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What Is Magic For?

Last fall I had the privilege of returning to the Berkshires for a weekend of community, celebration, ritual, and discovery. An annual event for over 20 years, it was a weekend of working together to support our individual journeys in preparation for the coming months of darkness, a prime time for deep inner spiritual work. I’ve participated in this gathering on four occasions, and each has been a rich experience: some more enjoyable than others, some more effective than others. I’ve had my buttons pushed in good ways and bad. I’ve had realizations about myself and what it means to connect to community. I’ve felt frustrated and deeply grateful, ecstatically connected to all beings of the Earth, and at times, profoundly alone. I’ve complained about and filled with pride at belonging to such a community of diverse people and practices. Every year I leave with a bit of this and a touch of that tucked inside, waiting to be unpacked upon my return home.

Each year the weekend culminates in a ritual designed to reach into the hearts of the participants and pull out some insight to help determine the needed spiritual work for the coming dark season. Previous years’ themes include the abundance found in knowing that you are enough, dissolving the ego and reintegrating into the  web of life, and the trap created by the belief that you know what the pattern is. This year’s ritual was different: instead of focusing on the individual self, it centered on the needs of our dying Earth and encouraged a personal, magical, spiritual response.

Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The ritual was long. It was physically demanding, it was at times very cold and uncomfortable and it was difficult. It had been orchestrated with the intent to reach deep, to the part inside each person that is vitally concerned with the future of our species, of all species, of our home on this planet. As a Pagan, a Goddess worshipper, a nature worshipper living day-to-day, it is very difficult to forget the evidence of that harm, even as my own life is livable, and enjoyably so. In ritual space, wide open to the spirits and the energies of the Divine in all things, it was impossible to ignore the reality of our planet, of those who call Her their home, of the suffering caused by the still-somehow-functioning machine that drives our global culture of consumption.

I was not alone in this ritual. Besides the dozens of unseen hands responsible for building and holding the container, many more walked before me, behind me, and a few beside me. I do not know what occurred in those hearts when faced with the strenuous and often-provocative points along the path. I only know what outward behavior I witnessed from many: bantering, silly comments and inane chatter during the moments when we were invited to sit and connect with the trees on the sacred mountain under the cold stars and half moon; the deterioration of sacred space into a mundane autumn bonfire despite the sincere efforts of the magic workers to maintain the ritual atmosphere; people snarking and laughing in the face of the deep work we were given the opportunity to do. I kept searching for a quiet place or for others who felt the weight of the work, who understood the solemn intent of the ritual and who were seeking to connect with the energy of the Earth. I’m sure there were others like me, but they must have been lost, too.

Some of those beside me were likely new to ritual, and on some level they cannot be held to the standard of understanding and behavior a seasoned practitioner would be; perhaps they were afraid or ill-prepared to handle such heavy, deep work. Some were experienced practitioners who are simply ego-driven and likely disappointed that the ritual was not the self-focused working typically offered at this annual gathering. And some were people who I’d thought would know better than to turn away from the answerless questions that the ritual, the magic, the Mother Earth asked us to consider on that lovely starlit night.

And so, fellow Witches, Pagans, energy workers, magic makers, I ask you: what is magic for? Is it simply a means to attain what personal desires drive us? A currency to exchange for goods? Must we receive personal benefit from our magical efforts? At what point do we look at ourselves and our practices, and acknowledge that our personal spiritual work will not heal the damaged ecosystem? When do we get smart enough, or scared enough, to use our will and our energy to work to stem the tide of destruction that is taking place right now, under our noses, in our names? If not in the context of an amazingly well-constructed ritual container, the product of dozens of hands and minds and hearts, where will we find the ability to connect to the very real needs of our Mother Earth?

I came down from the mountain grateful for the comfort of my soft bed, for my family pressing close to welcome me home, for the connection I feel to my bit of urban landscape. And, I came back afraid for the future of our planet and for our species, for if the magic worker cannot be trusted to act in the face of the evidence before us, if we cannot be called, then who can? Who will?

This is thankless work, and not everyone is prepared for it; not everyone is mature enough for it; not everyone wants to do it. And yet, it must be done. If not by us, then by who? What will it take to encourage action, if not the love of the beauty of the green Earth, the white Moon among the stars, the mysteries of the waters? We are being called to arise and to go unto Her, to be strong, agile, wise, courageous, and compassionate in whatever capacity we are able. We are being called to act in community, on behalf of the community of innocents who have no voice.

