Thursday, July 16, 2009

A College Of Priestesses

Cat Chapin Bishop has written a lovely post that every Pagan ought to read, over at The Wild Hunt. As an INTJ, who -- life is weird, isn't it -- NEEDS to practice magic in a community of women, I found myself agreeing with so many of the points that she makes. Cat says:

As important as the ecstatic parts of my religious life are to me, both in terms of my Quaker worship and my years of ritual and trance work as a Wiccan and in other forms of Paganism, what I wind up coming back to again and again when I reflect on what has been most important in my spiritual growth, is my life in community. It is the warm and loving, and sometimes heated and tempetuous relationships I have formed in twenty years as a Pagan that have done the most to shape me into the person I am: hopefully, a woman the gods can approve and love. Certainly, my interactions with the gods have shown me the woman I would like to become. But it has been within the dojo of Pagan community that I have made the most progress in learning to fulfill the goals the gods have set for me. Without the practice of attempting to live a life of authenticity, courage, and compassion while being inspired, angered, and confused by my fellow Pagans, I think I would have made very few gains over the years.

I think she's making a basic, but v important, point that's often lost in the wonder that many of us feel when we first make "Pagan Contact." It's understandable. At least for my generation, most of us learned about Paganism, realized that we were Pagan, alone. Reading a book or piecing together bits and pieces from various sources. Trying our first skyclad ritual alone in our apartment living room with the blinds drawn. Wearing our pentacles inside our shoulder-padded suits with the little scarfy bowtie thingies.

Making Pagan Contact can feel like finally being able to take a deep breath: "I'm not alone! There are others! They don't think I'm crazy! I'm part of a tribe!" It's such a good feeling, that it's very tempting to utter a loud, "Shush!" to the voices inside our head that begin to note the ways in which we differ from some of these oh-so-kindred spirits. Our first "witch war" can feel a hundred times more wounding because it presages the loss of that first rush of finally belonging: "Oh, no! I am meant to spend my life completely alone and misunderstood! I'll never have a tribe! Maybe the problem is ME!"

Well, yes, to some extent. That's part of becoming human.

But, also, as Cat notes, those experiences can lead to growth if one does, as Anne Hill suggests in her amazing post that is also, oddly, about being present, and tries to let something else show up, so I started breathing deeper with each movement.

The moves I could do, extending and strengthening my lower body, I did with full energy. When a posture required me to arch my back or extend my arms, I let my whole upper body fill with breath like a balloon that was inflated several inches beyond my torso. It felt like a protective cushion that supported my back and spine, expanded my rib cage, and didn’t allow any strain to creep into my shoulders, neck or head.

I stayed with this visualization through the intense part of class, and felt an increased sense of lightness in my body. I kept at it as we moved to more gentle stretches and twists, and then it hit me. The whole transition of middle age is about letting go of how our bodies “used to work,” and accepting that we are more energy than form. What I was experiencing wasn’t a setback, it was a preview of things to come.

Breathe. Stay with it. Don't give up on "the body," whether we're talking about each of our "physical" bodies or "the body Paganii" or our own ability to live in community with other prickly witches.

Cat also says:

Because real community will hurt you, betray you, let you down. And that’s a feature, not a bug. Oh, I’m not saying we should welcome betrayal into our communities, or cultivate disillusionment as a path to wisdom. But there’s a way that compassion and love and mature spiritual vision will not thrive in an ideal world. We need to be buffetted a bit by the kind of storms that are inevitable in an imperfect group of humans.
And, baby, they’re all imperfect. That wonderful clan of Pagans whose warmth so impressed an outside observer was wonderful–but also engaged in a schism from another, larger group of Pagans, with plenty of acrimony on all sides. We were all learning how to work on perfecting our spiritual selves in the midst of imperfect community. None of us were (or are) perfect people, and yet we thought our communities ought to be! We hadn’t yet mastered the delicate balancing of boundaries and generosity, love and limits, that spiritual maturity demands.
And if we’ve come closer in the years since–I hope I have, at least–it is only because we struggled with one another to find out how to do it: how to be real, and committed to one another, and still striving for something better–together.
In an Internet world, it has become easier to throw away people when they cause us pain, and to simply drop communities when they (inevitably) experience conflict. It has become easier and easier to stay home, stay safe, and only journey inwards to find what we want of the spirit world.
But I don’t think that’s what the gods want of us. I think the gods want us to keep it real, keep it present, get invested, get bumped and sometimes bruised among our fellows. And, in the process, to mature, both as individuals and as a people.

