Monday, November 18, 2013

Traditional Apprenticeships: Training in the modern Pagan Abbey

Image result for abbey
Kylemore Abbey in Ireland

My recent activities[i] have unexpectedly netted alot of inquiries from those wishing to study under me. Explaining different levels of involvement so frequently has helped refine the details better in my own mind, which is the major reward for the teacher, isn't it? In this case, we are specifically referring to the training in healing and other technology, often associated with women, primarily from the European Aboriginal traditions[ii], that is taught at our pagan Abbeys[iii]. However, traditional apprenticeships have many common elements, including the relationship between teacher and student, which we will also explore.

Lessons or sessions and apprenticeships are two different streams. For the first, they are in-depth teaching opportunities to learn the intricacies of stillroom work for a more hobby use, perhaps as an introduction, or for personal healing. I do them usually for groups, with a full lecture and demo[iv], and in my home on an individual basis. They require alot of prep and materials on my part, so I often have to charge for them. Depending on materials and tech, as well as what kind of detailed help the student requires, fees can range from $25-100/hour: the higher level being full health consultations. 'Course, I also trade for doing dishes, for example, since my dishwasher broke down... This is also traditional, since most people don’t have chickens to trade anymore...

Apprenticeship on the other hand is for those who believe this might be their Calling. It involves a far more intense and thorough program, with the expectation that apprentices repay their teaching in sweat equity rather than cash, and often continuing on to practice professionally. It is longer, too, and harder, usually involving an eventual restructuring of one's life to take on this goal.[v]

I take applicants for both methods, and people can switch streams whenever they like, if they are able to. I don't take on apprentices who are healing themselves of a severe condition, for example. There is far too much going on in someone's life when they are healing to add the intensity of a full time apprenticeship, too. They stay Students until they are more fully recovered.

With both methods, the dropout rate is still pretty high. Similar to the attrition rate for mental health programs, if applicants give up, it's almost always in the first six weeks. Most people are not prepared for the revelations that occur when immersed into traditional healing, and what that means for themselves, their lives, their families, and how they fit in the world, or the world fits around them. It's a profound shift, and many people are simply not equipped to deal with it at that time. It's my job to help them with that, of course, but it's still too big a leap for many. 

It is especially intense for those who seek the apprenticeship stream. 

I take on very few apprentices. Since I also require the spiritual component, potential apprentices are accepted in similar ways to novitiates in other paths.[vi] Sometimes, they simply need to apply, and I am satisfied that they are ready to dedicate themselves and meet the challenge. Occationally, I allow them to commit to the apprenticeship stream only after a trial period, especially if they seem adamant on the surface but some underlying issues are holding them back or making progress difficult. In certain cases, an Initiation or personal trial is required, for those who require a more visceral acknowledgement of the contract and to prove they won't fail out when the hard work begins.

No matter how they arrive to the path, however, all apprentices are chosen for their dedication not just to healing others, but to their own personal growth, character, and empowerment. No one can heal anyone else, of course. Only patients heal themselves, no matter what you cut out of them or dose them with. Someone who feels they are done with suffering will die no matter how successful the treatment is, and others will rise from their deathbeds with remarkable courage if they have the will.[vii] The healing arts are to facilitate that recovery as much as possible. So I dislike the term Healer, since healing is entirely done by the patient (except laying on of hands, which I have yet to have proven to me), but since I can't really come up with a better term, it will have to suffice. 

Because of this, however, one of the best methods to increase chances in patient outcome, in traditional or conventional healing, is having a fully actualized Healer. This is self-evident, but not included at all in conventional training, though very much a part of traditional healing in many parts of the world.[viii] [ix] Someone who has actively worked to eradicate their flaws, like racial or sexist prejudices, is a better patient advocate, for example, and can hear the vulnerable in a more meaningful way.[x]  A healer who has cultivated humility will be more available to assist in vital procedures or discussions that other professionals might find beneath their dignity. A healer who practices Detached Compassion[xi] will be strong and kind to those who invoke great pity in others, and the “Wounded Healer” such as a shaman can devote far more energy and time to palliative care than those who are struggling with their own mortality. Modern conventional healers are trained largely as technicians, under the Body is a Machine model, which is totally different from nearly all forms of traditional healing, and while they have achieved certain miracles, it is a very new form of medicine. Like any youth, it seeks to make it own way without listening to its Elders, and only with maturity can we hope to integrate successful traditional wisdom with current practices.

Let's pick just one example to illustrate. PTSD[xii], often induced in the Western world by childhood or adult sexual or physical abuse, is a far more common condition than it should be. In those drawn to paganism, which is my worldview, there is a much higher incidence of seekers who have been wounded in this way – closer to 85%. As many grew up in other traditions, this often represents a failure of their previous systems to satisfactorily contextualize their experiences. So it is with distressing frequency that I encounter this deeply rooted issue in my students and apprentices. For those who have not yet dealt with this in their lives, it can be a terrible blind spot that can influence how they treat others coming to them for help. Unable to deal with the darkness in themselves, they often miss the same symptoms in others, or the reason for them. As their Mistress, it is part of my duty to guide them come to terms with their pain in whatever manner they best respond to: from medicine and therapy to intense spiritual journeys.

