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. One such community is the Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism group (the 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.

Do you enjoy my writing or want to support this vision? Consider joining me on Patreon.

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Soul of the World

A prayer I wrote to Hekate in 2009, which has popped up again through social media so I am sharing it with you here.

My relationship with Hekate has shifted in recent years, as relationships tend to do. She was my first – the first deity that I felt a true kinship with, the first deity that I made a dedication to. I joke that we are old friends, content in our relationship, sometimes not speaking for lengths of time but knowing the other is always present.

This is partially a result of growth in my practice, as contradictory as some people may find that. As my polytheism grows in complexity and nuance, and as my work in Tantra and my relationship with Kali Maa deepens, duality starts to blur and the lines between “hard” and “soft” no longer seem as fixed.

Hekate Soteira, the World Soul, is the one who truly started me down the path I am on, or perhaps She is the one I first recognized as calling to me in recognition of my path. As such our connection will never be taken for granted. Io Hekate!

Soul of the World
Ancient One,
You who were created from darkness,
born from the womb of nothingness
Hekate, Mostly Lovely One,
to You I pray.

Guardian of Crossroads
You who sees what came before, what is, and what lies ahead
Propolos, guide me on my path.

Keeper of the Keys
Protectress of the ancient wisdom
I pray to thee, as your daughter
Most Magnificent Goddess
Phosporous One, bare your torch for me.

Through you, I face my fears
Guiding me into ever greater depths,
until you stand with me at the final mystery.

Hekate Soteira
Goddess, Savior
It is in honor of you that I pray.

written by Syren Nagakyrie
Please do not share or reproduce without credit
Samhaintide 2009

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Hekate Altar by Syren circa 2015

The BIG Polytheist Patreon Creator Pledge Network

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Image by Danica Swanson

I have taken the BIG (basic income guarantee) Polytheist Patreon Creator Pledge !

The what?! 🙂

Its a pledge network created by Danica Swanson, as inspired by Scott Santens. Both Danica and I have been supporters and advocates for an unconditional basic income for many years. We all suffer under the protestant work ethic and the requirement to conscript our time in the service of capital. As a polytheist creator and community builder, I would much rather offer my time in service to creativity,  devotion, and community. And I think our world could be vastly improved if more people were able to offer their time to the things that most call to their own hearts! What could you do if you knew you were guaranteed to receive an income every month, enough to meet at least part of your basic needs?

Of course, a socially provided basic income is probably a long way off in the US. But we are seeing movement in that direction, and Patreon is a step! Community support of creators through providing us a guaranteed income every month allows us to meet some of our basic needs. Every hour you ‘purchase’ for us is an hour we do not have to sell to capitalism; it is an hour we can spend to bring the world the work of our hearts.

I have pledged that every dollar above US $1000 per month will be pledged to other polytheists on Patreon who make the same commitment to limit their patronage goal in support of a basic income for all. 

It is my hope that through this pledge network we can not only raise awareness about basic income, but help more polytheists receive the support that they need. This will enrich our communities and help shift the often-unspoken expectation that we offer our work and service for free.

If you are a polytheist or animist on Patreon and would like to take the same pledge, contact Danica at shrine.of.skadi at Google mail.  Curious to learn more? Check out her page here .

Hekate Festival, Want to Work with Me?, and other Exciting Updates

But first, the not-so-exciting news is that 3 weeks ago I injured one of the ligaments in my knee. The orthopedic says 2-3 months recovery time, but being witches and all my goal is to shorten that considerably. Help visualize me up and walking around, fully healed?

Because of this I had to postpone the Community Ritual of Grieving that I had planned for tonight. It really pained me to have to do so, but I knew that I would not be ready to hold the container of such a ritual yet. The mark of a good priest is knowing your limitations and when the responsible thing to do is take a step back, so that is what I did. I’ll reschedule it as soon as I feel able to do so. In the meantime I did publish an embodied grief practice to access your grief.

I was also unable to raise the funds to go on my pilgrimage to India. I have been invited to join a training program with the mandir, which I have started. It is opening my heart wider to Maa and giving me the container I wanted for my studies. If you would like to donate to help fund my training, you can continue to do so at my fundraiser.

Some other exciting opportunities: given that I’m laid up for a little while, I have considerably more time available. I have now opened my schedule to take on more clients. I specialize in working with Pagans, Polytheists, cultural change makers, and those who struggle with ways of doing things that are enforced by capitalism and the dominant paradigm.

I am available for contract work for:
– bookkeeping or accounting (its getting to be the end of the year!)
– nonprofit formation and strategic planning (you don’t really want to write those bylaws yourself, do you? Stuck on how to move the org forward?)
– Grant writing and fundraising (I’ve written small private foundation and million dollar Federal grants, and doubled the budget of an organization through fundraising)
– Organization, Coaching, and Make Shit Happen Magic ™ (Got a project or something you’re trying to make happen? Overwhelmed by all the Things? I’ve got the skills and the magic to get it done.)

