On Pagan Clergy, Layfolk, and the Struggle for Selfhood

Gabriele Negri on Flickr
Gabriele Negri on Flickr

A few weekends ago I remotely attended a class hosted by River Devora. Mostly just to see what it was about, but also to get used to interacting with other polytheists outside blogs and forums, because while I’ve been pagan in some way or another for almost 15 years, and animist ever since I could remember, all the other practitioners I’ve ever met were some variety of pantheist, subscribing to the “all gods are one god” thing or the Jungian archetype thing. I just don’t have an interest in working to make inroads with those kinds of groups anymore because they do nothing for me, but at the same time, I have no idea what I’m doing around other polytheists.

It was about 3 hours long, and while most of what was talked about was 101 material to me, it was still a good experience to sit and listen and interact with others – even if in a pretty limited way, due to attending via webcam. A few things were mentioned, though, by a couple of the other more advanced practitioners/priests, and it got me thinking, because this has been a pretty pointed feature of the pagan/polytheist communities ever since I could remember. I talked about it some with Heathen Chinese afterwards and it seems we’ve got similar thoughts on the subject too.

Basically: what’s with the tense, almost love/hate relationship between pagan clergy – to use this as a shorthand – and laity?

Why is it always clergy who talk about the importance of “hoeing onions”, or doing the proverbial gruntwork of being a lay follower?

Why do lay followers seem to glamorize clergy, and the responsibilities involved in occupying those positions, and rarely, if ever, speak of the merits of simply being laity?

I think it’s more complex than just being a case of the grass being greener on the other side, and actually has a lot to do with the concept of social capital.

Social capital isn’t just another marketing buzzword that hearkens back to the gift economies of old, it’s the driving force – and dominant currency – of virtually all interactions and relationships that take place online. Activists and political thinkers have been given a front-row seat to the CF that is current social media organizing, and they’re really beginning to talk about this. I feel that Crimethinc explains it the best, because I’ve fucking been there*:

We live in a society that teaches there is not enough of any valuable resource to go around, including selfhood. People on television or in books are held up as more important, more noble, more attractive than the rest of us. We grow up in households where our parents don’t have enough time for us; we are sent to schools that employ a grading system that permits only a handful to excel, and are discharged into a market that enriches a few of us while exploiting or discarding the rest. We internalize the values of this system. We become used to judging our value by what we are “better than.” We rush to despise others, their plans and ideas and habits and beliefs, in order to reassure ourselves that we have worth of our own. When we should be looking for what is positive in everything, we denounce and criticize instead—just to reassure ourselves! The most insecure among us are not even able to enjoy movies and music, because it is so important to them that they have “refined” tastes; they don’t realize that when they succeed in failing to enjoy something, no one has lost more than they. If you’re going to get anything out of any movie or song or interaction (so as not to have simply wasted time!), you have to take responsibility for finding ways to enjoy and benefit from it.

In its advanced stages, such hypercritical status-seeking can combine with a spectator mentality: from a distance, the critic passively votes for or against the efforts of others, unable to discern that such things as art, activism, community are entirely what he makes of them—and that he must make something of them himself in order to get anything out of them. This spectatorship reinforces the sense that everything everyone else is doing is uninteresting or unintelligent, and thus the feeling of superiority the spectator so desperately needs. […]

Those of us who would oppose this scarcity system often have additional challenges to face in unlearning its conditioning. Many of us have come to this resistance from a place of conflict and struggle, and this sense of struggle is still imprinted upon the way we approach all our activities. Having been abused, neglected, harassed, having had to fight peers, parents, teachers, bosses, police to establish ourselves, we see selfhood as something that is obtained by fighting.

The vast majority of us are first generation pagans and polytheists; that is, we came to be where we are with deliberation, and sometimes, at great cost. If we are teenagers, we are rarely safe to practice in our own homes. If we’re adults, we have professional reputations to maintain or landlords and neighbors to appease. If we’re parents, we have children to keep from being teased, or even taken away. Many of us have accepted the reality of a life of solitary practice for a number of reasons, and especially in those cases, our only company in ritual and worship are the Gods and spirits Themselves.

