5 Things I Learned At Mystic South

You may have heard there was a new Pagan conference in Atlanta last weekend. A conference where there were unexpected and unpleasant complications with the hotel. One where the organizers and participants kept going anyway and ended up with a truly magical weekend.

I had a great time at Mystic South despite the complications. I gave a presentation, participated in a panel discussion, and sold a few books – that’s a new experience for me. I had several deep conversations with people who wanted my counsel on various topics. I also had deep conversations with others who I sought out for their wisdom and experience. A long time ago I heard Thorn Coyle say “never trust a teacher who only has students.” I have no gurus, but I have many teachers.

The Wild Hunt did a good job of recapping what went on – I’m not going to try to duplicate their report. Instead, I’d like to talk about five things that are bigger than Mystic South, but that were very evident at Mystic South.

Mystic South 2017 01

There’s a hunger for spiritual depth

This was a Pagan gathering, not a monastic retreat. There was plenty of fun and games and whiskey. But as often as not, the conversation turned to serious matters: setting and maintaining boundaries, ecstatic experiences and prophetic messages, devotional and sacrificial practices, and the foundations of Pagan and polytheist religions.

People who are relatively new were asking questions in a way that showed they’ve been wrestling with those questions on their own. People I know are knowledgeable and experienced were digging for context for their mystical experiences. Established leaders were scratching for anything and everything that might make their practices more coherent and more effective.

I may be off the map, but I’m not the only one in uncharted waters. And plenty more people are looking for maps that can’t be found in Paganism 101 books. There is a hunger for real spiritual depth.

There’s a willingness to do what must be done

When the water and air conditioning went out, we did what we had to do. We checked up on each other. We moved some presentations, we gathered around the fans, and we put up with the heat. That was easier for some than for others, and there were shortcomings that we can all learn from, but we did what had to be done.

I saw that same dedication and persistence in spiritual matters. I talked to people whose Gods have placed great obligations on them and they’re meeting them. I talked to Pagans who invested significant amounts of time and energy (and in some cases, money) in groups and traditions, only to find them incompatible with their core beliefs and values. But instead of either giving up or staying in an untenable situation, they’re actively looking for a path that works for them.

I sometimes complain about people who don’t stick with a path long enough for it to pay off for them. This isn’t that. These are people who are willing to work long and hard, so long as what they’re doing is real and meaningful.

These are people who hear the call of the Gods and they’re trying to figure out the best way to respond.

Mystic South 2017 03

Some people still don’t get it

I really should break this into two sections. There are some who are just starting out and aren’t ready for religious depth… yet. That’s OK – we need to welcome people at all points on their spiritual journeys. There are some who aren’t interested in life-shattering mystical experiences and demanding devotional relationships. That’s fine. Our Pagan and polytheist religions need to make room for plumbers and accountants – people who just want to honor the Gods and ancestors and live a virtuous life.

But then there are those who think spiritual depth and religious devotion aren’t important. I’m not talking about naturalist and atheist Pagans – they have their own place in the Big Tent of Paganism. And to be clear, there were very few (if any) of these people at Mystic South.

I’m talking about people who call themselves Pagans and Heathens and Witches who haven’t cast a spell or poured an offering in months. People who are more interested in making sure everyone holds the “right” position on political issues than in building alliances that help us stand against the threats we face. People who talk big but couldn’t magic their way out of a wet paper bag.

The other side of that coin are those who are so “magical” and “enlightened” they can’t – or won’t – navigate the mundane world. Mysticism is one thing – escapism is something very different.

I’m to the point where I have no more time and energy to argue with those who don’t get it. I’ve been called to some difficult, complicated – and quite frankly, scary – work by Gods and spirits who I trust. So have a bunch of other people. If we don’t respond to your complaints, it’s because we have too much work to do.

Katrina Messenger, Byron Ballard, Ryan Denison, and John Beckett: "Ministering During Perilous Times"
Katrina Messenger, Byron Ballard, Ryan Denison, and John Beckett: “Ministering During Perilous Times”

Never forget who you are and why you’re here

Mystic South was a great success despite the difficulties because we never forgot that we’re Pagans and polytheists who came to Atlanta to learn how to be better Pagans and polytheists. We weren’t going to let a dysfunctional hotel keep us from doing what we came to do.

The phrase “don’t let it bother you” is often thrown about in ways that are callous and cruel. Attitude isn’t everything. But when things get difficult – and they always get difficult, sooner or later – reminding ourselves who we are and why what we’re doing is important keeps us going.

This is why we do daily spiritual practice, every day. Our prayers, meditations, offerings, and devotions reinforce our commitments to our Gods, our ancestors, and our traditions. At first we read the words of a prayer or a devotional poem. After a while, we speak them from memory. Eventually, we speak them from the depths of our souls. They are no longer words – they are part of who we are.

Whether you’re called by a God or you’re pursuing a God, it is always good to honor the Gods, and to build relationships with them based on hospitality and reciprocity. Never forget that. If you’re a Witch or other magic user, never forget you have skills and abilities others do not, and an obligation to use those skills and abilities when necessary. Never forget who you are.

You’re never really alone

A lot of times we feel like we’re alone, particularly those of us who live and practice in isolated areas that aren’t particularly Pagan-friendly. But whatever your situation, there’s someone who can relate. There’s someone who can listen. There’s someone who can say “this is what helped me.” There’s someone who can say nothing, but who can see you and affirm that what you’re going through is real.

I talk about being off the map, but I’m not adrift at sea. I have local friends who are making this journey with me. There’s nobody doing exactly what we’re doing, but there are people who’ve done similar things and we can learn from them. I have no gurus, but I have many teachers.

You have to find the others like you. If you wait for them to come to you, you may be waiting longer than you’d like. Maybe you have to travel to a conference like Mystic South. Or maybe you can find what you need at a local Pagan Pride Day. Maybe you can find who you need in a book, or a blog, or a Facebook group. But you don’t have to figure it all out on your own.

Mystic South 2017 was an amazing, magical, memorable event. I’m so glad I was there. These are the five lessons I’m taking away from the conference.

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