Welcome back to discussing the second part of the first chapter of To Walk a Pagan Path: Practical Spirituality for Every Day by Alaric Albertsson (Book stats: 275 pages (10 chapters), published by Llwellen in 2014). Last time, I talked about my impressions of the first few pages and the idea of a dedication rite. This time, we are actually getting to the seven steps mentioned in the title! Please keep in mind this isn’t really a review, but rather a summary and commentary. Also, I’ve found that one or two of these topics are likely going to become topics on their own for future posts, so this post doesn’t become its own book!
1. Connecting with Spirit–Albertsson’s first step is to find your connection with the Divine (which is probably one of the best first steps one could suggest in how to live your religion). He offers some practical advice on finding which gods to worship, on finding a pantheon or mythology* that appeals to you, perhaps because you’ve been “called”, or perhaps based upon your heritage, or perhaps just because you’ve done some reading and picked something that interested you. He then suggests picking a god to make an offering to as the start to building a relationship, and describes the process of making an offering in a clear and easy to understand way. Like many polytheists that have chosen a specific pantheon to work with, he is fairly dismissive of eclectic Pagans (more on this shortly). And finally, almost as an afterthought, he brings up the subject of connecting to spirits in other ways–ancestor spirits and land/nature spirits.
If I have any complaint throughout this book, it is that Albertsson (understandably, mind you) has a bias towards tradition-specific polytheism (because, you know, that’s his path). As a result, his discussion of non-traditional contemporary Paganisms and eclecticism are underwhelming at best and in some places, more than a tad presumptuous (if I’m feeling uncharitable) and naively stereotypical (if I’m feeling more kindly)–“there are many Pagans today who take a more scattered, eclectic approach to connecting with Spirit, leaping from one pantheon to another, collecting “patron” deities as if they were Hummel figures.” (p 17). While it didn’t lessen the value of most of the advice in the book over all, I did find it to be an unhelpful distraction at times. I bring this up because I feel that it is important to recognize that one can absolutely have a worthwhile polytheism that is eclectic in nature (although I also recognize that there are practitioners that live down to the negative stereotype that is often levied at eclectics), also because I think that his discussion of connecting with spirit could have done a better job with ancestor spirits and land/nature spirits, and it certainly leaves out suggestions for non-theist Pagans. I strongly feel that the book would have been better served with a thoughtful look at eclectic Paganisms and a more in-depth look at non-deity centered Paganisms (something that I plan to blog about as its own topic).
2. Creating Sacred Space–After finding one’s connection with Spirit, Albertsson recommends that “your next action should be to establish a place where you can maintain and continue to build that connection” so that “there is some place in your home that is sacred and set aside for your gods” (p 19) (and/or presumably for your ancestors or nature spirits). He suggests that one’s sacred space (for devotion is an altar and that one’s altar should reflect the culture of the deities of worship–“the sacred space you reserve for your gods should be a space where they can rest comfortably” (p 19) before turning to the practical concerns of space itself and how “out” one is as a Pagan, the benefits of outdoor altar space, and of altars dedicated to one’s ancestors**.
I strongly agree with Albertsson’s assertation that establishing sacred space is of paramount importance in a Pagan practice, though my own take on things is a bit different. First of all, I view all space as sacred…we don’t create sacred space, we just acknowledge our own belongingness (to invent a work) to a particular space (which is already sacred). Functionally, it’s about introducing ourselves to the land–in a land-based practice, you don’t pick the gods you worship, the land does (and they won’t always be from a single pantheon). Secondly, I don’t see an altar as essential to sacred space and I differentiate between altars and shrines in my own practice. An altar is a place for working–for rituals, for magic, for crafting, also for mundane work…it’s a workspace that acts as a conduit (for lack of a better word) between us and outside energies. Shrines, on the other hand, “house” the essence of the object of our reverence…a shrine (IMO) is the place for offerings, for devotional prayers and meditation, etc. Additionally, I feel the former can easily be moved or stored and taken out when needed (a travel altar, for example), but the latter is something that should be established in a semi-permanent location where it doesn’t need to be moved or taken down. Third, in my practice, because is is rooted in the land first, rather than being centered around deities, acknowledging a belonging to the bioregion and introducing yourself to a particular location is how you find your connection to spirit, so this step 2 is really my step 1.
