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Big Name Pagans, Ministerial Formation, and the Calling.

BNPs. It is a phenomenon that Peter Dying and Crystal Blanton have brought into the pagan blogosphere recently.  And, as someone who has pondered aspects of leadership deeply as I work towards my M.Div at Union Theological Seminary in New York, I have had occasion to think about identity, leadership, ministerial formation, and contemporary pagan theological identity quite a lot.

When we are in seminary, engaging in the process of theological debate, discernment, encounters with problematic texts and traditions, and the nature of the world’s injustices,  our calling is something we constantly refer to, explicitly or implicitly.   The cost of attending any 3 year divinity school program is high- not just financially, but emotionally, intellectually, and at times, physically.   Over and over again, our calling is being challenged, and I find it  transformative.

Our neo-Pagan tmodels of leadership, as I have seen over my twenty years of being on the path, first as solitary and then as a coven member, coven leader and now organizer of NYC Pagan Pride, evolved from the role of Priest/ess, and not from the role of minister.   There is a big difference in my mind, although often they may seem to overlap. Calling is at the root of it.  Paganism’s strength, as well as its weakness, is that we are all engaged in a never-ending  process of priest/ess-hood. But we seldom talk of that priest/priestess- hood as a calling.

On many levels our “priesthood of all believers”  is good- the ways in which one individual can contribute to our vast and anarchic  community are as unlimited as the talents and inclinations of individuals in that community. For some that may mean “Big Name Pagan” activities- such as writing books, teaching public classes, starting temples, or, on the grass roots level, leadership in community gatherings and efforts to contribute to inter-faith and other justice issues that have their impact in the wider world outside our community. For others, just leading a coven, volunteering, or  counsel people with divination is enough.

In seminary, we devote a whole year to what is known as ministerial formation- what is the true nature of your calling? What should you know about your calling?  Through a variety of means- internships and group discussion, analysis of leadership models, and critical thinking about everything from ministerial ethics to self-care, we are challenged to take our unique  urge to serve and turn it into a vast tool-kit of self-knowledge.

I have the luxury of engaging in this process because I am here and paying for it.  I am learning to become, in effect, a minister- no matter what my career path after seminary might eventually be.  As I have learned from joining the Unitarian Universalist denomation, organizational standards help to create ministers.  A desire to lead, teach, and be out there in our community of priests is a wonderful thing.  But it does not always lead to the creation of ministers- to those who are serving. In our community, the Big Name Pagans (a term I also hate!)  become our models of leadership. But those who become leaders in our community are leaders for a variety of reasons and ways. In short: their calling might not be our calling. We may decide to become ministers, and not priests. To be chaplains,  and not writers.  To teach liturgy,  but not magic. To be artisans, and offer ministry through music, art, or dance.  To be a liturgist in a community of six, rather than an author who reaches the entire community with well-written, inspiring books.

As a whole, our neo-Pagan theology has done extremely well in dreaming our culture into being.  It can be argued that over the past century earth-centered theology has moved from an “underground” practice to a foreground faith practice- with its own set of theologians, leaders, and scholars who are busily engaged in defining our worldview and modeling what it means to be actively engaged as pagans in the world today- aware of the past, present, and future, and committed to the long haul. This is big, exciting leap into an often hostile world- a leap that comes with the assumption that our entire theology, community, and being has something to add to the world, and has its impulse in the Unseen.  If not for the healing of ourselves and the world, then why engage in the path of a priest/ess at all?

But we are still catching up in our efforts to create forums that can apply that theology to the needs and traumas of life through the quiet ministerial skills of chaplaincy, life-span religious education, and other modes of service.  Thank the God/dess for schools like Cherry Hill Seminary and other places that are leading the vanguard in this direction; at Cherry Hill and other places, we will to formulate our own stands of ministerial formation. This is not to say that you must have an academic degree of any kind to serve the pagan community effectively. What I am advocating here is a conscious effort to foster a sense of calling, and all the training and introspection that comes with it, in our community. This can be done in any number of ways – but most of all, it should come through our leaders and teachers who are in a position to “hand down” our theology  to the generations that come after.

We may cringe, and I think rightly so, at the idea of “Big Name Pagans” . The implication is that there is a separation of worth between those whose priestly efforts, whose individual callings, have gained them fame in our community, and those whose efforts have not.  Some of us, it is implied, have “made it” with our need to contribute to our community, and some have not. Maybe what we need, instead of labels, is to take a page from another religious tradition and start towards developing a pagan flavored set of skills- the set of skills necessary to discern and formulate an authentic, richly endowed calling.

