Third in the roundup of the transformations I want to make in my life, my spiritual practice. I am a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), which technically makes me a druid. I am a Graeco-Roman polytheist (heavy on the Roman). I am an ecstatic. I am a pagan. I am all of these things, but my actual spiritual practice is erratic at best. I may believe in the gods, but I don’t work with them nearly as often as I should.
After a non-religious upbringing until I was about the age of 11, my father and stepmother decided that it was time for my brother and sister and I to start going to church. So they joined the local Roman Catholic church and enrolled us in catechism classes. I was put through a rapid catch-up program that summer, and went through first communion when I was in sixth grade. I then went immediately into the confirmation classes for two years and my parents made me finish that. I promptly never went to church again.
I never really felt like I belonged there, that Christianity just flat out didn’t make sense. Eventually around the age of 15/16, I stumbled onto the book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. It was sort of a revelation to me. Right there in the introductory chapters was someone laying out in writing a lot of the things I had always believed about religion.
So I became a Wiccan. I practiced secretly in my bedroom, keeping the sabbats, occasionally doing an esbat ritual, working a little magic. I graduated high school, moved out, and was stuck with a roommate who would not tolerate anything other than Christian religious practice in the apartment. Luckily I was only there for a few months before moving back home and starting college.
In college I joined the pagan student group and was exposed to other forms of paganism than just Wicca. Over time, I started becoming dissatisfied with Wicca as well. A big breaking point for me came when I read The Witches Bible by the Farrars. Reading that book and their views on homosexuality crystallized what wasn’t working for me with Wicca. I came to see Wicca as fundamentally a fertility cult, and as a queer man, that just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t interested in male/female polarity, it didn’t resonate with my life experience at all.
So I stopped practicing altogether for a few years. Eventually I picked up a copy of Christopher Penczack’s Gay Witchcraft, and I found a way to start practicing again. I attended a queer men’s pagan gathering called Between the Worlds, and had a whole new range of pagan spiritual options opened to me.
At BtW I took several workshops on topics related to shamanism and ecstatic trance work. I found my totem animal/fetch (Cougar) who I still work with to this day. I began working within a shamanic context, because all of the male/female polarity stuff that didn’t resonate with me was totally irrelevant to the spirit-work of core shamanism. My primary guide along this path was another Christopher Penczak book, The Temple of Shamanic Witchcraft. Along with Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman.
A few years down the road, also at the Between the Worlds gathering I was part of a workshop where we did some shamanic journey work to find patron Dieties. I got some very mixed messages in my journey, seeing what was clearly a craftsman god, but with symbolism mixed up from several cultures. I was inside a volcano (symbol of the Greek and Roman craftsman gods Hephaestus and Vulcan), wearing an Egyptian style kilt (tied to Ptah), working at a forge with a silver hand (Symbol of the Irish god Nuada). At first I thought I was going to be working with Ptah, but eventually I came to understand that my patron was actually Vulcan.
Finding Vulcan as a patron set me onto a roman path. I started learning about Nova Roma, and the Religio Romana. I adopted a pretty roman-style brand of paganism that worked for me. I have never actually joined Nova Roma, or any other Roman reconstructionist group. While I know a lot of the more wiccan-type folks tend to think of me as a Roman recon, I don’t think of myself that way, and I think the real recons wouldn’t either.
I have little interest in trying to recreate a religion that hasn’t really been practiced for nearly 2000 years. The world today is a lot different than it was 2000 years ago, and a lot of what people did then doesn’t really work in the modern age. Then there is the fact that there are things that the Romans did that I find pretty morally repugnant, like slavery and gladiatorial fights to the death.
And of course we don’t really know everything that they did, how they did it, or why they did it. Our understanding keeps changing over time. This has always been one of my objections to strict reconstructionists. If recons have been doing something the “real” way the Romans, Norse, Celts, Etc did it, but suddenly we reach a new understanding of the religions of those peoples, does that means that the recons have been doing something wrong? that their religious practice is no longer valid? And how long will it be before this new understanding is itself overturned by yet another new discovery?
Personally I would prefer to do what works, what makes sense to me, and what has some actual grounding in the past. While I do try to follow what the recons are doing, and try to have some knowledge about research on these religious practices of the classical Romans, I am not a slave to it.
I ended up eventually joining ADF because it offered a way for me to have a Roman-centered practice as well as continue to do the ecstatic work that I have gotten so much out of. While most people hear the word “Druid” and automatically go to the Celtic religions, ADF is a “druid” organization that draws from a variety of Indo-European cultures, including the Romans. And the organization has a very shamanic view of the cosmos, though some of them don’t like to admit it. While ecstatic practice is not necessarily a big part of ADF, there are some of us who are actively participating in this sort of work.
Another reason that I joined ADF is that they have a formal training program. This was a big draw for me. So often in the pagan community, people claim all sorts of titles of dubious distinction. We have people who have put in decades of time, work, study, and magical practice who have earned titles like high-priest or priestess. But then we have people who have read what I affectionately call “Uncle Bucky’s Big Blue Book ” (Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft) and have decided that they are also High Priests. The bottom line is that so often in the pagan community, people can call themselves a third degree priest, and you have no way of knowing if they have actually earned that title, or whether they just decided to call themselves that.
ADF is different. If I am a dedicant of ADF, it means I have completed a specific course of study. I have read the texts, done the work, written the papers. And most importantly, I have had that work peer-reviewed by others who have completed the program. The same is true of all of their study programs, whether a guild study program or a clergy study program. ADF has very clear standards about what these titles mean, and that is important to me.
So I have tried to do the dedicant program with ADF in fits and starts. I’ve never gotten very far. Part of this whole transformation process for me is that I want to actually complete the Dedicant Study Program. I also want to deepen my ecstatic work, to practice it more regularly. I want to make my metalwork a more specifically spiritual act, a devotional activity to Vulcan.
This is my spiritual life so far, and where I want to go. Where It will actually goes I cannot predict. This is the start of my spirituality reforged.