Being The Mirror: Sacred Service

by Raven's Boy, Joshua

The subject of this writing is one that may seem contradictory to you. It is a paper in praise of Service; in praise of obedience and discipline and structure. Thre is a great deal of talking about freedom these days, but right now I want to speak of slavery, and living your life entirely under the rule of another. They say that there are two ways to spread light: being the candle, or being the mirror that reflects it. I want to talk about being the mirror.

I am a slave. By this, I mean that I have voluntarily given my life entirely over to another person, and I am owned by him. Obviously, this is not legally binding, but it is a serious lifelong religious commitment. It isn't a path I simply chose. It was assigned to me by the Gods, and I accepted. It is very easy for even a sympathetic outsider to see this path as simple abuse of power, or misguided sexual perversion masquerading as something spiritual, so I will attempt here to set up a framework and provide a context for a life of Service as a valuable spiritual discipline, and a legitimate path.

Not everyone is suitable for a life of serious service, and it should never be forced onto anyone; nor should they be pressured into it. However, some people just seem to be "wired" for service; for them -- for me -- it provides a great deal of emotional and spiritual fulfillment. In the BDSM demographic, people like me are usually referred to as "service bottoms", and they are both valued and devalued. On the one hand, many tops bemoan the lack of "real service bottoms"; on the other hand, they are often treated badly and taken advantage of by those who see their urge to serve another as something that degrades them and makes them lesser beings. However, lifetime service was not always seen in this light.

There are many ways one can live in service to another, with models that exist within cultural contexts or that are created from old and timeless archetypes. Any serious master- apprentice relationship, for example, can provide a path for honorable service. The martial arts often make this highly formalized relationship part of their spiritual discipline. For me, the archetype with the most resonance, with the most to teach me about the spiritual discipline of service and obedience, is that of the monk. Monastic life is a very narrow path, and in some ways can be very similar to a life of D/s service. As a monk, the simplest personal freedoms are stripped away. You do not choose what you eat, what you wear, what time you rise in the morning, and little consideration is given to what you feel like doing at any given time. You have given control of all aspects of your life over to your Order, and through them, to your gods. The purpose of the restrictions is not to cause suffering but to provide focus. Although I am a devout pagan, I have found a great deal of inspiration in the Benedictine Rule, where St. Benedict lays out a framework for Christian monastic life. He explains his intent in the prologue: "We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord's service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow."

Any path of service is a narrow path, as it must be. It is sacrificing breadth of experience for depth of experience. Well-known monk and writer Thomas Merton said monastic life was no different from any other; it was simply living life fully and directly, living life so it got under your skin. A life of service can provide a spiritually meaningful "narrow path" for someone who is drawn to monasticism but not suited for a more traditional monastic life, or whose religion or personal spiritual beliefs do not currently have a monastic framework in place to step into. Just as in monastic life, the restrictions needn't be intentionally "harsh or burdensome"; they merely lay out the boundaries for a simple life focused on a simple goal. In lifestyle D/s, this goal is to render honorable service to your master. Anything that doesn't support this can be stripped away.

When you see full-time submission as a spiritual discipline, even the most fetishy protocol can aid in developing mindfulness, whether done as part of a scene or integrated into daily life. Anyone who has tried to speak in some variant of formal "slave" protocol quickly realizes that it isn't just remembering to tack a "Sir" onto the beginning and end of each statement, or mechanically replacing "I" with "this slave". For this to flow gracefully, you need to substantially modify your way of speaking, and through that, your way of thinking about yourself. It becomes a tool for focusing your attention. Simply crawling about on the floor or not being able to use your hands or sit on furniture or a time shifts your perspective on how you interact with the world and the objects around you. Buddhist monastic precepts prohibit use of high beds and all but the simplest funriture, so don't be quick to dismiss certain restrictions as unspiritual. Whether your particular D/s situation is subtle or obviously fetishy, the fact that you must think of someone else's needs and desires before your own continually refocuses you on your path.

