I don’t think I need to list all the ways the Coronavirus and the resulting social distancing are impacting everyone around the world. For those of us who serve our Gods and our communities as clergy, it’s dramatically increasing the need for our services at the same time it’s making it significantly harder for us to provide them. Other professions have it worse – nurses and grocery clerks come to mind – but as always, other people’s greater suffering doesn’t make our own any less.
The many Pagan priesthoods do not have the high formal boundaries we see with Christian clergy – both Methodist and Unitarian Universalist minsters have told me “I am your minister, so I cannot be your friend.” For the most part, Pagan priests are members of our communities, not separated from them. But we often receive the same sort of calls for pastoral care that our Christian colleagues get, and few of us have the institutions and structures that support them.
This is a challenge at any time. With quarantines and isolation in place, it’s even harder. Here’s what I’m doing… or at least, what I’m trying to do.
Put your own mask on first
I’ve used this phrase several times before, but this is the first time it could legitimately be interpreted literally.
Before every flight, the attendants tell you that if the cabin loses pressure you should put your own oxygen mask on before you try to help anyone else, including your small children. If you lose consciousness you can’t help them. If you aren’t doing the things you need to do to take care of yourself you won’t be in any condition to help someone else.
Do what you have to do to insure your own needs are met. These are not normal times and you likely will not be able to respond to others as quickly as you normally do. In particular, make sure you get enough sleep.
I need to say something rather personal. I’m seeing a lot of comments on social media about how this is not the time to worry about losing weight and if you gain a few – or more than a few – pounds, so be it. These comments are correct. Our mainstream society has unreasonable and unhealthy expectations for physical appearance and this is absolutely not the time to be concerned with them.
However, in the past year I’ve learned – from first-hand experience, not from anyone’s medical lectures – that while I can be quite healthy at a weight the mainstream calls “obese,” there is a limit above which I am no longer able to do all the things I want to do and I run a significant risk of serious complications. I’m back under that limit and I need to make sure I stay under it, even if one of my favorite coping mechanisms is to eat and drink all the sugar.
Knowing your limits and staying within them is part of putting your own mask on first.
Maintain your sacred relationships
Have I said too much lately about the importance of daily spiritual practice? Is that even possible?
Rather than repeating myself yet again about the need for regular prayer, meditation, offerings, and other practices, let me point out the purpose behind those practices: maintaining our relationships with our Gods, ancestors, and spirits, and with their virtues and values. It’s also about maintaining our relationships with our communities and co-religionists.
This isn’t complicated. Just talk with them. Talk to your spiritual allies and listen for their responses. Talk to your coven and grove mates, your family and friends, and your fellow Pagan priests. We have technology that in past eras would have been considered magic – use it. Or use old tech and write letters by hand.
Physical distancing does not have to mean isolation. Maintain your sacred relationships.
Keep old commitments in new ways
Denton CUUPS canceled our Spring Equinox circle – we really had no choice. But while we’re hoping to celebrate Beltane in person, we’re preparing to hold the ritual on-line. Jason Mankey led an audio-only Ostara ritual – it went rather well. My UU church is holding weekly services on Zoom.
Technology is a good answer, but it’s not the only answer. Modern occultists have a long tradition of meeting on the “astral plane” in mutual trance. If you don’t already have a meeting place between the worlds, now’s a good time to start building one.
You may not be able to hug someone and hold their hand. But you can still reassure them you’ll be with them as they go through this… and you can still work magic to help them do it. Perhaps this crisis will move us to deepen our magical practices and connections – that would be a very good outcome from a very bad situation.
Show your vulnerability
I saw something on a business site saying that if you’re an executive and you’re working from home, make sure your kids or your dogs interrupt your conference calls. Show those you lead that these are not ordinary times and we all have to take care of our families. Show them they’re not expected to be perfect.
