I feel like I’ve been living this question for most of my life. Here’s where living that question for so long has brought me, and I think it has implications for those who call ourselves Druids. I’d be interested in your thoughtful comments on this.
A priest is an official functionary. Priests make certain things happen in an official capacity for people. Those “things” are fairly limited in number and scope. They include weddings or hand-fastings, sacrifices, funerals-in short, mostly rites of passage from one place to another. In this capacity, the priest is official, meaning that he/she has the authority to perform these passages and is granted that authority by the community that she/he serves. In this role, priest is entirely functional, so it really doesn’t matter what kind of person the priest is, whether he is intelligent or not, whether she is spiritually connected or not, whether he is even respected or not. The priest functions to make certain passages happen for people in the community.
A priest is a community’s human symbol. This one is a little harder to wrap words around, but I am certain that it is a different sense of priest than the functionary. In this sense, the priest is a living and visible connection to a larger set of beliefs or archetypes or meanings for a community (and therefore, is related to the third sense below). Priest in this sense may or may not also be a functionary for the community. Likely, the priest as living symbol has led the community in meaningful ritual, but also may have worked with individuals in something like a spiritual direction or spiritual counseling relationship. The priest as living symbol may have done shamanic work with the community, but here, the sense is not so much what the priest has done for the community as what the priests embodies for the community. Because of this, respect, spirituality, and human qualities matter. The community looks to the priest in this sense not so much for what he can do but for what he allows them to see in themselves and in the world around them. This leads to the third sense of priest.
A priest is one’s way of being in the world, one who is constantly weaving meaningful connections for self and for others. Priest in this sense may or may not ever function in a public role, may or may not ever conduct rites of passage, may or may not ever be recognized officially as a priest or be called priest, may or may not be a living symbol for the community. But, a person who is priest in this sense understands herself to be a priest–likely to have always been priest, to be on a journey in the world driven by the desire and the delight in making meaningful connections. One who understands himself to be priest in this sense simply must make meaningful connections whether in the garden, in human relationships, by interpreting his dreams, by writing poetry, by painting, by listening deeply, by meditation, by working magic, by any of a thousand means that human beings make deep, wise, transformative connections. One who understands himself to be priest in this sense must do these things like he must breathe. With or without any public or official status, she knows that she must do these things. She is priest.
I have experienced all three of these aspects of being priest (obviously, since I am able to describe and write about each). There may be other aspects of priest that I have not experienced (and therefore, cannot describe). I enjoy being a public functionary. I especially enjoy creating rituals and rites of passage for and with my communities, whether they are my Druid community or my UU community or others that I have served (Methodist and Catholic). I have been the living human symbol, and while I know how to be in that role, I also find it the most stressful aspect, and one that can take its toll on the priest. That may be more of a commentary about me and how I handle that aspect than about that aspect of priest. My own experience is that the degree to which the community has developed its sense of deep symbolism is the degree to which the priest may be that public human symbol in a healthy way.
I have always known that I was priest, even before I had the word for it. To some degree, my early life as a child shaped me to learn how to make connections and to look for them. Some emotional survival was involved in learning to do that. I cannot rule out, however, that to some extent I came into this life with the third aspect of priest in place, part of me, woven into my fabric. Was I a priest in a previous life (if there are previous lives)? Were there priests in my genetic line such that the energy of priest flows down the line to me (if such genetic energies work this way)? Is there simply a kind of human being born for this way of being in the world? That I can raise those questions means that to some degree my answer to each of them is a qualified “yes”. I also have to say, though, that from my experience I think that this way of being priest, of finding and making meaningful connections, belongs to each human being and that some of us, for whatever array of supporting conditions, wake up to it. Maybe one set of those conditions include that I have enough leisure in my life to wake up to this priesthood while another person, so stressed and harried by the conditions of life, does not have that leisure. I am open to that possibility as well. Regardless of the prevailing conditions, here I am, and I know myself to be this kind of priest whether anyone else recognizes it or not.
This third kind of priest, in my experience, is also the kind of person who early in life has experiences which she will later learn to call “shamanic”. This kind of priest will be able to look back on his early childhood and identify experiences that he calles “natural magic” or “visions”. He may have had encounters with deities, with faeries, with nature spirits. She may have heard or seen things that no one else could hear or see. Likely, at some point, this kind of priest has had an authority figure in his life tell him, in so many words, to stop these kinds of things. This kind of priest learned early on that she would have to take these experiences inside herself, underground, and out of sight. Sometimes, this kind of priest, while young, is so successful at burying his priesthood that he forgets that it is his. One day, she may wake up to it suddently, and the experience can be devastatingly confusing. Yet, he will come to see that this is his true self that he has rediscovered.
In the larger community of Druids and Celtic pagans, the term “Druid” is often used in the same way–which raises a question that I think all self-identified Druids ought to consider. Is being “Druid” the name of a religion, or is being “Druid” really about being a priest for oneself and for a community? I have more than once watched Celtic Reconstrucionsts become rude and obnoxious toward those of us who call ourselves Druids. I think the rudeness and obnoxiousness is a different sort of problem (not mine to fix), but I do think that they have something to offer us in this regard: historically, Druid was the title of those who were public functionaries. Some of those public functionaries were also respected as living human symbols. Others of those Druids were quite capable of deep, meaningful connections with nature, with the gods, with the powers they perceived in the land, sea and sky around them. These type of Druids were likely sought out for their wisdom, for their healing abilities, for protection. I can also imagine that in later times, these were the types who continued to practice the “old ways” in solitary and hermitage forms of living simply because it was the only safe way to do so.
The more we journey together as an Order of Druids, what I continue to find myself seeing is that we are not providing a religion called “Druidry” to people so much as we are providing a group of Druid/priests who hold all of these functions for a larger community. Think about it. At any of our ritual gatherings, there are always more who show up at our rituals who are not self-identifying Druids than there are those who are Druid members of the Order. They show up because they want and appreciate the rites of passage that we offer. They identify something meaningful in those of us who are Druid members. They may benefit from what any one of us shares with them one on one in conversations before and after the rituals, in emails, in private counsel, in shamanic work, in healing work, etc.
For me, to be Druid is to be priest. That will always be true whether I am a public functionary or not, whether I am viewed by anyone as a human symbol or not. I will likely always be studying what I can of the ancient threads of Druidry. I continue to learn the stories that I was not told as a child. I continue to learn about the ancient Celts and their Druids. Very often I run into things that I already “felt” in my soul, and I encounter other things that I don’t so much resonate with, and sometimes it’s both! For example, Bruce Lincoln in his book Death, War and Sacrifice discusses the Indo-European proclivity to see sacrifices as reforming creation or the universe while the universe itself gives shape to creatures in the creation. The IE practice of offering sacrifices in order to sustain the cosmos feels deeply familiar to me. All of my life, I have been creating altars and making sacrifices on them–of stones, of flowers, of plants. At the very same time, bloody sacrifice has no place in me. I understand, intellectually, how that was part of the IE way of doing sacrifice including, likely at times, human sacrifice. My point is this: I continue to study; I continue to learn, and often enough, I experience what I am studying and learning as an echo of something I already know. Not always! But often enough.
What is a priest? What is a Druid? These are my musings. If they stir something in you, post comments and let’s discuss.
Derwydd Derw a Daear