 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.

A Forest Door

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…

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10 thoughts on “Mysticism as vocation in modern paganism

  1. Very thought-provoking post. I’m not sure I agree with everything Dver says here, but it’s certainly worth reading and considering. I’ll have to reflect on this a bit more before commenting any further, but thank you for reblogging it.

  2. A very thought-proviking post, and introduction. As G.B. Marian says above, I am not sure I agree with everything Dver has written, but it is important to articulate the extremes in order to map out the frontiers of where we are and where we might be. Bobcat springs to mind as someone who lives in single-minded uncompromising devotion to her gods, though it hasn’t made her many friends.

    There is a social element here, which I may be mis-reading because I get the impression that Dver is writing from a US perspective of which I am ignorant, but the idea of ‘draoíthe’ as described in that post as being fully-devoted mystics made me question several assumptions about paganism. One of the defining features of neo-paganism, as I have understood it, is that there is no class of priests; no-one mediating between the self and the divine. This is one of the reasons I still feel a little twinge of unease about appropriating the word ‘druid’ (or ‘derwydd’ or ‘draoi’) and then looking to the example of ‘the druids of old’ for guidance; I will save my historiographical reservations for another time, but many of their functions seem to have been social as well as spiritual, and have translated (however imperfectly) into analogous roles in modern society.

    Having said that… I feel the pain and confusion of living in a society that belittles and harms the spiritual wellspring of its inspiration. I can well understand the calling and vocation of complete devotion to the gods, even though I have decided that this is not a path for me (being more of a lay Awenydd). Blazing a trail is never easy, but for what it’s worth you have my admiration and support every step of the way 🙂

    1. Yes, it was the priestly connotations of the term ‘Druid’ that prevented me from every identifying with the term or with the Druid tradition (except within the TDN definition which focuses mainly on relationship and spiritual interaction). Part of the reason the path of the Awenydd called to me was because it simply means ‘person inspired’ or one who received inspiration from spirits without the presuppositions of caste, hierarchy and authority.

      I’d also agree that within the groups I connect with (TDN and the OaF grove) there is no distinction between ‘grades ‘of members (is there in ADO?) or between clergy or lay. We’re all on equal ground just muddling along attempting to what we view as necessary whether it be calling to serve the gods, have a family or pursue a career. And all are intrinsically valuable and a matter of personal choice.

      This does seem to be very different than in the states where it seems clergy and temples are developing and alot of polytheists get paid for their work, be it divination, prayer cards, poetry etc. A very, very different world!!!

  3. thetinfoilhatsociety

    I don’t think having a priesthood is necessarily a good thing. For one, if we have ‘professionals’ in spirit work or whatever, then we are faced with tangibly supporting them, and also with the resulting dogma that will necessarily entail as far as making sure the “professionals” get supported. I personally would prefer something more akin to what the Norse seem to have; someone who is devoted to a particular God is charged with maintaining the temple for that God. They do it between their other duties, just as we do today, but it is used by the public whenever required.

    Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have done our ideas of “priesthood” a great disservice. The idea that a specialist can interpret divinity for the society at large is one I seriously disagree with for the above mentioned reasons. Ultimately the specialist class ends up making sure they have a place and a specialty, whether or not they are *actually* devoted to the God/s in question or merely doing it to avoid “real” work.

    People had more time in general in older societies to meditate, dream, interact with the Gods. It was seasonal, but it was there. Our modern culture makes no such distinctions between the long nights and short days of winter, and the mad dash of planting and harvesting times. It’s the same crazy schedule expectations year round. If we are to have people who are truly spirit workers, mystics in a greater sense, then we have to allow the time in our society for that to blossom organically. And that is not going to happen in our larger culture for quite some time.

    As far as for myself, I do consider myself a mystic in how I perceive things. I don’t however ever desire for that to also be my professional life. The key to being a mystic or spirit worker in these modern times, as in previous times, is to allow balance between one’s mundane work and one’s divine work. And to choose a way consciously to infuse one’s mundane work with awareness of the divine work and how it complements the mundane, and makes it more meaningful. Not to choose one as opposed to the other.