Invocation: A Pagan Chaplaincy Perspective

Invocation

I call to the  Shaman who travels between the worlds.  To the Witch who bends and shapes the energy of nature.  To the Herbalist who uses the power of plants. To the men and women of boldness within the Unitarian Universalist tradition who crafted a progressive, inclusive faith from two heresies.  To those who find their Gods living in everything and everywhere. I call to technicians of ecstasy, to  the seers and the storytellers.

But to patients, I am none of those things.

Would you like to pray together?”

“Yes, I would. Thank you, I would.”

“What would you like me to include in the prayer?”

“Just to pray to Jesus that I get well and that this biopsy does not give me any pain.”

“Sure we can do that…”

This conversation happens to me multiple times a week as I engage patients on the floors of Mt. Sinai Hospital.  Although our time together may result in peace for the patient, it does not always result in peace for me. As a member of a minority religious group in the United States that turns towards many faces for God/ess and not just one, sometimes scenes like this are not quiet moments.  How canI engage theologically with the work of the chaplain, to engage people who have very different theologies than mine? I am Wiccan High Priestess of 11 years’ experience, a pagan for 21 years, and I am Unitarian Universalist.  I may not share my patient’s specific beliefs.  But I certainly share their humanity.

Shared humanity is the most important part of this work. I may not address the Divine the same way you do when I encounter my own suffering, but I can address the divine in you and coax it out so that it can be a comfort to you.   When your family members surround you with looks of concern or even tears, I may not be able to conjure hope from your doctors, but I can stand there with you when you step into spaces of suffocating pain.

When I mentioned to a seminary colleague that that I was interested in doing a unit of CPE, She said to me that the job of a chaplain is to see people when they are in the pits of despair- not necessarily to pull them out of it, because often that is beyond your control- but to stay there with them in that pit.   I have found this to be an apt description.

I call to the Shaman who travels between the worlds.  The Witch who bends and shapes the energy of nature.  The Herbalist who uses the power of plants. To the men and women of boldness within the Unitarian Universalist tradition who crafted a progressive, inclusive faith from charges of two heresies.  To those who find their Gods living in everything and everywhere. I call to technicians of ecstasy, to  the Seers and the storytellers

As a chaplain intern, I am all of those things. But then, I am none of those things. I am something different.

I am a midwife of the Sacred. That is my calling as High Priestess, and that was the calling of my matron Goddess, Brighid. So beloved of the Irish as a Goddess, she transitioned into becoming a saint, and was spoken of as the Midwife of Christ – a healer, a bard, an artisan. I have felt her presence in my life strongly- but never before have I connected to her as healing goddess, except for her ability to heal and comfort me. But now I am humbly asking her to make me like her- a midwife of the sacred. A helper and a healer.

But what is the sacred? Is it just a beautiful moonlit night, dancing with my brothers and sisters with our feet bear to the earth as we revel in the rhythms of nature?  Is it the harvest, the celebration of our toil and talents, presented with pride? Is it the sacred wisdom of the ancestors themselves, whether of spirit or blood, whom we honor with offerings or remembrance? I it even at the rites of passage we create for ourselves – the mystery of stepping into our power as practioners- the secrets we hold to our hearts, the lineage of mystery traditions going back millennia?

During the holiday year, I am aware of loss and renewal as it is ritually expressed in my small congregation through attunement to cycles of fertility and decay. This is our notion of the Sacred.

But the Holy does not just get birthed at these sacred times of the year. Nor does it contain itself to observances in mosques, synagogues, and churches.  The Holy must be birthed in any place where there is struggle. It is in these places that midwives of the sacred, whatever their religion (or gender) must go.

The struggles we have with our training are uniquely our own. It would be a mistake for me to say that I always feel safe with peers or patients; sometimes I am confronted. Sometimes I am the one doing the confronting.  The point is not to feel 100% safe. Nature itself is not always pretty.  A seed may experience the fear of drowning in a strong rain, or feel the power of a wind carrying it away to soil that has uncertain purchase. But nevertheless, in this atmosphere of learning, where everyone is having similar experiences but differing perspectives, the alchemy of growth is occurring. We are all students, anchoring ourselves in our common humanity even as we are buffeted by suffering

.

I call to the Shaman who travels between the worlds.  The Witch who bends and shapes the energy of nature.  The Herbalist who uses the power of plants. To the men and women of boldness within the Unitarian Universalist tradition who crafted a progressive, inclusive, faith from two heresies.  To those who find their Gods living in everything and everywhere. I speak to technicians of ecstasy, to the Seers and the Storytellers. I call to them,  for they, too, have been wounded.

