Saturday, February 7, 2015

Pontifices - A Note on Pagan Priesthood

Stored from a Facebook discussion

One of my favorite terms for "priest" comes from the Latin. "Pontifex" means 'bridge-builder'. In a time when Pagans work toward defining what priesthood consists of in our ways, I think this is a
valuable idea.

Neopagan culture often displays a gut objection to 'priesthood' based on the orthodox Christian default, in which the priest is the 'mediator between God and man'. In parts of Christian tradition this has allowed priests to develop social and spiritual authority that is often perceived to be misused. Pagans often reject the idea of formal priesthood, some in reaction directly to a Christian upbringing, and some from an upbringing in Reformed Christianity in which formal, ritual priesthood has been replaced by "ministry'. Even in such places, where formal hierarchy has been rejected, the 'Pastor' or "Preacher' still has considerable social authority. Many Pagans hope to avoid creating any such institutions in our time.

However I think there is a place - a job-description - for skilled spiritual and ritual operatives who can help untrained and unpracticed people remember their center, remake their connections with the spirits and gain the blessings that improve our lives. Just like any other craft this requires skill and practice and focus, to a degree that is difficult to achieve while working full-time at more common work. To me that is a primary argument for developing a way to allow some people to live as full-time Pagan priests. Let's leave aside the economic and organizing hurdles along that path for now, and focus on theology.

So the priest as pontifex; we build bridges, span the gap between common awareness and spiritual attention. We are not 'mediators' but 'facilitators'. Most notably the ‘power’ of connection between mortals and the spirits lies not in the priest herself, but in the lasting result of her work. Let me labor at the metaphor a moment.

Religion is the work of re-linking (re-ligio) the island of mortal existence with the mainland of the divine world. A 'mediator' builds himself a boat and ferries the goods and words of the divine world to the mortals, sometimes charging a fee. A facilitator - a Pontifex - builds a bridge, opening the way for all who can make the walk. We might imagine multiple 'private' bridges built by many builders.

The point, to me, is that there is work to be done and a skilled builder of spiritual bridges is a useful artisan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice idea. I always liked one of the Pope's titles, "Bridge-builder-in-chief." And of course, this was one of Julius Caesar's titles for a while.

There's also Flamen, of course, and Hierophant; I don't know the origins of the Flamens as a college or group, or the meaning of the name, but a Hierophant comes from the Greek words that mean "to show the sacred", which I always liked.

But the idea of a bridge-builder is a good one. And creating a 'priesthood' where there's a duality of offices — bridge-builders as counselors on one side, sacredness-showers on the other as ritual operators... there's something potentially useful here.