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Initiation: Pausing at the Threshold

Initiation: Latin: Initaire- initial- To begin, get going, start, initialize.

Initiation is a subject of deep discussion and occasional confusion in the Pagan community. In this essay, I will compare and contrast the different sorts of initiations a student on the path can (and will) achieve. No secrets or details will be given away- simply because the act of initiation is an individual and deeply personal experience.

What is initiation, and why is it an important milestone for the student of Magick? To some, initiations are badges of rank- goals to be achieved and a way to mark progress within a group or coven. This sort of initiation is more like a promotion in ways, and is Ceremonial in origin. Hierarchical groups like the old Golden Dawn, OTO, and older groups like the Freemasons use initiations as a symbol of obtaining rank and status within their orders. Some remnants of these practices have cross-pollinated into Traditional Wicca (Alexanderian/Gardenarian) as the three ranks of Wicca.

To others, initiation is a profoundly personal and private experience, and infers inner confidence and insight. In both cases, the actual rank of the initiate is not something that is flashed around, or used to impress someone. In fact, the best way to tell a pretender from an Adept is to listen to hear if they speak of their initiations. A pretender always will, because they’ll want to try to impress you. An Adept won’t say a word, even if you ask them directly. Bragging on ones initiations is in as poor taste as mentioning your IQ.

So, why the controversy and confusion? In many ways, Pagan initiations are like certifications in my own professional community of Information Technology network and computer techs. And many parallels can be drawn between the two camps.

First, you have your Silver Haired Alpha Geeks- some who even remember using slide rules, and wax fondly about what one can do with a mere 64K of RAM. These can be compared with their greying pre- and ex-hippie survivors in the Pagan world. They didn’t need any initiation- everything was self-taught and God/Dess-guided, and you learned by doing. Pagan Elders and Grey Geeks share a love for tinkering and exploration, and a burning curiosity for learning and taking ideas and concepts to their limits- whether it be a new Motorola chip or piecing together bits of ancient lore into a coherent whole.

Next is the Second Wave, of which I am a part. We were the first students of the Alphas. And we were the earliest adapters of the Geek/Pagan culture, the first writers (and readers) of the more modern books and the founders of communities and concepts. Second-wave Geeks created the Internet and the home computer. Second-wave Pagans bought them and put up the first websites. Many Second-Wavers are both Geeks AND Pagans (like Yours Truly). They wrote the books that brought along the third and current wave.

These are the Book-Taught ones- the people in both camps who sincerely believe that you can get all your knowledge out of the books that the first and second waves wrote. In many ways, this group has created the first inklings of ‘fundamentalism’ in both Pagan and Geek circles, although it is more strongly pronounced in Pagan circles. Geeks tend to understand obsolescence and have a bit more of a cynical streak. Any geek who hung onto say, a Newton when the Palm Pilot has become the obvious choice would be a prime target for ribbing.

From this Third Wave group, too, come the first ‘paper’ Pagans. Like the ‘paper MCSEs’, these folks are totally book-read, but have little real world experience. They may never have picked up a wand or athame, and would be as awkward in a circle as a paper geek looking at a disassembled computer system. They put up a good front, but any close questioning reveals that the depth of their knowledge is about as deep as the page it was crammed from. Not a good sort to be getting into any sort of Pagan or technical pickles with.

And mixed among them are the Lost Souls- people who are drawn to Paganism because it is ‘cool’ or ‘bad’, and just want to shock their peers. The geek equivalent isn’t really a geek at all, but instead a ‘power user’ whose reach exceeds their grasp, and who think that the right mouse click means they are ‘in’ the ‘Real Geek World’. The same is true of the Lost Soul- they have had a funny dream, or a weird experience, or know a Stupid Karma Trick, and sincerely believe that this will let them in the door. For both sorts, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. They need to be carefully watched, and compassionately guided. With patience and nurturance, many of these blossom into full-fledged participants of their particular worlds.

So, where does the debate and dilemma about initiation fit in to all these definitions? The Old School/ First Wave/British Traditional Witches (and other European and Mediterranean branches) firmly state that it takes a Witch to make a Witch, and any other way is invalid and unacceptable. In their own way, they are correct. One must dedicate time, and energy in learning the basics of the Craft- its rituals, rules, rites and runes. This isn’t something that one can learn in a weekend from a book- the proper time of education from dedication in a Traditional coven is a year and a day. If the seeker is insincere, they will usually drop out after about 90 days. Some of this attitude and practice can be traced to the remnants of the older ceremonial orders whose rituals were extensively borrowed and retooled by Gardner.

Others (mostly Americans) declare that if you declare that you are a Witch or Pagan, then it is so, and no initiation beyond the traditional ‘Self-blessing’ (and lots of self-study) is needed. If you dare call yourself a Witch; you become a Witch, because the Lord and Lady know their own. Self-taught Pagans and Witches probably outnumber the covened ones by a large number, simply because not every Pagan student is fortunate enough to have an open coven nearby to join. But their dedication to their studies, passion for learning, and attention to the God/dess Within is just as valid and important as that of the covened Pagan. The roots of this branch of practice probably stem from the more radical feminist and Dianically oriented practices of American Wicca.

