Living Traditions

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

flowers, fruit, and a candle laid out on a pink blanket on a grassy green hillside

Photo by Sunsetoned via Pexels

When I wrote “What Now? Putting A Practice Together: Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3” I wasn’t expecting some of the responses I got, but I love anything that makes us think more deeply about our choices, practices, and traditions. The key point that got the strongest response was this: “How do you work different systems together? Can you? Should you? The answer is up to you.” Folks had some strong feelings for and against, with many thinking it’s not up to you, and I loved hearing about it.

The core issue was the issue to synthesize or not synthesize. This is the question. Those who are in favor of synthesis—and full disclosure, I’m one of those people—can’t really imagine an interior world divided. You are one being, learning many different things, and at some point, even if you intend to keep things separate, things collide in your experience. Worlds merge. Things cannot be unlearned.

It’s like mixing paint. You can’t un-mix several colors that have been brought together. You can only change the balance by adding more. You can abandon a practice and lean heavily into another, but there will always be a tint of what was past. You can reject a practice, tradition, or teacher, but even in the conscious rejection, that knowledge to omit becomes part of the synthesis. While you can attempt to hold two truths, I think for many, the natural inclination is to eventually resolve the discrepancies rather than compartmentalize.

Synthesizers are often of the occult tradition, seeking that glorious, unified theory of everything. Everything is consciousness. Everything corresponds. The quest is understanding how it all corresponds together. Our Renaissance Men, our Renaissance People, our true geniuses, are often polymaths because they don’t see the divisions that so many of us see between art, science, history, math, music, society, and religion. At one time, our ancestors saw them all connected too. Our growing understanding of places like ancient Egypt shows a holistic knowledge of life integrated in the surviving temple structures, encoding religion, metallurgy, farming, geometry, anatomy, and history in one framework. Study in one area can give leaps of understanding in others. Everything complements everything else in the science, art, and religion of the Witch.

For many, the dissonance between these views is the separation of art, science, and religion. If one of the three dominates your view of magickal spirituality, that view will be reflected in your views around tradition. Most who look at the science are seeking the underlying patterns behind it all, the answers to the cosmic questions of how and why. The cosmos becomes the matrix, and human consciousness is a part of it. Artists seek the most artistic expression, and are often the most personal in their weaving of many different ideas together. Self becomes the matrix, with the cosmos reflected in it.

Those who seek religion are more complex. If they seek the original impetus of religion—to link and bridge—they become the bridge between science and art as well. Those, however, who have not shed their past religious indoctrination from mainstream religions will apply those principles to Witchcraft and Paganism, perhaps erroneously, and will seek a static one “truth” for themselves, or worst yet, for all. Occultists realize the one truth is hidden and sublime, with many expressions. Each generation, each age, and ultimately, each individual will express the one thing uniquely. Tides of consciousness rise and fall and are expressed in movements of philosophy, art, and cultural trends. None are completely correct. When coming together in community, the tricky part is finding enough common ground to actually come together.

Those who are traditionalists voice the desire to stick with one tradition, arguing that people should keep faith or veracity with one way. They believe that many of our problems have come from mixing things. I understand the sentiment, but I think no tradition we have today started pure. Most things build upon other things, consciously or unconsciously, in the flow and lineage of human experience, be it science, art, literature, or magickal and spiritual traditions. Look at any culture, tradition, or religion, and you’ll find antecedents.

Some take vows to not initiate in another tradition once they initiate in said tradition. Generally the Catholic Church doesn’t want their Priests or Nuns to initiate in other faiths. They are not big on dual faith. It’s one or the other, and in that case, choice is framed as the choice of heaven or hell. But is magickal religion the same? I don’t think so, and certainly Witches today do not condemn others for choosing another tradition. And many practitioners do successfully carry dual faith practices. Some traditions require that you not study with anyone else during training periods, lest you confuse the teachings. And while I don’t have that policy myself, as I grow older, I totally understand those who do. Today people erratically go from thing to thing and think they have mastered something after one experience—or worse yet, after reading or watching a video—but they haven’t integrated the lesson before moving on to something else and trying to combine everything.

Some traditions have specific parameters about their vows. Another Witchcraft tradition might be forbidden, but a Reiki attunement or Buddhist empowerment would be okay, even though they are essentially a form of initiation.

Some people are puzzled about why this vow gets broken so often, but I think it’s basic human nature. Usually the motivations to seek outside of something that has been oathbound is the realization that the tradition doesn’t have all the answers, but only part of the answers for the student initiate. Suddenly that vow can feel oppressive. Is it? I guess it depends on the person and the tradition. Teachers of the tradition would say the answers they need are found in the practice of it, delving deeper, not further away, and they would be right too, for some people.

I tend to be a fan of Dion Fortune’s threefold-way approach, believing that no tradition has it all, and having three traditions and a deep practice of them can give you a greater perspective, but not all three traditions have to be initiatory. Certainly all three should not be Witchcraft. You are looking for divergent views, not slight variations on a theme. But the key to the threefold path is the taking of three deep dives, not three surface ones.

Many who take such vows too early, without knowing what else is out there, go through a rebellious phase in their spiritual development. Their metaphorical teen years come upon them, and any authority is bucked, like rebelling against a parent, particularly for traditions that have a family dynamic where the teachers or leaders are parental in attitude. Tell me I can’t do something, and I’m going to do it, because I’m a free and rebellious Witch not bowing down to authority. However, it’s not so much authority they’re resisting, but previous agreement, and there might be mature ways to navigate it beyond rebellion alone.

