Ordeal and Community

I’ve been facilitating and participating in Ordeal rituals for damn near a decade. One fairly constant aspect of my experience, whether I’m the Seeker or the Guide, is that these rituals tend to be individualized. They are crafted start to finish for one person, with one goal in mind, and the experience of the Seeker rarely affects any larger community.

This is completely understandable. Ordeals are not for everyone, of course, and there is no reason everyone should walk that path. It also plays into the near fetish we Americans have for the individual who exists outside of/rebels against/is distinct from the larger community. Especially in the case of Ordeal work, since so many Ordeal mechanics actively contradict the mores of the larger community. There are logistic concerns as well – getting a number of Seekers undergoing the same Ordeal in the same location as the number of skilled Guides needed to pull it off is incredibly challenging.

While understandable, this individual approach to Ordeal is really unfortunate. It misses an unbelievably huge part of the picture.

There is no question that, historically, some Ordeals have always been solo. There are times we simply have to walk alone, and these rituals emphasize that. However, we tend to forget that there are plenty of examples throughout history and around the world of group Ordeals too. Ordeals that, while affecting people in individual ways, are experienced by many at once. Ordeals that are supported by and provide support for the larger community. Ordeals that, instead of emphasizing the division of the Seeker from community, actually help to further entrench them in community.

I was recently privileged enough to present about Ordeal work and co-facilitate a group Ordeal ritual at Dark Odyssey’s Fusion event in Maryland. I was humbled, awed, and simply blown away by the way doing Ordeal in a group as part of the larger community utterly changed the experience for everyone involved.

Fusion is an interesting event. Up to 1500 people attended this year, all focused on enjoying time to be their authentic selves without the need to hide or defend. In addition to all the amazing programming being offered, this was the first year that a dedicated Ordeal Track was available – a panel of classes, challenges, and shorter rituals all leading up to a capstone Ordeal ritual.

At the end of the day, twice the expected number of people followed the Track. The first offering – essentially Ordeal 101 – was attended by an incredibly diverse group. I don’t think any of them knew each other prior to showing up for this. They were awkward and a bit stand-offish with each other at first, but that changed as we progressed through the preparation as a group. Seekers did the classes together, met the mini-challenges together, and shared a deep need to push themselves through this intense experience in a search for personal transformation and change.

Over the course of three days – just three days! – I watched the connections form. Just how far this group had come from that initial discomfort with previous strangers was markedly visible as we geared up for the final Ordeal ritual.

We met up that night and I gave them a 5 minute warning before beginning. These fellow Seekers, strangers just three days previously, spontaneously held hands in a circle and expressed their support for each other, their faith that they could all make it through to the other side. They were ordered to silence, and they simply continued to support each other non-verbally. One made sure everyone had water, another passed around supplies, and comforting touches were everywhere.

Each Seeker walked the path of Ordeal alone. Many of them were in tears before we even really started. A few hit their limit before the end of the path. But at the end, all were escorted to the same area for aftercare. Even after their own trauma (and yes, it was trauma) they gave their fellow Seekers support, and in many cases they were each other’s aftercare.

After the event (and some much-needed rest) everyone gathered together to process, as a group, what had happened and get some closure for the experience. It was 90 minutes of sharing and commiserating, laughter and tears. Before it broke attendees exchanged email addresses, made promises to keep in touch, hugged and held and honored each other.

I saw a group bond in days, cemented by the Ordeal all experienced. Three weeks later many who went through the experience are still in contact with each other – and with me, which I treasure. I have no doubt that many of them will continue to process the experience together, regardless of physical location, because that’s what the survivors of something transformative do for each other. That kind of support is not possible when Ordeals are undertaken as a solo event, and for many that support is what made the event as transformative as it was.

The larger Fusion community had a part to play in this too. It was in no way a solo experience, and it wasn’t limited to the Seekers who actively walked the path together. The entire Fusion community participated in the Ordeal Track and benefitted from it. People who were totally uninvolved offered cuddles and encouragement to the Seekers as the track progressed. The day after the capstone ritual everyone seemed to assist with aftercare, from offering hugs to giving space.

People in the community also expressed a feeling of being supported by those on the Ordeal track, even if they had no personal involvement at all with the proceedings. It seemed to register to some almost as an act of community service, and members of the community felt supported and valued as people just because the option to do this kind of thing was available for them too.

The importance of this kind of community involvement and support for the experience – especially something that mainstream culture finds “weird” or “scary” – cannot be overstated.

We craft these rituals, we plan these experiences, and they are transformational and powerful and everything else, but when we do these things alone the experience is limited. I want to experience this group-in-community setting for Ordeal again, and try to duplicate this type of experience in other groups, with other communities.

Because honestly? I desperately want to see more of this. I want to watch another group bond over shared trials and successes. I want to see those who participated in this year’s track participate in next year’s track, mentors and examples who can say “we did this and you can too”. I want to see these connections continue to grow and deepen and develop, expanding to accept new people and expressions.

So many of us who dance the edges of spiritual experience, who push ourselves past not just our own limits but the limits society attempts to place on us, can find ourselves walking a very lonely road. Our experiences sometimes set us apart from others. But no man is an island, and totally rejecting/being rejected by a larger community can limit us.

Conceptualizing Ordeal as part of a larger community bridges that gap, making everyone a part of the process. Our spiritual work becomes not something limited to ourselves, but radiates outwards in a tangible way. Fostering connection without sacrificing individual experience transforms not just ourselves but our world, one community at a time.

Passivity and Engaged Service

Power dynamics underlie my worldview in a major way. In relationships with people I tend to be the one others turn to for guidance and direction. In my relationship with my Lady, however, I receive guidance and direction. Using common BDSM parlance, I am a Dominant personality who submits to a goddess. This dual perspective gives me some interesting insights into the role of service.

