The Layering of Cultures and Pagan Ritual: Concerns and Considerations

I started my new Fall 2017 course at Cherry Hill Seminary, Understanding Ritual Experience, with little knowledge of anthropology nor any formal training / exploration in Pagan nor other belief systems use of rituals. While during the first F2F class (on the spot) when we were asked about how we understand the notion of ritual, I defined it then as “Repeated symbolic actions we imbue with meaning.” Pretty good I think, as I somehow missed the pre-reading that may have helped this be a bit more informed!

Since then, I have had the opportunity to think more about this, and find that I am approaching this courses more as an academic exercise than direct application of this work, most likely as I practice in a solitary manner and have little direct experience of ritual beyond the comforting straight-forward straight-jacket of approaches from my earlier life as a Catholic. Straight-forward in that everything was already written out and rehearsed while straight-jacket as being written and rehearsed meant that there were few (rather, none) opportunities to personalize it. In this way, I was expected to make meaning of it regardless of how right or wrong it felt for me. To this point, with all due respect, reading the words written a hundred or so years after the life and death of a Jewish fellow in the dessert is hardly something I find easy to relate to.

Of course, as a Druid, I embrace the spirit of nature and its spirit of place where I am, regardless if this were inhabited by Celts at one time or another.

I digress . . .

Since becoming a Pagan, I have become even more present to the idea of culture being more layered and nuanced than I initially thought. I see it as something we are born into, though even in that way it is highly layered and more chaotic than initially considered, and as such these layers (religion, approach to pop-culture, politics, health, race, belief systems, perspective on the poor, education, and the like) are further shaped by our own thoughts and feelings and experiences of them that I am having more of a difficulty even considering the notion of culture than I did when we entered the course. The UNESCO videos we have watched even in themselves appeared to make culture more singular than is realistic. For example, speaking of Mongolian Shamanism (UNESCO, 2010), we have the notion of shamanism as something centuries ago, how it started to be practiced after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how New Age practitioners may be using elements of it — the question of what aspect of the culture we are speaking about, all reduced to our own perspectives when we black box the term “culture,” which is far from having a simple or shared meaning.

I have a firm belief that (part of) the purpose of education is to invite us to be present to levels of discomfort, namely through realizing that the more we learn or know, the more questions we have and become aware of how much we do not know. That is thus far the effect of thus course, as now in our third week I am even more unable to define culture or shamanism, two of the themes we have been working through.

I think this is a good thing, and as an advocate of actor-network theory, I welcome when we try to open the black box, or stabilized notion of complex factors frozen into place or overly-simplified and left unquestioned of beliefs (Latour, 2005; Law, 2009; Sayes, 2014; Solmeyer & Constance, 2015), that we have come to or with which we engage with others about only to find that we are not clear on what we mean. This is truer of the notion of culture than I initially thought, as this far into the course I still do not have a working definition into what culture is (or is not), something I can say similarly of the notion of ritual.

I believe this is an intentional pedagogical mechanism, as a too-early defining of fundamental terms may close off discussion rather than stoke it. How more engaging can we talk about culture and ritual in ways that will fit into our numerous frames of Paganism than by having terms that somehow are layered enough with complexity that they cannot be readily defined and frozen?

So, where does this leave me? For now, I am more convinced than ever that people often use terms in ways that unite or divide without being explicit in how they are using them. For my case, I am experiencing this in the notion of ritual and culture, two terms that are frequently used though not as often defined or at least clarified. In this way, I am really looking forward to see how the professor helps us to move through this messiness, something that while it would be nice to clarify first, likely has a more powerful effect when done later.

By the way, I do plan to add a few blogging posts about this experience, in the hope that somebody (anybody!) may find my own meaning-making while along my path useful (even for what to avoid!!).

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Law, J. (2009). Actor network theory and material semiotics. The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, 3, 141–158.

Sayes, E. (2014). Actor–Network Theory and methodology: Just what does it mean to say that nonhumans have agency? Social Studies of Science, 44(1), 134–149. doi:10.1177/0306312713511867

Solmeyer, A. R., & Constance, N. (2015). Unpacking the “Black Box” of Social Programs and Policies: Introduction. American Journal of Evaluation, 36(4), 470–474.

UNESCO. (2010). Mongolian shamanism. Retrieved from

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Understanding Ritual Experience course I am taking during the Fall of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!

Final Paper Submitted for Pagan Ministry Course

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Hurray; the paper for the summer course I took is now done and submitted! As I recently recounted, this course expanded some of my thinking and boundaries, and I am happy to report it is now complete!

The paper was ultimately called Pagan Ministry and Service to the Earth: An Actor-Network Explication of Ministering to the Spiritual Agency of Nature. It continues an idea I have been exploring, namely ways of thinking about Paganism from an actor-network theory perspective.

I have written many papers in my day (one that continues, thankfully!), though this is the first one in some time I can recall looking forward to the feedback from the professor. You see, I hope to expand upon this and submit it for a couple conferences / publications, so am actually looking forward to critically-helpful feedback this time.

