Update for November

I wanted to pass along some recent developments and upcoming events.

Fellowship of the Phoenix continues to be my biggest spiritual project. In many ways, we are still digesting our recent changes.

The most visible change from the outside is the opening our order to LGBTQ+ people of all gender identities, and that process has worked surprisingly well. A number of members who had questions and reservations about those changes have remained connected and are working through their own process of acceptance.

We’ve also been going through some internal structural changes that are less visible to those outside our organization. Some of the internal hierarchy has been dismantled, and hopefully this will free the channels of engagement. This has provided some challenges to me, as a leader within the group, as I figure out what my role is in the new structure, and as I help others to understand their own roles – and what opportunities the changes afford.

Ultimately, I think we’re on the right track, though, and I’m really pleased with the way we’re embracing changes. There seems to be more freedom and energy coming into the organization, and I hope this trend continues.

 

So, I want to share a few upcoming Fellowship of the Phoenix events. In Chicago, November 18th, we will have our ShadowDance event. One of our clergy members is Rev. Chris Allaun, who just had his second book come out on the subject of the Underworld and Ancestor work. He will be hosting a workshop on the topic and leading the ritual. As usual, it will be followed by a potluck.

More information is here:

ShadowDance 2017 – Chicago

 

Outside my role in Fellowship of the Phoenix, I am also taking some personal initiative to connect magical Queer people. I have created a Queer Magic Bazaar on November 16th.
From the event page:

“Queer Magic Bazaar is an event for Queer Magicians, Witches, Pagans, Occultists, and all those with interests in related topics.

This is a meetup for interested parties and a chance to make connections in our community. From beginners to adepts – be welcome to this gathering!

There will be vendors with magical items, divination, and other things you just may fancy.”

This is my first venture into creating this kind of event, so I’m hoping for a good response. There has been a lot of interest on Facebook, at least.

Queer Magic Bazaar

Divine Parents – Do we ever grow up?

Parents have a job that ends.

Unless something doesn’t go according to plan, and then sometimes a child may remain physically or mentally dependent on someone to care for their basic well-being. I can’t imagine any parent hopes for that kind of scenario. And, realistically, even that job ends eventually, even if it is by the death or disability of the parent, rather than the child growing out of the need.

Many young people, and even some who are not so young, speak of the challenges of “adulting”. This may mean that they did their own laundry or paid their own bills. It may mean something more advanced like signing a lease or buying a major appliance. It may even mean buying a home or getting married.

It essentially means doing something that they would not have been expected to do as a child. It means maintaining one’s own life without the intervention of a parent. And claims of “adulting” are often followed by “adulting is hard!”

On some level, being taken care of is profoundly appealing. Tuning out from the daily frustrations and concentrating on TV or video games, hanging out with friends – who wouldn’t want to avoid being the adult.

But parenting ends. The child grows up and takes on the practical reality of managing their life, and most parents realize that one of their goals as a parent must be to enable that.

 

For all meaningful purposes, my parents are gone. My mother died over ten years ago now, and had been far too ill for years before that to do any physical care for any of her children. My father is still alive, but has slid so far into dementia that his ability to care for himself is long gone.

So I am feeling acutely the reality that most of us will eventually no longer have a parent, and that loss can be difficult even if we are reasonably competent at “adulting”.

 

So now I wonder about divine parents. Many traditions see Father gods or Mother goddesses. This is probably one of the most common conceptions of deity. But what does that mean to have an eternal parent when the goal of parenting is for the child to stand on their own? Does the Father want you to grow out of dependence? Does the Mother want there to be a day when you figure it out on your own?

Or are we as humans doomed to never be spiritual adults, never really taking on responsibility for our own maintenance?

Or is there something wrong with the metaphor of calling them Mother or Father?

Does their divine parenting end? Do we ever grow up?

Paganism is free? I disagree.

Emma Kathryn wrote this piece for Gods & Radicals When is Paganism not Paganism?” and I agreed heartily with a part of the message. Being Pagan doesn’t require collecting the most tchotchkes, especially if that means items manufactured in China or ecologically destructive items.

But the line “Paganism is free” made me stop. This statement seemed utterly incorrect to me. In fact, it seems badly misleading, even destructive.

I agree that many of the most rewarding parts of a Pagan path do not necessarily come at a monetary cost. Connection to natural places, connection with other people – these can be gained in ways that don’t take much or any money. We may be able to make offerings, divination tools, or ritual items out of items that are found, scavenged or gifted to us. We may even be able to get books from libraries or friends without exchanging money.