And something I am personally very excited about: I will be teaching on the intersections of polytheism and social justice at A Magic Big Enough a festival calling upon Hekate Soteira to make magic big enough to heal the world. We’ll be gathering November 11-13 near Duvall, Washington. I am so honored to be invited to participate in this weekend of magic being organized by the Wyrd Sisters. Hekate is and will always be my First Love, the One who guided me home, the One who first asked me to be of service in healing the world. This is my offering to Her. Io Hekate!

Many Gods West is also moving along with a great team, and we’ve announced dates and location: August 4-6, 2017 at the Hotel RL in Olympia WA. Our website will be updated very soon!

Gods&Radicals is publishing our first book by one of the site writers: Pagan Anarchism. Check it out, even if its just to ogle the cover art. We are also still accepting submissions for the next edition our journal, A Beautiful Resistance.

That’s all for now! I hope you are all managing well as this really difficult year comes to a close.

If you would like to support this blog and my work in the world, which I often offer as a gift, you can find me on Patreon.

My Polytheism

My polytheism was born in the innocent, rebellious heart of a child. My polytheism was found in moonlight, was found in the air thick with moisture and meaning, was found not in resistance to the stares of God-the-Father, but in the imploring look of Mary-the-Mother. My polytheism was found in the awakening of memories and the voice urging me to “look just behind my eyes.”

My polytheism roots into the dark and fecund earth, finding place in the deep and silent places. It rises into the stars, casting itself into the universe that spins just as I do. My polytheism needs no authority, including the authority of the gods, and reminds me of the power that I hold in equal measure.

My polytheism is fierce and bloody. It is the wild dance that shakes time itself. It is the howling of black dogs at midnight. My polytheism cannot be contained and will shred any attempt at doing so. Just as you think you know what it is, it sheds its skin again.

My polytheism is devotional and ecstatic. I build shrines. I offer prayers. I perform ceremony. I speak with them as I would a lover – though they are not always or only that. My relationships with my gods are intensely intimate and born of great longing. In that I listen to their voices before those of any human claiming authority over my practice, I do put my gods first. My relationships with the gods is no one else’s business, unless I invite you in.

My polytheism is my heart reaching for what my arms could never hold.

My polytheism is engaged with the world. My gods do not want me to limit my polytheism to practice in front of a small shrine, or even to remembering them as I remember my own breath. My polytheism cannot turn from injustice any more than it could turn from the gods and still call itself polytheism.

My polytheism is as my witchcraft, my gods the gods of the oppressed and common people. My gods have opened my eyes again and again and again to the way that devotion must be followed with action, and is meaningless otherwise. They have opened my eyes again and again and again to the sources of power and the ways that those who seek to oppress the people wield and abuse it. They have opened my heart again and again and again to the most marginalized, to those who are pushed to the fringes of society – for the gods are most certainly there too.

Turn your eyes inward. Turn your heart outward. Put your hands to work. Liberate the people. Only then will they be able to turn themselves toward devotion.

My polytheism rejoices in community. It demands a community of people who are free of the tyranny of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. It does not demand to tell you how to be free, but it is willing to help you find the way. My polytheism seeks to build a community of connection. You are welcome, but you are not obligated. You do not need us to pursue your own path, but we are here if you want to sit around the fire.

My polytheism embraces paradox, lives in the multitude. It knows that it is but one piece, one star, amongst an infinite number of possibilities. It is the drop of water that represents the ocean, but is not all of the ocean.

My polytheism is mine, and my gods’, and it doesn’t belong to you. But if you show it the respect due a relationship, it will open its arms to you as friend.

Initiations of Ash

The man placed a line of gray ash from the sacred firepit upon my forehead, above the bright sindoor red bindi he had marked me with in Kali’s temple. I felt a shudder of energy release memories of past and future; a layer of old self replaced by a new layer of meaning. There was fire behind my eyes, gray of ash and red of blood. In that instant the gravity of the experience I had just received in the temple, the shrines I had visited marking patterns of a deeper mystery, began to transform me.

* * *

She came roaring in a cloud of ash, bright flashing blade and lolling tongue. Slice, chop, red palms to hungry skulls, CRACK. Here, my child, You Are.

* * *

The boat was rocking so softly as I took my place on the very edge, toes just touching the surface of the water; green-gray that seemed to taste extra salty. Or perhaps that was the tears trapped on my tongue. I plunged my hand into the depths of the black container, pulling out a grasp of the ashen remains of my sister’s body. My hand began to tingle as energy spread across it and up my arm. With a silent prayer I stretched out my arm and released, the ashes falling from my hand and spreading in a cloud in the water. I looked at my hand – it no longer felt like my own. It felt lighter, possessed of something holy and yet weighted by a mass defying it’s size.

