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.