Modern Monasticism: a revolutionary vision

Modern Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism: a revolutionary vision

There are a growing number of people interested in a polytheistic monastic lifestyle, or at least growing awareness of it as a possibility. Many of these modern-day monastics lead a life in which devotion is present in every daily activity, service to others is considered service to the divine, and hours are spent in study, devotion, and contemplation rather than excessive socializing or other external activities.

I consider myself among those interested in creating this way of life and working toward building awareness and acceptance of it within western polytheism and modern culture. This lifestyle is a powerful resistance to American society; indeed, it goes against almost everything this culture values. I see four main areas of resistance in which a monastic lifestyle serves:

Resistance to the exploitation of time and labor
Our time is one of the most precious gifts that we have. Why should we spend it in service to lining the pockets of the wealthy, when we could spend it in service to the divine and each other? Our time is not a commodity to be traded and our labor does not determine our worth as human beings. Our existence, our innate divinity and connection with the divine, is sacrosanct. The monastic is not interested in accumulating unnecessary wealth, in owning more than is needed for basic needs, or in engaging in activities that do not support devotion and service. The monastic’s productive time and labor is committed to meeting their own and other’s basic needs to allow space to open for contemplation and devotion – no more and no less.

Resistance to the disenchantment of daily life
Our modern lifestyles leave little time for appreciation and connection with each other, the world around us, and the divine. Our power as creative beings in relation with a great web of existence is reduced to a few shallow moments that we can wring from the constant pressure to produce and do and go-go-go. This disenchantment, this disconnection from who we are, is the core of the systems that harm us. The monastic who steps back from the external pressure, finds joy in the simplicity of daily life, and re-enchants their days with deep contemplation and connection with beings human and divine holds a key to remembering our true selves. Like The Hermit card, they hang a lamp showing us the way.

Monastics bring enchantment back to the community. As devotionalists and frequent mystics, they serve a bridge between the mundane and the sacred, bringing the sacred into the every day and making every day sacred. Through their creativity and service, they make connection with the divine more readily available, and in contemplation they access deep truths and awareness.

Resistance to oppression and the devaluation of human beings
As Silence Maestas wrote in a post on devotional justice it is much more difficult for people facing threats to their existence to surrender to devotion. I have experienced this myself – while in, and recovering from, my abusive marriage, and while faced with the financial and housing instability that resulted from my divorce, surrender has been incredibly difficult. If we want more people to be able to lead spiritual lives, we have to make sure their basic needs and safety are met.

If one truly believes that all humans contain some spark or aspect of the divine, then anything that harms and oppresses humanity should be revolutionized. Those of us who place ourselves in service to the divine are also placing ourselves in service to humanity. Not only out of compassion for other humans, but out of love for deity.

Resistance to resource extraction from the earth
Many pagan monastics regard all parts of nature, moving and unmoving, as having their own unique spirit or to be a part of the divine. Just as we consider humans to be divine, so are all of the other beings on this planet. So, the monastic also aligns themselves with the earth and the beings of the place in which they live. The pagan monastic is often inclined to spend time in contemplative appreciation of the wild and natural world which we are a part of, and to protect and learn from those places.

The concept of extraction and exploitation is in stark contrast to the values of service and devotion; thus, the monastic practices an anti-capitalist resistance, though often without naming it that way. As such, this lifestyle is not easily accomplished in this society. There are many systemic barriers, external and internal. But the call to create a contemplative life firmly rooted in devotion and service is strong.

For myself, the past two years of trauma and insecurity has been clarifying and informative alongside terrifying; the ongoing process of shedding my old life, my old expectations, my old attachments has been difficult and painful. During this time that I have spent in relative solitude, I have experienced joy, contentment, and loneliness. But I realized that the loneliness is not new – being dependent upon an abusive husband and abusive wage labor jobs for security, caring about other peoples’ perceptions of me and my work, forcing myself to be productive when my spirit was screaming for time to just be, was in fact incredibly lonely and isolating. Upon realizing this, and the harm I was causing myself, I embraced my situation as an opportunity for healing and transformation. Yet, embracing the situation would have been impossibly difficult if it were not for the generosity of friends and strangers who provided support in many ways.

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As I allow this process to unfold, the call to live my most authentic life becomes stronger. A contemplative life of devotion and service is a life that feels right and good to me, a life that engages in as little harm as possible and is aligned with my values and connection with the earth. One of the things that I gained in coming out of an abusive relationship was an unwillingness to harbor abuse towards myself or abuse towards others. I cannot harbor blame against myself and I cannot willingly subject myself to something that I know will bring deep pain for minimal reward.