Many of us also come to paganism or polytheism from paths like eclectic, Wiccan-flavored paganism, where many of the resources assume the reader is solitary, and perhaps as a result, practitioners are often encouraged to undertake rather priestly responsibilities like invoking Gods, creating sacred space, and maintaining altars.

A few ideas on why there is an undercurrent of mistrust or hostility toward pagan clergy, given the above:

  • Culture clash if you’ve come from a background of solitary work with an “everyone’s a priest/ess” implication
  • Lingering mistrust of religious hierarchy from previous experiences with Christianity, etc.
  • Building up cults of personality, elevating individuals to celebrity status
  • The felt sense of threat from encountering someone who has a “closer” relationship than you do with your God/s
  • The behavior or volume of a clergy member’s online or in-person following
  • The attention received by clergy member’s “more interesting” or “photogenic” practice

The anxiety caused by last three, being the ones I feel like I’ve seen the most in my wanderings around pagan forums and blogosphere, are the ones that are predominantly rooted in scarcity thinking: that the attention of Gods and spirits, and that community and cooperation are all finite resources that we need to stake claims on.

To quote the Crimethinc piece again, I feel like this paragraph is relevant to every lay person who is encouraged to be content with being a follower, with “hoeing onions”, by a member of the clergy or someone else in a position of authority:

Considering the numbers of public relations agents, televangelists, self-help gurus, and other assorted fanatics and salesmen competing to convert them, the hesitance “the masses” show to get involved in any kind of social movement is actually a healthy self-defense mechanism.

If we operate in a world of scarcity, where even Gods can be unintentionally framed by the cold logic of resource extraction, then it would make sense that layfolk are suspicious of clergy – priests, spirit-workers, godspouses, and so on – every time we’re told that we shouldn’t necessarily strive to be where they are. Because this means that there is something good and rewarding that they are trying to keep the rest of us from getting. It sounds suspiciously like a rich person trying to explain to a poor person why financial security isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

And I think that this is where the pagan “fads” come from as well, in just the same way as fads happen in consumer culture: where the working or middle classes appropriate the style and effects of the ultra-rich, the same thing happens when the “spirit-poor” suddenly all start studying astral travel or animal familiars because that’s what a BNP is talking about at the moment.

When community is seen as a finite resource and zero-sum game, especially in the realm of social media, ugliness happens. When talking, again, about the backbiting and infighting found in online activist communities, Frank Castro writes this in his piece The Virtual Colosseum: Overcoming Social Media’s Dark Side:

[In] the arena of online activism we often treat the discourses surrounding our oppression how capitalists treat market share, vying to monopolize the discourse with our own lived experiences and intellectual prowess, to solidify our own positions, oftentimes through oppressive tactics. Individuals who can get others to invest in their ideas or lived experiences about a particular discourse obtain greater access to that discourse, wielding greater influence over it as well (the greater the following, the greater the ability to signal boost your own perspectives, or at least perspectives with which you agree). Popular activists can come to dominate online discussions this way.

Herein lies another problem. When conversations are dominated by those who have obtained large followings, the creation and enforcement of hierarchy emerges. This hierarchy revolves around not just competition for followers, but for credibility among those followers. Activists with large online audiences are thought to already have established their credibility — especially among the newly politicized — by showcasing their intellect. All too often, however, this showcasing takes the form of shutting down and/or delegitimizing other users’ ideas and lived experiences. To admit one might potentially be wrong, or even inaccurate, is to lose credibility and access to followers (social currency).

In pagandom, I’ve seen this kind of thing happen much more in forums and the likes of Tumblr than blogs: the dire need to be right all the time and the paralyzing fear of being wrong or even just saying the right thing the wrong way, all to avoid a real or perceived threat of character assassination. And in Castro’s Virtual Colosseum, discredit is death:

After a while it can feel like survival of the fittest. Sometimes it is. Just as billionaires have enormous resources at their disposal to manipulate the flow of power and preserve market dominance, social currency enables popular web-based activists to maintain dominance over online discourses. So while the visibility social media enables can be a valuable tool for the proliferation of alternative media, marginalized voices, and radical re-education, how that visibility is obtained and maintained can be painfully problematic.

