Sunday, June 28, 2009
The Message Bearer
Sometimes, as we’ve said, the message from the Spirits is for you and you alone. Sometimes that’s pretty clear, but other times people want to share that message – perhaps because they want to know if this sort of thing has happened to other people, or because it’s so life-changing that they just can’t keep it inside themselves. Sometimes the message even comes with the dictum: Share this. Put it out where others can see. The Message Bearer might write about it, or talk about it in workshops or discussion groups. In this case, the Message Bearer has the responsibility of acknowledging in the writing or the discussion that this is their own personal message, their own gnosis. They need not apologize for it, and one clear acknowledgment should be enough.
The problem comes in when the Message Bearer brings their personal gnosis to their religious group and asks to have it integrated into group practice and values. Sometimes the message may even be something concerning the group practice itself, which always has the potential to be controversial. While we’ve already established that a group needs to have a clear process by which to judge people’s personal gnosis, the Message Bearer is not devoid of responsibility for how the process goes.
If the Gods and spirits have given you a message and indicated that you must take that message to other people, you have been given a sacred trust, and you must not abuse the trust that They have in you. Certain obligations will be landing on your head, and if you shirk them, you will be dishonoring their gift of knowledge. If you’re a spirit-worker – if you’re the one with the “spirit-phone” who gets messages on a regular basis – you have an extra obligation to be scrupulous about these obligations, because you’re going to be in this situation a lot, and you’d better learn to get it right.
1. First, cross-check your information. Get divination on the matter. We suggest getting readings on the subject from two different people – one who understands your spiritual situation and is sympathetic, and one who is distant and does not know or care about your situation. If they differ, something’s wrong. Discard the reading that is the one closest to what you want to hear, and try another one with a similar person. If you still get differing results, replace the other diviner and try again with someone similar. If there’s no cohesion after all this, put the matter aside and pray, asking the Gods and spirits to send clarity. Don’t try anything with the information for at least three months.
2. In order to best carry out the trust that the Gods and spirits have placed in you, you have an obligation to pass the message along in the way that will get it heard most effectively. If you simply throw it out and your target audience doesn’t get the message, or gets it wrong and becomes angry with you, you’ve failed in the Gods’ mission and dishonored the message that they trusted you with. Getting something heard most effectively may require using language that is familiar and respectable to the target group, or speaking from a persona that is nonthreatening to them and emphasizes what you have in common. It may mean giving out part of the message and creating a foundation that might eventually support the rest of it. It might mean intimately studying the attitudes and biases of your target audience, or seeking help from sympathetic members for ways to craft the “packaging” of the message. While the Gods don’t want you to compromise the meaning, effectively carrying out their trust may mean coming as close to that line as is humanly possible in your attempts to make it hear-able to them.
3. Ask not only whether you got the message clearly, but whether you are the best person to pass it along. We all like to think that we’re special, but it may be that you’re meant to pass it to someone who your target audience will be more likely to listen to. That may require some swallowing of pride, but the Gods are less concerned with your pride and more concerned with getting things done properly.
4. Be clear on who your target audience is. If it’s “people in general” or “random unknown people out there who are in the same situation as me,” your obligation is correspondingly less. You should indicate in your spoken or written message that this material is intended for that audience, and that it is your own personal gnosis, and that’s all you need to do. If your target audience is a specific demographic, it’s on you to make the message as effectively heard as possible, which might mean get expert help from sympathetic people in that demographic who can aid you in your slant. When you are a Divine Messenger, you need to remember that the medium is as important as the message, because if the audience rejects the medium the message dies and you’ve failed. You also need to remember that you and your public behavior are part of the medium.
If your target audience is a specific group of people with a leader, then the best thing that you can do is to go to the leader and ask them how to get this message across to people in a nonthreatening way. Remember that to be the spiritual leader of a group is also a sacred trust; leaders are gatekeepers that protect their people, and that’s their appropriate job. Be wary of personal gnosis that casts you as the implacable enemy of the leader (or the whole group) with no compromise but their surrender, or the one who is charged with “teaching them a lesson”, or the victimized and misunderstood voice in the wilderness. Those are extremely likely to come out of your own baggage. If you are fairly sure that the leader is going to reject your message, it may help to talk to members who know the leader well and can give advice on how to present it convincingly. Unless you intend to supplant and banish the leader (which is a dangerous game), don’t go over their heads and begin shilling for support for your idea without talking to them. It’s unlikely that you’ll get their cooperation after that, and things will probably go downhill at that point.
