I often query the people in my circle about their experience, and am always taking the time to make sure that they feel they are getting sufficient amounts of challenging new material and techniques in my circles, that they are walking away from each and every circle feeling as if they have learned something new, and grown in some way. If that is not the case, I need to know, because otherwise I'd just be providing a silly little show and dance. In this world of insta-witches and paperback priestesses, I have always thought the value of one-on-one training gives so much more depth to one's practice. As one who has benefited from a strong, solid coven training experience, I know the importance of passing that quality of mentoring along.
In my Catholic upbringing, at a young and tender age somewhere in my early teens, I remember observing in the church, "The clergy of this church says they're here to bring you closer to God. However, all everyone here does is follow and do, play along with the rituals at hand, and repeat the motions. I don't see how this is getting anyone closer to God. If these people actually did get you close to God, they'd be out of a job!" That was part of my first schism with organized religion that led me eventually to finding the art, science, and spirituality of witchcraft.
As a result of my realization of the spiritual divisiveness that is brought about by those people who profess to reveal the will of the gods to you, I vowed never to do the same. I would rather see people find their connection with that which is divine than do anything to separate them from it, including handing it out and interpreting for them. When a seeker expects someone else to deliver the will and knowledge of the divine from on high, that seeker may easily, out of laziness or out of the expectations of religion that he or she may have grown up with (this is like it was in the church we grew up in, so the format is familiar and comfortable), not bother to find that closeness herself. If I cater to those kinds of attitudes, then I will have done what I accused the clergy of the church of so many years back.
This brings me back to the seekers in my own circle. We recently decided to meet twice a month, by the new and full moons, instead of our usual once a month meetings. I did some thinking about it, and I decided that the new moons (because new moons, after all, are the best time to start something new) would be "open altar night." We talked of the importance of taking the practice of the Craft and interpreting it in ways that are meaningful to each individual witch. I expressed the importance of innovation, and most importantly, of finding one's own connections to the gods. The full moons would be done in the same way as always, with our ritual that we use every time and have grown to know and love, because while innovation is important, so is having a solid foundation of tradition upon which to build one's castles. A balance of new and old, innovative and traditional, the past and the future helps keep one ever evolving without losing the strength and stability that comes from a deep knowledge of one's roots.
As a matter of course, Onix and I specifically never speak of prayer or worship to any specific gods or goddesses, nor we do not hand down information from on high. Our altar statues were specifically chosen because they are glorious images of male and female, while not being specific to any one person's set of beliefs. While we insist that while we cannot tell anyone which gods they should commune with, we also stress that it is important to find those gods with whom one can have a connection. It's not for us to tell you how or who you should find a connection with, only to let you know that from personal experience, finding that can be a very powerful addition to your life. We have our own connections with our own gods, and encourage our seekers to find their own connections with their own gods.
I recently read this brutal, yet articulate assault on religion at Greta Christina's blog. In it, she explains a lot of the horrors that religion has done. If you think Paganism is immune to any of these, think again. In fact, I've already seen it happen, on a small scale, multiple times. I have seen pagan clergy encourage non-thinking and blind following. I have seen Pagan clergy incite very small scale wars, but wars all the same. I have seen pagan clergy abuse their authority in a ridiculous amount of ways, from demanding sexual favors from their followers to ostracizing and shunning people whose ideas don't fit their orthodoxy. I've seen it up close and personal and let me tell you, it's ugly. The concept of clergy has come to confer a certain amount of not just authority, but authoritarianism. It puts the person in this deliciously sweet beyond-criticism, beyond-questioning place. For those clergy who claim to speak on behalf of the gods or goddesses, it suggests that they are beyond question and reproach. After all, to question them is to question the will of a divine being. I respectfully argue to Greta that it is not the beliefs, but the claiming of authority over one another because of these beliefs have made religion of all kinds reprehensibly dangerous to the seeking of true wisdom.
In our practice of the Craft, this is abhorrent, and it is why we do not say that our leaders have any special divine grace. We say in our circle that we are all our own priests or priestesses, and those of us who have more experience help those of us who have less experience find ways to explore and develop our own connections with the gods. Our degrees that we earn reflect time spent learning, growing and developing in our practice of the Craft, experiences we have had and milestones we have passed. The more experienced help create an environment in which the less experienced can use as a starting point, a foundation. But ultimately, one of the quests for those in our circle is to be able to learn and know ways to come to a personal gnosis of the divine. We take the middleman of clergy out of the circle, and instead seek ways to experience the divine each in our own way. A witch is no follower and seeks her own way, but she is smart enough to listen to the guidance of those who have walked the path before her.
The new moon is a time and a place for creating a stage in a safe place among friends in which we can all be priests and priestesses to one another, each sharing our own perceptions, inspirations and visions of the divine with one another. We create ceremonies not with the intent of pushing a belief system or claiming an authority, but with the intent of expressing the beautiful and meaningful ways in which the gods have touched our own spirits. Ceremony in our circles is a form of art, a way to rise above mundane consciousness and to truly be in a space in the ether where all magic exists. We love to bask in the unique and brilliant visions of one another.
To achieve this kind of mutual communion with the divine, we reject the middleman. We gather in our circle to grow and learn together.
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.
And even as each one of you stands alone in God's knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.