Traditional Apprenticeships: Training in the modern Pagan Abbey

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Kylemore Abbey in Ireland

Our visibility in the community has generated many inquiries from those wishing to study under our mistresses, and with our group. Explaining different levels of involvement so frequently has helped refine the details better in my own mind, traditionally considered a major reward for the teaching. In this post, we will be specifically referring to the training in healing and appropriate technology, often associated with women, primarily from the European Aboriginal traditions, that is taught at our pagan Abbeys. However, traditional apprenticeships have many common elements, including the relationship between teacher and student, which we must also examine.

Lessons, or sessions, and apprenticeships are two different streams. For the first, they are in-depth teaching opportunities to learn the intricacies of stillroom work for a more hobby use, perhaps as an introduction, or for personal healing. I personally do them usually for groups, with a full lecture and demo, and in private homes on an individual basis. They require alot of prep and materials on my part, so I often have to charge for them. Depending on materials and tech, as well as what kind of detailed help the student requires, fees can range from $25-100/hour: the higher level being full health consultations. ‘Course, I also trade for doing dishes, for example, since I don’t have a dishwasher currently, and this stuff uses up alot of equipment… This is also traditional, though, since most people don’t have chickens to trade anymore.

Apprenticeship on the other hand is for those who believe this might be their Calling. It involves a far more intense and thorough program, with the expectation that apprentices repay their teaching in sweat equity rather than cash, and often continuing on to practice professionally. It is longer, too, and harder, usually involving an eventual restructuring of one’s life to take on this goal.

I take applicants for both methods, and people can switch streams whenever they like, if they are able to. I don’t take on apprentices who are healing themselves of a severe condition, for example. There is far too much going on in someone’s life when they are healing to add the intensity of a full time apprenticeship, too. They stay Students until they are more fully recovered.

With both methods, the dropout rate is still pretty high. If applicants give up, it’s almost always in the first six weeks. Most people are not prepared for the revelations that occur when immersed into traditional healing, and what that means for themselves, their lives, their families, and how they fit in the world, or the world fits around them. It’s a profound shift, and many people are simply not equipped to deal with it at that time. It’s my job to help them with that, of course, but it’s still too big a leap for many.

It is especially intense for those who seek the apprenticeship stream.

I take on very few apprentices. Since I also require the spiritual component, potential apprentices are accepted in similar ways to novitiates in other paths. Sometimes, they simply need to apply, and I am satisfied that they are ready to dedicate themselves and meet the challenge. Occasionally, I allow them to commit to the apprenticeship stream only after a trial period, especially if they seem adamant on the surface but some underlying issues are holding them back or is making their progress difficult. In certain cases, an Initiation or personal trial is required, for those who require a more visceral acknowledgement of the contract and to prove they won’t fail out when the really hard work begins.

No matter how they arrive to the path, however, all apprentices are chosen for their dedication not just to healing others, but to their own personal growth, character, and empowerment. No one can heal anyone else, of course. Only patients heal themselves, no matter what you cut out of them or dose them with. Someone who feels they are done with suffering will still die, no matter how successful the treatment is, and others will rise from their deathbeds with remarkable courage if they have the will. The healing arts are to facilitate that recovery as much as possible. So I dislike the term Healer, since healing is entirely done by the patient (except laying on of hands, which I have yet to have proven to me), but since I can’t really come up with a better term, it will have to suffice.

Because of this, however, one of the best methods to increase chances in patient outcome, in traditional or conventional healing, is having a fully actualized Healer. This is self-evident, but not included at all in conventional training, though very much a part of traditional healing in many parts of the world. [See Further Reading below]  Someone who has actively worked to eradicate their flaws, like racial or sexist prejudices, is a better patient advocate for example, and can hear the vulnerable in a more meaningful way.  A healer who has cultivated humility will be more available to assist in vital procedures or discussions that other professionals might find beneath their dignity. A healer who practices Detached Compassion will be strong and kind to those who invoke great pity in others, and the “Wounded Healer” such as a shaman can devote far more energy and time to palliative care than those who are struggling with their own mortality. Modern conventional healers are trained largely as technicians, under the Body is a Machine model, which is totally different from nearly all forms of traditional healing, and while they have achieved certain miracles, it is a very new form of medicine. Like any youth, it seeks to make it own way without listening to its Elders, and only with maturity can we hope to integrate successful traditional wisdom with current practices.