But what is ‘initiation’, really? What impact does it have on the validity of the religious and spiritual experience of the individual involved? Is there only one ‘right’ way to be initiated? I don’t believe so. Initiation has many facets- negative and positive, public and private. I have been through both sorts, and so my feeling is that both ‘types’ of initiation are valid for the initiate. Most ‘first Light’ initiations are of the private sort, simply because there are no ‘outreach’ sorts of groups available. This first dedication may be one of the most profound experiences in the life of the new Pagan, until they are fortunate enough to have a coven or Temple initiation.

Most of the members of my ‘generation’ awakened to their Pagan path outside of a supportive group. I was a twelve-year-old when I was called to Service. Being Christian at the time, I first thought that ‘call’ was from the Church, but then ran into the dreaded ‘boys only’ brick wall. It was then that I realized that the Call came from outside the bounds of my childhood teachings. At that time, it had no name, no face- the idea of being a student of the Wicce was as unknown to me as any exotic practice would have been. But I had been Called, and I answered that Calling as best I could- by dedicating myself as a seeker and finding the source of that Calling as best I could. That dedication, secretly made at midnight in front of a makeshift altar, was my first initiation. From that point on, I was a Student, a Seeker, a Priestess and Magus in Training. I served (and still serve) the Great Unknowable One, the God/Dess Within, Whose compassion awakened its own tiny seed within me, and Who has thousands of faces, and thousands of names.

Shortly after I left home, I was exposed to another sort of public initiation- basic training in the US Air Force. The six weeks I spent at Lackland were the most enlightening, transformative, and terrifying six weeks of my young life. I was stripped of my civilian identity and habits, and taught the Air Force way of doing things. I was completely immersed in the customs, codes, and conduct of an airman. I learned how to dress, march, study, and understand this world I was entering. I was made to navigate obstacle courses, fire weapons, run and exercise, and study to pass tests that would demonstrate my understanding of this world. There were times when I was so exhausted that I was asleep before I pulled the covers over myself. A semi-sheltered just-graduated girl went in, and a trained and ready to serve her country airman came out.

Basic Training gave me the tools I needed to succeed in the military, and I did. The habits of organization, punctuality, dress and composure are still with me today, even though I am a civilian now. I fear little, because I was taught to use my fear in a constructive way. No problem can truly faze me, because I have been high on a malfunctioning antenna tower in a snowstorm at 3AM in the middle of nowhere in Germany. And I fixed it. I have stood more midnight shifts than I will ever again stand. And I have seen the shadow- six solid weeks of midnight shifts in the middle of a northern European winter- six weeks where I did not see the sun at all.

A Pagan initiation should contain all those elements. A genuine initiation should strip away the dross and rebuild the person to be better than they were before. They should train intensely and face the Shadow of their fears and flaws. And they should defeat and integrate that Shadow into their makeup, because the blend of Light and Shadow makes us truly who we are, and whole.

Life presents many initiatory places. And not all of them are overtly Pagan, nor are they all sweetness and light. Graduation from school is an initiation of sorts, because the student has been through the grind of the academic process, and has hopefully maintained their course and learned something. Marriage and the birth of a child, or a major career change is another. These, for the most part, are considered positive initiations.

The arrival of Saturn’s Return in the 28th or 29th year of life is another sort of initiation- and sometimes a very harsh one. Saturn governs the lessons learned and the life path of the Seeker. If you are not on the right path when this time arrives in your life, you may face a miserable awakening and sharp realignment in your life and habits. Some people get divorced, others may lose their jobs, or suffer an illness. The whole harsh process is meant to put you on your proper path in life. Ignoring the warnings of this time can be perilous.

My own career in the military could be seen as an example of the action of an unheeded Saturn’s Return. I liked what I did, and where I lived, but I was in a ‘boys club’ situation. Electronics isn’t a terribly ‘macho’ career field, but the military as a whole was a ‘macho’ sort of organization, and women outside ‘women’s’ jobs were seen as intrusive. Add to that my ‘outing’ as a Pagan, and the scene was set for the abrupt end of my military career. I had a chance to leave the service at ten years, but I ignored the warning signs and stubbornly decided to stay for four more. So, fate, and the ending of the Cold War, along with some overzealous Christian colleagues did it for me. It was the blackest period of my life.

The realization and recovery from this dark time helped me to put away any delusions I may have had about my Path. At 35, I found the entrance to the career path I am currently on, and my life turned completely around. I have found that my life initiations and adjustments seem to come every 7 years, and I am two years away from my next one. From all indications and inner intuition, I am at long last on the Path I belong on.

So, initiation can be an inner private dedication to start and continue on a path of learning, and it can also be an outer public acknowledgement of a passage through and successful completion of, a period of training or tribulation. Initiations can be harsh and terrifying as corrective actions, or beautiful and inspiring as means of encouragement. I have been through both.

Initiations are gateways, and are not to be passed through without some time to stop and reflect upon what has passed away, and what is coming to be. They are a threshold into insights and wisdom that are sacred and profound. To understand and acknowledge the initiations in your life is to accept the facet of Divinity that is yours by right. You have heard a whisper of the God/Dess Within you, revealing sacred secrets that are yours alone to know. Some may be harsh and painful, others clarifying and uplifting. All are part of a sacred trust you accepted when you made the decision to walk this path.

Hold you head up, and let your heart be light- you do not walk this Path alone. Many are with you in spirit, and many more dwell upon this planet. You will know them by their attitudes and that special gleam in their eyes and their auras. Greet them peacefully as fellow travelers, and enjoy their company.

2001 Sunfell

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