This came up in conversation the other night while I was having dinner with my girl. She said something self-deprecating and I came back with the following:

Why would I want someone who was weak or incompetent? It’s in my own best interest to find the smartest, strongest, most capable person I can! I HAVE a full time job – why would I want to add micromanaging another person to the list? I don’t want a doormat or a robot or a child – I want to delegate a task and know that the task will be done. I want someone amazing. Why would I settle for less than that?

At the time I was thinking about it from my perspective as a Dominant. Everything I said there, however, applies to the other side of the coin too. Because honestly? I can’t imagine our gods feel any differently about the people They tap for service than I do. Like me, They also have jobs to do, agendas and purposes to fulfill, goals to meet. They want to delegate a task and see it completed without ridiculous oversight requirements. I have met very few weak and/or incompetent people who have been chosen by gods for direct service, and I think this is at least part of the reason why.

So, with that in mind, what can we learn about serving the gods by examining and living other types of service relationships?

There is the stereotype in the BDSM scene of the doormat, of the helpless submissive who yearns to be rescued and coddled and constantly directed. They want someone to tell them what to do and how to do it, to make their ethical/moral choices for them, to take away all the uncertainty. They don’t want to think or struggle, they simply want to be. We see this in spiritual relationships too, of course. Many of us grew up as members of a monotheistic faith. One thread that seems to run through monotheism in general is the whole “let go, let God” concept. The doormat idea is here seen as the ideal, as a virtue. Worshippers demonstrate their devotion by begging their god to take care of everything for them, hoping that if they keep their heads down and blindly follow orders they’ll receive favors. And believe they’re punished if they don’t.

There are Dominant personalities who like this level of passivity, just as I’m sure there are gods who appreciate it. Personally, I find that this “rewarding passivity” viewpoint actively hinders service on a human level, and going by my Lady’s preferences I don’t see that it necessarily differs when serving the Powers.

If I want the doormat type kneeling quietly in the corner to do something I have to issue an order, break it down to the simplest connect-the-dots pieces, and then supervise the completion of the task every step of the way. In those circumstances delegation adds more stress to my plate, not less, and takes more time besides. I’d rather just do it myself and avoid the middleman.

On the other hand, delegating a task and seeing it completed without having to micromanage the process? That reduces my stress, and allows me to focus on other tasks that only I can do. The ability to do that is a skill, and the one doing the serving becomes actively useful to whatever I’m trying to accomplish.

Even better – the Holy Grail of service, if you will – is when the one serving begins anticipating, displaying initiative instead of passivity. That’s when service is elevated from skill to art, and the one doing it moves from useful to indispensable.

In short? Screw passivity – give me someone with initiative and the responsibility to use it.

My Lady agrees with that whole-heartedly. I actually started out as more of a blind follower (I preferred to do nothing rather than do something wrong), and She beat that out of me as quickly as possible. These days? She accepts nothing less than full engagement, and that means I’m required to think about what She says, not just do it. I have to grapple with it, understand it, fully grok it – and then independently implement it in my life from that point forward by anticipating other ways it might apply. I question, request, argue, resist, suggest, learn, explore, and live with Her 24/7. That tendency has only grown as I’ve served Her – She’s encouraged it. My contrary, pushy nature is something She wants, and my initiative is prized.

The degrees between passivity and initiative also correspond to headspace in other areas. I find that, when receiving service, the ones who passively need guidance through tasks are so focused on the mechanics that they don’t think beyond them, and even if they do have something to say they usually don’t consider it their “place” to volunteer ideas. Some people might see that as respectful. I see that as incredibly limiting. It blocks me from receiving feedback. I want feedback. I want the people doing the task to create process improvements, offer suggestions, and provide alternative perspectives. Someone who is actively engaged, who takes ownership, often has better ideas and insights than I do – and I’m crippling myself if I don’t listen to them.

In the same way, my Lady allows no walls between us. I am forbidden to focus on the mechanics without delving deeper. She in my head and heart and life, and everything I am is Hers. I wouldn’t be giving Her everything if I held back anything, and that includes my thoughts and perspectives as they arise. Even if they may not be what She wants or expects to hear. I’m respectful, of course, but I’m also bluntly honest. I would never expect a level of service from another that I don’t deliver myself – in many ways I serve my Lady exactly as I wish to be served. So far that concept has been praised and encouraged.

We have to remember that the Powers are not omniscient. Our sharing of our experiences and perspectives help Them too.

In another post I described the lenses through which various Powers view the world. Gods see much more overall than we do, but They are more like generals than soldiers. They see the lay of the land, the maps, the overall strategy. They are not soldiers on the ground. That’s us. We’re the ones slogging through the mud and the blood, and our reports provide necessary perspectives They don’t otherwise get. That is part of our utility, and we’re not serving as fully as possible if we don’t give Them that.

As an additional complication, some of us are also dealing with our deities (or entire pantheons) having been cut off from humanity for centuries. We’re having to help reconstruct these faiths, reconnect people to Powers and Powers to people, relearn what we used to know and figure out how to deal with those concepts in a modern context.

I think we often forget that  goes both ways, that this is a two-way street.

The cultures with which a given Power is familiar can be vastly different from our own. Time marches on – and perspectives shift with it. Things may have changed while They have been separated from us. For instance, I’ve seen cases of deities not understanding that communities no longer support Their clergy, and expecting 24/7 service from people who also have to maintain full-time jobs. Sometimes the deity is fully aware of the difficulty and wants that anyway, but other times the deity simply doesn’t know that circumstances have changed. Part of our job is to help them understand modern life and modern human perspectives, to help Them work with us and us work with Them. Without providing that perspective we’re tying Their hands.

