Transcending the Divide Between Sacred and Mundane

I’ve been reading Dwelling on the Threshold: Reflections of a Spirit Worker and Devotional Polytheist, by Sarah Kate Istra Winter, a book that focuses on pagan mysticism in a modern setting. (I want to note that haven’t finished the book, so this absolutely isn’t a review—rather, one essay in it moved me to write a blog post to explore my thoughts on the matter.)

It’s a fascinating read, and quite inspiring, but that is, in part, because I can’t agree with everything the author says. I don’t strictly disagree: much of what she says seems like it could, or even should, be true, but it doesn’t hold true for me and my life as it is right now. It is thought-provoking, however, and that’s as inspiring to me as anything with which I can strongly agree or identify.

If you’ve read this blog for long, you’ll know that practical paganism is something that matters to me a great deal and is something I struggle with pretty regularly. How can I integrate trancework and devotional practice into my daily life? How can magic and prayer fit into my mundane routine? In what practical ways can I manifest my devotion? It’s something I still struggle with, because I’m not honestly sure. I’m not great with trance—in fact, I can say with some certainty that trancework will be what holds me back in my path to priesthood. I have difficulty integrating magic and devotional with my mundane life, often because the notion of sacred time and sacred space as separate and Other inhibits me from seeing the sacred in my everyday activities.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

The author writes,

“…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 first priority, people who can go further Out There because they don’t have the same types of responsibilities holding them back.”

As I said, I don’t disagree. But this dichotomy is extremely unhelpful to me personally, because it suggests that my mundane ties are holding me back from spiritual elevation or fulfillment. I’m not saying that this is the author’s argument; indeed, I suspect she would challenge my wording and the generalization I’ve made. However, I find that the type of comparison contained in this essay acts as an unnecessary boundary to the pursuit of spiritual work in tandem with success (however one perceives it) in daily life.

I spend a lot of my professional life telling myself and other writers that comparison between oneself and one’s colleagues or peers is probably the most counterproductive activity we can engage in, the very antithesis of creativity. When we compare ourselves to others, we set ourselves up for failure. There is absolutely no way I can be anyone but me, and expecting myself to work or behave like someone else is guaranteeing that I won’t meet my own expectations. It’s an impossible, ever-shifting standard.

This is maybe my issue, but the suggestion that my daily life and worldly ties prevent me from achieving true connection to the divine makes me feel inadequate and destined for failure. Why should I even try, if I can’t do it in a way that works for me and with my life?

I know I’m making this more black and white than it should be. However, the bright line separation between Divine and Mundane (or Profane, if you prefer) sets a standard I feel I can never achieve. I want my daily life to support my spiritual life, but I also want my spiritual life to support my daily life. And, to be honest, I would like to overcome that distinction altogether.

My priority, in pursuing priesthood, has always been to be there for pagans in their daily lives: to provide spiritual support at high points (marriages and sainings) and low points (funerals and and other farewells), to create liturgical and devotional resources for depression and anxiety, to encourage spiritual activity during even the most mundane of things, like cooking and cleaning. I would absolutely fall into this author’s camp of the priest with a foot in each world.

But when there’s a divide between true mysticism and practical paganism, I feel stymied before I even begin. If it’s a lower calling, to integrate spiritual practice into daily life, what am I aiming for? If true unification is impossible, why am I even trying? If it’s so difficult to achieve mysticism that one has to sever ties with this world, is there any point at all to my pursuit of practical paganism?

Maybe we do need dedicated mystics who don’t share my insecurities and doubts. For most of us, however, I think bringing the sacred into our routine is a grand aspiration because it’s a way of making the sacred real. When I honor the spirits as I take my daily walk (for exercise, mind you, not contemplation), that is finding sacred space in this world. When I honor Brighid as I clean my stove, that is a way of welcoming her into my daily life. And those activities are what matter to me.

Overcoming that distinction is one of my ultimate goals for my path, and I hope it’s not one that’s counterproductive to the mainstream pagan way of thought (if such a thing exists). The concept of sacred space/time is important, I think, particularly for liturgy and group ritual, but it also makes it difficult to connect one’s spiritual life with one’s daily life. And if I can’t have some sort of integration, I think I will find the standards of devotion required by the path of priesthood extraordinarily different.

Maybe solitary mysticism is a high goal to achieve. But for me, the ultimate end will be honoring the spirits with my mundane life, to the best of my ability. I want to transcend the divide between sacred and mundane and live, truly, in both worlds at once, with no distinction between my steps on either path.