Whether or not we consciously understand that this is generally how social clout functions unless deliberately counteracted, I think laypeople intuitively understand this. And so when clergy also become BNPs – which they almost always do, unless maybe, perceived to be bandwagoning – there may be a sense of betrayal, and deep misgivings may begin to form about what their priorities are. Combined with the scarcity logic above, this can create an ugly felt sense of something vaguely threatening. Clergy can then become symbols of monopoly: monopolizing the attention of the Gods, beings who may have long been our only confidants in solitary ritual or devotion, and monopolizing community, something that social media has been structured to function as a zero-sum game.

So, again, it is no wonder that the layperson’s reaction to this anxiety, this threat against their sense of selfhood and their relationship with the Gods and spirits, is to try to become clergy themselves; not at all unlike the working class person that might dream of being rich, whether through hard work or winning the lottery. Those who are god-touched occupy privileged positions in this economy of spirits, and those who aren’t are at the bottom. How many god-deaf BNPs are there? Hardly any I can think of; so while clergy may talk about the importance and dignity of being laity, the reality – little clout, no authority, few online followers or likes or reblogs – says otherwise.

What do we do about this?

I think it would be useful to make a concerted effort to recognize when we are perpetuating scarcity logic in our religious interactions – with Gods and people – and do our best to undermine that learned behavior. The Gods and spirits aren’t like gold or old growth timber; Their presence and power aren’t scare commodities that we need to secure for ourselves lest someone else get our piece of the pie. In fact, They function in exactly the opposite way: the more we honor, serve, and worship Them, the more They become. We know this.

For clergy – the priests/priestesses/godspouses/spirit-workers/temple-keepers/ordained/etc. – keep in mind the power that you wield in this economy of social currency. And please, if you have to extol the merits of being god-deaf, head-blind, and otherwise without priestly responsibilities, try to mind how you do it; it’s easy to come across as patronizing in a world where everyone is vying for likes and authority to secure their selfhood.

These are all just thoughts and suggestions, but I know that the phenomenon is real. I’ve experienced it. I see others experience it. If someone else would like to build on this and turn it into a full-fledged dialogue, please do. Even if I’m found to be wrong, I’d like to know what others are thinking about this.

16 thoughts on “On Pagan Clergy, Layfolk, and the Struggle for Selfhood

  1. So, as I was reading I found myself struggling a bit. I get why you are writing what you are, and agree that clergy need to be part of the solution, especially because in the hierarchy of things, we’re placed higher on the queue than others are for the reasons you mention.

    Part of what I do in my own group is consistently remind folks they all have things to contribute, things worthy of hearing, and that the measure of what makes a prayer or offering good is whether the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir like and accept it. I also make a point of emphasizing that I do not and cannot know everything. I actually really like it when I can hand part of a lesson or ritual over to someone else. It takes me out of the facilitation role, even if for a few minutes, and into the experiential one. It doesn’t mean hierarchy disappear, per se, but it does mean that everyone knows they’ve got stake in this group.

    Roles are important, and I think part of the issue that has emerged quite a bit is that there are a lot of roles lacking in modern polytheist religion. There are folks, like myself, who the Gods snap up and say “come do this thing!” and we go and spend time and a lot of hard knocks learning how to do it, whether it is priest work, spirit work, becoming a priest, becoming a shaman, starting a group, or what-have-you. Then there are folks who don’t get snapped up, and the communities around them have little to nothing for them to do, whether that is the communities around them form before they’ve gotten these lessons, or there are just not enough interested folks in this or that direction to form one, a million reasons.

    A given person may have no desire or ability to lead, so while they might have a great knowledge base, they have no personal reason to put their name out there. Another might have been badly burned and is still in recovery from the last time they put themselves out there. Another may simply not know where to start.