So, when I take on apprentices, I train them as traditional professional pagan healing nonnes. (I currently don't train men as apprentices, for various reasons.[xiii]) This means not only studying for months or years to learn the traditional tech, but they also dedicate themselves to spiritual self-improvement. They examine their own lives for fatal flaws and empower themselves. Because of this, there is far less to cloud their judgements in their examinations of others, and they are more able to give of themselves with sincerity and reverence, and not simply as a drain on their resources. To that end, we emphasize knowledge, honour, duty, integrity, courage, discipline, deep personal self-examination in all the dark places, and ultimately, vows, if the dedicant choses to make this her life's work.

For method and technique, we have to adapt to the modern era we live in, but there is a plethora of material to build upon from the past [xiv] [xv] [xvi], as well as some current best practices. We use whatever resources are necessary, including other acknowledged professionals and accredited institutions. For example, our nuns learn how to 'read' a client, such as body clues, intuiting and micro-expressions[xvii], to better understand a client's actual issues, especially those they might not be willing to divulge, and investigate many other possibilities that most healers never know to look for. They also learn how to make the remedies themselves, like salves, decoctions, alcohols, poultices, candies, and healing foods, as well as put forward recommendations and train clients in their use. Some finish university degrees in our specialities, such as counselling and folklore. We also teach how to work within the laws and health requirements of each country, partner up with other members of the healing team, and not step on the toes of conventional med, the pharmaceutical industry, and food and drug administrations, which have a tendency to bite.

However, one of the most important reasons for me for the rigorous selection process and the choice of taking only a few apprentices is the personal trial they represent. By agreeing to be someone's Mistress, or mentor, or sifu, or yogini[xviii], you commit to a lifelong relationship. You must not only train them in your particular art, but also move them along in their spiritual and personal journey. As you help them discover themselves, you volunteer to be their Dark Mirror, which requires a great deal of trust and honesty on both sides. As the training continues, it becomes impossible not to have a close and ultimately vulnerable relationship. I still sit down with my first Mistress, who is now nearly 70, and we discuss everything from our sex lives to our fears, our dreams, and our successes. We give each other insights in as open and often blunt way as we can, because no one else knows us better, and almost no one is prepared to be as honest and genuinely helpful. To this day, it still helps both of us in our lives and continually assists us to become more developed and whole persons.

Fantasy novels are full of students who have betrayed their masters' trust and try to destroy them. However, the reality is not far from that myth. In this kind of intimate relationship, as such tend to become, the wrong selection of student can be a devastating blow. Whether it's your business secrets or proprietary formulations, or your personal life lessons that you have imparted as examples for training, an apprentice that proves him or herself unworthy of carrying such secrets can make a huge mess of your life or career. Like most close relationships, really... I have some experience in this kind of heartbreak, and it guides my reluctance, my selection and my occasional trials or character proofs for applicants. Sadly…

Student or apprentice, I take my role as a sacred trust, and do my very best to give that person what I feel they most need: whether it be simple healing knowledge, physical health, spiritual self-examination, business and social training, or character building and empowerment. Even if the healing must be done when they aren't aware of it, which is much harder… It can take a great personal toll, but the rewards of watching other people’s lives unfold beautifully are worth it, and can bring so much joy. I am always honoured to be asked to serve my clients and students, and with hard work, personal sacrifice and dedication, to train others go out into the world committed to serve, heal, and fight for justice.

[xvi]  "More than anything else, however, Brigid is renowned for her hospitality. The poor and the infirm come in their multitudes. She makes provision for the sick, tending to them with her knowledge of contemporary medicine. Kildare becomes a place of holy pilgrimage for all, from the prominent and powerful to the lowly and forgotten."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Starved for content...

In case anyone was wondering what I've been up to, (what's she DOING?!), I am currently finishing up my Counselling Women and undergrad degree. It's been a long time coming. Like many women, I wasn't able to finish or further my studies when I was younger, so I'm finally rectifying that sad situation later in life. I never stopped my research, and I have some fabulous developments that I will be publishing later, and was in fact able to teach much of it in less academic settings. But that only goes so far, and to take my work to the next level, it's necessary to have the paperwork and degrees to back it up.

So, much of my current writing and research has gone into essays and such. For your edification, this is one of the short pieces I presented to my Issues in Women's Health prof. Mostly, the mechanics were not to her liking, rather than the content. I hope I have corrected enough of those mistakes for her to see my true brilliance shine through... Heh.

Statement 1:
Based on and using examples from your required readings, critically discuss notions of autonomy as they relate to women’s health care. Include some discussion of the conflicts that arise from ideal and actual conditions defining patient autonomy.