And that, I think, is the most important concept that we can take from this whole conversation. Passive service is not complete service. We must be active partners in our service to truly serve. In many ways we are working with our gods more than for Them, and we have to fully engage for our relationships with Them to reach their full potential. Engagement requires both fully understanding the “why” behind what our deities ask of us, so we can begin to anticipate what They may ask of us in future, and offering our perspectives as the “soldier on the ground” even if we don’t think it’s what They want to hear. Offering only passive service imposes artificial limits that defeat the purpose of what W/we’re trying to do.

Six Devotional Tips

I am lousy at correspondence. I admit it. I don’t mail letters. I despise talking on the phone. Small talk usually bores me to tears. If it’s important and specific I’ll contact someone directly, but for the most part I’m perfectly happy with making and reading blanket informational posts on Facebook.

Unfortunately, the Powers with whom I work have yet to set up Facebook accounts. I actually have to check in with Them individually and regularly. This sucks.

I don’t do the “how are you?” thing with anyone. I don’t feel the need to “check in”. I know damn well They have ways to let me know if I’m needed for something, and I’ve never wanted to be that irritating person who bombards you with random trivia and drivel. I hate that. Why would I inflict that on Them?

So all told, growing into a devotional practice has been an uphill journey in both my daily life and in my head. I was doing rather well when it was just 3 to worry about, but with each Power added to the list it has grown exponentially harder to keep all the balls up in the air.

Every problem begs a solution. This is such a sprawling issue, though, that it required multiple solutions that hit it from multiple areas. More techniques than anything, below are the tips I’ve found most useful in solidifying my personal devotional practice.

1)      Trust Them.

Don’t stress “bothering” the Powers by offering greetings, acknowledgement, and respect. I know this seems self-evident, but I struggled quite a bit with it. I was so worried about being “that guy” and irritating the hell out of Them that I didn’t believe Them when I was told daily contact was ok. That it was, in fact, encouraged. I just assumed that I should only contact them in great need, with the predictable result that I didn’t have all the resources possible when I hit walls. I also let my lack of confidence in my own worth block me from learning and sharing and growing with Them. I’m thankful my Lady was patient enough to literally beat this idea into me – it helped. I recommend skipping the beating, personally, and simply doing what needs doing before breaking out the frustration and bruises. Just a thought!

2)      Schedule it.

I am very routine-based. If I can make it a part of my normal day I can remember to do it. I forced myself to get into the habit of doing devotions every morning and every evening. Sometimes I miss one or the other – I oversleep, for instance, or something comes in the evening and I’m exhausted – but having two sessions helps me get at least one in. It’s essentially a “hi, how is Everyone?” group thing, takes about 10 minutes per session, and it works fairly well for daily stuff.

The scheduling idea goes beyond day-to-day work, though, and modern technology is fabulous for it. I want to spend time with each Power individually as well as in a group, and I’m frankly working with too many to have that kind of time and attention on a daily basis. So I worked out a rotation, put it on a Google calendar, and synced it to my phone. Days dedicated to each Power (like 12/12 for my Lady) are noted. Each Power I’m working with also wanted specific times set aside each week for Them, and I’ve got those times scheduled too. In advance. With reminders emailed to me. And chimes a bit beforehand. So while there may be excuses for having to reschedule, there’s never an excuse to totally space it.

3)      Make Them a part of daily life.

Just as the living room is not the only place you can entertain, devotions do not require an altar. Consider field trips! I got some surprising responses when I asked Them for suggestions. Now lots of the stuff I do is done with Them as company.

Examples? One wants to keep me company when I do chores, so on days devoted to cooking and cleaning I offer Her some red wine and invite Her to hang out. Another likes going on walks with me, so I schedule those and invite Them along. Yet another loves swimming, so whenever I get that opportunity She’s with me. It’s easier and simpler – and more meaningful, I think – to share my whole life with Them, and not limit interactions to what happens at the altar. It also simplifies my scheduling, since I get to multitask a bit.

4)      Don’t hide your altar or your practice.

I’ve historically been incredibly reticent when it comes to my relationships with Them (a major reason for this blog, I’m sure). Speaking of it felt disrespectful somehow, so I didn’t. It hasn’t been just speaking, either. I’ve hidden my altars in out-of-the-way nooks or closets so people couldn’t see them, and consistently done my devotional work privately. It’s odd for me – I regularly have sex in public and think nothing of it – but my relationships with the Powers are so much more intimate than anything else that I treat them differently.

The closest I can come to describing it is that feeling most people (meaning not me! *laugh*) have when talking about underwear and sexual proclivities in crowded restaurants. It’s Just Not Done.

This had some unintended consequences. It was much easier for me to forget to do altar work when the altar was hidden away. I wouldn’t go near the altar unless I had altar work to do, and I got so distracted that I spaced that kind of work completely. And by not doing my devotional work with other people around I was basically stating that my corporeal guests rated more hospitality than my non-corporeal guests, which was insulting and degrading – the opposite of how I felt about the matter.

Obviously that whole mode of thought had to be handled. The first step was to haul my altar out of the closet. Not content with that, it was moved to a prominent location. Now it dominates my living space. It’s not just visible, it’s unavoidable. Its very presence is a reminder for me to Do the Work.

The next step was to prioritize devotional work over whatever else was happening at the time. This has been much harder – asking guests to sit quietly while I do my devotions feels like I’m violating hospitality AND showing off or something – so I’ve developed strategies for this too. If I get some advanced warning I’ll reschedule my devotions. If I don’t get notice, or it’s a long-term visit, I’ll just explain what’s going on and then go ahead. That latter is particularly challenging, but any guest in my home has to respect the other obligations I have and act accordingly. *shrug* I’ve got to draw lines somewhere.

