Thinking of Pagan Ministry in France

I have taken a couple days off from just about everything by spending time in Paris and Provence seeing sites, visiting historic locations, imbibing Van Gogh historical locations, and just experiencing a glimpse of what it can mean to be French (insofar as that is even possible to consider for a New Yorker whose French is rusty and clunky at best).

While I have scoured Paris for a taste of Paganism (with varying amounts of luck, mind you), I find myself in an odd situation of being surrounded by religious institutions that have been secularized in such as way that I am no longer sure what is Catholic, what is Christian, what is historical, what is current, what is secular, and what is a mixture of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Is is a very secular nation whose art and culture is decidedly religious.

In other words, France is more complicated than it seems on the surface, which is another way of saying that clear lines and levels of distinction exist in the minds of people, if not in the formal presentation of society. Case in point — while visiting Rêves d’Acier, a fantastic Medieval arms and clothing store where the staff were more than helpful and I walked away with two bags of items! — I asked about Pagans in Paris, and was told there really was not much. When pushing a bit more about Druids, I was told that there are some who call themselves Druids (in French, Druides), though they are only deceiving themselves, for surely none of those Celts who died out over a thousand years ago across northern France exist any longer. Period.

Huh?

Since when do Druids have to only be those historical people way back in time? That is like saying that Catholics are only those who held vast sums of money and participated in the Inquisition and Crusades.

Hmm, good point. It may be tempting to group all people A as those who do B, but that is an oversimplification. We don’t fairly say that about all people who are Jewish, black, women, immigrants, Republican, abortion-rights supporters, LGBT, or any other group, so why about Pagans?

I have heard it said that Christians are only interested in social justice when they are not in power, otherwise they are interested in converting all dissenters. Undoubtedly a knee-jerk reaction to some experiences in some peoples’ lives, but that does not lesson the power of those forces that influence our learning and our becoming who we are today. Personal beliefs do not just appear, they come about through work and efforts and experiences and reflection, among countless other factors.

If we learn that certain things are this or that, right or wrong, true or false, or any other way in a world filled with binaries, it is relatively easy to dismiss those who are different (from us).

Indeed, when visiting the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh institutionalized himself, Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint-Remy de Provence, I was struck by how readily we move about our lives even when not understood, or at times accepted by those around us. I had a couple silent moments to consider this from the room where Van Gogh stayed (see my photo of looking out his barred window, above), I could not help but think that Van Gogh suffered in part as nobody really understood how he saw color and light and texture, and while he may not have been able to express his genius, it only furthered the suffering he felt at not being understood.

After all, he was not understood at the time.

How often do we feel this way?

Can Pagans be very different today, in that it is hard at times to talk about these spiritual experiences as many do not understand the words or the intentions. How many times do I hear (or even have to say), “It is like Christianity, but instead of X it does [thinks, practices, celebrates] Y.”

How wonderful it is when I finally started to read something that captures what I have been experiencing, but have nonetheless been unable to put into words? I am thinking now about the book The Five Rings, by Shanddaramon, that I am reading for my Formations for Modern Pagan Ministry course at Cherry Hill Seminary. Next step on this journey is to process the section on Caring, which is the spiritual advising that Pagan ministers can offer those who spiritually need support. We will be talking about this in class tonight, so looking forward to my own better understanding it so as to share some of it here.


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!

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Rural Provence

The rugged beauty that is in rural Provence is striking in its power and energy and life, even when it seems it may be barren of it at first glance.

The hills . . .

The rock formations . . .

The spectacular lavender . . .

and of course, the nearly single-lane roads . . .

I was in Provence once before, 13 years ago, and it is everything I remember, yet even more. Perhaps it is because I now have a deeper respect for the landscape that appears to suffer under the heaviness of the dry sun, all while managing to not only persist, but to thrive.

It is richer than I recalled, and feel strangely drawn to it.

Suffering and Grace

It is easy to get mired in suffering, whether our own or that of others, and in so doing we become defensive and protective of what we have, often in ways that may be either assumed or puzzling . . . or both. However, suffering focuses on the internal challenges and at times misses the opportunities to experience grace.

Granted, this does not mean that suffering is a good in itself, but rather something that occurs in ways beyond our control or ability to stop. This does not mean we have to react in a certain form or not, as it is our reaction to suffering, the way we can reframe or reconceptualize it, that demonstrates how much grace we have or sense we make of difficulty.

This was a difficult message to make sense of in Ram Dass’s Polishing the Mirror, where he speaks of his own stroke, his father’s increasing helplessness and care needs, and how he could only try to make sense of pain and suffering as an opportunity to learn and grow. Taken out of context, this can seem cruel and heartless, yet that is not the intention. If anything, it is the opposite. Taken as the case that one would not freely choose to inflict suffering, the only thing we can do is reframe it as an opportunity to learn something new through reframing it.

This is similar to seeing all challenges as opportunities — what we face may be the same thing, but it is all about how we make meaning of it. Something to consider when exploring what ministry is all about.


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!

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Conscious Living & Dying

I have been reading about conscious living and conscious dying in Ram Dass’s Polishing the Mirror, and found a combination of profound insights and disturbing thoughts about how to manage the dying of those around us.