Patient autonomy has not always been of primary concern in conventional health care, but is now seen to play a vital role in outcomes and quality of care. Sherwin (1998) gives a comprehensive four point definition used to determine ideal autonomy in health care. The patient 1) must be sufficiently competent, 2) makes a reasonable choice from available options, 3) has adequate information and understanding of the choices, and 4) is free of coercion (p. 26).[1] However, these definitions are problematic in practice when examined in the context of classist or sexist institutional constructs.

For the first condition, competency is often defined by the dominant power group. Language and cultural barriers for example are often considered reason enough to question a patient’s competency or understanding when considering their care.  Rationality in particular is considered the usual yardstick of competency, especially, as Genevieve Lloyd (1984) shows, that that the agent demonstrate objectivity and emotional distance. However, since those traits are “constructed in opposition [to those] stereotypically assigned to women..[they] are often seen as simply incapable of rationality” (as cited by Sherman, p. 26)  Competency, therefore, is often already defined as outside a woman’s capabilities, and autonomy becomes an impossibility.

The ideal for condition two, or reasonable selection of offered choices, appears straightforward enough. However, “the set of available options is constructed in ways that may already seriously limit the patient’s autonomy by prematurely excluding option the patient might have preferred.” (Sherwin, p.26) From dominant viewpoints to researchers to funding to primary care providers, pre-selection reducing women’s preferences occur at every significant point in the shaping process of offering health care options.

The third condition of patient autonomy, that of adequate information to understand the choices, ties in with the choices available.  In “the information that has been deemed worthy of study…and, significantly, what questions are neglected; systemic bias unquestionably influences these polices.” (Sherman, p. 27). Patients most often do not have the expertise to question providers to gain the information they need, and providers often do not have the perspective as a member of that group or experience treating those members, and in many cases, the time available, to be able to volunteer the information relevant to the patient’s situation.

The fourth condition, in such a dominant patriarchal culture, is the most obviously problematic. Oppression permeates almost every aspect of a woman’s choice and agency. No matter how liberated a woman has worked to become, “[i]t’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.” (Sally Kempton, Esquire, 1970)  Every choice, therefore, can be subconsciously influenced by the culture around her, and those decisions reinforced. Standards of beauty, self-worth related to fertility, and negative views of aging for example can all influence treatment choices, including the desirability and presentations of those treatments and the risks involved.

For women especially, the challenges of navigating and expressing autonomy in a system where they are overtly and subtly coerced, with stereotyped beliefs that reinforce their lack of competency, and with choices designed by those who do not consider women’s preferences, makes accessing health care a frustrating and often dangerous journey.

Statement 2:
Based on and using examples from your required readings, critically discuss how gender expectations affect both paid and unpaid providers of health care. Include some analysis of ways in which the needs of women health care providers can be met.

Gender expectations are a vital and primary consideration in the delivery and quality of care of patients, and the working conditions of health care delivery. How could it not be? “Approximately 80% of paid health care workers in Canada are women… Women make up the overwhelming majority of hospital workers…Women are also the overwhelming majority of health care workers employed in nursing homes, residential facilities or private homes”, according to Armstrong et al. (2009b)[2] As for  unpaid workers providing health care, usually to older relatives, Letvak, S. (March 2001) reminds us that “72% of caregivers are women."[3].
Not only do these disproportionate demands on time create stress for the women caregivers, for those who have made a career out of it, the inherent sexism of their expected roles can create further difficulties. As Letvak suggests from G J Clifford, “the predominance of women in such professions as social work and nursing has led to their identification with that other domain of female exclusivity, the housewife.”[4]  Letvak also quotes from P E B Valentine, that nursing in particular, “being identified with a docile female role…has led to a ghettoization of the career field. Ghettoization segregates people by race, ethnicity, lifestyle, or socioeconomic status and reinforces negative stereotypes[5] which has made it progress against the gender expectations of the so-called nurturing professions nearly impossible, even today.

Mothers who are paid or unpaid caregivers are in the worst straits. As Letvak reports from
Faludi,70% of women with young children also participate in the labor force. Women still shoulder 70% of all household duties[6]  Women’s unpaid care hours re excluded from paid labour and other duties, however, as “Sixty percent of women caregivers work 35 or more hours per week outside of the home in addition to caring for an older adult family member”[7] as Letvak enumerates from Jenkins.  Why are women disproportionately burdened with the health care needs of patients in our culture, yet also expected to perform all their other duties as well? It is considered acceptable in a sexist social context, because “[t]he very image of nursing maintains the stereotype of nurturing, self-sacrificing females who will always meet the needs of others.”