5)      Scripts are incredibly helpful.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and back in the day I would dither so much over making sure what I said during a devotion was absolutely right that I wouldn’t say anything at all. So I started using scripts. I’ve gone through several versions (including a handmade Book of Hours with tons of personal prayers), but now I’m using the simplest script I think I’ve ever had. It’s really effective! To make it even easier I made a strand of prayer beads to go with it, to help me remember where I am in the cycle. Now the words are taken care of, and they’re so routine at this point that I focus on the intent BEHIND the words as I speak. I’ve even written in listening periods, which remind me to shut the hell up and give Them time to speak too.

6)      Plan for contingencies.

I adore travel. I will go damn near anywhere with little to no notice, especially if there are few people in attendance wherever I go. Doing devotions while on the road presented special challenge to me. Being routine-based, having both my schedule and my space changed made this much harder. So I found alternatives. Schedule is flexible when travelling, but location? I’m good to go anywhere I have my prayer beads.  In a way they kind of work as an altar I can wear around my neck or tuck into a pocket. They help maintain the routine regardless of location, and I find that the energy they’re imbued with is particularly calming. Each bead is a visible step in my devotional routine, and holding it grounds me out even when everything around me is chaotic (meaning “not in line with my ideas of How Things Are”).

My devotional practice is constantly growing and changing. I add or subtract aspects as needed to suit growth and change in me, my relationships, and my circumstances. Hopefully the above helps other people trying to do the same thing.

Competition and Ego

In an earlier post I talked about how we’re taught to compete with each other for a sense of self-worth, fighting over status like zombies fighting for the last brain – a more apropos metaphor the longer I consider it. That was an observation about larger society in response to a specific question. Maybe I was too nice in that post, because it’s already circled back around in a way I wasn’t expecting (more fool me). I recently got pulled into a pissing contest between spirit-workers and wanted to scream.

This “I’m a better spirit-worker that you because I (insert thing here)”, or “You don’t meet my standards because you don’t (insert thing here)” is fucking embarrassing, people. It’s like we’re trying to get the cute quarterback to ask us to prom.


Do I need to repeat that, maybe with exclamation points and italics? Put it in iambic pentameter? Write a catchy little song? Make a cute graphic with a kitteh? How’s this?

Because cats are apparently internet magick

Who are we trying to impress? Ourselves? Each other? It’s certainly not the Powers we claim to serve. And that means we’re missing the whole damn point.

Spirit work is about serving the Powers. That’s it. Not your ego, not someone else’s standards, the Powers. Are the Powers with which you work happy with what you’re doing and how you’re doing it? If “yes” then you’re doing it right. If “no”, then change things until They are. Period. It’s a very simple concept, and yet we keep screwing it up.

I know this can be hard, especially when we’re just starting out. There are so many reasons to depend on other people. Listening to the Powers is challenging, and it’s easier to listen to other people then it is to tune in to other Voices. We want the sure knowledge that “we’re doing this right”, and we just know we have to be right all the time or the Powers won’t like us anymore. On and on and on. I get it.

But, again, spirit work is about serving the Powers. We have to listen to Them. It’s the job description. So frankly? GET OVER IT. Do the hard thing. Get out of your own way. Listen only to the voices that matter and further your own work. Practice discernment and seek understanding. Then engage with what you’ve learned and live it. Talk to other people about how to listen better/more deeply, to get new ideas and explore the parameters of accepted truths. It’s even helpful to hear about another person’s journey and be inspired by it. Don’t listen to anyone else about what exactly your work is or should be. That’s between you and the Powers, no intermediary required.

Seriously, people. A bike ride from New York to California can’t be compared to a plane trip from London to Australia in anything but the loosest sense. That reality doesn’t change when we start talking spiritual paths instead of physical ones. Trying to compare – and worse, rank – spiritual journeys? It’s futile, exhausting, time consuming, and stupid.

If we devoted half the time/energy/thought/judgement to our own work that we spend worrying about how everyone else’s work is progressing we’d all be further along.

So stop the bullshit already. I don’t want to write captions for more kitten pictures.

Challenges and Possibilities

The relationship between any spirit-worker and the Power(s) with which they work is unique, and so are the specific challenges. If it was all smooth sailing it wouldn’t really classify as “work”, right?

I don’t know about most spirit-workers, but for me there seems to be one core challenge with each Power I engage, and each little challenge is another perspective of the core concept. I get the logic behind it. This method teaches me all the many facets of each issue by forcing me to face them one at a time. My relationship with my Lady is no exception. The core issue with Her is the concept of possibility, and the challenge has been particularly vexing of late.

My Lady is very much a liminal goddess. She dwells at the betweens, and the winds of change are Hers to call. Stasis of any kind is against Her sense of “How Things Should Be” – to Her mind, the only constant is change.

I, however, am fairly OCD by nature. I like routines, I like order, I like predictability. I like having a plan and rules and boundaries. It’s why I’m so effective with project/event management. I get agitated if there is too much transition going on at any one time, and coping with change in multiple areas of life simultaneously makes it difficult for me to function in any of them. I consider life to be a juggling act, and with every change one of my bright rubber balls suddenly morphs into a sharp dagger. It disturbs my rhythm.

She’s been careful with me on this one. I am MUCH better than I was with it, and over time I’ve learned some flexibility with things, picked up a few coping mechanisms along the way. I’ve gotten good at juggling one dagger amongst the balls, and can occasionally manage multiples for brief periods. Most of the time She’s been careful to work within that. Now is not one of those times. We’re pushing the envelope, challenging several fundamental things I had thought were handled (silly me!), and we’re doing it all at once. Eek!

Challenge #1 is the whole concept of urban monasticism. She’s telling me now that this will change over time. I’m not sure what it means yet, but the comfort and support of a monastic lifestyle isn’t one I can expect to have indefinitely. I love the structure this lifestyle gives my days and the focus it requires, the way it keeps me grounded and focused, and have been resistant to losing that. She’s holding firm, though. I’ve started (once again *sigh*) substituting the method for the goal behind it, and that She won’t tolerate. She wants me to remain grounded and focused no matter what’s going on in my life. So something new is looming and I’m not sure yet how it will manifest. This makes me sad, and nervous, and I find myself trying to cling more tightly to the idea instead of gradually allowing myself to move away from it.

