Priesthood in the World We Live In

Readers of my blog know that I’m a stickler for proper terminology, sometimes expounding on the subtle and nuanced differences (sometimes even those that I impose) to distinguish between different terms that are largely used the same, even for words that historically were interchangeable with each other.  I like to be extraordinarily precise with my language, if for nothing else than to save words or to have certain concepts ready to go, though even I acknowledge that it can be difficult with overly-precise language to actually, yanno, communicate with others.  I see this problem frequently in discussions many occultists have—even those I myself have—and why I spend so much time first trying to understand exactly what someone is talking about (with or without snarky remarks about their clearly awful use of terminology) before coming up with a response.  I might spend a goodly chunk of time on just clarifying something, but it prevents the even larger waste of time that happens when someone says one thing but I was thinking completely another thing due to a misunderstanding of what they mean.  Getting lost in translation is a serious problem, especially when so many people don’t have the same research, education, training, or standardization as other people.

Up until recently, I would have held a distinction between the words “priest” and “minister”.  This is a distinction I found online from some blogger or another, though the exact source escapes me at the moment.  Under such a distinction, while both priests and ministers can be considered part of a clergy that works with God or a god, their role and focus would differ: priests focus on serving, understanding, and working with their deity, while ministers serve, understand, and work with the people.  In other words, priests primarily work in a ritual context, and ministers primarily work in an activism context.  The priests and ministers, then, work amongst themselves and with each other so that the ministers help the words of the gods reach the people by the instructions and divinations of the priests, and the priests help the words of the people reach the gods by the complaints and needs communicated to them by the ministers.  Consider the various ministries in Christian churches that feed and clothe the poor (when they can actually still be found); they’re not really preaching or performing Mass for the poor, but they’re carrying out the will of their God by being activists for the sake of the people.  Meanwhile, the priests proper tend to the rituals of Mass, absolution, baptism, exorcism, and the like, but relegate themselves (for better or for worse) to their ritual expertise and less to activist tasks that would infringe on their time and energy carrying out their priestly duties.  Priests only work with the people insofar as to carry out spiritual ritual for them, and ministers only work with the gods insofar as to carry out their worldly aims; beyond that, the two offices don’t really mix.

But here’s a question: if we neglect our fellow human beings, our pets, our lands, our trades, our environment, we leave the world to its own self-destructive devices.  If we neglect the world, we do nothing to prevent its eventual breaking-apart and wasting-away.  In that light, what good is a broken, wasted world to a god?  They receive no sacrifices, no respect, no honor, and no priests; just as we have an investment in seeing the world do well so that we can live well in it, the gods have an investment in the world to make sure their children do well so that they can do well towards the gods.

What I’m starting to realize is that a priest has a vested interest in both their gods and their people; to tend to one necessitates tending to the other.  A priest does not become a priest merely by studying and becoming an expert in ritual; anyone with half a semi-functioning brain can do that, since it’s not hard to memorize a dozen or four established speeches, read out of special books, and make particular gestures with particular tools at the right times under the right circumstances (it’s what most office workers do mindlessly for eight hours a day five days a week, just with different sets of words, books, gestures, and tools).  A priest must be an expert in ritual but must also show devotion to their gods, discerning their wills and carrying it out.  It’s that last part, carrying out the will of a god, that often necessitates the external world of persons and people, though, sometimes to the great distaste of the priest.  In order for a god to be pleased, they need their needs met and satisfied; given that the world we live in has so many people in it, and affecting so many things to such a great extent, many times these needs call for the interaction and direct communication with people.  With no people, many needs of the gods cannot be met; it is often better, for example, for a tribe of people to raise their voice together in joy and honor of a god rather than just one person alone.  Sometimes, it helps our gods carry out their work by performing acts of charity; a god of lepers and diseases who was cast out of his kingdom, for instance, quite often smiles upon money given to the homeless in his name, and a goddess of love and beauty can appreciate her priest helping others feel beautiful for their own sake as much as being recited her own hymns of beauty.