    1. I’d certainly agree with your comments about priesthood. I guess how one marries the divine and mundane depends on one’s choice of career. Being an Awenydd and a poet fits together fine. Being an Awenydd and an organiser… not too fine… it would be good to find a point of balance!

  4. Your comments and those of Dver remind me of the complaints of Tony Kelly when he was co-ordinating The Pagan Movement back in the 1970s. He complained that he was seeking companions to share in honouring the gods, but all he got was consumers who wanted him to supply all the inspiration. As a result he became more and more demanding of those attending the rites he held on his land , and even of the more passive members of the Movement. This gradually drove people away so in the end there were only three of us regularly meeting and the membership of the Movement dwindled away.

    This is not quite the same as an individual mystical and devotional commitment, or rather the emphasis was more on developing communal worship, but the issue of being committed to a path is the same. Over the years I have remained committed but have also made compromises in bringing up a family and maintaining a career. But compromises have not altered the fact that remaining close to the gods has been part of my purpose in life since my teens. Now, semi-retired, I have more time to develop a devotional practice that has grown as I have have grown over the years , and which I expect to remain with me for the rest of my life.

    I never felt that bringing up a family was incompatible with this, and even my work, though often draining and diversionary, was not completely divorced from my spiritual life (admittedly teaching literature is better than many possible occupations in this respect, though I had my fair share of ‘absurdities’ to contend with too!) . We live in harsh times. To follow such a path as you have chosen is not easy and I have immense respect for you in your choice to do this. In many ways the difficulties are part of what it means to walk such a path. Facing them may appear to weaken the resolve but it can also make you strong. Whatever compromises you are forced to make on the way, I’m sure that you will look back at your current frustrations in years to come as character forming and as defining the life you have chosen to live. So I join with Angharad above in saying you have my admiration and support in the path you have chosen.

    1. That’s interesting to hear about Tony Kelly, and might be intuited from the intensity of his writing… yes, I also struggle with groups in general, be it within paganism or poetry when people don’t share my level of commitment. Part of the reason I gave up my career as a philosophy lecturer at PhD level was being disappointed by the students’ lack of passion for the subject in contrast to my single-mindedness.

      It’s good to hear you found a balance between mysticism, family and career. Something I can see you’ve maintained and has grown from reading your writing from the Pagan Movement onward. I think I’m different in always having been possessed by a kind of ‘divine madness’ that renders me incapable of being able to care for children, exist in a relationship or keep a proper job.

      Having found connection with the land and with Gwyn in particular who seems intrinsically bound up with all that and the ability to work and journey with it helps a lot. But isn’t always an easy process, particularly when it comes into conflict with the everyday necessities of this-world.

  5. Am gobbling up some Graham Joyce’s novels this summer–they speak to me so clearly!! “Dark Sister,” “The Limits of Enchantment,” and “Some Kind of Fairy Tale,” all address the conflictual, painful, wonder filled lives of modern women struggling to sustain a relationship with the supernatural, be it faery, nature spirits, or local gods/goddesses. I highly recommend them.

  6. SteveT

    I’ve already had three attempts at putting down my thoughts about this but rejected each as too long or too negative but here goes again.

    I don’t think paganism as a whole is in a position to support many “professionals”. (That’s not really the right word but it comes nearest to the practical status of someone whose main focus is devotion to their gods and who seeks to support themselves by this practice.) I think paganism is too diverse to get agreement over exactly what/who to support. I also think that individual pagan groups, such as druids, are too small to be able to provide the support needed. Further, I’m not even sure if paganism should support such vocations in a physical way. (Spiritual support is another matter.) One of the things I like about the structure of druidry is the emphasis on personal responsibility which manifests as a “do it yourself” approach. No-one can find the Awen for me or act on my behalf, I must do it by my own actions. If everyone believed this, it would make the role of a devotional religious/religieuse difficult to justify from a societal point of view. (Of course, not everyone may believe this.) A few in druidry do seem to be able to combine a dedication to their path with a related way of making their living: Philip Carr-Gomm with his courses, books and lectures; Damh the Bard with his music and more recently it seems Cat Treadwell with her druid services – but they’re providing varied services to the wider community and I daresay there’s a fair amount of compromise (see below) involved.