5. In addition, make sure that you know who your target audience isn’t. If you’re writing for people in one denomination, the disapproval of people in other denominations can be ignored, so long as you are being courteous about other groups and their differences from your own. You’re not trying to please everyone; you’re trying to get a message through effectively to a specific bunch of people. Achieving that, whatever it takes, is your job … and in this instance, if you don’t practically decide whose biases to take into account and whose to ignore, you aren’t doing your job.
6. If all else fails and you can’t find a way to pass it on effectively, it’s time to throw yourself down in front of their altar and say, “Lord/Lady, I want to do your message justice and get it heard and accepted by the greatest possible number, but I don’t know how to do that! Please give me some guidance in how I can make this happen.” If they gave you the Word to pass on, they’re obligated to help you do it … but sometimes you have to ask for help rather than stumbling in with guns of enthusiasm blazing and making a mess.
Throughout history, mystics have tended to be divided into two groups: the ones that the current social structure honors, and the ones that are outcasts. Sometimes the dividing line is political – those who say what the current group in power doesn’t want to hear will be blacklisted. Sometimes it’s about social standards – one recalls St. Francis and how his poverty-lifestyle horrified his rich Italian family. Sometimes it’s because the Gods and spirits pick someone who has good “psychic hearing” but isn’t the most stable of people (and there are many anecdotal reports that having a really strong psychic receiver throughout one’s childhood isn’t exactly conducive to perfect sanity). Sometimes it’s because the Gods and spirits lay taboos or demand behaviors from the mystic that clash with their culture and make them seem somewhat less than respectable. In fact, it seems like the most famous mystics didn’t start out as anyone “respectable”, and the few that did quickly turned away from what had given them that socially stable reputation in the first place. The call of the Divine can be all-encompassing, and in the face of it all the human rules can seem extremely trivial.
Still, it is up to the mystic who feels driven to get their message through to a discrete group to find the best possible balance of who they must be to be true to their calling, and who they must be to actually communicate most effectively. That can be the barest knife’s edge, but one assumes that the Gods and spirits would not choose someone who couldn’t eventually figure out how to do that … maybe after a few years of hard knocks. Still, some mystics were reviled curmudgeons to the end of their days, and it was not until well after their death that their works were revered. Perhaps to the Gods and spirits, with their long view of Time and the Universe, that’s good enough, but it can be fairly demoralizing to the Message Bearer in question.
Is being someone on the “edge” of society more likely to make you able to hear the Gods? Is hearing the Gods more likely to put you on the edge of society? We don’t know for sure, although speculations have been rife for hundreds of years. But they are still valid questions to ask, especially to the Message Bearer who is trying to balance looking trustworthy to the People and being true to the Gods, and shirk neither … because in this case, to shirk the one is to betray the other. It will never be an easy road to walk.
Friday, June 26, 2009
By Sophie Reicher
Magicians are territorial creatures. We grow more so as our power and skill levels increase. Working magic well takes a certain stubborn dominance of will that can lead to an incredible sensitivity toward power, territory and boundaries. We know where the sphere of our influence ends to the centimeter and we generally don’t much like others of equal power coming within a hundred yards of our territory, even sometimes when this happens by our own invitation. Negotiating protocol between a group of master magicians can be a headache-inducing exercise in diplomacy and tact (even when all of the magicians involved are good friends—there’s friendship and then there’s work after all). This is in part because magic is all about gaining and using power. I have heard politics called ‘the art of the possible’ and in truth, I think magic fits this bill even more. Those of us who reach the higher levels of practice are patterned and formed by the practice itself. If we don’t start out with rather large egos (often based in very clearly recognized and demonstrable skill), we tend to develop them over time. It goes, if you will pardon the pun, with the territory. High level magic can be quite difficult and quite physically painful and the Master or Adept develops a certain stubborn willfulness to endure and gain the upper hand. It’s a side effect of the necessities of training.