Challenge #2 is how I’ve viewed myself in the context of groups. In the past I’ve tended to shy away from leadership roles. I am well aware that I am not a special snowflake. I’ve preferred to facilitate rather than lead, suggest rather than order, and have left the official positions of authority to those who enjoy them. Most leading I’ve done has been leading by example. While that’s definitely part of my nature, focusing solely on that is ceasing to be an option. I’ve been told – firmly – that I’ll be taking on more clearly-defined leadership roles over the next few years. I’m willing, but it’s going to result in a lot of adjustments I’m not exactly eager to make (mainly for time-management reasons, but those priorities are likely to change as well).

Challenge #3 is work-related, and by extension home-related. My current employer will be laying me off in June. I can either be rehired in 3 months, or look for work elsewhere that actually matches my skills and experience. And if I’m doing that, why stay where I am to do it? That hits two of my “panic buttons” at once, and is causing me some additional nervousness. The whole situation is up in the air right now, and will be until I get a little more information.

Challenge #4 is my personal life. Yes, the whole thing. *laugh* Over the last few years I had pretty much internalized this idea that long-term relationships just weren’t practical for me. The commitment required would simply be too much to juggle with all of my other commitments. I was fairly comfortable with that, actually, and didn’t consider it much of a sacrifice. That’s been challenged of late, and I am again open to the possibility.

This is, I think, one of the side effects of working intimately with a Power that a lot of people miss. The Power refuses to stay compartmentalized. There is no “spiritual life” and “work life” or whatever – there is simply “life”, and They can affect all of it should They have the desire. My Lady refuses to allow me to close any doors in my life – especially the ones I’m most comfortable closing. She’s trying to get me to appreciate the inherent possibility of every moment, the idea that every second is a ball of potential waiting to take form if only I have the eyes to see it. Until I reach that point this will continue to be a recurring challenge, and will pop up where and when I least expect it.

Sacrifice and Perspective

Sacrifices can be as varied as any other offering, but usually seem to involve inconvenience, abstention, or discomfort. Fairly common examples include giving up sex, experiencing pain, and fasting. I’m good with that. I start differing even from many of the other polytheists I’ve met when we get to the why, though. Why do we do these things?

The answer can be as varied and nuanced as the practices themselves, but the most common rationale I’ve heard is that if it’s unpleasant and you do it anyway, it means more and thus has a greater value than it might otherwise – to you, the Power who requested it, and perhaps even the world at large. This is a perfectly acceptable reason. It is not, however, the intent behind my practice of sacrifice. While I am not your typical spirit-worker in a lot of ways I’m also not a special snowflake – this perspective can be useful for anyone doing this kind of work.

I think the reason for the alternative view is that I’m working with different Powers than a majority of the people talking about this kind of thing. The whole “unpleasant = value” equation never figures in. Sacrifice is, in my relationships, not a reason in and of itself but a method. Something being difficult or painful is not the point. It’s more about clearing away that which has passed its usefulness to provide space for new growth.

My Lady uses the methods She uses with me because these are the methods that work with me, not out of personal preference. That’s it. If my head worked differently She would use other methods.

A few years ago my Lady demanded that I take a temporary oath of celibacy. Oh, I was pissed. I worked in the sex industry at the time, most of my social contacts were through the kink community, and I had 3 very regular play partners (one of whom I lived with). I loved sex – still do – and saw absolutely no reason to stop engaging with people on that level. Besides, being surrounded by it 24/7 and being unable to partake felt like cruel and unusual punishment. I argued, protested, resisted, came up with excuses, you name it. She was firm, though, and to put a cherry on my “are You serious?” sundae She had it start on Beltane. I was not amused (although my friends thought it was hilarious).

And within a week I felt like a total dumbass. I had more free time, my head was more open, and I unearthed this huge mess in my head I hadn’t even realized was there. Six months into it my life had drastically changed, and at the end of a year my life had so dramatically improved that I asked to make it permanent so I wouldn’t lose any ground (and got a no – I almost cried). I am a much healthier and more balanced person now because of the whole experience.

The thing here? She did not then and does not now care about my sexual partners or lack thereof. My celibacy didn’t do a damned thing for Her. The sacrifice was for me, to give me space to grow and change some patterns that were becoming problems. Celibacy was the method She used to guide me and teach me because that’s the only method that would have worked for me.

Even the more typical Ordeal-oriented sacrifices I’ve done for Her – the tattooing and piercings and brandings, the silences and the fasts, the floggings and the lashes – can be examined under this lens. To really learn a lesson I sometimes need it imprinted on blood and bone. If I don’t experience it and don’t feel it, it’s not real. The deeper a lesson is the more I need to physically feel it. My Lady works with that because that’s my need, not Hers.

For instance, part of my dedication ritual to Her was a flogging. I treated it almost like a hazing, like I had to go through this painful thing without complaint to prove myself worthy to serve Her or something. My top knew my (very high) limits and at my request purposely pushed them to make me work for it. After about 45 minutes, when I was about to fall to my knees again, I rather bitchily asked Her for a little help, since She wanted this and all.

From that moment until the end I didn’t feel a single blow land. Not one. My body moved with the impact, but that’s it. She had been waiting for me to request aid. My asking for help – not the pain itself – was the point. I already received so much from our relationship that asking for more felt like I was being unreasonable or demanding, so I simply didn’t ask. Ever. My Lady won’t help without request. My devotion (aka stubbornness) tied Her hands. In this case the Ordeal was simply a way She could force the issue in a way I couldn’t ignore. I’m much better about asking now.

