I’ve been writing a lot lately about Paganism as an institution, about the things I believe and the things I believe we should build. I’ve never hidden my goals: I want to build a religion. Or more precisely, I want to build a family of Pagan and polytheist religions.
I respect the right of every person to choose their own path, and I have no desire to compel anyone to do anything. But at the end of the day I want to see my particular flavor of Paganism with temples, priesthoods, seminaries, and charitable orders. I want it to become a full featured religion.
And that bothers some of you.
Some of you want nothing to do with organized religion. You fear orthodoxy and hierarchy – and not without reason. I think that if we look to our ancestral religions, to Buddhism, and to Judaism for guidance instead of to Christianity – and if we focus on what we need as Pagans instead of on what we see from our Christian neighbors – we can avoid serious problems. That, and the fact that we’ll never have state power behind us.
Still, the fact remains that some people want to be Pagans, but mainly they want to do their own thing. If my wildest dreams come true and Paganism becomes an institutional religion, what place is there for them?
I see six roles for solitary practitioners in a predominantly Pagan future.
1. The unaffiliated Pagan
These are the Pagans who are as devout and dedicated as anyone, but who either can’t or don’t want to be a part of a group. Maybe they’re in a remote location where there aren’t a lot of Pagans of any description. Maybe they have health issues that prevent them from going out. Or maybe they’re just really introverted and don’t want to deal with other people.
If this is you, you can still build a strong personal spiritual practice. You can make offerings and work magic to help bring about the future you want to see. Learn all you can. If you have the knowledge and skills, teach. If you don’t, teach by example. Mainly, be the best Pagan / polytheist / witch / Druid / path of your choice, and the best person you can be.
2. The community activist
Paganism is a religion of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. And the realm of orthopraxy (“right practice”) includes not just personal conduct but also building a better, more just, more virtuous world here and now.
We need people doing environmental work, to help create and preserve wild spaces, and to protect endangered species. The work to protect religious freedom (as in “the right to practice your own religion in peace” not “a license to discriminate”) and to prevent governments from favoring one religion over others is never ending. And we need people doing the kind of pastoral care that Christians pay their ministers to do.
You don’t have to be part of a group to be a community activist. You just have to be connected enough to see the needs of the Pagan community and the wider world.
3. Pagan laity
Our Pagan religions need to be as accessible for the accountant and the plumber as they are for the mystic and the witch. We need to make room for the people who aren’t interested in performing deep devotion or working powerful magic. Maybe they participate in the occasional public ritual, but mainly they just want to honor the Gods and live virtuously while they live ordinary lives.
Some Pagan traditions have no place for laity. That’s fine – we need orders and institutions with high expectations. But if people feel the call of Paganism but either aren’t interested in deep commitments or can’t make deep commitments because of their personal or family situation, I don’t want them feeling like the only place for them is with the Christians or with the atheists.
4. The forest witch
I think this is the image most Pagans have in mind when they say “solitary practitioner.” A witch who mostly keeps to herself, growing some odd plants and harvesting others from the wild, making charms and potions, and occasionally dancing naked under the full moon. She doesn’t have a website and there’s no shingle on her cottage, but if you need her and you ask around you can find her.
This isn’t an easy path. It takes years of practice to get really good at charms and potions. It’s a lonely path. And while you may prefer to avoid dealing with other people, people will find you.
There will always be a place for the forest witch. If things get especially bad there will be an even greater need for her services.
5. The mystic
Mystics of any religion have trouble fitting into organizations and structures. I suspect that’s one of the reasons so many Pagans are solitary practitioners – we have an unusually high percentage of mystics. And by “mystic” I mean someone who has first-hand ecstatic experiences of Gods and spirits on a more-than-occasional basis.
Other religions have monasteries that allow a mystic to live in great simplicity so they can spend their time in contemplation and prayer. Some have a tradition of communities supporting holy people. In this country nobody cares that you were up all night dealing with a Battle Goddess taking over your body – you’re expected to be at work at 8:00 AM like everyone else.
This is a difficult life. If you can do anything else, do it instead. But our movement needs mystics, and if this is your calling nothing else will satisfy you.
6. Whatever you want to be
Paganism isn’t just any old thing you want it to be. I favor a Big Tent approach, but move too far away from our four centers and eventually you’re not inside the tent anymore.
Still, within that tent there are countless number of ways to be Pagan, and many of them are solitary. If you really want to be solitary and none of the five roles I’ve listed appeal to you, make your own.
Finding your own way isn’t easy. I would never have come as far as I have without the help and support of my friends and co-religionists in the Pagan, polytheist, Druid, and other communities.
But if you’re called to be a solitary, then be the best solitary Pagan you can be!