How might we peel apart the religious and commercial implications of the term Priest/ess? This is a follow-up to my previous post querying how we might begin to come to a working definition of the term. For me, the Priest/ess is the shaper of culture, via education, myth, ceremony, and making sure the circle has sufficient tensile strength. S/he is the steward of stories, energies, and observations. S/he is the mother-source and midwife of the oracular view, at once.
But in the wider world, the term Priest/ess is a bit messy, in my opinion. That is also why it works, and has worked, to describe so many different functions performed in the name(s) of the Divine for thousands of years, across cultures. Like magic and science, or like the two pillars on the High Priestess tarot card, there is both order and disorder implied in the term, just enough of each to keep things counter-weighted for momentum. The wheel of time spins through cycles of generation and innovation, destruction and decay. The balance of known and unknown, of resolved and unresolved, is a great source of organic strength and creativity in both natural and applied sciences, as well as art. These oscillations in the void are the motion of mind, of phenomena, of magic. The Priest/ess observes all of this dispassionately from her seat in the tarot. In the real world, however, the Priest/ess cannot only preside energetically. She often has additional duties, obligations, and activities to perform for her dedicated powers, herself, and her community.
Any of us who wear the title Priest/ess might define it differently from others, and none would necessarily be incorrect. There are local, regional, national, and international understandings as well as many different books on the subject with varying data, and there is also a purely experiential component. Without exploring all of these layers of understanding, we cannot come to a personal definition that is adequate, much less a collective one. So, since there is no central body to which we report, there is no central data set to be accessed as normative, and we basically are all on our own. Honestly, I think most of us like it that way, because it allows for diversity.
However, if we are claiming the term somewhat willy-nilly, we at least each need to be able to articulate what we think it means pretty well, beyond the standard tropes found in fiction or your casual Google search. Having many different stories and perspectives to learn from as Paganism comes of age in the US helps those of like mind find one another for mutual support, and those who are not of like mind either find stimulating educational challenges, or avoid wasting their time with something that is not going to be a good fit. Two people with two very different ideas of what it means to be Priest/ess may have a wonderful adventure or a hard time working on a project together if they do not share common expectations of what will happen when they collaborate. Taking the time to know and own what we intend when using the term means we have the obligation to at least find out what the term HAS meant to others, what it MIGHT mean to those around us, and to think well and deeply about what the term COULD mean to us. Looking for a reading list? Try searching the term "Priestess" at Fields Book Site.
And lest we forget that one of the reasons we are Pagan is because we do not necessarily emulate more dominant religious structures we see near us, let's keep in mind that we are human, and when that must be the primary identity over Priest/ess. There is not one single one of us who is not human. We need to know when to lay the role of Priest/ess aside responsibly so as not to cause harm with the use of our power, just as we also responsibly take up the role and any power it confers, magically or practically, in responsible ways when asked or needed. In a community of householders (non-monastics), with families and jobs and other demands that are equally important to our acts of tending the god/desses and rites, it is both historically and psychologically incorrect to expect ourselves to conform to monastic or quasi-monastic codes of behavior at all times. Some might choose to do so, or to lead more austere lives as part of spiritual devotion and practice, but a quick survey of world religions shows us that the monastic sects follow a fairly specific and predictable model, while householder sects are as widely diverse in their expressions as, well, even the wildly-eclectic US Pagan community might find pluralistic enough for our satisfaction.
With such a rich set of models to learn from, in shamanistic, meditative, ecstatic, multi-theistic, and animistic religions worldwide that all might make excellent role models, we can seek exemplars and inspirations in how to walk the balance of spiritual and secular life in service as Priest/esses in a householder religion. As Paganism is still a highly-Eurocentric religion in the US, we need to be respectful and careful about not appropriating from non-white cultures. It is fair, however, to learn from all cultures as students, when welcome. Appropriated material that was not already "common property" among many religions (such as the basic idea of a soul of some kind) will really not work well out of context in a lasting way. Appropriation is bad magic, and it exemplifies the abusive privilege of colonial disregard for each culture's right to hold its own center. However, without appropriating, we can certainly seek the wisdom of the "community mathematics" at the core of a society that has practices and characteristics we wish to emulate, and figure out how we might apply that core matrix to our own data so that we can learn a new perspective on our own experience. In many cultures, the Priest/ess facilitates this kind of "gathering together in a wisdom mind" among the people.
How might we develop "wisdom mind" in this current instance of learning together what it means to be a Pagan Priest/ess in various contexts? When is one to be a Priest/ess, when is one not? How might we choose appropriately where and how to wear the title? Does the crown ever come off? (to use the lingo of my community) The short answer, by my experience thus far, is, "You just know when you know. There are facts as well as feelings. Yes it comes off and no, it doesn't come off, at the same time."
In my own life, I hold the title Priestess in three distinct contexts: Community Priestess, Ceremonial Priestess for Hire, and Priestess at Large. The final of these is actually the wellspring of the other two, and the only one that is incontrovertible. My external work as a Priestess is only as strong as my internal work as a Priestess, in my view.
My central system of ethics is the Noble Eightfold Path and I navigate the world via the Buddhist immeasurables of bodhicitta, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity. You can see more about how I approach these principles over at DharmaPagan.org. Again and again in my life, I return to these as my path. They make the most sense to me of any I have encountered yet.
Please know when I claim this system as my ethical commitment, I do not think of myself as perfect in any of these areas, but rather as an ongoing practitioner, walking my path and doing my best, with both challenges and successes.
My next installment for this series will be an exploration of what it means, in my experience, to be a volunteer Community Priestess in CAYA Coven...
When I am serving as a volunteer Community Priestess, I share from my own experience of both success and failure, letting people see who I am, in process. To me, being a Community Priestess means being my whole self, strengths and flaws, in public, and using my own experience as a way of demonstrating the use of practices and different means of spiritual awakening in my personal evolution. I figure, if I am able to show HOW I do some of that I do, and if it was successful or not, I am modeling the most effective system of self-discovery that I know of for my community, while also holding a space for others to share their wisdom as well. I have a bit more to say about this, and I am writing a book on the subject.