Last week, I had the incredible privilege of sitting vigil with a friend in hospice in her final hours on this earth. She slept for most of the time I was there, but her waking moments were lucid, if brief. She whispered how good the fresh juice tasted (it had been made for her by a friend), and she seemed to prefer having my hands on her back to pain medication. In the last hour I was with her before leaving, a mutual friend joined us and played gentle, lullaby-style music for her on the kalimba and guitar. As he sang softly to her, I could barely make out his words; the intention was pure, the moment was intimate, and I felt honored to be present for such a profoundly sacred moment.
Speaking with another mutual friend who had held space for Maria in her final days, I mentioned that as I was at hospice I had felt an awareness of priestessing the priestess. Our friend agreed, and said she’d had a similar sensation. “That’s who Maria has been for many of us, whether she claimed that title or not.”
Maria and I were not part of a shared formal congregation or spiritual community in the traditional sense. We were both part of an informal network of friends in a variety of communities whose membership and interests overlap – sacred movement, ecstatic dance, ancestral healing, sound healing, and alternative spiritualities. It’s a network that is both leaderless and full of leaders, as its inherent diversity of beliefs and practices lends itself to members who are specialists in one tradition, students in another, and generalists in deep compassion, holy presence, and unconditional love.
In watching our community’s response to Maria’s illness and transition, as well as other moments of individual crisis over the years, I have noticed that dynamic is the norm among our circle of friends and seekers: we each minister to each other, priestess transitions, and support each other in love. It’s give and take, an interchange of each of our gifts and strengths, backgrounds and traditions, areas of wisdom, experience, and training. We step up in turn, soften in grief, and tend to each other sweetly, alternately embracing the roles of priestess and priestessed as the flow of life breathes us into expansion or contraction in each interaction, life event, and inner response. We give, we receive, we heal, and we offer our own wounds, gently and vulnerably, to the warmth of shared intention and tenderness of others. In so doing, we mediate, share, and hold space for the Divine with each other.
This isn’t to dismiss the real work and study that go into formal preparation for ministry or priesthood. Seminary study can be personally and academically grueling; the completion of personal study and exploration required in initiatory traditions is no small task. Formal religious leadership fills a unique role in our traditions and communities, and the more structured the community the more formal leadership expectations play a role. Even with the support of formal clergy and in organized religious communities, there will be frequent opportunities to minister to each other. For those of us whose networks of spiritual meaning tend to be grassroots and loosely organized, those opportunities and the ways in which we rise to their occasions are the foundation of community, the everyday rituals through which we affirm our commitment to our paths, to our growth, and to each other.
And this is the realization from which I’ve carried a powerful sense of gratitude all week – for those in my life who priestess transitions for each other every day, who hold each other through heartache and grief, and who step up to embody and embrace the Divine in our lives and their own without formal acknowledgment. I am grateful for those who bring a wealth of formal training and wisdom to the compassionate tending of loved ones in my spiritual communities, and for those who intuitively channel healing and divine love as naturally as their lungs breathe and hearts beat.
I am grateful for every precious person in my life who, like Maria, slips on the mantle of the sacred to touch, teach, listen, heal, and foster spiritual understanding and growth in those around them, in ways that are not hierarchical or top-down, but are organic and fluid and transitory. I’m grateful for those who freely share their gifts of intuition and love and faith, who inspire me with the way they live boldly and intentionally, and who help renew my belief in and commitment to a universal good and loving presence.
I pray for that belief and commitment to inspire me to hold that space for others as well, stepping up in service, ego softened, heart open, hands healing, words blowing love gently into the atmosphere.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds an Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion and social justice, and is currently plotting her next round of graduate studies. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.