Let’s be a little more misanthropic about this, shall we?  For a more Machiavellian take on this, consider people as tools, as means to an end.  Any good craftsman knows that you need to take care of your tools so that they can take care of you.  If your tools are crappy, you’ll need to make up for it with more work on your part, and we have tools for the express purpose of making our lives easier.  If your tools fall apart, you risk botching a work in progress and can no longer make things you need to make, and if something is broken, you can no longer fix what needs to work.  Getting high-quality tools is an investment, but you can get better results with them faster, easier, and more reliably than with crappy tools, but even crappy tools are better than no tools at all.  If people are tools, then they need to be taken care of the same way: they need food to sustain them, homes to protect them, clothing to dress them, medicine to heal them, teachers to instruct them, pastimes to relieve them, and communities to engage them.  If people are not taken care of, they will die, wither away, revolt, or outright destroy; in general, people that are not taken care of take away from a Good World, and without a Good World to live in, our lives become harder, our hearts weaker, our tongues more bitter, our minds more dejected, our prayers more hollow, our Work less focused.  We are, all of us, in this thing together.  We, too, are tools to be used by our higher powers, and we, too, need to be taken care of.  It’s very much a “wrench in the machine” kind of situation; so long as the entire machine works properly, then each individual part does well, but if even one gear is out of place or if something is put where it doesn’t belong, the entire machine will break down and explode.

To that end, even the most people-hating of priests has to admit that other people will, nearly always, play a part in their own tending to their gods.  There are exceptions, of course; sometimes there is something we can do on our own to tend to our gods’ needs, and sometimes a god has no need of dealing with other people, but these are only ever exceptions to the otherwise vastly-normal situation where the gods have plans and aims and needs that deal with other people.  Communal celebration, tending to our own towns, helping those in need, and making donations where they help are as much priestly duties as are the successful and proper execution of ritual, sacrifice, and devotion.  We must build up ourselves as much as we build up those around us; it’s only when everyone is enlightened can the bodhisattvas themselves catch a break, and it’s only when one person is elevated that everyone can be brought up to their level.  Priests must be ministers, because the priest is the intermediary between the other realms and this world we live in; ministers can help, but it’s the priest who really stands at the crossroads of divinity and humanity, of eternal immortality and fatal mortality.  If there is a distinction to be made between priests and ministers, then it’s just that ministers focus on a non-ritual, non-spiritual subset of the duties of a priest but still in the same service to the same powers.  It’s not that they’re mutually exclusive categories, but that the functions of one is a subset of the other.  Of course, you could very well cut yourself off from people in the ritual service of your deity or deities, but then that would make you a hermit or a monk, which I would indeed reckon is a distinct category from priest.

A distinction I’ve held before (and still hold to) is that we live in three realms: the physical universe, the spiritual cosmos, and the world, which is the intersection between the two linked together by humanity and the human experience; after all, the word itself comes from old English literally meaning “the age of man” (Proto-Germanic *wer + *ald).  We cannot live purely in either the universe or the cosmos, but in the human-made human-filled realm between them.  To be a priest in the world means mediating between the two by the necessary means of the third element: people itself.

3 responses

  1. I’m not sure if the distinction is valid. Especially in a Christian context. According to Christian theology, (at least since the Middle Ages) “charity” is the love of God and Man. So a Christian religious authority by any label who does nothing but hang around the church and do mass and the one who’s always going from parishioner offering counseling, food, money, etc. (and they do still exist in great numbers) are essentially doing the same work.

    And where does that leave the Shaman? Joseph Campbell made the distinction that the priest – especially Christian priests but also pagan ones, were mostly about conducting civic ceremonies to mollify God(s). And ministering to people (though pagan priests were infamous at not doing it in the early Christian era). But the Shaman interacts directly with the spirit world and the gods. Sometimes for his own benefit; sometime for his people. Sometimes with time honored traditional rituals; sometimes through instinctual variations of the same.

  2. Thank you for this, it has made a lot of sense to me from a personal perspective where I had to shift between these roles for an environmental campaign over several years duration.

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