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.

5 comments on “Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism (and me?)

  1. Woods Wizard says:

    I think the reason we won’t see stable monastic Pagan orders, at least in our lifetimes, is that truly no man (or woman) is an island. The Carmelite sisters could not exist without the financial might of the Catholic Church. It is that institution that provides them with stability. I doubt any other religion has that kind of financial power.

    Another reason we may not see a monastic Polytheist order is that our Deities may not want to us shut ourselves away from the world. Perhaps Poppy Palin said it best in Craft of the Wild Witch. When we take on a patron Goddess or God, we make a promise. We do not promise to worship necessarily, but we do promise, as fellow sentient beings, that “we will express their will, their way and their wisdom to the world. We are incarnate and they are not. We can make manifest change while they are not able to express themselves in a way considered substantial. We have the means of making a difference while on Earth while they may be given little credence in the modern frame of reference.”

    Continuing her line of reasoning, “They have that which is most valuable to us: greater access to truths, to that which is hidden to our mortal eyes at present.” Unlike the Christian God, what value to Them is it to give that access to someone shut away from the world, unable to manifest Their will?

    • Adrian says:

      Thanks for your reply, as always. It is an interesting question about what our deities want us to do – that’s always a crucial part of the equation, isn’t it?

  2. Woods Wizard says:

    Forgot to check the follow check box…

  3. Lady Di says:

    My understanding is that convents and monasteries are self-sustaining enterprises, not dependent on the Catholic Church as such (though they may receive donations from Catholic congregations and individual congregants). That’s why you see monasteries start beer-brewing, honey-making, walking-stick carving, etc. businesses. In that sense, they aren’t so different from the communes of the ’60s and ’70s. Communities modeled on those still pop up not infrequently. In towns with colleges, they’re often described less threateningly as “cooperative living” ;). What Catholic monastic institutions do have is a working model for living, a living tradition that’s been handed down, and which you agree to live in accordance with. The establishment of a tradition to which a number of people would be willing to submit strikes me as a difficulty.

    • Adrian says:

      I don’t know the financial figures, but my observation of monastic communities is that they are heavily dependent on donations, both of money and of the time and skill of community members who provide everything from building repair to medical care on a pro-bono basis. Like the thousands of other Catholic organizations and orders, they are separate legal entities from the Church, but utterly enmeshed in the mutual support and charity culture of Catholics.

      I do understand your point about creation of the tradition, though. With my experience of pagans, it is difficult to imagine getting a dozen people together with a similar level of dedication to make such a community work.

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