Why I Quit Caring About Formal Ritual and How That Made Me Better At It

I’ve always loved the idea of formal ritual. There’s something so entrancing about saying sacred words and processing deosil in a circle, about setting up a beautiful altar, about inviting in the elements with their representations, and about blessing the sacred space. These things are wonderful for getting into a magickal headspace, and doing them repeatedly over weeks and months and years are what make ritual, well, a ritual!

The formal elements of ritual were essential to me when I was starting out as a solitary new Pagan. Having a tradition that others followed (in my case, Wicca, when I was starting out) with shared sacred words was an extremely powerful experience. It gave me a script to follow and served as a template to learn what was important in ritual. However, I got so caught up in the trappings of ritual that I almost never actually did one.

I felt like I needed to cast a perfect circle every time. I needed at least two hours that I could devote to communing with the Divine, after cleansing and consecrating the space and assembling my altar with my elemental tokens. I needed to say these particular words and do these particular things. With all of these requirements, ritual became a daunting task, instead of a happy celebration. So, years passed where I didn’t do a formal ritual because of various excuses: I didn’t have the tools, or the space, or the time.

When first I joined my Pagan community, my rituals had been few and far between for many years. Finally, I got to see how others did ritual – and everyone’s rituals were so different! There wasn’t a set script to follow, like I had been holding myself to all of those years. There were some common elements, yes, but no one did them in the exact same way. If the members of my community were presenting rituals with such variation, why couldn’t I mix things up in my own personal practice?

So, I tried to make my solitary rituals more regular, experimenting with the different components, trying out new things, and keeping what I liked. This worked well, for a time. I had a consistent personal practice, even if my rituals were just on Sabbats and Full Moons. I love the active participation (ritual is, after all, one of the things that drew me to Paganism in the first place), but something was missing. I almost never did spontaneous ritual, and when I did, it required a bunch of preparation, and didn’t end up being quite so spontaneous after all. I was still stuck in thinking that I had to do things a certain way or they wouldn’t be “complete.” That left very little room for Divine inspiration. My rituals sounded and looked pretty, but I didn’t feel very much of anything.

When I started to more seriously pursue a relationship with Aphrodite, I knew that something had to change. I needed to commune with Her, but I couldn’t take two (or more) hours out of my day multiple times a week to do so. It just wasn’t feasible. I was still in grad school. I was teaching. I had classes to go to, research to do, papers to grade, laundry to wash, dishes to clean, and I still had to eat and sleep. Formal ritual, as I knew it, just wasn’t going to happen.

Fortunately, Aphrodite helped me out with this one. She started interacting with me spontaneously – no ritual needed! I was ecstatic, if somewhat baffled. After all, wasn’t the whole point of ritual to facilitate the experiences that I was now spontaneously having?

This sparked some serious soul-searching about the purpose of ritual and how I was using it in my life and spiritual practice. For me, the purpose of ritual is to get closer to the Divine. I realized that all the fancy words and formulas I had been using were actually getting in the way of my connection with Divinity. I was having much more visceral experiences without those things than I had ever had with them. It was time for a change.

Perhaps the biggest realization I had about ritual involved time. For me to have a strong connection with the Divine, I needed to commune almost daily, if not more often. I simply couldn’t do that with the structured ritual I had been using, so I started to make new ones. Most of them arose capriciously. If I found a moment in my day where I was thinking about or communicating with Aphrodite, I thought about little things I could do to make the moment more sacred. Sometimes what I was already doing was enough (like happily dancing around my living room), and sometimes I discovered things that could be added (like lighting a candle in Aphrodite’s honor before sharing a meal with a friend at my table).

These spontaneous mini-rituals began to permeate my days, and soon started taking up more total time that what I would have previously spent in formal ritual. However, unlike the formal ritual, these moments were so much more meaningful. I felt connected to the Divine in a way I never had before. A few minutes here and there throughout my day meant so much more than a two hour chunk of obligatory fancy-words.

And I wanted to do it. Those mini-rituals brought me such joy – in a way that casting a circle from rote memory never had. It was a positive feedback loop. I connected with the Divine in seemingly small ways, had a profound ecstatic experience, and I wanted to do it again. My daily practice grew – not from reciting passages from books I had read, but from listening and leading with my heart.

When I quit caring about formal ritual, it allowed me to see more clearly the purpose of ritual: to connect deeply with the Divine. This completely transformed my personal practice. I rarely go through a full “ritual” with formal invocations for the elements and the Divine when I practice alone. My private devotions are much more conversational – and thus more strongly integrated into my day-to-day life. I believe this helps me to maintain a more powerful connection with Deity.

In a community, ritual holds an additional purpose. Not only do we want to connect deeply with the Divine – we also want to bond as a group. Having a somewhat-standardized ritual format does help bring a community together. Everyone knows what to expect and how to participate. Even with a general guideline, there are more and less effective ways to do this.

Going through a ritual revolution in my private practice made me rethink how to lead a group ritual. I cut through all the flowery words and expectations to get the the core – connection with the Divine and with other people. Approaching a group ritual with those things in mind was a totally different experience than following a ritual script. Sure, I have a general outline I follow based on the common practices in my group, but I approach these elements differently. If I can think of a way for a guideline to uniquely enhance the experience of the group, it stays. If not, anything is fair game.

While I would argue that the past few group rituals I’ve led haven’t been entirely written by me (Thanks, Aphrodite!), for the conscious parts of the creation process, I focus on the feeling I want to evoke with the ritual. For the Beltane Sabbat I led this year, it was joy and anticipation. For my post-Valentine’s Day circle, it was self-compassion. For the June Full Moon last year, it was courage and bravery through love.

Focusing on the feeling allows me to examine each aspect of the ritual and tailor it to the experience I want to facilitate. There are no words spoken just for ritual’s sake. Every sentence and every action in ritual drives toward the feeling and experience we create as a group. This approach to ritual has profoundly changed the way I lead and participate in group rituals. Throwing away the ritual formulas and expectations allowed me to get to the heart of the experience of ritual and to cultivate that deeper connection, both in my personal practice and with my community.

Making Soup for Cerridwyn

While my closest relationship with a divinity is with Aphrodite, I also have a close working relationship with Cerridwyn. Cerridwyn is the Welsh goddess of transformation and change. She is the keeper of the cauldron of knowledge, and she is frequently viewed as a “dark” goddess.

