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My rise and fall as a Priest Candidate in a Kemetic temple

October 13, 2007

From the get-go, I wasn’t a person who had the ambition to become clergy. This is probably not unconnected to the fact that I wasn’t really a theist when I became Pagan. My first modern Druid book was written from the OBOD point of view, so there was a lot of focus on ancestors and nature spirits and the cycle of the year, but not the god direction. It’s not that I disbelieved, it just wasn’t a significant thing to my practice at the time.

Then I got involved in ADF, first just as a participant, then building groups. There wasn’t a sense on my part that I was “practicing” for more involved service to the community; it was really just a job that I thought was worth doing, that nobody else was doing, that I had a shot at doing well. If there had been someone else around trying and doing a respectable job of it, I’d have been thrilled to just pull up a pew (as it were) and become a participant again.

That’s essentially what I did do with Kemeticism eventually. The problem in my temple, however, was they didn’t have a system like the Guilds of ADF where people could continue their studies within the organization in a variety of specialties outside of the clergy training program (they were a small fledgling temple just getting started – it was totally understandable, just unfortunate). If you wanted to keep studying past the Dedicant equivalent program, you got pulled onto the priest track. That’s not how things were designed, but it was how they ended up. The temple was desperately in need of more dedicated hands and minds to develop the programs they wanted to offer to the community, as the few that started it were constantly pushing the line just short of burnout. (Starting a complex and ambitious temple organization and completing/defending one’s doctoral thesis are perhaps not great activities to be pursuing simultaneously.)

So, trying to do anything beyond basic study in the temple tended to put you onto the Priest Candidate track eventually, and the temple really needed all the priests it could get as fast as it could get them.

This is not a situation that is really conducive to patience and the upholding of cautious, rigorous screening processes – or thorough and effective training, for that matter.

I make a very good student when I’m interested in the material and find the method of education agreeable. I’d finished the introductory program and really wanted further mentoring and study opportunities. I also really, really missed creating and performing group liturgy. Pursuing Priest Candidate training eventually seemed like a logical thing to do, if my spiritual work kept being rewarding.

Maybe. I didn’t see it as a thing to take at all lightly. I just wasn’t sure. Me, a priest? I knew so many people in the Pagan community who wanted that so badly, but it just had never had that irresistable pull for me. Just because someone has the aptitude and ability to do something – and feels that it’s worthy and needs to be done – doesn’t make it the right thing for that person to pursue.

Then, one day in pathworking meditation, I had a profound experience. I had no particular goal in mind that I can remember. Somehow I wound up having a very vivid, intense interaction with Ma’at.

(Aside: the gods vary widely in how They choose to manifest to people; it can change from being to being, or from mood to mood in the same being. There’s something of a spectrum. How much do They want to show us, how much do They want to put us at our ease, how much can we take? Some seem almost human in their attitudes, some seem very abstract and other.

Ma’at is extremely abstract in Her essence, among the most abstract in the Egyptian pantheon, or any other. She’s always been very deliberate with me in being as human and approachable as possible – a favor I’ve been told is rather unusual. I truly do appreciate that kindness, but I’ve got to say that even at Her most casual. . . She shines, radiating a palpable sense of divinity.

In general I have found that occasions when one is stunned and shaken to the core with the absolute conviction THAT was a god, that is what awe feels like are rare (and that’s probably healthy). It’s shown up at some level every time I can remember encountering Her, even if tuned down to just a haunting awareness dancing at the back of my mind of being in the presence of *Someone*.)

She said to me, “We’d like you to consider becoming Our priest.”

I was stunned. “. . .’Our’? Who is ‘We’?”

She told me it was Herself and Amon.

Amon is not Someone to take lightly, either. At all.

I was filled with waves of awe and shock and joy and humility, vibrating with them like a plucked harp string.

I had *never* expected anything like this. I somehow signaled agreement. To the considering? To the becoming? I’m not sure.

There really wasn’t any possible answer aside from Yes. I didn’t want to say anything but Yes.

How much clearer can the Universe be?

Later – the next day, the next week, who knows – I tried to get a sense of timing. There didn’t feel like there was any hurry or rush; it wasn’t something to worry about. It was something submitted for my consideration, and at some point I’d find the situation that needed a decision.

Inside of a month or two, I was invited to submit an application for Priest Candidacy at my temple. Honestly, I was rather surprised; I expected it at some point, but not so soon, not for at least another six months or a year. I can’t say I felt convinced I was ready RIGHT THEN, but trusting in the judgment of the temple priests, I said yes. There wasn’t any hint from the Netjeru either way, just a consistent sense of “We’d like you to consider. . .”.

In retrospect, that trust in the temple priests’ judgment was naive. 20/20 hindsight.

Really, little training took place over the next six months or so. Crises came up in the priests’ day jobs that indefinitely postponed the completion of the intermediate class we’d started. There were long phone calls discussing various aspects of setting up a personal study plan with goals and projects for the next year.

The time came for the next priest/priest candidate retreat – they usually happened at least once a year – and I flew out to spend the better part of a week attending. There was a sense of optimism, of getting things rolling after a lull, of being on track and in the proper flow of things.

Part of the event was a ritual in which all of the new Priest Candidates since the last retreat would formally make their vows. We’d all signed a paper version, but that didn’t really have the same sense of significance.

