A Cup of Coffee and a Bagel with Christopher Penczak

A Cup of Coffee and a Bagel with Christopher Penczak October 17, 2013

Image by Tom Morris

Christopher Penczak is coming in November to Awen Tree, our local magickal shop.  Reading the announcement tonight, I felt a brief burst of excitement.

Christopher Penczak, for those who do not know of his work, is a Wiccan author and teacher whose New Hampshire based Temple of Witchcraft offers classes, rituals, and ministerial training.  He does a lot of speaking at Pagan events, and has written many, many books, only one of which I have read.  I think it was The Temple of Shamanic Witchcraft; I’m not sure.  It’s been a few years.  I liked it, though.  I remember thinking, when I read it, that here was a fellow who knew which end of an athame to hold onto.  It had been a few years since I’d read anything new in the Pagan publishing world, and I was happy to find something so sensible and well-informed on the shelves.  “What a promising new voice, ” I thought, and proceeded to talk about the book to another Pagan friend who’s a bit better-traveled than I am, and who was able to fill me in on the fact that Christopher Penczak is a Very Big Deal.


This may sound like I’m making light of Penzcak; I’m not.  I think he’s pretty awesome, actually. My initial response was a little frisson of excitement, precisely because I think he and his life-partners have accomplished some really cool things.  And I really like Awen Tree, the shop where he will be teaching.

But I read the part describing the admission fee–$30 per person–and I thought, No.  This is just not right.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why that is.  It feels important to me to find words for this.

It’s not disrespect for Penczak.  It’s not that I think it’s an unreasonable fee–there are travel costs, and the guy deserves to earn money for his time.

It’s not an objection to teachers being paid–heaven knows, as a public school teacher, I’m in favor paychecks going to those who skillfully communicate knowledge.

I think it’s that what I would be looking for, in meeting Penczak, would not be knowledge, but rather, that deeper thing: an exchange of wisdom.  It is my experience that there are kinds of spiritual wisdom that cannot be had in any way other than an exchange, and an exchange between equals,  between peers.  And not only is it potentially charged for me to assert that I am the peer of someone whose work is widely known, I think it’s also true that the relationship of one peer to another, outside of the closed and narrow world of individual covens or traditions, is one that nothing in the Pagan world is set up to foster.

Here’s where it gets tricky.  I can’t help but anticipate that some significant fraction of my Pagan readership are jumping out of their seats about now, muttering things about my chutzpah to presume to be the peer of a man who has founded a religious institution that is a going concern, who has written dozens of books, and whose work has attracted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans.

And having read the preceding paragraph, another significant fraction of my Pagan readership are jumping out of their seats in turn, exclaiming things about how many wonderful and impressive accomplishments I have to my credit.

Which is completely irrelevant to what I’m trying to say.  My point is something about the Pagan movement as a whole: we don’t do peer relationships well.

There are a finite number of niches in the Pagan ecosystem at the moment.  There’s room for neophytes and students, and they receive leadership from variously empowered or disempowered leaders, teachers, gurus and sages.  There’s room for the aforementioned leaders, teachers, gurus, and sages, who relate primarily to their students and–to a lesser extent–to their own teachers and lineages (though there, the relationship is often one of competitors rather than colleagues per se).  And finally, there are the keystone species of the ecosystem: the leaders and organizers of large hierarchical organizations, and the authors and speakers of real and established fame and importance.  And just as in a biological ecosystem, every individual is competing for their place in the system with every other individual.

There are exceptions to this rule.  Newcomers can often band together as peers and equals, and learn and grow together, cooperatively.  I’ve seen friendships that rise from such associations last for decades–in fact, many of my own oldest friendships began in just that way.

And then there are those middle-level leaders and teachers who encounter one another in the context of large gatherings or organizations–like the Covenant of the Goddess or Pantheacon–and, in the process of serving a community together, become friends and colleagues.  I’ve got a number of good friendships that arose in that way, too, and I’ve seen similar relationships last, again, for decades, often in the midst of the ups and downs of fame that does or doesn’t follow community service.

I have it on good authority that there’s an informal bullpen of Pagan speakers, too–a loose network of authors and presenters who are in demand on the festival circuit to some degree, and who sometimes offer one another support (along with competition at other times).

But mostly, there are students who are taught and leaders who do the teaching… and not a hell of a lot of opportunities to escape from that dyad of roles.

I don’t want to be Christopher Penczak’s student.  I don’t want to be his teacher, either: I want to be his colleague, his peer, or at least, I want the possibility of such a relationship to be more available to mature and experienced Pagans like myself, with other solid and experienced Pagans like Penczak–with or without a side order of fame.

In fact, fame is absolutely irrelevant to what I’m reaching for, here.  Worrying about who is important enough to be visible to whom is like worrying about who wins the swimsuit competition in order to get a college scholarship.  Just as a beauty contest is a ridiculous way to finance an education (sorry, Miss America Pageant, but it’s true) classes, seminars, and the speaking circuit are not the way for spiritually mature Pagans to connect with one another, encourage one another, and continue to grow.

I’m not a newcomer.  I’m not (currently) an author, teacher, or a leader of a Pagan organization.  But not only am I the poorer for not having a way to connect with the Christopher Penczaks of Pagandom, they are the poorer for not having a way to connect with me.

That only sounds egotistical.  Here’s what I’m thinking about:

I am one of four members of my Quaker meeting for worship who meet monthly to practice something we call Mutual Spiritual Accountability.  Two of the members of our group have been following clearly identifiable spiritual leadings: one in AVP (The Alternatives to Violence Project, doing conflict management training in prisons) and the other helping to run the G.I. Hotline.

Two of us do not have such clearly identifiable leadings–we teach teenagers, and we try to do it in a manner consistent with the leadings of Spirit.

In our monthly meetings, our spiritual accountability group works to listen to one another from a place of deep connectedness to Spirit.  We share with one another places our work is challenging us spiritually, and we look together for anything that might be getting in the way of our faithfulness to what Spirit is leading us to do in the world at this time.  Together, we work to stay anchored in Spirit and in community in the course of our spiritual work in the world… whether that work is outwardly identifiable as spiritual work or not, is famous or not… or even, as leadings grow and change form, is active or not. (Sometimes, Spirit calls for a rest or a change of venue.  Listening for and being faithful to those promptings is an underrated and crucial part of spiritual work.)

What I want is the possibility of such spiritual engagement with other Pagans–Pagans who are not students, not spiritual seekers in the sense of just figuring out what their path is, but who should always, always remain seekers in the sense of figuring out what their path is becoming now that they have found it.

Failing that?  I’d settle for coffee and a bagel, and a long, relaxing conversation over a kitchen table.

A class?  No.

I don’t belong in a class.  I belong in a relationship, perhaps–and perhaps not with Penczak (who really deserves to be collecting royalties for how often I’ve invoked his name, poor fellow, but did I mention I’ve never met him, and don’t really know him?).  But with more Pagans than I can share bagels and coffee–let alone a collegial relationship with–at the moment.

And here’s the pisser: it’s not just me I’m talking about.  It’s you, too… when you get far enough down the path, if you’ve just started, or right this second, if you’ve been working it long enough that you’ve actually picked up some wisdom from this alleged Craft of the Wise.

Pagans need one another: as peers, as equals… as something other than customers, however reasonable the price of registration might otherwise be.

And we just haven’t figured out how to do that part yet.

(And,  Christopher?  If you are in the mood for a bagel, do let me know; I’d love to meet you, because you seem like a really nice guy.  If not?  That’s fine, too, and thanks for being the case study in my thought experiment tonight.  Blessed be.)

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