Are there any Pagan-friendly interfaith monasteries?
March 16, 2011 5:49 PM   Subscribe

I’m a Pagan who wants to live a monastic life. Is there such a thing as an interfaith Earth-based monastery?

I am a devout Pagan polytheist and animist who is strongly attracted to the monastic life. I want to renounce worldly pursuits and live a life of service through Earth-based spiritual work.

However, unlike Catholicism and Buddhism, Paganism doesn’t have any sort of organized monastic tradition (though a web search revealed that there are some folks who are trying to build one.) I am often attracted to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples, but as a Pagan living in the USA, I’m hoping I can find something more suited to my faith. I’m tired of being marginalized and hiding my religion. I need more than just a UU church or loose-knit Pagan group; I want my faith to be rooted in my daily way of life.

A Pagan monastic tradition, if it existed, would probably differ in important ways from other forms of monasticism. Pagans wouldn’t necessarily require asceticism or vows of poverty or celibacy, for example, as Paganism affirms the value of beauty and pleasure. People of all genders and sexualities would be welcomed, and female clergy would be common.

Though I thrive in solitude and silence, and have often entertained the idea of being a hermit in the forest, I don’t feel it’s necessary or even desirable to completely disengage from society. As someone involved in the gothic/industrial subculture I have long had counter-cultural sensibilities; I’ve also had the sense that life in the fast-paced modern world requires a constant low-level dulling and deadening of emotions and deeper modes of perception, and I want to be free from that onslaught as much as possible. But my desire to live a monastic life is about more than renunciation. I want to live, worship, and work in accordance with my values: simple living, mindfulness, devotion, ecological ethics, compassion, discipline, contemplation, joy, love, laughter, service, and social justice.

I've been bookish and autodidactic all my life; I have spent years absorbing all I can about religion, philosophy, the arts, systems theory, psychology, feminism, queer theory, mythology and deep ecology. I read everything from Pema Chodron to Ronald Hutton to Noah Levine (of Dharma Punx) to Wendell Berry to bell hooks to Vine Deloria Jr. to Thich Nhat Hanh to Joseph Campbell to Joanna Macy…and on and on. I’m hugely inspired by Into Great Silence, a documentary about monastic life.

I want to do more than retreat and meditate and build shrines (though that's a good start). I'm an aspiring temple keeper, yes...but I want to do land-based work such as permaculture, herbalism, and habitat restoration. I also want to continue my scholarly study, writing, dance, and various domestic and artistic pursuits, including tea culture and ritual; the domestic arts are forms of prayer and devotion for me. I prefer simple living arrangements for ecological, financial and personal reasons, and have long been interested in the tiny house movement. I love the land and climate of parts of the Pacific Northwest with its overcast mild rainy weather, temperate rainforests, and mountains, so I’m hoping I won’t have to move too far away to pursue a monastic life.

In some ways, I’m ideally positioned to take the plunge into a life like this, as I live a somewhat reclusive life already. I’m single, able-bodied, in my forties, no kids or pets, feminist and queer-identified, deep green/radical politics, introverted. I don’t smoke or drink, I’m allergic/sensitive to perfumes, I don’t watch TV and rarely watch movies, I eat healthy and local food as much as possible (omnivore), and I walk or ride transit everywhere. I live alone in a tiny studio condo in Portland, OR. I never thought I’d become one of those collapse of the middle class statistics, but here I am: highly educated, computer nerd, financially savvy, and culturally middle class - yet unemployed, savings completely gone, no health insurance, now subsisting on food stamps and the generosity of my family. I have come to believe that the get-a-job route may not be for me – not because I don’t want to work or provide for my own support (I do), but because I am called to a different path, if that makes sense.

So, since Pagan monasteries aren't yet an option, is there such a thing as an interfaith monastery or other such organized religious order in the Pacific Northwest that accepts Pagans like me as initiates? My motivation to do this is strong enough that I’d even be willing to start my own nonprofit religious organization, if I had access to the necessary land and resources...but I'd rather join forces with an existing group.

Thanks in advance for all suggestions!
posted by velvet winter to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Move to India and become a Jain.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 6:11 PM on March 16, 2011

Oops, you don't want to move. Sorry.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 6:11 PM on March 16, 2011

Best answer: The Directory of Intentional Communities returns a number of results for a search on "pagan."
posted by Wordwoman at 6:20 PM on March 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

While I no longer live in the PNW, I was there for almost 20 years until recently and have deep roots in the Pagan culture there, at least up in Washington. As far as I know there are no monastaries, per se. How "tapped in" are you to the community where you are?