We can also take modest ingredients and add our work to make them valuable. Art, crafts, cooking – these are all tools that can make modest materials into beautiful and worthwhile items to share and to be offered.

But to think that you can get a spiritual path without paying a cost is incorrect. Even if money is scarce for you, you must be willing to make payments in terms of your time and effort in order to gain something in return. And if someone else is paying a cost for your gain, you need to be aware of this and have gratitude.

For those of us who live in cities, just a connection to nature may require some cost and effort. Getting to parks or natural places may take an investment of time and often, money. And shedding the cares and stresses of the modern, disconnected world takes an effort as well.

Finding other Pagans can take significant effort, depending on where you are and what kind of network you have. Even looking up groups over the internet takes the money involved in having an internet-ready device and connection. And many times, Pagan events and groups have costs just to operate public events – space rental, ritual supplies, speaker fees, etc. You may be able to find those that don’t require an admission fee, but you need to understand that someone is paying those costs, and without that, the event or group would not exist, or at least it would not be open to the public.

Even reading a book, given to you or purchased inexpensively, requires your effort and concentration to learn its lessons.

To end on a theological note, Paganism is not like Calvinist Protestant Christianity. Belief is not enough. Faith is not enough. You have to “do” Paganism, which requires effort on your part. And effort is not free.

Brotherhood, Fellowship, and Transformation

As my readers know, I have been involved with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix for a number of years and I have recently been in positions of leadership – Magister (President) of the Chicago Temple and Bursar (Treasurer) for the national organization.

We have had some major changes bubbling inside our Order for a while now, and they are just starting to break the surface, so I think it is time for me to start writing about them here.

We were founded in 2004 as a neopagan order for men who love men. Since I have been involved, that has meant inclusion of gay, bi, trans, and queer male identities. Our cosmology, our deities, and our rituals specifically avoid the forms of heterosexual male-female duality that is common in many Pagan traditions. Some of our Brothers have had a strong interest in “male mysteries” and explorations of masculine sexuality as it relates to and embodies the sacred. To be honest, this aspect has not been central to my experience of the Brotherhood.

It has become increasingly clear to us that many people who don’t identify specifically as men are interested in our tradition. Women, non-binary, and genderqueer people have been supporters and close allies. At the same time, many of us have become uncomfortable with drawing the line which leaves these seekers outside of our group. There is a value in exploring and celebrating the spiritual dimension of male sexuality – but the mission of our group is larger than this. Many of us have experienced this message from our deities. There are even those within our group who have stepped away from identifying as “men”, which has brought the challenge of inclusion to the fore.

At the same time, two of our long-time Brothers recently moved to Seattle and are dedicated to expanding our group there. However, they wanted to start that group without the gendered limitation that we’ve had in Chicago. They wanted to be – from the beginning – open to LGBTQ/Queer people of all gender identities. And with a lot of discussion, the national organization is supportive of that. But it meant, among other things, figuring out a name for the organization that doesn’t limit/define gender.

So, the first announcement is that our national organization will be changing its name to “Fellowship of the Phoenix”. It is going to take some time to figure out all the official things that need to be changed in order to make that happen. The Seattle group will be using that name from its inception. Their first public ritual will take place on August 19, 2017.

For the moment, our Chicago group is still processing this – the cauldron is still bubbling. We will have a vote next month about adopting both the name change and changing our definition of who is invited to all public events, our novitiate program, and to apply for membership. I don’t want to tell you that Chicago will definitely adopt all these changes. It will be the decision of the group. But I do know that many of the active members are ready for these changes to be adopted. Others feel like there is something special that we will be giving up by changing our focus and broadening our target audience. Emotions have run high at times. Letting everyone have a voice in the process can be frustrating, but it’s necessary.

So, for now, we will have a “Seattle Fellowship of the Phoenix” and a “Chicago Brotherhood of the Phoenix” under a national umbrella called “Fellowship of the Phoenix”. At least for the moment.

The Phoenix is a symbol of transformation. This concept is central to who we are. I am personally happy that this transformation is finally starting to manifest. It will take some time and processing for this phase of transformation to be complete.

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

I have been quiet on this blog lately. I have done some writing – I wrote and submitted a piece for a queer magic anthology, which I will have more information on in the future.

I have also been putting a lot of mental energy into my new position as Magister for the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, which I mentioned on my previous post. This has taken a great deal of mental energy, even more than I anticipated. We’re going through discussions that cut to the very core of our mission and which will redefine who we are as an organization. And they have been contentious and sometimes emotional. And that intensity looks like it’s probably not going to let up for months, at least.

