This post was originally published on the Pantheon blog on Patheos, June 3, 2010.
I was first initiated into a religious tradition when I was twelve years old. I underwent a symbolic death and rebirth, was ritually cleansed, and was recognized as a member of the spiritual family with a celebratory feast. That is to say, I joined the Baptist church.
Since then I’ve undergone several more initiations: into a Taoist temple, by the Gods, into Feri, and when defending my MFA thesis. They vary in details, but the same elements tend to be there in various combinations: a ritual challenge, ritual cleansing, symbolic death and/or rebirth, food. Not every element is present every time, but there is always food.
I recognized defending my thesis as an initiation mainly by feel and because I’d been through the others, but it makes sense. The defense (notice the name) of a dissertation or thesis is the most ritualized part of the graduate school process (and that’s saying something); furthermore, it’s the direct continuation of an eight-hundred-year-old tradition that originated in the late medieval Church. The symbolic death part is the process of graduate school itself (you think I’m kidding…). At your defense, they ask you pointed and difficult questions meant to make you show you actually know what you just wrote hundreds of pages about (ritual challenge). For a PhD, you get ritually challenged twice (comps and the defense, the first being less “ritual” than for real). After the defense part they send you out of the room and then bring you back in and congratulate you on your new status (symbolic rebirth), and for a PhD they actually rename you: “Congratulations, Doctor So-and-So!” Then they take you out for lunch.
This process used to confer all kinds of rights and privileges, including being allowed to wear fancier clothes (which meant a higher social status) and the right to be tried in ecclesiastical rather than secular courts for any offense. In these latter and reduced days we get funny hats and tenure, maybe.
I recently initiated one of my Feri students. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that there was a ritual cleansing, ritual challenge, symbolic re-birth, and food. It was my first time being at the other end, passing something on, and gave me new insight into the process.
In witchcraft traditions like Feri, as in academia, you can’t just up and decide to claim initiate status for yourself. You can practice elements of Feri all you want, but we will not recognize you as a Feri witch and you absolutely cannot teach Feri unless you are initiated by other Feris. We are quite serious about that, as are the other old-school trads out there. However, Sufis, who also have initiatory lineages, recognize that someone can be initiated by al-Khidr, a strange and paradoxical figure who is the messenger of Allah. Even academics will recognize you as an “independent scholar” as long as you can pass a peer-review committee. I think there’s plenty of room for initiation by the Gods, and that it’s a valid way to enter into a relationship with the Divine; I have zero problem with recognizing such a person as a genuine witch, shaman, or priest/ess. Just not as a member of my own tradition, though I am likely to view them as a good candidate for same assuming they’re interested.
I kind of think that if that happens to you, you’ll know, but in case you are wondering ask yourself these questions: Was there a challenge, wherein I had to face fears or some other unpleasant aspect of myself? Was it transformative, such that I could call it a ritual death and rebirth? Was it something different from what I expected going in, or completely out of the blue? (a good sign that it’s not just your own wishful or projective thinking). Did I know myself better afterward, stand up straighter, see the world differently? Do I think in terms of “before” and “after”? If so, congratulations. Take yourself out to lunch. You’ll need fortification for what comes next.