Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Religion - what we make public, what we keep private

As members of a reconstructed, work-in-progress religion, Celtic Reconstructionists, and Polytheistic Reconstructionists in general, are in an odd place. I believe our ancestors had many of the same attitudes about privacy as are found in contemporary indigenous religions: You don't share ceremony, or details about ceremony, with outsiders.

From ancient Celtic formulas like "I swear by the Gods by Whom my people swear", it seems clear that people probably didn't even share the names of their deities with outsiders, let alone the details of their religious practices. In other cases, we know that collections of traditional prayers and poetry such as the Carmina Gadelica are so valuable because, while a practice may have been fairly common knowledge, the actual prayers that accompanied that practice were usually a well-guarded secret. So much so that in some families where the practices may have survived, the prayers did not.

Fast-forward to my childhood in the seventies. The lines that passed down our ancestral, earth-honouring spiritualities have been broken. Bits and pieces - some of them rather substantial - live on in folklore, some customs and beliefs survive in our families, but no contemporary individual has inherited a completely intact, fully polytheistic tradition that covers all the needs for rites of passage, healing, seasonal ceremonies and other cultural rites that were lost or subsumed by Christianity. Misinformation about our ancestral traditions is so common, even the sincere can rarely get a foothold in anything authentic.

Some of us, perhaps many of us, were raised in families where religious experience is something private. Pre-Christian customs that survived - such as blessing the fields with fire, holding bonfires on the holy days, reciting charms for healing or other forms of folk magic, or even performing divination and leaving offerings for the spirits - have usually been stripped of religious meaning. In order to survive, these customs generally had to be Christianised or secularised. If we're really lucky, a deity will be still attached to a practice, though usually now remembered as a saint, ancestor, or "fairy" - this is the way aspects of polytheism survived into the present day, even if those aspects were generally minimized enough to not be threatening to monotheists. In other cases, something that was once an offering to a spirit or deity is now just done "for luck". In most cases that I've seen, surviving Celtic customs are "just the way we do things," without a lot of analysis or religiosity connected to them. It's more cultural than religious.

As I grew older, I hooked up with others who wanted to rebuild something more authentic, and we were able to start putting together the various bits of folklore with the pieces in manuscripts, along with the personal religious experiences we were having as we worked with the traditional material and experimented with reconstructed forms. By combining the manuscript traditions with the folklore, things were fleshed out a great deal. But then the choice we had to make, the only way to rebuild something that worked for more than one person (or small group of people), was to overcome that natural sense of privacy and discuss things more openly... even to the extent of publishing some details of our practices in articles, books or on the Internet. This has created a certain tension; one that is not going to be resolved in the near future.

Mystics have always been rare. I think that even among our ancestors who routinely noticed the intrusion of the Otherworld into this one, or who attended the cultural/religious festivals and left offerings for the spirits, there were only a minority of the people who were really connecting deeply with the spirits and deities. While we can get some hints about their degree of openness from what was recorded in the old manuscripts, and from what people were willing to reveal to those who recorded the folklore, we don't know for certain how much of the deep information they chose to share with the community at large.

It's possible that the modern hesitation about discussing personal religious experience has always been there, and the tendency for many modern spiritualists to gush publicly about their experiences is an anomaly... so much of an anomaly that it drives outsiders away - even those who may be sympathetic to spiritual work or even a variety of practitioner themselves. It's also likely that the knowledge that some things were kept private has led to the tendency for some people to fill in perceived gaps with pure fantasy or things stolen from other cultures, rather than doing the hard work of looking deeper into the actual cultural practices. Just because not everything can be found in the books or family lore doesn't mean it wasn't there; but neither does it mean that what was hidden is going to bear no resemblance to the more well-known practices and beliefs of the culture.

There is also the tension between wanting to share our deep, personal religious experiences with a wider group, and the vulnerability that comes along with that. Sometimes I, and others, have really wanted to not share, and to have newer people work it out on their own. When people work it out on their own, there is more of an opportunity to see if they're really keying in to the spirits, as well as to tell if they're going to pull their weight in community. But not everyone can work it out on their own. This is at the core of some of the ambivalence I've had about teaching. I've found for myself that if someone is really enthused and working on their own, I love sharing with them. But it does take mutual trust to be able to share the really personal stuff, and I have to feel like it's reciprocal - that they're also being vulnerable.

We're at an odd point with CR. Sometimes (often, actually), there can be stuff I would really prefer to keep private, but I sometimes take the risk of making it public in an effort to help people get an idea of how to build their personal or small-group practices, and in the interest of helping CR grow. We do have a lot of things we keep private, but if we keep everything private a lot of people will have a much harder time finding their way.