I never really gave much thought to how this affects a magician’s interaction with his or her students or apprentices until very recently. Over the years I have had both but the past two years I took something of a sabbatical from teaching (one does run the risk of burn out after awhile). Only recently have I again opened my doors to students and one erstwhile apprentice. I recently outsourced my current apprentice to another master magician for very specific training. When that magician in turn brought in a third teacher without informing me, I became quite angry. It was a violation (all unintentional on both our parts) of the protocol I had been taught. We’re all control freaks. That too goes with the territory: magicians are obsessed with controlling every aspect of their world as much as possible. Nowhere is that more pronounced than with students. There is a certain professional, collegial courtesy, an etiquette that we maintain when dealing with another’s student or apprentice, one that I’d never had cause to consciously put into words before. It’s painfully easy to forget about that etiquette when dealing with a colleague who is also a close friend. While the other magician and I had a productive discussion that resulted in my being kept ‘in the organizational loop’ so to speak (which was what I’d wanted), and while I agreed that the outsourcing to a third party was right and necessary, the whole incident caused me to re-evaluate how we were taught to relate to students and apprentices and what the difference between the two might be. There are differences and there is a traditional dynamic, a cosmological groove that often comes into play and oh how I wish I’d realized it when I first began teaching!
So here it is and any students or apprentices reading this might find the reality of the matter a bit dismaying. Understand that the magician is bound just as strongly as the student or apprentice. It’s in no way a one-sided binding. There are obligations and duties on both sides. No one gets the proverbial free lunch here. Basically, students and apprentices are both physical extensions of the magician’s territory. Understand that this means exactly what it says: the apprentice, particularly, and to a lesser degree the student are extensions of the magician’s sphere of influence. Students have far more freedom than apprentices and the magician has far fewer responsibilities to someone who is just a student (though what responsibilities there are tend to be quite binding). How tightly a magician controls the life of the Student or apprentice varies from practitioner to practitioner. I tend to train the way I myself was trained which was pretty old-fashioned and strict though the older I get the more flexible it seems I’ve become about the whole thing, at least in part.
There is a reason for the strictness of the training: an apprentice is learning to wield a significant amount of power. This is not a game or imaginary exercise. He or she is being exposed to training that can make him quite dangerous. It is the master’s responsibility to ensure that the student develops a certain sense of ethics, discipline and control, that he is she is not unbalanced by the training or the power, that he understands the costs, and the difference between lawful and unlawful action. Until the magician is sure that the student isn’t going to go off the deep end, or egregiously misuse his training, it’s best to keep control so that any potential problems can be nipped in the bud. We’ve all seen students who gain a little skill and suddenly develop egos all out of proportion to their training and who then rush out to do stupid things that end up either getting themselves or someone else hurt, or creating a mess for their teacher to clean up. The way to offset this is to maintain appropriate hierarchy, no matter how frustrating that might seem. It’s not enough to have the skill, there must also be a level of maturity and discipline. Understanding what I call chain of command from the very beginning helps immensely with that. It also gives the teacher the magical access and, moreover, the karmic right to lock the student down if necessary.
The magician is responsible for protecting the student or apprentice, for training him (or her), for helping him develop his gifts, and in some cases (I’m thinking of live in apprentices here) of providing room and board. In return, the apprentice or student works his ass off doing whatever he is told. That obedience is the coin with which the Student/apprentice pays for training. Apprenticeship takes this dynamic a step further. The apprentice is far more integrated into the magician’s life and household. Whereas students are simply expected to practice, study, and not seek out external training without permission, apprentices may become the magician’s errand boys, girl Fridays, house keepers, and assistants as needed. They maintain a far closer relationship with the magician and in turn, gain far more knowledge and power. Essentially, the apprentice becomes a reservoir for a certain level of power invested in him by the magician. The apprentice then becomes a living extension of the magician’s will. Over time, the magician begins to allow the apprentice to take more and more of an active role in whatever work is being done, to express far more individual initiative, and over time, both of these things combine to pattern and prepare the apprentice for handling higher and higher levels of power. Eventually, the bond reaches its fulfillment and the apprentice goes off on his own with the blessings of his teacher. The only obligation then maintained is that the apprentice cannot/should not use what he learned against his teacher. There remains a hierarchy of respect. It can be at its worst, a brutal system. At its best, it functions with military precision.
