Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Different Strokes

In Defense of Being a Specialist and Why It's Ok to Be a Layperson

In reading a recent article about laypersons in polytheistic and Pagan religions, and in reading the original article it is based on, and it has inspired me to make a few observations about being a layperson, being a priest, and the nature of hierarchy. The positions of layperson and priest carry different expectations, different responsibilities, and different statuses.

I will never be a star basketball player. I will never be a rocket scientist. I will not invent the cure for cancer. I won't be a decent architect, ever. I have my own unique set of talents and gifts--as do we all!--and I appreciate the amazing talents other people have. Everyone is gifted in some particular way and that is what makes a person special in their own area of expertise. This is why we have the word "specialist."

Polytheist priests are special: they are specialists. They are better than a layperson at connecting with the deities and of maintaining devotional practice to the deities and the ancestors. This is what they do. And they have worked tremendously hard to be where they are and to do what they do.

A concert pianist playing Chopin on a grand piano is better than someone ineptly tapping out Mary Has a Little Lamb on a toy piano. Eventually, with enough work and enough devotion, the one tapping out simple tunes can eventually become a concert pianist. But if you compare them at that moment when one is a concert pianist and the other isn't, the two are not the same. One is clearly better than the other at playing piano. It's wonderful to embrace that moment of a learning process, whether or not the person will ever become a concert pianist. But it's misguided to act as if the two, master and layperson, are of equal value at that task at that time.

Some laypersons can experience the deities while others don't. That's ok. It's good to work at devotion to try to grow in one's connection to the deities whether or not one experiences them. Improvement, learning, and just plain simple devotion are laudable goals. And it takes a tremendous amount of devotion to honor the deities while never having a divine experience--sometimes it's outright painful. It takes honest assessment to recognize where a person is in matters of religion and to cherish that place. Indeed forcing an encounter can be detrimental and damaging.

Being a layperson has fewer responsibilities, requirements, strictures, structures, and sacrifices that are demanded of a priest. If you're a layperson, be that, be that fully, and live a strong, beautiful spiritual life. Being a layperson is a different practice, of a different weight, in a different position than what a priest does. This is not a competition: we all serve the deities as best as we are able, layperson and priest alike. One can embrace the place one is in while still respecting a specialist. One can even support a priest with one's own expertise. I'm not good at making devotional art, so do I ask another priest who is also bad at making devotional art? No. I call an artist!

I would accidentally nuke myself if I ever did my own electrical work. Electrical work is nothing to take for granted: it is dangerous--so is being a priest. Would I love to become an expert electrician? Sure, but I don't want it badly enough to overcome my own talent deficiencies in that area, nor to devote a good chunk of my life learning and becoming certified in the area, or paying for the education. Just because I'm a layperson in that area, it doesn't make me any less of a person to appreciate the electrician's gifts, her hard work, her knowledge, and her status. Appreciation of another person's higher status in a field does not make us less of who we are.

What makes a priest special in comparison to a layperson in religion? Years of devotion, knowledge, and leadership make them special. What they do on behalf of the community is special. Physical, financial, and emotional sacrifices make them special. Undergoing the dangerous rigors of spirit on behalf of a community makes them special. It makes them worthy of respect. It makes a priest a religious specialist.

If you don't want to become a priest badly enough to serve the deities with your very breath, body and soul; to honor the ancestors, and devote your life completely to these matters; to take on some risky spiritual tasks at times; and suffer sacrifices far beyond the point of convenience on behalf of community who may never know or thank you, that's ok! You don't have to. If you need someone who will do these things, it is time to call in a specialist and give them the honor they're due for their expertise. But it would be misguided to put oneself on the same status as a priest because one believes that "What I do is just as good as what a priest does. Besides, I want to do these things to be a priest, but I can't! Life just gets in the way. If it weren't for all of that, I'd be a priest. So we're all the same. I mean, they only make a couple more offerings than I do anyway, right? They're not so special!" This attitude demonstrates a lack of understanding in what a priest does and what a priest is. Also, in this matter, can't is a code word for won't, because being in the priesthood means making the sacrifices so that can't do becomes will do anyway. There is a hierarchy in the system. And thank gods for that. Just as I wouldn't trust my electrical work to a layperson, I would not trust my religious needs to a layperson.

I used to be the type of person to think we are all completely equal in this area. At least a decade, plenty of hard work, listening to some tough words, and making many painful personal sacrifices later, I have learned that this is not the case: I was wrong. To believe that we are all equal in religion and spirituality is just as erroneous as believing we are all equal at Olympic figure skating. It cheapens the accomplishments of an Olympic figure skater. It also takes a competent non-Olympic skater who embraces her passion and gives her instead unrealistic goals and forces her to meet expectations that aren't compatible with her own life's work, her talents, her needs, and her wants.

Living in an era of participation trophies has lessened that which is special and has given false significance to meeting--but not exceeding--a baseline expectation. An aggrandized acclaim for the normative at the expense of expertise may save a few fragile egos, but it does so at the expense of failing our deities and our communities, and giving us an exaggerated sense of reality. It's made us hesitant to speak openly about hierarchy and expertise. We are uncomfortable with an honest assessment of abilities, goals, needs, and wants. And sometimes it leads to a false pride which makes it awkward, even distasteful, for us to honor or even admit a difference in status. Sometimes it's even led to artificially inflating one status while denigrating another. Hierarchy was a big deal in many ancient polytheistic religions. In ancient Canaanite culture, letters have formulaic greetings depending on the status of the letter's writer to the receiver. It is common to see "seven times seven I bow to you from afar." Even in a king's letter, he mentions bowing to his mother at least one time in the letter's greeting. So hierarchy is an important matter to our ancestors, and worthy of our consideration. Do I bow to people in respect, and do I bow to people at appropriate times? Yes, I do--both figuratively and physically.

To put a priest on the same level of hierarchy and expertise as a layperson is to misunderstand a layperson's role and to give a layperson spiritual work that isn't in keeping with her own life goals and talents. And it is to disrespect a priest, the priest's learning-lineage, the priest's knowledge and sacrifice, sometimes even the priest's ancestors, and certainly the priest's deities who can act through the priest. Oftentimes the slight is unintended, but it is there nonetheless.

Being a layperson is great, and so is being a priest. If you can't dedicate your life to your religion like a priest does, that's ok. It's not expected of everyone. Whatever it is you are, whatever it is you do--do it well, be it well. Be passionate about it. Live with honor and put the deities first in your life. Make your ancestors proud. Respect your elders, and appreciate your experts. This is what is expected of us all.

Today is
28 Ra'shu Yeni, Shanatu 85
It is the 28th day of the lunar month of Ra'shu Yeni (the month of New Wine). It has been 85 years since the rediscovery of the city-state of Ugarit (in modern-day Syria) from whence we have gained our sacred texts. Our next holiday approaches shortly--'Ashuru Mothbati, the Festival of Dwellings. It falls on the eve of the next new moon and signifies our new year. This year, it occurs on the evening of September 4th.

Image Credits
Photo by Wakalani, used under Creative Commons License. 


  1. You make an important point here. One of the many things I like about the teachings of the Buddha (vs. Buddhism as a cultural/religious thing) was that he was clear on this. There were things/teachings that were important for monks, and things important for house-holders, and while the roots were the same, the teachings were not.

    I'd be a wretched priest, but I am good at what I do, and am unlikely to kill myself or burn down my house doing my own electrical work!

    1. And if I did my own wiring, I'd make myself a burnt offering! Thank you, Ulf, so much for learning and practicing the mysteries which I may never understand. ;-)