Clearly, this is detrimental to women, and the families and patients they care for, and comprises the health of all concerned.  But what is to be done?  As Lessard et al. suggests, by fully engaging the women involved in paid and unpaid care in the policy process[8] as part of the solution, some remedies automatically present themselves.  Recognizing and valuing women’s caregiving services could reduce frustration and result in more appropriate services and programs, including possible subsidies or other support for unpaid caregivers.[9]  Letvak suggests other support suggestions for paid caregivers, such as flexible working hours, job sharing, part-time work with benefits, and other innovations on hours worked, including more flexible time off for those with kids in school or whose families become ill.[10]

As the fashion for neocon privatization of public services shows no signs of slowing down in health care, it appears that women will be forced to take on even more of the burden than they have in the past. The time for improvement is now, increasing the quality level of care, staff, and saving the system money. Without considered improvements in the conventional health delivery system, patient care and professional nursing and its quality will continue to decrease, homecare will necessarily increase, the burden shifting more to families and their women, reducing the health of all concerned, and therefore, our collective health.  With a rapidly ageing population, it is of vital importance.

[1] Sherwin, S. (!998). A relational approach to autonomy in health care. In S. Sherwin (Coord.), The politics of women’s health, Exploring agency and autonomy (pp.19-47) Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
[2] Armstrong et al (2009b). Hidden health care work and women. Canadian Women’s Health Network
[3] Letvak, S. (March 2001). Nurses as working women. AORN Journal, 73(3), 675–682.

[4] G J Clifford, "Women's liberation and women's professions reconsidering the past, present and future," in Women and Higher Education in American History: Essays from the Mount Holyoke College Sesquicentennial Symposia, ed J Faragher, F Howe (New York: W W Norton and Co, 1988) 165-182.
[5] P E B Valentine, "Nursing: A ghettoized profession relegated to women's sphere," International Journal of Nursing Studies 33 no 1 (1996) 98-106.
[6] Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
[7] C L Jenkins, "Women, work and caregiving: How do these roles affect women's wellbeing?" Journal of Women and Aging 9 no 3 (1997) 27-45.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Letvak., S, (March, 2001)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Pagan religious communities in your area: Connecting with and creating them

My continuing series on pagan abbeys has been well received and I have had many inquires about pagan communities in North America, lay and cloistered. For those of you as hungry to be a part of such a dedicated group as I am, but have not yet found the right one, here are a few ways you might be able to connect with something suitable. If there are no structures in place in your area that fit your criteria, and you have the inspiration to create one, I have included some suggestions for that as well.


One of the main reasons for dissatisfaction in a group is that most aspirants don't start by identifying their needs correctly. In Western paganism, and especially in North America, there are often so few dedicated pagan groups that one must join whatever is available regardless of any misgivings or wrong fits, simply to partake of a community setting. This is a pity, as it often does not satisfy either the seeker or the other participants. They, or others, soon leave, or there is a long drawn out period where everyone becomes unhappy. Since there are so few options, and as the community is often so close knit, that a withdrawal or rejection from one group often leaves the seeker with even fewer choices for the future.

We can achieve the honing of our expectations without burning our local bridges by clearly identifying what is most important to us before we even attend our first meeting. Most reps aren't willing to answer a long form questionnaire for the pleasure of your presence, of course, but most are agreeable to addressing your most important concerns.  As it is quite an effort for most smaller groups to include new members, knowing what you need ahead of time can save everyone, including you, alot of grief. What exactly does a group require for you to be happy in it? What can you live with, and what is a dealbreaker?

*   Dedicated to your deity, sect, or practice? Atheist? Non-denominational* Supportive or focused on other communities as well - Gender or sex based, LBGT friendly, actively and pro anti-racial, anti-ablist, anti-agist?
*   Level of commitment - Full time, ritual only, class based, coven like? Working in the world or simple meet-ups?
*   Level of spirituality - Full time, full ritual, same tradition, like minded or causal?*   Travel - how far are you willing to go? To move, commute, or pop by?

Be honest with yourself. Your needs are your own and no one can criticize you for your choices. Don't expect others to change their group for you, since they probably won't, but your self-knowledge will make the task of narrowing your selections much simpler.


Now that you have broken down into a list of what you actually require, locating a group becomes much easier.

An additional avenue to consider is the practice of your spirituality along with your sacred calling, tasks, or interests. Many pagans find inspiration and sacredness in history, traditional skills, crafts, role-play, sexuality, activism, and other practices. There are many other individuals that also share those interests, and those kinds of groups don't need to be sacred for you to feel as though you are fulfilling your spiritual needs. They are often easier to find and connect with, and you will learn from them how to better serve your deity (if you have one) and spirit, by honing and practising the skills that you associate most with the sacred.

Another bonus of connecting with any of these communities, religious or secular, is that you should be able to network with others that share your interests, and have an even better chance of finding a less well known but perfect group for your needs. If you find something sacred, so do others!

I'm going to make the leap here that you already know how to search for a pagan group in your area using Google and other on-line means. Witchvox, for example, lists many local pagan groups. If you still can't see any that fit the needs you've defined, do not despair! There are alot of avenues that many people miss when they are searching. Here are some suggestions of where to start looking for a group that meets your requirements that may not have an online presence or local listing. Feel free to suggest more.