The downside occurs when expectations are not clearly set from the beginning. There is also the inevitability of transference (or counter transference), particularly if the Student or apprentice has any unresolved parental or authority issues. It’s incumbent on the magician to maintain constant objectivity with regard to the teacher-Student/apprentice relationship. The personal should not enter into it. It’s a hard road. My apprentice years were awful but I learned a tremendous amount and I don’t regret them in the least. I also learned that the hardest thing for a teacher is to know when to let go, when there is nothing more to teach. In the best relationship, the teacher learns as much from the process of teaching as the apprentice or Student does. Ideally, the apprentice is the most trusted person in the magician’s life. This is the person the magician is grooming to become a colleague, an equal, maybe a replacement. They should ultimately work as a well-honed team. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that is the ideal.
I also maintain a difference between a student: someone who comes to me asking for specific training in one or two areas, or who takes a class from me and a Student, someone who wants to learn the ins and outs of an esoteric art on an ongoing basis but who is not, for some reason, wishing to become an apprentice. I far prefer working with students, as the reciprocal obligations are few (teach what they’ve asked you to teach and let them go). The more in depth that a magician is working with someone, the more obligations for that person’s training, well-being, and safety the magician incurs. If an apprentice that I have trained goes bad, I’m responsible for cleaning up the mess and locking that person down regardless of the cost to myself. The severity of the teaching relationship allows the teacher to, as accurately as possible, suss out potential problems and instabilities. The downside is that as the apprentice progresses, he is well-placed to harm his teacher because he will know the ins and outs of the teacher’s protections and has access to the teacher’s workspace and tools. There’s a great degree of trust required on both sides. It also presupposes a degree of maturity and integrity on the part of the magician that, in reality, may sometimes be lacking. I see nothing wrong with asking for a trial period before entering into a master-apprentice bond because the last thing someone needs is to end up with a Teacher who is cruel or unbalanced. I’m not averse to actually writing up a contract with clearly defined responsibilities on both sides.
There is another side to the teacher-apprentice relationship (and to a limited degree the teacher-Student relationship) that is almost never discussed. Because the Student or Apprentice is so connected to the Teacher, the law of negative rebound often comes into affect. We most often see this with familiars: if someone throws malicious or harmful magic at a magician and his or her shields are too strong for the magic to affect him or her directly, it will often rebound and strike the point of greatest weakness: finances, love relationship, pets’ health, car…anything that isn’t protected adequately. One of the reasons that many magicians traditionally had pet familiars is that they form an early warning system that someone is trying to attack the magician magically. Familiars will absorb attacks meant for the magician and in worst case scenarios will sicken and die. This protects the magician and gives warning that counter measures must be taken. It’s one of the fundamental purposes of a familiar. Likewise, a powerful attack can hit the Students and apprentices before hitting the Master. This is one of the primary reasons that I keep a close and watchful eye on my own Students and my one apprentice: it is my duty to protect them from this eventuality. If you want to make a brutal point and weaken a magician, strike at his or her apprentice. It’s rude. It’s unfair. It’s a violation of traditional protocol but it’s also damned effective. It is right of ownership, invoked by the power of the traditional master-apprentice bond that allows the master magician to adequately circumvent this danger.
None of this means that the master magician doesn’t see and value the individual personality and talents of the Student or apprentice. He does. In fact he has to. It’s because of who the apprentice is that the magician accepted him or her in that role in the first place. There has to be mutual respect and a certain compatibility of approach and personality for it to really work well. What I’m discussing above is the over-arching dynamic in which that personal relationship rests, the bigger picture, if you will. The best teachers that I’ve encountered are the ones who are always carefully and exquisitely aware of their duties and responsibilities, who never take either students, Students, or apprentices for granted. It’s a privilege, not a right to take on that role. We have an obligation to be the type of teachers we ourselves would have wanted.