3. Creating Sacred Time–“If you do nothing with your altar, it is not truly an altar it is merely a table or shelf holding an incense burner, a couple of candles, and perhaps two or three interesting statues. The activities that take place at that table of shelf–the reverence, the offerings, and the meditation–are what give meaning to your sacred space.” (p 23) Yes! Paganism is a religion based in praxis; without practicing, all you have is a shelf of dust collectors. In this section, Albertsson talks about the fact that life happens, and the importance of consistency. Because, as he says, there is always going to be something happening that will let us feel justified in putting it off until the next day. His recommendations include setting aside a specific time for doing this. Practically speaking, that might be during a certain event of your day after you wake up or while you wait for your morning coffee to percolate, or it might be at a specific time each day (in my experience, setting your alarm for this is a good idea). Whether its 5 minutes or 15 or 50 isn’t as important as consistency. And it doesn’t have to be every day–maybe it’s just once or twice a week. Albertsson’s advice (and I concur) is to pick the smallest time commitment that you can reasonably stick with…if you can’t stick with it, then it’s not reasonable for your lifestyle. His last advice here regards the interruptions that life brings to even the best laid plans, “When something like this happens, attend to the problem but make your sacred time the next highest priority. If you put it off any longer than necessary, you diminish its worth.”(p 26)
4. Sacralize Daily Activities–Albertsson’s fourth step is to “integrate our spirituality with the rest of our lives” as our spirits are “sustained by the mindful actions you take to sacralize your daily activities” (p 27). He explains his tradition’s “Hal Sidu”, or “holistic tradition” (I call this “artem vitae”, which is Google Latin for “art of living” and my summer sister*** calls it “nuanaarpoq” which is an Inuit word that means something akin to “taking extravagant pleasure in being alive”) as an integration of our spirituality into the everyday of our lives. I won’t spend too much time here, since his third chapter is pretty much dedicated to this idea, except to say that this sacralization might be while you do dishes or take a shower or when you drink your first cup of tea (whether you are interested in Wicca or not, Diane Sylvan’s Circle of One has some great ideas on this topic). Or maybe it’s mindful eating and before meal prayers, or meditation while swimming laps or while running each morning–you name it. As Albertsson says, “Any worthwhile pursuit can be a sacred act.” (p 29) As I put it, let every action or our bodies be a prayer of our soul.
5. Observe Regular Húsles –Perhaps this would be better titled “Observe regular rites” or “Observe regular Offerings”… According to Albertsson, a húsle (sometimes called a faining) is his tradition’s “formal offering usually given to a specific spirit” (p 29). With that being said, what Albertsson is really calling for here (as opposed to a regular schedule of making offerings) is a ritual practice that is “more formal that a person’s ordinary devotionals” that “recur at specific times” and often are “observed with a group rather than one’s self” (p 30). Some examples of this from other traditions, include blots or esbats, or any other regularly religious observation–what he isn’t talking about are actual holy days (that’s #5 on his list).
If I were to call out any of the 7 steps as perhaps less important (or maybe even unimportant) for some individual paths, this would probably be one I’d single out. I think that whether or not regular formalized religious rites are useful to you will first depend on your personal connection with spirit. If one has a mostly (or entirely) solitary practice or a practice that isn’t deity-centered, perhaps a weekly or daily devotional practice in combination with seasonal observances is enough for one’s needs. From personal experience and observation, I also know that this depends on the conditions in one’s life–not every community has a Pagan community, not every Pagan community has fellow members of one’s own tradition or welcoming to one’s own tradition, and not every Pagan community is accessible or amenable to one’s personal needs.****
6. Observe Holy Tides–The next step is a set of seasonal observances that recognizes the significance of the passage of time throughout the year. Albertsson mentions a number of possibilities here–following the contemporary Pagan Wheel of the Year, whether in the Wiccan form or some other adapted way, or to celebrate an annual calendar from another culture. As he puts it, “The important thing is not what calendar you follow, but that you consistently observe the hold tides–the holidays of that calendar. By doing so you touch the earth, attuning yourself to the seasonal change occurring around you.” (p 32) I’m not going to spend too much time discussing this step now, since it’s the very next chapter!
7. Find Your Folk–“Humans, however, are social, tribal creatures, and the overwhelming majority of us are happier when we can share our life experiences with others… Our celebrations, whether secular or spiritual, are more fulfilling when we are joined with others of like mind”(p 32-33). Albertsson takes some time in this next step to talk about the benefit of having some sort of non-solitary practice, whether its is a single family or a formal group–support, advice, assistance, fellowship, and friendship, to name a few. He also offers some practical advice in finding the “right people to enter into such a relationship with” , from the practical–compatibility of beliefs and membership expectations, to the precautionary–that active recruitment of new members can be an indication of something not being on the level. This last step is another that might not be up everyone’s alley, for a number of reasons (many of which overlap with the reasons from step 5). For those where a local community doesn’t mesh with their own practice or beliefs, online communities may be an option worth looking into. While the worship aspect would be difficult, the community aspect–advice, support, assistance, and friendship is not.
*I have a wee complaint here, on the author’s “dislike (of) the word mythology because of its secondary definition meaning “something untrue”(p 14), as I have a very broad understanding of mythos which is comfortable with the idea that myths are “untrue” (if by untrue one means not factual). As its a disagreement on semantics, I figured I’d keep it out of the main body of discussion.
**Albertsson takes a “not necessarily limited to your biological lineage” (p 22) approach to ancestors, which I like (= have issues with the bloodline idea of ancestry.
***My BFF since high school and I have long called ourselves summer sisters from our decade of summer canoe and camping trips together, before we’ve had to become long-distance BFFs.
****This might be a physical need such sign language interpretation for Deaf Pagans at Pagan rituals, or it might be a lifestyle need, like child care for Pagan parents that would like to participate–while I can’t personally comment of the former, I’ve long been a follower of Deaf Pagan Crossroads, and know that this (and other) barriers exist for many Pagans…but on the latter, I can definitely comment that Hubby and I often felt unwelcome once we had (mobile) children (if I couldn’t leave them at home) at the very events that we had faithfully attended when it was just the two of us. Many Pagan groups and events that I have encountered don’t have adequate support for families, particular when the kids are between the toddler and early elementary ages.