I came down from the mountain with a question pressing on my heart: What is magic for? The only answer I can find is to commit to this work: to connecting to the Earth beneath me, to listening to what She asks of me, and to taking action in Her name. By the Earth that is Her body, I sincerely hope that the seed planted in ritual months ago takes root in those who walked with me in sacred space and that we all can grow in community, for the good of all.

14 Comments »

  1. “Some of those beside me were likely new to ritual, and on some level they cannot be held to the standard of understanding and behavior a seasoned practitioner would be; perhaps they were afraid or ill-prepared to handle such heavy, deep work. Some were experienced practitioners who are simply ego-driven and likely disappointed that the ritual was not the self-focused working typically offered at this annual gathering.”

    New or experienced, not everyone is taught ritual etiquette. I never was, having worked alone for fourteen years, and where was I meant to look? Where’s the book on that? If I had been at your ritual and asked the person next to me, apparently I’d have had a fifty-fifty chance of getting the “right” answer. If you want a particular atmosphere, you’ve got to say that before you start. Otherwise you’ll get mixed nuts instead of just cashews. Etiquette reminders right off the bat are reassuring to the new and an indication to the experienced that there’s a standard to which they will be held.

    There is also something curious about writing off the new as plausibly ill-prepared for the work itself — nope, social anxiety isn’t an indication of ability — and the experienced as egoistic. It’s especially curious because this blog post comes off as a complaint letter about people who didn’t do ritual the way you would have liked, though it ostensibly asks what magic is for.

    And my answer: Whatever it has to be for. “Whenever you have need of anything” is right there in the charge. Don’t knock the little ego-centered rituals if the notion of “as above” prompts someone to make positive changes “so below”. There’s a place for it all in the grand scheme of things.

    (Postscript: For what it’s worth, the first year and a half I was a witch, I practiced with a few of my closest friends, and it only just hit me that we were a wee coven. We were thirteen and fourteen years old. Anything went — and no deity was ever so drastically displeased as to smack us down. Maybe the universe has a shred of understanding.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, Marelie. I had assumed that not being disruptive during quiet parts of ritual was common sense, but I see what you mean about lack of published information on ritual etiquette. The group that runs the event does talk often about expected conduct in ritual space, most notably, “you get out of it what you put in” but some people do better with written instruction.

      Despite the complaints and judgements I made here, I actually don’t think there is anything wrong with doing magic for personal reasons, being silly in ritual space when the energy calls for it, or being new or inexperienced. I agree with you that the universe has a shred of understanding.

      I also believe that magic is a tool and that we need to be using all of the tools in our box on behalf of the Earth while we can. It was disappointing and personally challenging that, in this experience, there were people who chose not to use those tools.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I tend to be… forthright, if only because when folks sugarcoat things for me, I miss the point. 🙂

        I am sorry that your ritual experience was not what you would have liked. I do think that a formal “Hey, this is Ritual Etiquette 101” with handouts may well benefit your group — that way you can say “We gave you the information; you made the choice not to use it” when things do go wrong. Before they step into that space with you, they’ve got to know what’s expected. I don’t know about you, but I have a way easier time forgiving ignorance than willful disregard and blatant disrespect.

        And yeah, if they really weren’t there intending to lend their energies to the stated cause, then that’s disrespectful. I’m not sure how someone’s clueless enough as to walk into a ritual when they don’t know the point of it. You’d think they’d at least ask!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “the trap created by the belief that you know what the pattern is.”

    “to commit to this work: to connecting to the Earth beneath me, to listening to what She asks of me, and to taking action in Her name.”

    An interesting dichotomy. Listening to what any Being greater than ourselves has to say is difficult, as it is often sprinkled heavily with what we want to hear.

    What I hear from Her is “I was I am, I will be. What about you?”

    Liked by 2 people

    • A profound and entirely appropriate question. I am inspired by Tagore:

      Power said to the world, “You are mine!”
      The world kept it captive on her throne.
      Love said to the world “I am yours.”
      She gave it the freedom of her house.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Mandrake:

    Thank-you for articulating this aspect of the struggle. This is what came to me:

    I love to dance, and often the only place to do that is in bars. The only venue I had for a long time was a pick-up joint that played misogynistic music. For a long time I ignored it, until I realized that the women that I resonated most deeply with didn’t like it either. It was a Catch-22 situation, so as you describe, I just kept on trying to get under it. One night, while a particularly ugly song was on, I reached through and sent out into the community of onlookers “Here, ladies: I know that this is what your hearts cry out for.” Coming out of that meditation, I opened my eyes, and beheld women shining with such beauty as I had never seen before.

