[This issue, we sit down with Janet Munin, who recently edited the anthology, Polytheistic Monasticism. Here, she discusses how the collection came to be, and what she learned while compiling it.]
ev0ke: You edited Polytheistic Monasticism: Voices from Pagan Cloisters, which was just released. First, congratulations! Second, how are you defining “polytheistic monasticism” for this anthology? Can you give us some examples?
Janet Munin: It’s been a fascinating and exciting project to work on.
In this context, “polytheistic monasticism” is a shorthand for “polytheistic and animist monasticism in the modern Western polytheistic and Pagan revival.” As described in this book, it is a path – a vocation – of putting devotion to one’s gods and spirits at the center of life and then reinforcing that commitment through a structure of practices like devotion, simplicity, contemplation, formal prayer schedule, etc. The structured nature of the lifestyle is what differentiates it from other forms of devotional polytheism.
For example, one essay in the book is a detailed description of how a Druidic monastic developed a cycle of prayers and rituals for daily, weekly, lunar, and seasonal observances. Her life is built around maintaining that cycle. She and others – but not everyone! – wear special garments which simplify their clothing choices, provides a constant reminder of their commitments, and sets them apart from others. But it’s important to remember that – like every other aspect of modern polytheism – there is no single, official way to practice and no one authoritative definition. People develop their own observances based on their personal beliefs, temperaments, relationships with Holy Powers, and etcetera. Likewise, a person could engage in many of these practices but not be a monastic.
ev0ke: How did this project come about? Why a book on polytheistic monasticism?
JM: Like a surprising number of other polytheists, I felt drawn to a monastic life but didn’t have any frame of reference for it in my own religious context. I went online to do some research and found the Black Stone Abbey website, run by Danica Swanson, which was “a contemplative dark incubation retreat inspired by pre-Christian Norse and Germanic religious and folk traditions.” I connected with Danica via social media and discovered that we had a mutual friend who had been telling each us for years that we needed to meet the other. I traveled from Seattle to Portland to meet her face-to-face, and we discovered we were indeed kindred spirits.
After my initial meeting with Danica, I wrote a post about it on social media and about my reflections on whether or not “pagan monasticism” might be a path for me. To my surprise, several people chimed in about their own interest in and curiosity about such a path, and I remarked to Danica (who was part of the conversation) that with this amount of interest but so little information, someone should write a book about it, or at least edit an anthology about it. And heck, maybe she and I should do it! One of my best friends is close to John Michael Greer and mentioned my spontaneous comment to him. The next day she reported back “John Michael says that if you do it, he’d be happy to contribute.” And that was that. Danica’s professional writing career prevented her from being my co-editor, but she supported me throughout the entire process as a consultant, reader, and cheerleader.
ev0ke: Does polytheistic monasticism differ markedly from the monasticism we see in monotheistic religions (such as Catholicism)? If so, how? If not, why do you think they are so similar?
JM: A few of the major ways in which polytheistic monasticism differs from Catholic monasticism include:
- There is no official body defining the forms and practices, no hierarchy enforcing faithfulness to a particular Rule of Life. There is no external gatekeeper deciding who does or does not qualify to be a monastic.
- Polytheistic monastics are almost entirely hermits, living and practicing alone rather than as members of a community. Only a few very small communities exist at this time. A Catholic nun or priest who wants to become a hermit must have that vocation approved by a Bishop or other religious authority.
- Catholic monastics are part of a huge and wealthy organization which provides for all their material needs, including health care. Polytheistic monastics do not have that support.
One of the fascinating things about monasticism is that you find very similar practices in different religious groups around the world and across time. Even when beliefs differ, we are still dealing with the human mind and soul, and the same spiritual technologies arise when humans focus on interaction with the Divine. As I mentioned in the beginning of the interview, structure is very important in a monastic life, especially in regards to regular, consistent devotional practices. Simplicity is a hallmark of monasticism, as is the re-ordering of priorities around what the Holy Powers value rather than what materialist society values.
There has been a big movement toward lay monasticism in the past decade or so, not just by Catholics and Episcopalians (who also have religious orders), but those from other Christian paths who want to share in the serenity and structure of monastic life but do not want to take full monastic vows. There are interfaith monastic movements too, some of which do have buildings or property of their own. The biggest thing that separates polytheistic monastics from these groups is polytheism itself.