This is the reason why magicians often want students or apprentices but also at the same time dread having them.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Neo-Paganism is largely a religion of converts. There are a small number of members who were raised in it and decided to stay, but the vast majority were raised in other faiths (or none) and converted at some point in their adult lives. This means that there is a continual trickle of folks who look into various Neo-Pagan groups to see if they’re right for them. Some will stay; some might move on to other Neo-Pagan traditions; others might leave entirely and become Buddhists or Hindus (or even go back to the faith of their upbringing). This is common, and expected. A spiritual quest may take someone through many paths, each of which rings true in some small way, until they find the one with the truest ring for them. It’s also true that human beings change over time, and the path that was right for us this year may not fit as well a couple of decades later. People aren’t static, and neither is their spirituality.
In some mainstream religious denominations, great efforts are made to convince potential converts to stay, and to prevent them from leaving and seeking out another group. Part of this may be due to a doctrinal dictum that stresses gathering quantity of members at all costs, or that believes in terrible consequences for any human beings who aren’t part of that group and honestly wants to “save” them, but usually it’s due to the entirely human emotional reaction of wanting group validation of one’s beliefs from as many people as possible. In these groups, schisms are seen as entirely negative and unwanted, and it is considered acceptable to attempt to restrict exposure to other religious ideas. (Most Neo-Pagans, being of a more tolerant bent, would tend to consider these groups as “repressive”.)
Since many of these denominations strongly value a generational continuation of their structure – meaning the children of the members will grow up to stay in the group and pass on their beliefs to their members rather than seeking out other truths – it is considered especially effective to restrict the spiritual explorations of children and adolescents. One hears “But what about the children!” often when theologically “threatening” practices are brought up, as in: “The children might hear about this, and be led astray! We must prevent them from ever finding out about it, because of course they’ll value the shiny new dogma over the familiar, because they’re too young to know any better.”
In Neo-Paganism, the subject of children’s religious rights has been a controversial one. Since we’ve generally been suspicious of any group that claims theirs is the Only Way, and the practice that all human beings on the earth should follow, and since we’ve historically embraced the idea that all people should choose their own path, we’ve usually (although not always) been liberal about allowing children to learn about a multiplicity of religious choices. Some groups – generally the initiatory mystery traditions who will not initiate anyone too young to make their own decisions – have erred on the side of teaching children about many different religions and refusing to privilege their own over any other. Others raise their children in their own tradition, but do not prevent them from exploring other options in adolescence, or punish them for doing so.
Second-generation Neo-Pagans, however, are still only a small percentage of our number, so we rarely hear objections on the “…but what about the children!” topic. Ironically, though, we do hear that same language with the word “newbies” inserted to replace “children”. “But what about the newbies! They’ll hear (alternative theology X), and they’ll be confused, and they might stray!” And so forth. One assumes that this is largely coming from people who were raised in the above “repressive” sort of groups, and who have not yet abandoned the concept of quantity-at-all-costs, or who take every defection as a personal invalidation of their beliefs.
The difference, of course, is that newbies are not children. They are, one assumes, mentally competent adults. (If they aren’t mentally competent adults, there will be some sort of legal caretaker to deal with, and one should proceed as if they are someone else’s child. If the state considers them mentally competent and you don’t, letting them into your group is probably going to cause more problems than it’s worth.) To treat a newcomer to your denomination as if they were a child, as if they were not capable of weighing opposing views, asking questions of multiple people, and making the decision that is best for them, is a profound insult. To even speak of newcomers, as a group, in this way is a profound insult.
It’s a rare Pagan who will admit, “Yes, when I first came to Neo-Paganism, I was so stupid and incompetent that I was incapable of reading multiple books, asking questions about anything unclear, and judging opposing viewpoints. I’m so indebted to the group that I joined for raising me to the level of being capable of making decisions when faced with a movie marquee or a restaurant menu. I’m so glad that they’ve prevented me from sullying my delicate mind with alternative concepts that will no doubt turn me into a confused, quivering wreck were I even to contemplate them.” Yet by even suggesting that certain concepts should not be available to newcomers, you are implying that this is the norm among them.