Let’s pick just one example to illustrate. PTSD, often induced in the Western world by childhood or adult sexual or physical abuse, is a far more common condition than it should be. In those drawn to paganism, which is my worldview, there is a much higher incidence of seekers who have been wounded in this way – closer to 85%. As many grew up in other traditions, this often represents a failure of their previous systems to satisfactorily contextualize their experiences. So it is with distressing frequency that I encounter this deeply rooted issue in my students and apprentices. For those who have not yet dealt with this in their lives, it can be a terrible blind spot that can influence how they treat others coming to them for help. Unable to deal with the darkness in themselves, they often miss the same symptoms in others, or the reason for them. As their Mistress, it is part of my duty to guide them come to terms with their pain in whatever manner they best respond to: from medicine and therapy to intense spiritual journeys.

So, when I take on apprentices, I train them as traditional professional pagan healing nonnes. (I very rarely accept men as apprentices, for various reasons.) This means not only studying for months or years to learn the traditional tech, but they also dedicate themselves to spiritual self-improvement. They examine their own lives for fatal flaws and empower themselves. Because of this, there is far less to cloud their judgments in their examinations of others, and they are more able to give of themselves with sincerity and reverence, and not simply as a drain on their resources. To that end, we emphasize knowledge, honour, duty, integrity, courage, discipline, deep personal self-examination in all the dark places, and ultimately, vows, if the dedicant chooses to make this her life’s work.

For method and technique, we have to adapt to the modern era we live in, but there is a plethora of material to build upon from the past [see Further Reading below] , as well as some current best practices. We use whatever resources are necessary, including other acknowledged professionals and accredited institutions. For example, our nuns learn how to ‘read’ a client, such as body clues, intuiting and micro-expressions, to better understand a client’s actual issues, especially those they might not be willing to divulge but are vital for accuracy, and investigate many other possibilities that most healers never know to look for. They also learn how to make the remedies themselves, like salves, decoctions, alcohols, poultices, candies, and healing foods, as well as put forward recommendations and train clients in their use. Some finish university degrees in our specialties, such as counselling and folklore. We also teach how to work within the laws and health requirements of each country, partner up with other members of the healing team, and not step on the toes of conventional med, the pharmaceutical industry, and food and drug administrations, which have a tendency to bite.

However, one of the most important reasons for me for the rigorous selection process and the choice of taking only a few apprentices is the personal trial they represent. By agreeing to be someone’s Mistress, or mentor, or sifu, or yogini, you commit to a lifelong relationship. You must not only train them in your particular art, but also move them along in their spiritual and personal journey. As you help them discover themselves, you volunteer to be their Dark Mirror, which requires a great deal of trust and honesty on both sides. As the training continues, it becomes impossible not to have a close and ultimately vulnerable relationship. I still sit down with my first Mistress, who is now past 70, and we discuss everything from our sex lives to our fears, our dreams, and our successes. We give each other insights in as open and often blunt way as we can, because no one else knows us better, and almost no one is prepared to be as honest and genuinely helpful. To this day, it still helps both of us in our lives and continually assists us to become more developed and whole persons.

Fantasy novels are full of students who have betrayed their masters’ trust and try to destroy them. However, the reality is not far from that myth. In this kind of intimate relationship, as such tend to become, the wrong selection of student can be a devastating blow. Whether it’s your business secrets or proprietary formulations, or your personal life lessons that you have imparted as examples for training, an apprentice that proves him or herself unworthy of carrying such secrets can make a huge mess of your life or career. Like most close relationships, really… I have some experience in this kind of heartbreak, and it guides my reluctance, my selection and my occasional trials or character proofs for applicants. Sadly…

Student or apprentice, I take my role as a sacred trust, and do my very best to give that person what I feel they most need: whether it be simple healing knowledge, physical health, spiritual self-examination, business and social training, or character building and empowerment. Even if the healing must be done when they aren’t aware of it, which is much harder. It can take a great personal toll, but the rewards of watching other people’s lives unfold beautifully are worth it, and can bring so much joy. I am always honoured to be asked to serve my clients and students, and with hard work, personal sacrifice and dedication, to train others go out into the world committed to serve, heal, and fight for justice.


Further Reading:

“More than anything else, however, Brigid is renowned for her hospitality. The poor and the infirm come in their multitudes. She makes provision for the sick, tending to them with her knowledge of contemporary medicine. Kildare becomes a place of holy pilgrimage for all, from the prominent and powerful to the lowly and forgotten.”




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