It’s really weird to think of myself as a religious convert, sometimes. (I talked about it a bit here.) I’ve always associated conversion with a few things, namely leaving one religion behind, entering into a new religion, having some kind of official ceremony to mark the end of the conversion process. My own experiences don’t line up with those expectations at all; I was raised in an a-religious household, I don’t actually belong to a religion that anyone else is a part of, and I’ve never had any kind of ceremony or acknowledgment that I’m officially a part of something. Nevertheless, I am a convert: I actively sought out a religious experience different from what I was living, and I have changed my behaviors and attitudes to reflect the new religious experience I have. I do not persist in the manner I was raised, and I went looking for that change with enthusiasm and a deep need.
I notice, under the pagan umbrella, that a lot of converts have something in common: a struggle between the role of a lay-person and a priest. I think this stems from a few different things. Wicca is still a huge influence on the pagan community, especially in publishing, and I don’t doubt that many new pagans are still learning about Wicca before any other pagan religion. Not to say that it’s a starter religion, because it’s not- but book Wicca is very, very accessible. Initiatory Wicca is a religion of priests, though, and while I suspect book Wicca is only a faint shadow of its initiatory predecessor, it is still oriented around priest-work. When it comes to cultural polytheism, much of our information on ancient religions comes from the priests, and focuses significantly less on Joe Hotep and his onion-hoeing. The archaeological record speaks for the average person a little more, but there’s a frustrating lack of context there that must be accounted for. So when new pagans go looking to historical sources and reconstructive practitioners, the majority of what they’re seeing is once again coming from priest sources. Finally, the simple fact of being a convert leads us to wanting to know the Right and Best way of doing things; the natural and casual integration of faith into daily life by the layperson can make the convert feel like they’re not being devout enough, that they’re letting their gods or their co-religionists down.
I’ve said on more than one occasion that I am not interested in being a priest. But I regularly struggle with being drawn to the more formalized aspects of faith that is part of being a priest (at least, of many of the priests I’ve observed.) I lack that intuitive sense that people raised in a religion have for imbuing action with meaning; I don’t have that foundation of symbolic meaning that links the different bits of my reality together in any cohesive manner. Additionally, because I don’t belong to a religion, I lack actual co-religionists, which means I don’t have access to any kind of community work; I am thoroughly without structure, from any kind of community or hierarchy, and it often leaves me feeling adrift and demoralized. Of course, the reality of being on one’s own means that even if I did take up the mantle of priest-work, the structure it would afford would still be of my own making- it would probably just be more formalized than what I have now.
People often enter into short-term arrangements or agreements when it comes to their gods and their practice; in some ancient cultures, being a priest was a short term job, and not a lifelong calling as it is commonly perceived today. Could I be a priest for a few months? Or a seasonal priest? What would that look like, I wonder?