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A Cup of Coffee and a Bagel with Christopher Penczak

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.)


Ailyn said…
Yes, yes, yes! I have felt this way for years! Every group, every meetup I seem to attend ends up being path specific or with people still in the earlier stages of discovering Paganism. While neither of these is bad or wrong, it's frustrating to for me as a person who loves fellowship, especially fellowship with people live by their spiritual convictions. I'm not interested in always discussing the orthodoxy of tradition X, or trying to explain why not everyone casts circles because so-and-so said that's what you do in their book. I want spiritual challenge by being around people with a deep understanding of their spirituality in the way that transcends dogma, and the spiritual connectedness that comes from just engaging with these people. I don't consider myself the most well-read Pagan, but neither do I consider myself a novice. I wish there were more niches for people like me.
Pombagira said…
very much yes to this post. and this reply.. !! i hope you don't mind but i am going to link it on a post i make, with other pagan posts of interesting

and given that i live in New Zealand it becomes even harder to find peers, New Zealands pagan population is sparse even in the larger cities (given we have a total population of 5 million give or take it is not surprising)

also talking about this might also be an excellent catalyst to creating it yes?

T. Thorn Coyle said…

I often say "beware a teacher who only has students". It isn't healthy for anyone to perpetually be in a relationship with a skewed power dynamic, no matter how egalitarian their teaching style may be.

I seek out teaching whenever I can. I have a group of far flung peers that I check in with via phone every month. I also have friends that I have dinner and conversations with. I've had lovely magickal talks over a glass of wine while staying with local priestesses whom most people have never heard of. At our monthly devotionals, we sit around and share ideas after the devotional is through, just folks who barely know one another, but who've showed up for a sacred meeting together.

I know I'm very fortunate in this. It is also something I've worked to cultivate.

All of that said, there are a lot of social dynamics at play when someone is in A/ in a leadership position and even more so when B/they are fairly well known.

Now for the long winded portion. Feel free to head after the jump as I try to unravel a few threads that are causing me discomfort.

A lot of people would like to have tea and a bagel with Christopher *because he's well known*. Not for the fact of his being well known (though in some cases that's going to be true) but just because he writes a lot and therefore a lot more people are going to say, "Wow, he seems like a smart guy that I'd like to have tea with." And that isn't fair to Christopher. He has his own life. He has his own friends. He has own peer group.

A little more from my perspective:

I attend Pantheacon every year. I'm really busy there. I also make sure to attend a few parties. I enjoy having magickal discussions with a variety of people. I also, at these parties, have to avoid people who are hitting on me inappropriately. I often end up giving people counsel because they are in need and approach me. Add into this mix that I'm an introvert and what do you get? I retreat to my room and the hotel gym.

A different example: I recently got a note from someone asking me to please read their posts on Facebook. Part of me wanted to ask "why is it important to you that I read your posts on Facebook? I don't spend much time there, and don't you have others who read your posts?"

In other words, why do you want a conversation with Christopher? Why not a lesser known Pagan who has been working in the Craft or whatever tradition perhaps even for a lot longer?

I know you aren't really talking about him, your thoughts just crystallized because of this event. But my point stands. Why does someone care what I think of their thoughts? Why would they want *me* as a peer instead of someone else? My being a little well known is a factor here, not necessarily lack of peers. There are peers in the world. Some of them we just haven't heard of outside our small circles.

This can be harder for those who live in more isolated areas, I know.


In the end, I don't know that I agree with you that Pagans don't do peers well. I do agree that there are problematic social dynamic issues at play with leaders and teachers that we can talk about. At root, I suspect those issues are about what we value in ourselves and others. We are influenced by the overculture in this, no matter how much we try not to be. No cries of "all equal in the circle" will change that. The work is ongoing, clearly.

in respect - Thorn
T. Thorn Coyle said…
Cat, I thought about this, and wrote that looong comment, and looking at your post again, my reply still isn't quite right. Perhaps I am still not clear, exactly, what it is you are looking for that you can't find in your long term spiritual friends or the other people that gather around Awen Books.

This may be one of those conversations that can only be understood over a cup of tea. ;-)

- Thorn
Anonymous said…
I think the idea of Pagan Celebrities in general is foolish. Respect for an author is one thing, but we've gone beyond that. Sales require the author be built up, and most seem to embrace the attention.

