Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism (and me?)

I recently discovered that there is a network of people who identify themselves as Pagan and Polytheist Monastics. It has forced me to confront some things within myself. I have to admit that on one level, there is an appeal to an ascetic religious life, while at the same time, there would be certain sacrifices I couldn’t contemplate and many complications in my current life that would entirely prevent me from making some of these life changes.

 

Let me back up a little bit. My sister is a member of the Discalced Carmelite order, which is a contemplative order within the Roman Catholic Church. She lives in a monastery with a small community of women (it has varied roughly between 8 and 15 while she has been there. Structurally, it is not meant to be much more than 20 at that location.)

When she joined this order, it was a huge shock to our family. She was a college graduate with a successful career who had lived independently for years. We all knew she had become increasingly religious, and it wasn’t even a great surprise that she was considering becoming a nun. It was the specifics of her adoption of a monastic, contemplative life that was a bit surprising.

When joining a Discalced Carmelite community, she renounced the outside world, and to a large extent, that also included our family. Through various levels of initiation she becomes engaged to, and then marries Christ. She does not leave the house/compound. We, as family members, can visit her, although only at pre-approved times, and the public rooms are always separated from the monastic rooms by bars. She is always on the inside and you are always on the outside.

She does not own anything personally, and is discouraged from keeping personal mementos. All resources belong to the community, including anything we may give to her with a personal meaning. The community is supported entirely by donations – of money as well as time, effort, and various goods. Repairs, yard work, and medical care are donated. Food is sent. They are well taken care of by an army of donors, volunteers and well-wishers.

She wears an outfit that fully covers her body except for her hands and face. I do not even know such simple facts about her as, for example, if her hair has turned gray. She did not take a vow of silence, but they practice silence for much of their day. They are focused on prayer.

Of course, the vows of chastity and obedience are also a part of the package. And she does not leave, with the occasional exception of trips for medical or order-related business matters. She does not visit family, not even for weddings, baptisms, or funerals. This is part of her vow.

Although I was the member of the family whose religious outlook had moved farthest away from our family’s Roman Catholic upbringing, I was the least upset by my sister’s choice. I supported her decision to follow her path, even if it led to some unconventional choices. And frankly, the decision must have worked for her. The monastery is not an environment where “faking it” works, and she has been there for over 25 years.

Her devotion to the Christian God is not my path. Her belief in the salvation and afterlife it promises is not my belief.

 

But when she was living as a young professional woman in late 20th century American materialistic consumerist culture, virtually every moment was a struggle to live according to her values and spirituality.

This is where I start to feel her tension, her urge to step away from the lives we live. We are bombarded with messages about what to buy and what to wear, how to pick up the newest gadget promising to be faster and more convenient. We’re constantly urged to sign up for this “game changer” service (as if we’re all somehow playing the same game). We hear about hot vacation spots and TV shows we need to be watching.

Meanwhile, finding space for deep thinking seems harder to find. We collect online “friends” but struggle to make true personal connections. No one thinks about the implications of our constant purchases of new gadgets and time-saving services. Compassion is a rare commodity. Insight seems hard to grasp. Wisdom will probably be no more than the brand name of an expensive organic juice that you buy in a plastic carton at the grocery store as of next week.

Although my tradition and beliefs are more “world embracing” than traditional Christianity, less prone to see humans as sinful, more accepting of a variety of spiritual paths, I completely understand the appeal of unplugging from the consumerist world and withdrawing into a community based on prayer, meditation, and mutual support.

But Pagan and Polytheist traditions don’t have such places to plug back in, like the Catholic Church does. The institutions that we have are fairly ad hoc and unstable. There’s no continuity to create an “order” like the Discalced Carmelites and nowhere for people to find those who would help others to create such institutions. Sure, maybe you could try to crowdfund something, but Pagans are rather infamously bad about giving money to support their religious communities.

I know that the Christian monastic traditions, starting with St. Benedict, were very much influenced by the Pagan Stoics of the ancient Greek and Roman world. That said, none of those earlier institutions or the social structures that supported them survived.

The desire to “unplug” and get away from the noise, greed, and distraction of our current culture is something more closely associated with the Hippy movement and communes of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Unhappily, few of those ideological movements and communities have had staying power.

 

I know Pagan intentional communities (the currently-favored terminology for such places) do exist, but they are hard to find, and I don’t have any sense of how many are well established communities versus being simply aspirational experiments. I have tried to research such places with very little luck, and I would love to learn more about them. In any case, Paganism and Polytheism are diverse movements and communities, so there would be no guarantee that any such community would be compatible with my own path. I am fascinated by this idea, though, and I may even find myself daydreaming a bit about living a simple life devoted to spiritual pursuit. For the moment, it doesn’t feel like it could be much more than that.