This too is not easy in our culture. The culture of the United States, so deeply rooted in capitalism and colonialism, is incredibly coercive and abusive. Wage labor is one of the most coercive aspects of capitalism: requiring us to be in service to capital or risk starvation. What do we lose, what potential does not get realized, while all of us are working ourselves to exhaustion in service to capital? That is not the practice of service I am here for. I am not here to bow to kings and capitalists.

Perhaps this is the result of being overly idealistic, mental health issues, or just my basic constitution (all of which have been “suggested” to me at some point). But I don’t think so. I think it is, as my friend Danica says much more eloquently, a revolt of the soul. Working a wage labor job feels like chaining my soul to everything that I don’t believe in. And while I recognize that I can bring my spiritual practice of devotion and service to everything that I do, including a wage labor job, experience has shown me again and again that the cost is too great. The cost to all of us is too great.

And yet, we still live in a capitalist society. There is no opting out, there is no freedom to choose; there is no true consent. So, what does this mean for someone like me, who wants to live a monastic lifestyle? How can I best move into this space of deepening into my truth and purpose and doing my true Work, while also meeting my basic needs within a society that puts a price tag on existence?

I’m most interested in creating a life in which wage labor is minimally necessary, if at all. The past year has certainly shown me that I can make do with far less than I thought I needed, that indeed I can be very happy by fulfilling my basic needs. Some food in my pack, water in my canteen, a warm dry place to come home to and a way to leave it when I’m ready, a source of communication with the rest of the world, my pen and notebook, my devotion, and my dog. That’s all.

So, what does the material foundation of a monastic life look like to me? It is pretty simple really:

  • Land that is my own/held in commons/conservation with other people
  • A small house or other structure
  • Labor focused on meeting needs, trade and service-oriented self-employment income to meet remaining needs, occasional supplementation with wage labor

I envision communities that are supportive of solitude and spiritual service, with access to a beautiful expanse of land, to be in a relationship of reciprocity with people and place.

In the interim, I am working on creating as much of this contemplative life of devotion and service as I can. I’m removing my own blocks and barriers to practice, feeling into where my service is most needed now, and opening to divine and ancestral guidance. I can only continue to flow where the current takes me, remaining hopeful that when it comes time to leap, Maa will open Her hand. I will continue to resist the conscription of my time, the chaining of my spirit to capitalism as much as I can.

I seek out support and community around these values. I am working on building a network of monastics through LANMIPP – the Loosely Affiliated Network of Monastically-inclined Polytheist Pagans (link to the public Facebook group). Another community is the Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism group (this Facebook group is currently set to “secret,” if you are interested in joining let me know). I also look to the work and friendship of Danica Swanson of the Black Stone Hermitage. I draw upon the Hindu tantric and bhakti traditions; as an initiate of Shakta Tantra, devotion to Kali Maa is the thread that weaves throughout my practice and draws me forward to awakening. There is a long history of monasticism, mysticism, and service to look to, even in the Western world. This desire is not new; indeed, there is evidence of people devoting themselves to spiritual service from the oldest of indigenous cultures. But as another wise hermit friend who practices Advaita Vedanta asked me, now that I have expressed this desire can I release it to the universe? That too is a part of the path.

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11 thoughts on “Modern Monasticism: a revolutionary vision

  1. A very interesting post! I really do feel drawn towards a contemplative polytheistic path – but how would we finance these livelihoods? Eek! There must be some way to make this available as an option for polytheists all over (so no one has to move ridiculous amounts) – while still keeping with the integrity of the movement! Maybe online shops?

    1. Syren Nagakyrie

      Its an important question! Online shops are certainly one option. The Sisters of the Valley, for example, have a successful online shop.

      Another option would be creating a retreat center, which many monastic communities offer. I question how long that will be viable as the cost of fossil fuels and thus travel increases, but if the immediate surrounding community was large and supportive enough I could see a monastic community being a valuable retreat for the local community.

      A community could also farm and produce other goods to sell to the community and tourists at markets.

      But there is no doubt that building the infrastructure and creating the material conditions to enable a monastic community to take root and flourish is an expensive endeavor, and lack of capital and other resources is a barrier many people face. A few groups may be lucky enough to receive a donation or land or property that allows them to get started, or some other infusion of capital.

      For now most of us struggle with this question and figure out what will work for us where we are – and I do think it has to be a locally based decision. What works up here in the Pacific Northwest may not work in the Southwest. But we can create as much of a monastic-oriented life as we can.

