Called by the Spirits, but not to the Priesthood: The Mystery of Monasticism

I’ve been pondering, over the course of the last month, my relationship to a “calling” by the Spirits I Serve.  There is a deep knowing, in my own experience, when a spirit calls you and claims you.  I felt that I could run away, but regardless of how long I ran, They had infinite patience and devotion in their pursuit.  I knew that I belonged to Them, and They belonged to me, in a way that is difficult to explain and not always comfortable – but is integral to our mutual development and spiritual work in the world.  I imagine that others, most often called by gods, but some called by nature spirits like me or by ancestors, experience something similar if they are called.

As John Beckett pointed out in a recent blog post, not everyone is called by a spirit, and not everyone who is called is called to the priesthood.  While I disagreed with some of the way John carved out the priesthood in its responsibilities from a global cross-religious perspective, I thought that the core of his message was useful: we may be called, but not to the priesthood.  (And, a corollary, we may be called, but not by a god.)

In contemporary paganism or polytheism, this can be confusing.  There are few visible roles in most neo-pagan communities.  The primary role that we see is the priest: the ritualist, the organizer, the “Big Name Pagan” who authors books and blog posts, the workshop presenter.  Priests are public figures.  They facilitate spiritual and religious experiences for other people.  Their responsibilities, training, and authority vary by religious tradition in the world, but what unites priests cross-religiously is their simultaneous service to spirits and to a human community.

But what if we are called not to be priests, but monks or nuns?  What if we are called by spirits, but not to public religious leadership?  What if our spiritual work in the world is inward-facing, not outward-facing?  What is this Spirit-Led Work?

The Spirits I Serve called me to specific purposes in this life, but none of them involve priestly duties.  Some of my soul’s purpose (and its work with Them) is embedded in my professional work, because the Spirits I Serve are interested in human development and do not care if that development is directed toward Them.  Some of the purpose is found in contemplative, solitary practice – it is the work of self-transformation and holding a center, an essence, of divine connection in the world.  I’m not alone in this calling; there are people called to this type of practice from many religious traditions in the world and diverse pagan and polytheist orientations.

Cabinet with art, sacred objects, and items from nature

One of the two shrines in my sanctuary at home. My goal for this year is to have twice-daily practice with periods of contemplative prayer in this sacred space.

Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism

Almost a year ago, the Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism Facebook group was formed.  This allowed some 150 people so far, who largely practice from deep devotion toward their spirits and gods in an inward-facing, contemplative way to discuss their beliefs, experiences, and practices.  Monasticism is conventionally thought of as a religious path in which monks and nuns renounce worldly pursuits in order to pursue a deeply spiritual life, usually involving long periods of silence, devotional work, contemplative prayer or meditation, and embodied activity in nature (through mindful walking, farming, or simple chores).  For most pagan and polytheist monastics, like some monks and nuns, we do not fully renounce worldly pursuits.  This is impossible without strong economic support from a larger community of householders engaged in the world.  But in addition to this logistical problem, many monks and nuns (even in religions that offer full renunciation of the world) select to engage more deeply with the world than the average person, balancing this with long periods of contemplation and devotion.  There are Buddhist monasteries that run rural schools and development organizations and Catholic monks and nuns who march all over the world to bring awareness to the need for demilitarization and peace.  There are those who are doctors, nurses, aid workers, and teachers.  The critical pieces of monasticism, in my estimation, are devotion, discipline, and contemplation.