My initial introduction to Cerridwyn, and what sparked my relationship with her several years later, was my first shamanic journey/trance with my former coven. We had gone on a guided journey to find our magickal names, and Cerridwyn’s name appeared to me, spelling and all. I had not heard of her, so when I did research later, I was shocked to find that the name of a goddess appeared to me! I did not believe that was actually supposed to be my magickal name, and I was absolutely terrified of working with a “dark” goddess. So I pushed it aside, and didn’t think too much about it.

A couple of years later, signs started popping up a little before Yule 2017. Some of my friends and Pagan community members began to talk about how they were starting to hear from dark goddesses. I was reminded of my brief interaction with her in my journey several years before. I started seeing references to her again, and I blatantly ignored them. Eventually, it took the intercession of one of my friends saying “Hey, Cerridwyn stopped by with a message for you. She wants to talk.”

Mild panic ensued. I had never had a deity speak to me through someone else, and clearly she had been trying to get my attention. I spoke with a few different friends about it, trying to get over my fear of working with a “dark” goddess. I was very heavily in the realm of “love and light” at this point in time, and I would steer clear of anything I deemed “dark and scary.” I had avoided doing the personal shadow work that was necessary to see that both light and dark are essential to life, and dark doesn’t necessarily mean bad. I would figure this out in time.

I also didn’t know how to communicate with her. Clearly my own channels weren’t open enough if she had to go through one of my friends to talk to me! I asked the friend who gave me the message if she had any ideas for contacting Cerridwyn, and my friend (who is a kitchen witch) suggested that I make a big pot of soup, which paralleled one of her stories from the lore. What I thought my friend had said was “Make a big pot of soup after dark completely by candlelight,” when all she actually said was “Make a big pot of soup.” I discovered this discrepancy after the fact, and I had clearly gotten some divine guidance in a way that I was able to hear it.

So, I prepared to make some soup. I found a nice recipe, gathered the ingredients, and laid out everything in my kitchen. I had been studying trance, and I wanted to make the experience as fruitful as possible. I compiled a chant to sing while making soup from a song that my Pagan group sings at Yule. The original version contains sections on the Maiden, Sun Child, Mother, Father, Crone, and Sage (I usually sing the Maiden section at our gatherings). I edited the song to the Maiden, Mother, and Crone sections, since some research revealed that Cerridwyn is sometimes depicted as a triple goddess.

I turned out the lights and lit my candles. I didn’t have many – maybe five or six, so it was still rather dark. I could barely see the recipe, which I had printed out and was propped up underneath a cabinet. I could barely see the vegetables I would be chopping. It would definitely be a test for my OCD. I couldn’t tell what was dirty or not by sight. I had to just go with it.

I began to sing, slow and soft at first, but gaining in energy and momentum. I chopped vegetables and lost myself in the song, sometimes forgetting words, sometimes skipping a section, but I just kept going. I added the ingredients to the pot and stirred, feeling very much like the witch I knew I was. I had to learn to not be afraid of the dark.

After I had added all of the ingredients, the soup needed to simmer for 30 minutes. I gave it a final stir, finished that round of the song, and sank (a little lightheaded) to my kitchen floor in silent meditation.

The vision came almost immediately. I was in a forest glade at night. There was a single fire burning in the middle of the glade, with a cauldron hanging over the fire from a tripod. Cerridwyn was there. She had dark brown, almost black hair that fell around her face in messy waves. She looked to be in her mid-30s. The contrast between her pale face and her bright red flowing dress was made even starker by the firelight. She looked at me with deep brown eyes as I cautiously approached.

“Why did you call to me?” I asked her.

Giggles. “You’ll see.”

“But you’ve been so gentle with me. Not everyone has had gentle experiences.”

A combination of three phrases bombard my brain at the same time. “I have to do it this way. / You need it this way. / We do what we need to in order to reach out to each person.”

“What do I need to do?”

“Enjoy your soup.”

I looked at her, confused. I had expected some profound message. She stirred her own cauldron, and motioned for me to go, telling me once again, “Enjoy your soup.” The vision started to fade, and I was once again sitting on my kitchen floor, listening to the pot of soup bubble above me.

I turned the burner off, and ladeled myself a bowl of soup. I sat on the kitchen floor again to eat the soup by candlelight, somehow knowing that it was what I had to do. The soup was delicious, and helped ground me after the powerful experience.

As I rose again to clean my bowl and tidy the kitchen, I realized I didn’t want to turn the lights back on. It was beautiful – everything lit by candlelight. It felt peaceful. I also had a realization that I would not have been able to do what I just did a year ago. My OCD was so bad then that the idea of doing anything in the dark and not washing my hands a million times would have been impossible. But I had done it, and that was a victory in and of itself.

Cerridwyn is a goddess of transformation and change, and I got to see so clearly in that moment how much I, myself, had changed in the last year.

I continued to make soup for Cerridwyn, albeit somewhat sporadically. I discovered that she has to be called – She doesn’t just show up for me like Aphrodite does. She continued to be vague while giving me information and instructions for how to spiritually prepare for the upheaval that was coming, and she always told me to enjoy my soup.

She has appeared to me as the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. While I am not dedicated to her, she is still very present in my life, and has influenced so much of my spiritual growth. I tend to contact her during the dark half of the year, and our connection is stronger during this time.

Once I was initiated as a priestess of Aphrodite, I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate my relationship with Cerridwyn. I was pledged to another goddess. Connecting to her was more difficult than it had been at some points in the past, but she reminded me that “Even though you’re not my priestess, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing my work in the world.”

I was humbled. I was also reminded that my relationship with one goddess is not diminished by having a relationship with another goddess. Some of the lore portrays Aphrodite as being a jealous deity, but this is not my personal experience of Her.

I even reached out to Cerridwyn about my transition into priestesshood by talking over some of my fears with her. I was (and still am, to a certain extent) afraid of not being good enough. I’m afraid of letting myself, Aphrodite, or my community down. I’m afraid that I’m too young to have this role. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do what needs to be done. I’m afraid that sometimes being a friend and being a priestess will conflict, and I won’t make the right decision.