At times, I have been surprisingly neutral about whether I want this tradition to grow, and how much. If CR can help people live their lives in a more honorable manner, if it can spiritually nourish people of Celtic heritage so they don't feel the need to rip off the religion of other cultures, if it can lead people to treat the Earth and her creatures with respect... Yes, I want CR to grow. But I'm also not interested in pushing it at anyone, and I care more about quality than quantity.

And I care deeply about making sure that people don't co-opt CR as just another term under which they can promote their fantasies, lies, or cultural appropriation. We started CR to avoid all those things, so imagine my horror on the occasions where I get an inkling that some people might do that.

We will probably always have our solitary mystics, our outsiders, our people at varying points on the social/family spectrum. Our private sorts and those who are comfortable sharing publicly. But ultimately, the future of CR is in rebuilding home groups and extended communities where people feel nurtured and supported on a group level, and the religious and cultural practices of CR are inseparable from the rest of their lives. Some of us are lucky to have that on a small level, whether with intentional families or our families of origin, but to truly be a living, vital tradition again, we will need to reach a point where that is the norm, rather than the exception. I see us heading there; all we need is time.

The tension between private practices and public sharing is a situation that won't be resolved until CR is more established, and we have more groups and experienced teachers who can work with people who've earned their trust. Ultimately, some of the resolution will only come when we have another generation or two who have been raised in the religion, learning these customs in an organic way, but now with the religious aspects re-attached. At that point, I think we will be back to a more natural state - where extended families (of origin and/or choice) will have their private practices, and you will have to work with people in person to join the tradition. We have some of that now, but I believe it will grow as we have more people who belong to stable, in-person groups. I look forward to that time, and I hope I live to see it.

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Read this post in Russian: Кэтрин Прайс. Религия - о публичном и приватном


Mike H. said...

Hail Kathryn!

The public vs. private debate is big in the Germanic (heathen) community as well. I'm not sure there is a single right answer.

There's clearly value in protecting what we refer to as the innagaard (inner circle, or community of believers) from the utgaard (everyone else, literally those on the outside).

Yet at the same time, given that we are reconstructionist... and that we live in a cyber age... and that there are probably many people out there who sincerely want to know and would benefit from this sort of information... it behooves us to be as open as possible.

For myself, I am comfortable in a teaching role and share as much as I possibly can. I leave it to the gods to sort out the rest. :)

Mike H.
Two Ravens Kindred

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Fàilte, a Mhìcheil! My apologies for not responding here at the time, but I realize I've been lax about that when also communicating with people in more private fora.

What I've found when working with the traditional songs, tales and prayers, is that they are self-protecting in that people cannot really understand them without the cultural context. There is a wealth of deep, spiritual material in the Gaelic traditions, that has long been in the public domain. But unless people are willing to spend the time immersing in that river of tradition, the material will remain opaque to them. I find it's those who have not delved into tradition who are complaining that I don't just give them a word-for-word script that will enable them to do effective ceremony. There are so many things that can't be learned, understood, or utilized that way.

What was going on for me when I wrote this was I was under a lot of pressure to post detailed scripts of ceremonies, in public. I was not comfortable with that type of sharing. One reason is the tradition of people having to demonstrate trustworthiness and good character before being entrusted with some ways. Another reason is because my groups work so much with inspiration, with spontaneous poetry and the cultivation of that talent and ability, that unless it's the inclusion of a trad piece of liturgy, it feels very weird to me to write up a script. The theater in-joke I've relied on for years with this is: Even if you aren't able to do improv, you should at least be off-book by the time of the performance. Ceremony isn't a performance, but the type of huge rituals the wider Pagan community expects from us kind of have to have some theatrical along with participatory elements to work for that large a group.

I think the large ritual your group led was an effective adaptation of a household/small group rite to a much larger group (and I enjoyed how harmonious it was to do the parts in Gaelic). It gave me much to think on about these adaptations, as well as what we have surviving in the way of traditional community celebrations in Gaelic cultures, and how they overlap or differ from household or clergy-only rites.

Ultimately, in terms of ceremony, I've been sticking more to using traditional material with smaller groups. That seems to work for me the best, though I also enjoy doing the larger celebrations at the cultural festivals, as well as Interfaith work with folks like you and my friends from Indigenous cultures. Right now there are so few Gaelic Polytheists, for a sense of larger community one really has to do Interfaith and cultural groups. Others find that community among Neopagans but, much for the reasons we discussed that weekend, I have a lot of serious differences with most of that community, and prefer other culturally-rooted folks.

Again, Moran Taing for your words and your work :)