Thursday, October 10, 2013

One Real Gripe, Two Frustrations

My gripe-du-jour is about people who volunteer to take on a task or role and then disappear.  I know it’s true that with all-volunteer organizations such as most Pagan groups are that the out-of-site-out-of-mind rule applies.  A volunteer leaves a meeting or gathering or festival full of zeal and ready to take on the work of whatever project(s) the group is planning.  That person may even have been provided with documents, mailing lists, etc. with which to accomplish the task(s).  He[1] may even have taken on the responsibilities of an officer within the organization.  Then he gets home and more immediate concerns distract and derail him.

This phenomenon was more damaging to Pagan efforts at organizing prior to the advent of the Internet.  For instance, within CoG, source of most but not all of my experience, membership applications must be timely processed or the applicant will wonder if her papers were even received.  And when a newsletter published eight times a year is the primary, and only official, vehicle of communication within the organization, getting every newsletter to the membership is critical.  Of course, today we can renew memberships online, and the newsletter editors of recent years have done a splendid job.  But back in the day such lapses in accomplishing volunteer tasks could have a negative impact on the group at large.

So although the matter of disappearing or non-performing volunteers does not have the same consequences today, it does affect the organizations on whose behalf one volunteered – negatively so when tasks are not fulfilled.

Were it not for volunteers, there would be no Pagan movement.  Volunteers make things happen, so please don’t let my grumbling discourage you from volunteering.  Just be sure you plan to keep your commitment.  Not coming through on one’s offer can damage the entire venture.

My frustrations relate to blogs and blogging.  I know that these frustrations have to do with the nature of the beast, but they remain frustrating to me nonetheless.

First is the tendency readers have to read only brief blogs.  If a blog goes into substance and nuance, if it’s longer than 500 words or so, visitors tend not to bother reading.  I myself am guilty of this.  One reason is the plethora of blogs, Pagan and otherwise.  There’s so much information and opinion being proffered that one can easily become saturated and absorb no more for the nonce.  In my case, I sometimes also find myself being over-stimulated as well, because what a particular blogger says about a particular topic or issue inspires me to respond.  Sometimes there are things I want to add or expand upon.  At other times it’s my disagreement with the blogger that calls me to speak up.

As a result, there are some blogs I save to read later – a goal I seldom attain.  There are bloggers whose ideas or writing appeals to me. So those are people whose blogs I tend to check more regularly.  Then there are the profusion of blogs about timely issues, current controversies, community standards, behavior, practice, theology and belief.  In the case of current controversies, I tend to try to wait a bit before I jump in so that I can respond in a way I consider to be constructive rather than replying when I’m in a tizzy.[2]

So what’s a gal to do?  If I write briefer blogs, perhaps people might be more likely to read them.  However, the flip side is that when I try to blog about a single topic, and it hinges on others topics, as so many do, I often go for thoroughness at the expense of brevity.  Although I mention in the blog the related topics I plan to address, readers tend to bring them up as though I’d overlooked them, when what I was trying to do was to focus on one smaller topic in order to keep my blog shorter.

So there you are, in fewer than 700 words.  I may or may not feel inspired to address the concept of volunteerism in another blog.  I welcome comments about volunteerism and anything else this post might inspire the reader to share.

[1]   I’m using the masculine pronoun here because my most recent frustration is with a person of the male persuasion; what I’m saying applies to all humans regardless of gender or gender identity.
[2]   Most recently I waited so long to respond in a level and non-inflammatory way, my blog was so reasoned and reasonable, that it appears that no readers picked up on the fact that in writing about inclusivity/exclusivity and boundaries I was addressing the furor about closed and open rituals at PantheaCon (and beyond) the last few years.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Boundaries & Permeability, Inclusivity & Exclusivity

From a cursory scan of several Pagan blogs, it appears to me that lots of Pagans have been devoting their thinking to the notion of inclusivity.  Who is welcome in whose circles?  How Pagans can demonstrate their love for all humankind by rolling out the welcome mat to one and all?  In principle I agree that our groups should be welcoming to all who are called to a Pagan path, although we all know that there are many Pagan paths and not every one is suitable for every seeker.


There are men’s circles and groups,[1] gay men’s circles, circles of men with mixed forms of sexual expression.  There are women’s circles, teen circles, children’s circles, crones’ circles, as well as groups especially created for LGBTs. 

When I first came to Craft via Second Wave Feminism, it was important not only for me to have found a feminine image of the divine, but equally important at that time when I was learning to worship and work magic that I do so with my sisters only, in a group priestesshood.  I think many people seek to explore their spirituality with others with whom they identify.  Just as there is a Dianic Wicca, there is also Faggot Tradition Witchcraft.  There is, or at least has been, a Minoan Brotherhood, a Minoan Sisterhood, and a mixed-gender Minoan Fellowship, all kin under the overall aegis of Minoan Witchcraft.  At PantheaCon in past years, my gay male friends have left my company for a while in order to attend a gay men’s ritual.

