Priest/ess 1: What Does It Mean?

Take a minute to Google Image Search the word "Priestess" and see what happens. Now Google Image Search the word "Priest." I don't know about you, but this is not my reality. When this is the prevalent image, how much internal work might we each individually need to do before we can even begin to form to a realistic collective definition of the term? How might we begin to explore the complexity of what it means to be Priest/ess?

There is an Indian parable that has spread out to many different religions and cultures because of its usefulness in conveying a certain specific lesson. It is the story of the blind men and the elephant.*  In the Buddhist version, there was a group of scholars and ministers arguing about the meaning of a text. The king, wanting to bring an end to the bickering, asked the Buddha what to do.

The Buddha sent the guards to bring several blind men who sat begging outside the palace gates, and an elephant, into the courtyard. Then, he brought the king and his advisors out into the courtyard and told them to observe. One blind man was placed at the tusk of the elephant, one at the side, and one at the tail of the elephant. They were asked to record what they felt, and brought back to stand together before the king. The king asked each of them to describe, from their experience, what is an elephant?

The first man described the smooth sharpness of the tusk. The second man described the tough, bristly hide and great wide height. The third man described the flicking tail and its long hairs. Each was convinced by his own experience, and therefore they began to bicker amongst themselves about what, truly, was an "elephant."

The Buddha turned to the king and his advisors, and said: "See how they fight so passionately about their parts, when each only knows but a little! So, too, do you bicker amongst yourselves about pieces of a whole. None is wrong and none is right. The dharma is vast. Do not get distracted by your own small opinion from seeking the wider view."

BTW, I do not know if you have been following the story of the crying elephant Raju who was liberated from 50 years in captivity this week, but this story has been a great lesson to me about what horrors AND what goodness humans are capable of creating. Now, back to our regularly-scheduled blog.

As Pagan culture continues to refine itself in the 21st century, certain issues that once were fuzzy and romantic around the edges are crystallizing into sharper points. One of these is the realization that Paganism is both a religion, or series of religions, and also a lifestyle.

There are those for whom the ceremonial aspects are most important, there are some for whom nature reverence is most important, there are some for whom their relationships with the gods are most important, there are those for whom the pleasure of accoutrements is most important, there are some for whom ancestry is most important, there are some for whom sacred sexuality is most important, and so on. You know. You're living yours, too. I'm living mine.

What this means is that we will certainly not all agree on everything. This is for sure. Some of us are holding the tail of Paganism, some the tusk, some are searching the hide with our hands, wandering along the vast body of possibilities contained in this widespread and diverse community. I see that this is actually a reason we have survived into modern times: we are, like a wild field, a very fertile and thriving ecosystem. The variations of experience we bring to the table are a great strength, just as biodiversity begets a strong environment.

Key to some emerging discussions is the question of what it means to be a Priest/ess. I like what Thorn and John have to say on this, and I am a participant in Sam's project of rebuilding the priesthood of Hermes. These are but a few perspectives among many out there, and I find them valuable for reflection.

I am the presiding HPS of CAYA Coven, overseeing our community and ceremonial activities. I am a Priestess at large, serving the local spirits of the land wherever I go with gratitude. But when I say I am a Priest/ess in each of these settings, neither of them bear exactly the same expectations. The word has contextual meaning, especially regarding financial compensation.

Although I never charge for my ceremonial services in CAYA, I do charge for performing a wedding for someone I do not know. Though I do not charge for private readings I might give CAYA Dedicants & Priest/esses, I do charge for readings booked through my store. One is a vocation and one is a professional service. Yet in both compensated and uncompensated spaces, I recognize that I am performing the tasks of a Priest/ess, according to my own definition of the term.

Is Priest/ess a paid position? Does it mean the same thing as Minister? What are the responsibilities thereof? What are the challenges of serving this function in the world today, while attempting to glean information about what to do from the ancients or from other religions that have more stable infrastructure than we Pagans do?

For my part, the term Priest/ess comes down to the actions I take in sacred service: to the deities, to community, and to individuals. I see the Priest/ess in the function of "conduit for expression of the divine." For me, serving as a Priestess means;

-bringing the Goddess to my attention and to public attention in my actions, in her singular forms such as named, revered deities, as well as her limitless form, the Perfect Wisdom

-working with deities and deific structures in diverse ways up to and including public and private trance possession

-performing private and public ceremonies

-offering oracles and divinations

-monitoring and influencing weather conditions for ceremonial occasions 

-tracing energetic patterns, mapping the spirit's journey through witnessing and participating in many different experiences & lenses

-drawing energy to particular places along the grid by means of sympathetic magic

-tending altars, making offerings, writing and singing the songs

-remembering the stories of those whose spiritual accomplishments were impressive

-maintaining sacred space.

For me, being a Priestess is not the same thing as being a Minister. Yet, as our CAYA community grows and ages (celebrating 8 years this October), the need for greater ministerial skill within our body of ordained Priest/esses also grows. That ups the ante in terms of knowledge and experience required and delivered in the position. That, too, is an organic next step in our development. I see the value in cultivating this knowledge and skill myself, and providing spaces for others in our community to do so as well. More to follow on that subject in a post later this year.

Neither do I see being a Priest/ess as being a corporate job, yet I must note that my Priestess skills come to bear at The Sacred Well. My primary role there is business owner, but I cannot separate that from the fact that I am also using several of my Priestess capacities in my work at my job. In my next blog post, I will talk about the various hats I wear and ethical systems that guide me as a non-paid community Priest/ess, a paid Priest/ess for ceremonial hire, and a Pagan store owner. Oh, and I'm a person, too, obviously. 

I am only one Pagan. If you ask a dozen different American Pagans what they think the word Priest/ess means, they will give you a dozen different answers, even if there are some points of overlap that arise in common. I think the work, the slow, careful work over time, with experience, of tracking those overlaps in a broad-based and diverse exploration of our growing Pagan population will ultimately yield an inclusive definition of the term that can be employed broadly. But until then, due to both the legacies of Judeo-Christian influence, and our own diversity of perspectives, we really struggle with pinpointing the term.

A Buddhist monk is not a Catholic Priest. A Catholic Priest is not an Imam. An Imam is not a Priest/ess. A Priest/ess is not a Rabbi. A Rabbi is not a Psychic. A Psychic is not a Therapist. A Therapist is not a Social Worker. A Social Worker is not a Physician. A Physician is not a Minister. Yet many of these may have fuzzy edges where certain aspects of their experiences overlap, all filed under the heading "Caring about Human Beings." A tusk is not a tail. A hide is not a tusk. A tail is not the hide. Yet all of these are still the elephant.

How might we come to the conversation of what it means to be a Priest/ess and/or Pagan Minister with curiosity and willingness to learn and discern, with personal responsibility and the choice to deliberately not create harm with vehemence or insistence upon absolutes? How might we establish ground rules for such an engagement? How might plurality and biodiversity within the Pagan ecosystem be our guides?

When we try to centralize a definition of human experience without sufficient spaciousness for diversity of opinions, we create systems in which there will be no oxygen, and life will not flourish. We create mono-cropping. Dust bowls ensue. When we take an "Always or Never" attitude, or an "All or Nothing" attitude, we miss huge opportunities to become stronger.


*Please note: I feel uncomfortable about using physical blindness as a metaphor for lack of perspective, especially when I have friends who are actually vision-impaired, but I do not know of any other parable as broadly iconic as this one for the lesson it conveys. So I'm just taking responsibility for acknowledging this. Feel free to talk with me if you felt uncomfortable that I used this one.