To commit to a modern pagan practice in Britain is to plant one’s feet firmly in this world. By this, I don’t just mean the natural, idyllic, unspoilt world of our hopes and legends, but in the human, social world as well. This will sound strange if you are aware how many social misfits, outcasts and outsiders of one kind or another are evident at any pagan gathering, but still. Witches are healers; druids are lawmakers and priests; bards sing for all, and heathens work within lines of kin and hearth. What binds us is land, ancestry, tribe: long lines of humanity across the ages, making their mark on their world and each other.
But in all those fragments of differing worldviews, cosmologies, myths and practices; all those contemporary practices and historical accounts that we choose to loosely bind to the term British paganism, there is little evidence of renunciation. In my yoga studies, I was taught early that there are two main approaches to living a human life, although neither is more holy than the other. You can be a ‘householder’, or you can step away from tribe and taxes, and be a renunciate. The choice affects not just your path in life, but the detail and intensity of your spiritual practice too. Of course the reality is more complex than this simple choice. Yogis and yoginis may stay in an ashram for a week’s retreat or a whole season of renewal. Vows can be broken or altered; sannyasins fall in love and choose to leave the life to have a family. Whether for a week or several years, a consistent stretch of time to focus on your personal practice without the pressure of work and family, even students or parishioners, can benefit anyone.
Every spiritual life has phases and spaces of engagement and retreat. There was a time when the British embraced renunciate life with joy. When life was harsher, perhaps, early Celtic Christianity blossomed in far-flung monasteries and convents on the edges of the world. Such places, like the incomparable Lindisfarne, are still places of pilgrimage and can still resonate with the fierce passion of saints. Here were tended and sheltered both the brightest and those unfortunates who fell through the cracks of wider society. Within the walls, hopefully, was a safe haven and a world of different opportunities. Of course, such places could be brutal or even abusive instead. I don’t believe that even the most fervent faith or strictest of rules can shield us from the mean impulses of a heart or the petty spite of our thoughts.
We take our humanity with us wherever we go – flawed and cracked so as to let the light in, as Leonard Cohen sang. But these institutions birthed our charities and universities. They educated those who would never have been able to read otherwise. They were, on occasion, the homes of heretics and troublesome social reformers. And for a long time, they offered a woman a rare gift: the chance of a life on her own terms, not as a daughter or wife or mother or grandmother. A woman defined by her relationship to a God, at least, is no longer defined by her relationship to a man.
There have been other ways to renounce the social world. Many faiths support a tradition of solitary holy men (and occasionally even women.) There are Taoist barefoot masters and Hindu sadhus; shaven heads and saffron robes; outcast poets and wild hermits. To be so moved by faith that you are unfit for human society can be an acceptable reason for unsociable behaviour. But such lifestyles are impossible without a wider culture of support that venerates, or at least fears such mystics. There is enough holy status inherent in the robes that people will donate a simple bowl of rice or a bare space to spend the night out of the rain.
I’m often fascinated by the lives of early female Christian mystics such as Julian of Norwich. No-one can be sure of her given name, which she consciously dropped when she chose the path of an anchoress. These unusual women would live in a one room cell attached to the outside of a church, with one window in to join the services, and one window out to interact with the world. People would petition such women for aid and advice, lines forming at the window for a little touch of holiness. She wrote of her God as having no gender, years before (or maybe after) such an idea was acceptable, and I’m not sure how she got away with it. She also wrote one of my favourite lines in English – copied by T.S. Eliot – a line thus also beloved to a dear teacher, to my husband and to my father.
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”
runs like a mantra through the difficult parts of my life. And to come full circle, mostly it helps to speak or remember it when the human, social world is particularly intractable or unpredictable.
I hear the inner call to renounce and retreat often. This world is alien and complex, with hard edges and sudden drops. There are days when there is just too much information for me to handle, and others that convince me that the whole human endeavour is on a runaway train and running out of track. The first story I remember my father and I reading together is Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’. (“For I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”) Every spiritual or esoteric teacher I met for years suggested I work on being in the world more. And once, whilst on a ‘Living Druidry’ course with Emma Restall Orr, we were challenged to spend increasing amounts of the night alone in the woods. Coming back at dawn on the last weekend, I brought my dilemma to her: the thing is, I have no problem going into the wild woods, my fear is with coming back. She told me I was too vital, too needed to disappear, and I meditated on my struggle with that for years.
I can be in the world because I know that I’m not unusual. Just as a lot of my daily practice is about being comfortable in this life, this world; so too I think a lot of my daily work is helping others find a moment’s ease here too. We can be honest enough to admit, at last, that this world we have built is not as we imagined it. Perhaps we can therefore help each other to find sources of support, spaces of retreat, and habits of daily living that strengthen our hope and will to find a better path. It’s important. Perhaps it’s the most important thing we can do right now.
I don’t believe we’ll survive unless it’s together. Inside the sanctuary or out, our humanity comes with us. And we are more even than a species – our planet functions as a single organism, and no matter how tiny you feel, your life and what you do with it matters. So the only thing I can ask of others is to engage where you can. Live this life as if you give a damn about your place in it. It’s too easy a habit to snipe from the sidelines and pretend that you risk nothing by doing so. Can I even be vulgar a moment and remind you to vote, with the full disclosure that this is the first time I’ve voted for a person (as opposed to spoiling a ballot in disgust and despair) since I was eighteen? I’ve written why elsewhere.
And I leave you with this, because sometimes I think I would give it all up tomorrow and leave you to it – dragging my man and my cat off to find a hidden glen or wind-swept island somewhere – if it weren’t for two facts. Firstly, I’m not sure there are any such places left, and I don’t want to go looking only to find out that all the wild corners of the world have finally been fracked or drilled or built over with a five star boutique romantic getaway for rich people. And secondly, because otherwise it would be so much harder to find, and show you, things like this:
“When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you. “
— David Whyte
from The House of Belonging