Cerridwyn told me that these fears are normal, and that it’s good to be concerned about these things. It means I care deeply about my service to Aphrodite and to my community. She also told me that I can’t let those fears get in the way, and that I’ll know what the right thing to do is when the time comes. I hope so. And I trust in Her, and I have faith.

My Experience of Aphrodite

Spiritual experiences are, by nature, very difficult to put into words. You’ve just experienced something transcendent – It’s no surprise that it also transcends language. Given that, I’m going to do my best to describe to you how I experience the Goddess Aphrodite.

My primary, everyday experience of Aphrodite is presence. Soon after I started working with Her, it became a regular, comfortable feeling. I interacted with Her so often that She was only ever a prayer away, some whispered words, a spray of rosewater, a moment of silence. I felt Her, not as an experience of the other, but as something both within and outside of me. I knew She could look through my eyes, and feel what I was feeling.

It was for this reason that I never had to go through big, elaborate rituals to commune with Her. She was just there. This was in stark contrast to Cerridwyn, the other goddess with whom I have a deep relationship. For Cerridwyn, I have to go through an elaborate ritual, reach a state of trance, and meditate on my kitchen floor to even just speak with Her. It was never so difficult with Aphrodite. Cerridwyn never pops up unannounced in my life. Aphrodite does so all of the time.

Impulses to Action

My first experiences with direct communication with Her, that went beyond the feeling of a presence, were impulses to action that were not my own. I spoke in my story of my Journey to Aphrodite about Her asking for my blood (but completely without words). The best word I can find to describe it is a propulsion. Since I have OCD, I have very intimate knowledge about what compulsions feel like. This is categorically different. It still feels like a very strong drive to do something, but it isn’t rooted in fear. It springs from somewhere deep inside of me, bubbling up to the surface of my conscious thought as some variation of “I need to do this thing.”

Another distinction is that these actions aren’t compulsory. I know I can say no if I want. (But I haven’t wanted to yet.) I also know that these impulses do not come from me, which sounds contradictory since I just described them as springing “from somewhere deep inside of me.” I know that these thoughts and feelings are not my own, yet somehow they still come from within me, instead of being dropped on my head from the Divine. I know that they are not my own because some of them have been things that I would never choose for myself (like jumping in the ocean in January during my initiation), or were things I would never have known about (like composing a song in the Greek/Eastern style with no prior knowledge of music theory or microtones). Some of these impulses to action have been to do things that pushed me very far out of my comfort zone. Some have been to serve Her in one way or another. Some have been to create.

Divinely-Inspired Creation

My divinely-inspired creation has ranged from composing songs, writing rituals, and ecstatic dancing, to giving advice, having sex, and even writing this blog. During my dedication to Aphrodite in January of 2018, I wrote a song for Her that I sing every morning and night. It riffed off of a familiar tune, but eventually took on a life of its own. I didn’t enter that ritual with the intention to write a song, but that’s what happened, and it was a beautiful experience. A lot of my ecstatic experiences with deity could be described as “I didn’t intend to do this, but this is what happened, and it’s beautiful.”

Another instance of divinely-inspired creation was the Full Moon ritual I led in June 2018. I put a disclaimer on the ritual (as I had for the Full Moon I led the previous year) that it was appropriate for ages 18 and up because I intended to talk about love and sex. I went into planning for the Full Moon thinking that it was going to be a fun, raunchy ritual. It was not that AT ALL. I started getting pings of ideas here and there, all around the theme of “it needs to be about love and fear.” I didn’t exactly know what that meant, until I sat down to write the ritual the week before.

Everything just flowed. People talk about flow states in psychology – about not being aware of the passage of time, about feeling equal parts competent and challenged, about that amazing feeling of creation. I felt all of those things. Time, however, passed differently for me than it does for those in flow. Typically, when someone is in flow, hours can pass and it feels like minutes. For me, what felt like hours and hours (very enjoyable hours, but still a long time) was only a single hour. My fingers moved across my keyboard as if they were not my own. And I’m convinced, at the time, they were not. Words I never meant to say to anyone appeared on the screen in front of me. I typed out my worst fears as if I were going to announce them to an audience. And I did. What I intended to be a fun, sexy ritual turned out to be a ritual about using the power of love to conquer your deepest, most closely-held fears.

I spoke openly about my OCD. I admitted that I am afraid to die alone. I almost cried in ritual. I was open and vulnerable, in a way that invited others in the ritual to do the same. I felt so raw, but it felt so right. It was what needed to happen. It was what others needed to hear. It was what I needed to say. And it just happened.

I also composed a song specifically for that ritual, though I have used it in other contexts since. The words flowed onto the page. The melody echoed through my brain. It was not a tune I, nor any of my friends, recognized. I invited my friend who plays music over to help me write it down, and she told me that I was using lots of microtones – notes that aren’t on the Western musical scale. That made transcribing it very difficult, and we ended up not finishing the transcription of the song because none of what we wrote sounded like how it was supposed to in my head. My friend told me that the use of microtones was common in Eastern music, including Greek music. I was dumbfounded. There was no way for me to know that, and the three years I spent playing the flute were all in the Western style on a traditional musical staff. I knew in the process of writing it that it did not feel like it came from me, but this confirmed it in a way that was unimaginably real.

The song was ethereal – haunting and beautiful. I felt it in my whole body as I sang. It evoked just the right feeling for the ritual. After the ritual was over, I had several people come up and tell me that it was what they needed. I was very happy to be able to serve my community in this way.

Meditation and Communion

I do see Aphrodite in a physical form when I meditate, and occasionally in everyday life. She usually appears to me as a woman in her late twenties. Her hair is usually blonde, though sometimes it is brown or a shade in between. Her hair is long, wavy, and always down. She is on the taller side (or taller than me, anyway), slender, but with some curves. (Though, She never appears blatantly sexual to me.) She is typically wearing a flowing robe or tunic, sometimes white, sometimes brightly colored, sometimes embellished with gold or silver. She is always barefoot. There is a light radiating from within Her, that cast sparkles in Her eyes and in Her smile. Her eyes are all different colors – blue, brown, grey, hazel, and all shades in between, depending on the day. She typically does not wear any jewelry, though occasionally She will have a bracelet or a pin in Her hair. She moves with indescribable grace and tenderness. Her form will often change in the little details while I am with her, showing that Her physical representation is mutable, though Her essence remains the same.

