Witches are constantly saying things like, “This path requires work,” and “You’ve got to do the work.” We ask each other and ourselves, “Are you doing the work?” When a public figure stumbles, or when we encounter toxic people in our own communities, it’s common to hear phrases like, “They weren’t walking their talk,” or “They weren’t really doing the work.” The overarching sentiment, especially from the perspective of newcomers, is that we all need to be doing something. And something in particular.
In many European magical systems and contemporary occult traditions, there’s a concept of a Great Work. This usually entails some kind of personal achievement of enlightenment or power. A Hermetic Qabalist might speak in terms of climbing the Tree of Life. Someone with a New Age background might speak in terms of the realization that we’re all One. Some magicians might describe their Great Work in terms of union with an ultimate power, or the achievement of some kind of self-mastery. Some speak in terms of universal healing and ushering the world into a new aeon. This Great Work—however we conceive it—is ultimately what’s at the center of serious occult work, as many say.
There are many traditions of witchcraft (and many more kinds of Paganism) and not all of them hold to the idea that such a focus is central or even necessary. Polytheistic devotional paths, secular and atheistic traditions, and personal practices that exist within other religious groups may have different ideals, different languages, and different theologies. But collectively, we still seem to generally think that there is something (albeit different somethings) we all need to be doing. It’s not enough to just be initiated. It’s not enough to just call yourself a witch. It’s not enough to just tell people that you’re devoted to your gods. You have to be doing something about it.
I don’t know what that something is, a lot of the time.
I have a set of religious oaths to guide me, and I have the ideals of multiple communities informing my choices. I also have ideas about what I want to do with my life, what I think the world needs, and what I think people are capable of. I think at the core, that’s probably all any of us have, and many people may have a lot less than that.
I feel like I’m constantly working on myself, in the way our therapeutic culture of self-help understands a phrase like “working on myself.” I’ve pin-pointed key life experiences that have altered my character for better or worse (like a good Freudian) and I’ve discerned behavioral patterns that get me in trouble out in the world if I ignore them. I’ve established coping mechanisms for the things I can’t change (sometimes they even work), and I’ve tried to address the things I can (well…). I think about purpose a lot, struggling to balance my natural, seemingly in-born sense of idealism with the sizable chips on both shoulders generated by just being alive in the world. I’m constantly asking myself things like, “Is this my shit or is this other people’s shit?”
I fail a lot. I have to apologize a lot.
And being a group leader—priestessing—involves having the audacity to behave as though you have something definitive to say about how other people are progressing in the same kinds of tasks. I say “behave” because I think good priests and priestesses must surely understand what absurd vanity it is to actually believe we’ve got it figured out. I hope, anyway.
The best I can figure—and without going into the promises I’ve made to my tradition and my gods—a lot of my Great Work involves getting myself together in such a way that I can lead the most effective life possible. I’d like the world to be better in tangible ways, having had me in it, doing something that helps other people. I want to build a community that makes the people involved (and the people they encounter) better than they were. So far, that’s meant addressing my own experiences with trauma so that I’m not just pissed off and afraid all the time. It’s meant trying to get a handle on the privilege that I was born to, so that I have the capacity to hear the perspectives of others. It’s meant being kinder, choosing better words, having conversations I don’t want to have, and doing a lot more listening than talking. It’s meant considering that there may be no purpose to any of it at all, but going ahead and doing it anyway, because I don’t like the alternative. And knowing that I’m going to fail in the end, because these tasks are impossible for one person, in one lifetime. Maybe they’re impossible altogether.
You don’t make it up the Tree in one go. You don’t figure everything out. You don’t get out without hurting someone. You don’t make it through without bleeding and crying. No exceptions.
I realize that this sounds melodramatic, but I feel like so much of my job as a priestess in a tradition has involved making judgments about others. Is so-and-so “doing the work”? Is so-and-so a fit for my coven? For my tradition? Is so-and-so really one of us? What can I say or do that will help so-and-so in their own practice? Who am I to even be asking these questions?
It’s not that I think judgment is inherently a problem. It’s just that I try to keep my own screwed-upedness close by. I try to stay honest about where those judgments come from, and make the best ones possible, with something bigger than myself and the moment in mind.
This is what “doing the work” looks like to me. It’s bigger than having the perfect daily practice, and it’s bigger than getting the ritual right and reading the right books. It’s bigger than knowing the right people, saying the right words, or having and making the best stuff. It’s bigger than writing a blog, publishing a book, or being respected at gatherings. It’s bigger than collecting degrees, starting covens, initiating a ton of people, or being the subject of popular conversation and controversy. Some of those things might help to some extent (and some don’t help at all), but they’re not in and of themselves the Work. When I consider the merits of initiates and potential initiates, this isn’t what I’m looking at. When I evaluate my own progress, these aren’t what I’m measuring. Individually, these might be signs of something, but they’re not the thing itself. Ultimately, I think the thing probably can’t be articulated.
But this was me trying.