A life of service can be a path towards destruction of the "self" as primary identity and getting past the petty demands of the ego, a concept which other paths also embrace through acetisism and meditation. If there is a freedom in slavery, it is this: We live in a highly pleasure- seeking consumer culture, where individuality and freedom are too often about image and possessions rather than being able to truly define yourself as a unique individual with a meaningful life path. Freedom is often seen as the freedom to act wholly for your own convenience and shallow pleasure while meaningful choices are systematically denied to you. One can reject that empty concept of freedom by choosing a simple path of obedience and discipline, allowing all of the superficial markers of individuality and freedom to be removed. Who are "you" without your stuff, your job, your social status, even your name? How can you find joy and fulfillment in doing another's will? By living this life, you are your unique path, the path assigned to you by the Powers That Be. In becoming this path, you render service not only to your master, but to the gods.

Life under the rule of another, whether Abbot or Master, teaches obedience. It puts the focus of one's life on something external to the self, putting your personal comfort and convenience aside. In his book "Monastery: Prayer, Work, Community" Cistercian monk M. Basil Pennington writes "Only if one leaves aside ambition -- the quest for status, position, and power -- can one be free to seek the will of another, to seek to walk in the way of obedience." Obedience to a master can parallel and model obedience to their Higher Power, as one provides inspiration and perspective for the other.

Of course, as in any aspect of life, I believe the way in which you treat those who you have power over is noted by those who have power over you. For a master to treat his servant with petty meanness is to invite that same treatment from the gods, especially if the master is sworn in service to a particular patron deity. When the service relationship is taken on as an explicitly spiritual path, this is even more apparent: it brings into focus a chain of command, and the master is not at the top of it.

St. Benedict gives a clear picture of this in his Rule:

"The Abbot who is worthy to be over a monastery, ought always to be mindful of what he is called, and make his works square with his name of Superior. For he is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, when he is called by his name, according to the saying of the Apostle: ‘You have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry Abba (Father)' ... Let the Abbot always bear in mind that he must give an account in the dread judgment of God of both his own teaching and of the obedience of his disciples. And let the Abbot know that whatever lack of profit the master of the house shall find in the sheep, will be laid to the blame of the shepherd. ... The Abbot ought always to remember what he is and what he is called, and to know that to whom much hath been entrusted, from him much will be required; and let him understand what a difficult and arduous task he assumeth in governing souls."

That last phrase continues to ring with me. In a spiritual service relationship, you do not simply give over control of your body and mind. You offer up your soul into your master's hands. An intimate personal service relationship can develop an amazing level of honesty and trust and insight. To give all of yourself over to another person is to let them in deeper than you might be willing to go yourself. The mindfulness required to do this right is so much more than what most of us are used to, and the simple act of living that mindfully (regardless of the situation) will profoundly change you.

This change may come about in many ways, but with it comes a reassessment of values. Not only are you releasing the outer-world ideals you may have been striving for, but shifting your assessment of what is important in day-to-day life. For example, a D/s servant generally does the work that is devalued by society. Regardless of their gender, they may fill a traditional housewife role or they may function as some variety of personal secretary. D/s service can teach one about finding honor in simple labor, and doing one's best at whatever task is assigned. Some people have strong ideas about what sort of work is "beneath" them, generally manual labor or tasks that involve getting dirty, but also tasks which are not sufficiently challenging or mentally stimulating. This is nonsense. Any fair work that needs doing is honorable work and can be deeply satisfying.

Similarly, any repetitive "mind-numbing" labor can be in itself meditative. There is no practical spiritual difference between raking sand in a Zen rock garden and vacuuming the living room, except in the mind of the person doing it. Someone interested in spiritual service may wish to study one of the many Japanese meditative arts to find inspiration for making their daily acts of service into something beautiful and spiritually meaningful.

