On Bowing Out

Last week, the Vanic Conspiracy held our seasonal Trance Devotional ritual. We try to hold these whenever there is a 5th Friday in a month, which happens about 4 times a year. It’s a very convenient interval for honoring a strongly seasonally-influenced pantheon.

I believe the ritual went very well. I was worried it might not, however, because I was feeling critically low on spoons. Indeed, as we were gathering to start the ritual, I was downright cranky, and trying (and, I suspect, failing) to avoid taking it out on any of the gathered group. I still led the ritual, per usual. I did my best, in my low-spoon state, to follow the ritual structure we’ve built over the years, and made sure to spend extra time on helping everyone prepare themselves and the space for ritual.

I’m pretty sure I only missed one step: The formality of asking the residents permission to use their space. I kinda got away on a technicality, since I am treated as a resident in that space. I still kick myself a bit for it, since Hospitality and Informed Consent are both extremely important values in our tradition. But I know nobody was actually uninformed, unconsenting, or even particularly upset with my oversight, so it’s just another pebble on the road, really. The spirit was upheld, and that’s what matters most. Do Better Next Time.

When we got to the introductions round, I asked everyone the same questions as usual, with one little tweak. Usually, for Trance Devotionals the introductions include:

  • Name
  • Pronouns
  • Consent to trance (i.e. should we put a stop to it if a god wants to possess you?)
  • Warding skill

This time, I added a layer:

  • Consent to trance on behalf of the people

This was so that I could make it explicitly clear that in my spoonless state, I did not consider myself a reliable medium for others to interact with the gods. If the gods wanted to tap me for the sake of my own relationships with Them, that was fine, but please, don’t ask me to open myself to one of the gods for the sake of pastoral counseling, because I can’t promise anything like a clear signal!

As it happened, dropping the hardest part of my job as Gythia left me with energy to uphold the rest of my job of keeping the ritual organized and keeping an eye on the more vulnerable members group. Everything proceeded pretty smoothly from there, so I am confident I made the right call.

Still, part of me struggles – should I have had someone else run the ritual? Should I have cancelled the ritual, knowing both I and my second were exhausted going in? Should I have offered my full services, just with the warning that I wasn’t at full capacity? Should I have offered my full services with just the usual reminder that drastic messages should always be confirmed with an uninvolved diviner, to avoid compromising their confidence in me as a Gythia?

If this had been a large public ritual at PantheaCon, I’d have followed a “The Show Must Go On” rule, per my theatre training, and tried to make sure the audience had appropriate knowledge of what was and was not under our control. (The gods themselves are NOT under our control!)

Over the years I’ve been handed quite the pile of mixed messages around the limits of clergy service. I’ve been scolded for failure to stop for self care, because a dead healer saves no lives. I’ve been scolded for stepping down when I was exhausted, because a leader is supposed to suck it up and serve others no matter the expense to themselves. I’ve been scolded for not stepping down if I thought my mediumship might be less than 100%, because a medium is obliged to be a perfect conduit. I’ve been scolded for turning my phone off because clergy are supposed to be available to their community 24/7. I’ve been scolded for being disruptive when I stay after being triggered or exhausted. I’ve been scolded for trying to attend despite vague misgivings, only to remove myself part way through upon realizing that I wasn’t okay, even though I left the ritual space during a break to minimize disruption, took the time to make sure that nothing in the ritual was dependent on my staying, and waited until the next break to give my congratulations, farewells, explanations, and to clean up after myself. I’ve been scolded for carrying on despite illness or triggers and for not carrying on because of illness or triggers. Sometimes there’s just no right answer when being okay isn’t one of your options.

My current conclusion is this:

Yes, as clergy, I am indeed a leader, and I am here to serve. But part of that service is as a role model. That means demonstrating good discernment and self-care is also important. I must not only take care of myself, I must show how I take care of myself, so that others can do the same. I must make it overtly clear what measures I am taking to ensure that The Ritual Goes On regardless of my personal state, but that I will NOT allow my personal state to compromise the ritual services themselves. As much as I must be willing to endure what must be done, I must also be willing to bow out, to trust the understudy to play my part, to tag another teammate in, to admit to fallibility.

Because at the end of the day, one of those above scolds is absolutely true: Dead Healers Save No Lives. And we’re all of us mortal healers, so future deadness is always on the table.

On the other hand, that fallibility means that I’m never perfect, I am always still human, whatever else I may also be. If we require perfection for service, no service can ever be done. So I must also demonstrate acceptance of my fallibility, and everyone else’s. I must demonstrate that it is more important that we strive despite imperfection than that we require perfection. Even the gods are not perfect, individually. That’s why They, too, are many. It’s not what we are each alone, but what we can be when we come together that matters the most.

I will say this for myself: As far as I can recall, I have never, ever cancelled a ritual after it had begun, or left everyone hanging when the ritual depended on me.

I’ve bowed out and I’ve endured under a variety of circumstances, but when bowing out I try to always check that they can do without me, and when enduring, I try to always check that my condition will not adversely affect the ritual. And yeah, sometimes, even with doing our best to make sure things will be okay, things don’t go as well as they might have. Usually, I find that no matter how horrible I fear things went, there’s always someone who got what they needed, someone who had a great time, someone who loved the ritual. So even if my own time was less than stellar, I’m satisfied with the work.

All we can ever do is our best, so that’s got to be okay.

–Ember–

About the Author

I am Gythia of the Vanic Conspiracy, founded in 2004. We are building the RedWood Vanatru tradition, a path of devotional polytheism centered on Freyja, Freyr, and Their kin. I have trained with various Pagan groups, including Hrafnar, Thiasos Bakkheios, and the American Magic Umbanda House. I present and/or staff at events such as PantheaCon, the Bay Area Tarot Symposium, and Many Gods West. I volunteer as a jail chaplain for alternative religions, and hold a BA with honors in religious studies, which I hope to expand towards a Ph.D. in the future. My personal interests include folklore, feminism, nonbinary gender, polyamory, art, music, and gaming. I am seasonally affective and have neuro-atypical sensory processing, both of which significantly influence my perception of the world, and my spiritual experience. I have lived all my life in the south San Francisco Bay Area.

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