John Beckett over on Patheos wrote a fabulous article on what “priesthood” means in a modern Pagan/polytheistic context. I HIGHLY encourage everyone to go read it. It’s ok – I’ll wait.
Wasn’t that wonderful?
Priesthood is a topic I’ve written about before, albeit indirectly, but I’ve been playing with it in my head for the last little bit and decided this was as good a time as any to put my thoughts into words. I think it’s something anyone working within a polytheistic framework needs to understand, even if it’s just to define where we don’t want to go with our spiritual life.
Personally I identify as a priestess before any of the other spiritual titles out there. I always have. For me “priest/ess” is essentially interchangeable with “spiritual specialist”, and that fits me better than anything else. To my mind there are two incredibly important parts to being a spiritual specialist – private devotional work and the public facilitation of spiritual experience.
So let’s look at those.
Frequent readers of my blog will likely be familiar with my devotion to my Lady. It comes up a lot. When I say “devotion” I’m using the word in the dictionary sense – the love, loyalty, religious fervor, and dedication I have to/for Her, and to a lesser extent the other Powers with whom I work.
Devotional practice covers a lot of ground. Personal prayers and offerings fit here, of course. Meditation and daily devotions, both primary ways of fostering two-way communication with the Powers, are also part of the devotional side of things. This also includes the creation and maintenance of my home altar space, the hours spent studying lore and philosophy, and the time/effort involved in obeying the various instructions and taboos I’ve been given.
That’s all fairly predictable. But there’s a strong component of privacy bound up with the definition of “devotion”, and that too is important to me. My devotion is a private affair, between myself and the Powers. I can share what I study and learn with others, but those others aren’t why I’m doing it. They are not my motivation or my guide. If I was living as a hermit and never saw other people ever, if my ability to blog vanished and I had to hide everything I am from those around me, this is the part of my practice that would continue unchanged.
For me, all the things I do in my personal daily life that aren’t specifically spiritual in nature but stem from my spiritual practice also fall in the “devotion” category. For instance, as I mentioned in my last post, my Lady is all about helping others reach their potential. As a result I’ve found myself becoming more and more passionate about causes like childhood education and LGBT rights. This isn’t at my Lady’s direction, and isn’t really being done as an offering for Her, but it comes from how my devotion has influenced me and shaped my worldview.
Devotional work is personal, but facilitation is a public service. This part of the priest/ess gig is all about how I help others experience and enhance their own spiritual lives. There are three components to the way I approach facilitation: helping others observe the cycles, providing alternative perspectives, and helping others connect to the Powers.
The aspect of facilitation most directly related to my Lady in particular, and most commonly associated with the work of the priest/ess, is helping others mark/celebrate/commemorate cycles, almost always in some sort of ritualized way. This can include seasonal festivals (cycles of seasons), rites of passage and Ordeal rituals (various life cycles), etc. It also encompasses how I help people move on from past stages or experiences, usually through counseling or Ordeal work. Sometimes I lead the rituals myself, sometimes I advise, sometimes I simply clue people in to the idea that whatever they’re doing could be done in a ritual context and thus possibly have more meaning for them. The most recent example of this was helping an old friend ritualize a memorial tattoo for a lost loved one as part of her grieving process.
Perhaps surprisingly, providing alternative perspectives – not facilitating ritual – is the majority of the work I do in this area. One of the first lessons my Lady taught me was that changing our perspective changes our reality, and that the magick we do through perspective shifting is some of the most powerful magick out there. Seeing a situation from different perspectives helps us reach a deeper understanding about it, be more aware of the bits and pieces that went into it, and thus better react to or adapt it. There’s also an aspect here of challenging what we think we know.
This can manifest in many ways. Sometimes I’m a sounding board, supporting people as they verbally navigate through confusion and helping them clarify things. Sometimes I play devil’s advocate, helping others put their thoughts and feelings into words by being intentionally contrary. At other times I simply listen, and through listening validate their experience or allow them to purge what may be blocking them. Circumstances might dictate the use of divination, or Powers might speak through me and relay things others need to hear. The method used doesn’t matter. As long as the person I’m working with gains some sort of insight or clarity I’ve done my job, even if their ultimate decision/action still remains murky.
The final aspect of facilitation for me is lending whatever support I can to those attempting to connect with or deepen their connections with the Powers. This can include showing by example, sharing experiences/stories/knowledge with whoever might need it, teaching techniques and skills at need, etc. I do that all in person, of course, but blogging and Facebooking about these topics fulfills the same purpose. I do other things in this category too, like maintaining a religious/spiritual library for source material, networking so I can offer alternatives if something comes up I can’t handle, and overall just being available as a resource.
Putting it Together
Devotion and Facilitation, as I’ve divided them here, could just as easily been Private Work and Public Work. I think a priest/ess needs to do both. YMMV, of course, but I think there are different terms for a reason. I’m a big fan of specificity, and that matters even more than usual when we’re talking about spiritual topics.
If someone is doing Devotion/Private Work, without having a public component to what they do, then I think something along the lines of “devotee” would be a more appropriate term. When I was doing strictly private work my Lady called me Her votary. I really liked that – I linked that to votive candles in my head, and took it to mean that my life was a flame in Her honor. “Laity” would also be completely acceptable here. The majority of any faith’s believers are those who honor their god(s) at home, maybe attend a ritual a few times a year, and otherwise live a secular life. And that’s fine. Not everyone is meant to be a spiritual specialist.
On the other hand, someone focused strictly on the Facilitation/Public Work, without maintaining a personal devotional practice, is really more of a Facilitator than anything else. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, it can be helpful to have someone truly neutral facilitating a ritual or offering counseling/divination services. I’m my Lady’s before I’m anything else, and there’s no way for me to run a ritual or do a divination without Her presence. Even if She’s not specifically invited She has an open invite simply because I’m there. That’s not always a good idea, or what the person seeking services needs at that particular time. In those cases having someone facilitate without strong ties to Anyone might very well be the best option.
While lay members and facilitators both have their place, priests and priestesses are necessary too. By filling both private and public roles they can share insights and skills between them. The dedication and insight provided through devotional work informs their work with public ritual, and working with the public provides further growth opportunities and perspectives to bring back to the devotional table. That kind of role-sharing lends a unique expertise, and that expertise is deserving of its own label.
I know these are loaded terms for many people and that my view isn’t going to work for everyone. That’s ok. Does anyone else have an alternative view on the topic? If so, by all means say so in the comments!