The Value of Plans

Well, I planned to make May a month of druid boot camp, with nightly devotionals and near-nightly attention to my studies. I did well for the first ten days or so—and then I got sick, and not just with the sniffles. I was well and truly sick, with a high fever and wracking cough and a complete inability to get out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time.

I’m proud to say that in two weeks of illness, I only missed four nights of devotional, and I updated my journal at least three times a week. I, and my practice, survived together.

I realized, though, that while periods of intensive study are excellent, and often invigorating, they’re not what I really need. What I need is a druidry, a nightly practice, that wears well in washing, that sustains me when I’m sick, and upholds me when I’m at my worst. I need room for success, certainly, but I also need room for failure and fevers and fumbled offerings. I need a lifestyle, not a practice—though practice enriches that lifestyle, without a doubt.

I’ll be trying my boot camp plan again in June. Even my truncated period of intensive work started to build some good habits, so I know that element of the plan will be successful. Ad while I know I’ll have some screw-ups, that I’ll fall asleep before completing devotionals, that I’ll occasionally forget offerings or have a candle that just won’t stay lit, I also know that my efforts, successful or faltering, will deepen my connection to the Kindred.

Stay tuned.

A Poem for Beltane

Well, I’m a day late and a dollar short (four days, really, and let’s not get into the money), but here’s a poem I composed for Beltane. This is actually a rough draft of a poem I’m submitting for my clergy training, and it doesn’t scan, so don’t judge me too harshly. I do prose, not poetry.

Enjoy?

 

Feel the promise of the sheltering light—

Veils thin and the shadows seek to stay,

Fires of Beltane, shine brightly through the night!

 

Fairies and sidhe dance merrily in flight,

Enticing you, inviting you to play—

Feel the promise of the sheltering light!

 

Offers of bliss, promises of delight—

Even the wise fall victim to the fey.

Fires of Beltane, shine brightly through the night!

 

After months of need, the soul cannot fight;

For strength and aid, to the Kindred we pray.

Feel the promise of the sheltering light!

 

The Earth grows green, the summer is in sight—

Now shielding fires may help us find the way.

Fires of Beltane, shine brightly through the night!

 

In darkness, the need fires will shine bright.

Keep close, and soon the summer shall hold sway.

Feel the promise of the sheltering light—

Fires of Beltane, shine brightly through the night!

A Druid’s Challenge

Well, well, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

This has been a difficult year. I’ve had some career set-backs and changes that led to starting a new job with more strenuous hours. My husband and I moved. My extended family has faced sudden loss. Things have changed, and not all for the better. It’s been Life, I suppose, with that all-important capital L that stands for all the little things we deal with day by day and never mention.

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I made a deliberate choice to blog less here. Part of that change happened when I took over SDF, but more of it happened before then. I realized that the constant self-analysis was making my practice too meta—when I was doing a thing, I was thinking about writing about doing the thing, and that was taking away from my experience of actually doing the thing itself. I cut back on blogging because I wanted to focus more on the moment of my practice.

Now, two years later, I’ve found that without that constant consideration and reflection, I’ve fallen into a druidic rut. My rituals feel the same. My devotionals, day by day, never change. The seasons shift around me, but I plug along, saying the same words and thinking the same things. I’ve lost the freshness and sense of adventure I had when I started, and my ability to experiment and question myself has stagnated.

It’s not a good feeling.

This blog and the ADFers I met through it were my first community. This digital space witnessed my early, breathless successes and my cheerful, clumsy failures. Here I explored what it meant to me to be a druid, and I questioned the world around me through the posts I wrote here.

I want to recapture that particular magic.

Ironically, given that I started as such a prolific blogger, journaling has proven to be my biggest obstacle to my clergy training work. I cannot make myself journal my practice every week. I’ve tried Google calendar reminders, I’ve tried Habit RPG, I’ve even tried siccing my husband’s nagging powers on me. None of it has worked.

I’m thinking of issuing myself a challenge. I would like to apply for ordination around this time next year. (Talk about optimism…!) It’ll be a commitment, but it’s absolutely doable. Here’s the tricky part, though: if I want to stick to the schedule I’ve made for myself, I need to commit to journaling every single week. Without fail. No, “Well, I’m tired, I’ll make it up next week.” Absolutely no, “But… I don’t want to tonight!”

Nope. No. No way.

So the first part of the challenge will be, for one month (or possibly the span between two High Days), I will blog here every week and write in my private journal every day. The second part of the challenge will be a self-directed druidic bootcamp, in which I practice trance twice a week and work on CTP essays twice a week.

It would (will?) be a challenge. I haven’t decided for sure if I’m going to do it. But Beltane is approaching, and I know I want to make a change. It seems as good a date to start as any other. I know I can do this, but I have to hold myself accountable to documenting my work.

