Merchandising, Merchandising!

An amusing story on BBC News this week. The Vatican is endorsing merchandising to cover spiralling costs for the impending visit of Pope Benedict to the UK, and both the media and Catholics are uncertain how to respond. Apparently the official programme for the tour contain incorrect information. One Catholic critic has opined that items are in poor taste, just overpriced tat for the sake of money. And yet, discussions on the subject seem to conclude that merchandising is inevitable these days, as any popular event attracts unscrupulous marketing virtually overnight.

 This is something we’re all familiar with. From the Royal Family to a music concert, there’s always stuff to buy – and that’s ‘stuff’ in the broadest possible sense. Cafe Press has taken it online, with virtually anything stamped on a mug, t-shirt or pair of underwear. Clearly we have more money than sense.

But the issue seems to be that the urge to possess parts of popular culture has extended to faith. While the Church has always been notorious for making money from its masses, presumably the collection plate has remained comparatively bare in these recession-hit times. This is not to say that money raised by Christian groups is not used for good causes – premises need upkeep, staff need wages, charities always seek aid. However, in terms of private enterprise, plaster statues of Jesus and Mary have been available for some time. There’s a God action figure (with accessory). The Vatican, a business in itself, has made simply the decision to endorse specific items.

The question here seems to be not only of what value to we place on our faith, but to what extent is that faith validated by possessions? And does the endorsement of those items by religious authority – particularly the Pope – make this acceptable, desirable or even mandatory? Where does the money raised by these sales go to – they must be produced, after all, and sold. And publicised.

But this is something pagans have been doing for years. I have no idea when it began, but I can always remember those little backstreet shops selling candles, crystals, incense and mysterious books – previously more of a hidden secret to those ‘in the know’, but now easily found on most high streets. The internet has brought mail order, with any search engine bringing up dozens of ‘pagan supply’ stores. Ebay used to have around a dozen items for ‘pagan’ or ‘witch’ – these keywords now have their own categories.

Historically, it was accepted that practising pagans could open a shop and help others by selling ritual equipment that was hard to find elsewhere, thus aiding fellow practitioners and those who made a living producing such goods. Writers, metalsmiths, jewellers, herbalists – while never part of the mainstream, their contribution was valued by their own community, thereby allowing them to survive doing what they loved.

But as demand has increased with media popularity of ‘alternative’ faiths, mass production has arrived. I have been in pagan stores that sell garishly coloured ‘scented’ oils that smell suspiciously of fairy liquid, ‘genuine quartz’ crystals made of glass and who knows how many statues of deity. With pentagrams stamped on everything in sight.

Now I’m not getting nostalgic for some mythical ‘good old days’ of cottage industry over mass-marketing; nor am I saying that all pagan shops sell fake goods at expensive prices. I’m entirely happy to help those who make their own crafts with honesty and skill, be it faith-based or otherwise, provided that item it fit for purpose. An ‘everyday athame’, with rubber handle and unspecified metal blade, however…

I’m not intending to take the moral high ground myself here, as I’ve bought my share of ‘shinies’ in my time. I fully realize this is a stage we seem to go through in pagan ‘learning’ – as we read the books, we are told to acquire and test different tools, to find what allows us to work most effectively on our chosen path. This fits nicely into the magpie-like nature of the teenage pagans out to find the prettiest and most mystical jewellery (gently targeted by Terry Pratchett in his fiction). Any skilled worker requires tools, this is true. But there is a difference between a tool and a crutch.

In order to enter the mindset appropriate to effective working (for whatever purpose), a certain environment is helpful. An artist, potter or radio DJ has his studio; a teacher her classroom; a surgeon his operating theatre. A Christian has a church, a pagan priest their altar space. Sacred space can be anywhere, but familiarity helps – your space contains your tools, allowing you to access the appropriate mood for work as soon as you walk through the door and sit down. While you may pray in a kitchen, you don’t necessarily go to the kitchen just to pray.

But the skills themselves are contained within. A teacher can perform her craft anywhere; surgery has been conducted on aeroplanes; great art produced on the street. And works of incredible nourishment come from kitchens every day. For these, we need tools with which to craft (a brush, a scalpel, an oven), that’s true. But if you have the best possible tools, without the skill to wield them, you simply won’t be able to finish the job.

