Pagan priesthood, practically: an interview with Lora O’Brien

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Lora O’Brien is the founder of the Irish Pagan School, an online source of classes about Irish deities and spirituality, as well as an active YouTuber, and she has just published a new book, A Practical Guide to Pagan Priesthood: Community Leadership and Vocation. She was born in Dublin and recently lives in County Waterford with her partner and son.

Lora O’Brien [courtesy]

She is an Irish Draoí, which she describes as a druid, wizard, magician, augur, and diviner, by following the native practices, spirituality, and magic of Ireland. She has also been dedicated to the Mórrígan for more than 14 years, and has managed the Irish sacred site of Cruachán/Rathcroghan.

A strength of A Practical Guide is how it asks the readers to take a good hard look at their ethics and why they are wanting to be clergy — are they doing it to serve their community in right relationship with them and the deities, or are they doing it for their own egos? Ego, she points out, can lead many a clergy member or leader to stop serving the needs of their community and the beings they work with.

I highly recommend the book to those who are in Pagan leadership roles and especially existing or aspiring clergy members to help refocus and expand their views on what clergy and leadership can be.

The Wild Hunt: Thanks for letting me interview you. I guess a good question to start would be: what got you into stepping into the role of priesthood?

Lora O’Brien: Honestly, it was by necessity, not design. There was work to do, and I started doing it. Community responsibilities to pick up and carry, and not enough people willing to do that work. So, I did.

I guess I should differentiate (as I do in the book) between sacerdotal work — the ‘inner mysteries’ of devotion to a deity —and pastoral work — the community roles, functions, and responsibilities of supporting people both socially and spiritually. I do both, but not all priests do. I have been working with the Gods and Ungods of Ireland (as in Irish lore, it’s the Gods and everything else), probably my whole life, but consciously and deliberately since I was 16 years old and picked up my first book on Paganism. I began my sacerdotal training and practice there, and continued it through initiations and a decade of learning and work within a couple of well established Pagan traditions, then continued it personally through my work with the Mórrígan, and a few others of the Irish pantheon more recently. The community and pastoral work, as I said above, I just sort of stepped into through the years when I saw the need for it.

TWH: What prompted you to create the Irish Pagan School and how has it been helpful to those who have studied with your lessons?

LO: Myself and my co-founder and partner Jon O’Sullivan (An Scéalaí Beag, a Dagda Priest and Bard) really wanted to provide an ethical online learning resource for those who are ready and willing to conscientiously engage with native Irish practice, rather than leaving folk to struggle through the often heavily appropriated and misunderstood ‘Celtic’ codswallop that is far too readily available in Neo-Paganism. Our mission statement is “Authentic Connection to Ireland,” and that’s what we provide for our students every single day. The reviews speak for themselves!

TWH: What topics do you cover in the book, and is there a conscious choice about the flow of the book in the way it teaches or helps the reader, and if so, how do you hope it helps them learn from your book?

LO: In the book, I’ve covered pastoral and sacerdotal duties, modern Paganism and professional priesthood, self-assessment exercises, skill development on things like group leadership, community leadership, learning and teaching, crisis care, communicating with deity, devotion to deity, magic skills and ethics, life rites and community celebration. I share slices of experience from priests in other traditions in the interview appendix, and there’s a wealth of resources for further development. As I said, the two main areas of inner and outer work, if you will, are treated separately — because they are different — and I hope that readers can learn from either or both, as it suits their individual path.

TWH: What have you seen missing in terms of Pagan priesthood that inspired you to write your guide book?

LO: I’ve seen training missing and skills development. Supported experience would be good too! For the most part, priesthood training happens within groups and traditions with wildly varying standards, if it happens at all. I wrote this book to take some of that hit and miss nature out of the equation, hopefully, and to provide something of a skills development and shared experience starting point for those who may want to take up this work. And for those who want to know that the priesthood they are putting their trust in have some sort of common baseline, at least.

TWH: What were the early stumbling blocks that you experienced on your priesthood path and what advice would you have given yourself in the past from what you’ve learned now? Also, what wouldn’t you have told yourself because you had to learn the lessons or wisdom for yourself?

LO: I think a lot of my early stumbling happened from a lack of confidence in my own abilities, and even in some of the training I was receiving — though in my case (thankfully) most folk were genuinely doing their absolute best in this regard. I was lucky! If I’d had a clearer training and skills development path to follow, and advice on the work of a priest specifically, I would have saved myself a whole load of heartache, stress and anxiety. There was also a distinct lack of Pagan specific resources for the practical end of things, both in person and in print.

In general, I’m a fan of learning from experience, and the “I wouldn’t change that, it’s made me the person I am today” mentality is grand for stuff that just affected me personally. But priesthood brings responsibilities for other folk too, and I’ve seen (and made!) mistakes that could have and should have been easily avoided with some preparation and guidance for the priesthood. Hopefully my readers won’t have to make those same mistakes now.

TWH: What books inspired you in how you developed your form of becoming a priest and why?

LO: For my Irish priesthood sacerdotal work, I went back to the source lore in our manuscripts, and in the native folk tradition, to develop and grow my indigenous practice organically, and in what I call ‘Right Relationship’ with the native ancestral practices. For the pastoral skills development, I went outside of Paganism and religion altogether for the most part, and devoured books in areas such as leadership, psychology (which I studied at 3rd Level too), personal development, and business management, to name a few.

TWH: I feel “A Practical Guide to Pagan Priesthood” is bound to become a core staple of those starting clergy training as well as is truly needed to help get and keep Pagan groups moving in a positive direction as well as enable priests some great ideas of how they can grow and improve. What do you hope people will be getting from your book and how you hope it will impact the greater Pagan community?

LO: I hope this book provides inspiration, support, and a practical toolkit, for those who want to do (or find themselves doing) the work of a Pagan priest. It will also help folk figure out if the priesthood is even for them at all, which is really valuable in and of itself. I would also like to see my readers take a look around at the folk who are claiming priesthood, and making sure they are not blindly following those who are in it for the power or the prestige that can go with this title in some parts of the community. We deserve better, and time’s up for the ego cult ‘leaders’ who are not doing this important and valuable work, either internally or externally. I’d love to see a new generation of strong, ethical, responsible, prepared and diligent priesthood guide our Pagan communities forward through whatever the future holds for humanity.

TWH: Finally, what question do you wish people would ask you in an interview that you’ve never been asked?

LO: “What charitable organisation can we donate our time/money to, in order to re-balance the relationship input of your time/knowledge/energy?”

Please walk in Right Relationship, wherever you can take those steps.