Most “newbies” – and personally I’d rather use the term “seekers” here as it’s less diminutizing – have a strong concept of what they don’t want, even if they’re not sure about what they do want. They know, for example, that wherever they came from is not what they want, or they’d still be there. They came looking for something that resounded in them, and they may leave looking for something that resounds more closely. For a seeker to look elsewhere is not a failure on the part of the group they are currently involved with. For a seeker to leave is also not a failure – in fact, it may be a success, if you count “successful” as “knowing what it is that you are supposed to do, and being willing to risk in order to get it”. It may not be easy to see it as a success when you’re a member of the “abandoned” or “rejected” group, but a good spiritual leader will be objective about the reality of spiritual seeking, and help their group members to understand this as well.
You’ll notice that I deliberately used the words “abandoned” and “rejected”, with all their strongly emotional connotations. It’s not unusual, and not entirely abnormal, for members of a religious group to take someone moving on just that personally, with the same anger that they would have about a jilted lover. It’s also not unusual for them to react to a member looking into alternate paths (especially ones who have values or practices in opposition to those of the current group) the same way that a jealous spouse would react to their partner drooling over an attractive person in a club. This is because we’re all human, and we all have irrational weaknesses, and love of one’s faith can be just as strong in us as love of one’s partner and family. We’re not perfect, and the emotions carry over.
However, it’s long been acknowledged as the case that one’s spiritual and/or religious practices are the best forum for improving one’s self and struggling to overcome such irrational and destructive emotions. A good religious leader is one that is able to gently challenge those emotions, in their members and (ideally publicly where they can lead as an example) in themselves, and prevent them from being acted upon. Indeed, if this is not done, the result is almost always a toxic rise of fear, anger, and repression within the group. For proof of this, we need only scrutinize the history of thousands of years of mainstream groups making those mistakes on a grand and murderous level. In a sense, they have done us a huge favor by giving us these examples, and they paid for that experience in blood and pain. We, as a new religion, should be grateful that they did it for us, and that we have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes … and learn we should.
This brings us to the issue of schisms. When it’s not just a lone seeker but a whole subsection of the group that leaves, fires of insecurity can burn even higher. The usual jilted-lover feelings are often accompanied by a (perhaps justified) fear that the schism will leave the group too structurally unstable to continue. Neo-Paganism has historically had a more phlegmatic view of schisms than other faiths due to its earliest groups being initiatory mystery covens that deliberately limited their numbers for reasons of spiritual intimacy; when there were too many members, people were expected to “hive off” and form their own “sister” groups. The “hiving” policy was often used as a way to head off at the pass potential doctrinal arguments that might split a group – “Well, if you feel that strongly about it, maybe it’s time to form your own group?” This practice – directly in opposition to mainstream “quantity-at-all-costs” values – was touted as the best way to peacefully propagate (mostly Wiccan) groups.
Today Neo-Paganism is an umbrella faith with nearly as many denominations as Christianity, and they differ as drastically in their structures and doctrine as do Unitarians, Mennonites, and Russian Orthodox Christians. Some retain the old values of “splitting a group willingly and with good will is better than breaking it up angrily after attempting to keep people against their will”. On the other hand, some argue that the ease of hiving off means that people leave too soon rather than stay and work out their problems; one Pagan compared it to the concept of the high divorce rate in modern Western countries being due to the comparative ease of acquiring a modern divorce, and the attendant unwillingness to stay and work out conflicts. Since the last few decades of Neo-Pagan history have seen the rise of legal Pagan churches and congregations that exceed 50 people in number, the justification of keeping groups small and intimate seems outdated except in the remaining initiatory mystery traditions. And, of course, people don’t convert without bringing in baggage from their prior faiths.