This view of “sacrifice as method and not goal” isn’t one I see out there very much, and I somehow doubt that my Lady is the only one to approach sacrifice in this manner. It’s an incredibly valuable technique, however, and the perspective is useful. Knowing the reasons why a sacrifice is being requested might help us engage the experience more fully and get everything we can out of it.

Envelopes, Labels, and Gods

People have wondered at the appeal of the Twilight Saga. Especially since Bella doesn’t really have a character. She’s got some blurry qualities, but her personality is amazingly bland (if you leave aside a complete lack of common sense with safety issues). Yet the books and movies have become worldwide beststellers even with a main character who has the personality of a stupid potato.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes Bella such a compelling character is her lack of character. She is an envelope into which any fan can slip herself. So the story is, invariably, about someone just like them. Readers aren’t watching her life, they’re vicariously living it. It makes them a part of the story. That’s the draw.

That same appeal, I think, is what makes the concept of archetypes so enduring and compelling. It’s also what makes them so potentially awful.

On the one hand an archetype is dead easy for everyone to relate to. We can see how the Maiden manifests in our lives, or when we’ve set forth on a new journey like the Fool, or fought like the Warrior. Stories and myths using these archetypes are accessible to each of us in different ways, allowing us to relate to the stories individually while still sharing the communal story experience. That can only serve to build community and give us a common language.

But Pagans have taken that a step further. Some actually have shrines to a given archetype on their altar, or hold rituals for them. Even more common, especially in group work, is to invite “all the Mother goddesses!” to a Circle followed by a damn roll call. The archetype concept is used to simultaneously categorize and impose labels on the Divine. Personally, as a polytheist it alternately creeps me out and pisses me the hell off.

No one I’ve ever met worships the “pure idea of the Maiden”. I honestly don’t think there can be such a thing. They worship “the Maiden archetype as defined through my own experience”. That’s a whole different concept altogether. If the archetype is an empty character envelope into which we can slip aspects of our Self. and then we worship that, we’re not going “up”, we’re going “in”. It’s not the Divine we interact with, it’s our subconscious brought out as a playmate.

If that’s what you want to do go for it. Jungian therapy has been doing something similar for years as a psychological tool and many people find it helpful. Just be aware of what you’re doing. The archetype isn’t a deity, it’s a construct in your own head.

I think using archetypes this way is actively detrimental to our practice. Archetypes come from us. A practitioner’s Maiden will never surprise them, or come up with something bizarre they have to cope with. There may be gradual realizations that come about as people grow, but there’s not the give-and-take you get with a completely different personality because there’s NOT one. The “eureka” moments are fewer and farther between because there’s no one outside of yourself to guide you, challenge you, or force you to look into your hidden/scary places.

What’s even worse is that various deities – with full characters and opinions and needs, thank you very much – are shoved into these “archetype envelopes” and left there. All the amazing things that separate and individualize them and yet don’t fit in the envelope are tossed out and forgotten – and once that happens it often isn’t fixed. Arianrhod was dragged into The White Goddess, and for the most part She’s been stuck there since. How many Pagans in the world see Her as anything other than “the Welsh mother/moon goddess”? Despite the fact that the slightest bit of research blows that whole notion out of the water completely? Not very many. It’s frankly insulting to Her.

Unfortunately this problem happens all the time. It’s the exact same issue that underlies the equation of deities with each other. For example, Odin is often called “the Norse Zeus”. About the only thing Odin and Zeus have in common is heading up their respective pantheons. They are two very different gods, from two very different cultures, with two wildly different personalities and experiences. But that’s disregarded completely. They’re both “Father Gods”, right? And since we have a vague idea of what “Father God” means – filtered through modern Western conceptions shaped by Christianity – we think of them both like that despite the fact that it’s wrong. The label on the envelope doesn’t just categorize, it defines. Athena and the Morrigan and other “War/Battle Goddesses”, Loki and Coyote and other “Tricksters”… It’s constant. We don’t see them individually. We just shove ‘em all into an envelope, slap a label on it, think that one label defines the contents, and go about our day.

The danger here is that people are, by and large, lazy thinkers. Using envelopes for our Gods means that eventually the envelope becomes all there is. We’ll forget that Odin gave an eye for wisdom, that Athena turned a woman into a spider for hubris, that Loki is also called the Breaker of Worlds. Once a habit of thought is established it’s difficult to break, and once it’s socially accepted it’s even harder.

There is no difference between treating a deity as nothing more than an imposed label and doing the same thing to minorities. In both cases the one in question is reduced and demeaned to fit in with preconceived notions that deny them their individuality. Most Pagans/polytheists see themselves as socially liberal – how can we advocate better treatment for people while simultaneously disrespecting our Gods? Even our language shows this lack of respect. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Pagans talk about “using a love goddess” in a given ritual. Newsflash: we don’t “use” deities. Sure, those saying it don’t know they’re being insensitive and dismissive – but I don’t think those using casual racism, sexism, or any other –ism in random conversation do either.

Are archetypes as a whole something we should explain to new Pagans? Yes, because they ARE accessible and it IS a common language. Are they handy lenses through which to examine stories and myths for greater understanding? Absolutely. But that’s the line, right there. Using an archetype during ritual, or making offerings to one, or otherwise shoving deities into envelopes further separates us from the Divine – the OPPOSITE of what we’re trying to do.

It also makes my skin crawl. End of.

In Support of a Pagan Laity

“Clergy” is a loaded term for any faith, but it becomes especially problematic when coming at it from a Pagan perspective.

Definitions vary, but for me the difference between “layperson” and “clergy” is fairly basic. Most people focus their spiritual practice on themselves. Their spirituality is largely self-contained, and their personal spiritual fulfillment comes from their own connection with Divinity. Others find that their spiritual practice and fulfillment is dependent on serving others. Both of those types of people would fall into what I consider to be laypeople. However, when a need to serve combines with a calling to some sort of leadership role we get clergy.