Aphrodite’s voice is melodic and comforting. It seems to come from all directions at once, though not in an overwhelming way. Sometimes I hear specific words, but it is usually more of a general feeling, or sometimes a few different phrases all at once. Her tone is typically gentle and kind, though She has been stern and even fierce with me, but never unnecessarily. Any time She has been less than gentle, it has always been in a “this is for your own good” kind of way.

Frequently, my interactions with Aphrodite in meditation take the form of some physical activity. We dance together often, one time very memorably leaving trails of blossoming flowers by our feet (Hers were red in color.) She has walked with me hand in hand, combed my hair, and led me through the woods. We sit next to each other and talk. She appears to me as a close friend.

Aphrodite will frequently pop in out of the blue. This takes various forms. Sometimes it is in the form of an impulse to action or a thought that I know comes from Her. Rarely, I will hear Her speak to me outside of meditation. Occasionally She will appear when I am not meditating specifically for Her. One time in yoga, when I was in shavasana at the end of class, She playfully tackled me, and completely threw me out of meditation! I had to try so hard to keep from laughing and disturbing the rest of the class.

In-Body Experiences

I’ve experienced Aphrodite in my body a few times. This is the experience for which I have the fewest words, because nothing seems quite adequate. It wasn’t full on divine possession, because I still felt that I had control and remember (mostly) what happened in those instances. The feeling isn’t as entirely overwhelming as you would think, but it still transcends most description. It is usually accompanied by a tingling sensation all over my body, and some lightheadedness that borders on a headache (but in the best possible way). I’ve felt Her do this during ritual. My voice quality will change a bit, my focus will sharpen or blur, and I appear taller (according to witnesses). I’ve also experienced it during sex, especially when I’ve extended my pleasure to Her as an offering. I feel a different energy coursing through my body (and the orgasms are pretty awesome, too). This sharing of my body feels sacred, holy, light, and powerful. That’s about all of the adjectives I’ve got.

Whether you’re ecstatically experiencing deity for the first time or the fiftieth, or if you’re hoping to soon, I hope that you’ve found something helpful here. The more we talk about our religious experiences, the more it normalizes them. The more we can find common ground. The more we know that others are going through the same thing. There aren’t very many resources about the modern day experience and worship of Aphrodite. Please share your stories. The world will be better for it.

What Does It Mean to Be a Priestess?

John Beckett, one of my favorite Pagan bloggers, recently wrote a post entitled “Priesthood Over A Lifetime.” It was a great read, as his posts usually are, and it inspired me to examine where I am in the various stages of priesthood that he outlines. The essential precursor to that, though, is to answer the question “What does it meant to be a priestess?”

I thought about this question for a long, long time before I took my official oath as a priestess of Aphrodite. I knew that being a priestess in a public Pagan community was not a responsibility to take on lightly, and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was committing to before I took that plunge. It is a holy office, and the mantle of priestesshood, while joyous and ecstatic, can be heavy at times and comes with a sacred duty to both your deity and your community.

For me, the actions and responsibility of priestesshood fall into two main categories: 1) Your individual relationship with Deity, and 2) Service to your community. Your relationship to Deity is a highly personal connection that is supported and maintained through both solitary and group practice. Service to your community can be many things, and it is dependent upon the particular community you serve.

Your Relationship With Deity

This is the foundation of priestesshood. Without a strong connection to the Divine, there is nothing for which to be a priestess. You may work with one deity or several. You may be a priestess for one or multiple deities. I think you can even be a priestess in a general sense in the broader Pagan community, though this requires an immensely powerful connection to the Divine. My personal experience is serving as a priestess for one particular deity, but having relationships with several.

My call and desire to become a priestess was born from my deep relationship with Aphrodite. I sought Her out, worked closely with Her, discovered that Her values align with my own, had profound ecstatic experiences with Her, felt the call to serve Her, started doing Her work in the world, and then embarked on the quest of priestesshood. A dedicated, meaningful, and reciprocal relationship with your deity is essential to priestesshood.

This Divine relationship has to be committed. You can’t just meditate and make offerings once a month. Your relationship with your deity must be an ongoing, daily relationship. This doesn’t mean that you have to do the same exact thing every single day, but ideally you are interacting with your deity multiple times a day. This can be through prayer, meditation, offerings, deep listening, or other acts of devotion. This encourages an open channel of communication between you and the Divine. The Gods are a lot more likely to speak to you if they know you are listening.

Your relationship with your deity needs to be profound. If you are going to serve as a go-between for your community and the Divine, your personal relationship must be deep and personally very meaningful for you. You can’t expect to help others connect with your deity if you don’t already have a profound connection. Part of being a priestess is being able to inspire others with your connection to the Divine. This will be difficult if your own connection does not inspire awe and wonder within yourself.

To enter priestesshood, your relationship with the Divine has to be reciprocal. You need to know how to honor and give to your deity, but you also need to know how to receive guidance and messages from them. This reciprocity is what helps to foster a profound connection. It helps others to see you as doing your deity’s work in the world. It helps you to bring your deity into your community.

Service to Your Community

A necessary part of being a priestess is sharing and interacting with others in your community. As a priestess, you are a representative of your deity’s values in the mundane and spiritual worlds. Your community will have certain expectations of you when you take on the mantle of priestesshood, and you must be able to address these expectations and provide resources to those who seek you out. You will need to be responsive to the needs of both your deity and your community.

If you take on the role of priestess for a particular deity, people in your community will begin to view you as an intermediary for your deity in the mundane world. This is a hefty responsibility. You must embody the virtues of your deity to the best of your ability, and try to walk as they would in this world. That said, you are not an avatar. You are still a fallible human, and no one can embody all virtues perfectly. Know that mistakes are going to happen, and make sure to practice self-compassion.

