On Becoming American: Citizenship as Initiation

On Becoming American: Citizenship as Initiation July 4, 2015

The Great Initiation

The Initiate wears his carefully selected ritual clothes: perfectly clean, chosen to show respect and yet confidence.

 HARRIS.news (2013) American flag. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American-flag-2a.jpg
HARRIS.news (2013) American flag. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American-flag-2a.jpg

Behind him, it has been a time of study, and the slow revealing of his spirit to the community. It has been a time of growth and struggle. He has had to prove his sense of responsibility, to agree to the burdens of membership. He must show, not just promise, that he understands the laws of the People.

Nervousness prickles his neck, his mouth is dry. The Initiate knows that it all comes down to this brief moment: a time of trial.

Before him stands the Guardian at the Gate. The Initiate takes a breath, puts a smile on his face, and does not shake the guardian’s hand. It was not offered – this is no social call. The Guardian seems to be a man of indeterminate years and blue eyes, wearing his own ritual clothes – muted and somber, but carrying the weight of decisions made, like a judge.

“Come with me,” says the Guardian.

The Initiate is led through a labyrinth of passages, all seeming identical. Lost and alone, he is brought to the Guardian’s place of power. There, he raises his right hand and swears a binding oath of truth.

The Test has begun.

Sworn to the People, Sworn to the Land

This month, after nearly a lifetime of living in the United States, I became an American Citizen. Some born to the privilege may take it for granted. For those of us from the outside who wish to be adopted, the whole process is a complicated ritual experience.

Here in the Pagan community, we speak of “Initiations” with a mixture of awe and proprietary-ness – as if we were the ones who invented them. If we did, it is only in the broadest sense of “pagans” and only in the most mythological of ways.

Pagans are bearers of responsibility and tradition. As people who may one day be called to pass their knowledge on to a new generation, we can learn from this powerful example of the ritual initiation process.

Knowledge of Self

In the application process, first comes the submission of a full self-history. It is a recounting of travel outside the U.S., of taxes paid, of responsibilities fulfilled. The question to be answered is a simple one: are you willing to shoulder the responsibilities of membership, and not just enjoy the benefits?

Having Your Measure Taken

According to some sources, when a witch joined one of the traditional lineages, a cord was used to measure his or her body. That cord was kept by the initiator or returned to the initiate, depending on the tradition. Witches have nothing on the guardians of our borders: instead of a cord, full fingerprinting and a photograph are taken and added to the nation’s records. It is of the utmost importance to confirm that you are indeed you!

Peterson, Polly (2015) American as apple pie
Peterson, Polly (2015) American as apple pie

Trial by Ordeal

By far the most unnerving part of the ritual is the trial by ordeal. Under oath, the prospective citizen is once more asked about his or her history. Having lived a fairly boring life, I was not too concerned with what would be asked. I support the U.S. Constitution, can take responsibility, and I am not a war criminal. Maybe these questions seem silly, but perhaps they also point to the magnitude of the role that these Officers play.

On the other hand, as a practitioner, I am aware of the power of oaths and binding agreements in ways that perhaps many are not. And let me tell you, sitting in a room with an Officer, under oath, as he goes through your file, is more than a little intimidating. Standing there, symbolically naked, one certainly understands the true nature of “Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.”

Becoming Oathbound

In the final step of the great ritual (the whole of which lasts months) all of the candidates who have passed their tests are marched into a great hall. When I took the oath, there were candidates from sixty-four countries.

Country by country, we were asked to recognize our allegiance one last time. Each group stood. Each group cheered, and then in our hearts put away who we had been to become something new.

We sat to be regaled with the seriousness of the duties we were accepting. One last chance to back out, and then we swore our allegiance. Once more we stood, and with cheering and applause, we declared ourselves to be of one country. Sixty-four made one.

E Pluribus Unum.

About our guest: Christopher Drysdale is a shamanic practitioner, martial artist, and meditation instructor. He’s been pagan for more than 25 years, has a master’s degree in anthropology, and thinks “making the world a better place” is a pretty good idea. He makes his home in the Bay Area. He’s an occasional contributor at Rending the Veil.

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