Part of being a good leader is keeping your cool when everyone else is losing theirs. But we are not invulnerable to the ordinary complications of life. Our mainstream society has the idea that if you practice the right religion in the right way, when bad things happen they won’t bother you because you live on some higher plane and you’ll transcend it all.
This is a pernicious lie. Don’t perpetuate it. Let those you serve see that you are human and things do bother you. Keep your sacred commitments, but show your vulnerability.
Reach out to your fellow clergy
That said, you are the priest and you have obligations other members of your community do not. Many times your problems are spiritual issues only a few people will understand. This is where you reach out to your colleagues in priesthood and ministry.
If you’re part of a local interfaith ministers group, this can be a great resource. Up to a point, anyway. You are likely to have spiritual issues even the most open-minded Presbyterian isn’t going to understand.
I have about a half dozen highly experienced Pagan friends I call on regularly when I need counsel. There’s another dozen or so I call on occasionally – they have specific skills and experiences that I don’t need all the time, but when I need them, I really need them. I serve a handful of Pagan priests and other folks in the same way.
This is why I recommend attending conferences and retreats, buying each other’s books and commenting on each other’s social media posts. The best time to build these collegial relationships was last year. The second best time is right now.
Live week to week
Part of serving as clergy is articulating a vision for the future: where are we going, how are we going to get there, and what will things be like when we do? Right now none of us can see what the road ahead looks like well enough to have a clear vision, much less a workable plan to get there.
This will not be over by Easter. It might be over by June, or by September. Or it could go on till next summer. We just don’t know. As Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “the virus makes the timeline.”
I’m still hoping to be at Mystic South in July, but I don’t know. I have other plans – some religious, some not – that are on hold indefinitely. As someone who loves order and plans and sometimes books trips a year in advance, this is very hard for me. And then there’s the whole question of employment: my job is holding up, but for how long?
I can see a week out – that’s about it. So I’m having to learn to live week to week. I have reports, meetings, and projects at work – some of which can be done from home. I have enough food – and enough toilet paper. I have books to read, blog posts to write, and two classes to research and prep. That will take care of this week. Next week we’ll deal with next week.
I’ll go back to long-term planning when I can, but right now it’s a waste of time and energy. Right now I’m week to week.
Start thinking about what will come next
I’ll save the political and economic projections for another time. Here I want to talk about what we’re likely to see as Pagan priests.
This won’t last forever, but even if it’s over sooner than I expect, things will not go back the way they were. This pandemic is changing us, our communities, and our religious movements in ways we won’t fully comprehend until long after it’s done.
We know that people turn to magic in difficult times. We were already in the middle of the biggest magical revival since late antiquity – this is only going to amplify that trend. But Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg recently tweeted a link to a study (that sadly is still behind a paywall) showing that “theology enrollments skyrocketed at Oxford after the Black Death.”
The Coronavirus is not the Black Death. Still, we can reasonably expect an increased interest not just in magic but also in the deeper aspects of Paganism and polytheism.
Everyone has lists of what we “should” be doing when we’re stuck at home, most of which ignore the difficulties people are having coping with the upheaval of their lives. But if you have some idle time, you might want to spend some of it contemplating the Big Questions of Life – and writing down what you think.
Someone is going to want to read it.
Remember who you are
I took vows to serve my Gods and my community. My fellow Pagan priests, most of you did likewise. These vows and the relationships they sealed changed who we are. It’s not a job we can quit if we get tired of it… not that we want to quit… even though the thought does cross our minds from time to time.
The only word that seems to fit our current situation is “surreal.” I look around and nothing is what it was six weeks ago. Everything has changed, including the way I fulfill my priestly vows.
What has not changed is who we are.
In good times, I am a priest. In bad times, I am a priest. In the middle of a pandemic with no end in sight, I am priest.
And so I do what priests do.
I do what I do.
Take strength in who you are and what you are. Take strength in your relationships with your Gods, ancestors and spirits. Take strength from your community, even as you strengthen them.
May your life and your sacred work be blessed.