Sunday, January 30, 2011

Two roads diverged in a wood and I

Today I am writing about the changes occurring in the Feri Tradition community. I imagine most readers of my notes here will already be aware of the tradition; if not, then this post will probably not be of interest to you. For an excellent overview of the tradition, check out this article by Niklas Gander.  The changes in the tradition I refer to are summarized here by Jason Pitzl-Waters, here by T. Thorn Coyle, and here by another group of Feri initiates.

I hesitated to say anything public about these changes. I have felt some pain at seeing the process we are going through hit the sphere of internet news and blog discussion at this stage. It's not that I think people shouldn't know about it, it's just that I feel it's premature to try and say anything definitive about what the landscape will ultimately look like. I think that much is still unformed in this process, and I would have preferred to let it settle on its own terms. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, tells a story about a giant Polyphemus moth emerging from its chrysalis in a schoolroom. In order to display it so the schoolkids can watch, the teacher puts the moth into a bottle while its wings are still wet; but the wings cannot unfold, and they harden in the confined shape given to them by the bottle. Making public statements at this point about the new forms the Feri community is shifting into feels like putting the moth into the bottle. And so, rational or not, I was reluctant. But as I have waited, I see the speculative discussion broadening about the internet, with bloggers who have no direct connection to the tradition announcing opportunistically that we're "falling apart". So I am here to share my own perceptions of the 'split' in the Feri tradition; what it is and what it is not in my view, and where I think we go from here.

First, I wish to say that what the initiates of the Feri tradition are experiencing is not just another witch war. It is not a petty personality conflict - it is the fruit of long-standing, deep-seated and substantive differences in philosophy and practice. Some kind of change or divergence of paths was probably inevitable for a tradition growing as fast as ours. In the minutia of the process, of course personal conflicts have arisen, but that is not what's really driving this, and I feel like it would be demeaning and harmful to our process to frame this as a Big Personality Conflict between two opposed sides. "The Sundering", as it's being called, is not nearly as severe as that title implies. The reality is, people are still in communication across all sides of the philosophical debate, and the community as a whole is far from divisible into two camps.

At the heart of the issue is the tension held between our nature as an initiatory mystery cult, and the urge to share our wisdom as widely as possible. The central question, I think, is whether or not it is possible to transmit the Mysteries of the tradition through mass methods, or whether this approach by its very nature alters what is being transmitted into a fundamentally different Mystery than the one that can be shared in a more intimate context. The group of initiates who have announced their separation from 'public Feri' on the new websites, are doing so to demarcate themselves from the most extreme examples and consequences of the open approach, but in fact there are a great many more than two answers to that central question. And not all who disagree about the answer are in conflict over that difference. I think most of us are striving to hold the view that we have become different breeds of the same species, and the stable, peaceful place will be found by acknowledging both breeds for what they are and are not. Thus the 'split', in the big picture, is less a tearing apart than a recognition of divergence. It is primarily a matter of putting a name to what is - this is a Pippin and that is a Red Delicious - so that we need not argue about what an apple should be.

I think in the long range, after we get through this winnowing or distillation process and the accompanying distress and discomfort, what we will see is the emergence of a nested anatomy within the tradition, like the way a cell holds a nucleus within it. The larger exterior body of practice being an exoteric tradition, which is accessible to the public and can be shared via mass means such as books, websites, distance courses and the like. Within that, there will be an esoteric tradition, a much more occult, closely held and mystery-based practice which is shared intimately via the initiatory method. You see this within various world religions - the Buddhist and Hindu paths, for instance, typically have a more public school and within that a more hidden or Tantric school. Likewise Judaism and the esoteric Qabalah. I am sure there are other good examples.

In many ways, Feri is very like a Tantra; it is a body of spiritual practice which delves into those things which threaten our power and autonomy - those things that tend to overwhelm, addict, or frighten us, those things which are either obsessions or taboos of our culture. A Tantra is a practice which seeks liberation from a thing's power over us through delving deeply into it, rather than through aversion or negation. This is by its very nature a psychologically and spiritually risky form of practice, and thus in most religions, the esoteric or Tantric form of practice is usually closely guarded and shared under very intimate supervision by the teacher. Feri tradition, until very recently, was so small and hidden that there was no need for an outer and an inner tradition; it might be argued that Feri tradition itself has functioned in some ways as the esoteric school of the broader Craft revival. But this has been changing. In the last half-decade or so the rapid growth of publicly accessible material and mass teaching methods have created a large population of students of Feri who are not on an initiatory path and lack access to a teacher who can provide for them that intimate initiatory context for transmission of the Mystery. Thus we are being pushed toward that two-tiered or nested structure that characterizes the larger religions.