From your paragraph about temple-keeping and beyond, it sounds like you aren't really interested in withdrawing from the world; it sounds like you want to be engaged, even employed, in some pursuit that has spiritual resonance for you. And there are many, MANY businesses in the PNW which are aligned with you interests, even if they aren't explicitly pagan in nature. Find (or start) a business about tea culture, domestic arts, ecology and simple living and get working there. It sounds like you have your sheltered space for solitude and meditation at home, or can make it in your home space wherever it may be.

Look for work at businesses you like and patronize. Find the retreat centers from N. California through Washington and see if they need staff.

Unemployment is such a tough challenge. Sounds like you are in a tough spot, a real situation of re-examination. Remember that change is the only constant and you will emerge in the next right place. Best of luck.
posted by Sublimity at 6:28 PM on March 16, 2011

Best answer: It sounds like a lovely idea but as a Catholic I think you may be romantising the monastic life. Most nuns and monks traditionally worked quite hard at jobs they necessarily did not enjoy. I believe most convents/monestaries were self-supporting, except for the initial investment in the land/building, that was paid back over time. There are very real financial concerns and responsibilties with running intentional communities and without the money, the idea, no matter how good, can't happen. I recently saw a vibrant, lovely urban intentional community fall apart because of the lack of money and it was quite sad.

As you mention, access to resources is the stumbling block for most people that would be interested in that life. When I looked at the stable and long-lasting intentional communities in my area they all expected a pretty heavy admittance fee (it was called something else usually but basically it allowed the community to sustain itself and pay back any existing debts, otherwise newcomers would basically be getting a free ride.)

You mention being turned into the pagan community but you may want to look to the anarchist community as well, there may be small scale projects you can join. I hate feeling like this is a such a negative posting because this IS such a good idea and I think there are many others that would benefit from such a community. Perhaps the best idea would be to see how a business plan could be made to moneytise your idea, combining the intentional community with some sort of retreat or spa. You may want to look at existing retreats or spas and see if there is any employment available as a paid internship. Another althernative is too look at WOOFing, there may be a farm that could you could join paths with, otherwise, the combination of hard work, nature and simple living could give you a chance to work further on your idea.

Good luck, and I mean this sincerely. I do think there is a community for you but the good ones tend to keep quiet to avoid being overwhelmed - most of the people in the communities have very big hearts. Giving of yourself and your time is one way to show a commitment and "worthiness". I see you have wonderful potential to make this your life, you will simply need to take small steps towards your bigger goal rather than starting out where you hope to end up.
posted by saucysault at 6:48 PM on March 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Sublimity - In response to the question about how tapped in I am to the Pagan community: Not very. I've been Pagan for over 15 years, but have always practiced as a solitary for a whole host of reasons, including my general loner tendencies; I haven't talked much about my religion publicly. I have a just a few Pagan friends in Eugene and Portland, though I do feel quite close to them.

You're right that there are many local non-Pagan businesses that are aligned with my interests, and if I could find one interested in hiring me, I'd work for them, while keeping my larger plans for a monastic life in place. I've had no luck with this approach so far, but I'm keeping an eye out, and I have friends who are doing the same. I won't hold my breath, though, as the Portland job market is...well, let's just say it's not exactly thriving.

I do have a sheltered space at home for meditation and worship, for which I am very grateful. I make good use of it daily.

saucysault - You're probably right that I'm romanticizing the monastic life, as someone who's never lived it. But I'm not afraid of working hard, nor of taking on tasks I don't enjoy - that's an inescapable part of life. I just want to do so as a service to the land and to my religion, if that makes sense.

You're also right on target about the financial concerns, and I too have seen very promising intentional community efforts fall apart (including one of my own!) for lack of resources. I have some education in accounting and I'm hard-nosed about that sort of thing. I may be long on idealism at times, but I'm also very practical. I would never launch a business, say, or start a non-profit religious organization, without a workable financial plan.

Lastly, you're right that good communities tend to keep quiet, and for good reasons. I'm happy to give generously of my time, resources and efforts, should I find one where I can actually work within a serious, focused religious context.
posted by velvet winter at 7:29 PM on March 16, 2011

Consider other religious traditions, like Jainism or Taoism/Daoism. I don't mean this flippantly: my experience with capital-P Pagans has been that that personal beliefs are so variegated that a conventional monastic existence would be pretty much untenable. I've seen far more expressions of ecstatic faith, things like entirely spontaneous prayers made up on the spot, that seem as distant from a monastic tradition as a tent revival. I imagine a Daoist teacher might also be able to help you, depending on how syncretic you're comfortable being.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 9:33 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is still true but several faith based (meaning christian but not necessarily catholic) monasteries will allow you to join as a lay brother without taking permanent vows, or even being of the faith. You are still expected to abide by the traditions of the monastery. And most if not all of these types of communities require you to be financially independent if you are not joining with vows of poverty (such as the catholic priesthood).
posted by bartonlong at 9:55 PM on March 16, 2011