To be fair, we do not exactly manage death, but rather do have the capacity at times to manage our response to it.

Dass claimed that our way of relating to death was itself an extension of how we relate with aging, something I recently started to explore. If we deny that we will all die, then we have a tendency to present those who are dying with a false hope that they will recover and things will be ok. Our efforts are much better oriented toward helping them to embrace the present.

Difficult words to be sure, though it springs from the same notion that embracing life as a cycle means that we embrace and celebrate birth, though somehow see the end of the cycle as a finality (though a great many religions teach that it is really a transition into something else, potentially even something better). While modern Paganism has many threads for what happens to people once they die, one of the roles of a minister is to meet their spiritual needs and act like a midwife, though into the beyond.

Dass talks about death midwifery, and while he embraced opportunities related to authentically living and celebrating the many ways that we, and undoubtedly the loved ones who accompany the dying to their final moments, he encouraged us to consider how “death is a reminder to live life fully” (p. 94). While some aspects of his writing in this area did not resonate with my spiritual approach to life (i.e., astral travel with shared  peace between one in a meditative state and the other who was dying), it was overall a perspective that in many ways is pre- or post-Christian (with death a punishment for sin and redemption through death on the Cross and the like). Death is a part of the process, and while we cannot understand it fully, neither can we do that same for birth, either, yet we celebrate one and try to flee or deny the other.

Death is a part of the Wheel of our own lives, and while many unknowns can be scary, it is also something that everybody who went before us has encountered and passed through. It reminds me of the story in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.”

I think Pagan ministry needs to grapple with the concept of death, especially as we may be looked to as we help with the crossing over.


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!

 

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Beginnings with Aha! Moments

One of my book discussion groups, the one internal to AODA members (all are welcome to join!!), is reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Not having heard of it before we started, I was not prepared for how incredibly thoughtful it is, both from a nature spirituality aspect as well as related to its intentionality related to expressing things that have been lost, and continue to be lost, with the active and subtle erosion of indigenous cultures in the continental United States.

Unlike reading most books after the first chapter section (this one being 59 pages long), I am really not sure where or how Kimmerer’s book is developing, so I cannot provide an overview of the book or the meaning I will make of it. However, I am more surprised in the smaller chunks than I ever expected, and find myself gasping at times due to how the author has a way of challenging conventionality through animistic spirituality common in indigenous, native cultures in ways that are surprising, eye-opening, invigorating, and thought-provoking.

I will share four aha! moments I experienced along the way thus far. These are not intended to stand alone and are all within various contexts of the author’s life and meaning-making as she reflects upon her own scientific progress (career) while trying to grok how her indigenous roots present new opportunities for understanding the world around her.

I feel her pain when facing the supposed objective approach contemporary science takes to the study of things, a (post)positive one that allows only for its own ways of making sense of the world to the exclusion of others:

In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other. They’d stand in their own council and craft a plan. But scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication. The possibility of conversation was summarily dismissed. Science pretends to be purely rational, completely neutral, a system of knowledge- making in which the observation is independent of the observer. And yet the conclusion was drawn that plants cannot communicate because they lack the mechanisms that animals use to speak. The potentials for plants were seen purely through the lens of animal capacity (p. 19).

Who am I to pretend I have the owner’s manual to the earth and how all living things on it live and interact with complex networks?

Likewise, when we start to realize that meaning making and reality can happen in ways beyond my own understanding, not everything can (or should) be owned. Private property is important in many ways, though that often happens within the context of power relations. True, it is often intended in a way to protect individual freedoms, it is helpful to notice that the notion of individual is something that implications far beyond my wanting to keep my stuff for myself.

“These berries belong to me,” she said, “not to you. I don’t want to see you kids eating my berries.” I knew the difference: In the fields behind my house, the berries belongs to themselves. At this lady’s roadside stand, she sold them for sixty cents a quart (p. 25).

When we develop land, we often see it as a commodity to be exploited, rather than a home to many living things, many aspects of an ecosystem that happily lived in harmony of sorts since before humans came and carved up things as mine or yours. Why doesn’t the deer or owl or tree have rights to live in that forest when we determine something more to our liking should be there instead, regardless of the impact of that small, human decision?

It follows, in a logic thrown upside down, that:

The questions scientists raised were not “Who are you?” but “What is it?” No one asked plants “What can you tell us?” The primary question was “How does it work?” The botany I was taught was reductionist, mechanistic, and strictly objective. Plants were reduced to objects; they were no longer subjects. The way botany was conceived and taught didn’t seem to leave much room for a person who thought the way I did. The only way I could make sense of it was to conclude that the things I had always believed about plants must not be true after all (p. 42).

It makes me think that those who own the truth or the ability to name things and their characteristics are defaulted a very great power indeed.

That is the opposite of many indigenous or native traditions, ones that seek to live in networks with the world in a way that some sense of balance was accepted and encouraged.

I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” “But,” he said with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here.” “If you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you” (p. 59).

What has happened to our notion of living with, something that descended into a more confrontational pull and take with the world (people, animals, plants, and the natural world itself) around us?