The first thing most seekers want is books. And yes–books are valuable. I write books, I read books. But some things, you just can’t learn from reading. And that’s people involved in spiritual work mean when we say, “It’s a mystery.” The mysteries are the things that we can write about over and over, but you really won’t get it until you’ve experienced them for yourself.
I field a lot of questions from seekers on various online lists and groups, as well as when I travel and teach at events or offer events in Chicago. What’s the first question people usually ask me?
“What books should I read?”
What Do I Recommend?
First, let me offer what I usually recommend as far as books go, and then I’ll go into the difficulty with the book-focused Pagan seeker.
I usually recommend River and Joyce Higginbotham’s book Paganism because, though it does have a leaning toward a Wiccanate perspective or what I call “post-Wicca,” it’s not teaching Wicca specifically and it offers exercises to determine what you believe before choosing a particular tradition. It’s a book that many people gift to their friends/parents when they are coming out, so it’s pretty accessible.
However–I tell them that this is just a beginning, a way to figure out what they believe. The book offers some tools to figure out, are you a pantheist or a polytheist, what your core beliefs are, and more. These things are all useful in helping a seeker to figure out what tradition might be of interest.
Early on I try to encourage people to go and attend public Pagan events to get a sense of what might call to them. I suggest that they attend the rituals of different groups’ rituals. If it’s in Chicagoland, or another area where I have taught, I give them a run down of local groups. I try to give them a heads up on necessary local politics, for lack of better words, without overwhelming them. For instance, “There’s XYZ tradition that meets for sabbats over at ABC venue. They are nice folks, but they’ve been running that group for over a decade so they are a little bit of a clique. However, if you like the ritual work, keep going and you can become a part of the crew, just know that it’ll take time, and I know that’s frustrating for someone who shows up not knowing anyone.” Etc, etc.
But so very often, I know that people don’t ever go out and attend anything.
Why the Focus on Books?
Overall, I hear people wanting me to recommend books. And I think there are a few reasons, some that are helpful and some that aren’t. There are various online programs for Pagans these days that have hundreds, if not thousands of people signed up. Why? They want someone to tell them what to read, what they need to learn, and to say, “Yes, you passed this class.”
In the worst cases, we’re talking about seekers who fit a certain profile. These would be Pagans who come to it wanting to learn “powerful magic.” They want to learn the spell that will “magically” fix their life, which feels broken. Truth is, these folks are often wracked with poor self esteem. These are people who have been bulldozed by life, bullied, hurt. They want the power to change their lives and they think Paganism/Wicca/Spells is going to do it. And for these folks, no spellwork is going to fix their lives, not until they do the deep personal work. That work is possible to do from books, but, it’s also definitely one of those mysteries that a book can’t contain. It’s dependent on the individual practitioner.
I think that a lot of seekers are looking for a way to learn without having to physically attend a class. I also think many seekers are looking for a replication of their primary school experience where someone says, “Yes, I approve of you, you got an A. You have learned these mysteries.” Sometimes it’s a matter of travel distance–they are in a rural area without good transportation to get to any group activities. Or, they are Hellenic Reconstructionist and there aren’t any recons in their area, only Wiccan covens.Add to that all the cranky leaders and dysfunctional groups out there, as well as the really poorly-facilitated rituals, and I can see why people go for books.
Books are easier.
However, we start to run into a problem. Many Pagans confide in me that, though they’ve been reading Pagan books for 5-10 years, they have never ever felt like they could do a ritual, even a private one for themselves, because they are worried they don’t know enough.
Problems With the System
I think that it’s easier for people to go to books because people are afraid of looking stupid. There isn’t a lot of easy access to 101 education except through books. There are teaching covens, and the occasional Pagan class, or a bigger name author comes through town to teach a class, but in many areas there’s not really good access to basic 101 education unless you are taking an oath to a particular tradition. And, I have some issues about that, largely in how the word “oathbound” is often used to facilitate abuse, but that’s another post entirely.
In addition, most public rituals I have attended are really poorly facilitated, particularly in the sense of being accessible to new seekers. Many of these rituals give absolutely no way for people to access the divine unless they are already advanced practitioners on their own. I use ecstatic ritual not necessarily because of my theology, but because of science. It works. I’m not there to tell you what the divine looks like, I’m there to get you singing and dancing and in a trance state so that you can get there on your own.
