I had an adventure in the Craft recently. I invited the local members of my tradition for an impromptu Yule ceremony. Most of the members of my current coven made it, along with two of my Second Degree initiates who had started a couple of covens of their own, and my current Coven Maiden and her brand-new students. We were joined by my initiator Lord Redleaf. I was excited for him to meet my students, who are a bunch of dedicated, interesting people with a commitment to the Craft.
But as I assigned those present who should have known what they were doing to Call the Quarters, I quickly realized that memorization was not something they were dedicated to. The first of my Second Degrees had to be guided through the process because “we haven’t done this in a while.” My Coven Maiden, in her desire to show off for her students in front of her mentors, promptly forgot an admonition I had given the coven at the previous Esbat about paying attention to what the other Quarter-Callers were doing, and she invited the Sylphs in the East when my other Second Degree student had not chosen to call the Gnomes in the North. The student who called South is, to be fair, still learning and not yet a First Degree initiate, but she absolutely could not function without reading the words out of her Book of Shadows. The West caller, one of my other Second Degrees, laughed and joked the whole time she was supposed to be evoking because she couldn’t remember what she was doing either.
I was embarrassed and angry. I have been running a teaching coven now for about five years, starting new groups and releasing older ones to carry on teaching in their own way, and the least experienced of my students has been practicing for at least a year-and-a-day. We do the same ritual every single time. The words have not changed and the entities called have not changed. There is no reason why they should not know how to do it. Therefore, I have failed as a teacher.
My initiator was not pleased. And worst of all, the Old Ones were not pleased. Our tradition has a lineage that traces from multiple sources, and as my mentor called me to task in front of my students for my incompetence, he felt someone, or several someones, speaking through him. The Old Ones, the ancestors of our tradition, came to deliver my public chastisement. You have failed as a teacher, Lady Sable, they said. You have failed to impart the importance of solemn ritual. This is not a game! You cannot play at magick! How can your students be so disrespectful?
My students, and the students of my students, were mortified. To their credit, the ones who had messed up were thoroughly embarrassed. The poor student who called South tried to quit the coven because she has so much trouble memorizing the words. My Coven Maiden flushed and apologized, and admitted to her High Priestess’ syndrome causing her to show off; but I don’t think she grasped the importance of the situation. My Second Degree student who called West laughed it off. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “I don’t know why you’re being blamed. I’m your rebellious teenager, remember? It’s my fault.” And when I took everyone to task on the Facebook group we use to arrange lessons and meetings, a friend of the tradition, who comes from a Reclaiming and Dianic background, undermined what I was trying to do when she typed that this was the problem with hierarchical traditions, and non-hierarchical traditions were above all this.
They don’t get it. But I think it’s important to understand, so I chose to write about it here. And I hope I can successfully impart the message.
Wicca is a counter-cultural movement. As such, we tend to attract a lot of free-thinkers and radicals who want to go their own way. And that’s a good thing. Statistically, most of us are solitaries, trying to find our individual paths through the wilderness of learning the Craft and Paganism in general. Again, that leads to a lot of individuality and I don’t like sheep as a rule, so I view this as positive. We come to the Craft because we want to be our own Priestesses and Priests, not obedient congregations. This isn’t a bad thing either. The Rede, I have argued, is all about taking personal responsibility.
But there is a shadow side to everything, and the shadow of all this freedom of choice is how do you gauge what you know?
I suppose this is only relevant if you consider the practice of magick and ritual as a skill. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter. But I do. Magick is a skill that you practice and hone over years of learning techniques, wading through the sludge of your subconscious in a quest for self-improvement so that you stop interfering with your own Work, and it is grounded in knowledge which must be acquired over time and study. Judy Harrow noted in her book Wicca Covens that it takes an average of seven to ten years to go from beginner to Third Degree initiate in most traditions that still observe a degree system these days; and that it takes about the same amount of time (and work!) to study for a doctorate degree! It’s hard! Ritual should indeed be fun and exciting – after all, the Goddess Charges us to have “mirth and reverence” – but it isn’t about playing dress-up and pretending we have the starring roles in the latest Harry Potter flick. It’s about teaching our Will to influence the Universe. It’s serious business.
And it needs to be taken seriously. My initiator likens much of the Craft to the practice of the martial arts, and the mentoring process that has taken place traditionally in the Craft to martial arts mentorship. You go to a sensei, and the sensei teaches you his skills. There is no timetable and no formal exam, but there are belts that indicate your level of understanding (most traditions use cingulums.) You train until you feel you are ready, and then you test for the belt. Your mentor tells you if you have passed or failed. If you don’t succeed, like a driving test, you study and practice some more and you try again.
In the Orient, there are customs associated with this process. You have obligations to your mentor, to look out for him and take care of him when needed; and he has obligations to you. And when he says that you are ready for the level that is marked by a particular belt, and you fail to uphold the skills and obligations of that belt, it is he who has failed. He has brought shame on himself and his mentor, and all the mentors who came before him. This system of accounting maintains a certain standard of training and knowledge, and is self-policing.
Ideally, that is what the traditional mentoring system looks like. It’s not about lording it over someone that you have a different colored belt. It’s about passing on a set of skills that have been carefully developed over many generations by someone who was as dedicated to the Art as you are. You need to respect all that teaching that came before you; even as eclectics with no tradition and no desire to be part of one, you have learned from the labors of others. You don’t owe them obedience – remember, in the Craft we are taught to be humble, and so we kneel before the postulant – but if you value what you are learning, you do owe respect. And respect means that when someone extends herself to teach you their skills, you need to do your very best to learn what it is that they believe is important enough to teach you. That also means that if you are struggling, you need to ask your teacher for help, so that she knows that you are struggling and has the opportunity to find a method to be helpful to you. Of course, that means you also have an obligation to participate in helping yourself, rather than throwing your hands up in the air and waiting for someone to rescue you.
Most of us treat the study of the Craft as something fun to do on the weekends when we’re bored and we feel like it. And I am highly resistant to schedules and rules and anything at all that I am required to do myself. But here’s the thing; in order to get better at something, even if you’re naturally talented, you have to practice. You have to do it. If you don’t, you will fail. And not all of that practice is going to be fun and adventurous and glamorous. For example: I knew from the time I was ten years old that when I grew up, I wanted to be writer. Because I was dedicated to this goal, I took an entire year of Typing and Computers. It was the most boring class I have ever had occasion to suffer. My creative mind loathed typing the same nonsensical crap over and over and over again. But today I have a 72 wpm typing rate and writing is not a time-consuming, key-picking process. It was worth it.
I believe that the Old Ones are asking us to be dedicated and to take our Craft seriously. They are asking us to respect those who have formed the footprints in which we tread. I believe that they want their legacy to last and their hard-won skills to benefit others. I urge us all to answer their call. Do it on your coven’s schedule or do it on your own schedule, but give your study and practice the attention and focus that it deserves. Or else, why bother at all?
Next column: Johnny’s Mnemonics: Tricks and Tools to Aid Memorization