There is of course more to it than this, in terms of precipitating events, but that is the essence of it from my perspective. As the forecasters say, I reserve the right to be mistaken, and to change my opinion if conditions warrant. For the sake of transparency, here is a bit about my place within the tradition. I have been an initiate for about 13 years or so. I came in through Vanthe coven, which represents one of the smallest and most reclusive lineages within the tradition. My line tends toward the secretive, mystery-cult system and coven structure rather than the public method. However, I have alliances and close friendships among the very public teachers and lines as well, and as readers may know from my involvement with American Mystic, I am open in some ways myself. I seem to occupy a middle ground or third place and it has become my work to support the initiate community as a whole and try to foster communication and shared culture across lines. I am continuing that work as best I can through the present changes.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Morrigan cloaked, and the cost in blood.

This weekend I started a new phase of the statue: building the cloak. Here is where I begin to depart from the pre-formed structure of the mannequin. I formed the cloak from sheets of metal lath, cut to size, wired on and formed to shape. Then began the long process of layering fiber cloth and resin on to the metal. I make this sound simple, maybe, but it's tricky and awkward and took me most of a day just to get as far as laying on the fiber cloth.

I am inspired to see Her beginning to take shape. I can begin to see a slow convergence between the image in my mind and the object before me; maybe there is a chance that I'll pull this off and manage to create an image that is potent enough to be a vessel for Her presence here.

S. tells me She looks like Lady Gaga now, between the shiny black material on the body giving it a fetish-suit look, and the white fibrous material on the cloak getting a bit feathery. I am amused by this. Also, determined that by the time I'm done, She will be distinguishable from Lady Gaga. My Queen, I give you my word.

The day was unseasonably warm for January and the hours slipped by me while I steadily wrestled the metal into shape onto the statue. It's hard on the hands; the cut lath is very sharp along the edges like a comb of tiny razors. My hands are nicked and sliced; at one point I have to lean against the edge of the cloak to reach around both sides and wire the parts together. I feel a couple points of the cut lath start to sink in to the surface skin on the side of my neck. I smile a bit when a cut on my fingertip wells up with a few drops of blood that find their way on to the statue. She takes Her offering, and I am glad to give it.

The blood gets me thinking, and I find myself flashing on the quote from Dante that Michelangelo wrote on his sketch for the Pieta: "One does not think how much blood it costs."

How much blood does it cost? Your life's work - the destiny that pulls your heartbeat onward like the current of a river. The task that is before you. How much blood will it cost you to bring forth what is in you? Do we dare to find out?

Here is what the Morrigan told me, and what the heroes of my ancestors tell: It may cost everything. It may cost you your life. The battle that you have before you - whatever that is - the birth struggle of that world that can not come to be except through your unique effort - this will not be achieved without blood. The price of your destiny is your life. To achieve the greatness that is in you requires you to give yourself to that purpose, and this giving will transform you. There will be no turning back. This is how heroes are made; in the simple choice to give. Sacrifice: to make sacred. That which is given in dedication to a greater force is made sacred by the giving. And it does mean giving something up. There is only so much time in a life, so many heartbeats. Giving yourself to the pursuit of your great Work will cost you in opportunities to spend your life more frivolously. And it may cost you much more than that.

Is this why we often shy away from success, from the fullness of our capabilities? Do we sense intuitively that the pursuit of greatness requires the death of the small, safe creature we were accustomed to being? Are we not sure we are ready to spill that blood?

Perhaps, I thought. And then came Her next answer: It doesn't matter. Because willing or no, death will come to you. There is nothing to fear when the end of the story is known. Your blood will be spilled one day and will flow back into the river that birthed you. The only question will be when, and whether you had enough time yet to pour that blood into something meaningful while it was still yours. Being small will not save you.

So this is the heroic ethos; this is what Cu Chulainn knew. That a life is best measured in meaning, not in length or comfort. ‘Little care I,’ said Cu Chulainn, ‘nor though I were but one day or one night in being, so long as after me the history of myself and doings may endure.’ And though he was younger than a warrior should be, and people did not think him ready, he took up arms on that day and went to seek his destiny. We have this choice: to wait for an easy moment, staying within the comfort of our ordinary life, and keep the illusion of safety. Or to make the sacrifice, the gift of our very life, to achieve the greatness that is within us.

I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.

Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let's buy it.

-Jelaluddin Rumi

Morrigan statue with cloak structure. Not Lady Gaga.

Morrigan ritual details for PantheaCon

What I'm doing at PantheaCon this year:

Call of the Battle Raven: A Morrigan Devotional

Sunday February 20, 2011 - 9:00 pm

Come lend your voice as we call the Morrigan, the great Celtic Goddess of death, battle, prophecy and Otherworldly power. In every heart She conjures the commitment of the warrior and the wisdom of the poet. She teaches us to find the steel within, unsheath our souls for the work that lies before us at this challenging moment in our history. In this ecstatic devotional ritual we will raise power to feed the Great Queen and offer our hearts that She may incite us to greatness.

With Sharon Knight and T. Thorn Coyle!