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.

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?

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.

Gender Politics in Worship?

As part of my efforts to shake up my home practice, my husband is creating a random deity “generator” for me, a program that will email to me a specific deity or entity to honor during my nightly ritual. The list of deities comes from me, of course, and tonight I sat down to make it.

I listed all the deities I’ve worked with and felt connected to, as well as all those I’d like to get to know better. I put a lot of thought and care into those Beings I’d like to draw closer to my hearth. But as I began to glance back over my list, I realized that it’s pretty lady-heavy.

Am I, as a woman, inclined to worship goddesses rather than goddesses? Have I connected with them because of our shared femininity? Do I feel more comfortable praying to a Being who has, on some oddly-perceived level, more in common with me? Am I (I say this in a whisper) sexist?

What an interesting and alarming thought. I’ll be exploring this a bit more in the coming weeks.

How about you? Are you more inclined to worship a deity that shares your gender identity?

Holey Stones

I went hiking with a friend and her three-year-old son on Sunday. We got out of the car and had one of those half-conversations friends can have.

“Look at all the lovely rocks in the creekbed,” I said. (I wish I’d had my camera!)

“Yes—maybe—I really want to find—” my friend began.

“One of those holey stones!” I finished.

“Yes!”

“I’ve been hoping to find one too!”

And boy did we ever find some. Here’s my half of the haul:

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We live in a very special place, and I’m not just speaking figuratively, or referring to what some people call the enchanted forests of southern Indiana. We do have extensive hardwood forests here, but we also live on a significant karst plain—this area is unique literally from the ground up. You can take a walk and pick up geodes from the dirt. All those in the photo, I found exactly as they are, though I suspect some “good Samaritan” had come along and broken a few of them before I arrived.

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As you can see, I’ve already strung one of my holey stones and have been wearing it.

But why, you ask?

Well, common folklore says that naturally drilled stones, called hag stones, fairy stones, witch stones, adder stones, or just plain old holey stones, are protective and even healing objects.

Stones with naturally occurring holes produced by erosion, wind or wave action, sea creatures, and by other means have long been prized as protective objects.

There are numerous folk uses for these stones. They were hung on the bedpost to prevent nightmares. In England, holey stones were tied with red ribbon and hung over the bed for the same purpose within recent years…

As a magical protectant, holey stones were worn around the neck, placed in the house, or hung from the front door (Cunningham 119).

My friend said that if you look through one, you can see fairies, and that must be a fairly common folk myth—the internet is rife with it—but I have yet to find a source. This particular magical trait was the first one my friend mentioned, so I believe it must be local folklore. Cunningham also says that if you look through the stone under the right conditions, you will see visions of the future (120).

Other lore says you can look through it to improve eyesight (Cunningham 120) or use it to draw out sickness or absorb pain (Eason 129). Although the healing properties are arguable at best, like any magical working, I’m sure the intent does as much to dispel the negativity as the stone itself.

The Goddess/feminine-accordance and fertility aspects of the stone are maybe obvious (a hole?), but that’s the first aspect that comes to mind for me: an association with femininity and the Earth Mother herself. The stone represents both the strength of the earth and the power of the water, which alters but does not destroy the stone. It is a product of two elements, which, working against each other, have created a unique and fascinating object.

But, to me, the most interesting aspect is the liminality of the stone. “They were considered a gateway to other dimensions and large (stones) were set near the entrance of Neolithic burial chambers to bring rebirth or easy passage to the Otherworld” (Eason 129).  If we can see the fairies through the stone, and it protects us from nightmares, and it can show us the future, and it demonstrates both the power and the weakness of the Earth, by its nature, it demonstrates aspects of dual existence in both this world and the Otherworld.

And anything that brings me a connection to the other realms is welcome to take a place in my home.

I have big plans for the stones: I have two more I intend to string, though I feel quite attached to the one I’ve been wearing, and I will place additional stones on my fairy altar and on my general altar.

The geodes, though, are a topic for another blog post.

Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic. 2nd ed. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

Easson, Cassandra. The Complete Crystal Handbook. New York: Sterling, 2010.

Household Altars

I’ve been working my way through my apartment, trying to separate some of my general-altar objects and make mini, specialized altars in many places. On a practical level, this helps reduce clutter on my bedroom altar, but, more importantly, it spreads some of my spiritual belief and practice into the rest of my home.

So why spread my religion around my home?

1. To make sacred the “mundane” things that I do. From cooking, to crafting jewelry, to sewing, to doing laundry, I spend a lot of time doing, well, stuff. I put a lot of myself into crafting and cooking, and I like the idea of invoking, say, Brighid to watch over those tasks.

2. To honor Beings who are important to me, including my ancestors, the deities, and the fairies. I’ve set up, so far, an ancestor altar and a fairy altar. My Brighid’s Cross is hanging in the kitchen, and I’d like to do a little more for Her. I don’t have anything for Manannan yet, but if I feel called, I’ll make Him a mini-altar, too.

3. To make my spiritual life a part of my day-to-day activities. I like the little reminder when I’m cooking (especially in my cast iron!) that I’m doing the same thing that women have done for far more than 1000 years. I like to give my cooking that extra bit of significance. I like to see the fairies as I walk past my bookshelf, and I like to think of my ancestors as I walk to my work-table.

This all sounds good, right, fairly well-intentioned and pious? But the other day, a fellow druid (the same friend who bought me my cast iron) and I were talking about her new kitchen hour, and she told me about a conversation she  and her husband had several years ago when she first brought up the notion of mini-altars around the house: her husband (who is agnostic/atheist) said, “What if I, overnight, had a religious conversion and became a devout, conservative Catholic? How would you like it if I wanted to hang crucifixes around the house and put a Virgin Mary statue in the bedroom?”

Oh.

My friend readily admitted that she wouldn’t like it. Years have passed since that conversation, and she now has a kitchen altar and a garden altar, and there hasn’t been any friction, even though they are not raising their children as pagans and her husband still maintains a staunchly agnostic worldview.

So how do we justify our double-standard? Why are we okay with multiple pagan altars in a mixed-philosophy household, but we don’t like the idea of Christian symbolism in the same situation?

There are several possible answers. The first, and (to me), most obvious, is that Christianity is an evangelical religion, and many Christians are not okay with the notion of paganism generally. It’s one thing to have altars that perpetuate no judgement and require no conversion, and another to have imagery around the house that suggests anyone who doesn’t appreciate it is going to hell. The second, and most practical, is that pagan altars are more discreet: three bowls, a candle, and a stick don’t necessarily say “church.” The third answer, and the one I like least, is that my friend and I are just hopelessly inconsistent.

I’m lucky: my soon-to-be husband doesn’t mind altars around the house. Likewise, I don’t mind that he has no interest in attending my grove’s rituals. We’ve adopted a “live and let live” marriage policy.

But how can other mixed-tradition couples find a happy balance?

I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have a few suggestions.

1. Don’t do anything the other person isn’t comfortable with, or at least neutral about. I wouldn’t go putting my imagery of the deities around the house, nor would I suggest we make a joint prayer and offering at the beginning of a meal. My other half does not share my beliefs, and I do not try to make joint pagan suggestions. (Just to brag, though: Altus will, unprompted, light my Brighid candle sometimes when cooking.)

2. Keep your imagery neutral. An altar can be as simple as a candle. While I would never suggest secrecy or lying, you can make a devotion with a simple flame and mental speech. Yes, we encourage the spoken word, and our gods are not omniscient, but I believe that a loud thought directed Their way will reach its target.

3. Follow the “golden rule.” If you want your spouse to respect your choices, you must also respect theirs. While I don’t like the idea of a crucifix in my living room, if I am cohabitating with a Christian, I must accept his choice to have Christian imagery. And that other person should be respectful of my discomfort, and, like me, select more neutral (or private) imagery.

So that’s my bit. What do you, readers and fellow pagans, think? What’s the best way to balance religious imagery and practice in a mixed-tradition household?