So, I’m getting some hands-on learning about how to help guide a group through conflict. How do I foster an environment where everyone feels heard? How do we balance the urge to hold onto what we know and value, while opening up to a broader vision? I knew these conversations were bound to happen, but they weren’t in the front of my mind when I took this position.

One of the Four Powers of the Sphinx is “to keep silence”. I have been thinking about this a great deal lately. I think a lot of people in this noisy world find this to be a very difficult lesson. Without trying to boast, I think I am better at it than many (which still doesn’t make me particularly good at it).

In much of my adult life, I have not sought to take the spotlight. I gave up music and theatre that I loved during my teen years. I didn’t put any of my writing in the public eye for years after college, even though I studied Creative Writing. It’s only in the past few years that I have kept this blog and occasionally did talks to (usually small) groups. I really made the decision to restrain my own voice. I try to think about whether my voice will contribute something in a given context before I speak up.

Now, as I am trying to navigate a leadership role in an organization, restraining my own voice has seemed even more important. If I start off a discussion with strongly stating my opinion of our path and what we should and shouldn’t do, I risk stifling different opinions. I have to find the right balance of saying enough to get the conversation going without trying to dominate the conversation. And of course, I have to watch to make sure conversations don’t descend into something hurtful.

Another aspect of this silence is that when I think about something to write about, I have been feeling empty, and a bit helpless. There are so many horrors in the world, from American politics, which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, to the horrifying stories coming out of Chechnya, to environmental disasters and disastrous environmental policy decisions.

I often feel the urge to run away to a remote location where I can plant a huge garden and watch over and try to protect some patch of forest. I have no idea how to change people. I don’t know how to make people compassionate or conscientious. I don’t know how to make them stop harming others and the environment. And I don’t think my voice – whether it be a blog post, a chant and a placard at a protest, a public meeting – is going to open people’s eyes to reverse the disastrous course that we’re on.

I guess we just had a Pagan holiday…

I have to admit I’ve never had much of a connection to Imbolc (or the various permutations of the pagan holiday around Feb 1st or 2nd). It doesn’t line up with anything that I’ve ever celebrated culturally or any celebrations that I grew up with (Groundhog Day is kind of a *meh* holiday).

I do like bonfires, but I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to an event this time of year centering on one. I’m not aware of any sacred wells around here. And as for the lambing time – lambs are pretty darned adorable, but as a vegan, they don’t form a part of my financial or agricultural world.

I guess all that’s left of that is the association with the beginnings of Spring. But I have to honest, early February doesn’t typically feel much like the beginning of Spring around Chicago. Most years, we’re still in for a full month or more of hard winter. This year, of course, we had an unusually mild January, so I don’t even have that severe Winter fatigue that normally accompanies this time of year.

I do like the Irish story of the Cailleach, the sacred hag, associated with the day. On Imbolc, she would indicate whether the winter was ending soon or if it would hang on for a long time. If there was still some harsh winter in the future, she would cause the weather to be bright and clear so she could gather more firewood to last the rest of the winter.

In the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, it is the beginning of a new cycle in our year. In our upcoming event called SpiritSong, we celebrate the Divine Youth, after celebrating the Elder in January. The Divine Youth gives the gift of Wonder, and that is an important one in this season of year, when the plants are dead and the skies are often gray. It is also important to remember in this political season, as so many threats seem to be lurking at our doorstep and the ungenerous hearts are the ones that lead us. We are building walls and cutting off assistance for those in need. We are lifting the protections to the environment and taking away funding from schools and the arts.

Wonder gives us the gift of seeing beauty in the simple and everyday things. It allows us to break the mundane unthinking patterns of our life and appreciate what we take for granted. It allows us to appreciate the marvelous talents that people have, and the skills that can seem almost magical. It is bound together with Gratitude and Joy. It makes us appreciate the many things that are provided to us, the bounty that surrounds us.

This gift of Wonder, tapping into something within ourselves that improves our outlook – this is something I will celebrate.

What lies ahead looks like what I have seen before

As I was reading this article about the incoming Cabinet appointees, I couldn’t help thinking that I see what is ahead of us. It looks a lot like a place where I have been before.

I came out in 1987, in Reagan’s America. Only a handful of states had non-discrimination laws for employment or housing. No one even dreamed of legal same-sex marriages. A major epidemic had taken hold because the Federal government thought it only affected gays and drug addicts, who frankly deserved to get sick.

