Pagan Paths

Cat Treadwell — professional Druid and nature-mystic - gives us a perspective from the English countryside.

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Follower or Leader?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs
Paganism is one of the most democratic of spiritualities, right? It allows each of us to maintain and explore our own relationship with deity, practice pretty much as we like, and generally find like-minded people to work with along the way.
Except that it's not that simple (of course). We like to think that it's all sweetness, light and friendship, but as with any human philosophy, there are speed-bumps on the road that we're travelling.
Something that I've been really coming up against in recent months is the issue of hierarchy. If Pagans can each hold their own method of worship, then why do we even need leaders? Perhaps rather naively, I used to assume that each person understood that following a spiritual path involved investigation, constant challenging of the self and their chosen Way - otherwise it'd be far simpler to just find one of those other faiths with a set doctrine and follow that (less thought and effort required all round).
But there are always going to be different levels of experience - which can be both a good and a bad thing. Good, because it's nice to have others to learn from and chat about spiritual experiences with (books just don't engage in conversation as well); bad, because I'm sure you've encountered those self-styled Elders who have become subsumed by their own Public Image and vanished up their own Netherworld.
Ultimately, I have confidence that active and intelligent Pagans will vote with their feet in the latter circumstance. The easiest response to an egotistical High Priest/ess is to smile politely and walk away (after all, if you are, then others can probably see the silliness of them too). However, we all have to start somewhere, which is the time when we're vulnerable. I've known quite a few self-styled Pagan Leaders who have simply set themselves up as an Authority on whichever path they choose in order to recruit the gullible Newbies. This results in them having their egos massaged daily and (yes really) some willing skivvies to do their housework for them. Ta-da: instant Pagan Cult.
Isaac Bonewits dealt with this very nicely in his ABCDEF. There's enough information out there for folk to discover for themselves when they're in such a bad situation. But while this may not reflect Paganism as a whole, it does give us a bad name - and is actually an easy trap to fall into.
I'm still travelling about at the moment (hence the lateness of this post - apologies!) with book-signing events, talks and workshops. On one hand, it's pretty fun. I get to meet genuinely curious and interesting people, and roam around doing something I love. On the other, it's just about paying for the travel and book costs, and is physically and mentally quite gruelling. I'm not complaining, but there's a balance to be found, and I'm not quite sure I'm there yet. I've done more work as a self-employed Priest and Author than I ever did as a salaried office-jockey (but I've made my choice, and I'm certainly sticking with it!).
I joked to a friend last weekend (whose house I was staying at) that it would be the simplest thing in the world to set myself up as some sort of Druid Guru. People come to me wanting to hear what I have to say, but also (to some extent) eager to be told some sort of mysterious esoteric practice, the secrets of the Universe, or some mystical link to our ancient Ancestors that validates what is actually a very modern faith system.
Such an idea makes me want to run for the hills. Leader? Not really. Guide? That's more like it...
I always explain that modern Druidry is, of necessity, a very fluid spirituality, evolving to maintain its relevance. We don't know what those ancients did all those centuries ago - and, honestly, if we lived today in ways that were 2000 years out of date, we might be lucky to just end up arrested. Human sacrifice is slightly frowned upon these days, as is hunting with bladed weapons or waging war on a neighbouring tribe for their land (in the UK, at least).
While humans are, have been and always will be humans, with certain priorities (eat, drink, procreate, entertain, argue, die), customs and societies have changed. It's easy to see where certain religions have not quite moved with the times - homosexual marriage, abortion, female rights, etc - or where they have: tattoos as illegal, capital punishment for blasphemy, female rights, etc. We learn from our ancestors, not copy them verbatim.
Druidry has always called to me because of its flexibility. It is highly personal, with different places having their own unique characters, allowing you to form and explore relationships as you would with any other person. I consider my deities intelligent enough to gauge my intentions, no matter the language, so long as I speak with sincerity and honour. My life is a combination of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, balancing those elements as much as Earth, Air, Fire and Water. My way is my way - yours is yours. They may overlap, but they will diverge too. Vive la difference, after all.
However, when I speak of this, I'm essentially putting very tricky, subjective and amorphous concepts into words. I do my best, but sometimes I see folk nodding while not truly listening... because I'm not saying what they want to hear. They want the spells, the secret codes, the ancient rites. They don't quite see that this is what I'm telling them - it's just up to them to try it for themselves and work it out. 'Try it and see' rather than 'do what I do'.
Druidry (and Paganism as a whole) requires work, focus and intention. You can't coast along, hoping that it'll work out. You can't blithely read a spell from a big leather-bound book with fancy calligraphy and expect it to go exactly as you wish - even Mickey Mouse found that one out.
You can't find a teacher who's done all the hard work, so you don't have to. With any luck, you'll find a guide you can talk to, whinge, wail and cheer at as you go through your own initiatory experiences. But this requires give and take, fair energy exchange. What are you bringing to that relationship?
Is it worth it? Absolutely. It might not be exactly what you expect, but one thing is for certain: life as a modern Pagan is never dull.
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Cat Treadwell is a Druid Priest living in Derbyshire, England with her partner and animal family. She is a professional ritual celebrant and multifaith worker, travelling throughout the East Midlands and beyond. Her first book, 'A Druid's Tale', is out now. Cat is a Trustee of The Druid Network, as well as Regional Coordinator for the East Midlands Pagan Federation and member of OBOD. She is a regular speaker on BBC Radio, and has appeared on BBC News representing The Druid Network and East Midlands Ambulance Service. Cat welcomes questions and comments - please feel free to get in touch!

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