Money changes everything.

I belonged to a small community of Pagan peers (about two dozen people at it's peak), and we lasted about five years. No clergy - we just relied on volunteers, and the "teacher" was the person knowledgable on a topic and willing to facilitate a discussion. We even volunteered in our community as a group. As you mention, the hardest part for the longest time was convincing people we were all peers, when magazines, books and the internet told them we weren't.

Not unlike our pagan ancestors, we fell when "organized religion" pushed it's way into our scene. When being a Wiccan High Priestess wasn't drawing enough people, they resorted to horrible slander. We wouldn't play that game, and we "lost". Now it's nearly 10 years later, my peers want nothing to do with the status quo and many lost faith entirely as a result. I occasionally try to be part, but I just can't play the game. It isn't about peers, it's about mutual validation through accepted roles.
Anonymous said…
There is something about this post that just doesn't sit right with me and I wish, very much, that I could verbalize that adequately.

I agree, wholeheartedly, that having pagan peers is hugely beneficial and sometimes difficult to find in our scattered, largely solitary traditions. My circle of friends exists scattered around the country and we take every opportunity we can to get together and talk shop. Our practices may not always resemble each other's, but we have a mutual respect and passion for spiritual growth. We value the same things and in doing so, we find common ground and support and understanding with each other. It might be challenging to find someone local to be your magickal best friend, but it is worth the effort and certainly worth cherishing the relationship once you find it.

I think that pagans are as good with peer relationships as any group of people would be. Some are shy and solitary, some are abrasive, some effusive and bubbly, some are just really busy. The trouble lies, perhaps, in our relatively small numbers as a minority.

I think what bothers me most about your post is the assertion you make that you don't need classes. I feel like, if that's your stance, you're missing out on tremendous opportunities to learn and to network with potential new peers in your area. I'm no newcomer to Witchcraft and I still take every class and every workshop that I can. Even if it covers things I'm confidently working with already, there might be one sentence, one insight, one message from the Divine within the material that I was meant to hear. That's worth the price of admission for me and it also gives me the chance to meet new people. No two classes, just as no two circles, is ever repeated. There is value there in the life-experience in every practitioner. I teach classes and I take classes and I feel that keeps my eyes open to other perspectives and rejuvenates my practice with diversity of thought.

I think it is tough to be someone as well-known within the community as Christopher. (This would apply to anyone well-known in pagandom, but since you've invoked Christopher, I will too! :)) Thousands and thousands (and thousands!) of people have read something he's published or seen him speak at a convention or stood within the circle with him at a public ritual. He's well-spoken, approachable, funny and I'm sure that thousands of people would love the chance to invite him over for bagels and coffee. He's a nice guy, he'd be a great friend to have but the logistics of cultivating a personal peer relationship with everyone who knows of him is impossible. I think that's true of most anyone whose work takes them into the public eye. But one way he makes himself available to as many people as possible is through book signings, talks, classes, and public rituals. Why not go to one and see if there isn't something there for you, even as an experienced practitioner? What's to lose by taking a class? Aren't we all students and all teachers on our paths? :)


Part of being in a "peer" relationship is acknowledging that you have things to teach and things to learn. Finding local support and friendship within your spiritual tradition (or even not-so-local with the help of the Internet) is so worthwhile. One great way to not only expand and grow your practice in unexpected ways and to meet new people who share your search for Truth is to go attend the workshops and classes of well-known pagans. They turn the proverbial porch light on for local communities and provide both wisdom and a great excuse to gather together with others. I hope you'll try it! :)
Shade said…
Reading this post I couldn't help but wonder: why not join a coven?

My coven meets every week and while one person is ostensibly in a leadership position it's not a weekly teaching circle. We meet, perform ritual, chat, enjoy a glass of wine, cast spells, it's a very full year.

I actually think that with the number of covens and circles out there that peer to peer relationships is something pagans do very well.
What great comments! Thanks to everyone who has responded.

It's been a week of late nights at work for me this week, so I might not have the stamina to give all the comments here the attention they deserve, but I'll at least give it a try.

Ailyn, I think you really got what I was trying to say. Path specific discussions about specific ritual technologies or theological understandings are fine, but they bear the same relationship to spiritually and metaphorically breaking bread with someone as would looking at photographs of loaves we have each baked. It's perhaps instructional or inspiring, but it is not the experience itself.

