The following post was one inspired by a conversation else-internet from last week, with a prominent modern pagan (who shall remain nameless, unless that person wishes to identify themself in the comments here!), on a certain matter that is perhaps more widespread theologically than it should be in modern paganism, and which might be useful to clarify further.
The initial conversation started when the individual concerned mused on the possibility of getting more deeply involved in some form of pagan spiritual practice, perhaps to the point of pursuing having direct experiences with deities. However, the individual then said something along the lines of “But I’m not sure that I want to be a mystic,” and said that their own role within modern paganism was one that was important and fulfilling and needed to be done.
First off, let me state that I think there are a gigantic and variegated plethora of possible roles for people to play (and by that, I don’t mean that anyone is “just acting” when they assume these roles, I mean carrying out their particular role’s responsibilities, duties, and customs to the utmost of their ability and with all of their hearts, souls, minds, bodies, strengths, loves, and desires engaged to the utmost!) within modern paganism, and I think we’ve only really begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities in this regard. A lot of what gets called “priest-ing” or “priestess-ing” these days can often be called by more accurate and appropriate terms, and I think there’s absolutely no harm in moving toward those more accurate designations, because their inclusion under the rubric of “priest/esshood” ends up then diminishing the actual and specific role of priest/esses, both in the past and in a workable, realistic, and functional fashion for today.
So, let no one state that I am against people playing whatever roles they are meant to play in modern paganism, whether it be some role as a sacred functionary, or some role as a sacred potluck organizer (which might fall under the Irish rubric of “hosteler,” perhaps!). There needs to, in fact, be a lot more of this than there has been; and, the people playing these other important roles need to also realize that just as their role may not automatically entail priestly functions, so too does their role not also necessitate a good understanding of theology, nor does it make their theological opinions useful or informed simply because they have such opinions and are perhaps in a prominent role amongst modern pagans. (But that may be a separate issue…perhaps not, as we shall see.)
The real issue at stake, however, in the individual’s thoughts to which I was responding, is the notion that someone who is a modern pagan and who has had direct experiences of a deity or deities is, thus, a “mystic.” That is a rather common error, I think, and one that is very widespread, and has ended up making the term “mystic” be one that is often self-applied and self-defined rather than something that actually ends up meaning anything. This requires some further explanation and qualification, I think.
In some dominant creedal monotheistic religions, for example, there is often a distinction made between the everyday person-in-the-pews–which Catholicism has called “the laity”–and the clergy and/or “the religious” (i.e. persons in religious orders, whose entire lives are dedicated to the service of their gods, their communities, and their religions, e.g. nuns, monks, etc.). In the mainstream forms of modern Christianity, mysticism is an oddity, even to an extent amongst the religious (and perhaps especially amongst the clergy!), and thus someone who is in the category of the laity and who has intense spiritual experiences might thus–if their experiences are considered canonical and orthodox–be thus considered a mystic. Mysticism is so unusual in mainstream modern creedal monotheistic religions that, despite a mystical basis in much of those religions’ theologies, nonetheless actual mystics are the exception rather than the norm.
Okay, fine. But, what about religions where mysticism is more the norm than the exception?
Some religions have a practice that automatically makes whoever does the practice correctly into a mystic, whether or not they might choose to identify as such. Buddhism and Taoism are both largely non-theistic religions, and yet those who practice them diligently do end up having experiences of “Buddha mind” or satori or of the Tao, which by definition would, thus, make them mystics since they have attained an experience of the essence of their religion. Okay, no problem.
Most practical and experiential religions, thus, are more inclined toward mysticism than creedal religions. I would say, despite some notions to the contrary, that polytheism is a religion in which direct contact with divine beings is pretty much the expectation rather than the exception, no matter how subtle or fleeing such divine contacts might be. It is an experiential religion, and thus it means that if it is working properly, its practices put an adherent of the religion into contact with divine beings in a very direct fashion. This applies to priests and other religious functionaries in pagan and polytheistic religions (including various forms of diviners, oracles, exegetes, theologians, sacred artists, ritual specialists, etc.) as equally as it does to the non-religious specialist–or, what in some other religions would be called “the laity.” When one looks at ancient religions and sees who had dreams of Asklepios, for example, the vast majority of inscriptions on these matters are not priests or seers or other such individuals, they’re everyday people from all walks of life (though they usually have to be relatively financially stable in order to have left an inscription that has survived). The mysticism–if that term is simply understood as “the pursuit of or experience with direct contact between humans and divine beings”–of someone who went to Asklepios’ temple and had a dream of the god which lead to their healing is no less mystical than the mysticism of the Pythia at Delphi, or the priests who wrote the Delian Aretalogy of Serapis. (Yes, there are further distinctions to be made in the mystical experiences of each of those examples, but the discursive category of “mysticism” applies equally well to each of them in its most basic definitions.)