      1. Wow! Thank you for such a well thought out answer! You really laid out the options nice and clear, as well as thoroughly. The monastic gardening one tempts me the most, as well as running a small shop… how do you see the solitude/contemplative life of a monastic intersecting with a married life? I am married, hence the question, and feel myself being called to ‘priesthood’ to lead as well as write and create (hopefully!) well thought out theological material.

  2. Syren Nagakyrie

    The question about marriage and sexual relationships comes up a lot. One of the exciting things about creating these traditions within a modern pagan and polytheist context is that we get to decide what the stipulations are; being partnered or in a sexual relationship does not have to be taboo. There are nuns, for example, who are married and live with their families. Its an important consideration for women in particular, who so often bear the weight of the emotional and household labor. I think that as long as the spouse and family is supportive of a monastic lifestyle, it can intersect in really supportive ways.

  3. I can really relate to this vision and to monasticism as a form of spiritual revolt. As I’ve travelled further and deeper on my path of devotion to my patron god and the spriits of the land and the otherworlds I’ve found it harder and harder to reconcile my true work with working and socialising in the ‘real’ world. Quitting social media was an important step forward for me and I see that as a form of resistance. The only thing that might put me off referring to myself as monastic is that, as an awenydd, I see it as an important part of my path to share my creativity with the world whether that’s online or in public.

    I have long lamented the lack of help and advice for people in the Pagan community who are drawn to their path as a vocation that comes before having their own home, family, career etc. We have no nunneries or monasteries. I’m currently back living with my parents as it’s the only way I can survive at the moment and would love to be part of a monastic-style community living a devotional lifestyle with land to grow food on and maybe making money from selling crafts and brewing beer and leading pilgrimages of the locality etc. etc.

    1. Syren Nagakyrie

      Thanks for sharing this Lorna and thanks for the reblog!

      It is such a challenge. I too find myself in the difficult situation of figuring out how to survive so I can pursue my work. There aren’t too many options. And it is none the easier for lack of support within Pagan community.

      Response to this piece has been great and positive (for my small blog anyway) so that makes me hopeful that there is more of a desire for this lifestyle than I thought. Maybe pagan monasteries aren’t that far off!

      I also feel it is important to share my creativity – I’m not a Druid, but if I were I imagine the awenydd path would be mine also. I don’t see monasticism as contrary to sharing creativity with the world. It interests me in part because I would have more time to devote to creativity, and sharing it from a more centered place.

      In any case, I’m glad to hear from you and glad to know there is interest in this path on your lands too.

      1. I wonder if creativity is more intrinsically central to Paganism/Polytheism than it is to other religions in general?

        I recall one of my friends having to make the choice between taking deeper vows into Buddhism and his creativity and that he chose creativity. Also, the British Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was tormented by the fear his poetry would be viewed as sinful and he burned quite a lot of it and none of it was published in his lifetime.

        The reason I was drawn to Druidry and through it came to my awenydd path is that the Awen – poetic inspiration – is sacred and is the magical and spiritual core of the path. Creativity can thus be a devotional practice.

        I’m glad you’ve had some good responses to the post. I’d love to be part of the monastic group but find FB literally over-facing and soul destroying and believe it’s part of the reason other on-line spaces have died and people aren’t coming together physically as much anymore. I did ask Danica whether there’s a possibility of setting up a forum up off FB for other monastically inclined folk who can’t or won’t deal with it and she said she’d look into it. Do let me know if there are any developments.

      2. Syren Nagakyrie

        The approach different monastic traditions take to creativity sure is interesting. The common thread I can see is how ascetic the tradition is in relation to how devotional. The greater the asceticism the less likely they are to be accepting of creativity, but that is modulated by the degree of devotion in the tradition, the greater the devotional current the more likely creativity is accepted. Since paganism and polytheism are not ascetic as they are practiced now, and since there is a strong current of devotionalism (gods, spirit, place, trees, etc) I think it is more centrally accepted.

        There is an off FB forum in the works! I’m not sure how long it will be, but I’ll be sure to post about it here.

  4. well this is a brilliant post Lorna, I’m in this boat as well. I thought it would be interesting to mention the various rural pagan temple sites that appeared in Roman Britain through the private investment of the local villa owners, like the temple of Nodens and several others (the south west is where the core of them lie). They undoubtedly were part of a late pagan culture in Britain where pilgrimage to these holy sites was part of it. I like the idea of pilgrimages to old pagan sanctuaries in Britain, particularly ones that have been forgotten. Places of dreams and healing and connection with the earth that we all really need!

    1. Syren Nagakyrie

      I’m glad you liked it, Robin! Thanks for the compliment.
      Yes I think pilgrimage can be such a powerful experience. It would be nice to see pilgrimage become more supported in a western pagan context.

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