At some point on the path, one must embody their own genius, their own paradigm, and their own worldview. That is the work of the adept. The hope is that such insight can be welcomed and integrated into the collective, but when it does, it leads to change, to mutation. What is an individual gnosis, and what happens when individual gnosis is shared with others, and it works for others? For the synthesizer, it becomes part of the body of tradition as it grows. Even if not accepted by the whole, it might be passed to their individual students.

For those who seek to avoid change, it becomes an infection. It also gets into the matters of agency. Why is the creator of a tradition allowed to synthesize, but a student of it is not? They can, of course, but sometimes it requires them to leave the body of the tradition, as not all traditions are looking for synthesis from others or they have protocols and structures in place to add, or not add, to the body of the tradition. In every tradition where there is a vow, there is a process to be released from it and leave the group, organization, or tradition. It does get into the larger issues of what we agree to when we agree, what our understanding of the agreement is, the assumptions around it, and ultimately who owns or controls a tradition. The answers are different in each group.

I find it fascinating that in the modern Witchcraft world, there is often a strong voice for change, for individualism, and the dissolution of traditional structures coupled with a deep yearning for ancestral roots, lineage, a large body of lore, traditions, and legacy, often in the same individuals. There is a mystery here in this paradoxical desire as people seek things like Buddhism, African Traditional Religions, and Hinduism, filled with rich art, story, and song, or seek the reconstructionist method of ancient Pagan traditions, but often ignore or disregard what traditions got them here in the first place. We often fail to see our place in time, wanting the fullness of the flower now, not realizing we are tending to the early leaves.

One valid concern is how much and how fast a tradition should change. We live in a time of abrupt change, with an influx of information, but not necessarily the same influx of wisdom. If something traditional changes too quickly, without harmony to the pattern or with too much chaos, what does it become? When parts of the human body’s biology change rapidly from one generation to the next, it’s mutation. Some mutations are helpful in the evolutionary scheme of things. Some mutations are not, and are not passed on. Change alone is not automatically beneficial. Too much rapid growth and mutation in any one individual is cancer, and usually prematurely ends the life. Can traditions, even with good intentions, become sick and grow cancerous? Can traditions devour themselves?

Traditions that refuse to change, refuse to mutate, grow hard and calcify under the weight of the dogma that was once tradition. A famous quote from Gustav Mahler is often used by innovative magicians seeking the lifeblood of any tradition: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” I agree entirely, but we can’t all agree on what preserves the flame and what does not. Ash worshipers think there is a flame in there, and who are we to say there isn’t? We can only say there is no flame for us. A very good friend of mine and fellow magickal teacher and priest in our community, Chris Giroux, commented on this topic in his grad school thesis on religion: “A religion or spirituality, and its deities, that fails to change with the needs of the people who practice such a religion/spirituality and worship its deities, dies.” This brings the larger question of consciousness, sentience, agency, life, and evolution to our traditions. Can traditions themselves experience any of these things? Speaking as a magician, I guess it depends on how you are defining tradition.

Some traditions are simply collections of practices passed on. They are cultural collections. Some are philosophically, mythically, or symbolically cohesive, but many are not. And many of the most vibrant and living traditions have contradictions and dissonance in their cohesion, as most living things do. Some are initiatory bodies empowered by a collective form, an egregore. The egregore might be composed mostly of the energy of initiates contributing to it over time, but many egregores are cooperatives between human, gods, spirits, ancestors, and even the land spirits of a location or homeland, even when the tradition stretches far and wide.

Like a living organism, traditions divide and separate and create progeny. Secretive covens were once described in terms of counterculture “cells” with no centralized authority, each connected to the others, but autonomous unto itself. Coven cells, like human cells, undergo mitosis, with cells dividing and dividing again as new leaders are elevated and hive off. In these settings, cells of one single tradition often branch off, and after many generations of practitioners (not necessarily human generations as Modern Witchcraft is not yet that old), we might find the bones of the original pattern under something otherwise very distinctly different. Are they still of one tradition? Or something else? There can then be the urge to force conformity, often for very idealistic reasons, such as keeping the teachings from being distorted or key points being lost, but it most often ends not in reconciliation, but schism.

I think anything we classify as living has the potential for intelligence and communication. We are connected via the currents of initiation. As we grow and evolve, so too does the tradition, and new members are “tapped into” the collective wisdom and experience of a tradition, but also are tapped into the collective karma, wounding, and illness of a tradition. A tradition can have human and astral parasites and grow corrupt, or it can heal, transform, and evolve. Traditions and groups have life cycles, astrological transits, and their own collective initiation processes in harmony with, but not the same as, individual members’ initiation rites. In the same way that organizations, families, towns, and nations have a collective consciousness and unconsciousness–a group soul—so too do our magickal traditions.

Part of our work in being members of a tradition is working in partnership with not just the other members of the tradition and their processes, but with the tradition itself, and its consciousness, challenges, and growth. I have no answers, for myself or my community, but I think it’s important to give the core points deep thought and conversations before crisis arises and emotions run high. Anchored in the core ideals of any tradition, one can then give space for it to grow and change organically for its greatest good, and the greatest good of the people gathered with it.

Temple of Witchcraft