Response by poster: StrikeTheViol - You make a good point. My experience with Pagans has been similar: beliefs are all over the map, and Pagan communities tend to be fractious for all kinds of reasons. Seems to me that the variation in belief - in and of itself - wouldn't necessarily make a Pagan monastery untenable, though. It would just mean there would need to be lots of built-in room for variations. One approach might be, say, to de-emphasize belief, and focus instead on an ethic of service to the land. Yet if it is to be a monastery with a shared theology, and not just a casual gathering of Pagans, I agree that this might still pose a problem. As someone who is serious about my faith - interested in commitment, responsibility, service, worship, contemplation, and ongoing scholarly study - I know that I need much more structure than I have found in most of Paganism.

In any case, I will take a closer look at Taoism. I've read a bit about it here and there, but I wasn't aware that there was a Taoist monastic tradition. Thanks for the suggestion.
posted by velvet winter at 11:44 PM on March 16, 2011

Response by poster: StrikeTheViol - Just a quick follow-up after looking at the Daoist site you linked. According to the site, they are focused entirely on traditional Chinese Daoist culture and religion; they're not an interfaith monastic group. It's wonderful to see that something like that exists, but as someone with a strong spiritual connection to my own Nordic/European ancestry, I don't think it's for me.
posted by velvet winter at 12:02 AM on March 17, 2011

Best answer: I am not your spiritual advisor and the google leads me to strange and wonderful places.
Via you may want to get in touch with Cauldron Farm which is the home of Asphodel who may be able to connect you with somewhere.
(It's not the arrival, it's the journey).
posted by adamvasco at 2:14 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Could you attach yourself to a pagan-friendly commune or ashram as their resident monk?

Then you would have a community in which you could serve as a spiritual advisor, without having to jump-start the whole thing.
posted by musofire at 10:59 AM on March 17, 2011

Response by poster: adamvasco - Thanks for the pointer to Cauldron Farm in MA. I've been reading their site for years, and I own several of Raven Kaldera's Northern Tradition books and have enjoyed them very much. A couple of the folks at Cauldron Farm are friends-of-friends, I think. I'll write to them and ask if they have any recommendations.

musofire - I don't think I'm even remotely qualified for the role of a "spiritual advisor" as such; I'm more of a writer, dancer, domestic arts worker, and aspiring temple keeper. Nonetheless, I like your idea of taking a step in the right direction by finding a PNW land-based community that is explicitly Pagan-friendly, and then working toward building something more organized over time. Hopefully, I'll eventually be able to find one that is suitable.

In any case, I'll almost certainly have to wait to take more concrete steps toward the monastic life until I am able to save up some money. Even if I sell a lot of my possessions for cash and take a vow of simplicity, which is something I want to do anyway (and have been doing in stages for years), I'll still need at least a meager it's back to the secular job-hunt, keeping expenses as low as possible, and hunting down more freelance writing gigs until I can build my savings back up.

saucysault, I especially appreciate your words of encouragement. I think you're absolutely right that I will need to take this one small step at a time, rather than trying to jump in at once. I will do just that, and see where it leads. Wordwoman, I searched the IC database (which I already knew about, but hadn't thought to use for this particular purpose) and found one community in the Portland area that sounds promising. I'm working on a letter to them right now. Thank you!

Thank you so much for the advice, everyone. Much appreciated. Have I mentioned lately how much I love AskMe?
posted by velvet winter at 3:48 PM on March 17, 2011

Response by poster: For the benefit of anyone who may stumble upon this thread later, especially if you're in the Bay area of California, I wanted to add a link to a resource I found during my search: The Earth Medicine Alliance. It isn't a monastery, but it's an interfaith, animist, Earth-based and spiritually focused nonprofit organization with an ethic of service and a clear statement of support for UN declarations on the rights of indigenous peoples as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. They do Earth-honoring rituals, and they have an annual conference.

Looks like a good start to me, and it's a new organization (their first conference happened in Nov. 2010.) I've signed up for their mailing list and will follow their activities with interest.
posted by velvet winter at 6:56 PM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: And here is yet another resource for readers of this thread. I just found out through one of my Pagan friends that there is actually a Druid monastery/seminary in the works, or at least in the very early planning stages. It's located in Trout Lake, WA, and it's run by Rev. Kirk Thomas of ADF. There is also a Zen Buddhist Temple and an organic farm on the premises. My friend took me as a guest to one of their rituals over the weekend. I am impressed, and hope to go back for more.

This sounds like a very promising model to me - members of two religions working together to acquire suitable land, share resources, and build the foundation for a monastic life that welcomes Pagans as well as people of other faiths. I'd love to see more Pagans involved in ventures like this!
posted by velvet winter at 11:41 AM on March 22, 2011

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