    I think you have a real talent, not just for accessing the spiritual, particularly via your connection with the land, but also communicating this through your writing. I wonder how many poets, authors and indeed artists, musicians and craftsmen/women have wrestled with the same problems that you face. Some who had real talent never managed to get it recognised in their lifetime and were forced to do other things as well to get by, some managed to turn their talent into a way to make a living (but perhaps relatively few achieved this by your age.)

    I think perhaps you may be right about the “unending pain of compromise” though. I’d guess even those who make their living from their vocation are still forced to compromise just in order to live in the material world. I spent eight years working closely with several nuns in a Catholic convent. They seemed no more at ease than the rest of us – in some cases I’d say less so. I think, in fact, that “unending compromise” is the nature of life itself. It’s not only true at a spiritual level but physically and true not just for humans but for all life. (Look at the growth of plants; light from as high as possible, water from below the soil: do I invest in fast growth and less support or slow growth and woody support etc etc?)

    I think you’re definitely right though that there should be more discussion about “living a life of devotion to the gods and spirits and supporting oneself in a world where this work is neither valued nor accepted.” The problems of reconciling living a “pagan” life in the current material world affect all of us at all levels.

    Post script – still too long and negative (!) Try Joanna van der Hoeven’s blogs, which I know you’re aware of, for a more positive and much more eloquent discussion of the same sort of thing I’ve failed to express.

  7. I wish to thank all of you for an interesting discussion, and our gracious host for raising the issue, of course. I certainly hope the discussion continues as I have no revelations able to resolve the conundrum. I merely wish to comment on merits of the discussion thus far.

    I find angharadlois’ comment concerning a “US perspective” noteworthy as it may provide some insight here. I am a citizen of the US, and my first experience with religion was with the most popular one here: Christianity. I eventually left this religion as I found it to be severely disappointing. Awareness of Pagan alternatives sprang from the advance of the Internet. However, as my awareness of Paganism grew, I became puzzled by some of the controversies for the very reasons [or contradictions] that angharadlois highlights.

    A comment made by the tinfoilhatsociety also seems related to angharadlois’ remarks: “Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have done our ideas of “priesthood” a great disservice.” There seemed to be a lot of Pagans that wanted to build religions that would challenge the majesty of Abrahamic religions. The Abrahamic religions [particularly Christianity] seemed to be the “role model” religion that many seemed to aspire to. As many Neo-Pagans profess negative experiences with Abrahamic religions as the compelling influence propelling them to Paganism, this blind tendency to emulate the abandoned religions seems irrational.

    I was not aware that this was a “US perspective,” but I have no problem with that designation either. The conduct of my fellow citizens suggests this is not only possible, but likely. There is a tendency in Americans to try to defeat [eradicate] that which they dislike. This would explain the competitive nature of what I call the “religion builders.” In other words, they wish to defeat their despised religion by building a better [superior] religion, but fail to recognize that they are using the same model for their “new and improved” design. How much different can it really be? Any notable difference is likely to be lost with time.

    The premises of the Dver thread appear based upon the Abrahamic religious model. While ascetic models from diverse cultures are mentioned, the specific examples provided seem to be primarily Christian. If there is a reality to Pagan spirituality that sets it apart from the common forms of organized religion, then molding that spirituality to conform to social constructs is likely to pervert and destroy those paths of beauty. It may be prudent to examine the premises of this discussion in order to find a true resolution.

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