Hope to eventually share it!

BTW, in case you may be wondering, I am using a fresco of St. Francis of Assisi (one who has distinct Pagan tendencies, to be sure!) as his sermon to the birds is about as Pagan as one can get. Hey, who doesn’t talk to birds?! It is along the lines of actor-network theory when we consider how our speaking to them is only one part of a very complex set of network experiences. With so many people looking forward to the Eclipse tomorrow, it is easier to envision how non-human agency moves us to act across networks. When this happens in a way that influences our spiritual response? Now THAT is approaching the area of inquiry in my paper!

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course I am taking during the summer of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!

Implications for Ministry (Beyond People)

While my course on Pagan Ministry is drawing to an end, the questions for my next steps are just the opposite . . . I now have more questions and areas of possible exploration than I anticipated! I consider this a successful course, as I really appreciate learning enough in a course that I end it with deeper and more informed questions!

After all, who wants to take course to learn something new and NOT have any more questions or areas of future inquiry as a result?!?!

When I started the course, I began by thinking of ministry, or ministering to others, in a fairly traditional (i.e., Christian) way. How was I not to think of it as akin to my previous experiences?! Ministering to people was shorthand for helping people to spiritually move forward in a shared direction, and while good-intentioned, often was realized as a form of proselytizing. What better way to spiritually help people than by helping them to accept the same truth as I already have.

Ahh, how limited!!

Like medicine, where we go to a doctor for him/her to help us to the doctor’s perception of what is the best health (for us), or for us to take a taxi (where we go with the trust that they will bring us where we need to go, following the best directions they have based on their navigation apps). If we could do it all on our own, we would not need to seek the help of others, into whose hands we give ourselves. This works similarly with ministry, where it is also common to go to somebody in our tradition for their help to guide us in advancing through our tradition. This assumes that there are people who want to embody this role, though that may be a question for another day.

Yes, I have learned this is not the case when we speak about Pagan Ministry. We may know part of the journey ahead, or aspects of the path, though the ministry–better thought about as spiritual facilitation, support, or advisor–helps us advance in ways that are most comfortable and accessible for our needs. As this involves Pagan practices, which are in various Druidic traditions in my own case, there is less an emphasis on a single, correct path, and more a focus on a single, spiritual path for me right now. This would be even more important if seeking spiritual support and guidance from somebody from another pathway within Paganism itself! In this way, Pagan Ministry would not seek to make a Mini-Me, but rather help me to achieve the spiritual best of me, in whatever way that makes the most sense to me.

Ministering helps people, yet insofar as Pagans engage in the living earth as the source and end of energy and life and spirituality, then so to does ministry need to engage with this broader environment for where, or how, or for whom / what ministry entails. As Pagans are often solitary and eclectic in their practices, to engage in useful and helpful ministry must also encompass an awareness and acceptance of a diversity of meaning-making. If I were engaged in ministry, that means working with people and/or spirits in the earth and world around us.

In this way, ministry does not only involve groves or covens or groups of people, but the very real, spiritual being(s) in and around us. This is the main take away and area for further inquiry that I see coming from this course in Pagan Ministry. As my own understand has broadened, so have those implications and richness in how the experiences can be so much more inclusive than only with people.

As a result, ministry and the spiritual care and support of others has as the most important element–others. One cannot care for nothing, it must be for something . . . yet this something does not have to be limited in human capacity. We can minster to the earth, to the other living and spiritual forces in and around us, and to one another.

Ministry is much richer than I initially suspected, and as a result, I find it broader and more inclusive than simply limiting it to other people, like me. Ministry can be to others, to the Earth, the Spirits of Place, plants, animals, or any who need (spiritual) support.

I really need to consider this in new and expanded ways . . .

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course I am taking during the summer of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!











MBTI (lite) Personality Test: Me! Me?

I dislike tests. Come on, who really likes them, anyway?

However, there are some tests I really dislike. Not those that try to see if you can think through puzzles or know a correct answer or not, but those that supposedly reveal some great truth, or central tendency, in our personalities or beliefs. Can a test really tell me something I don’t already know, or give insight into something I have only guessed at?

I am not talking about the hard sciences like biology (I cannot tell you what my blood pressure is right now, but if I were really upset, I may have other indications!). I am thinking more about the MBTI (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). To be fair, a personality inventory tries to show how seemingly random variations in the behavior really speak to preferences in perception and judgement. It is not intended to say something is right or wrong or good or bad or anything like that, but more to show that this is basically how I see the world (and thus how I may or may not work with others who are similar or different).

That is where I have the challenge — how I was when I recently took the  Jung Typology Test (an MBTI lite version) for the course I am taking is not necessarily how I am now. While it is a free personality test as similar to the MBTI as possible, it is based on the personality type theory test and . . . is already outdated.

I am not the same person I was when I took it, not only because I believe people change and develop all the time (cf. Transformative Learning or the experience of Threshold Concepts), but simple questions on the test just make me feel ill-at-ease. Questions like – You feel at ease in a crowd.