A word about Message boards: Even though scouring Craigslist, Kijiji and social networking are the first places to start, many communities don't have the work hours to keep posting on too many sites. Going down to a physical location, like an occult or new age bookstore, whole foods store or community centre and checking or posting on their notice boards is an increasingly disused option, but one worthy of pursuit. For many groups, it's so much easier to leave up a poster and wait for inquiries than maintain a FB feed. You will always find at least one event or group that you never would have found any other way.


Religious, National and International:

International Humanists: Canada, US, UKSpiritual Humanism  
Student groups at Universities and Colleges

Less organized, organic:

Pan Indian movement and Idle No More
Drum circles
shamantic offerings
bardic circles
healing circles
Iron John retreats and The Good Men Project

Cloistered or Segregated secular communities:

alternative healing retreats
Intentional Communities: ecovillages, cohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, co-ops, housing cooperatives

Secular Communities of Sacred Interests:


Society of Creative Anachronisms and medieval reCreationists
war reenactors

Bellydancing and other traditional folk dancing
sacred circle dance
martial arts and other moving meditation, archery
Women's and Men's Healing
Gender Activism
LBGT groups
poly groups
sexuality groups, like BDSM
eco activism
animal activism
political activism
traditional skills - herbology, fibre arts, cookery, leatherworking, blacksmithing
music - medieval, bardic, folk

For example, you've decided that you need a group of like-minded women whose causal support in weekly meetings will help affirm your Goddess-hood. As a disabled person, you aren't able to travel much, so you need a local, accessible  and positive group who will support you. Surprisingly, in most urban environments, that's not hard to come by. It might be very hard to immediately find a coven like that, but there are plenty of women's groups that will fulfil all those requirements, and still let you get your spiritual kick out of it. Joining your local Pride centre for womyn's night, participating in a women's dance circle or even making the commitment to volunteer at a sexual assault centre or Planned Parenthood can give you the group interaction you crave, while also truly giving back to the Goddess reflections on earth. While you are there, you may also find other women who have the same spiritual needs, and would love to get together with you for prayers and tea, or who can introduce you to one, and that is an extra bonus.

If you decide that as a city dweller with a schedule to keep and you need a temple that you can head off to ritual for on a regular basis, that then limits you to more organized groups, rather than the spontaneous organic types. If a like minded organized group will do, UU could be an option. Or perhaps you can get along with heathens, but due to your past history, Christians make you nervous, so the UU option is less viable. Perhaps a Druid grove or Wiccan or OTC temple might be more your speed then, even if you don't share all their beliefs. 

Other spiritual needs can work like that, too. If you want to move to the country and dedicate yourself to a full time cloistered community, for example, and you *don't* want to pretend or convert to Catholicism or Buddhism or Taoism or go Amish, but you don't mind if everyone else isn't doing the same prayers whenever you are, then International Communities or the new Ecovillages springing up are an excellent alternative. Most are secular, but not anti-religious, and are supportive of most lifestyles.

It would be fabulous if we had already available spaces for gay men who want to dedicate themselves full time to a Priapus temple as professional monks, as just one example, but we don't. Yet. So for the moment, we must satisfy our spiritual selves as much as possible, before we can make those kind of dedicated communities a reality.


Even with honing your sacred skills, you now want to dedicate your life to helping others experience that sacred community space. But there are no groups that fulfil your needs in your area, so you have decided to create one. What to do? Here are some suggestions.

Canadian laws are very different from American and other countries, of course, but there are some guidelines. 

First, get your ducks in a row. Research what needs aren't being satisfied in your area, and how to cover those. Redundancy doesn't help anyone, and the larger the vacuum you are filling, the greater chance you have of attracting participants. Do you need a weekly group meeting at a brick and mortar temple, or event planning group, or non-denominational cross pagan discussion group?

For those interested in becoming full time dedicants in a cloistered community, there are few other substitutes for pagan abbeys, and those communities will definitely need to be established for us. The complexity of creating one is the apex of organizing skill, as well as our significant validation as a major religion, but it is certainly doable, with drive, vision, and a love of detail. To get some idea of how it's accomplished, you don't have to re-invent the wheel. Visit a few real life abbeys, convents or monasteries. (After all, alot of them are directly derived from pagan abbeys in the first place!) Many have weekend or week long visit privileges, or you can just ask to learn from them. There is a Buddhist Abbey in Nova Scotia that I am planning on conferring with or hanging out in. They have been around since the early 1980's. You should select one that's a bit older, too, so they can tell you the problems they have encountered. One in your own state would better, since laws vary so much. Amish or other religious communities can help you see how that works in practice, too.