It was a common fear for children to be disowned by their parents or forced into therapy for coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It was common for people to lie to themselves and their spouses and live lives that looked like everyday American families, but were really a kind of silent hell.

For Trans people – well, it’s hard for me to even imagine. There was so little hope for support from home, school, work – so little awareness and so little sympathy for their identity that they knew in their hearts.

For LGBTQ people of color, who faced multiple intersections of discrimination around sexuality, race, ethnicity, and religion – the challenges and complications went far beyond what I ever experienced.

And so many brave and beautiful souls persevered.

 

It won’t look like it did before. The 1980’s didn’t look quite like the 1950’s, even if that’s what many in power aspired to achieve. LGBT communities had become established during the freer years of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Anita Bryant took her anti-gay crusade around and succeeded in getting quite a few places to roll back anti-discrimination laws (including St Paul, MN, my home at the time I came out). But the community still existed and grew stronger in spite of the disasters it faced.

The “Moral Majority” was in full swing – as was the “Satanic Panic”. There was a backlash against the open religious exploration of the 1960’s as well as the increasing secularism of American culture. Here, too, the counterculture was established enough that it held on, even if it was only in casual, personal ways. Neopaganism continued to develop, although it took on a “New Age” cast that was more about self-improvement than creation of an alternative spiritual community.

 

I was too young to really understand it at the time, but the 1980’s were also a time when environmental progress was rolled back. The move toward energy conservation through the 1970’s was reversed. Protected lands were opened to logging, drilling and mining. The EPA was weakened in favor of “business friendly” policies allowing more pollution. See more about Reagan’s environmental record here

The 1980’s saw a dramatic step up in the War on Drugs, which meant increasing incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. Of course this had a racial component – much of the enforcement was in communities of color, even when drug use was just as prevalent in primarily white communities. See more about the War on Drugs here.

It was also the time when standards of honesty and integrity of the press was eroded. Reagan played a critical role in rolling back the “Fairness Doctrine” and other safeguards to hold media responsible for their reporting. This deregulation, along with the proliferation of cable news and then the internet news sites, has led to most news outlets being highly partisan and in many cases portraying opinion and sometimes even lies as news. See more about the changes to media in the 1980’s here.

 

 

We seem to be facing all these social currents again (or, in some cases, still): Anti-LGBTQ legal actions; Religious xenophobia and fear; Environmental protections being rolled back; An increase in racialized policing; A news media system that continues to fail in bringing reliable and balanced information to the American public.

I hope the cultural shifts of the past 20 years around all these issues will be enough to hold us together through the next decade. I am worried that if I get fired from my job because of my sexuality or my religion, the Federal legal system is not likely to help me out. I am even more worried about the climate of religious and ethnic discrimination that seems to be rising. And I am most worried about the fragile balance of the environment and the climate, which already seems to be on the verge of tipping.

My Big Gay Pagan Agenda

It used to be a common refrain from the Religious Right that we as a country shouldn’t give in to the Gay Agenda. With the increasing acceptance of different sexual and gender identities, that phrase was starting to seem rather silly.

But I am here to admit that with the changes that seem to be facing us, trying to move past despair and fear, I am starting to make up an agenda. Unfortunately, most of these are not things I can do on my own. These are all things we need to pull together to accomplish, and as of January 20, 2017, we can count on very little help from the federal government to support any of these goals.

This isn’t a complete list of what I want, but it’s some of the more realistic areas where we can take action in the political climate going forward.

So, in the spirit of being the change that scares the crap out of the religious right, here is My Big Gay Pagan Agenda.

 

My Big Gay Pagan Legislative Wish List:

Enact laws to ban Conversion/Reparative Therapy (State and Local)

Conversion Therapy is a damaging and debunked practice that attempts to “convert” people with same sex attractions to heterosexuality. Our new VP, Mike Pence, is an advocate for this infamous practice. Several states (California, Illinois, New Jersey, Vermont, and Oregon) have already banned this. If you can push your state and local politicians to enact a ban, I heartily encourage this. http://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy

 

Enact laws to ban “Gay Panic” and “Trans Panic” legal defenses (State)

At this point only California has banned the use of “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses in cases of murder and assault. In the rest of the country, a bad reaction to someone’s sexual or gender identity can be used as an argument for justification or mitigating circumstances for the crime. We need to acknowledge that this is pure discrimination and malice. It should not be allowed as a defense in crimes against LGBTQ people. http://lgbtbar.org/what-we-do/programs/gay-and-trans-panic-defense/

