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.

Everything In Moderation

Greece and Rome and the rest of the Hellenic world back then was big on drinking parties (not like much has changed since).  These would be called symposia (sing. symposion or symposium) or convivia (sing. convivium), overseen by a symposiarch who would lead the drinking and make sure things didn’t get too out of hand.  One of the duties of the symposiarch would be to make sure the wine was appropriately mixed; unlike current wine, which is all roughly the same proof, straight wine was damn potent back in the day and required mixing with water to make it properly drinkable in moderation.  To drink unmixed wine was seen as a mark of barbarism, but symposiarchs who diluted the wine too much were made fun of for being weak and wusses when it came to quaffing the fruit of the vine.  After all, moderation in Greek society, and later Stoic Roman society, was a big thing.

Plus, a long time ago (375 BC), in a galaxy far, far away (Greece), the god of the wine and vine Dionysus said this, according to Eubulus:

For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more – it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.

Basically, three servings of wine (the krater was the large mixing bowl) was the recommended amount, any more beyond which was just too much.  Of course, plenty of art, stories, and writings exist that show that this three krater limit was hardly ever observed, but it goes to show that moderation in what people do, especially those of command, was key to maintaining a good time to make sure you don’t have too much party in you.  It was the symposiarch’s job to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, and if he himself got too drunk, everyone else likely would, too, and then things kinda get messy in every sense of the word.

If the leader of the drinking party had this much responsibility, and had as much to risk as Dionysus had warned from too much indulgence, imagine how much worse it is for the leader of one’s world, life, sphere, and surroundings.  Imagine how much worse than that it can be for a magician who taps into the forces determining one’s world, life, sphere, and surroundings.  I’m not saying that entheogens or indulgence or ritual intoxication are bad, and far from it.  But moderation in luxuries is something that’s pretty much mandated for someone involved with forces as volatile as we manipulate.  People can be denied security clearances for being alcoholics or drug-addicts due to the sensitive nature of their work, and that’s just on a worldly level.  When you get involved with mundane and supramundane levels all at once, even more care and caution needs to be exercised.

I’m not trying to be a killjoy (I am a dirty, dirty whore for sangria, after all), but I’m noticing that not only can I not party as hearty as I used to even a few years ago, but when I do overindulge and end up on some bathroom floor or other, the consequences are becoming ever more annoying for me, physically and spiritually.  This might just be my experience, and I’m only talking about the few parties or bar outings a year that just so happen with me having a few too many drinks with a few too many shots each in them, but when one is trying to lead a holy or magical life and get out to view the other spheres, it’s hard when the body and mind are drunk with mistakes.

Even Hermes Trismegistus said as much, in the Divine Poemander:

O ye people, earth-born folk, ye who have given yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of God, be sober now, cease from your surfeit, cease to be glamoured by irrational sleep…[ye] earth-born folk, why have ye given up yourselves to Death, while yet ye have the power of sharing Deathlessness? Repent, O ye, who walk with Error arm in arm and make of Ignorance the sharer of your board; get ye from out the light of Darkness, and take your part in Deathlessness, forsake Destruction!

Next time you’re out enjoying yourself, be sure that you’re the one making the decisions and enjoying them, and not the alcohol doing it for you.