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" 

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