 

Enact laws to protect LGBTQ people from employment and housing discrimination (State and Local)

A lot of people thought that after same sex marriage went nationwide, the Gay Agenda had been completed. Far from it. In many states, people can be legally fired from their jobs or kicked out of their homes because they are LGBTQ. Efforts to push a national bill through Congress have been stalled and we are almost certainly not to see any progress with the incoming Congress. The game is at the state level. If you live in any of the states that do not have such protections, put the pressure on your elected officials. https://www.aclu.org/map/non-discrimination-laws-state-state-information-map

 

Change policies to de-escalate police violence against Communities of Color

This is a huge and complex issue, but Campaign Zero has a lot of concrete and useful suggestions about ways to change and de-escalate policing that too often ends in the deaths of people who pose no significant threat, and are very often not even involved in criminal activity at all. http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision

 

I wish I could add issues around environmental protection and immigration reform, but those are questions handled federally, and I’m afraid there’s little hope for progress there, only a wish that the most radical proposals fall apart or are opposed so vigorously that they can’t move forward.

 

My Big Gay Pagan Personal Wish List:

Be Out

Visibility helps, when it comes to sexual and gender identity and when it comes to religious diversity. People are less likely to support discriminatory policies if they know that it would hurt their friends, family, and neighbors. I know not everyone feels safe doing this, and different places can have different levels of safety (out with friends and family, but not at work, for example), but try pushing the envelope. Talk about and normalize your family or romantic situation. Challenge gender stereotyping and gender essentialism. Respectfully challenge the idea that “we all believe in the same god”. Talk about the sacredness of natural places.

 

Strengthen our support and solidarity networks

Don’t let despair prevent you from connecting with friends, local groups, and support networks. I found this article below from Gods and Radicals to be very thought-provoking and full of ideas to keep moving forward, even if/when there are new repressive actions from the government. Although I don’t advocate illegal actions at this time, I think it’s very important to ask ourselves where the line is. Mass deportations? Religious tests for US travel? Suppression of the press? The justice system turning a blind eye to racial violence?

https://godsandradicals.org/2016/11/12/solidarity-networks/

 

Stand up against harassment and violence

As has been reported in many parts of the country, violence and intimidation against Muslims, immigrant communities, and many other groups have been on the rise since the success of the Republican nominee’s campaign. Many people are noting that bigotry has been emboldened.

https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/15/update-more-400-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election

 

Support the resolve of Sanctuary Cities

My home city of Chicago is a Sanctuary City, which will not cooperate with Immigration enforcement and will not even request the immigration status of people who interact with police. Otherwise law-abiding citizens who are undocumented are not subject to local law enforcement. The incoming administration has threatened to take away federal funding for such cities who defy the new immigration enforcement protocols.

More information on Sanctuary Cities

 

Support organizations that advocate for the embattled groups and the environment

I’m sure any of these organization will be happy to receive donations of time and/or money. Again, this is a very incomplete list.

ACLU

Campaign Zero

GLAAD

Lady Liberty League

Lambda Legal

Mercy for Animals

NAACP

Pagan Pride organizations

Planned Parenthood

Sierra Club

Southern Poverty Law Center

Wilderness Society

Immigrants’ rights groups, trans advocates, food pantries and homeless shelters, anti-defamation leagues, local LGBTQ organizations, Muslim aid societies, independent press organizations

 

My Big Gay Personal Challenges:

I am introverted by nature, but I am pushing myself to feed and strengthen my support networks at this time. I will continue to grow my involvement with Brotherhood of the Phoenix, an organization for men who love men (gay, bi, trans, queer). This Brotherhood can be a resource and support for the vulnerable among us.

I have limited financial resources, but I will try to help support organizations doing good work in whatever way possible – publicity, volunteering, etc.

I need to remain strong, physically and mentally. Friends and strangers may need a sympathetic ear. They may also need someone to help protect them from abuse or harassment, which is a far more physically demanding challenge.

I am going to seek out a self-defense class at some point in the near future. I am not a person who has a background in physical confrontation, but I fear there may be a time when such confrontation comes to me. I need to be more prepared than I am today.

One of my gifts is that I love to cook for people. Food is an immediate way to give people a bit of support, and it provides an occasion for gatherings and network building. I need to continue to use that gift.

I will continue to refine this Agenda and to keep myself strong enough that I will not be overwhelmed by the challenges ahead.