There’s also the issue of differentiation. When there are only a few obviously different traditions, it’s easy to tell one from the other. When there are a myriad of small groups with only a few subtle variations between them (which, while they might seem superficial to an outsider, were theoretically crucial enough to schism over), it means that it might take seekers a while to differentiate them. This is often one of the areas where the cry of “Keep that information from the newbies!” is most frequent, as groups become offended that a newcomer might mistake them for that other group.
This all means that the question of whether or not to schism is no longer so simple, and will vary in smoothness from tradition to tradition. What does all this have to do with personal gnosis? It’s the single biggest reason for schisms in Neo-Pagan groups today. Ten or twenty years ago when there were fewer variations in Pagan theology, the foremost reason tended to be personal differences between group members. There’s still plenty of that today – certainly enough to run a close second – but in the anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered, someone’s personal gnosis and the divided reactions to it among group members has surpassed simple infighting as the bedrock group-splitter. (It can cause, and be accompanied by, a good deal of personal infighting, though.)
For the seeker, there are a few simple truths. First, any group that suggests, even subtly, that you ought not to read or look into other spiritual viewpoints (especially opposing ones, and most especially ones that depend on the personal gnosis of a non-member) is in essence telling you that you are not a competent adult capable of making spiritual decisions for yourself. Second, they are also telling you that they do not have faith in the truth of their own practices to speak clearly to those who are meant to embrace them. In other words, they don’t trust you, and they don’t trust their gods and spirits, however they conceive of that. Third, while groups are not obligated to never mention other groups or theologies in unflattering ways, a wise seeker will be suspicious of groups where bitching about specific outsiders, or comparing themselves positively to such people, seems to be the most popular topic of conversation. The old adage about people who continually put down others doing it out of low self-esteem applies to groups as well as individuals.
A seeker contacting a particular group, or representatives of that group, is like a stranger coming into someone’s home, and as such, all the rules of hospitality apply. In many Pagan religions, hospitality is a sacred obligation on both parts. The host has an obligation not to make the guest uncomfortable, and the guest has an obligation not to be rude to the host. When it comes to religious group activity, we could lay out the mutual obligations like this:
1. The group has an obligation to be clear about their beliefs and values. Ideally these should be written down where a seeker can read them. If joining the group is going to require specific changes in their behavior outside the group, this needs to be made clear. For example, if a group believes that the outside behavior of members will bring bad energy to (or make a bad example of) the group, and that associating with, marrying, giving money to, or reading about certain individuals or other groups will bring this on, that needs to be laid out up front where a newcomer can find it easily. If they will be expected to become vegetarians, they have to know that rather immediately. It is indicative of a lack of maturity in the group to have clusters of unwritten rules that “everyone” knows about but no one can be held accountable for subtly (or unsubtly) coercing people into following. Seekers should be wary of groups who are uncomfortable with openly “owning” their rules, or putting them in writing. (Certain practices may be secret and open only to initiated members, but basic theological beliefs, values, and rules of living can’t fairly be in this category.)
2. The group has an obligation to be clear about how personal gnosis is handled in their group. How is it judged? By what people? By what standards? What’s an example of how it was done in a way that the group finds acceptable? While a group does have the right to ban all personal gnosis from entering group practice, be suspicious of groups that don’t have a clear process for judging it, or have a history of handling it badly (meaning in ways that create backbiting and disharmony).
3. The group has an obligation to be clear about who their group actually consists of, and who they are speaking for. This requires being honest and up-front about which of their values and beliefs are actually shared by other groups in their tradition, and groups outside of their tradition. Right now in Neo-Paganism, there are almost no traditions who have agreed to a central religious authority that is allowed to define beliefs and practices for all groups within that tradition, and cast them out if they dissent. Therefore, when a group claims that their beliefs and practices are shared comprehensively among all other groups in their tradition, be suspicious. The wise seeker will cross-check that with other groups in that tradition, especially ones that are geographically far away and/or have no connection with the group in front of them.
4. The group has an obligation to make sure that the person who explains the group values and beliefs to newcomers is actually authorized to do so by all members of the group.