Likewise, it's not quite the same as attending a gathering with newcomers to their spiritual path, good and worthy as that is, in much the same way that teaching someone to play basketball is not the same experience as a go-for-broke game of pickup basketball with someone whose game will match your own. That's not to say that the newcomer will never show amazing talent, or might not be a powerhouse when next you meet... but playing the game and explaining the rules are not the same activity.

Pombagira, it is precisely with that hope that I write about this subject. I am honored you find it link-worthy... and thanks.

Thorn, I think my writing has been unclear. I am considering a rewrite, in fact, and I will probably get to it this weekend--unless I write a whole new post to try again from scratch.

I totally agree with your injunction to "beware a teacher who only has students," and I admire your work to cultivate your far-flung network of peers.

My purpose in writing this piece is in no way to propose that Christopher Penczak--or anyone--"owes" me or anyone else their time. Will it be clearer if my first sentence becomes, "This post is not actually about Christopher Penczak?" My intention was not to invoke any specific person, or to imply that any teacher or leader needs to create the opportunities to make me (or people like me) happy by connecting with me 1:1. You're right; our time is always limited, and there are thousands of people I may never have time for who could be very precious and important to me (as well as many, perhaps, who would not be, but who have the habit to feeling entitled to others' time).

No adult is ever _entitled_ to a stranger, or even close friend's time and attention. Not in that "on demand" kind of a way, at least.

My invocation was actually intended to be of the moment, not of the man: of MY emotional response, upon receiving an invitation that is actually, for me, and for my needs, the wrong invitation.

It's not that I expect Penczak, or anyone, to carve out time to create a personal connection with me. It's that, upon being invited to a workshop, I figured out that my internal yes! and then no meant something worth attending to.

My concern is not that I will not hob nob with Penczak or any other particular person. It is that our community, hinging as it does largely on closed working groups like covens and groves, or on a paying workshop/authorship festival circuit, lacks sufficient venues for deep, reflective spiritual connections among elders.

Of course, with enough work and enough time, we can create such systems. But it is disturbingly commonplace for elders not to do so, and not for a lack of ethics or groundedness, but for a lack of opportunity.

I'm lucky. I write. That allows me a way of connecting with many deep and lovely Pagan peeps at any distance. Pagans who also love words, and writing about spirit. And it is almost--almost enough.

But what of those who are not compulsive word jockeys, who perhaps have as much depth to share with me from their silence as others do with their words? I will never know them. And how will they find their Pagan peeps?

What's worse, what about the non-verbal sharing of wisdom that comes from being deeply centered together in Spirit as we speak and listen of our work in the world? How do we find a way to make that accessible to more of us?

(ctd. below)
It is not you I would make more accessible, Thorn, nor Christopher. I really do understand that you are busy, and that you are working to maintain connections with a wide community. I'm not at all surprised to hear that you attend parties and social events at Pantheacon, and I'm clear that part of the reason for that is that you know that it is important to remaini connected to and a member of a community that holds you in high regard. That is like you, I think.

I'm sorry but unsurprised to hear that you have to work to enforce your boundaries with the inappropriately needy, and I am even less surprised that find yourself called upon to give counsel and support even in the midst of a social event. (I would guess, too, that even if it is tiring, you mostly welcome that latter demand.) That sounds very much like the Pagan community I know, and I wish we were better at supporting our leaders rather than snacking on them throughout the day!

But I think over and over again of the local leader I know, a woman I greatly value, who when asked how she found her own sources of spiritual support and nurturing while serving her community, responded, "I have learned to delegate."

My real concern is that too many of us settle for secular resources--like delegating tasks to prevent burnout--where sacred ones are needed.

Quaker ministers almost never traveled alone, among Early Friends; they traveled with Quaker elders, who were able to hold them in prayer while they worked, and to help them stay grounded in the spiritual as they traveled.

Secular friendships, peer relationships that are completely outside the Pagan community, are one sign of good spiritual health. Peer relationships with others within our own traditions, or at a distance, are another. But there is a particular kind of sacred friendship, one that is centered, not on either person, precisely, but on their spiritual growth and work... and those friendships, between peers and equals not just as students of the same initiatory degree, but as pilgrims with a similar understanding of traveling the path... those are too rare, too hard to find among us.