Thus, a non-priestly practitioner of an experiential religion that employs the practices of it and successfully has direct experiences of divine beings as a result is not automatically a “mystic,” they’re “a practitioner of the religion,” or in other words “a layperson” or “member of the laity.” If the person’s entire life is dominated by pursuit of such practices, then they are a mystic (and that mysticism usually gets defined in a further fashion to distinguish how it is practiced and how mystical experiences are pursued); but if one is just someone who, for example, goes to a Wiccan ritual and feels the presence of their Goddess, then they’re just someone who went to a Wiccan ritual and it worked for them.
Or, to speak in terms of the Ekklesía Antínoou, which is the tradition I probably know best (!?!), there are a variety of different levels and experiences and potential engagements with Antinous which can result in direct experience, and not all of them would give one the title of “mystic.” One can simply attend an Ekklesía Antínoou ritual, like Lupercalia for example, and have a pleasant experience of the presence of the god, or feel his peace after one of the prayers, or gain his blessing as a result of the flogging and the race, or any other such matter that takes place in the ritual. This would make one an attentive participant in the ritual, which while it involves what some evaluations of religious phenomena might refer to as mysticism, does not thus confer the title of “mystic” on everyone who came to the ritual (especially if they only come to one ritual in their life, or only do this ritual on a yearly basis, or only do Antinoan ritual generally speaking a few times a year, etc.). Then, there are some people who wish to seek initiation (or, as we often call it, “mysticization”!) in the Antinoan Mysteries. When they undergo this process, it is ideally hoped that it will be the gateway to many more direct experiences with Antinous and to a more active practice of Antinoan devotion; so, afterwards, they become a Mystes, which is pretty much a “mystic” by definition; but still, if they do not further pursue these experiences afterwards, that doesn’t make them a “mystic,” and they may not even be a “mystic” at all times in their life after that, even though they have the title and the recognition as being one of the Mystai Antínoou in the aftermath. Still others may get involved in Antinoan devotion as a result of having had one or more direct experiences with Antinous, and thus these individuals–wishing to pursue such devotional relationships further–might end up being called “mystics.” But, the experiential basis of all of these levels of engagement, involving as they do direct encounters with the god Antinous, are all equally deserving of the term “mystical” as far as their characterization of these phenomena go; but, not all of the above individuals, no matter how powerful or effective their mystical encounters might have been, are thus automatically “mystics” in the aftermath for having had them.
To use a completely different metaphor, think of it this way. I have been on sailboats in the past. I have helped to tie up ropes or raise and lower sails or even handle the tiller on a few boats in my time. I may do so again in the future if I’m in a position to have such an experience. But, I wouldn’t say that I’m by any means a “sailor,” nor have I been one in the past simply because I helped out on a boat on a few occasions.
The life of a mystic is not usually built around a single isolated experience; it tends to be a series of such experiences and a general propensity for them that singles an individual out as a mystic. And, this means that one’s priorities are necessarily different, and are thus incompatible with certain other ways of life or areas of pursuit; and, make no mistake, it also involves responsibilities to the gods that go way beyond what is expected of, or is feasible for, a lay practitioner of an experiential religion. (Hence, the other term in the subject line above: “laborers,” because mysticism does take a shit-ton of work!) Yes, there is a certain amount of mysticism that is involved in a lay engagement with modern paganism and polytheism, and thus there is a mystical quality to all pagan and polytheist religiosity; but, that doesn’t make everyone who practices these religions a mystic, any more than having candles in our usual altar equipment makes every pagan or polytheist a chandler, or use of a few sprigs of juniper in ritual makes all of us herbalists, or that we often sing chants in our rituals makes everyone a cantor or an opera singer or any sort of professional vocalist. That our religion is mystical does not make everyone in it a mystic; that our religion is earth-friendly does not make everyone in it a green-thumb or environmentalist; that our religion is most often derived from English, Greek, and Irish components does not make everyone in it English, Greek, or Irish (or all three!); and so forth.
