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.

Summer Solstice, SDF, and Me

Some of you reading this are old friends. Some of you are new friends. Some of you are probably here wondering who the heck I am after yesterday’s announcement.

So I’m going to do what I do best, and tell you a little story.

In late November of 2010, I joined ADF. (How I got there is another story!) Back then I lived in northern New Mexico, in the mountains east of the Rio Grande Valley. Though it was a beautiful and magical place, it was cold, it was isolated, and it was very lonely. My husband and I were living in a 200-year-old fortified plaza, “modernized” by our land-lady, who ran a bed-and-breakfast out of the plaza and worked the attached farm and orchard. I’ve never lived so close to the land, but just then the land was frozen and settling in for the long hibernation of the mountains in winter. The Earth Mother in all her beauty was surrounded me, but she was hunkered down for a nap, and I was more or less left alone to find my path.

It seemed I wasn’t the only person to join around that time and feel the ache of solitude. A number of us—some of you who still read this blog!—shared our blogs and formed our own community. I pretty quickly struck up a friend with Teo Bishop, whose blog Bishop in the Grove quickly became much more than an ADF Dedicant journal.

On he went to blog for Patheos and Huffington Post and interviews and all sorts of amazing things. It was a pleasure to watch, and I continued to take a little bit of pride in our early correspondence about the nature of sacrifice, meditation, deities, and all the ‘ologies and ‘isms of Druidry.

Then, last August, he contacted me about an idea he had, a way to help solitaries. In an odd bit of synchronicity, I had just returned from the Summerland gathering, my first ADF festival, where I discovered just how difficult it can be to be the newcomer in a long-standing community. I wanted, after seeing how it felt to know no one, to help solitaries feel like a part of the community I found myself looking at from the outside. When I embarked on the pre-clergy training program, I knew I wanted to serve solitaries. I went into last fall with a new vision for my path.

Over the next months, Teo worked with ADF to establish the Solitary Druid Fellowship. I like to think I did my bit, advocating for the project with the few ADF leaders I know, but mostly it was Teo’s baby and Teo’s determination that carried it forward. SDF took off, and has been successfully offering liturgy and community to solitary druids since last winter’s solstice.

And now, here we are at the summer solstice.

In another odd bit of synchronicity, not a month ago I chose to leave my grove and return to solitary practice—and then Teo approached me to take over leadership of SDF.

I said yes, of course, and we’ve all arrived at this blog, wondering who the heck Kristin McFarland is and what she has to offer solitaries.

I don’t have a resume to offer. I don’t have a long list of credentials or a thick black-book of contacts. I’m just me, offering my hopes and dreams for ADF and for solitary druids on all paths.

Like I always do, I slept through this morning’s sunrise. Every Solstice I think, “Hey, I’ll get up and do a sunrise ritual! It’ll be amazing!” And then it never happens. (Last year, I was in Mexico on my honeymoon, and I planned to do a beach devotional at sunrise on the Solstice. That would have been amazing. At least I have the dream of it, if not the memory.)

I slept late, and when I got up I had to putter through drinking the two cups of tea that make me functional enough to act like a civilized human being. Then I exchanged some texts with my husband. I brushed my hair. I read my RSS feeds. Then my cat barfed everywhere and I had to clean it up.  And then the maintenance crew started running the weed-whacker outside my apartment, and then the garbage truck came and started honking at them, and then, and then, and then.

By the time I got to collecting my ritual implements, I was already feeling a little frazzled. I forgot a cup for the waters of life and had (not for the first time) to consecrate the water bottle I keep on my nightstand. My offerings of incense went out repeatedly. The barfy cat tried to jump on my lap. I dropped my binder. I forgot what I wanted to say.

But all the noise from outside dropped away. It was just me, sharing liturgy with every druid in the Fellowship. There was silence and sacred space, because I created it.

That is the magic of solitary practice. We don’t need a coven or a circle or Stonehenge to create meaningful ritual. We just need our intent.

I tell you all this not to demean myself or lower the bar of expectations. I’m telling you this because we are all together in the effort it takes to create the sacred in the midst of the mundane. We may be walking different paths, but they lead to the same place, out of time and out of space: in the end, we are all in that sacred space, sharing silence, sharing intent, and sharing our worship.

For me, Druid ritual will always be practicing my worship alone at my altar in the frozen pink foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and knowing that Druids everywhere were sharing in my work. Even apart, we’re together when we step into the sacred.

If you’re reading this, thank you. Thank you for putting faith—or at least curiosity—in me. And thank you for sharing ritual with me, wherever and whenever you do it.


In case you needed another reason to cultivate mindfulness in your practice, learn from my example:

Tonight, as I sat down to my nightly devotional, I realized the well on my altar needed topping off. Thinking of a big decision I still need to make, I absentmindedly picked up the bottle I keep on the floor next to the altar, and poured a hearty measure of water… into the pillar candle that serves as my fire.


All was well, and I was able to light my fire with no more than a few warning sputters and crackles, but believe me—I kept my mind on the present as I performed the rest of my ritual.

The ‘Shoulds’ and Individual Agency

I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter on the ADF mailing lists about the ways we should live, the ways we should change, what we should do because the ‘Ancients’ did it; a lot of people are concerned about the right way of developing a hearth practice, the right way of meditating, even the right way of living.