Again. Plunge into the plastic, a handful of grains and chips of bone, release. The boat jumped slightly as wind and wave shifted, and the ash blew back into my face. Forehead, nose, lips – the graininess of salt and ash, borne on a gentle caress of wind. Again I felt the shudder, and the energy in my hand surged through my body and blasted through my new layers of meaning as freshly healed skin tender to the touch of it. I felt my crown open as my vision doubled, tripled, became clearer.

Now you see.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about initiation lately. The experiences I told you of here all happened within the span of about a month, this year. I’m also studying another initiatory tradition, and rolling that around has been an interesting exercise around my views on power and authority.

I’ve never really wanted initiation by a teacher (though I have craved the devotional relationship of student-teacher – but that is another post). The tradition I studied under the longest was non-initiatory, though I was given the blessing of self-initiation and acknowledgment as priestess.

But that isn’t to say I’ve never been initiated.

How could these experiences not be initiations? What if initiation is not only a single act, bestowed upon us by another supposedly (hopefully) with the support of the Gods? And what contextualization do we have for these experiences, let alone what support? I’ve struggled to feel comfortable discussing some of these experiences and to be taken seriously, and that struggle has really illuminated the places where initiation is tied to power and authority.

For me, being a priestess is who I am. It is how I walk in the world. It is in my actions and my way of being. It isn’t about holding power over others, dictating meaning or relationships with the Divine. It isn’t about being in service to any one or any thing either, though it is about being of service. It does mean an awful lot of work and sacrifice and looking at things that sometimes I would really just rather not.

It is going to the places unseen, doing the work that needs doing, and bringing it back out into the world. It is walking in cremation grounds, those places where people dare not go, and receiving the ashes.

“A healthy Priest makes all things sound.” Francesca DeGrandis

If I am a god, in relationship with other gods (embodied and not), then where do initiations come from? And if a God should deliver an initiation to me without an intermediary, how is that somehow ‘less valid’?

Ultimately for me, it comes down to the most important questions of all: how do you walk in the world? How are you of service? Do you live with integrity and accountability? Are you willing to show up and do the hard work? Will you thrust your hand into the ash and do what needs done?

If so, you have very likely undergone many of your own initiations, whether through the hands of another or the hands of the Gods.

Building Polytheist Community: You Might Be Doing it Wrong

This past weekend was the second year of Many Gods West. As one of the conference organizers, I am still recovering from the last 11 months and so find myself unable to put words to my experiences just yet. I am planning to write a blog post about exactly what goes in to putting on a conference for Polytheists, Witches, and Pagans. We don’t talk about it too much and I think our communities should be able to see what goes on behind the scenes so that there is more awareness about how hard organizers work and just how much we wish we could do things like pay presenters. I would also love to see MGW East, Midwest, etc and sharing our experiences is helpful for those who want to try to do this thing. =)

As I wrote in my last post, I was also a part of the plenary panel on building polytheist community. I took the opportunity to hop on a soapbox and say some things that I really felt needed to be said. Here it is:

How do we build Polytheist community? First I want to start off with this:

We don’t build it by allowing people to attack members of our community in such a way that threatens their physical, emotional, spiritual, or financial safety. That especially includes attacks by people who are supposedly also a member of our community. If you hold some degree of privilege or position and there is nothing stopping you from standing up to such behavior that would also put you at risk and you still choose not to address it in some way, at the very least by offering support to the one being attacked, and then try to talk of community, you are being very hypocritical. And I say that in the most loving way possible, but there is an increasing amount of behavior I see happening that is hurting people and driving wedges into our communities.

And yes, sometimes addressing it does not mean making grand public displays, and we can do this while holding compassion. But there is far too much turning the other way, hoping it will just go away, lets just let them get bored and slink away until the next time. As a community builder I take this personally, because it counters everything I do and makes it that much harder. We have to be brave and willing to stare the dark, vicious, scarred parts of ourselves and our community in the eye. I also think we need many more opportunities to learn and employ tools of restorative justice.

I want to add and clarify that this applies to not only individual, interpersonal actions but also to those who use our traditions to promote bigotry and fascist ideologies.

I am working on getting the rest of my notes together into a more coherent article and will publish it here or on Gods&Radicals when it is finished.

I changed my plans for the Community Ritual of Grieving over the weekend. I recognized that it would not have been safe or responsible for me to hold a big cathartic ritual on Sunday given how tired I was, and it seemed like a lot of people were feeling “ritualed out”. Instead I facilitated a grief circle; it was so deeply moving and beautiful, I think that perhaps it was what was needed all along. The feedback I’ve received is confirmation of the deep healing potential of having our grief held and witnessed in community, and that we really do need more of these spaces. So I will be offering more of such things in the future.

I also want to say thank you to everyone who helped make Many Gods West 2016 such a success, and to everyone who has helped hold and support me during this very difficult year. You have my unending love and gratitude. I am very much looking forward to taking some down time to Just Be, and then jumping back in to co-creating more amazing things with you all.

Would you like to support my work in the community? Consider joining me on Patreon. Your financial support helps make it possible for me to offer my work to others.