Each person must decide what tools their faith requires for them to perform. The Eucharist ceremony demands food and drink. A handfasting requires cord or ring. Once the basics are established, anything else is simply theatre, to establish greater mood or atmosphere.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with that. Some statues of the Virgin Mary are beautiful, brightening a room and making it a little more special, serving as reminders of faith. Likewise pagan Goddess statues or hangings, dreamcatchers or windchimes. We like to make our living space special too.

My true question, then, is how – as pagans – we remain practising our faith most honourably while purchasing ‘tool’ items that are not produced in line with that faith. As we chuckle at the ‘Catholic tat’ (produced for profit, with funds going to the Vatican), perhaps we can consider items such as these.  And the wisdom of the bard, Paul Mitchell, summing it up perfectly.

Do we really need these things? Do we know where they came from, or the purpose for which they’re being sold? If we knew, would we still put our hard-earned funds towards them? And is it more an issue of ‘want’ over ‘need?’

Why are our ethics as pagans, as an earth-based faith, being forgotten at the shop door?

Making a Virtue of it

Most of us find there are things about us that have the potential to be problems – aspects of self that are antisocial, unacceptable, problematic. Some of these traits and tendencies can be medicated into non-existence. We can try and cope by suppressing them, but there is also the option of trying to use them. Rare is the regular negative trait that can’t be harnessed to good effect.

To offer an example, obsession can really harm lives. I had a friend at school who developed obsessive compulsive disorders, which made him desperately unhappy, left him feeling out of control and made it a lot slower to get things done. I’ve met folk who are obsessive about laundry, and other such details. It tends to create unhappiness. Fixating on small things, the obsession can become a trap.

However, I also know a fair few obsessive folk who use that trait to get things done. Able to channel the obsessive tendency into something productive stops it from grabbing a random part of your life, and enables all kinds of dramatic efforts to be made. I’ve long said I was an obsessive compulsion waiting to happen, but I can turn that to tackling drawn out, complex jobs, and it works. I recently cleared a chimney of twigs – a slow, messy job, but once I started, there was no way I could stop until I had finished. My obsessive nature allows me to get things done.

The same can be said of hard experiences. There are some folks who respond to difficulty by bemoaning their lot and focusing on how dreadful it has been for them. There are others who are motivated by the experience to become crusaders, trying to prevent other people suffering as they did. You’ll see it with medical charities – survivors and bereaved people are particularly active in these, turning their own devastating experience into something that helps.

In shamanic traditions, the near death, or death and return experience is a key part of becoming a traditional shaman. Such experiences change a person, affecting perspective and understanding, and marking a soul out as different. It is a way of using the experience to become something more, and better. The people I’ve encountered who have had the hardest times of it, have frequently developed humbling capacities for compassion and patience when faced with the comparatively minor woes of others.

Some people respond to bad experiences by thinking it gives them authority over those who they perceive as less experienced. I’ve encountered a small number of souls who have expressed opinions that they know how it really is, because they have been damaged. People clinging to the memory of abuse to define a sense of self. People aware that safety is at best a fragile, impermanent thing, and that no one can really be trusted. Jaded, troubled people, quick to claim moral and experiential authority because they have really been through it.

And then I compare those people to others… to the brave and brilliant nurse, traumatised by the violence she’s seen, but still doing her job, patching up soldiers. The broken hearted ones who have lost life partners, and who try and take care of the living and lessen the pain for others. The man pushed beyond breaking point, who always has time to listen to the troubles of others. I’ve seen so many people respond to hardship and challenge by stepping up and giving their all. It is so very clearly a choice, how we respond to the hard times, the injuries and wounds. I’ve been knocked down. I’m in the process of getting up. I do not want the blows to define me. I have some awe inspiring people to emulate, and I hope I can find a way to be a better sort of person, in response to what’s happened lately. I do not want to wind up jaded and cynical. So, I have to learn from things, and figure out how to recraft current feelings as something  can use.