Modern Western culture is monotheistic by default. Even atheists tend to reject belief in “God” as defined by the Abrahamic traditions rather than other concepts of deity. Monotheism rejoices in unity. Members of different monotheistic religions, or even the spiritual-but-not-religious, who very often are “culturally monotheistic”, can meet comfortably in an “interfaith” community where terms like Source, or Father-Mother God, or Creator, are used to invoke the Divine because “it’s all just different names for the same thing.” But that doesn’t work for polytheists who rejoice in the diversity of our Holy Powers. And polytheistic monasticism reflects that diversity. The challenge to us is that however much a polytheistic monastic may yearn for community, it’s a lot more difficult to find that community with people who may have very different practices rather than those who gather and seek unity around specific, defined symbols.
ev0ke: The anthology features essays by eight individuals who are pursuing a monastic life. How did you decide whom to include? Did you have certain individuals in mind, or did you put out a call for participants, or both?
JM: I put out a call for submissions over social media and had no idea how many responses I would get. And I should clarify that only seven of the contributors are monastics. John Michael Greer does not follow that path. I included him because the chapter “The Hermitage of the Heart” in his book The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy was frequently mentioned as a source of inspiration by the participants in the Forum of Polytheistic Monastics (which regrettably is now available only as an archive). A couple of other writers submitted history or theory-based essays, but I made the decision that, with the exception of JMG, I would only include writing by practicing monastics.
I should add that I myself am not a monastic. I engaged in discernment around the path while I was working on the book, and discovered that although I find the concept of monasticism very attractive I am not suited to a path which involves so much repetition and structure.
ev0ke: What most surprised you in these essays?
JM: The biggest surprise was the lack of writing about the emotional element of devotion to whichever Holy Powers the individual served, and the lack of stories about being called by the Powers specifically to monasticism. Clearly someone does not enter this lifestyle without a very strong commitment to the Powers, and devotion is expressed throughout, but no one chose to focus on that. And as far a sense of “calling” went: living a monastic lifestyle seemed to arise organically from an individual’s circumstances and temperament rather than being something that was asked of them by the Holy Powers.
ev0ke: What advice might you offer someone who was considering a life of polytheistic monasticism?
JM: What distinguishes monasticism from other devotional paths is the high degree of structure combined with a deliberate withdrawal from much of what is considered “normal” life in order to focus on spiritual practices, and not everyone has the temperament for that. Anyone considering a monastic path needs to engage in a process of discernment in which they deeply contemplate why they feel called to the path and what their gods/powers want from them. As is the case in so many of the polytheistic, animist, and Pagan paths, people are free to determine for themselves what they want their monastic practice to look like, and there is no requirement of a lifetime vow, so the discernment process has a different tone for us than it would for someone contemplating joining a specific order in another tradition. That said, vows are a part of monasticism, as is persisting through the long haul, including the boredom and the dry spots, keeping up the regularity of practice for its own sake. It is an overarching vocation, not just a set of practices. I think a certain amount of stubbornness would be important. (laughs)
I would suggest that a person who wants to explore monasticism select a single practice and make a promise – to themselves and to their gods – to observe it steadily for a couple of weeks and see how it goes. Were they able to keep the promise, even when they didn’t feel like doing so? Did the practice enhance their connection with the Holy Powers? Did it feed their soul? Do they hunger for more? If it does feel right and good, and if the Powers support it, add an additional discipline and accompanying promise, and proceed gradually from there. If the initial experiment didn’t turn out well, try again with a different practice, because not all practices are suitable for everyone. But if you find that you’re bored, or feel like you’re not benefitting from it, and your gods aren’t urging you to go deeper, then maybe it’s not the right path for you. I’d like to say that it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing,” but one of the characteristics of monasticism is that it provides the fundamental pattern for a person’s life. However: a person can integrate elements of monasticism into their life without needing to become a full-fledged monastic. For example: a person can adopt a practice of praying at specific times throughout the day – which is a characteristic monastic practice – without being a monastic.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?
JM: I don’t want this to be considered “my” work. It belongs primarily to the contributors who shared their stories. The book is available in paperback and e-book format from any bookseller in the U.S. and also in Europe. Just search for Polytheistic Monasticism.
ev0ke: You said that you decided you are not a monastic. Are you going to do more work in this area?
JM: No, but I’ve been delighted to see that a lot of people are excited about the book and some are saying they were sorry they never saw the call for submissions because they would have wanted to contribute. It’s my hope that someone else – or several someones! – will see this anthology as an invitation to broaden the exploration of and conversation about monasticism. It’s a very deep and rich spiritual path, one which many people can benefit from learning about and being inspired by even if they don’t have the vocation.