I find it troubling because ADF is not a religion of dogma: yes, we care what you do in ritual, but we’re not going to tell you how to live. Granted, our principles should guide and shape your way of living, but we’re not going to tell you, “BECOME A VEGAN,” or “ALWAYS OPEN THE GATES AT YOUR HOME ALTAR”.

The clinging to an imagined ancient way of life troubles me, too, and for almost the same reason. Even if ‘the Ancients’ had a uniform lifestyle and religious practice (which they didn’t), they still lived in a completely different world than we do. They ate fruit and meat they could gather and hunt, yes, but they did that because they had to. And they offered blood sacrifice because, well, that’s what they did.

But we don’t have to do either of those things. We have the luxury of eating December clementines shipped from tropical climes. We have the luxury of frozen, pre-prepared meats. We have the luxury of offering expensive fermented beverages instead of blood. Our world is not the world our paleopagan ancestors lived in.

My umpteenth-great-grandmother couldn’t vote. She couldn’t choose to become a fighter pilot. She couldn’t make choices about her world beyond the scope of her own home. She might have died in childbirth, or of appendicitis, or she might have shared my congenital heart condition and died at 27 because she didn’t have the option of life-saving surgery. And her umpteenth-great-grandmother couldn’t even conceive of things like voting, rights, or even luxury.

We have to live in our own world.

Yes, it’s right and pious to want to offer traditional items, but the fact is, we know more now than our ancestors ever did. They would, I think, want us to make safe, responsible choices for ourselves and for our earth.

It all boils down to those words: safe, responsible, and choice.

We need to be safe. We need to keep our planet safe. If that means not offering our own blood without a finger stick or the means some women have, then don’t do it. Don’t go slicing your palm open with a kitchen knife and risking infection and injury. If safe actions mean offering polished rocks or carved wood to the well instead of pollutive silver, then change your behavior. Don’t mindlessly stick to tradition, even when tradition can hurt you.

We need to be responsible. Only we can develop our home practice. Only we can do the work and create relationships with our patrons. Only we make the necessary life-changes and start trying to preserve our Mother Earth. Saying, “Well, how do you do it?” or “How did the Ancients do it?” is declining to take responsibility for your actions. You are giving up your agency in favor of the choices of someone who may not know better.

Finally, you have to choose to pursue right action. You must commit to doing the work, to spending the extra time, to trusting your own educated instincts. Refusing to make your own choices is, again, irresponsible. You must value your own knowledge, experience, and intuition, and you must decide to make your own choices.

The beauty of druidry is that it values our individual agency. By venerating the ancestors, we are honoring the spark which makes us all human, that gives us the knowledge that we must choose responsibly and safely. We live in a different age, now, and our agency comes with a lot more duties: and most of those duties involve making the right, sustainable, safe choices.

Please don’t throw away your agency. It’s the most valuable thing you have. Only you can use it, and it’s the driving force that will put you on a path toward better self-knowledge and a better understanding of your religion.

Autumn Update

I’ve been neglecting you all, haven’t I?

It’s not deliberate: I’ve been incredibly busy so far this fall, so busy I even took a brief break from my grove activities! I’ve been doing twice-daily devotionals, working on some study program excitement, engaging in some interesting druidic correspondence, and even trying my hand at a few small works of magic. I took a quick trip to Three Cranes Grove for the autumn equinox, which was very fun: it’s always a delight to see friends and meet new folks. I’ve also been planning for an upcoming all-night Druid Moon.

And that’s not even mentioning my personal and professional life, where things are really cooking, so much so that I’ve finally succumbed to a nasty autumn cold. Yikes. I thought I’d take advantage of the illness-induced slowdown, though, to put down a few musings here.

I spent some time last week reading Mrs. B’s Guide to Household Witchery, which was a truly charming (haha, oh, puns) book. Most of you who read this blog know I’m not really into hardcore magical-practice, that I feel doubtful about spells, ceremonial magic, grimoires, calling on spirits to do my bidding, and other things of the kind. I’m starting to get over my hebejeebs, though, partly for personal spiritual reasons and partly because I’d like to be able to perform workings for those around me.

Household witchery (or domestic magic: pick your own name) has been my gateway magic, if you will. I enjoy crystals, largely because of their beauty and the symbolic magical correspondences assigned to them, though I’d dispute their New Age healing powers I like herbs for the same reasons, though I do credit them with palliative properties. And household magic capitalizes on common, readily available ingredients like kitchen herbs, seeds, candles, and easy-to-acquire stones.

[Sidebar: That’s one aspect of Mrs. B’s book that I loved: she recommends common ingredients and offers substitutes for the rarer herbs. For example, she recommends using an Earl Grey tea bag for bergamot. Easy, brilliant, and less costly than trying to track down herbs no one keeps in their pantry.]

Herbal magic, candle magic, and the creation of oils or incense: these, to me, all fall into the domestic category. I’d like to create a few basics to use for purifying and consecrating tools, soliciting inspiration, asking for protection, or banishing negativity.

I’m a complete newbie at this side of Druidry, though, so I’m learning as I go. One thing that’s already tripping me up a bit is balancing the spiritual and practical aspects of magic. Am I praying for aid, when asking for inspiration, or putting my own intent for inspiration onto, say, a candle, and willing it into life?

It’s a distinction I need to make for myself, I think. Hmm.