Seeking the Grail: The Priestess is Dying

Seeking the Grail: The Priestess is Dying November 7, 2016

The Priestess is dying. She’s been dying for a long time. She’s had various medical complications for years, and she knows that she’s only got so much time left. “I want you to help me teach my coven leadership skills so that they can keep the coven going when I’m gone. So that they can become leaders. So that the coven doesn’t fall apart.”

My heart breaks as she says this, because I know people. I know groups. I know people. I know how things fall apart. Frequently my inner optimist and my inner pessimist fight a bloody battle inside of me. They tear each other up; my optimist believes in the best in people and what could be. The pessimist sees how groups fall apart, how people really treat one another. The pessimist sees how this election and Trump has made bigotry and hatred far more acceptable, far more visible.

As we reach Summer’s End, as we pass Samhain and go into the last days of this horrid election, I find myself thinking about death. Death, and groups, and people, and how things go.

My pessimism is clawing ribbons into the flesh of my optimism. My soul is screaming for hope, for justice, for good things. Not just for this small Pagan coven, but for the whole world around us.

a rose surrounded by a jeweled circle
Art by Shauna Aura Knight

How Groups Work (Or Don’t)

I know small, subcultural groups, in specific…and there are only so many “do-ers” in any group. There are only so many people who have the desire to get up and get things done. There are only so many people who are willing to learn all the skills you need to learn to take on various leadership roles, only so many people who are comfortable with public speaking.

There are a lot of different types of leadership, of course. What she’s talking about is the visionary initiator, the person who gets things done and is willing to make decisions and do the work.

Her coven’s got a pretty good base of leaders that are comfortable in the support roles. People who bring food, or come over to the covenstead to cook. People who help out with physical tasks. People who handle scheduling and social media and administrative logistics.

But here’s the problem; they look to her as Mom. They look to her as “the one who will make it happen.”

And she thinks of them as her children, too. “That’s why I want this for them. I don’t want them to lose this when I go.”

I work with her group on and off for about a week, since she and her high priest/husband are hosting me. In fact, in the year before I traveled out for this tour, I had more contact with her high priest. I didn’t know until right before I arrived that one of the primary reasons she wanted to engage me to teach leadership is because she has a life expectancy of less than five years due to her medical issues.

She’s hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.

Her coven doesn’t want to talk about her health. They get uncomfortable when she speaks frankly about “When I die.” This frustrates her, because it doesn’t allow her to discuss things like logistics of who will take over what roles when she’s gone.

A few folks are willing to take on speaking roles in rituals, but she needs others who are willing to take on some of the basic classes. And she has administrators and supporters, but what she wants is for each person in the coven to step into the Sovereignty of the group, to be willing to step up and make things happen. But typically, I don’t see many groups step into shared power like this, not unless the group was formed that way. Consensus process and other similar models can work well to engage a whole group in holding the Sovereignty of the group. When a group is formed under a hierarchical model with a dictator–benevolent or not–people tend to want to be led. They are used to that dynamic.

This coven meets regularly–sometimes multiple times a week–between classes, rituals, and social time. They are truly a family in a way I don’t often see with Pagan groups. And they’re eager to learn; though I only spent a few hours with them formally teaching leadership, I feel that most of my work with them was in the smaller conversations.

They have the raw stuff to make a stable group work. And I wonder if they’ll find the alchemical balance of leadership skills needed to keep a small group running. The love these folks showed to one another gives me hope not just for them, but for humanity.

Things Fall Apart

For all that hope, I don’t know that this group has what they need to survive the death of their founder, their priestess, their mom.

And I don’t know that that’s a bad thing–sometimes we get attached to a form and an idea of how things are supposed to go. Who knows, perhaps the coven can’t sustain itself as a single group, but the members of the coven go off to seed or join other groups and create something new and stronger.

It’s just like some relationships end–and when we’re in the throes of that relationship we think, this can’t end, we/they have to stay together! In fact, sometimes the worst thing we can do is try to make people in a group, or in a relationship, try to work things out; all they’re going to do is fight and fight til it escalates and they say the horrible things to one another that can’t be taken back.

Because people are people. 

And sometimes people are just people in the roles they automatically take in a group. Some want to just attend, to follow. Some inherently want to lead. And the problem is also that many of the folks who are motivated the most to step into leadership, are also often the folks who are the most visionary and the most stubborn. In fact, their strength and motivation that helps to build a group is often what causes the group to fall apart later.

People behave in predictable patterns. But sometimes, those predictable behaviors terrify me. It terrifies me because I see conflicts in small groups, and then I see it in the larger world around me, and it’s the same pattern.

So many Pagans tell me they don’t like politics, and yet, the conflicts within Pagan groups, and between Pagan groups and in the broader Pagan community are the same conflicts that we see that makes the news. It’s just that conflicts between countries have budgets and a military force. It’s the same struggles of people wanting to be right, people wanting other people to do things their way.

People are people.

Yet, there’s something that goes beyond that. There’s being stubborn, and being a complete jerk. There’s being driven to the edge by some circumstance in your life and saying the harsh, hurtful thing…and then  there’s being a bigot, threatening people who don’t do things your “way.” And then there’s the rabid defense of people’s right to be bigoted.

And my optimism and pessimism go back at it.

Is this just the way people are? Are we destined to fall apart? Are we destined to tear each other up in endless conflict? Are we destined to hate?

Or is it just a fraction of people who are like that? For that matter, what makes someone bigoted and hateful? Is there a way to change that?

Why are people the way we are? Can we work past our own patterns, the patterns that harm us?

Death & Politics

The priestess is still dying. Her group’s going to live on without her, or not. Maybe someone will step forward to become the central anchor-point, the hearth fire that draws everyone together, the visionary decisionmaker that makes things happen. Maybe they shift gears into a more consensus-driven model and step into mutual sovereignty. Maybe they try to keep it going and internal politics fractures the group. Maybe, without that central focus, without that parental energy of love and support, the group just slowly dissipates and fades. Maybe this seeds other groups to rise and strengthen, maybe not.

But she continues to work to build that safe space, that coven and family built on the fertile field of love, to try and build something that will continue. And if that love continues on as that coven, or as many other covens, that love will remain.

We all die. And the world will change around us. People will still tear at each other, there will still be bigotry and hatred. But the love that we seed, the ways we try to heal and build, the ways we try to build something better for our descendants of blood and spirit…this is all we have. All we have is the hope of a better future. The hope of something that strengthens us and heals us. People will be people, but we can do our best.

Tomorrow’s the election. Someone will win, someone will lose. I’m praying that the loser is the misogynistic bigoted one, and I won’t name him here. And I pray…I pray…that though this campaign made it clear how many Americans are hateful, bigoted people…I pray that by airing the dirty laundry, we can make true progress and find a way forward that leaves behind that hatred and that bigotry.

I pray that we are better than this. I have hope.

Love is the answer.

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