    In some cases, there is active backlash against establishing or established hierarchy, which can be an impediment to community building. I dig established hierarchies and find it important to know where I am in a pecking order, even if there is no pecking order, so at least I know if I am among a group of peers or there is someone I should be looking up to for cohesion. Part of why I was able to get so much done alongside my fellows when I worked for a nonprofit for 3 years was because each of us knew our role and responsibility and had established protocol for working together. How things were decided on, such as program design and budgeting, was a matter of everyone knowing Robert’s Rules of Order. This allowed us to know how to propose ideas, how to deny them, how to debate the merits of a given proposal, and how to present to one another in a way that communicated clearly and effectively.
    This point
    “it is no wonder that the layperson’s reaction to this anxiety, this threat against their sense of selfhood and their relationship with the Gods and spirits, is to try to become clergy themselves”
    and your last point:
    “keep in mind the power that you wield in this economy of social currency. And please, if you have to extol the merits of being god-deaf, head-blind, and otherwise without priestly responsibilities, try to mind how you do it; it’s easy to come across as patronizing in a world where everyone is vying for likes and authority to secure their selfhood.”
    are really where I am finding some struggle.

    In the ancient polytheist cultures I have studied, there were roles for folks that made sense according to the religion, culture, and societal mores of the time. Part of the issues I think we are seeing are for the reasons above, and because most modern Pagan religions and polytheist religions do not have or have actively dispensed with hierarchies. Rather than being a completely useful device for getting people engaged in a religion, it flattens the field so that people feel like they need to be everything at once. However, there was a reason one consulted an oracle and not, say, the local baker. Their skills were not honed in the area of oracular work, divination, etc. even if they may have had the knack for it, especially to the degree of a full-time (or even part-time) diviner. That did not mean the baker was not necessary. Far from it. It meant the skillset of the baker was different from that of the diviner. I’m also not saying the baker could not be the diviner, like somehow laborious jobs might make a person less fit for divination, I’m just using it for example’s sake.

    The part that I am struggling with is this:
    My issue is that it seems there’s quite a lot of pressure put on clergy, spiritual specialists, etc., to take this weight off of other people. As I am someone who doesn’t see hierarchy as an impediment, but a potential boon, part of how I view this is that the religious leaders, specialists, etc., regardless of the size of those they are leading, should be empowering folks to live full, active religious lives, just as they should be living full, active religious lives. The particulars of that life will differ according to responsibilities to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, the same with regard to one’s duties to community, family, other obligations, etc. I think this weight need to be removed both by the leadership and by the laity.

    I also recognize that there are certain places in which, as a spiritual specialist with a highly active religious life, I simply will not be able to have folks able to empathize as well with me. My wife, Sylverleaf, is one such person. She is not a spiritual specialist, is not a leader, and is very closed from a spiritual input standpoint. She’s just as polytheist as I am, just as good as I am, and is very comfortable being laity. Sometimes I have to take a good deal more time to explain why I feel I need to do this or that, i.e. I need to do something because I have gotten ‘flash traffic’ from a God or Goddess I serve, or an Ancestor or vaettir wants something, and will help me with this or that in exchange. She may not understand how I am getting the information, but she is supportive both in the sense that she helps me do what needs to get done, and that she also will ask direct questions that may help me reevaluate or think deeper on a given request. On a few occasions, her help has had me go back to the negotiating board.

    Likewise, I do not empathize as well with folks who do not have very active religious lives because I have seldom had one. When Sylverleaf gets ‘flash traffic’, though, it’s rather unmistakable, so with her there’s often not as big of a sussing out period. Part of what I do for her is help to keep a regular offering schedule. I grew up Catholic, so regular prayers and ritual times are something I am used to, whereas she grew up in mostly an atheist household, and it is harder for her to remember to do things regularly.

    So, I think that laity and spiritual specialists and leaders can be helpmeets for each other, but it takes negotiating these relationships to a better degree than has been done. I certainly don’t hope to have all the answers, but I hope I am adding something useful to the dialogue around these things.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for sharing this! I think I was mostly talking about online communities, because I have so little experience with RL groups, and also because I think roles are much much easier to establish among groups of people working together in physical proximity.

      I know that there is always talk of what kinds of relationship “styles” are possible to have with a Power, but rarely does that translate into a wider discussion of community relationships, with the Gods and spirits being considered part of the community ecosystem, you might say.

      Might you have thoughts about that?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are welcome

        “I think I was mostly talking about online communities…”

        Oh. >.> Heh, whoops!

        “roles are much much easier to establish among groups of people working together in physical proximity.”

        Hmm. Roles are trickier in online space. I mean, the thing with physical groups in proximity is that yeah, you can walk a way, but there is more on the line. These are people you share physical space with, folks you might have eaten with, and you might have had guest rights with them in their home. It’s more vulnerable, or a ‘closer’ kind of vulnerable in my view, and so, it is also has the possibility of being more intimate.