This important and distinct difference gets glossed over entirely too often.

I think the line gets blurred because most of today’s Pagans are converts from other faiths, and they’re converts because the faith they grew up with didn’t meet their needs. When they finally find a faith that speaks to their soul, they just jump in without checking in with themselves first. By the time they do that they shrug and keep forging ahead, afraid of losing that spiritual home.

Personally, I tried really hard to force myself to be Christian when I was younger. It didn’t work. The stories and tenets didn’t make sense to me. Being a “good Christian” would have required me to ignore or hide my true self, compromise my principles, and make what I believe to be unethical choices. Nothing against Christianity – it just wasn’t a good fit for me.

Finding Paganism was a revelation. THIS fit. Suddenly I had a place, and the relief was intense. When you light a match in a dark room the brightness is overwhelming. It is easy to see how people new to Paganism would take that bright, shiny “I’m home” feeling and confuse it with “this is my entire life now”. Especially when we’re encouraged to make that commitment from the get-go.

It’s fairly common in the Pagan community to take on a clergy title -“priest” or “priestess” – early in the initiation process. By becoming Pagan it is assumed that you’re serving the Gods, and that by doing so you’re automatically somehow serving the larger community.

This is incorrect on two fronts. The first one is that not all Pagans believe there are Gods to serve in the first place. Some people very happily see all deities as Jungian archetypes, or universal principle made manifest, or Divinity as being in everything and so faceless, or … you get the idea. The idea that the Gods are actually distinct individuals with preferences and personalities who deserve and perhaps require worship is not even the majority in Paganism, much less the default option!

Even if the Pagan newbie does believe in individual deities, they might not know how to conceptualize that. I wasn’t really taught how to serve even the Christian God as a child. Sure, I knew how to follow the rules, but study? Devotional practices? Regular prayer? Writing rituals myself? Holidays that focused on church more than presents? That was what monks and nuns and priests did – not me. I was just supposed to show up. Once my practice started incorporating all of these other elements, the only mental category I had for it was clergy. I don’t think I’m unique in that.  And I certainly didn’t know where to start!

So that whole idea – that all Pagans are serving the Gods and so the community -is simply incorrect, either through lack of belief or lack of skill.

That assumption neatly ties into another one, that is almost an unspoken rule in Pagan circles: Pagan newbies will take on some sort of leadership role in the larger community as soon as their skills are developed enough. Again, this just is not true. But everyone is railroaded into a group leader/clergy path, whether or not they are called to it, because it’s simply the next accepted step in Pagan practice. You learn the basics, then turn around and begin teaching and leading others. That’s just The Way It Is, and those who resist that way are essentially admitting that they’re not advanced enough to handle it. Which means their perspectives and skills are overlooked or ignored.

There isn’t an accepted place for the experienced and skilled Pagan layperson, a middle ground between “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I am called to lead a group”. This is sad.

I know people right now who are serving as clergy without feeling called to do so. It’s the price they pay for remaining in the public community long enough to know which end of an athame is sharp, and expected if they are going to gain acceptance in a specific group. They are not clergy by my definition – they are artists, warriors, scholars, bards, healers, diviners, lovers. Their necessary and beautiful spiritual gifts are being pushed aside and neglected because they feel pressured and compelled to be something they’re not. Not only is all their free time consumed by something that doesn’t nurture them, they don’t have time left over for the things that do. This leads to a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, self-martyrdom, and eventually leaving the Pagan community in self-defense. At the same time, the entire community is losing out on all the contributions these unwilling clergy could be making, if people would simply back off and give them space.

I also know people right now who know, deep down, that they will never fulfill their spiritual potential without a community to serve and a group to lead. Their gifts are all about counseling, teaching, group work, administration, and ritual facilitation. But finding people who could teach them the skills they need to capitalize on their talents is more difficult than it should be. They have no way of knowing who is serving out of sincere desire and who is serving out of duty, so they have to wade through all the passive-aggression, all the martyrdom, to find someone who gets it and can teach them. While this is going on, they see demonstrated all around them that serving the community will suck them dry, that they won’t have a life outside of it, that they have to bravely accept feeling empty and soldier on despite it. These views are internalized, and this attitude translates into the work they do.

Is it any wonder that many people reach a Journeyman level and retreat from the public scene rather than continue to offer their unique perspectives? That newbies have to get most of their instruction from books, and don’t even know which books to start with? That finding teachers and/or books for advanced topics is such a challenge?

Group leadership is no more important, valid, or devoted a path than the artist who connects to their Gods every time they create, the scholar who finds understanding through history, the lover who feels union with Divinity at orgasm.  They all serve in their own ways.

Laypeople serve different functions than clergy, but they are no less important or valuable. We need to start offering respect, support, and validation of their individual experience. The better we are at doing this the more fulfilled we’ll be as Pagans, the stronger we’ll be as a community, and the better we will serve our Gods.

The Forest Analogy

In a recent discussion the line between “God” and “Not God” became the subject of a rather heated debate. In my opinion the distinction is not one of power but of vision. I came up with an analogy to explain what I meant and thought I’d post it here as well – I like how it turned out!

I’ll use the analogy of a forest.

A given Land Spirit will be intimately connected to, say, a certain tree. That Spirit will know everything there is to know about that tree: know how to help it grow, know how to sustain it, and know how to end it once its time has passed. If I want information about that tree I’ll ask the Spirit – who better? But if you ask the Spirit what’s happening on the other side of the hill It couldn’t tell you, because the tree is all It knows.

I can see many trees as I walk along my path, and rivers and flowers and animals too, but I see only the surface – I don’t know any of them intimately. And I only know what I’ve seen and experienced along the way.

