On Priestessing

September 11, 2010

(x-posted from where I first published it, because it's relevant)

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about my work as a Priestess, and how fundamental it is not only to my community (I sincerely hope), but to my own well-being.

It really is a calling in the same sense as the mainstream denominations use the word. Priestessing drives me, it wakes me up at night, it imposes itself upon my consciousness no less urgently than hunger or thirst. It's inextricably linked to everything I am.

But it takes a lot of energy, and a lot of support. I don't always have that, and I'm just now recovering from trying to Priestess in a void.

Priestessing for a community, even a small and decidedly fragmented one, isn't an easy task. Contrary to what seems evident in many Pagan publications, it's more than knowing which incense to burn, what phase the moon is in, whether to pick up the athame or the wand, or how to speak eloquently in circle. Those are all handy skills, mind you, but it's so much more than that. It's understanding the people you serve, and giving them what they need. It's comforting the sick and the wounded and the bereaved and the confused, and walking beside them for support instead of pushing or pulling them in any particular direction (imminent danger notwithstanding). It's organizing and following through. Sometimes it's "what a beautiful ceremony" or "you helped me so much", but sometimes it's "what the hell was that?". It's elation and frustration, often at the same time. It's taking responsibility for the vulnerable. It's creating and performing ceremonies, sure, but it's also paperwork and counselling and mediation and teaching and a thousand random tasks that you'd have never thought were part of the job.

It isn't that it never comes easily. It does, far more than that last paragraph might lead you to think. It's not drudgery at all (well, okay, maybe the paperwork, but there's really not that much). In fact, it's the most rewarding thing in my whole life. That's a good thing, because if you're in it for glory or money or some other extrinsic reward, you're a fool. Love is the motivation, and love is the reward. Even in moments of pain and loss and rage, there are moments of excruciating beauty, but if you're not there, all the way there, you miss them. I guess what I'm saying is that it takes commitment, and commitment is hard to maintain in a vacuum.

I came into Priestessing by accident, really. Those who embrace a deterministic view of the universe may disagree. When I was a baby-Pagan, there were no resources to be had: it was the early '90s in Sault Ste. Marie. Sure, there was a group out in Goulais with a Priestess who was very kind and patient with me on those occasions when I spoke to her (and who eventually performed my handfasting), but that might as well have been the moon for a teenager living at home. So I taught myself. A few years on, when the opportunity arose, I started a circle with friends, and I'm still not entirely sure how I ended up in charge of leading rituals, but there I was. I'll skip the description of everything that went horribly, horribly wrong in that whole situation; before it was over, I'd developed some pretty impressive liturgical skills, and exercised my counselling and mediation and teaching skills along the way. Was I any kind of expert? Hell no. I spent years resisting being called High Priestess -- I still do, actually, when it comes up -- because to me, that pointed to someone way, way beyond my skillset. I was just doing the work because it needed to be done. By the time I realized it had become part of me, and that I didn't ever want to give it up, I was sort of stuck in the role. It's a good thing I loved it! It's led me into some really beautiful experiences, including my work with the Multifaith Committee and All Seasons Weddings, each of which is tied into Priestessing for me.

There's something in the Charge of the Goddess that's always jumped out at me, and that informs everything I do as a Priestess: "let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you." I try to strike that balance. It's not as difficult as it might sound, because I really see each pair as inextricable. If they're not, something is terribly wrong. When I fall out of that balance, it hurts, and I have trouble doing what needs to be done. It's a powerful thing to internalize. I wonder if other Priestesses and Priests in Pagan traditions have similar experiences.

I wonder that because I'm working in a vacuum.

I was talking to Jen (surprise!) about this tonight, and what I said was this: "I've been spending a good part of the evening thinking about priestessing, and how it's important to spread those responsibilities around to avoid burnout. And then it occurred to me that most of the stuff I do that really goes to the core of Priestess work is stuff nobody ever taught me. And then I got to thinking about casting about, quietly, and seeing if there was any interest in developing a small work group to mutually co-train and develop Priest/ess skills, in order to share the load. I sort of feel like with new training developing locally, some of the lurking sense of responsibility for the baby Pagans is lifting, and maybe it's time to focus on how to serve, rather than whom." I'm still rolling that around, sort of, that idea of developing some leadership in the local community. I don't like to think of myself as a leader, because I'm pathologically incapable of gloryhounding. I'll call myself Priestess, but not High Priestess; I'll call myself organizer, but not leader. I don't want to be monolithic, and I certainly don't want my community to depend on me so hard that if I were abducted by aliens or otherwise rendered incapable of serving, they'd be without anyone to turn to. I want to find others with a calling to serve the community and get together and develop ourselves and each other into solid Priestesses and Priests. I don't want to lead or teach, at least not beyond a fair and equal share, distributed among all of us. I get by, but I'm no authority or expert. We have a new Druidic tradition and a new learning circle developing locally, both of which are coming into being through the work of good, ethical people. They may not be equipped to do much (I think the learning circle is asking for trouble for a whole plethora of reasons, not least of which is that it's purporting to teach Wicca when there are no actual initiates in sight, but that's not for me to police), but at least baby-Pagans won't be entirely lost in the wilds. It feels like it's time for the development of some real, solid resources.

I just wonder if there's anyone else with that little voice, nagging them to serve. I hope so.

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