Devotion

Monastics, like many priests, share in an often-fierce devotion to the spirit(s) that called them.  This might be a god or pantheon, nature spirits and forces, or ancestors.  The difference is that their devotion is usually inward-oriented.  The demand the spirit makes of the monastic is to give their life to deepening a relationship, not necessarily aiding others directly in connecting to that spirit.  Rather than a life of organizing and writing rituals, teaching workshops, and writing books – the monastic has a foundation that involves long periods of what appears to the outside world as doing nothing.  It is in the not-doing that the monastic can enter a state of being, of union, rather than a state of action.  This does not mean that a monastic cannot lead ritual, or that their services are never open to the public.  But that is not the main function of the monastic’s spiritual life.  We might think of the monastic’s primary purpose as one of the development of divine union, a maintenance of a spiritual “place” of connection between the spirit world and the human world, a cultivation of a constancy in this union.  The monastic serves as an essence of the meeting point between divinity and humanity, usually stripped to its simplest form.  This is why, in part, monastics in many traditions wear a simple garment, practice in permanent sanctuaries, and maintain a strong but simple rhythm to their lives.  The simplicity cuts out the noise of the world, the rhythm of the monastic life builds a strong foundation for consistent connection to the divine.  In other traditions, when monastics lead ritual, it is typically through letting the public in, not in disrupting the monastic rhythm.  This is unlike the priest’s function, which is primarily to serve a public religious community, and therefore to generate rituals, services, events, and teachings that resonate with a broad public.

Discipline

One of the most prominent features of monastics is the concept of discipline.  This is, more than devotion, what sets monastics apart from both general practitioners and even many priests.  Devotion, in the monastic, is channeled through a disciplined routine that generates a consistent rhythm of life.  That rhythm of life rarely changes and dominates the monastic’s everyday existence.  It is within that rhythm, that discipline, that monastics describe their liberation.  In acting in a disciplined way, arising from devotion to the spirit they serve, they provide consistent doorways throughout every day through which the divine can enter.  In that constant offering of the most precious things that humans have – our time, bodies, and attention – there is the essence of the true sacrifice, the sublimation of the small-self to the higher-self, the divine-self, the soul’s work.  This routine is usually combined with certain vows, which usually serve to generate a simple, conflict-free life.  In my own experience, discipline is by far the most difficult ideal to uphold.  Life likes to intrude, and our minds like to resist our spiritual work by inserting what feels like pressing worldly concerns.  For a householder (married, with a job and responsibilities) like myself, it is infinitely challenging to maintain discipline.  At the same time, it is infinitely rewarding.  Not only does some success yield greater results than no success, so it’s worth the effort – by living life in this way, I am called to extend myself compassion, over and over, for falling short of meeting the Spirits I Serve in Their full vision for my life.  Learning to be compassionate with oneself, to accept failure with equanimity and resilience, to maintain effort even when one doesn’t feel like practicing – this builds a deep wellspring from which monastics ripple into the world.

Contemplation

At the heart of monastic discipline is periods of silence and contemplation.  The core of monastic life is in listening to the divine, not reaching outward toward it.  We seek to open for the divine touch, regardless of our mood, our circumstances, or our sense of inspiration.  It is practicing hospitality to the spirit that called us.  Maintaining long stretches of silence heightens one’s sensitivity to divine wisdom.  Offering periods of contemplative prayer or sitting meditation is an invitation to the divine, both immanent and transcendent, to be with us.  In my experience, there is no greater gift we can give to any spirit-being than the offering of our silence and time.  Other offerings are relatively easy and cheap: it takes little to pour out some whisky or light a candle.  It takes a lot of effort to consistently overcome our internal resistance and sit in silence before the spirit world.  Sometimes, this is rewarded with a feeling of union and ecstasy, or a key message of wisdom, or a feeling of deep well-being and peace.  But sometimes, we sit and nothing happens.  Our mind wanders, we bring it back.  The moments tick by.  We squirm and realign ourselves.  And this is fine.  It is actually that squirmy, uncomfortable silent period that is the greatest offering we can give to the spirits.  Because it is the most arduous and it requires the most altruistic effort.  If we open the doorway to the spirit world but then slam it when they do not come bearing gifts, we are not being truly hospitable in the first place.  Contemplation, if done out of devotion for one or more spirits, is much more than seeking wisdom or self-knowledge – it is a sacrificial act.  Doing it many times each day for long periods, as monastic life ideally demands, is an incredible challenge that integrates devotion and discipline into periods of being rather than doing, so that Being – the Divine Mystery – might be realized.