What do you think, readers? Want to help me? Can you think of a better way to rope myself into keeping up with my liturgy and trance journals?

A Spell for Creativity

20140714_171745I’m not much of one for spells. I don’t really think of myself as a ‘witch,’ or a practitioner of magic. Most of my spells are ritual workings, meant to honor the changing of the seasons in some way, a method of honoring the deities on the High Days.

Occasionally, though, I get crafty and branch out. Nearly two years ago, a friend and I decided to get together at our local co-op, which serves not only as a grocery store, but also as a coffee shop, cafe, and hang-out for like-minded folks. We were both interested in magical crafts, and we decided to try our hand at making witch bottles*.

At the time, I was stuck on a book and in a professional rut, so I opted to make a bottle designed to clear myself of stagnant energies and to increase creativity. A month later, I wrote a new book in a fever of inspiration, one that stands out still as some of my best work.

Did the spell itself make a difference? I’m not sure. Regardless, the MAKING of the bottle hoped to focus me, and having the prettily decorated bottle nearby in my creative space helped to remind me what I wanted to accomplish. Whether you believe in the power of the spell itself or the symbolic, focusing power of the spell’s making, it’s a useful tool, one that ought not be dismissed.

Here’s what I did.

“‘Clean Up’ Creativity Mix”: This mix is intended to soothe one during and draw one through a period of professional and/or creative struggle; to boost recovery of mental stability and creativity, it’s meant to help one regain one’s creative confidence.

Ingredients (choose from what you may have available; the more the better!):

  • chamomile: reduce anxiety
  • bergamot (Earl Grey tea): confidence booster
  • ginger: courage
  • barley: stamina, creativity
  • cloves: comfort, prosperity; helps to achieve goals
  • basil: creativity, success; promotes emotional/mental soothing
  • beans: wish magic
  • bay leaf: luck
  • marjoram: luck, ease for heartbreak
  • pyrite: prosperity
  • quartz: cleansing, absorbing negativity
  • orange peel: luck and energy, successful relationships
  • coffee beans: energy, lethargy-breaker
  • decorative items for focus; in my case, green ribbon and fresh water pearl beads to draw prosperity
  • attractive, clean, clear glass bottle, commonly available at craft stores; an empty jam jar will work just as well!

Drop the following mix into a bottle in attractive layers; keep in mind that smaller spices, such as finely ground herbs like basil and orange peel, will sink to the bottom, as will heavier items such as crystals. Larger, lighter items like chopped cinnamon and dried beans will hold their place and “float” atop smaller or more dense layers.

Once you’ve filled your bottle, decorate it in a way that speaks to YOU of what you’re trying to accomplish; in my case, green ribbon and green leaf beads spoke of prosperity and fertility, while pearl beads reminded me of the triumph of creativity through difficulty. Place the bottle in an area you’ll see it while you’re working. Because the mix is a fragrant one, don’t hesitate to handle the bottle and smell the herbal mixture: it may just give you the energizing, creative spark you need!

Finally, while I’ve provided resources I’ve used, don’t hesitate to refer to books and authors whose works speak to you. Indeed, be sure to use your own instincts and creativity when creating such a spell; since you absolutely are not consuming what you make, you may get creative with ingredients. This spell is for display only, and you can use the items that speak to you of your own needs.

Recommended Resources:

Bradley, Kris. Mrs. B’s Guide to Household Witchery: Everyday Magic, Spells, and Recipes. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2012. Print.

Cunningham, Scott. Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, and Metal Magic. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2002. Print.

— Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2010.

Wicca in the Kitchen. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2011

*A witch bottle is, in its essence, a bottled spell comprised of herbs, crystals, and other symbolic items, meant to protect, incite, or inspire. If you’re curious about witch bottles and their history, I recommend reading the above resources, as well as the following websites:

All About Witch Bottles, by Jason Mankey, Patheos.com

Creating a Domestic Witch Bottle, by Kris Bradley, Examiner.com

Opening a Witch Bottle, by Samir S. Patel, Archaeology.org

 

 

 

Why the Dedicant Path Matters (Even if You’re Not New to Druidry)

I’ve seen a few folks lately complaining that the Dedicant Path (a requirement for many of ADF’s advanced study programs) isn’t relevant to them: they’re not new to Paganism or even Druidry, the essay requirements are cheesy and noob-ish, the recommended reading is too basic, and, in short, they’re just not interested.

I feel you, guys. I do. The advanced classes are more interesting and challenging. The specialized reading material is better sourced and better written. If you already know the basics of Neo-Paganism, you’ll end up learning a lot more once you get to the advanced courses—and the DP may feel repetitive to you if you’ve already been celebrating the eight High Days for a decade.