I come from a wounded community.  Some of us cannot tell our families or the world what we believe. Custody battles, teenagers committing suicide, prison inmates who cannot get the religious support they need because even though we are the most ancient of faiths, no one recognizes us. I come from a wounded community. I serve that community, but I have learned this summer that there are more wounds to serve  than ours, and I have learned some of the skills necessary to serve them. I have come to know how diverse the wounds of this world are.

I call to those shamans, witches, herbalists, prophetic voices, heretics,  shape-shifters, seers and storytellers. I call to them and in calling I bless them, for their voices whisper in my heart. I call to them, for it their power grows in my soul. I call to them and bless the, for their struggle is my own. I am all of them, and I am none of them. I invoke them. I invoke  you, Midwife of the Sacred.

Midwife of the Sacred: Reflections of a Pagan Hospital Chaplain (Intern) in a Monotheistic World

“Would you like to pray together?”

“Yes, I would. Thank you, I would”

“What would you like me to include in the prayer”

“Just to pray to Jesus that I get well and that this biopsy does not give me any pain”

“Sure we can do that…”

This conversation happens to me multiple times a week as I engage patients on the floors of Mt. Sinai Hospital.  Although our time together may result in peace for the patient, it does not always result in peace for me. As a member of a minority religious group in the United States that turns towards many faces for God/ess and not just one, sometimes scenes like this are not quiet moments.  How canI engage theologically with the work of the chaplain, to be a midwife of the sacred, as I think of myself, while engaging people who have very different theologies than mine? I am Wiccan High Priestess of 11 years’ experience, a pagan for 21 years, and I am Unitarian Universalist.  I often do not share my patient’s specific beliefs.  But I certainly share their humanity.

Shared humanity is the most important part of this work. I may not address the Divine the same way you do when I encounter my own suffering, but I can address the divine in you and coax it out so that it can be a comfort to you.  When your family members surround you with looks of concern even tears, I may not be able to conjure hope from your doctors, but I can stand there with you when you step into spaces of suffocating pain.

When I mentioned to a seminary colleague that that I was interested in doing a unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), said to me that the job of a chaplain is to see people when they are in the pits of despair- not  necessarily to  pull them out of it, because often that is beyond your control, but to stay there with them in that pit.   I have found this to be an apt description.

I am used to being a midwife of the sacred. I am a Priestess.  My training in is to create sacred space, to honor my Other Worldly Allies, and to attune myself to the cycles of the year. At Samhain (October 31) we remember those who have passed, and our pain in losing them. At Beltane (May 1)  another major Pagan holiday, we celebrate the glory of renewal and spring. At these sacred times, I am aware of the polar opposites of loss and renewal as it is ritually expressed in  my small congregation.

But the Holy does not just get birthed at these sacred times of the year. Nor does it contain itself to observances in mosques, synagogues, and churches.  The Holy must be birthed in any place where there is struggle. It is in these places that midwives of the sacred must also go.

The  labyrinth that I must tread along with the help of the diverse population of CPE students- Catholic priests, Rabbis in training, Hindu nuns, and Pastors is a winding one. We all come from disparate perspectives, we each have our own “growing edges”.  The struggles we have with our training are uniquely our own. It would be a mistake for me to say that I always feel safe with them; sometimes I am confronted by them, sometimes I am the one doing the confronting.  The point is not to feel 100% safe. Nature itself is not always pretty.  A seed may experience the fear of drowning in a strong rain, or feel the power of a wind carrying it away to soil that has uncertain purchase. But nevertheless, in this atmosphere of learning, where everyone is having similar experiences but differing perspectives, the alchemy of growth is occurring. We are anchoring ourselves in our common humanity even as we are buffeted by suffering.

One way I have been able to ground and connect to my patients is to connect to breath. Both when I talk to patients and when I am in between patients, breath is key. At the beginning of my chaplaincy experience, I was impossibly shy. Imagine walking into rooms multiple times a day and introducing yourself to complete strangers. Not always easy even for the most socially adjusted person. Not imagine that you must introduce yourself not just to them, but to their physical pain, their family dynamics, the socio-economic condition in which they find themselves, and perhaps even their addictions. I found myself struck with the miasma of anxiety that would follow me even when I was not physically present with patients. This is the kind of anxiety that I would feel physically as kind of cloak on my heart. I found that there was a specific exercise, which I would recommend to both Chaplains and patients that could alleviate this problem. It is a simple practice known to many people who practice meditation- directing one’s breath.