That is what I really want. More of those. For me, for you, for Christopher Penczak, and for all the wise but non-writerly elders out there.

Because there's something that comes from sitting together with another person who has looked into the same depths we have, and is continuing to try to live into the ways it has changed us. That something is important.

And our current ecosystem doesn't have a name for it, or put a value on it. And while you and I can go out individually and try to craft this thing for ourselves, I want more than that. I want it part of the breath and air of the community as a whole, for the famous and the anonymous (because we both know it's really not about famous or anonymous).

Does that make any more sense?

If if not, I will try again later, when I am less tired, and maybe more lucid.


Bright blessings, my friend.
Anonymous, I'm sorry your experience was so unhappy. I've certainly seen situations where a community was splintered through a lack of kindness or integrity.

I don't see that as what I'm addressing here, but I'm still saddened by your story.
Oh, SongtoIsis, I do agree that it would be a dreadful thing if what I were advocating were that Christopher Penczak somehow owed all of the readers who have enjoyed his books a piece of his life for that! How awful would that be!

That's not at all what I'm trying to say, however. I apologize for my lack of clarity.

What I meant to say was that the invitation that my heart is open to in this case would be an invitation to a more personal connection. I don't mean that I am owed that, or that Christopher or anyone else should make it their business to provide it for me.

I do wonder, though, if we, the Pagan community, don't owe it to one another to find ways to weave such connections, such invitations to spiritual peer relationships between elders, into our community itself.

After all, won't many if not most of us be elders at some point? Do we not want to foster continuing spiritual growth among our most experienced and wisest members as we do among our newest arrivals? Surely, we do.

I don't mean Pagans are bad at peer relationships in a secular way. We have friendships, of course! Nor would I even say we do worse at encouraging deep, spiritually nurturing relationships among elders than other religious groups do.

But I think we can do better. And I think we should, because right now, a lot of us are hitting the wall, and in many cases, leaving Paganism because of their frustration over the limits of what is offered us: not much beyond content instruction. "Content instruction"--that's my educator's jargon for the stuff that can be expressed in words and taught directly.

Mysteries don't fit into a workshop format well.

You are right that workshops can be worth attending at any level. But they are competing for my time with going outside to watch the deer in the forest, staying home and baking bread in my kitchen, or even solitary meditation, as I hold someone I love in prayer. All of these things currently do far more for me to deepen my personal store of wisdom--however great or small--than most workshops ever will.

But not more than connecting in spiritual reflection and friendship with other folks who have mastered the content-level instruction of whatever Pagan path they are on, and have grown into the non-verbal, wisdom part of the curriculum.

Does that make sense?

I do still attend some workshops. Feast of Lights is becoming an annual treat, for instance. But nothing replaces peer connection. And we don't make many openings for that, sadly.
Aren't covens wonderful? I am still good friends with almost everyone I've ever circled with, and, indeed, my former coven-mates are among the first places I turn for that kind of spiritual connection. I grieve for the two who have died, I miss those who no longer live close to me, and I delight in reconnecting with the members I do see as often as possible.

As to why I do not join a coven, I suppose I feel that I am not being led to do so. I have had three covens so far in this lifetime, and they have been wonderful experiences for me.

But life is long, and we are not always called to the same work as decades go by. The Pagan community has need of many covens and coven leaders. But it has need of other things, too, and so do I, at this point in time.

Unless that changes, a coven will not be the answer for me.
T. Thorn Coyle said…
Cat, I knew you weren't talking specifically about Christopher (or me). I think I just wasn't clear exactly *what* you were seeking.

This feels more clear: "our community, hinging as it does largely on closed working groups like covens and groves, or on a paying workshop/authorship festival circuit, lacks sufficient venues for deep, reflective spiritual connections among elders."

That feels like a thought worthy of more time and insight.

I wonder though, how much of this we've ever had. We have an expectation, perhaps, because of the small world connection of the internet, that we should have more of this than our local communities offer. And perhaps we don't cultivate this *enough* in our local communities because we want the "ooh shiny" that is at a distance.

Oh, agreed, Thorn! If we had more of it in our local communities, we would find it easier to find the wise person across the street to help us keep growing, and perhaps the greater visibility of the wise visitor from afar would not be so important to us.

