Doing The Work: Building a Spiritual Practice
Author: Faye Dewell
What defines a Pagan? Is it just the belief in the old Gods and Goddesses? Is it doing Ritual work? Do you even have to believe in Magic to be a Pagan? At this point in time, it often seems like anything goes. And while I agree with the general premise that we should be careful about how we limit who and what we define as Pagan, because it can have detrimental effects on our community, I also believe that we need to have a clear look at what we define as being a practicing Pagan versus holding Pagan beliefs. Because I think there is a difference.
While there is no such thing as being “Pagan enough” there is something to be said in terms of qualifying our practice in regards to Sunday or Holiday Paganism (to borrow a Christian term) or Armchair Paganism (to take from Pop Culture) . There’s nothing wrong with being an Armchair Pagan if that’s what you want from this path. And if you only want to sign up for public rituals, so be it. I’m not here to judge those choices.
However, the fact of the matter is, whether you’re a 101 or 1001 Pagan, if you’re still stuck in your armchair, you’re not going to get as much from your craft as you could be. And that’s a choice you have to make for yourself: What do you want from your spirituality? Is Paganism even about spirituality for you? Or is Paganism a set of beliefs that help you understand the world, but nothing more?
We bandy about terms like Priest and Priestess, identifying Pagan practitioners (often, not always) as being Priesthood holders. But what does it mean to be the person responsible for your own faith, your own spiritual path?
Well, in a very literal sense, I suppose it could mean whatever you want it to mean. It could simply mean holding a certain set of beliefs. For example, it could mean believing in Lugh, Brighid and Tuatha de Danann without actually doing any more than praying to the Deities within that pantheon. Is that Pagan enough? For some it might be and I’m not in a position to judge that as being wrong. If it works for you and defines the space spirituality takes in your life, all the more power to you. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that if that’s what you are looking for from your Paganism.
However, I would argue that there is a great difference between holding Pagan beliefs and carving out a Pagan lifestyle. Wherever we are on our path, and however we define the nature of our path, I think it’s important that we make the effort to understand what our pathwork entails and then hold ourselves up to that level of commitment. And even within the ways we carve out our Paganism, there may be vast differences that can lead to arguments between members of the community in terms of what is “right” and “wrong.” I’m not here to look at that. I’m here to think about what it means to you (and me) to do the work if the work itself is something that interests you. For me, that means making an effort to actually claim my path, do the work, develop a practice, and make it mine, which is very different than Sunday (or Ritual) Paganism.
After all, how in Hades are we ever going to be any good at things like magic if we don’t take the time to hone our skills? Or have a relationship with the Divine if we don’t take the time to get to know them? How will we know ourselves enough to live a life of spiritual intention if we don’t spend time getting to know ourselves and contemplating what our spiritual intentions are?
I’m not asking the question to be rude or confrontational. Because honestly, these are questions that I ask myself on a regular basis, every time I fall off the wagon and let every day mundane (muggle) life draw me away from my practice. And it’s harsh but honest, and it keeps me in check. These questions keep me doing the stuff and developing the path that I am committed to following.
Every week I create new prompts for a 52 weeks of Pagan Art Journaling project I’m hosting, and in this week’s art journal prompt, I asked: what do you want people to know about your path? And my answer was this: that it requires serious levels of commitment and self-discipline. It requires that I do the work. Often without support systems, often at odds with the materialism in the world around me, often despite my own personal laziness and apathy. Because more often than not, I am my own worst enemy and as a member of a “fringe” religion, I don’t have the benefit of mainstream culture keeping me accountable or reinforcing the value system I’ve “created” for myself. (Which sounds like a lot of big pompous words to just say that sometimes this path is a bit more challenging because it isn’t necessarily aligned with what the world around us is doing and how our society is encouraging us to live) .
But more importantly, a Mystery Tradition, by its very nature requires a great deal of inner work in order to understand it. No one expects a yogi to reach enlightenment without yoga and meditation. So why do so many modern Pagans expect to being able to do magic and understand the Divine without doing the “Pagan variation” of the same things? Exercise and contemplation (or rather, if you will, practice and meditation) . If we can’t discipline our minds enough to focus our will on the intent of a spell, how will we actually create strong and effective spell work?
And more importantly, beyond the magic, how do we complete the “Great Work” of our Mystery Traditions if we don’t understand what the hell that means?
Don’t just take my word for it. Pick an area and focus on it, work it. Get to know the feel and shape of it. Study it like you’d study a university subject. Be dedicated to learning your craft on a daily basis (or at least somewhat regular basis) , be it doing the Sabbats and Moons, or meditating daily, or taking time to observe the lunar cycles. Start small and build up. Don’t try to do it all at once because that’s a recipe for failure. But pick one thing, get that down, and then add another.
At this point in my practice (in loose, ambiguous terms that you can read between the lines of) , this is what my daily practice includes:
Journaling (art and written) reactions, thoughts, questions, emotions, etc
On average, I spend at least 30 minutes a day devoted to my practice, if not double or triple that. If you’d asked me at the start of this work if I’d be capable of that, I would have emphatically denied my ability to be that self-disciplined. I am not good at self-discipline and never have been. But I started slowly. I have a buddy system. I am accountable to others when I fall off the wagon. And all of these things are things that help me stay focused. And it’s been worth it. Because trust me, if you don’t know it already, this path is amazing in terms of what it can bring into your life.
My practice has turned my world upside down and inside out, but the things that I have learned about people and myself have been phenomenal. I returned to this path after years in academia feeling jaded and wanting to believe but having a hard time reconnecting. Now I don’t just believe. I know again.
And knowing is half the battle!