But that doesn’t make the Dedicant Path any less valuable for you. (And keep in mind—you’re not required to complete the DP coursework, or any coursework at all. But don’t let discomfort with the coursework hold you back.) By asking you to consider pagan practice in relationship to ADF Druidry, framing pagan practice in ancient and modern context, and requiring you to answer a specific set of exit standard essays, the Dedicant Path will give you common ground for discussion with other ADF members, and, further, it will help to shape a common experience for the organization’s diverse global membership.

Think about it this way, if you like: consider an institution like Indiana University, my alma mater. The school serves 40,000 students at its Bloomington campus alone, and the vast majority of those students come from places other than Bloomington, Indiana; most of them also enter as freshmen, but plenty (like myself) attend as transfer students and/or graduate students. There’s not always a lot of common ground.

And so IU offers a “core curriculum,” required of all incoming undergraduates, that is almost painful in its simplicity. Some of the courses, like, “Understanding Diversity” and “Mathematical Modeling” are, to an outsider, perhaps absurdly basic. “Understanding Diversity” would make an anthropologist cry in her sleep, and “Mathematical Modeling” might bore a mathematician to manic laughter. And a transfer student, entering IU as a junior or a senior will probably bitterly resent the course hours she must dedicate to to the classes. But will these courses help an 18-year-old from a struggling high school in rural Indiana find her place at a Big 10 University? Absolutely. And more importantly, hours dedicated to these courses will enable students to pass other courses with flying colors, and to engage in informed, equal discussion with their peers.

In the end, the basic courses provide the foundation that all students need to pursue their degree, even if some benefit more from it than others.

The Dedicant Path provides a less-specialized grounding in ancient paganism, modern paganism, and ADF Druidry itself, and it asks students to build a consistent practice rooted in ADF’s customs, or to consider their existing practice through the lens of ADF’s cosmology. Not only that, the Dedicant Path helps you to provide context for your own practice by exploring the traditions (ancient and recent) from which your own work is descended.

For the beginner, the Dedicant Path walks a student through the recent and ancient roots of Paganism, beginning with generalized Indo-European studies on a very basic levels, and branching into hearth studies with slightly more advanced texts. Moving from there, the DP looks at contemporary paganism and then more specifically at ADF Druidry. By the end of the work, the student is able to consider his or her own ritual work with a critical eye, and discuss that shared work (or collaborate on new work) with any other ADF Druid. More importantly, the student has learned what it means to be a modern druid, and has begun to define her understanding of that role.

For a more advanced student, the DP offers an opportunity to review and revise existing understandings of that role. Although the student may already be well-rooted in ancient pagan studies and modern pagan practices, a review will enable her to demonstrate that knowledge, revise and clarify her positions and practices, and share that experience with fellow Druids. Further, the work of the Dedicant Path will allow the more experienced student to deepen her practice by exploring it in a new light: by seeking to answer specific questions about her existing knowledge and practice, she may discover things about paganism (and even herself) that she may not have already known.

Finally, the DP asks students to create a standard basic practice (through understanding and celebration of the High Days) and worldview (through basic understanding of cosmology and virtue) that becomes a common experience for all ADF Druids. Dedicants not only share the experience of answering the same questions in the same way, keeping journals for the same reasons and with the same aims, and celebrating the same High Days in the same time frames, but also share an experience of questioning and learning, theoretical learning and practical paganism, regardless of experience level. Hellenic Druids will have explored the same issues as Celtic Druids, and diverse students will have an understanding of shared roots.

When we have this shared basic experience, we’re all building on the same foundation. Although we may specialize with more advanced classes and with expertise in our hearth cultures, we all have a basic awareness of our druidry that we share. It’s a reminder that we’re walking the same path, even if the scenery looks a little different, and that common ground should (hopefully) keep us moving in the same direction. We have similar values, even if we express them differently, and if we don’t have the same beliefs, we’re likely to look at the world in a similar way—and even if we don’t, our shared experience of learning and questioning has hopefully trained us to explore our different beliefs in a thoughtful, open-minded way.

So consider this: if you’ve been a practicing pagan for a decade, and you’re not feeling keen on writing about the meanings of the High Days, try to make it an interesting challenge for yourself. Yes, you must meet the basic requirements of the essay, but try to think about what the High Day means to you. What myths play into your understanding of this day’s ritual? What traditional practices have made it into your own at-home celebration?

While the DP does serve to give us this shared starting point (it’s our version of the Core Curriculum), it’s still meant to help you as an individual. Let the knowledge that you’re forging yourself a place in our tribe  inspire you, but then challenge yourself to learn. Make the Dedicant Path your own so that it may help us grow as a community.