Simply start by sitting comfortably. Allow your eyes to gently close, and begin to take nice rhythmic breaths. Inhale for three counts, hold your breath for three counts, and exhale. Allow yourself to become more and more relaxed. As you do this, notice the places your anxiety manifests itself within your body.  Allow your consciousness to experience that anxiety for a while, but objectively. Try to just experience where and how it feels, rather than what is the cause. If it helps to still your thoughts, call to your mind a color. In work related to the chakra centers of the body (chakras, of course, are borrowed from Yogic philosophy) colors are associated with different body parts. For example, the heart is associated with the color green, the spine with red, et cetera. Let’s say the anxiety you feel is in the heart. With your eyes close, and breathing in that rhythmic, conscious way, imagine that with each breath you take you are breathing in the color green, directing that breath into your heart. Imagine your lungs and heart filling up with green air. The light green air is cleansing and stabilizing that part of your heart. Now imagine with every exhale, you are breathing out smoke. Repeat this inhale/exhale exercise for at least 15 turns, or longer, depending on your need or time available. When you are ready, wiggle your toes and fingers and come back to full awareness. You can end this short meditation/breath work with any kind of prayer that feels meaningful to you.

Colors many have found useful to attribute to the chakras and body parts include:

Red: Spine (sometimes feet)

Orange (area two inches below the navel)

Yellow (two inches above the navel)

Green (the heart, or two inches to the left of the actual heart)

Sky Blue (the throat)

Indigo (the space between your eyes)

Purple (The crown of the head)

Of course, if these colors don’t work well for you, you can switch them around. For example, I personally often use blue for healing work, and my tradition often uses pink

More on my experiences of CPE later.

Aside

Bursting out of the Pagan Closet, Ethics in Hand…

Yesterday was “International Coming out Pagan Day”.  A day when, according to ICOPD, the all of us who want to affirm our membership in the neo-Pagan movement. I did my part with my Facebook Status, and as a member of the NYC Pagan Pride Committee, I hope to contribute by making sure that our annual event, now in its twelfth year, is just as fabulous as ever

But some days- heck, I will say, every day, it can be hard to feel proud and pagan.  This is something I think about often when I consider the lack of a cohesive social ethic in our community, and this was especially brought home a few days ago when Peter Dybing, past First National Officer of Covenant of the Goddess, posted on his blog that he was no longer carrying out any public projects and/or speaking engagements. I have never met Mr. Dybing, but following his career on Facebook, his blog, and his leadership in COG, of which my coven is a member,  I was looking forward to hearing his perspective on community service and paganism..  But when he resigned from “public service” he indicated that he no longer believes that pagans are ready for service. I think he is correct- the majority of us are not. And I struggle daily with how “okay” this is.

Before you get into a tirade and name Starhawk and many other leaders who give their time to infusing a sense of service into their work via food drives, inter-faith work, support for those who face discrimination due to “coming out” ,chaplaincy, LGBTI rights, the environment, and many other expressions  of altruism, I am not talking about that kind of admirable and ongoing work. I am talking about the metaphysics of altruism. In the organization models that are put forth by the Reclaiming tradition, as I understand it, there is much metaphysical  theology of altruism that speaks to a reversal of all  dominating patriarchal systems that firmly place hierarchy at the center of the problem

But in our pagan culture today, I see precious little engagement in our cultural expression, our  literature, and our leadership on what neo-Paganism means to in the broader, global attempt to “repair the world.” Every religion attempts to answer, either in praxis or in theory or in both, the “big” questions. How does the way we neo-Pagans answer these questions our participation in the remediation of suffering around the world? What do we hope to contribute? Or do we really need to contribute anything at all?

In this blog, I hope to produce a series of reflections on this issue  which I hope will be the core of something I will call “neo-Pagan ethics.” I invite any and all thoughts, complaints, comments, and links to resources to help me on this quest- so long as they remain civil!

Yours in proud paganism,

Abundant Spring: A Pagan Nature Walk

To these I will teach things that are yet unknown…

Yesterday on a perfect Saturday afternoon, a circle of acquaintances  met at Inwood Hills Park. This event was planned more than two months ago by myself and two other friends- Joanna and Peter.  It was our intention to start a Pagan Environmental Action Committee of sorts.  We want to weave together  volunteerism, knowledge, activism, and spirituality in such a way as to revive earth consciousness amongst the pagans we know.  My friend Peter was our guide to the edible plants in the park. An enthusiastic amateur, but you would never guess it from his never-ending store of knowledge.

It was a smashing success, as  you can see from these photos of the event.

I was stupid not to take notes; there was so many plants and the sun was so bright I was figured I would absorb knowledge through osmosis. But I CAN tell you what makes a mean substitute for rhubarb and what mugwort looks like!