Anarchivist said…
"Our community, hinging as it does largely on closed working groups like covens and groves, or on a paying workshop/authorship festival circuit, lacks sufficient venues for deep, reflective spiritual connections among elders." Amen. :)

I really appreciate this post because what I've seen in pagan gatherings has tended to follow the basic models of commerce (buy a ticket to a talk, etc.) or teacher-student. There's a place for both, and both can be great experiences, but it seems like there are more options out there that could be more based on a collegial model than a consumerist one, which could make for stronger community-building.
How to make that happen is valuable food for thought.

I'm a little late to this discussion, but I just recently wrote a post on "The Workshop Racket" over at my blog where I also delve into these topics.
It seems to be in the air.

Thanks for being another voice bringing this up!
Anonymous said…
He's traveled to another state to do a workshop. If you don't need to enter into that kind of teacher-student relationship with him, don't go (and, ideally, don't indirectly criticize those who do want to). If there's some basis for a different kind of relationship, as friends or peers, then you should make the effort to contact or travel to see him. Or, perhaps, "settle" for non-celebrity peers and friends.

Problem solved.
Justin, thanks for giving me the link to your blog entry, The Workshop Racket. I think we're in partial agreement, though looking at the matter from different angles?

From my perspective, the problem with paid workshops is not exactly about either paid workshops per se or about money changing hands... I agree that there is a "racket," but I don't think it's about workshops being available or having to pay for them so much as it is about having few cultural institutions within the Pagan community for connecting with one's peers once one arrives at a certain level of practice. We have many institutions in which newcomers can find one another and form healthy peer relationships, and many institutions that are about serving the needs of newcomers and developing practitioners... whether via mutual service among those peers or service by experienced practitioners sharing their gifts with a community.

What we lack are ways for people who have mastered the teachable elements of our traditions, and who are continuing to work on the wisdom aspects of their practice(something practitioners at all levels need to do) to find and interact with one another.

Among Quakers, such things as "Second Day meetings" of ministers and elders, and minutes for travel in the ministry, used to make it possible for Quaker elders to find and support one another in their service to their communities. While these practices have mostly lapsed among liberal Quakers, there never were such traditions in our wider Pagan community. Really, if for whatever reason a person leaves their tradition or place of origin among Pagans, the only way of signifying that he or she may have something to offer to the wider community--including to other elders, many of whom can feel quite isolated and burned out--is fame.

So in order to get what we all need--interconnection with people who will recognize our challenges, and give us both support and encouragement to keep growing--Pagan elders almost have to make fame a goal.

Fame isn't the problem: we have plenty of good, talented writers, artists, musicians, and presenters who merit their fame.

And workshops aren't the problem: they're a nice way for a local community to come together, if they're one of a variety of offerings, and it is good to support the livelihoods of those who set aside significant time and effort to serve us.

Even money isn't exactly the problem, because it is less the fact that money is changing hands as that other forms of recognition than money and fame don't exist. We're afraid of recognizing wisdom outside of celebrity, so we wind up promoting cults of celebrity, whether the workshop presenters want to do so or not, simply because it's almost the only way to make oneself known to a wide enough audience to cultivate those peer relationships among the experienced that advanced practitioners (I think) need.

I can get a lot out of old friendships from across the country. I can get a lot from a conversation with any earnest seeker. But I can get a lot and I can offer a lot to folks who count their years of practice in decades rather than years, only, there's really no place for me to go with that.

Unless I become famous, too. Which seems silly, because I don't think mine are the sorts of gifts which naturally do offer a lot to most people. I don't want to distort my gifts in an attempt to become a Name. And I don't want to do without conversations with other elders... famous or NOT.

Because, as I hope is clear, it's not the fame that is the draw. It's the groundedness and insights that come with time and faithfulness to a spiritual path. I'm sure there are many such elders right here in my backyard... only, how do we find each other? Workshops exist, and they're fine. But no, they're not about this need.

Nothing is, really.

And that's why I agree that workshops are a "racket"--not because they're the problem, but because they're the substitute for finding a real solution, the empty calories in place of a nourishing spiritual meal... at least, for some of us.
Anonymous, I don't think you've understood me. I don't at all disparage attending workshops or those who do.

Nor am I trying to connect with the famous, and whining because I can't. What I'm pointing to is actually the difficulty involved in finding and sustaining exactly those sorts of peer relationships you advise me to "settle for."