The Still Center

The mystery of monasticism is both in the relationship between the monastic and the spirit world and in the relationship of the monastic to humanity as a whole.  I have always been a mystic, but for a number of years after I became more public in my Druidry, I thought because of my level of devotion, I ought to be a priest.  Even when I was Christian, I considered the Episcopalian priesthood.  It was only recently, in the last couple of years, that I have understood that it is the monastic life that calls me, not the priestly one.  This makes sense when I consider my soul’s work that is tied to the Spirits I Serve, and the ways that They relate to humanity.  They are not beings who wish for worship or recognition or even thanks.  They are ancient, from a time before the Earth was embodied in her current form and before the sun became our crystallization of light.  Their work with humans is something other than rites.  Their work is in interweaving Their pulse with the rhythm of humans, until we remember that we are a union of the stars and the soil.  That work is not done primarily in a workshop or a ritual.  It is done in silence.

For any form of monasticism, therein lies the great mystery: it is in the disciplined not-doing that Being can emerge into humanity.  The monastic holds the center of that union between human and divine, having faith that they were called to that difficult, disciplined rhythm so that it might ripple outward into the world.  There is a prayer in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids for peace:

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace.

Silently within the quiet of the Grove, may I share peace.

Gently and powerfully, within the greater circle of humankind, may I radiate peace.

This is the heart of the monastic work: devote oneself to a rhythm that opens one to stillness, share this silently among other practitioners, radiate this gently and powerfully in human consciousness.  And have faith that it matters.  Even when it feels like the world is unraveling around us, sit in silence.  Even when it feels like the to-do list is a mile long, sit in silence.  Even when it feels like we are entirely alone, and even the spirit world has abandoned us, sit in silence.  Offer the sacrifice once more, open the doorway, and wait.

About the Author

I'm Kimberly Kirner, a Druid (in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids). My spirituality is focused first on serving the nature spirits of this lovely being we call Earth. I'm a professor of cultural anthropology by profession, specializing in environmental and medical anthropology. I started this blog (and my website) to collect my thoughts and experiences that arise from my spiritual and creative (rather than professional) practice. I wanted a space, a time, to move differently in the world (and with a different group of people): to balance between an analytical approach and an intuitive one. For me, Druidry is about expanding our capacity to connect and communicate with the non-human world, deepening our commitment to justice for all beings, and re-enchanting the world so that we heal the brokenness and discord that exists between humans and our home. In many ways, my Druidic practice is a path toward walking between the worlds - of waking and dreaming, of the world as it is and the world as it could be. It is an attempt to love all beings through service, study, and art. I am not always great at it, but it's the commitment and perseverance that counts.

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4 Comments

  1. What a lovely piece – inspiring and beautifully written! If I’d read something like this when I was starting out, it might not have taken me as long to realize my own calling to a monastic service path.

    You wrote about how there are few visible roles in most Pagan communities. It’s true – most of the ones we do see are priestesses & priests, ritualists, authors, magicians, workshop leaders, and diviners. But there are few monastics. In some Pagan circles there seems to be a general aversion to structure, organization, discipline, or anything that is associated with “high church” or being “too” religious, such as formalized daily prayer and worship, prostrations before shrines, etc. Especially in the early days when I first found Paganism in the 1990s, I often felt extremely self-conscious about being observed in prayer and worship, or kneeling before shrines, because these things just aren’t done in many Pagan groups, and I hadn’t met any other hard polytheists to compare notes with until about ten years ago. However, I’m seeing some encouraging signs that our religious communities are maturing, and the recent increased interest in monasticism is one of them.

    I remember how excited I was when I first learned that there was a Pagan group – the Maetreum of Cybele – that practiced some kind of goddess-oriented monasticism. I remember thinking: “Wow! Are there really Pagan nuns? I’ve got to find out more!” Finding the Church of Asphodel’s Order of the Horae website in 2006, too, was a major turning point for me. I’ve never met any of the folks involved in that effort, but I’ll always be grateful to them for the work they did to forge a monastic path and provide helpful resources for other Pagan monastics. It made me feel that there could be a real, bona fide place for what I was doing someday, even if not with them.

    As far as I know, these two groups were the first to lay the necessary groundwork for Pagan monasticism, and get the word out about it. So I suppose we are the “second wave,” or something like that!