        “I know that there is always talk of what kinds of relationship “styles” are possible to have with a Power, but rarely does that translate into a wider discussion of community relationships, with the Gods and spirits being considered part of the community ecosystem, you might say.

        Might you have thoughts about that?”

        I have more than a few. I might extend this reply out into a blog post on its own, since there’s a lot to dig into here, and I probably won’t do it justice with what I do write here.

        The thing with relationship styles with the Holy Powers is that these can have community-wide impact, but then again, we’re back to what constitutes a community. My relationship with Odin is easy to ignore online, relatively speaking, since all it takes is clicking that little ‘x’ in the top right of the screen if someone doesn’t like what I have to say, thinks it is loony, etc. and doesn’t want to bother writing a rebuttal to what I have said. Beliefs, information, all of it is easier to ignore or amplify online because of the way a lot of social media works, and increasingly (especially automatic or database-created) Search Engine Optimization that can allow for more of an echo chamber.

        Community relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir can be greatly affected if someone is in a powerful personal relationship with a/the Holy Powers. My entire life is engaged in the worldview of a polytheist, and my powerful personal relationship with Odin, the taboos He and various Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir have put on me, echo in ways big and small throughout my relationships. Folks who are close to me know about my food taboos, for instance, and so meals may be in part shaped by (or my bringing food) my taboos. In this regard it is not very different in terms of impact from my diabetes: folks who know I have it will try to have food I can eat even if the main course is carb intensive. They’ll let me know what’s on the menu ahead of time so I know to adjust my diet or if I need to get something else, I can.

        What I just described is guest/host Gebo relations, reciprocity, gift-for-a-gift between guest and host. These factor pretty heavily into the various animist and polytheist religions and traditions, so while it may seem simple on the outside, these considerations get heavier in terms of spiritual weight and moral impact when one is an animist/polytheist than such things would be for someone who does not have such spiritual conditions around guest rights, host rights, and reciprocity between guest and host.

        This has deeper impacts in terms of who I will and will not interact with. For instance, if I know that a group will be present that is actively hostile towards Loki, unless I am directly ordered to by Odin, I will not attend.

        When it is brought up for serious discussion, as opposed to just being berated or sneered at, the subject of what function a godspouse would serve comes up. I would say that godspouses can, and actually do serve community functions, but how that comes about is entirely a result of how they and the Holy Power(s) negotiate the relationship, what form(s) it takes, if it has any impact on their community/communities, and so on. Basically, I am trying really hard not to gainsay the Gods here. Because I could say something general like “Godspouses are here to connect in a powerful, vulnerable, intimate way, and through this, bring to light different aspects of their God/dess and offer an understanding of their God/dess to others through that connection.” I could also say that godspouses are a manifestation of a relationship with someone we humans can relate to here in Midgard, and through the godspouse we could come to a deeper rapport with a given Holy Power.” I think that each godspouse may or may not have a mission or purpose of this kind to fulfill. It needn’t even be that kind of mission. A given Holy Power may simply desire companionship from a human for the duration of their life. It may be that a Holy Power wishes to manifest its Presence through this companionship and make Themselves known through this relationship. This person may simply be special to Them and has assented to a lifelong relationship.

        In my view, though, very few powerful spiritual relationships are only about a simple connection, though I do not deny they could be. After all, I’m not a godspouse, and I wouldn’t speak on behalf of them when I’ve neither the experience nor the calling to be one. I can only speculate from the outside.

        When it comes to folks like myself, called to spiritual specialist positions, leadership, and the like, the religious stances I take and the spiritual relationships I have, the alliances I forge, all of them interplay with one another. Hamingja, the interconnected luck of a community, means that I not only need to be very careful in fulfilling my obligations, but also to be mindful that any alliances, relationships, and so on that I start can affect the luck of those within my innangard, for good or ill. The relationship dynamics of those who are in one’s innangard, then, take on powerful new meanings. So if I screw up on a taboo, like the guest/host dynamic above, for instance, that can have repercussions for others in my innangard, and even those not as close, like some of my blood family who don’t share space with me and I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