Then, *do your paperwork*. If your group is even at all organized, like renting a space for a temple, your best bet is creating a corporation or organization that can have a board and be accountable for bills and other legalities. That way no one person is ever on the hook, and no members are so key that it falls apart if they leave. It's one of the main factors that determine if your group makes it after the Founders all move on. If that is the best choice to get done what you need to do, make sure you have everything you need to establish your not for profit or even for profit corporation. If you want charitable status, it's even harder, but you'll figure which one works best for you when you come to it. Get your founders and other personnel lined up. Here's how we did it in Canada.

If you have a regular, physical location that you rent or own, make sure you pick your space with the locals in mind. They are part of your equation, too. If they feel put out or a lack of consultation, they will punish you, and all your people, and all your visitors. You will be interacting with them to get most of your services and equipment, even if it's just parking space. It's not good to piss them off. So arrange team games or picnics or Open Houses for example. If they know you, they will be more likely not to bother or fight you. And maybe even defend what you do.

Once you have your structure in place, with the appropriate advice from other professionals on what they have done, and what went wrong, then it's time to listen to the community you are serving, to discover what they need to satisfy them. Unlike private or even coven worship, a temple, monastic or segregated community is completely reliant on everyone pulling their weight; as in, they WANT to be there. That means, no matter what your vision is, it can't replace the gestalt that your group will create. It's your job to get it together, keep the base going, and make adjustments, but they aren't minions. If you get too controlling, or conversely, not controlling enough and let a few idiots ruin it for everyone, they will all simply leave, and badmouth your operation to boot. So choose carefully to start with. Pick people who share most of what you see, but not exactly, and select the ones you are reasonably sure aren't going to flake on you. You can't push people too hard for this, but you do need to help them stay motivated. Take them with you to investigate other institutions. Make sure they have the hunger for it, like you do.

It will help a great deal if you do *not* think about this as the Goddess calling you to Found a space, as some claim or feel. Believing you are Called to it can put you at a disadvantage because it almost never 'falls into place', and even when it does, everyone assumes it will always continue like that. Or maybe you can only start and maintain this with other Calleds, and if they aren't, then only *you* have authority for the final say. Which is never healthy. If you truly think that, you will inevitably be disappointed when the Goddess doesn't hand you most everything you need, like people and money. Because She probably won't. That is our job, because it is our happiness at stake, not Hers. However, it may help Her, because religious life, especially pagans, can also lead to a call to activism, scholarship on our interconnectedness and the attendant spirituality, and real world effects. By all means, feel the Call, but because of your need, not because She has singled *you* out for this task...

Once you get it going, you will also have to maintain. This is the biggest mistake most make.  Nearly all pagan communities, temples, communes or IC's end in one generation, because no one builds it to continue. You will, for example, encounter at least one split or takeover attempt in the first 5-10 years, and one every two decades or so after that. Anticipate those, and build your group to withstand it, or it will simply dissolve. If you require a physical location for your work, purchase property if you can, instead of leasing, or in a decade, you'll have to move, and that can destroy the community entirely. Bring in a wide variety of skill sets, and make sure your people feel nurtured and heard, or they won't put up with it, and they will think they can do it better, or that another place can do it better. Which is why you may want to include all pagans like we do and not, say, just Wiccans, but that's your choice. Ego, yours and usurpers, will kill your group gestalt, and then everyone loses. You are the MC, the house manager, and the CEO. But you are not the choir, and without them volunteering their lives, you have no community.

Make no mistake about it: this is a lifelong task. If you do not have these skill sets, then you must either learn them, or join an already existing community and lend your strength to growing that one. It will not happen unless you make it happen, and give it all your personal energy and focus, but without exhausting yourself and leaving you vulnerable and the task unfinished. We are at another time of change, and about to re-build and re-learn what our ancestors had. Some remnants are still here, but most aren't. Pick where you are best suited to direct your energy, and then do it. For the rest of your life. It still won't be long enough.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pagan Abbeys - A Practical Heritage for Spiritual Lay and Professional Cloistered Communities

As Dr. Vandana Shiva proudly proclaims, "I am no longer employable by the Other Side", and good intentions don't often buy dinner. If you are choosing to make your way in Right Lifestyle, which is often a component of your spirituality, there are really few options available to you, because the small fraction of our culture that isn't toxic and actually set up for people like us have many times more applicants clamouring to join than could ever be supported. If you wish to learn a traditional or green profession or craft, and practice it full time with honour and dignity, perhaps as part of your spiritual practice instead of just as a hobby, you are almost totally out of luck. Or at least, until now...