Ancestors know not only the path I’ve walked, They know every path in the whole forest. Their information isn’t necessarily any deeper than mine, but it is much more extensive. They also get the whole thing of being human – They know when I need to rest, how important it is to find water, and why I’m scared out here in the forest at night. If I want to make camp I’ll ask the Ancestors for assistance, because They know what will work best. However, They don’t know the paths that haven’t been walked yet, and They don’t know anything beyond the forest.

Gods see the forest in its entirety, and They see how that forest relates to the mountains and deserts and seas. It’s like They can see the whole map, and this allows Them to give me amazing guidance. But a God doesn’t understand what it’s like to walk along the path with your own two feet, and how tired and hungry you can get as you go. And They certainly don’t get the specifics of each individual tree.

All of these entities have their own wisdom to share, and ultimately I think all of Them directly influence my growth. The Ancestors know where I’ve been and offer history, the Land Spirits know where I’m standing at the eternal “now”, and Gods know where I’m going and can see future potentials. To my way of thinking emphasizing one over another is counterproductive, as all three perspectives are equally important to my long-term spiritual development. It really is a case where bigger is not necessarily better.

And if ANY of Them ask me to do something or make a suggestion in Their area of expertise I’ll pay strict attention, because They are all wiser in Their particular areas than I.

This concept is why I try so hard to maintain a balance in my devotional practices. All three viewpoints are equally valid, so by opening myself to all of them I can get a better understanding than focusing on just one would allow. And ultimately this becomes a devotional to my Lady as well, because part of my utility for Her is suggesting alternative perspectives. A balanced devotional practice is key to making that possible.

Covensteads and Clergy

During a recent series of conversations with a Pagan group I was strongly reminded of a quote common in polyamory circles: “Love is infinite, but time is not.”

We were discussing the treasured dream of establishing a “Covenstead”. Dedicated ritual space, meditation gardens, shrines, classrooms, accommodations, the whole deal. Parts of the discussion even started veering off into theoretical water systems! It was all interesting and stimulating, but struck me as putting the cart way before the horse. There are reasons very few Pagan groups manage to maintain this kind of setup, and I think most of them boil down to the finite nature of time.

Let’s assume that the average American sleeps 8 hours a night, or 56 hours a week (oh, fond dream!). Statistically, they also work an average of 50-60 hours a week. Just work and sleep account for 110 hours of the 168 weekly hours available. The time remaining is eaten away by significant others, children, other family, laundry and cooking, connecting with friends, exercise, grocery shopping, and all the other demands juggled by people on a daily basis. Relaxation has to fit in there too, somewhere. No wonder people feel so rushed!

Those following any spiritual path have all of the above to deal with, and then have to somehow add spiritual practice to the mix. Meditation takes time. Study takes time. Ritual, devotional workings, and magick all take time. It can easily add up to an hour or two a day – 14 hours a week, or a part-time job in itself. Taking on students or working with a group adds even more of a time burden.

Then add in the time required to maintain and use that dreamed-of Covenstead. Someone has to mow the lawn, trim the hedges, pay the bills, plan the rituals, run the classes, tend the shrines, polish the altar tools, and clean the bathrooms. These same people then have to attend and/or facilitate everything so all that effort isn’t wasted.

All of this, on top of everything else, is damn near impossible. It’s not a question of “dedication” or “priorities” but math – there are simply not enough hours in the day for any one person to do all of it.

There are two ways to approach this problem. One is to share the work out. Even the largest task becomes more manageable with more hands, right? This is the path chosen by most Pagan groups, and if everything runs exactly as planned all should go smoothly.

The problem with this approach is that life happens. Those who could volunteer this week might not have availability next week. Work gets hectic, people transfer or move, children get sick, and personal projects have to get done sometime. And while the hours volunteers can contribute vary, the hours required do not. The only way to successfully cope with this is to have a huge pool of potential volunteers from which to draw, and very few groups have those numbers. So when life happens those with a bit more flexibility try to cover for everyone else, either burn out or just can’t sustain the added work load, and the whole thing implodes in spectacular fashion.

The other way to do it is to designate a small part of the group to do most or all of the work. For those few this is a huge time commitment. So huge that those who take it on typically have to give up standard employment and/or family – on average, life’s two biggest time consumers – in order to make it possible. The members of the group not making that kind of time commitment balance it out by contributing financially instead. Since the financial burden is borne by the much larger group, no one has to contribute more than they can afford and everyone is a part of things.

And thus we have the birth of a dedicated clergy.

Religions all over the world have adopted this method as they’ve grown, and it has been successful for centuries. The clergy system is similar to a kind of religious insurance. The layperson can go about their daily lives, secure in the knowledge that when they need a rite of passage or holiday observance there’s someone to facilitate it and a place at which to do it. And we certainly have enough people who identify as members of the greater Pagan/polytheist/magickal community to support a similar system for ourselves.

However, Pagans tend to shy away from the entire idea of a dedicated clergy. From what I’ve seen they either fear some sort of religious oppression or don’t want to support the work of those who don’t practice the exact same way they do. As a result, the closest thing to dedicated clergy we have as a community are published authors, which are not the same thing.

This is unfortunate. We need clergy.

We need people who understand as many different paths as possible, so they can understand and adapt to the needs of everyone in our community. We need people available to meet those needs, whether it’s conducting a hand-fasting or visiting a solitary practitioner in prison or the hospital. We also need shrines to our gods, sanctuaries for the land, schools for our children, cemeteries for our dead – and all of those require dedicated people to tend them. None of this is possible without the hands to do it, and we can only get those hands if they have the time to develop and use all the necessary skills.

I’ll agree whole-heartedly that Pagans and polytheists of all paths could seriously benefit from having our own dedicated ritual spaces. We just need to approach the issue from the other direction – people first, land/structures after. Otherwise all the time spent to create the space will be wasted, and none of us can afford to waste time.