        When folks really tease out the implications of the world being full of Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, how we treat the Holy Powers and where we are in the hierarchy in relationship with and to Them become very important pretty quick. If I am living next to a stream that feeds my crops it is in my best interests to have a good relationship with the God/vaettr (depending on how It identifies and your relationship with/to It) of that stream. In my view, I am a guest on the land I live on. Many of the landvaettir and the Gods of this land were here long before I was, and will be long after I am dead. Certainly the old landvaettir hold more sway than the younger by dint of experience, power, spheres of influence, etc. The oak growing on our property has a permanence here should it live well that I will not, and even when it dies, it is not ‘separate’ from the land, so much as the individual tree has died and its individuality may remain or fade, much like myself in relationship to the communities around me, when I die. Perhaps, like the tree, my persona will live on, be communicable in some fashion. Maybe certain soul parts like the liche will stick around with some or all of my persona intact to receive offerings, dispense advice, or chit-chat. Maybe I will become part of the landvaettir after awhile, or immediately. Same with a blade of grass. I think this is not something I can fully answer, because each life and death is its own unfolding in wyrd, and how those strands interweave is part of the pattern, and I can only see so much.

        It is a humbling feeling to understand the grass, the dirt, all the crawling things beneath your feet has as much if not more right to be there than you. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re automatically subservient to Them any more than They to us, but it is a recognition of where we are in the web of things, and where we stand in terms of our circles of influence, and power to affect change and wyrd. So to me hierarchy takes on a kind of immediacy in understanding where we are in the scheme of things, who holds what power over/to do/to act when and where, and what spheres of influence we carry. In some ways I am quite powerful in comparison to the stream; I can divert its flow, utterly destroy it with a machine, or mold its banks so they irrigate the way I see fit. If I angered the stream God/vaettir by changing it in a way it did not want, it could respond by not giving up the water I need to water my crops, flood my crops, or drown me if I went to swim in it. Questions of consent and partnership are part of the equation here if the world around us has moral and spiritual weight not just for them, but for us as well. Making sure we are given our due is also important, but I tend to emphasize the Holy Powers getting theirs since our society does a hell of a lot of taking without much, if any giving back.

        This worldview and the resulting understanding, idea, morals, and s on trickle out, from the concept of Gebo, hamginja, innangard, utgard, one’s place in the hierarchies of Beings and where one is in relationship to the Holy Powers. So while it may not seem like much initially, taking on being an animist/polytheist comes with taking on a powerful worldview and all that results from it. It shapes and affects ones’ relationships with the land one lives on, the company one keeps, and the way one conducts their life.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Hmm. Roles are trickier in online space. I mean, the thing with physical groups in proximity is that yeah, you can walk a way, but there is more on the line. These are people you share physical space with, folks you might have eaten with, and you might have had guest rights with them in their home. It’s more vulnerable, or a ‘closer’ kind of vulnerable in my view, and so, it is also has the possibility of being more intimate.

          Definitely. The internet has a way of making people seem larger than life very easily, especially if you’ve never met them or shared space with them. Proximal, physical relations seem to right themselves much easier as everyone is invested in each other in similar ways, using a similar language. And then there’s just plain accountability, a real felt sense of it, when you’re sitting next to someone; reading their writings or following their movements online has a way of creating bogeymen out of relatively benign people. (Take Krasskova, for example; I perceive her as a pretty harmless fundamentalist, but others see fit to elevate her into an enemy of all pagandom!)

          I really would like to see what you have to say if given a full post about it! You’re intelligent, measured, and I’ve always appreciated just about everything you’ve had to say. And I think getting a clergyman’s perspective, one who does have a solid online presence, would be very valuable as well.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Strip Me Back To The Bone and commented:

    Reblogging this, mostly as a reminder to come back and reread when I have the mental wherewithal to do so properly, and also because of the thinky-thoughts the post is inspiring even without the mental wherewithal.


  3. Thank you for this thoughtful and interesting article! It definitely gives me some points to ponder. As a spirit worker whose “tribe” is not human, and whose practice is not human-focused, I have struggled a lot with what kind of role I play or should play in the broader polytheistic community. I don’t have the Gods simply telling me what that role is supposed to be, because it’s not part of my “marching orders”. I don’t think of myself as clergy because I don’t serve a congregation, yet nor do I think of myself as laity, because my practice makes certain requirements of me (such as service to a spirit tribe, personal taboos, etc) that the practice of laity does not.