What does your community expect of a priestess? In some traditions, this may be codified and straightforward, but with more free-form pagan communities, the answer will not be as simple. How do you determine what will be expected of you? Ask the members of your community! I had an ongoing and very extensive dialogue with my fellow leaders and other members in my pagan community about the role of a priestess for months before I decided to take a formal oath. For my particular community, the aggregated basic expectations were:

1) To continue in formal leadership as a part of the Council of our group
2) To serve as a touchstone for Aphrodite, leading rituals for Her and meeting
     with people to help them connect with Her
3) To provide general spiritual guidance to new seekers and those looking to
      deepen their practice
4) To be knowledgeable about Aphrodite’s spheres of influence (primarily
      romantic love, sex, pleasure, and self-compassion) and be able to provide
      resources and informal/pastoral counseling to community members about
      these topics
5) To officiate rites of passage in my community.

For your community, this may look very different. Since I belong to a non-denominational Pagan group that has members from many different traditions, the expectations of my community are fairly general, and not locked into a particular path. The expectations of your community are also dependent upon your community’s needs.

How do you know what your community needs? Sometimes this will be a very intuitive thing. You will feel called to lead a particular ritual, only to find out later that it met a need you didn’t know was there (I’ve had this happen several times.) Sometimes it will be less straightforward. You will need to keep an awareness of what is going on in your community to determine what community members might need from you. At times, it will be what the whole community needs – something to unite everyone and bring them together. Other times, it will be the needs of individual congregants.

As a walker between the worlds, you must also know what your deity needs and asks of you. Oaths of priestesshood inherently involve a commitment to serve your deity and to do their work in the world. What is asked of you will sometimes be simple, and other times it will push the very limits of your capability and fortitude, or what you even thought possible. Your directives may not always make sense, though in the fullness of time, a larger purpose may be revealed. Carry out your tasks with integrity and virtue, and don’t be afraid to question. Just because a deity tells you to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Your relationship should always be an open dialogue, and you always have free will. Discernment is key. “I don’t feel like it” is generally not a good reason to deny a Divine instruction. Something going against your ethics most certainly is.

Where Am I?

In his post, Beckett outlines nine “stages” in the journey of priesthood: Responding, Training, Practicing, Deepening, Building, Nurturing, Preparing, Transitioning, and Overlapping. He states that these steps aren’t necessarily sequential and can be simultaneous. I didn’t exactly go in order, either. I did a fair amount of Training, Practicing, and Deepening before I made my formal Response to the call for priestesshood.

I think there is a lot of value to “trying out” priestesshood before making a formal commitment to your deity and your community. Figure out exactly what you will be doing, and do it. That will give you the best indication if this is the right path for you. I had a trial period of about a year where I told Aphrodite that I would “try out this whole priestess thing.” I learned a lot, and eventually decided to make my oath.

I trained by reading as much as I could about Aphrodite, Paganism, and magick. I practiced my personal rites, devotions, spellcraft, and communion with Aphrodite. I practiced serving my community through leading rituals, providing spiritual guidance and counsel for members of my community, serving as a resource for Aphrodite’s areas of expertise, and being an active member of our group leadership. Throughout this process, I was deepening my practice and cultivating my relationship with Her.

I’ve still got a long way to go. I am early in my priestesshood, and still figuring a lot of things out. As I recently had reiterated to me – You don’t have to be an expert to be able to help others. There is value in all stages of the spiritual journey.

Brightest blessings to you as you embark upon your own path!

Trials by Fire

I’ve found that spiritual growth is rarely a linear progression. There are times when it is slow and steady, and times of plateau where not much happens at all. Then, there are times when it’s a trial by fire.

Right now is one of those times for me.

I’ve had various other times of what I would consider exponential growth in my spiritual life. My first was the discovery of Paganism. I read all I could about Paganism and Wicca until my parents pulled the plug on it. It was a huge revelatory process, and it resonated so much that I stuck with it. You can read about my first foray into Paganism here.

Unfortunately, after that initial exploratory period, I hit a plateau for about ten years. I knew the core of what I believed (Namely that nature is sacred and that the Divine is feminine as well as masculine), but I just stopped there. At that time, it was enough for me. I wasn’t living in an environment conducive to spiritual growth, and what I had more or less suited my needs. So I plateaued.

My next big phase of growth was when I joined my Pagan group. It was so wonderful to be surrounded by other Pagans, to hear their different thoughts and viewpoints, to see rituals performed in a variety of ways, and to get their recommendations for books and ways to deepen my practice. I also had a greater need for my spirituality to evolve at this particular time. I had just started graduate school, and it was already shaping up to be a shitshow. I needed something bigger to connect with and rely on. I found that in my community and through exploring my faith.

I learned the ins and outs of belonging to a spiritual group over the next several months, taking on a leadership role within the first year, and becoming a member of our governing council within two. I learned all the calls and responses in Pagan ritual – what you say when calling the quarters and during cakes and ale. I learned how to lead a public ritual (even though the first ritual I was slated to co-lead got snowed out (twice) and rained out (once) and still hasn’t happened!) I led Sunday Circles, Full Moons, and Sabbats. It was a time of joyous growth.

My first hint at a trial by fire happened a little over a year and a half ago. I started directly experiencing deity in an entirely new way. It was much louder and persistent than ever before. I got closer to Aphrodite, leading up to my dedication to her in January of 2018. I also gathered up the courage to work with my first “dark” goddess, who happened to be a goddess of transformation and change. I had to gaze bravely into the darkness, and confront what I saw there. I was lucky that Cerridwyn was very gentle with me, but it was far from easy.

It turns out, when you tug on one of the Jenga blocks, they all come crashing down.

All of my insecurities bubbled up to the surface. I had to learn how to communicate with a new goddess in a completely novel way. I was lucky that I had a group of spiritual friends with which to share my experiences, but that also meant that I had to get comfortable talking about my spiritual journey with others. I had to be radically honest, in service to myself and to my friends. I discovered that what I thought was my career path and spiritual calling (to teach people how to be close to nature) was not a financially sustainable pursuit. I started feeling tugged in a completely different direction by my spiritual path, one that involved a lot more talking about sex and relationships and a lot less talking to trees. My grad student insurance expired, and I began seeing a new therapist in my new network (which is a whole process in and of itself). I finally started to get a handle on this whole “emotion regulation” thing, but there were still days I would end up in her office crying. It was a lot of change, but it was good change.

I also experienced a much quieter trial leading up to my initiation. I reached out to my friends and community members to talk with them about what they expected from the office of priestesshood. There wasn’t a lot of change in my spiritual practice, but more of a going deeper into my current practices, and forging a stronger connection with Aphrodite. Reflecting a few days before my initiation, I laughed to myself a bit, and told myself if that I didn’t know any better, I would describe myself as pious! It was a time of transition – from dedicant to priestess – and I was prepared and ready for it.