I feel very uneasy in a crowd if it is a party or some other event where there are lots of people I do not know and the intention is to mingle. Yeah, that is where I feel ill at ease in a crowd.

However, I really feel comfortable in a crowd of people I do not know and would ordinarily not know like a train station or busy city street as I like the anonymity it provides (I do live in NYC after all). This is a common experience in cities, where it is not unusual at all to not know many (most? all?) of the people on one’s floor in one’s apartment building.

I feel nothing when shopping in a crowded Trader Joe’s, such as the bizarre lines at their Manhattan locations (you mean all supermarkets do not have lines that require Middle of the Line or End of the Line signs with handlers to maintain order?!?!).

These three examples demonstrate countless ways of internalizing questions, and depending on which one I am thinking of when I take the test would vary wildly in how I answer. Then again, I find that tests such as those often take a lot of my time as I sit there and try to think of which answer would be more accurate overall, though there is really not on e that is more or less common.

As a result of these and complexities in how we make meaning (today, tomorrow, under various conditions, and the like), then 64 questions just do not seem able to capture layers of constantly shifting complexities. How can they, when the interpretations for each varies so widely? Depending on how you interpret the question will depend on how you answer, and add up the groupings across the questions, and we can have wildly different results. Who is to say which is more or less accurate, though with an entire industry built upon pigeon-holing responses, giving them nifty acronyms, and then focusing on team distrubutions based on them, and where does that leave us?

While countless other examples would work, here is another one:
You are easily affected by strong emotions.

Does this mean it affects me internally greatly or it relates to how I respond? Depends on how I interpret the question would give me opposite ends of the spectrum (as if there is only one spectrum for anything!). For example, I am often emotionally upset by things I encounter in the news and world (one extreme) though I do not often bring those into tangible actions (another way of considering affect that would result in the opposite extreme). Depends on how a read the question will be how I answer it and thus, my results.

Much more fond of actor-network theory where complexities in networks of meaning-making factors constantly influence us, and where I am in teh morning may not represent where I am headed this evening.

By the way, in case anybody read this far, these are my results from that one “test”:

Introvert(3%)  iNtuitive(34%)  Thinking(1%)  Judging(31%)
  • You have marginal or no preference of Introversion over Extraversion (3%)
  • You have moderate preference of Intuition over Sensing (34%)
  • You have marginal or no preference of Thinking over Feeling (1%)
  • You have moderate preference of Judging over Perceiving (31%)

This is a link to my results on this test.

Given all this, what does it say about me? More importantly, what does it say about how we will interact, live, love, teach, donate to, help, hinder, minister to, or have dinner with?

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course I am taking during the summer of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!






The Notion of Spiritual Caring

I cannot think about the notion of Caring, one of the elements of Pagan Ministry as articulated in Shanddaramon’s The Five Rings, without thinking of the support and care that Theo provided for his brother, Vincent, during their lives. I have loved the work of Van Gogh for many years, but generally was not aware of the powerful relationship between he and his brother. It was in part to this relationship that I wanted to visit their grave, and took this photo recently while in the cemetery in Auvers-sur-Oise where Vincent Van Gogh, and his brother, Theo, were buried next to one another.

I do not have any evidence that Vincent and Theo had a spiritual connection to one another in a religious notion, though it was clear their profound connection was indeed spiritual in many ways.

Thinking about this from a more academic perspective, offering support for those who engage in earth-based religious or spiritual practices may be something anybody of good will can offer to others. However, it takes more effort than just being kind, and if somebody is doing this as the result of feeling some internal or external notion of calling to provide ministry, it requires a deep sense of spiritual practice, inner strength, and honesty, upon which acceptance, respect, empathy, patience, and trust (Shanddaramon, p. 29) can be built and embraced.

Vincent did this with paint and color and light and texture, though many of us do this with words and time spent with another. As the author went on to mention (p. 34):

People want to tell the truth about themselves; they want to tell their own story – especially to someone that is open and caring enough to listen.

I will go one step further — the attribute of spiritual caring also involves helping others articulate their own stories, as without a single sacred book, set of standard beliefs, or credo of “approved” or expected beliefs / practices, it can be disorienting to even make sense of our own stories without the help of others. It can be hard to make sense of any beliefs that may not be mainstream or fit into clear boxes that others may create.

This can come about through a process of Sacred Listening, where the person engaging in a spiritual care (ministry) actively listens to and helps the person seeking spiritual support to articulate his or her own story, one that is accepted and affirmed as a powerful step in empowerment and self-affirmation. Doing this without judging or rolling one’s eyes or giving direction as to how one should be feeling or doing is the trick. To be fair, this is not meant in a fuzzy or wishy-washy way, but more about helping one to accept and make sense of one’s beliefs, especially when those may not be widespread, accepted, or even recognized.

While not intentionally done as an aspect of spiritual ministry, imagine what loss we would have if Theo did not do this for Vincent?

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course I am taking during the summer of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!