There are circles organized around ethnic affinities, such as Celtic or Norse or Italian.  Some practitioners of Norse traditions believe that their spiritual path is suitable only for those with a Scandinavian ancestry.  There are also groups that have a particular cultural focus, like Kemetic or Hellenic, Welsh or Polish.  And while most of these paths look toward European ancestors, and Wicca itself originates in Britain, the fact that we now live in a rich multicultural, multiethnic country populated by people from the world over means that our Pagan religions are exposed to, and often informed by, other spiritual thinking and praxis.  Further, since contemporary Paganism, in the U.S. and elsewhere, is a new religious movement (“NRM”), having existed for fewer than 250 years, it remains for the most part free of orthodoxy and hard-line dogma.  Our Paganisms are alive and growing and changing, hopefully in meaningful ways that practitioners find satisfying.

There are circles with a political focus, such as eliminating domestic violence, opposition to nuclear power proliferation, or saving old-growth forests.  There are circles formed for a particular project, such as ritual theater, mask work, dance, a community garden or painting a neighborhood mural.  These groups may or may not be open to non-Pagans.[2]

I know there are some circles comprised of deaf people.  In those circles, invocations and all conversation are, as I understand it, done in Amislan.  I would imagine that there are other groups who use a language other than English[3]  Tara Miller maintains Staff of Asclepius, a blog about Pagans with disabilities. Perhaps there are Pagan groups for blind people or others who have different parameters than most.  We would also be wise to consider that many disabled folks have special abilities that are absent or uncommon among much of humanity.

In real life, though, most of us Pagans meet in smaller groups that foster intimacy and depth.  We come together around shared interests and sympatico as well as geographical proximity.  A group may include a blind person or perhaps someone with diabetes (a condition not visible to others).  However, the choice of whom to include is determined by the group itself and any egregore[4] it may have engendered.  The choice is not made in order to confirm the relative political correctness of the circle and its members.  (Or maybe with some groups it is. ??)  You circle with those you wish to worship and work magic with rather than according to any kind of PC quota.

Personal as Distinct from Civic

Then there is the matter of secrecy and mystery[5] as opposed to open public rites.  Many of us take to heart the words of the Star Goddess when she says,

Whenever you have need of anything, once a month, and better it be when the moon is full, you shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of me who is Queen of all the Wise.

Is Craft a “mystery religion” as it has been described?  If so, then why offer rituals to the public at all?  Unlike mainstream religions that seek to convert everyone they encounter to their ways, Witchcraft has always been a religion of the few.  It is not the path for everyone, and that’s just fine.  Unfortunately, there are some among us who seem to feel the need to grow in numbers.  Expanding Craft and Paganism has never been my goal.  However, free access to sun and rain and nutrients to grow in society at large is important to me.  I don’t want us to feel we need to hide or to feel threatened by the more evangelical of the mainstream sects.  That is why I work in the interfaith arena.

This topic leads into determining distinctions between personal religion, that of the individual and/or family, and civic religion, that sanctioned by the state.[6]  During the Roman Empire, the state forbade the practice of a little mystery religion being formulated by followers of Jesus and now known as Christianity (in all its myriad iterations).  Our ancestors came here in order to practice their religions, nearly all of which were varieties of Christianity, free from interference.  When they joined to form a nation, they valued this freedom so much that they enshrined it in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to wit:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

So we know we can practice any religion or no religion, but so far I don’t see that we’ve paid much attention to the distinctions between personal and civic.

Public Ritual/Private Ritual

I happen to believe that there is a place for public Pagan rituals.  It would be hypocritical of me to claim otherwise, since I have created, co-created, and participated in public rituals for my entire Witchen life.

However, that’s not to say I think every event should accommodate every single person in society.  Private rituals are just that – private.  Would you invite everyone in the neighborhood or in your town to share your evening meal with your family in your dining room at home?  I doubt it.  Would you wish to share you bedroom with anyone in search of a sleeping place?  Not likely.  So why should you feel obligated to share every circle experience, every worship service, every rite of passage, every seasonal celebration, every meditative experience with all comers?  Like everyone else, we love to share some family events, like a wedding, an Ostara egg hunt, or a Yule feast.


Boundaries have their place in this world.  They serve a useful purpose.  One of the powers of Air is discernment.  The blade is the tool with which, with precision and clarity, we can separate this from that.  Just as it’s not appropriate to share details of your personal sex life with the pubic, so, too, is it inappropriate to share every spiritual experience.  Aside from the intimate personal nature of spiritual phenomena, it’s also likely that others might have no understanding of what you’re attempting to share.

At this point in my life, generally speaking, I enjoy circling with women and men, as well as with people who have both conventional and unconventional sexual expressions.  This applies to both private and public rituals.  I welcome everyone except antagonists into public circles.  If an individual arrives and is unable to participate other than in a disruptive way, that person can be asked to leave.  She can be excluded from the meeting, be it public or private.

