As a Pagan I often walk alone. Like many others, I am solitary in my practice, and finding others of similar faith is not an easy task. I have spent the majority of my twenty-odd years as a Pagan in this situation. I find, however, that I tend to 'bump into' other Pagans at opportune moments in my life and theirs. Some of the most incredible epiphanies resulted from a chance encounter at the supermarket or bookstore. Some of my favourite students eventuated from random internet browsing or college classes.
Not, of course, that I truly believe it to be chance. But at the time it seems that way.
This year marks the end of my twenty-first year. My life tends to cycle in both three and seven year blocks, with most of the significant spiritual events occuring at those times. My life, spiritually speaking, right now seems to be filled with important things. And I am noticing that more keep raining down upon me. So too the epiphanies. Of which mentoring is the latest.
Mentoring is the process of guiding another in their endeavours, helping out with advice, knowledge, and support. As a spiritual activity, it revolves around helping others to find and strengthen their inner connection with the Divine.
In the Pagan community I believe mentoring is crucial. While we practice ancient beliefs, we are still a young and developing religion. We do not have the solid foundation of centuries of practice and development of faith to support us. Many of us live within communities marked by a strong religious preference towards one of the five manistream paths - Christianity being probably the most common. This makes it harder as everywhere we go, everything we see and hear within the public space is likely to be biased towards that religion. The blind assumption that everyone is of that faith, whether it is true or not, marks many many communities and as such is a part of the infrastructure.
Something as simple as "God bless you" in response to a sneeze, or "Hell, no!" punctuating a comment, reinforces the community's unspoken expectation that you too believe as everyone else. Add to this the focus upon religious holidays as public events - take the American and British traditions of store dressing for the seasons. It's not a Spring Theme, it's an Easter one. Winter wonderlands are a bit more prevelant, but most are still themed towards Santa, if not Jesus - and it becomes impossible not to be affected.
Combining the spiritual isolation many of us physically live in, with the sensory overload created by our community's religious bias, and it becomes difficult to remain balanced and comfortable within one's Pagan skin. Some deal with this by going overboard in exhibiting their Pagan beliefs. Others fade into closet Paganism. And many feel overwhelmed and alone.
And there are those of us - new and old - who fight so hard for our beliefs we become cemented into them. Entrenched and unwilling to shift, we become the "Old Guard", battling not only against the pressures of a world not yet fully accepting of us, but also against the mercurial natures of our own. The "New Guard" - those developing, eager and confident Pagans who shift and change with the tides of time, embracing new ideas and discarding tradition in their wake.
These places are where mentoring has a role to play. In my own experience it is the Pagans I meet who often form a framework by which I can define myself. I spend time with those who are not only comfortable and expressive in their faith, but also knowledgeable, thoughtful, and even provocative in their ideas, and I myself am challenged and stimulated to move ahead in my own study and practice. Working with people eager to learn inspires me to help, and also to further work on my own understanding and knowledge. Both encourage me to rethink my position. To refrain from cementing myself into a corner. Conversely, spending time only with those who are not terribly interested in spiritual advancement, and I tend to slack off and calcify, reluctant to change or progress.
It is when I spend time with people from both ends of the spectrum that I truly find myself at my best. Challenged and motivated, my own knowledge, thirst, and ability to commune with the Divine increase. Yet, by itself this is worthless. I run the risk faced by those in academia of losing touch with the real world, and thus ultimately with the Divine. We do not see God within ourselves - only that part of God that resides there, and if we remain self-focused that part of God begins to resemble a mirror. We see ourself and not the Divine. To see God fully and honestly we must look into the souls of those around us. We must commune with other people.
It is fun to talk with those who know what you know. Reinforces your little world and that is a comfortable and safe experience. One necessary to give us security from which to explore. It is exciting to learn from others. To study and realize and remember all these incredible things. But the flaw in these two things is their failure to provide true answers.
I may say to you that the Divine can be experienced through meditation, and you may try it and agree. But until you teach another how to do the same you will not truly understand. Oh, you will experience the sense of communion and everything, but it is as a child in many ways. You are doing as another told you - whether face-to-face, on tv, in a book, from the web, etc. Chances are you will find a way that works for you and stick to it. To turn around and communicate that knowledge to another being in such a way that inspires them to try and succeed changes it all.
The old adage that in teaching we truly learn is correct - especially when it comes to spiritual matters.
And by engaging in mentoring we increase our contact with others of like faith, but not necessarily like mind.
Those of us further along the path should stop and step back a few paces to take the hand of someone newer. Walk a way beside them. In the process we may, like parents with children, learn to see the world anew. As we pass on some of what we have fought to learn, we may learn something ourselves.
Mentoring is very much a two-way street, and we are all on it. It's a matter of choosing to step into the traffic and travel somewhere with someone rather than sitting on the sidewalk alone.