Would that I could, my friend. Would that I could.

My point is that I should not be "settling for" connecting with a famous elder via a workshop, when what's really needed is a culture shift that encourages elders to find an interconnect with one another locally, and is indifferent to fame.

I'm not clear on how to make that happen, though. If I were, I'd be doing it, instead of writing about the frustrations of no one having done it before me!

Is that clearer?
Unknown said…
Cat ..... Well Wow, both for your original post and for all the comments from everyone.

It is sad that you have not seen a peer type organization or community as you describe. I say this because they are out there, though not as well known as they should be yet. Though it is heartening to see the interest in this type of peer community growing and now being discussed.

Your blog post was forwarded to me by a fellow board member for the Sonoma County Pagan Network, in Santa Rosa, Calif. We are just that, a peer organization for Pagan's of all trads, paths and the like, as well as the curious, and the new reaching out into the community to come together over a fine pot luck of shared food and drink. We also have some sort of event with a presenter, a video, a ritual (two or three times a year only, not our main function)at those meetings after the pot luck. We have been doing this here for over 10 or 12 years, and are a 501(c)(3)religious educational organization as well. The main purpose of the SCPN is to bring pagans from all faiths, trads, walks of life, paths and such to meet, share, talk, and just simply network with like minded people in a safe and fun environment.

With that all said, I would also like to point out that though we have been around for over 10 years, we are still finding it difficult to spread the word that we exist, even though people are almost always delighted when they do find us, and return. I think the issue is partly as you state that this kind of organization, event, or what ever you want to call it is not the norm in the Pagan community, even though IMHO it should be, and can be. When I reach out into the community as a fellow board member of the SCPN many pagans I meet are at first confused by us (are we a coven, a school, a tradition, a group of teachers, or what), but when they realize we are a peer group their faces light up and huge smiles of delight and joy come over their faces. I have always taken this to mean that there is a real need for an organization like the SCPN in the over all Pagan community.

There is a financial reality though that is not spoken of here and that is that as soon as a meeting of people like this out grows living rooms and coffee shops, meeting places need to be rented, and supplies and other expenses begin to be incurred. The SCPN has dealt with this on two fronts: by having yearly memberships at a very low cost ($30 per year - this pays the rent, and other expenses)and door donations from non-members, THOUGH no one is turned away for lack of funds, and everyone is welcomed with open arms and equality no matter their financial situation. This has worked quite well, and after 10 years we are still running in the black on the small funds we do have. We also have a yearly voted in board of directors. For something like this to work, grow, and continue takes the dedication of volunteers: On the board (all board members are strictly volunteers); with in the membership; from the local Pagan community at large; AND from the local presenters (both famous and not famous) who volunteer their prescience and expertise for one of our monthly events (we do not and can not pay for speakers and presenters). As such not all local Pagan communities have that kind of support or numbers in their community to do this on this kind of scale, BUT groups can meet on a smaller scale as you suggest, it just takes getting it started and making it part of the over-all Pagan culture, as work-shops, book signings, public ritual and such have already become. Posts and open discussion like this is where it starts and Cat, I thank you for bringing it up publicly.

I would also like to note that though I am a board member for the SCPN, I am speaking in this post as an individual and NOT as a representative of the SCPN. These are strictly my own opinions and experiences.

Lilith De' Anu
Cat -thanks for reading my own post and responding here.

Seeking fame for itself is certainly a problem in our culture at large, and because it is so prevalent in the "overculture" it will also find expression in subcultures such as the Pagan community.

I think one of the ways this can be avoided is if people kept their day jobs, i.e, you shouldn't have to pay to receive teachings in the Mysteries. But because authors and teachers want to make this aspect of their lives into a livelihood, to me it loses some of the sanctity that comes with the vocation of being in the priesthood (whatever priesthood).

What elders need is a right livelihood that supports their calling, so they can do the work of outreach and ministering to each other and others. The kind of communion between peers you are writing about becomes more viable, in my opinion, when the person in question isn't looking at the relationship as a potential sale of a book or workshop. Those things can still exist, but having money not be involved levels the playing field between people.

Also, while it is important to respect Elders, our culture puts so much stock in fame that the Elders around us who aren't authors, etc. often get missed.

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