When You Fail An Ordeal

For all the glamour our mainstream society has around the art of writing, it’s mostly a lot of work. As others have said, writing is the art of applying butt to seat and fingers to keyboard – and staying off Facebook while you do it. I like to get started by taking an idea with me on a long walk, but even if that goes well, each blog post represents multiple hours staring at the screen and trying to make the right words come out.

But sometimes the Awen flows and all I have to do is sit there and type. Other times, blog posts aren’t inspired so much at they’re dictated: “you – Druid – write this!” And so I write.

This is one of those dictated posts. It’s completely out of the context of what’s been going on in my life and what I’ve been thinking about writing, but it came together almost as a finished product. So I assume there’s someone – or many someones – who need to hear this.

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Initiation and Ordeals

Initiation does not begin with the start of a ceremony. Initiation begins with the request for initiation or with the declaration of intent to work toward initiation. Start searching the internet for articles on initiation, start asking questions of those with the authority to initiate, stand up and say “I want in” and you will be heard.

Now, you may not be heard by who you want to hear you. If you want a Gardnerian Wiccan initiation, the only way to get it is to find a Gardnerian coven, train with them to their satisfaction, then participate in their initiation ritual. You’re not just being initiated, you’re being initiated into a specific tradition and lineage. Those performing the initiation have an obligation to make sure you will represent and continue that tradition and lineage well.

But some people aren’t looking for initiation into a specific tradition. Instead, they’re looking for an transformative initiation experience – and that’s something that can happen in many different ways.

The more initiations I participate in – from both sides – the more I’m convinced of the wisdom of Tarot artist Robin Wood’s statement “the Gods initiate – we just officiate.” While a well-crafted and well-presented initiation ceremony can be deeply effective, at the end of the day it comes down to two things: is the candidate prepared and are the Gods and spirits willing? I say this because the effectiveness of an initiation often comes down to something most initiators are reluctant to create: truly transformative ordeals.

Ordeals challenge and test a candidate, but their primary purpose is transformation. An ordeal breaks down barriers, tears away masks, and strips away illusions. It breaks the candidate open so Gods and spirits can pour in and real change can occur. It shows you something so real and so personal you can never go back to being who and what you were before. You see the world in a new way and the idea of going back to mainstream materialism and shallow spirituality becomes unthinkable.

I’ve never created an exceptionally challenging ordeal for an initiation. I like the people I’ve helped initiate and I don’t want to hurt them, even if I know the suffering is ultimately a good thing. I’m concerned about something going badly wrong and someone getting seriously injured. And I’m concerned about what happens if the candidate fails the ordeal. I’ve heard stories of initiations that left a candidate a broken mess who never really recovered. I don’t want to take those risks.

The Gods have no such reservations.

Initiation begins with the request for initiation. Now, if you’re insincere or completely unprepared, the Gods are likely to ignore you… though certain spirits may decide you’d be fun to play with. Be careful what you ask for. But assuming you have a clue what you’re doing, once you say “I want in” the ordeal begins.

It may take weeks to start. Depending on your situation, it may take months. And it may never look and feel anything like your expectations – or your desires. It can take so many different forms I’m reluctant to list examples. An ordeal isn’t just something bad that happens to you. An illness, a death in the family, a car wreck – these things can be ordeals, but most of the time they’re just random bad things happening randomly. If it doesn’t push you to re-evaluate your foundational assumptions about life, death, and the nature of the universe, it’s not an ordeal.

There are three ways you can fail a Gods-sent ordeal.

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You fail to recognize what’s presented to you. An opportunity presents itself, but you reject it without considering its deeper prospects. The magic works, but you rationalize it away. An Otherworldly being appears in front of you, but you never look up from your phone. You were given an opportunity to break open your worldview and you rejected it without ever realizing you had made a choice.

The problem here is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If it’s been more than a few months since you declared your desire for initiation and it feels like nothing has happened, it’s likely you need to learn to see. Or perhaps you weren’t ready to begin with and you haven’t noticed a transformative ordeal because one hasn’t been sent your way. If this is the case, you almost certainly need some face-to-face instruction. Find a teacher or a group. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, but don’t be afraid to accept help from unexpected sources either.

You give up too soon. Ceremonial ordeals can be very powerful – I experienced one at age 19 that certainly was. But ceremonial ordeals are limited by the amount of time the officiants and the candidate can spend in ceremony. We expect them to last a few hours, or at most until dawn. There are traditions that send candidates out into the wilderness by themselves for a few days – most of us see these as extreme cases.

A Gods-sent ordeal may go on for months or even years. At times, it’s unclear where the ordeal ends and the work of doing what you’re called to do begins.

Christianity – which still dominates our mainstream culture – presents the Damascus Road conversion of Saul as the model for spiritual transformation. Sometimes it really is that quick and that permanent, regardless of the religious context. More often, transformation is slow and gradual. It’s two steps forward and one step back. It’s being skeptical, doing the work anyway, seeing the results, and being a little less skeptical next time. It’s learning to crawl, then to walk, then to run… and then training to run a marathon.

Along way, you will be tempted to quit. I do not believe in some grand dualistic battle between Good and Evil, but old habits die hard. The (mostly temporal) powers that rule the mainstream world have a vested interest in keeping you asleep and compliant. And sometimes the harsh realities of life get in the way.

But if magic, mysticism, and deep spiritual relationships are what you really want, keep working. These ordeals can take far longer than you’d imagine. Don’t give up before you reach your goal.

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You reject the offer. You declare for initiation and the ordeal begins. The curtain is pulled back and you see wonders… and terrors. And you close the curtain as tightly as you can.

Accepting that the world is far more magical and spiritual than you’ve always been taught is hard. Accepting that it’s not all love and light is scary. If the Gods are real then They can affect our lives in ways we might wish they wouldn’t. If the Good Neighbors are real then they may decide to interact with us in ways far more troublesome than hiding our glasses in a hard-to-find spot. If we can curse our enemies then they can curse us.

It’s no failure to decide that’s not something you want to deal with. It’s no failure to recognize that you’d be better off following Jesus or the Buddha instead of pouring offerings to the Many Gods. This path isn’t for everyone, and if it’s not for you then the sooner you accept that and move on the better off you’ll be.

But it is a failure to reject the wonders and terrors of the Gods and spirits and try to force them into your own sanitized version of what you think they should be. It is a failure to reject the wholeness of the Gods and try to reduce Them to functions and functionaries that can be compelled by human will. It is a failure to reject the agency of the Gods and try to turn Them into aspects of your own psyche.

If you failed an ordeal. There is no shame in failure. There is plenty of shame in repeated, obstinate failure. The first step in dealing with any failure is to acknowledge it.

If you failed to recognize what was presented to you, ask for help so you can learn what you need to learn. If you gave up too soon, start again and remember that persistence is a virtue.

If you rejected the offer, think long and hard about what you did and why you did it. If you continue to ask for initiation, expect the ordeals to keep coming but do not expect them to be any more to your liking than the ones you failed. If you are unwilling or unable to deal with the wonders and the terrors, if you are unwilling or unable to do the work the Gods ask you to do, then do yourself a favor and find another path before you put yourself in an even more difficult situation.

But also think long and hard about why you asked for initiation in the first place. Is there still a dissatisfaction with mundane society that calls for a magical response? Does something deep inside you still whisper that there’s more to life than the ordinary world? Is there a part of your soul that will never be satisfied until you can experience it for yourself?

Courage is not having no fear. Courage is being legitimately concerned about real risks, and then doing what needs to be done anyway.

What do you need to do? Find another path? Or ask again for initiation?

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