    Anyway…your whole piece is marvelous, but I want to comment on this in particular:

    “…the monastic has a foundation that involves long periods of what appears to the outside world as doing nothing. It is in the not-doing that the monastic can enter a state of being, of union…”

    I think this is of central importance, especially because we live in a culture that exerts enormous pressure upon us to be “productive.” To outsiders, the monastic life can appear to be little more than self-indulgence overlaid with a spiritual veneer. But monasticism can teach us to trust and respect the value of silence, deep listening, and empty space. It can teach us that when faced with overwhelming problems, sometimes the most powerful action is to refrain from “productivity” as we commonly conceptualize it – not as a general principle, necessarily, but as a form of surrender to a larger process. These are lessons our culture needs, as we confront the realities of various ecological issues that are being driven by the never-ending drive for productivity.

    Learning how to listen better is one of my favorite things about the monastic journey as I experience it. It is teaching me how to listen much more deeply and attentively than I did before.

    In any case, I think those of us who are called in this direction have a responsibility to do what we can to document our experiences as thoroughly as possible, so that future monastics will have records of early fledgling monastic efforts. So thank you for helping to make the monastic path more visible. It makes me happy to think that with enough writings like this one, future generations of Pagan & polytheist would-be monastics won’t have to flounder around for as long as I did to identify their calling to a monastic path. And hopefully one day there will be a variety of monasteries and convents to help them find their way as well.

    1. Hi, Danica- Thanks so much for writing up this comment and including your own experience. I think it’s so important for people who may tend toward monastic practice to hear many voices — backgrounds, beliefs, practices, and experiences — so that they can find a sense of identity and refine their own monasticism. I wasn’t aware that there were many (any?) folks out there that practiced similarly to myself until relatively recently. For a number of years, I was solitary. Then, I was more in the community, but outside of some Buddhist-Druid hybrids, I didn’t meet many people who had a monastic practice. I also tended to feel rather alone in my devotional practice, which is more ecstatic oriented than most of the rituals I have attended in paganism and which focuses devotion on (and seeks direct experience of) specific spirit-beings rather than conceptual groups of them or other, broader concepts. I think my own practice was informed a lot from having been raised in a form of Christian mysticism (similar to Quakers, but we didn’t belong to a group) alongside being taught that each person has their own god (i.e., god will meet them in individualized ways and for specific, individualized purposes) and that god is most easily found in nature. I didn’t seek to escape from this upbringing, but rather to deepen it, and that deep affection I have for a religious life and its rhythm has informed my entire life. In part, because of this, I do not seem to have the negative associations or mistrust of religious organization, routine, formalization, etc. that pervades a good bit of pagan community.

      Having considered the Episcopalian priesthood at one point, but really having the most fascination with monks and nuns I met, I felt rather alone in my Druidry until the formation of the Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism group on Facebook. It has sense been a “WOW” experience for me — to better understand the history of longer-standing monastic practices in paganism and polytheism, to share contemporary experiences and ideas, and to simply know I am not alone. So many people have further developed their prayers and practices than I have, and I can now draw inspiration from these, as well as encouragement. I’m not sure if I’m “second wave” or “third wave,” but all I know is I’m glad to know I’m part of a wave, and not a single drop of water! 🙂 I wish I’d known about all of this when I first began Druidry, 15 years ago, but on the other hand, I know that the Spirits I Serve present me with what I need what I’m ready for it. So, no time like the present!

      Finally, I want to thank you for elaborating on your thoughts about productivity and being (not doing). Indeed, the overculture pressures us to do, do, do all the time. We are told that we are self-indulgent, lazy, etc. if we spend time simply being, in silence. However, anyone who tries simply being in silence will find that it is tremendously difficult. Deep listening, as you point out, is one of the cornerstones of monastic practice, and while simple conceptually, is rather challenging in practice. However, it is deeply rewarding, and I personally know of no better way to offer myself to the Spirits I Serve than to give them my time and my silent attention. It is one of the few things I actually own — that is my own. Everything else really belongs to the earth, to nature, and I’m only borrowing it for a while. An offering of one’s own body and mind, of one’s openness and receptivity, is — at least to Those I Serve — the most welcome gift.

  2. Thank you for this insightful and eloquent explanation of monasticism and how you practice it as a Druid. I appreciate your willingness to share your experiences. You have, once again, broadened and enriched my own spiritual journey.

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