I was less prepared for what followed my initiation. As I wrote in Adventures of a Struggling New Empath, I acquired some new empathic abilities after my initiation that were difficult to cope with at times. There were also some surprising “priestess projects” that I was assigned that tested my comfort zone. But none of it compared to my current state of affairs.

I’ve been preparing to step more fully into my priestess role by doing something kind of serious and big for one of my friends. And pretty much ever since I committed to doing it, my life has been a raging Trial By Fire. It’s almost as if it’s a challenge from the universe – “Are you sure you’re ready for this role?” – while also showing me how much I have (and haven’t) grown in the past few years.

It has been very similar to a second ordeal (after the ordeal of my initiation), but over a longer period of time, and touching the more mundane aspects of my life as opposed to the spiritual. (I don’t believe the spiritual and the mundane are truly separate, but this trial did have a different quality to it). A good number of things happened over the past couple of months that were unexpected and hit on my various triggers and sore spots.

I found out that one of the casual members of my Pagan community was actually good friends with my ex in college (the ex that cheated on me and lied to me about being transgender). She told me about this right before Circle one Sunday morning, which was terrible timing for going into sacred space. My ex and I hadn’t spoken in years, and I was not at all expecting that old wound to rear its ugly head, much less in a place that I consider safe and sacred. I learned that I’m not quite as healed as I thought I was around that whole situation, and it’s impacting how I interact with this person. (We got along fine beforehand, and I considered us friendly acquaintances).

I know that my ex’s actions shouldn’t affect how I treat this person, and I’m trying really hard to not let it influence my behavior, but honestly I don’t want to talk her. I’m walking the line between wanting to completely ignore her and knowing that I can’t because I am a leader in this group (and, you know, I’m a mature and rational person and all of that). My current plan of action is to just be honest with her – Let her know that I still have a lot of pain from that past relationship, and that it is influencing my interactions with her. It’s nothing she has done – It’s more personal work that I have to do to heal. It’s been eight years since everything happened with my ex, and I thought I would be over it by now, but I guess not.

I also received the news that I wasn’t going to be able to take the next steps in my career that I was planning on (see my Lessons in Faith post for more details). Everyone around me was absolutely shocked at the news, which made me feel a little better, but didn’t actually do anything to change the course of events. I’m still regrouping from that and figuring out my next steps.

Work has been rougher than usual. One of my coworkers doesn’t like me very much, and that has created some tension at work. I confronted her about not pulling her weight sometime back in February (we work on a team, so I or my other team member have to pick up the slack if she doesn’t), and she did not take it well. I ended up talking to our supervisor about it, and thankfully he is understanding and more or less knew what was going on.

Unfortunately, the work situation still isn’t much better, and there were three consecutive weeks where my coworker barely spoke to me, which is difficult to deal with when you work four feet away from each other all day. Confound that with the fact that I’m a struggling new empath who is starting to pick up on others’ feelings, and it is not a fun place to be. I had to shield just about every hour on the hour and it was so mentally, physically, emotionally, and psychically draining.

The past couple of weeks at work have also been difficult because my office could currently be the site of an epidemiological study. My supervisor came in with a cold for a few days, and then the rest of us started dropping like flies, so we’ve also been perpetually short-staffed. AND we had a big health scare from a potentially infected client (not a cold, but something more serious) and they had to bleach everything she had touched while she was at our facility.

It all turned out okay, but it has NOT been a great time for my OCD and germaphobia. I absolutely HATE being sick, so having to take two days off of work to suffer and sniffle was awful. On the plus side, when I’m already sick, my OCD usually goes down because I’m like “Fuck it, I’m already sick, do your worst doorknob.”

Lots of other little things happened, too. My selenite palmstone broke, somehow jumping out of my purse (which has never happened) and cracking in two on the tile floor. I also had some interpersonal drama, both with a friend and with my boyfriend. I was perpetually not getting enough sleep, no matter what I tried. I had to get some maintenance done on my apartment on two different days, and my OCD is very much NOT OKAY with strangers being in my home.

Yet, despite all of these things, there was never anything I couldn’t handle. Nothing that completely overwhelmed me (though there were certainly times I felt overwhelmed). I could deal with all of it, more or less successfully. While it was not fun to experience, at the end, it is nice to reflect back and know that I can handle pretty much any shit that comes my way. And that is a very empowering thing.

I made it through this trial by fire, with only a few minor burns, and those will heal with time. It did highlight some areas in which I still have personal work to do, and I am grateful for that. It also encouraged me, that despite my personal insecurities, I really am cut out for this whole priestess thing. I can dealt with all of that personal stuff (because our own personal growth is never done), and still help other people in a meaningful way.

So, while I did not enjoy it, I am thankful for my most recent trial by fire.

Adventures of a Struggling New Empath

When I underwent my initiation for Aphrodite, I knew that some things in my life would change (perhaps quite drastically), while others would remain more-or-less the same. The first week after my initiation was fairly uneventful. There was the excitement (and nervousness) of sharing the story with my other pagan friends (and muggle friends, too), since I hadn’t told anyone about it beforehand. Aphrodite was still there, though she had been pretty constantly with me for a while. The silence space in my everyday life seemed fuller, which I know doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s the only way I can think of to describe it. The real weirdness started happening about two or three weeks after my initiation, and I was not anticipating it at all.

First, some background: When it comes to energy, I’ve always been more of a projector rather than a receiver. I’m pretty loud and expressive, and I feel emotions in a very big way. As I discovered when I started doing emotion journaling for DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), I either feel things as a 10 or not at all. If I’m happy, I’m elated. If I’m sad, I’m in anguish. If I’m angry, I am livid. Using some of the emotion regulation skills in DBT, I was able to modulate this to a certain extent, so that every time I felt sad I wasn’t immediately a crying puddle, and that if I was annoyed, I didn’t yell at my boyfriend. This proved very useful in the mundane world and made my life a whole lot easier. (Yay DBT!)

