After Class Musings on Blessings, Authority, and Clergy
Ok, so i’ll preface this by saying that after several days of significant ritual work (this time of year is an incredibly intense series of holy days for some of us, ones that focus on honoring the dead, and particularly our ancestors), I’m so tired I could just about face plant into the keyboard. Dragging myself into class today was very, very difficult (thank the Gods for coffee) but I’m so glad I did.
I just got out of my morning theology class wherein we were discussing religious leadership, authority, and the positive and negative ways one can exercise authority. We’re discussing all of this through the lens of the play “Doubt” (which I highly recommend) which has several, occasionally ambiguous clerical figures who exercise different types of authority within the milieu of the play, and today was a particularly meaty discussion. Eventually the conversation percolated around to Joe Biden recently being denied communion and one of the class members noted that a decade ago it was common for LGBTQ+ partners to be denied communion at the funerals of their partners, spouses, etc. and I nearly had to leave the classroom. I can think of nothing more vile than desecrating a ceremony for the dead, and violating someone’s grief by interjecting one’s own politicized interpretation of religion into it. It made me sick to even contemplate.
Yes, traditions have rules and scaffolding but there is a time and a place to enforce that; there are the hard line rules on paper and the compassion that should be shown to a person in pain when they show up on your doorstep. I have trouble conceiving of anyone who calls him or herself clergy causing such harm at the moment of a person’s greatest vulnerability: when grieving the death of a loved one. Frankly, I think it’s obscene. There are things that I think a religious leader ought to teach (namely how to engage properly with the Gods) but things like abortion, LGBTQ+, etc. are not (within my tradition at least) religious issues but rather social ones, and each devotee needs to hash his or her feelings on those matters out with their Gods. My own feeling is that the Gods created us exactly as we are and there is NOTHING in our theology that teaches that we are sinful due to our essential natures and nothing that condemns same sex attraction. In fact, quite the opposite. I think we are called as clergy to carefully tease out our own socially programmed ideas of what is licit and right with those supported by our tradition and Gods. That can be really, really difficult but before we take positions of liturgical authority it has to be done (and granted, it’s an ongoing task. I don’t think this is something that ever really ends) and if you’re not sure in a given situation, err on the side of compassion.
We also read an article that posited that the primary role of a priest was the act of blessing. Of course the article specified “Christian” priest but I’m opening up the field. The whole class got me thinking whether or not there are circumstances where I would ever deny a blessing to someone. I think I spent most of the class contemplating this. I’ve been a priest since 1995 and I’m a hard ass, I admit that. I believe our first obligation is to protect and nurture the tradition that the Gods have given us, so that we can pass it carefully into the hands of the next generation. Still, I’m not sure it’s my place to ever deny a blessing from the Gods to anyone, not when I’m acting in my capacity as a priest. If someone who had spent the better part of the last decade slandering me and spreading baseless rumors and lies came up to me and asked for a blessing, once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I’d give it. It is not for me or any human to determine whom the Gods might bless. Even the language of blessing reflects that humility before the Powers. The most common phraseology for a blessing is “May the Gods…” or “May the Lord…” or “I pray that…” It’s the hortatory subjunctive. We are asking that a particular God or the Gods in general do a thing, not assuming that They will, not demanding that They will. We are asking and exhorting. That to my mind is hugely important. It expresses syntactically our awareness that it is not for us to command the Gods nor to deny Them what They will have done. It puts our own place in the cosmic hierarchy in stark relief and that is good and maybe even necessary. We may always ask of our Gods, but the moment we think to command Them, we overstep and egregiously so.
I also think there is a certain lack of integrity in assuming that the Gods hold our position on political matters. Firstly, we should not need the Gods to tell us not to be horrible human beings, not to be cruel, not to hate someone just because of whom they might love, or whether or not they want children, or x or y or z. These things do not violate the scaffolding of our traditions in any way. They are not relevant to how we might or might not engage with the Holy Powers (the purpose of religion). Therefore, they are not licit categories on which to exercise pastoral authority. Moreover, we cannot as clergy speak in such a way for the Gods without risking hubris and without risking serious potential harm to those we are trying to guide in their devotions and in rooting themselves in our traditions. It gets a little more complicated for polytheistic clergy because we are traditions of diviners, but even with divination, it is a translation and interpretation – unless direct Deity possession happens, which is a whole other can of worms I’m not going to discuss here. We do have our oracles and those who carry the Gods, but they are special cases and for every rule there is an exception and ways to engage within those exceptions with integrity.
This is one of the reasons why divination is such a sacred art and why those who do it need to study, pray, cultivate piety and devotion, cultivate humility, and keep themselves brutally clean spiritually (because these things foster clear communication with the Gods and ancestors, which is the main purpose of divination). Here, more than anywhere else in our traditions, there must be self-awareness, personal responsibility, integrity, and care. We must be utterly precise in every possible way, not just the words we speak, but the tone, the language, the shading, the expression with which we speak it. At the mat, we are interlocutors for the Holy and if we err by interjecting our own personal views onto the matter, if we do not clarify, clarify, clarify, we are responsible to the Gods for our error and it’s a grievous one.
All of this means owning our needs and desires, our opinions and fractures, and most of all our emotions utterly. The diviner’s mat or priestly setting are two areas where it is utterly irrelevant how we as civilians feel. Those things can be dealt with later. We must be centered, focused, and in clear communion with our Gods when we are exercising the authority of those roles and if we can’t do that, then we have no business whatsoever taking on those responsibilities. This is why it’s good to be challenged by one’s support network, to work under supervision, to have elders and senior clergy to whom to turn. This is why any personal agenda other than honoring the Gods well and acting with integrity to sustain Their traditions is so damned dangerous.
And…now I need to rustle up more coffee.