I make my living following the old ways as a professional witch, largely in traditional healing, helping those most in need. It has taken me many years of dedication, research and experience to learn how to earn a living practising as a traditional witch in a modern context, even with training from mentors and learning how to teach apprentices the craft. I know many more folks who can only do it on their off hours, especially women, who often don't even expect to get paid for their expertise. And most can't take the time out of their lives to dedicate themselves to the more advanced learning about their craft. However, there has always been a group that can dedicate their lives to a traditional profession or the work of a particular Goddess or God and never have to worry about housing or their next meal. They were what the Old English knew as nonnes, or traditional European nuns (and monks) whose Orders the Christians took over, if they didn't outright purge them. In many of the traditional extant Orders, you can still see remnants today of the original pagan dedications and offices that were retained after the Christian usurpations, though most are written off now as unique historical curiosities.(1) Whether in their pagan or later Christian incarnations, most of the old abbeys in Europe were matriarchal (2), and, as the original Universities, taught all manner of scholarship.(3) The title of Dean is still used by the heads of both Abbeys and Universities. Some were also warrior training camps for women and men (4) and were centres of justice. The Abbeys and nunneries trained nonnes, which also translates as nurses, as a profession and as a spiritual calling and housed cloistered communities as well as hospitals, travellers' hospices and convalescent homes.(5) While the pagan community is reClaiming so many of its traditions, as far as I know these professional traditions and communities are rarely even discussed, much less significantly revived.

I used to have repeated arguments with others in the pagan community on this topic, though in the past few years, curiosity and hope are beginning to replace the sneering. "Why should WE need an abbey?", some said with a snort. "There are plenty of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries around.." Well, we are neither Buddhist nor Taoist, although most of us get along quite nicely with them, of course. For a religion to be more formalized, to grow and permeate more areas of a culture or a group, it needs full time members who are dedicated to practising, refining, writing, recording, studying and teaching. Though we do have quite a few of those, they usually have day jobs, rather than being a full time professional community. We have a great many of what could be termed lay sisters and brothers; those who are devoted and dedicated to living their lives in the Way, but we have no priest 'class', as it were. So, though we do have a professional priesthood of sorts, we have not yet created spaces to support them full time, or train and hone them, or even facilitate professional community environments of librarians, educators and other academics. It is vital to our religion to establish these communities, and not just as teaching venues, but as places where we can totally immerse ourselves in our religion, and not only for short retreats. But for years. They are already becoming a reality. I was in contact with an abbess of the Cybeline abbey in New York for some time. They already have a large community of nuns with hospitality, retreat centres and libraries. Though there is room for dedicating to one Goddess in particular, like mine, because that's just for me, a similar kind of non-deity specific community can appeal to far more people under the auspices of Pagan Humanism, where everyone can hear the call in their own way, yet we can work under one banner. Conserves resources and coalesces talent, doncha know...

Pagan Humanism solves the issue of the different pagan paths very elegantly. As a University structure run by professional nuns and their families, the individual Path of each practitioner is actually irrelevant to the functioning of the abbey, be they Druid, Odinist, Yogini, or atheist. In a University, there are oodles of disciplines working side by side, and each finds fulfilment and increases their own knowledge, but they are all working together. And this in particular is where Right Lifestyle professions, disciplines and education comes in. A pagan abbey must, as all abbeys have in the past, support itself. They are incorporated today, and like most corporations, can generate income by providing goods and services, especially those that are in keeping with the spiritual pursuits of the members. The old Abbeys for example provided beer, liqueurs, linens, medicines and other highly skilled products to the community that the practitioners would create while practising and teaching their Path. For a modern abbey, my preferences are for herbal products, a winery, a brewery, and retail health/pagan stores, mostly because I know how to do those. But it could be wool or meat or milk or wheat or flowers...Whatever. Hel, there are Christian convents now that support themselves by having the nuns do tech support. Not to mention the monks who manufacture Christmas fruitcakes...

I've had training in all the areas that my Goddess is matron of, but only the Enlightened achieve total perfection, and I'm not yet Graced with that yet. Although I feel well rounded in my tradition, I need to interact with other experts on a regular basis, and help people train and perfect their respective crafts, as well as collaborate with those who can share what they know of my Matron, helping me to achieve a better understanding of Her. So. A dedicated space where one can devote one's life to voluntary simplicity, learning and using one's knowledge for humankind's benefit, perhaps providing a space to those who are ill, helping them to achieve full health while practising one's art and spirituality, all without worrying about how to make one's daily bread... Mmm. Though some interest has been expressed for this kind of co-ordination and professionalism in the pagan community for a few years now, it has yet to really manifest. In fact, I would join it if I could find one that suited my needs. But if you can't find it, make it, is my motto...

Our business model operates on personal voluntary poverty and is a modern version of a self-sustaining religious NPO/Ecovillage that, for example, will create a space for crafters to follow their path in a spiritual manner while also managing to funnel surplus product to consumers, without undercutting other professionals. I specialize in herbal still room work, and there is only so many experiments and demonstrations I can store or give away. And they have a limited shelf life. So for me, having an online and physical shop was a necessity to continually hone my craft, encourage experiments, and keep the ingredients fresh and rotated. For fibre artists for example, having a space for them to get rid of their projects is almost a requirement to keep doilies and quilts from crawling all over furniture in an attempt to escape. Taking their profession and skill to the next level by generating income to help sustain themselves and create more art is a dream most aspire to. Having a community to do that, with other professionals and teachers, in a sacred space, is something many would dedicate their lives to. I know I have craved it since I was a child, and I'll be damned if I have to be Christian, or Buddhist, or Taoist to do it, either. Why can't pagans have those goodies, too? We used to, and we can again.