Even after DBT, as a general rule, I put out a lot more energy than I take in. If you spend any amount of time in the new age or Pagan blogosphere, you will probably come across articles about how to effectively cope with being an empath. Throughout my years of being Pagan, I could relate to these somewhat. I’ve always been very perceptive, and I’ve generally been able to read a room and know what my friends are feeling, though that has come more from body language and tone of voice than any feelings of energy. (Or at least that’s what I thought, anyway.) Once I found a Pagan community, and started hearing my friends’ stories about how they perceive energy, I concluded that I was perhaps more empathic than the average muggle, but not very empathic compared to a lot of the Pagans I knew. And I was okay with that, for the most part. I did miss being able to contribute to the conversation about what energies everyone was feeling, so about a year ago, I asked one of my super empathic friends for some pointers on sensing energy. She gave me some, and I tried them out, but nothing seemed quite right for me at the time.

I started being able to sense my own energy much more clearly after I started practicing Tantra (which was about a year and a half ago). I could identify in my own body some of what my friends were talking about and what I had read about, but I still couldn’t sense the same in other people. I had mostly given up on trying to feel those things from others about six months prior to my initiation. I knew had magickal strengths elsewhere, and that was fine by me.

Fast forward to the last couple weeks of January 2019: I was at work when the first instance of the weirdness happened. A client came up to talk to me and I immediately was inundated with an overwhelming feeling of “get him the fuck away from me as fast as possible,” accompanied by an energetic barrage of ick that can best be described as “getting slimed.” I couldn’t avoid talking to him, so I did everything I could to disengage him as quickly as possible and put some physical distance between us. I didn’t know what was happening, and in the moment, I forgot completely about grounding and shielding, Witchcraft 101 stuff. All I knew was that I needed him to be as far away as possible, and that I suddenly felt very, very psychically dirty. It felt like I had energetic slime dripping off of me – not of a particular emotion, but just a general horrible, awful feeling.

My coworkers and I dealt with the situation, and I finally had the wherewithal to remember that I’m a witch, and I keep selenite in my purse. I got it out and put it in my pocket, did some discreet deep breathing, and was able to ground and center mostly back to normal, though I really, really wanted to take a shower. (And I did, when I got home that day.)

The second instance of weirdness happened the following week, when a client came in visibly upset. I could feel the waves of sadness, anguish, and fear rolling off of her, even though I did not directly interact with her. The feelings immediately brought me back to some moments in my past where I felt the same. A little more experienced now, I got out the selenite immediately, held it in my hand for a few moments, and then stuck it in my pocket. I got back to equilibrium a bit faster this time, though the experience still rattled me.

I started keeping selenite in my pocket daily, and after a couple of weeks it was genuinely “used up.” I had charged crystals before with particular intentions, but had never felt from the crystal that it needed cleansing before. I usually cleanse my crystals as a matter of course, typically by running them under water, but selenite is a salt and will dissolve in contact with water. The next go-to for cleansing would be bright sunlight, but we had several weeks of overcast days back-to-back. I had to navigate without the selenite for about a week before the sun finally came back out, and I could definitely feel the difference.

After the second instance of weirdness, I consulted my empathic friends to get their tips and pointers. I asked “Do you guys deal with this all the time?” and they laughed at me (good-naturedly). I wondered if this would become my new normal, and honestly I wasn’t terribly excited about it. It was exhausting, and even though I knew the skills to cope, it wasn’t fun. I could see how empath skills could help me in my work with Aphrodite, so I was still accepting of it, and vowed to adapt as best I could.

Since then, I’ve gotten better at shielding. I used to just shield once a day, but now I need to multiple times a day. I also have to shield differently depending on the situation. My usual shield was a bubble of golden white light, and while that still works for a bedtime shield and around my friends, out in the rest of the world, I need something stronger. Fire works well, and I call upon Aphrodite for help with that. At first I tried a fire shield sourced from my own power, but that was too personally draining, and as a result, ineffective after just a few hours. A friend also gave me a Protection blend of essential oils that works quite well. I can surreptitiously anoint myself throughout the workday, though even just having the vial in my pocket is pretty effective.

For crystal help, I learned the importance of cleansing my selenite and keeping it close to my person, not just in my purse nearby. I discovered that black tourmaline, which I had been using to absorb negative feelings and anxiety, only works well for my feelings, not for those of others. I still love black tourmaline, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the right stone for this job. My friend suggested hematite, and I picked up a hematite ring to keep on my key fob for work and that has done wonders.

Other types of cleansing help, too, though they aren’t as immediately helpful for the work environment. Palo santo, sage, and other incense can purify anything left over in my energy field once I get home. Taking a shower also helps immensely, and I typically diffuse some essential oil to go with it (recently eucalyptus because my nose has been stuffed up, but lavender is also nice, as is cedar).

Whether my empath powers are toning down, or I am just dealing with it better, I haven’t had any more occasions of being “slimed” recently. I have been able to pick up on more subtle energies with my friends (whom I typically don’t strongly shield around), but so far not much else from other people, which has been a relief.

I know a lot of new empaths have a very hard time adjusting, and while my experience was difficult, there were a lot of things that made it easier for me. First and foremost, I knew what was happening. I had read countless articles and talked with friends about this subject, so I was aware of the nature of empaths and knew more or less how to respond, even if it wasn’t as reflexively as I would have liked. I also had friends I could talk to about my experiences and get their insight and help.

The other very helpful thing I’ve had on my empath journey is that I know very clearly what feelings are or are not mine. A boatload of therapy and personal introspection has helped with that, along with knowing exactly how my feelings feel to me. I can clearly separate my feelings from others’ feelings, which I know can be very confusing for many new empaths.

As for where my own empath journey is headed… We’ll see! Things seem to have toned down, so I don’t think it will be an intense “all the time” thing, but it will be something helpful to draw on in certain situations. It has certainly helped to hone my witch reflexes and recognize the importance of some magickal practices that I had done somewhat consistently, but now must do daily and with a purpose.

In the meantime, I am still learning, and I know I have a ways to go!

Going Deeper – Are You Ready to Dive In?

So you’ve decided that you want to begin a relationship with Aphrodite (or another Divinity that feels right to you). A deep, personal relationship. Maybe you want to become a devotee, dedicant, or priestess (or priest; we are open to all genders here). What do you do next? There are some important considerations to take into account, and then I’ll talk about first steps to connect with your deity in another post.