I have actually burst into tears on a few occasions when people attend one of my rituals and say, “I’ve been Pagan for 20 years and I’ve never actually felt anything in ritual until now.” I’m not trying to toot my own horn–I’m just using the ecstatic ritual techniques that I learned. Techniques anyone can learn to use, but they don’t. They do ritual the way they learned to do ritual, without perhaps every questioning if there is a better, more effective way to do it.
It Takes Time to Learn This Stuff
Right now I’m struggling to write a book on how to facilitate effective rituals, because, it really is stuff that needs to be taught in person. I can talk to you about singing techniques and breath control, which is wholly different from the experience of 50 of us singing together and learning how to use that to connect to the divine. There’s a value in the book as a textbook. As a resource to explain how it works. But if you want to learn how to facilitate effective rituals, you need to do that in person. And you need to devote the time to it.
People often ask me to teach leadership and ritual techniques in 1.5 hour time slots, or maybe 3-4 hours, but when I propose a whole day, a weekend, or a 3-day, they are like, “Oh, no, that’s too long. We can’t take that much time”
It takes days of working together to get a group into an intimate/spiritual/working headspace. It takes that long to begin to break through the ego barrier, and that’s a whole function of the mysteries that is difficult to explain, and must be experienced. At Reclaiming Witchcamps and intensives, or Diana’s Grove intensives, we had 3-8 days to get into the groove. They were retreats–you are away from the world, and there’s a reason that that is important for work like this.
Can’t You Teach That in an Hour?
If you want to actually learn leadership and facilitation, or, do deep personal transformative mystery school work, it’s a big time commitment. A decade ago, I experienced that it was a lot easier to fill a room full of 20 people for a weekend intensive. These days, people will ask me, “Can I just show up for part of one day?” Which…totally defeats the purpose of the intensive. Last time I taught a 3-day ritual intensive in Chicago, I had a local group leader (who had pre-registered) and 2 of his volunteers (who had not pre-registered) show up on the third day, and then get frustrated that nothing made sense.
I have found it harder and harder to get people to commit to longer intensives. It’s not just a money thing–given I always charge on a sliding scale. (There is the factor of people who can’t afford to take the time off of work, of course.). I do notice that more affluent people tend to be more willing to make the time commitment. Specifically, even when I offer reduced rates for people that I know are struggling financially, that doesn’t necessarily mean those folks will attend the class I’m offering.
It seems to be partially an issue of numbers within the Pagan community. In any given area, there often just isn’t a critical mass of interested folks to be able to offer education that is energetically and financially sustainable. It’s also an issue of dedication and effort. Again, it’s easier to pick up a book and read it when you feel like it. Way, way harder to drive 3 hours to the woods for several days to live communally, or devote three days a month to intensive education.
It seems like there are less and less people willing to make the sacrifice of the time commitment to do this work. It’s way easier to just buy a book. Even easier to buy a book that sits on a shelf and you don’t actually read or do the exercises.
What Would Offer a Better Model?
The most successful community models I’ve seen are congregational Pagan communities, usually organizing out of a UU church or some other unity initiative where it’s about community gatherings, not about one specific tradition.
I’ve been on a soap box about why Pagans need to learn how to raise money as groups. Because it takes money to be able to offer this work, there’s no way around it. You need space to do the work–land, or a rented retreat center or any private venue. You need facilitators, and you need facilitators who can devote their professional focus to that work. The only way to do that is to have self sustaining clergy/leaders, and the only way to do that is through some kind of tithing/fundraising.
I also see various organizations that serve the broader Pagan community emerging (or growing stronger) and I believe those resources will help.
But ultimately, I have to face a truth. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I can offer education to my community, but I can’t make anyone decide to sacrifice the time that it’s going to take to really learn these things. Individual seekers need to make that decision for themselves. But, there is another simple truth. Either you devote the time, or you don’t. And if you aren’t willing to devote the time, don’t expect to gain mastery.
Books are an excellent resource. They can help you begin your path. They can offer resources as you go along. They can teach you tools and techniques, give you background. Books are still part of the process.
However, if all you’re willing to do is read a book or a web site, don’t expect to experience the deeper mysteries.