The Shaker community (6), for example, who are nuns and monks (and who have the lovely aphorism "Hands to work, hearts to God, which I adore..), used to commonly have entire families joining at once and living in the community or dedicating themselves to the lifestyle. Once consecrated when adults, however, they were full monks and nuns in the Christian tradition and could produce no more children, which is one of the reasons for their slow decline in numbers, despite their appeal as a spiritual community. Pagans, however, don't usually require celibacy. In fact, it is traditional for most pagans, and pagan orders of nuns, NOT to be celibate. Not only do most pagans find the enforcement of celibacy to be unnatural in humans, it's not even the usual procedure in most women's spiritual communities in antiquity. It only becomes the usual enforced restriction in the West when the patriarchal Christian structure takes over our sites and orders. With many pagans using sexual energy and the sexual acts as necessary forms of worship, and as a sex positive spirituality in general, there is little enticement to encourage celibacy as a discipline for pagan dedicates.  Even our cloistered communities can be, then, as traditional pagan communities usually have been, family friendly and supportive of partnerships, relationships, and human intimacy. Which makes us even healthier and more appealing than the celibate communities. And I'm not leaving my husband and kids behind while I devote myself to my spirituality and sacred work. Why should I? They are part of it, and reflect it.

Another necessity, though a less joyous one, is the requirement of many of our community members to have a safe space to practice their spirituality in support and comfort, since many of us had have conflict with our families of origin or society at large over our belief system.  Though some of us manage to find covens and other smaller groups to express ourselves in safety, many more do not have access to such resources, nor do they feel comfortable at the level of intimacy such groups usually require. An Abbey provides professional mentorship and community in a safe, healing environment where the novice or practitioner can feel comfortable in their faith and life choices, without judgement and in security.

Wendy Griffin, PhD suggests that our professional priesthood has already sprung up, but poses the question, do we want an educated one? I fundamentally agree with that assessment. Abbeys solve that problem and many others in a most elegant manner. Modern pagan abbeys based on traditional structure, both virtual and brick and mortar, can provide:

* a professional academic community with continual interaction and peer environment, with libraries, research and publications
* training, mentoring, discussion and maintenance of full-time professionals in traditional pagan paths and pursuits
* a sacred and supportive community for worldly or cloistered professionals and laity to dedicate themselves temporarily or permanently to spiritual devotions
* vectors to provide services and goods to benefit the community and the world 
* a safe haven for pagans and non-members who feel the harm of the world to rest and heal.

The Abbey of the Green Flame and the Copper Horse Abbey, both under the auspices of Dìsir: An Order of Traditional Aboriginal and Pagan Humanists, are two such entities that are already formed, one dedicated to green witchery and healing and the Celtic Aboriginal tradition, and the other to pagan horse magic and traditional animal medicine.  I hope the few already in existence will soon be joined by many more, as we reClaim our heritage of sacred communities, spaces, professional academic knowledge and Right Lifestyle which we, as a mature tradition, both crave and deserve.


1) "St. Brigid's double monastery at Kildare was built at a location previously sacred to her pagan namesake, and the inner sanctuary of the Kildare Church also contained a blessed fire perpetually maintained by the nuns of her community. Some have speculated that St. Brigid herself once served as the last high priestess of a community of druid women worshipping the goddess Brighid, and that she led that entire community into the Christian faith."

2) "Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as superior general of the monasteries in Ireland."

3) "Brigid's most famous foundation is at Kildare, established on a generous grant of land from the king of Leinster. It is generally thought to have been a double monastery, housing both men and women, with Brigid presiding over both communities. Double monasteries were a common practice in Celtic lands, later taken by the Irish to the continent. Brigid made her monastery a remarkable house of learning for both men and women, including an art school devoted to for the creation of highly decorated handmade copies of scripture texts and other holy writings."

4) "The, training of a warrior was a long task, frequently undertaken by warrior women who were responsible for teaching boys the arts of combat and of love. Specific titles were given to these classes of female warriors such as BAN-GAISGEDAIG (BAN-meaning woman and a derivative of GAS which means young warrior) and BAN-FEJNNIDH (which combines BAN with FEINNIDH meaning 'band of warriors') so it seems they were classed according to age and experience, possibly starting their training as very young girls. "

5) "More than anything else, however, Brigid is renowned for her hospitality. The poor and the infirm come in their multitudes. She makes provision for the sick, tending to them with her knowledge of contemporary medicine. Kildare becomes a place of holy pilgrimage for all, from the prominent and powerful to the lowly and forgotten."

6) The Shakers, an offshoot of the Quakers, were one of "a number of utopian experiments in communal living that strove to construct a society in which people could live in perfect harmony surrounded by the bountiful plenty of Mother Earth. The Shakers were one of the most successful of these attempts"