Important things to consider before embarking on a relationship with any Divinity:

1) Where are you on your spiritual path?

Are you relatively new to Paganism? How long have you been called to this path? “New” can be a relative term, and some people who are relatively “new” to Paganism or Witchcraft are able to hit the ground running with the basics and move on to deeper things more quickly than others. These people have usually had a “calling” for a long time, or finally realized that they were “a witch all along and didn’t know it,” but this isn’t always the case. If you are starting out, I would recommend a MINIMUM of six months of study in various Pagan traditions before moving on to deep personal relationships with deities. Most traditions recommend a year-and-a-day of study before moving on to the next level. Taking some time to study and reflect is essential because: A) You want to have a pretty good idea of what path feels right to you before you start diving deeper, and B) You want to know exactly what you are getting into if you pursue a relationship with a particular deity.

What books have you read? What methods or traditions have you studied? I’m not saying you need to study every single tradition out there before you start going deeper with one particular tradition or Divinity, but it’s a good idea to get a general overview of modern Paganism and see what resonates with you. Even if you end up deciding that your first tradition or deity was the One, at the very least you have a good background with which to participate in the larger conversation of Paganism. Check out the Resources section of my website for some of my recommended books for beginning study and exploration.

2) What is your spiritual skill set?

Do you have a daily meditation practice? Do you have any experience with going into and out of trance states safely? How much are you in touch with your intuition? Do you know basic energy anatomy and how to move and raise energy? Developing a deeper relationship with any deity is going to be difficult if you don’t have some basic spiritual tools.

Having a good meditation practice is essential for a deep spiritual life, as well as for magick and energy work. Now, meditation is different for everyone. I’m not talking about the complete “clear your mind and have no thoughts at all for 20 minutes” (but if you can do that, good for you!) Meditation is mostly about being able to hold an intention, whatever that intention may be.

Some of my favorite ways to mediate are:

  • Dance! (or other movement) – Put on some music you love and get lost in it. Don’t focus too much on your movements, just do what comes naturally.
  • Hiking/Walking Meditation – Focus on observing (without judgement!) everything around you: how the ground feels underneath your feet, what sounds you hear, the colors you see, et cetera. If you find yourself following a train of thought, bring it back to gentle observation.
  • Mantra or Affirmation Meditation – This involves repeating a specific phrase or mantra as the focal point of the meditation. I like using these when I’m feeling down or upset. “I am loved” or some variation of that is one of my favorites.
  • Breathing Meditation – Focus on your breath. You can either think “in… out” with your breaths or count your number of breaths or the duration of your breaths.
  • Focal Point – I don’t do these very often, but lots of people have success with image meditations or mandala meditations. This can involve a real image or one you hold in your mind (though the latter is more difficult). It can also involve any other visual focal point, like a candle flame or water flowing over rocks.

There are lots of other ways to meditate, but the important thing is to find a way that works for you. Meditation will allow you to develop focus for magickal and energy work, as well as be able to open up your mind to the Divine.

Trancing is a level up from meditation, and I don’t suggest trying it without a trained teacher or a good book. Trance-portation by Diana Paxson is a good place to start. I have had a number of wonderful and fantastical Divine encounters whilst in trance, but it is not something you want to jump into the deep end with.

Intuition is a very personal thing, so journeys to get in touch with your intuition are going to be as varied as each individual. Most good introductory magickal/spiritual skill set books will have suggestions for this.

Energy is so important! At the very least, you should know your own energy anatomy, and how to raise and control energy within your own body and within a circle. For years I focused on external energy raising, which was all well and good, but it was only when I started working within that I discovered the amazing possibilities of energy. Working with your own energy will also teach you when another (Divine) energy is present or channeling through you.

3) Do you have a pantheon?

If you do, great! Maybe you found a pantheon that resonated with you during your year-and-a-day of study. Awesome! I didn’t. And that’s okay. You don’t have to have a pantheon. (Though there are some Pagans who may tell you otherwise.)

I’m an eclectic witch. Even though I work with a Hellenic divinity, I don’t follow the Hellenic pantheon or Hellenic traditions. The only other Greek deities I work with on occasion (and I mean very occasionally) are Hestia, Hecate, Persephone, Demeter, and Dionysus. And that’s okay. No one has come to smite me yet.

Your path is just that – YOURS. No one else can tell you what is right or wrong for you. (I assume we all can agree with a general “Do no harm, but take no shit” policy at the very least.) When it comes to which deities you worship and how you worship them, your best authority is you.

4) Have you dealt with your personal shit?

Ah, perhaps the biggest question of all! Have you dealt with your personal shit? Have you been on the personal growth path long enough to at least know what your problems are, if you haven’t already dealt with them? This can run the whole gamut, including but not limited to: mental disorders, fears, insecurities, family issues, physical health, romantic relationship issues, energy blockages, resentments, self-esteem, prejudices, addictions, and healthy boundary setting. Do you know what your core values are? What drives you as a human being? You should know yourself, or at least be making an effort to do so, before you begin pursuing a deep relationship with a deity.

I highly recommend therapy. For everyone. It doesn’t matter how well-adjusted you think you might be – none of us escaped childhood or early adulthood without some battle scars (and possibly some festering wounds). It’s also just nice to have an impartial third party to talk about your life issues with who won’t pass judgement on you and is there to support you. You do need to find a good therapist, though, and that may take some time. You need to find someone whom you “click” with, who provides helpful advice, and who is hopefully pagan-friendly (if you want to talk about spiritual stuff with them).

All of this to say: You don’t actually need to wait to pursue a relationship with the Divine. You can start today (and should, if you want to!) These are just some guidelines for that next step, some recommendations that I either had, or wish I had had, when I began my journey to Aphrodite. That being said, The Divine is (for the most part) understanding. If you are just starting on your journey, or are in the beginning phases, don’t be afraid to reach out! Pray, make offerings, sing, dance, meditate! The Divine can, and will, help you in your preparations for deeper connection. Like I said in the beginning, these guidelines are for those wanting to pursue a dedicated, daily relationship with a deity – like that of a devotee or priestess (/priest). And if that deity likes you, they will most certainly give you some guidance along the way.

This is Part One in a series on Going Deeper with your Pagan Practice.