Anyone who has encountered me off line is aware of my love for medieval European history. It is a time period that fascinates me and I frequently do a great deal of reading focused on that time period. Some of my reading is secular, but a good deal of it focuses on the spiritual lives of people during this era. It may seem curious that I draw a great deal of inspiration from the spiritual women of this era of history, especially given that their faith rejects the legitimacy of my own and these people, had they encountered me, would have had severe issues with my practices.
This, however, is incidental to what I find in their works, buried beneath the adoration and veneration of their deity. Yes, these are key elements to their work, but there are other points that cry out to us through the ages regardless of the faith they originate in. Many of the women whose writing exist from this era were monastics or practicing something close to that. (I highly recommend everyone to look up the history of the Beguines and the Beghards. They are fascinating.) When we consider the works of Theresa of Avila, Dame Julian of Norwich, or Hadewijch, we discover they had luminous, intimate, and visceral experiences of their deity. We discover that there is a set of techniques that they employ in their devotional life that facilitates these experiences. And we discover that there is a very clear precedent for deity having a direct influence over a person’s life that is pervasive and can be seen in virtually all areas.
These women are, in many ways, the foremothers of modern monasticism. Through their writings, we find a road map that leads us from the mundane, often profane1, life to a place where we can directly interact with deity and be aware of deity’s response to us. It is at times difficult to express this path to others. In our highly secular society, people who have intimate relationships with the divine are viewed as suspect. Doubly so if their faith is not some flavor of Christianity. Some have declared that there are no pagan monastics because there is no organized body to recognize them. This idea is based in the false assumption that monasticism must happen within the context of organized religion with official recognition from the superiors of that faith. It narrows the concept of monasticism to a very small idea that fails to accurately reflect the full scope of these practices.
I contend that monasticism is flourishing and doing quite well within the pagan community. With organizations like the Maetreum of Cybele becoming more visible within the community, monastic paganism moves from a vague idea to a concrete reality. There are individuals who live as monastics within the secular, non-pagan community. Their practices are no different from those of the anchorites who lived within the medieval communities, not when you consider what their relationship to deity is. They live lives of prayer and devotion to their deity. They observe their taboos and restrictions with all the seriousness that a Christian monk observes his.
Something unique about pagan monastics is that they are immersed into the community at large. They straddle a line between the secular world and the spiritual, forced to balance the necessities of living within the secular society against those of their relationship with their deity. It is a thing that makes them keenly sensitive to how their deity moves through the world and how the world relates to that deity. While there are pagan monastics who are clergy, there are many who are not. In either case, the person who is upon the monastic path are actively engaged in their relationship with deity and serve said deity in devotion that goes beyond what many others do.
It is my opinion that godspousery is a form of a monastic relationship with deity. While each godspouse relationship is different, we should consider that there is a great deal of precedent for the godspouse to be a person who is dedicated to their deity. This is a crucial part of the monastic relationship. When you look at the history of godspousery across the world’s religions, you find that the godspouse is formally dedicated to their deity, oathed to them, and maintains a set relationship that is defined by the deity they are wedded to. While the godspouse has their own needs and unique qualities that make their relationship unique, the major defining factor of the godspouse’s relationship is the deity they are wedded to.
The major defining factors of a monastic relationship are their taboos, their devotional activities, and their relationship with deity. This can be found in every monastic system in the world. The life of a Christian nun is defined by her devotional activities towards her deity, observing the taboos set down in her relationship with her deity, and the special relationship she has that sets her apart from all other worshipers. While there are elements of her life that are parallel to those of about her and the culture she is situated in, they are not the elements that provide especial focus to her life.
If you look carefully, you will find people within the pagan subcultures of the world that have their lives defined by similar focuses. Simple logic would have one then extend the term monastic to them on the basis of the fact that their practices meet the general provisions of a monastic life.
1. I use profane in the sense of that which is not relating to the sacred, also known as secular.