Companions on the Journey

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about those who walk alongside us during our spiritual journey. For some it’s partners and spouses, parents, and children. For others it’s grove-mates or brothers/sisters in faith. For still others, our ancestors, spirit guides, and deities are the only beings to share our journey. But for many of us, it’s our friends.

For me, it’s often been friends. I grew up in a semi-Catholic household, with a Catholic mother and an atheistic father. My dad never went to church with us, and my mom really only made us attend church when we were working toward milestones like First Communion and Confirmation. Religion did not shape my family. When I reached middle school, though, many of my friends attended the same very active Methodist church. They were in youth group together, they went on retreats together, they took mission trips, went to choir practice, attended lock-ins, and were confident in their church community.

I was a little envious.

I had one Catholic friend in middle school. In high school, I was dumped by my first boyfriend because I was Catholic.

These actions, this passion, the sense of community that drove the people around me to choose friends and mates from within their own congregation puzzled me. I never had that connection with my spiritual practice: I went to mass… sometimes. I read the Bible… sometimes. None of it stuck. I tried on others’ churches, and they never fit. I was always the outsider looking in during a service, and, to be honest, I was always the outsider looking in among those communities. I never belonged. Those friends and partners would never, ultimately, choose me, because I came from a different world.

Some of that sense of exclusion, of loneliness, probably drove me to attend a Catholic university. I loved it there for a variety of reasons, but I loved it in part because I was no longer Other.

…until I realized that I was now a different kind of outsider, the kind who questioned and who chose to go to brunch instead of Sunday morning mass. A friend told me in our third year that she’d always assumed I was Protestant, like her, because I never did all those Catholic things. Ash Wednesday was a sort of branding-by-absence, when you could tell those of us who were different because of our unsullied foreheads.

So I tried harder. I went to mass. I went to the chapel to pray, sometimes, alone with the silence and the candles. I went to a retreat. And, ultimately, I knew my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t believe, I had no sense of connection.

I let it go.

Although it’s much more complicated than I’m revealing here and now, I eventually realized that I didn’t believe. I didn’t belong. I was outside the community not just because those within it looked on me as different, but because I was different. But to me, that didn’t change my relationships with the people who remained within those silent and often loving walls. The difference meant little to me. I’ve had friends who are nothing like me, male, female, neither, gay, straight, Protestant, pagan, atheist, native English speakers, non-native, you name it, I’ll make friends with it. Friendship in difference meant the connection between us was strong and resilient enough to explore and revel in the spaces we could occupy together.  Space between meant there was more room for intellectual, political, and spiritual play.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares that view. Late in my college career, my best friend went, well, super-Catholic. The space between us became a wasteland instead of a playground. Questions and discussion became judgment and disapproval. Discussions became arguments. Laughter turned to silence.

Once again, I was a 13-year-old, dumped by someone she loved because of a religious difference she never chose.

When I discovered ADF and paganism, I reveled in the sense of community. Though I was a solitary, I had found my people. I wasn’t Other anymore; I belonged. People would choose me, as I had chosen them. (Consent in religion: there’s a topic for another day.) I made new friends and explored new grounds, and over the years, these friends have helped me on my journey. They’ve given me a hand up a rocky slope, shared in awed silence with vistas of the sacred, said to me, “You will get through this—I know, because I’ve been there, too!”

We’ve made the journey together. For the first time in my life, I had true companions and partners.

But when the road divides and things change—beliefs mature, questions go unanswered, needs evolve—I find myself both inside and outside the wall of Other once again. I am not the same to my former grove-mates. I am not the same to other solitaries. And I’m not, I am afraid, the same friend to my companions. In the face of change, my sense of betrayal goes outside and in: I feel hurt to lose a treasured co-explorer, and I feel disgusted with myself at perpetuating the exclusion that has repeatedly wounded me.

I am only human. I am not always rational. But when the support-net changes, we’re bound to feel vulnerable. The people around us shape our journeys, just as we shape theirs—and they, too, are vulnerable, fallible. Sometimes we all lose the path, even when we have the steadiest hands beside us.

The hard part is realizing the hands reaching out to us are trembling. And sometimes we have to shake hands at the crossroads on the promise of exchanging different views. Occasionally, we must wave a distant hand and shine a shaky light of hope toward our faraway companions, with the faith that it will be enough to guide us both down our separate paths.

A mature friendship, just like a mature faith, is resilient. I still believe that. It finds detours. It explores the unknown. It looks into the shadows. Friends are more than companions. They are, at times, our faith in humanity.

And I can hold on to that.