5. The group has an obligation to make it clear how belief during ritual events is handled. For example, if a newcomer is not sure that they believe in the group’s theology, can they take part in participatory rituals, or should they refrain out of respect? Can they “act as if” without actually believing, or is that sacrilegious? Does belief make a difference at all, or is the only issue polite and appropriate behavior?
6. The group has an obligation to be clear about the customs and behavior expected during their events, and to designate someone to brief newcomers. This is especially important if the group has a fairly closed structure that has created its own specific internal culture, or a good deal of formal ritual protocol. If a newcomer badly violates a custom, the first person to call is their designated “protocol handler”. If the protocol person didn’t explain that rule properly, the newcomer is blameless. A reasonably decent newcomer will feel embarrassed enough having been set up for possible failure; calling them out for it adds insult to hospitality injury.
7. The group has an obligation to refrain from deciding that they know what is spiritually best for any given newcomer.
The seeker, on the other hand, has the following responsibilities:
1. The seeker is obligated to remember that every group has the right to set their own rules. If you don’t approve of their rules, no one’s stopping you from leaving. (See that part about schisming we mentioned earlier.) You may feel that their rules are stupid, destructive, or sacrilegious, but it is a breach of trust to say that while enjoying that group’s hospitality. If you really have questions about their practices that you’d like more understanding of, speak to the leader or to designated spokespeople in private – not in a roomful of people – and keep your tone respectful and not contemptuous or accusatory. Ask in a way that’s designed to foster good communication, not defensiveness.
2. The seeker has an obligation to wait on asking the group to incorporate any of their personal gnosis until they have been in the group long enough to make a commitment and earn their place as a member. It’s neither fair nor terribly effective to walk in and start telling people how they ought to do things differently.
3. The seeker has an obligation to bring up personal qualities, practices, deeply held beliefs, or existing spiritual commitments that might conflict with the group’s practice and theology. There’s no point in waiting until one is invested to find out if they’re homophobic, or let them know that you want to belong to another religious group at the same time, or that you really believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is your true patron. It’s best to get a rejection out of the way first thing, to the relief of both parties. This may seem to violate the last rule mentioned, but there’s a clear difference between saying, “I believe this, even though it’s just my own thing,” and “I think this is the way that groups in Tradition X ought to believe.” If the group has trouble seeing that difference, and treats a careful statement about personal beliefs as a generalizing reproach, that’s good evidence of a lack of objectivity and reason. Similarly, the seeker has a spiritual obligation not to lie about their actual beliefs in order to please the new group.
4. The seeker has an obligation to respect the customs and protocols of the group as they are explained to them, at every event that they choose to attend. There’s no excuse for acting rudely, or challenging them on their customs, when you have no commitment to their well-being. If the seeker cannot bring themselves to follow one particular custom for personal, ethical, or spiritual reasons, they should privately seek out the leader or an elder in the group with their concerns beforehand, and see if they can participate in the event without taking part in that custom. An example of this might be an abuse survivor who has trouble being touched by strangers facing a ritual that requires embraces as a greeting, or a ritual where participants are requested to make a promise that conflicts with an existing vow. A mature and responsive group leader will try to make a newcomer comfortable if possible, but if the rule cannot be bent for whatever reason, the newcomer has an obligation to step aside and not attend if need be. If the newcomer’s personal practices are such that they cannot attend an event without violating group customs, for the Gods’ sakes don’t inflict yourself on them.
While a seeker who moves on from a group isn’t obligated to tell them why, it is a courtesy. If the reason is just “it wasn’t for me, no harm done”, it might relieve worried members who are afraid that they offended. If there was an actual problem, it can be useful to a group if a recently departed newcomer courteously points out ways in which they were made to feel unsafe or unwelcome, so long as it is done with an attitude of “It might not occur to you folks that someone might be made to feel bad about this, so I’m just giving you useful information for the future,” and not “You bad, horrible people hurt my feelings,” or “You’re doing it all wrong!”
If a seeker acts like a competent adult, they have the right to expect to be treated like one. If a group expects them to act like one, they should come through. One hopes that if such codes of conduct were socially encouraged in our demographic, they might end the problem of infantilizing “newbies” and make welcoming a newcomer a less suspicious activity.