Thomas Merton did some wonderful writing about what it's like trying to "perfect" oneself (a xian notion, I think, but I'll take it as a rough synonym for spiritual growth) in the midst of community. He's likely worth reading by those trying to lead Pagan communities.

And by those of us who believe, as I do, in the rather nacent notion of "on-line communities," where we still struggle with issues such as trolls, psychic vampires, sock puppets, etc.

My own wonderful circle of amazing women is heading towards our annual retreat, where we struggle with how we want to relate to each other, whether to bring in new members at this time, what kind of a community we are/can be/will tolerate.

Do you struggle with these issues?

Picture found here.


Celestite said...

I have sepent years as a solitary and only recently began working with a coven. It is different and yes, it is a struggle. The comment in your article about acknowledging that we are not perfect but wanting our community to be, struck home.

Aquila ka Hecate said...

My days of working with a coven are long over.
Being the isolationist cuss that I am - and yes, an INTJ as well - I find it saves many people a lot of pain if I totally do my own thing.
Then again, maybe one day I'll grow up and get over it.

Terri in Joburg

OnlyEd said...

We need community, desperately need community -- but we don't need organized religion, dogma and hierarchy. Somehow we need to forge a new paradigm, where solitaries and groups (by whatever name) accept each other and come together in common bond. I am solitary, being shaman, but have a real need for comradeship -- and a real need to share my love for Goddess with others. I have need for community, being shaman, but have a real need to communicate with Goddess one-on-one, and to love Her as no other can.

Anne Johnson said...

I do not make a good community member. It could be my firmly-rooted Scots-Irish stubbornness. Any time I meet someone who claims "leadership" in the Pagan community, my skepticism rears its ugly head. What is this person's motive for leadership? Is it money, ego, both? Sadly (this is my failing), the more the leader tries to be kind and nurturing to me, the more wary I become.

Thankfully I've blundered into an egalitarian Druid community in which no one really wants to lead. This works for my comfort zone.

I agree that Cat's column was excellent, as is the one posted at The Wild Hunt today.

Anonymous said...

Yes. This.

One of the things I love about my local Reclaiming community is that we have tried to make space for the flighty new witches and the curmudgeonly INTJ solitaries and all the others in-between. And it is worth the work.

Souris Optique said...

Hey! I'm INFJ, most days. I absolutely long for community, and people to work with, but share Anne's distrust of people claiming leadership. Being an introvert, I have little desire or ability for group-starting myself, and around these parts "pagan" mostly seems to mean "swinger with an ill-defined belief in magic, and little to no interest or knowledge of religion" and the "community" such as it is, is rife with backstabbing. I lack the skills and the ability to trust people necessary to get anything else much going, I'm afraid.

Sia said...

Thank you Hecate, Anne and Cat. I'm getting a great deal out of your posts and sharing them with others.

This is one bit that tore my heart out:

"Without the practice of attempting to live a life of authenticity, courage, and compassion while being inspired, angered, and confused by my fellow Pagans, I think I would have made very few gains over the years."

Yea, verily, yea.

Our teachers are sometimes not what we expect them to be, but the lessons are always there for us if we are brave enough to accept them as given.

As someone once said, the test comes first, the lesson afterwards. Survive the test, and you're on the path...