The Challenge

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by Christopher Penczak, Edited by Tina Whittle

Should Witchcraft, magick, and in fact, any spiritual pursuit be challenging, or should it be easy and accepting? Yes. I think the answer to that depends on where you are and what you are interfacing with in terms of a teaching, a tradition, and a community.

Like all relationships, we can go through a phase of first excitement and intrigue—a courtship! We can also go through a honeymoon phase where everything seems great. But as in any long-term relationship, we find there are bumps in the road of communication and understanding, and also times when we have to both dig deep into ourselves and truly listen to our partner as they reveal more of the depths of themselves to us. And like relationships, some people go from relationship to relationship, tradition or path to tradition or path, and never hit those phases. Some haven’t found the right match yet. That’s fine. Exploration is a part of life, and not everyone should be in a long-term relationship of this kind all the time. But sometimes we have to look and see if the problem we are experiencing in finding the right thing is with us not committing to the process due to our own fears or simply not really knowing how to go deeper into relationship because that was never modeled for us. Most of us come from families without deep spiritual practices by our elders. Those who do are quite lucky, but what they practice might not be what you practice.

I was corresponding with someone interested in taking classes in the Temple of Witchcraft Mystery School, but who wanted to be reassured that he would enjoy it, and listed those authors and classes he enjoyed. His concern was sparked by a friend in the school who said that the classes can be “challenging” and if you take them, you might end up questioning what you already know about spirituality, magick, Witchcraft, and other religions. She said sometimes the teachers might come off a little tough if they don’t like the way something was done. They may question you or not agree with you.

I would say that is very true. To quote a mentor and friend, Raven Grimassi, “A teaching that leaves you unchanged or unchallenged is not worthy.” Often we take classes to affirm what we know, and this degree program isn’t such a program. It’s specifically designed to give the graduate of the five degrees a broad base of occultism/metaphysics, by both exposing and asking you to do a variety of things, and depending on your nature, some of those things will be outside of your comfort zone. The degrees shift between inner and outer work, with the two being joined in the fifth degree. One year will be deeply emotional, but you’ll still have lots of things to learn. The next is deeply intellectual, but with the previous base, you will undergo deep emotional shifts. The ideal is a school of the soul, of initiation.

I liken it to studying anything at a very serious level. I was a musician and song writer, and music school challenged me to listen to different types of music, try different forms of music, learn history I didn’t know, and understand the deeper structure of music theory. I had a hard time with that and often rebelled. Am I a musician without knowing those things? Yes. But learning those things took me to a deeper level of mastery. It’s the same with art, dance, photography—learning the whole body of tradition to then inform where you take it. The ups and downs of it are part of the process.

Anyone who makes a sincere effort and reports clearly on that effort passes the class. We generally don’t evaluate your experience, but we want to get a sense of how it was done and what you experienced. When someone says, “I’ve done it. It was good.” and gives little else, we question them for details. When someone says I’ve done it a million times before and this is what always happens, we will ask, “How did it go this month? What specifically happened this time, and what do you think it means?”

When someone changes all the directions without trying it as written, we ask them to go back and experience the baseline. After the course is over, if you change and adapt it, that is fine, but many people don’t know what the baseline is to then measure their success. If you have never baked, and you decide you don’t like baking soda and take it out of the recipe, and replace the same proportion with chocolate chips, the result won’t be close at all. Try it once or more the way it was suggested, and depending on the exercise or ritual, you’ll then have some experience should you wish to successfully change it.

In the higher levels, we tend to ask a lot of deeper questions in the “what do you think that means?” category. You are not required to answer or share personally on a deep level, but those students who are more engaged are more likely to be accepted to upper levels, and those who do not are less likely, as we can’t give helpful feedback without understanding your experience. At that point we trust you more to follow the directions, since the process is about the engagement, not being perfect. Some students tell us what we want to hear, and in the upper levels, it’s easier to spot that, so we then urge people to go deeper and share more. In the earlier years, a lot of the feedback is simply affirming that the work was done in the proper manner and issuing corrections if it wasn’t or answering technical questions, just like a music teacher might say you used the wrong fingering on playing a piano scale. You might reply, “What does it matter? I played it right,” but when you learn something ten lessons later, the right fingering will make that easier, and the wrong fingering could make it very hard, hence why the material evolved in a certain way, be it music or magick. When you get into serious pieces, your feedback will be more about connection and flow and depth of experience.

Nothing is really hidden, though in the classes you get a lot more detail. So if you like my books, the classes follow the general principles outlined in them. Those have stayed consistent in my 25 years of teaching. The books are more technical (at least the earlier ones are) and the classes are sharing what I would share with my private students before the days of the internet and social media. As a tradition and community, we have specific images, myths, spirits, and forms we work with, while still maintaining an openness. No specific gods or cultures are required, and we encourage people to make their own connections in our framework. While my heart tends towards a Pan-Celtic pantheon, my partner is decidedly more Greek. In public work, we tend to work with the roots of deities—Horned God, Earth Mother, Goddess of Fate, Child of Light—so people can have their own connections.

Some take a class, use the material as they will, and we may or may not see them again after they graduate. Some find a deeper connection in the tradition and community, and that is also welcome, but a student is free to pursue it to the level they wish to with no expectation on our part. Some really commit to the community aspect of things, and others are only interested in education. Some are deeply involved in other communities and come to us to supplement their knowledge and experience. Some are looking for a catalyst to their intuition, to their spiritual growth.

I think of it again like relationships, as our home relationships are different from our work relationships and different from our friendships. We have different needs in different places. We make different commitments. All that is fine if everyone knows the bounds of the relationship. But I’ve found even the most simple relationships can end up being challenging, bringing about opportunities for growth and development.

Temple of Witchcraft