The Wild and the City

My friend Theo recently posted on Facebook:

“It is often said that when humans built cities the wild retreated. That the spirits and gods and peoples who were there were destroyed, or that they left. But what if they didn’t? What if, like us, they just adapted?”

 

The writer is a city witch, and in a sense, so am I. Initially, I felt the appeal of this sentiment. Humans are part of Nature, right? I want to think there’s a possibility that I can be an integrated part of the natural and spiritual world around me, that I can connect to the Earth, to the elements, to the forces of Nature. But I have to wonder, what is the “wild”? And what I come up with is a kind of negative description. The wild is what is not planned or created by human intervention, and this can come in many different degrees.

I have lived my entire life in cities, but I have been an observer of what is “wild” in my environment, although I wish that when I was young I had paid more attention, particularly to local plants. I would love to be an expert urban forager, but my knowledge is sadly lacking.

My mother loved songbirds, and we always had bird feeders in our yard. We saw robins, finches, sparrows, cardinals, grackles, blue jays, crows, and even the occasional small hawk. Where I live now is a bit denser and more paved over than where I grew up, but we still have pigeons and gulls, as well as the familiar robins and sparrows. Canada geese and ducks show up during certain seasons in nearby parks.

Some creatures do quite well in urban settings. Rats, of course, and pigeons, numerous insects and spiders. We have rabbits and squirrels around all the time where I live, as well as the occasional skunk. A little further into a suburban area, it’s easy to find deer, chipmunks and raccoons.

And of course, there are the weeds. Native and invasive plants show up unbidden in any unattended place. Many of these are beautiful and useful plants, even though there is a cultural imperative to destroy them in favor of even green grass lawns and carefully manicured flowers.

 

So yes – to some extent, the wild adapts and lives with us, persisting in spite of human efforts to sterilize the ground with tar and asphalt, spray pesticides to get rid of those unwanted residents and visitors.

I think of the spiritual version of the wild as very much like this. Some parts of it may adapt to places dominated by humans. Some parts seem almost tame to us, and we will happily bring them into our lives. Some parts of it can easily live alongside humans and our desire to control the environment. Some can feed off what we throw away. Some are so persistent that they will push up through the cracks in our spiritual pavement to assert themselves in spite of our efforts.

 

But there is a difference between noticing that the wild is never fully eradicated and embracing and/or cultivating the wild in our world and within ourselves. And neither one of those is the same as leaving a wild place (relatively) undisturbed and left to its own way. If a forested plot that’s full of woodland creatures and spirits is cut down for a new subdivision of “McMansions” with manicured lawns, why would we think that the wildlife or the spirits who lived there would want to adapt to the bland and non-nourishing changes that humans imposed on that environment for their own profit? If a wetland that harbored hundreds of kinds of plants, insects, amphibians, and spirits gets filled in and covered with a parking lot, why would we think that either the wildlife or the spiritual life would stay around to hang out with the parked cars?

 

Have we, as humans, adapted to our environment, or have we done our best to force our environment to adhere to our desires? We create our interior micro-climates, safe from wind and rain, with temperature and humidity controlled. We keep out the bugs and the mice. We shuttle ourselves between these protected spaces in our air-conditioned cars on road surfaces made unnaturally flat and even. I am guilty of this, too. I may not be able to control the wind and the snow of a Chicago winter, but I can ride it out with minimal outdoor trips, watching Netflix streaming and ordering dinner from GrubHub. This may be a comfortable, unchallenging way for me to live, but does that mean I “adapted”.

 

To a large extent, I think this is how we avoid, rather than how we adapt.  We shut out the weather, we shut out the pests, we open a small window for those poor others who labor away to grow and then deliver our food – but only long enough to grab their products and throw our money at them. And yes – I think that when we shut out the wildness, the natural forces, we also shut out the spiritual forces that exist outside of our human-built controls.

Will most of the spirits of this land, the gods of the Pottawatomi people who were here before us, the ancient presences who lived in the trees and swamps will just sit down on the couch and watch “Stranger Things” and eat Pad Thai with us? I don’t think their goal is to tune out real life, like modern humans do. So much American life has its primary goal to tune out of reality – TV, movies, drinking, drugs, video games, amusement parks, cat videos on social media – these are all escapes, ways to tune out.

If we wish to, we may be able to connect with those spirits if we find some remnants of wild and neglected places in parks, forgotten corners, and vacant lots that nature begins to reclaim. Or we can unplug from our distractions and get away from all of our current built environment to find some of those wild spirits that live outside.

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.