This is not to say there are circumstances when I believe a “sameness” circle might be appropriate.  An example is a menarche ritual for a young woman, the purpose of which is best served by limiting the “women’s mysteries” circle (assuming there may be a larger extended gathering for all those who are important in a girl’s life).  It’s not appropriate for everyone to attend an initiation ritual; that event would be limited to other initiates of that tradition.  Not open to students.  Not open to friends and family who aren’t also initiates of that trad.

Perhaps we might view each Pagan circle as a pebble in the pond, radiating out from its center and sending waves to the banks.  Each successive circle covers more water, and other circles meet and overlap with these primary circles.  Then, does the work get watered down?


I was reared in a Christian environment of propriety and piety, preaching and rules, shoulds and shouldn’ts.  All those standards of behavior were considered to be the right and proper conduct for everyone.  Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, was considered the one, true, right and only way.  In order to gather converts and bring others to a right way of thinking, i.e., to salvation in Jesus Christ, members of these churches need to evangelize.  This practice has always pissed me off.  I don’t want or need anyone else to tell me what to believe.  I resent anyone else telling me how to live.  Further, I have seen efforts to recruit being exploitative of people who may be damaged, weak, or in crisis or in some other ways compromised.  These are times when coercion is easier.  Quarry may be shamed in front of others in order to foster conversion, obedience, and conformity.

My activities in interfaith arenas have shown me that certainly all Christians are not like that.  But that was the pervading atmosphere of my childhood. 

So what happens when one finds a spiritual path that is on the fringes rather than of the mainstream of society?  What happens when one finds Craft or the Goddess or Coyote or Thoth?  Well, if we experience a genuine affinity to our new and freely chosen path, then we get excited.  How many times have you heard Pagans say, “I’m home.”  “I’ve found my people.”  We have a primal desire for tribe.  We are hardwired to need to belong.  For many that kind of excitement means that we want to share.  We want to tell our friends about our new understandings.  We express what I call “the zeal of the newly converted.”  As exciting as that is, it goes against the direction to “assemble in some secret place and adore me, who is queen of all the wise.”

There are reasons for discretion.  Not only in terms of threat from narrow-minded neighbors or employers, but for other reasons as well.  Because mystery is just that, mysterious, and cannot be adequately expressed but only approximated through the arts.  Because one’s relationship with the divine is an intimate one, not a public one.  Because others with set/ossified ideas cannot understand, nor do they desire to understand.  I’m sure you could cite reasons of your own.

But besides the desire to share our new understandings and enlightenment (or perhaps “endarkenment”), we are all products of the overculture.  We arose from within the social matrix that is America[7].  Our society is overwhelmingly Abrahamic, not Pagan or polytheistic or pantheistic or any other kind of theism than monotheism.  And that monotheism, in particular the latest iterations of Christianity and Islam, does seek to recruit others to their ways.  So here we are, in the midst of an evangelical culture, accustomed to people making declarations about their religion, and moved to tell others about our religion(s), and yet we find this at the very least imprudent to do.  Before we stop to ponder, we think, “Of course I want to proclaim my joy.”  Then we reconsider.

I think it’s perfectly understandable that one might want to share one’s excitement with others, because of our common incubation in a conversion-oriented overculture.  Add to that the “bigger is better” values fostered by consumerism.  So what do we do?  Well, each of us does what she is called to do.  May you find counsel, as I do, in Paula Walowitz’s words[8]:

Blessed be and blessed are the ones who stand together.
Blessed be and blessed are the ones who stand alone.
Blessed be and blessed are the ones who work in silence.
Blessed be and blessed are the ones who shout and scream.
Blessed be and blessed are the movers and the shakers.
Blessed be and blessed are the dreamers and the dream.

© Aline O’Brien

[1]   For convenience in this essay I’ll be using the word “circle” for all kinds of Pagan groups, whether worship and magic-working circles or not.
[2]   People newer to Pagan paths, particularly to Wicca and Witchcraft, there is a word for those who do not practice Craft.  The word is “cowan,” from the Masonic term for a non-initiate.  The word cowan is parallel with gentile, in that a gentile is someone who is not Jewish and a cowan is someone who is not Craft.  Having said that, I have encountered people whose family name is Cowan, yet who themselves are Pagan, who dislike this term.  If someone knows, or can come up with, a better term, I’m ready to use it.  I find the word “non-Pagan” awkward and imprecise.  Then again, cowan refers to non-Witches (specifically, uninitiated Witches, but not to non-Druids or non-any other form of Paganism.
[3]   I write primarily for English-speaking American readers, since I have no facility with any other language.
[4]   “Psychologically speaking, an Egregore is that ‘atmosphere’ or ‘personality’ that develops among groups independent of any of its members. … In an occult or magical context, an Egregore is the general imprint that encircles a group entity.  It is the summary of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energies generated by two or more people vibrating together towards the same goal; being a sub-product of our personal and collective creative process as co-creators of our reality.”  From “The Real Meaning of Egregore.” 
[5]   Check back for my thoughts on secrecy, mystery, confidentiality and privacy.
[6]   My thoughts about personal versus civic religions await expression at a later date.
[7]   Or other presumably privileged modern society.
[8]   From the song “She’s Been Waiting” as interpreted by Lunacy.