    This is the challenge as I see it: to commit every moment to Life’s expression of love through us. As you suggest, it means surrendering the sense that we know what Life needs, while remaining alert to the WHY of its suffering. When that state is attained, in my experience the chatter does stop, because the power that affirms our commitment is impossible to ignore.

    The existence of the chatter, then, is only a test of our powers of focus. It serves the purpose of preventing life from granting authority over its power to those that will be distracted by what does not matter.

    Brian

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In my community, the tension between reverence/irreverence, gravity/mirth, quiet/exclamation in ritual has been challenged down to it’s core in recent years.

    I had a pretty humbling moment a couple years ago, around a fire post ritual, complaining about the disrespect I perceived at what was for me a very important and potent part of our nightly magical working – only to have one of the disrupters come out of the shadows and tell me just how misunderstood their magic and their way of being in sacred space was at the gathering. It was a catalyst moment and we’ve been working with this in a concerted way since then, trying to be flexible and challenge the norms of our group, the things we assume to be “common sense” that are actually very coded modes of conduct, but like it was mentioned above, are rarely actually articulated, the expectation not made clear. We say we value diversity and so we must act on that and learn how to work with different ways of channeling energy, magical or otherwise.

    Plus, when you get a bunch of anti-authoritarian witches together, you better be prepared to be disrupted. I understand your frustration an I also think it’s valuable to check your assumptions about how other people do their magic. Just because they’re not sitting quietly under a tree doesn’t mean they aren’t doing some deep work. Sometimes the ones who are easily written off as being disruptive can bring something very potent to a magical container if we can be open to the possibility of sharing space with practices that appear different than our own.

    It’s a difficult but worthwhile endeavor, in my experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your response! I believe there are many ways to do magic, and that just because I wouldn’t choose a specific way, doesn’t mean that way isn’t useful, especially with regards to personal spiritual practice. But in order for a group ritual to be successful, individual participants have to agree to work their magic in the context of the ritual, to be able to take cues from the ritual itself and to stay present and hold space for the sake of the rest of the participants. In my experience, it can be challenging but most of the time the benefits outweigh the personal sacrifice.

      It sounds like you are doing some really interesting work on the way groups interact in ritual space; I’d love to hear more about the ways you’re finding to honor different practices simultaneously.

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      • A few things that come to mind right away is that there is an agreement amongst the folks organizing and facilitating rituals to be more aware of norms, especially as it relates to the dominate or over-represented people in our gathering, and to notice when those norms are being challenged in a constructive way and to try to support that happening. This includes integrating feedback from the previous ritual about what worked and didn’t, trying to make it more accessible, and thinking on yr feet when someone is throwing out an energy that might be a little destabilizing, and trying to work with it, bring it in rather than push it away.

        Also, there is a more explicit briefing or intro to the ritual that clearly lays out this commitment to sharing space with diverse styles of magick but acknowledging that we can’t all always get our needs met – what was the best ritual ever for one person could be “meh” for another. Basically we ask people to use their discretion, be intentional about participation and be aware that if your way of practicing is going to prevent someone from being able to do their thing, that it had better be important, and also we had better be willing to make compromises when someone else needs something different for their own working.

        Laying out this expectation of give and take in ritual seems to help folks keep in mind the need for compromise but also tries to send a message that we want everyone to have a powerful experience, to feel uninhibited and to feel agency to act and be in ways that might be different from what everyone else is doing (so much social pressure in ritual space, especially when you’re new to it!). Granted, it helps to be in a week long gathering where there’s a different ritual every night – there’s more of a likelihood that people will eventually get their specific needs met, or a chance to really do their thing and shine.

        Again, this has taken years and years but I really think we’re making progress. Also, going to gatherings of related or kindred traditions that are still markedly different helps one get used to other styles. I mostly come from a Reclaiming background, but there has been a lot of overlap in recent years with Radical Faerie and Sacred clowning and it’s really mixing things up in a good way… a balance between tradition and innovation is what I think we’re trying for.

        I hope that gives you some ideas!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I came to magic through an indigenous road – my late husband and I, while non-Native, were gifted with the opportunity to participate in sweatlodge and Sun Dance in Lakota tradition.
    There is an heritage of understanding that in these ceremonies one gives away of one’s comfort for the sake of all the People – i.e., all beings – and that this is reflected throughout community life – shared life of mutual interdependence, complementarity and shared support as guided through individual visions – as opposed to our culture’s prime directive of individual life, liberty and pursuit of happiness by whatever means.
    Lacking that millennia-old paradigm of shared service, our cultural approach to ceremony is watered-down at best, self-serving at worst. I think this may be part of the emptiness you were sensing, Mandrake.

    Like

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