    The part of your post that really gave me food for thought was this one:
    “For clergy – the priests/priestesses/godspouses/spirit-workers/temple-keepers/ordained/etc. – keep in mind the power that you wield in this economy of social currency. And please, if you have to extol the merits of being god-deaf, head-blind, and otherwise without priestly responsibilities, try to mind how you do it; it’s easy to come across as patronizing in a world where everyone is vying for likes and authority to secure their selfhood.”

    Having been God/spirit-touched since birth, I had to actually figure out as I was growing up that other people were not experiencing the same things I was. When I started reading books on Wicca, Paganism, magic/k, and the like (around age 12 or so), I noticed a lot of people talking about things like seeing auras or conversing with spirits as casually as I did, because it was a day-to-day occurrence for me. So I thought that this was the norm for everyone in the alternative religious community as well, based on their writings. But as I started to actually meet individuals and ask questions, and not just read books or websites, I found that almost none of them reported experiences like mine. I wasn’t sure what to make of all that. Then I underwent my initiation as a spirit worker, which was the result of shaman sickness and an experience that brought me close to death, and I got my “marching orders” (what I was required to do as a spirit worker by the Gods), and I started reading about shamans and spirit workers, and finding out that no, not everyone does this, because it requires things like modification of your soul by the Gods in a painful near-death experience, following a bunch of individualized restrictions, and accomplishing some pretty intense and difficult work.

    And then I started encountering the sorts of posts you’re talking about–the ones that “extol the merits of being god-deaf, head-blind, and otherwise without priestly responsibilities”. “Oh no, I’ve been very rude then,” I thought to myself. “Here I am going on about these experiences like everyone else has them, but clearly they don’t, and modeled here for me is the proper response of recognizing and acknowledging that their experiences are special and important too.” Now I’m reading your perspective on it, which is very different–that doing something like that is patronizing and condescending.

    Well darn. Now what am I supposed to do?

    In large part I don’t share my experiences, partly because my spirit work doesn’t pertain to humans, and partly because I’ve experienced extreme harassment and prejudice in the past just for admitting my religion was something other than mainstream, and while I’m more open than I ever was, opening up at all is hard. Yet I feel that there’s a role to play–that of the mystic–that is neither clergy nor laity. A mystic inspires others to more direct contact with the Gods/Ancestors/Spirits, pushes boundaries of traditional religion (as supported by clergy), and provides specialist services (such as divination, healing, contact with spirits, and other kinds of magic) much as described in Sarenth’s example of diviner versus baker above. That is, they do if other people are aware that they exist and can offer these things and are specialized in them enough to be professional. Which brings us back to things like posting online about what you do to try to get the word out there. Which then initiates this whole social currency cycle you’ve observed in such a nuanced fashion. For some spirit-workers/god-spouses/shamans/etc, it’s part of their mission, their “marching orders”, that they share and publicize what they do, in order to better reach those who need their help. For me, at this point in my “career” at least, it thankfully isn’t. But for those who are required, how do they go about this without setting off the cycle you describe? Very interested in your thoughts, and thank you again for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now I’m reading your perspective on it, which is very different–that doing something like that is patronizing and condescending.

      Well darn. Now what am I supposed to do?

      I don’t think that is necessarily is, but it can be. So while I’m not completely headblind and do know how to communicate with spirits and Gods if I put some serious work into it, I’ve read a few folks’ attempts at dignifying headblindness and laity, and sometimes it’s really obvious that the author can’t actually empathize with the people they’re trying to reassure, and that results in feeling that I’m being talked-down to.

      I can’t tell you what to do or say, other than, I guess, be upfront and honest about being unable to empathize, about having no idea what it’s actually like to be headblind. And maybe… don’t even try to make that gap seem thinner than it is? Because it’s a wide-ass gap, you’re not gonna fool anyone LOL.

      Thank you for reading, and I appreciate the comment!


  4. Another really excellent thought-starter, thank you!

    I’m jotting this down as another possible session for Hearthingstone.


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