Sexual service is almost always part of a D/s service arrangement, and can also be made into a spiritually meaningful act. Sex is often seen as antithetical to spiritual development and there are few paid jobs with less prestige then sex worker, but under the archetype of the Sacred Prostitute this can be a powerful and spiritual offering of your self and your body to another. Coming from the BDSM community, some sort of sadomasochistic or fetishistic play is common, but this in no way makes the act less spiritual. In the proper mindset acts commonly seen as degrading or humiliating are simply another way of providing service, no more humiliating than washing dishes and often much more enjoyable.

There is some danger in a service relationship of the servant's concept of perfect service being mistaken for the will of the master, especially with an inexperienced master. If the servant believes it is proper for them to sleep on the floor and wake at dawn to clean the house, but the master prefers someone to cuddle in the morning, it is the servant who is mistaken. If the master finds formal slave protocol irritating or simply a waste of time, the servant has no place insisting on it. If the servant cannot find fulfillment in providing the type of service desired by the master, both need to reassess whether they are a suitable pair.

Another other danger is the pitfall of confusing of humility and self-loathing. To be happy in service is to accept that it is fitting and proper for you to do this work, but not because you are incapable of anything "more important". It is vital to find honor and joy in service, and to know that this role allows you to perform to your fullest capacity.

In whatever you do, it is important that it be done with a whole heart. St. Benedict writes that "... obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men then only, if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint, because the obedience which is rendered to Superiors is rendered to God. ... For if the disciple obeyeth with an ill will, and murmurs, not only with lips but also in his heart, even though he fulfil the command it will not be acceptable to God, who regardeth the heart of the murmurer." It isn't enough to simply obey, or even to obey without complaint. One must obey without resentment. This doesn't mean you have to enjoy every task (few people really enjoy changing the cat box, for example), but you must always try to serve without bitterness or complaint, and find what joy in the work that you can. You must always strive to serve with an open heart, from a place of love for yourself and your master, and contentment with your role.

I've done a lot of thinking on what makes someone worthy of service. I had fallen heavily into the "Marketplace" model of service, where the concept of a worthy master is entirely absent. The only criteria seems to be wealth, or at least the financial means to support a slave, and slaves are supposed to find fulfillment in the act of pure service itself, even if it is in serving unpleasant, immoral, and nasty people. On the other hand, in most BDSM porn, if there is a notion of a worthy master, it is often based on their ability to maintain control through constant displays of strength or superiority. I've heard folks in D/s relationships discuss what ought to be done if the master becomes ill and can no longer keep his slave "in line". This is entirely contrary to my idea of service. In this life, you provide service in times of strength and of weakness. You are serving a fallible, human master. If you cannot care for your master after his stroke, push his wheelchair, and consider him no less your master, you have utterly failed him and failed yourself.

However, a worthy master is someone whose ethics and character you admire, whose path in life is one you can wholeheartedly support, and who will be invested in your ability to build your service commitment to them into a fulfilling spiritual as well as emotional path. After all, the servant is offering themselves as a tool for their master's use, with the faith that the master will use them wisely. To waste or abuse them, or to change them in a way that makes them less able to follow their path, is to be unworthy of the gift of their service.

There is a great satisfaction in allowing yourself, even for a brief time, to be a channel for the will of another. It a certain purity of conciousness that is both intoxicating and terrifying. Becoming the perfect instrument to manifest another's will is a perfect ideal that we can never achieve, but we continue to strive for. For those with this calling, your service is the greatest gift you can offer, and by doing service joyfully, honorably and with a whole heart, you honor that which created you, that which called you to this path, and that which guides you along your way. I'll close with a prayer my master wrote for me. It is a prayer for a slave, whether servant to man, or to the gods.

I offer myself to your will,
  To better serve your needs.
I offer myself as your tool,
  For my path is one of usefulness.
I offer myself to be used,
  For to be used is to be valued.
I offer myself to be honed
  To give a finer edge.
I offer myself to be changed,
  That I may become a vessel,
    A manifestation of your will.