Secret Societies and the Impossibility of Perfect Vetting

Secret Societies and the Impossibility of Perfect Vetting October 29, 2015

full moon 10.27.15 04Most Pagans are putting the responsibility for the debacle that is Witches of America squarely where it belongs: on author Alex Mar and nowhere else. A few, while not excusing Mar’s bad behavior, are saying those who were betrayed are partially to blame because they “should have done a better job of vetting.”

This line of thinking is neither realistic nor helpful. While I’ve said all I want to say about this book, the question of what risks we take when we share sacred mysteries is worth some further exploration.

Perfect vetting is impossible

Anyone who’s been on a job interview knows employers try to vet candidates carefully, and some go to great (and often invasive) extremes.  There are phone calls and in-person conversations, drug screens and background checks, and in some cases sophisticated psychological testing. Technical qualifications are easy to verify. What’s harder is figuring out if this is someone you want to spend 40 or 50 hours a week with, if this is someone you can trust to show up to work every day, if this is someone you can trust with trade secrets, and perhaps most importantly, if this is someone you can trust with the reputation of your company.

So hiring managers do all the vetting they can possibly do and at the end of the process they roll the dice and hope they’re right. I’ve done some hiring in my career and most times I’ve been right, particularly when I didn’t let a résumé overrule my intuition. But there have been a few times when someone who looked great on paper and sounded great in person and had great references turned out to be a complete doofus.

Half of all marriages end in divorce – most of us can’t do a very good job of vetting our life partners. Every year the NFL spends thousand of hours and millions of dollars vetting college football players and even the high draft picks have a significant chance of ending up a bust. And we could talk all day about politicians who get nominated or even elected to high public office who turn out to be an embarrassment even for their own party.

If all these groups with all their resources can’t do a perfect job of vetting, what chance does a small esoteric group have of doing better?

“Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead” – Benjamin Franklin

04 08b Salem cemeterySecrets are notoriously difficult to keep. People like to talk, and they especially like to talk about things that make them look and feel special. People are curious, and if anyone has secrets we want to know what they are. And in this era of the internet, all it takes is one careless or disgruntled secret keeper for sensitive information to be spread far and wide.

Of course, there’s a difference between posting sensitive information on a obscure website and publishing it in a book intended for the general public. Not that one is morally different from the other, but the impact will be very different.

I, (name), in the presence of the Mighty Ones, do of my own will and accord, most solemnly swear that I will ever keep secret and never reveal the secrets of the Art, except it be to a proper person, properly prepared, within a circle such as I am now in. All this I swear by my hopes of a future life, mindful that my measure has been taken, and may my weapons turn against me if I break this my solemn oath.

First Degree Initiation Oath by Gerald Gardner

The fact that this material is easily available on the internet shows that someone didn’t take their oath seriously. The idea of keeping your word no matter what is generally considered to be quaint, and threats only go so far.

Most Pagans keep esoteric secrets because they mean something to us. But how can we be sure the person we’re passing them down to will see them as equally meaningful and worthy of respect? We can withhold the secret names of our Gods or the contents of our most sacred ceremonies until someone has proven themselves trustworthy, and perhaps most importantly, until we’re convinced they value those things as much as we do.

But people change. They may have every intention of keeping a secret… until they decide it’s not that important, or they tell themselves they didn’t really promise to keep it secret, or they get mad and decide to lash out any way they can.

And sometimes, people lie.

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

Withdrawing from public view won’t solve the problem

I’ve seen a few comments to the effect that Feri had it coming – that by some Feri going public and teaching for money they opened the entire tradition up to having its secrets revealed. Now, I’m not Feri, I’m not going to become Feri, and I have no desire to insert myself into the Feri Schism, other than to say it was probably inevitable once the tradition grew past a certain point in numbers and in years.

Good religious and magical traditions grow. Whether that’s a church that’s serving its community or a teaching order that gives people useful tools for navigating life or a polytheist tradition that facilitates strong connections to the Gods, if you’re any good word will get out – metaphysically if not mundanely. You’ll get seeker after seeker after seeker. Some of them won’t be a good fit with your tradition, but many will. If you don’t take them in – one way or another, to the extent you can – you’ve made your tradition about you and your comfort rather than about serving the principles, values, and Gods that are supposedly your core.

Even if you accept only the best and most suitable, you’re still back to the vetting problem. You may have reduced the odds of an incident by accepting two instead of ten, but you didn’t reduce your risk to zero.

The ineffable mysteries can’t be profaned

I’ve had several initiatory ordeals. If I describe them in detail (and one of them I have) you will know what happened, but you won’t understand what happened. Oh, you may be able to intellectually explain it all, but that’s not the same as knowing something through first-hand experience. Reading the script isn’t the same thing as watching the movie, and watching the movie isn’t the same thing as living the events in real time.

I can tell you all about my ecstatic experience of the Gods, but I can’t communicate what it feels like and what it means for a Holy Power to move into the core of your being.

I can prepare and present a devotional ritual, but I can’t guarantee you’ll experience the presence of a God. And if you do, I can’t promise what it will feel like and what it will mean to you.

The true mysteries are ineffable – “unspeakable” – not because speaking of them is forbidden (although it frequently is, and for good reason) but because the truth they contain cannot be communicated in words.

And so we vet our candidates as best we can. We extract oaths of secrecy and we set good examples for our seekers, candidates, and potential members. We take care how we reveal our secrets, always to “a proper person, properly prepared.”

Most times that works well. Most times those who aren’t suited to the mysteries drop out of their own accord when faced with the arduous work required to make themselves ready to receive them. Most times those who make it honor their commitments and become valued members of our secret traditions.

Sometimes there’s betrayal. Sometimes beliefs, practices, and traditions are revealed to people who only want to gawk at them and mock what they don’t understand. We take that risk every time we share our secrets with others. When it fails it hurts.

But when it works, it’s magical.

full moon 10.27.15 02

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