I apologize for not having more- my uploader here in wordpress refuses to right the photos in the proper perspective.

I got excited about the prospect of doing this group because I have felt for many months that the key to what bothers me about pagan practice is that the sensuousness of pagan culture has overtaken the philosophy of it. By that I mean that pagans are often so enmeshed in creating pagan culture, ritual, and lore, that they sometimes lose sight of pagan values, morals, and theology and how to put them into practice. I think this is understandable enough the culture around us does not welcome the kind of practice we have. We are a people embedded in an “over” culture.  But this is not an issue. Our own traditions are replete with liturgists, bards, artisans, priests and priestesses, even kitchen magicians; we’ve wrought a space  “to be” for ourselves with the gifts we each have.  This is not to say that there are no activist pagans. There are many individuals, past and present, that fulfill this role- too numerous to mention. What I would like to see, however, is collective action that is “pan” pagan in outlook and urban in flavor. My hope is that  you will be moved to be a part of this experiment as it evolves into the future.

Samhain Night- A Poem for all who have touched (or been touched by) Strangers’ Gate Coven

On the Occasion of the 10th Anniversary of Strangers’ Gate Coven

Oh, I am home tonight
Under the moon I am truly home
Where the wind rips the leaves and they scatter, trembling
Across a cold stone street,
I am at home.

When a tawny river arcs across the sky,
And stars find their light
When a predator awakens,
Hunting in the night
I am home

Is there a wave seeking its mate?
Caressing a willing shore?
Then I am there- the lonely conjurer-
Stalking the ancient lore.

Is there a spark or a screaming fire
Gathered in a wood-
Or a shadow made by an outstretched hand-
Drawing close her hood?

Oh the circle, it calls to me,
By the name my coven knows,
And we gather together, to make sacred space-
In a time that is not time- In a place that is not a place.

Oh, We are home tonight,
Turning the Sacred wheel
Lifting the Veil Invisible,
Dancing the Dance,
That sings to our blood.

Oh, I am home tonight.

Hosea 11: 1-12 reimagined as Gaia speaking to her children

I did this for Old Testament class. I love writing poetry, so I enjoyed the assignment, which was to re-write a prophetic text to respond to a modern issue.

Valerie Freseman
OT 101: Hosea 11:1-12
(An extended lament/prophecy of the Earth/Nature to those who refuse to stop global warming….)

When humankind was but a child,
I loved him,
Out of the caves I called him, to suckle on my breast,
I imbued him with speech and free will,
But the more I loved him
The more He went from me,
He made sacrifices to creations that were false and His alone,
He offered his soul to that which makes waste, pollution and smog.

Yet I was the one who taught Ephraim to gaze at the stars at night,
I led  him into forests and besides oceans and within the meadows so that
He could be still, dream, and listen.
But he did not know that by this I had healed him.
I told to feel the soil with his hands, and to till it with care.
I was to him like those
Who teach children at their knee
I leD him to the places where he could behold creation’s wonder.

He shall return to the land of unknowing,
And hunger, cold, and sickness shall be His king,
Because He has refused to preserve me, His mother.
Oil, and Gas, and Coal, and Nuclear power pour forth sickness in His cities
They consume His leaders with greed,
and devour Him because He has forgotten me in His desire for comfort.
He is bent on His own convenience above all other concerns,
He has fogotten his brothers and sisters that I put in his care, the animals and the plants.
To me, their mother, He assigns blame for tumult; truly, I will not raise him up.
But Oh, how can I forsake my Son?
How can I hand you over to your barren soul?
How can I make you like the fossils of the deep-
How can I treat you like that which lies forever rotting in the earth?
My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy human kind,
For I am Mother-God-and no mortal,
Gaia in your midst,
And I will not come in wrath.
He shall go after She who shakes ash from the heavens,
Who trembles and shakes the earth like a Serpent.
And when She moves, Her children shall come trembling from the West,
They shall come, repentant and sorrowful
like snow from the mountains, melting to water and rushing back to the ocean,
Like flowers on the trees, budding forth to adorn Me in the Spring.

Greed has surrounded my waters and my soil with corruption,
And Humankind with the seeds of its own destruction,
But those who hear my call still walk righteously upon me, if they walk softly..
And are faithful to the Holy One.

Green Umbrella at Columbia University

the umbrella of all things green in NYC & on Columbia's campus

Valerie Freseman @ Sparks on the Water

A blog by life, magic, poetry, justice, environmentalism, Paganism and Unitarian Universalism.

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