Further, I suspect that many people who self-identify as mystics–perhaps because they have had a few experiences, or even a single experience–don’t really understand what this means to as full an extent as they should. Yes, I know many people who self-identify as mystics, and almost all of them do deserve the title and use it accurately; but I have also come across some who use it in ways that seem to suggest that their experiences are more deep, rich, “authentic,” or (as if often the case on some subtle or over level) to be trusted more than anyone else’s, and they do so in a self-aggrandizing fashion that may not always be useful or even accurate. This is unfortunate, but as with so many things in modern paganism and polytheism, since there is no central authority and the traditions and lineages which there are often don’t have facility with conceptualizing these matters, there is little to nothing stopping someone from appropriating whatever term they feel they might like or to which they are entitled (and I use the latter term deliberately to indict the very high level of entitlement many pagans feel they have to anything and everything that they might feel an interest in or liking for spiritually), including the term “mystic,” whether or not it is accurate, deserved, or appropriate in a given case. But, that may be a much larger issue as well…
And, perhaps just to fully disclose my own self-understandings on this issue, I should state what follows as well. I have a practice that involves mysticism to a large degree; I have had a propensity towards mystical experiences from a relatively young age, and many of them continue to shape my religious engagement to this very moment (and likely will for a long time). However, do I identify as a mystic? Generally, no, and I prefer not to do so. Why? Because, not unlike the term “priest,” I think it is a rather unspecific term that can mean a great many things and doesn’t tell one as much useful information as some other more accurate and specific terms might. For example, a “mystic” could be anyone from an Orisha priest that has regular experiences of being ridden by Orishas in an Afro-Diasporic religion, to a “meditator” in some form of Buddhism–and, due to the very different nature of these two practices, both of which involve what can accurately be called “mysticism,” the term thus is less useful than describing each of these individuals as what they do. In my own case, I’m a mystagogos, a leader of and establisher of a mystery tradition; I’m also a sacerdos, a priest in public rituals; I’m a fili, a poet and practitioner of the craft of filidecht; I’m a person who practices dream incubation and other dream-based spiritual techniques; and I’m a devotee of a variety of deities, heroes, and land spirits. Each of these things could come under the rubric of “mysticism” quite easily, and thus each of these roles could be described as a “mystical” role, and thus a person who does each of them could be called a “mystic”; however, each of these things can also fall under the category of “spiritual role,” or even more widely, just “a role” or “a thing someone does.” “Mystic” feels too general to me to be as useful as the more specific descriptors, and while not quite as useless as “a role,” it moves further in that direction than in the realm of specificity which, I think, is one of the things that polytheism always has to keep in mind at all levels of its engagement–if deities really are distinct and separate individuals (which they are!), then every time one can maintain that specificity in one’s everyday practices, whether that is prayer to the gods, use of some words over others to convey accuracy and specificity, or even dealing with humans on levels that emphasize their individuality and uniqueness rather than responding to them as members of a group or a type (stereo- or otherwise).
So, one mystical experience does not a mystic make. However, no mystical experiences at all does not make one anything either, and if one wishes to have such experiences (and one’s regular practices of one’s religion–particularly if it is an experiential religion like modern forms of paganism and polytheism are–aren’t bringing them about), then it is by all means a good and valid thing to do to pursue them further. One can do so secure in the knowledge that simply by so doing, it won’t absolutely revolutionize one’s life and force one to give everything up only to pursue further devotional relationships with a deity or set of deities (unless that’s what ends up happening!…but, let’s be honest, it doesn’t usually…), though it should make one’s religious engagement richer and more rewarding in the aftermath. It may very well even make one a better doctor, teacher, lawyer, gardener, journalist, firefighter, dancer, computer programmer, circus tumbler, or janitor (or whatever one’s job happens to be!) in the aftermath as well; but, it doesn’t necessarily make one a mystic always and forever afterwards, or even for a fleeting moment or two.