There’s a practice in Kemetic reconstructionism called saq, which is basically a full possessionary trance. Probably the closest comparison is the idea in the Afro-Caribbean fusion traditions (ex. Santeria and Voudon) of the loa riding the priest as their horse. Saq comes in varying degrees of intensity, but its fullest expression, the one that is sought out whenever possible, is when a Netjeru takes over a priest vocally and physically to the point where the priest is not aware of what is happening as it occurs.

Do I believe in this? I don’t have a 100% answer. It seems incredible, but I’ve seen demonstrations that were pretty convincing. I just don’t know. My general attitude has been cautious open-mindedness.

The temple had a ritually custom-made mask of the psychopomp jackal god Wepwawet that was considered to be a strong assist in the assumption of saq, as experienced by multiple people. One of the two full priests was going to don the mask and hope for saq, taking each of the candidates out of the room for a few moments alone, then leading them back in and presenting them to the head of the temple to perform their oaths.

I was not the first to go. As the others went through the process, I can tell you that I witnessed as convincing a case for saq as I’ve seen.

My turn came. I really couldn’t tell what or Who I was talking to right then. I was asked a few ritual questions about my purposes for being there, etc. I tried to make my answers firm and purposeful; they might have come across as irreverent, I don’t know. I was asked to disclose something I had been oath-bound not to reveal, that had come up tangentially in conversation earlier in retreat (followed by my immediately changing the subject).

I refused. More than once – I believe three times.

That question coming up made me really wonder about the completeness of the saq; was it the god speaking, or the priest speaking? Was it testing my willingness to obey, as was required by my role as a junior member in a strictly hierarchical organization? What was asked didn’t have any relevance to the situation at all, wouldn’t be useful information; was the point to find out if my will could be broken?

One doesn’t have much time to think in such a situation.

Ultimately, my refusal to answer came down to gut feeling, and the following conviction: that one does not break a sworn oath when being questioned in preparation to swearing another oath. To do so would damage my integrity and make my ability to hold to the terms of any oath – especially the one made in a few moments! – forever suspect. Ma’at had asked me to serve Her; to be forsworn immediately before making priest candidate vows would go against all that She represents.

The questioning wrapped up, we went into the other room, and I was presented to the head of the temple. That priest ritually asked, “Is this individual acceptable for priest candidacy?”

“No.”

A flat, unemotional No. There wasn’t any justification, no explanation, no terms upon which I might be considered once again.

The room froze in shock. Nothing like that had ever happened before, it hadn’t entered anyone’s mind as a possibility; no thought had been put into how to deal with it if it ever were to happen.

Eventually Wepwawet led the next candidate out of the room; the ritual continued. He made a point of confronting one person directly in front of everyone, but that candidate was ultimately judged acceptable and made his vows. Eventually the ceremony was finished.

The priest who had been wearing the mask came in a bit later, shaking off a daze, asking to hear how things had gone because she had no memory past the first person. Some people said Wepwawet was gentle and kind; some that He was perfunctory.

When she heard about Him saying No to me, at first she laughed, waiting for the punchline, to hear how it had all ended happily. She couldn’t believe at first that it was that simple; just No.

That cast rather a pall over the rest of the retreat. The others didn’t have any idea how to react to me – should I be there? Was this temporary or forever?

I had been stunned, but it didn’t sink in, really. I didn’t feel unhappy, just in limbo. I had no idea what came next either.

Within a month, the events that led to my leaving the temple started – I’ve posted about them elsewhere. I basically just drifted away. No resolution by either party. I said I’d had enough of spiritual pursuits for a while, and took a few years’ sabbatical.

So really, I cannot say my experience outside of ADF has made my feelings about the potential pursuit of clergy credentials any clearer.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2007 5:03 PM

    Wow, that must have been a tremendous and unpleasant shock. I’m so sorry. (And yeah, worth planning for in a ritual/group sense, but even so, people rarely actually expect that sort of thing to happen.)

    • November 18, 2007 3:07 AM

      You know, it seemed to floor and upset everyone else more than it did me. I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but once it happened. . . in some ways I was unsurprised, and in some ways I was mysteriously relieved.
      If that hadn’t happened, it would have been much harder to go when things went so wrong for my friend.

  2. October 13, 2007 7:43 PM

    A strong lesson learned… and one must wonder…where and how would you have ended up if it was a yes?

    • November 18, 2007 3:11 AM

      I’m not sure I see the lesson, myself. May I ask you to describe what you think it was?
      I think I’d eventually have left one way or another but this probably was a lot less agonizing to me (in relative terms). If I’d actually made the formal oaths it would be a lot harder for me to have justified leaving to myself.
      My integrity just got dinged, not crunched.

  3. October 14, 2007 6:20 AM

    Wow. That’s just… well, I don’t really know what that is, to be honest. But I’m glad you found your way to ADF.

    • November 18, 2007 3:12 AM

      *wry smile*
      I don’t feel particularly clever for having left ADF to go to this group.
      I think coming back to ADF has been good, though. :)

  4. October 15, 2007 4:04 AM

    The oaths we make and keep are important. Among other things, it seperates reasoned devotion out of love from slavish “hedging your bets” worship out of fear.
    Maybe this is arrogant, but who really wants to worship a god who doesn’t care about the quality of his/her/its worshippers?
    You did right.

    • November 18, 2007 3:14 AM

      Thank you.
      This sentiment coming from you is more germane to the situation in question than you know (or than I can talk about here). . . kinda funny, actually. ;)
      *hugs*

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