Who Guards the Gate?

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels

“The Ways of the Underworld Are Perfect. They must not be questioned.”

These are the words of the guardians of the seven gates to the underworld in the Descent of Inanna, and they are quoted in one of the Temple of Witchcraft’s initiation rituals. While I might not question the perfection of the archonic guardians of the deep places and spaces, I do question people, and I get questioned myself. This is good.

We in our community’s school are experiencing a fairly new phenomenon, or perhaps a magnification of an older phenomenon, manifesting in a greater conversation about gates and gatekeepers.

The Temple of Witchcraft runs a fairly robust online mystery school for training in our community, with the ideal hope that most people and areas will have trained teachers in the school locally, but currently we only have twenty-three official teachers worldwide, and not all are currently teaching in their area. So until then—and particularly in the light of our Covid-19 reality—we are online. I think due to Covid, we have had more Year One applicants than we have ever had in the first two weeks, exceeding our rather large class limit. Every year we start with a large class but usually end with somewhere around a sixty-percent graduation rate, and in this year due to the stress of Covid, closer to forty percent. Once people decide this is a system of education that works, the retainment rate for levels two through five are between seventy and ninety percent.

There are those of a business mind who urge us to increase our success rate, usually by making the courses easier. It’s hard for people to understand that this is not only not our goal, it’s somewhat contrary to our goal. While we want people to succeed, we don’t want success to come from the easing of standards, but rather through the process and the education and transformation it creates.

There are limits to the process of teaching online and guiding people through subtle processes and getting them to report back in ways that not only provide feedback, but also clearly and convincingly articulate what the student is going through. I don’t believe it’s for everyone. Many learning styles are not conducive to online formats, and many are not conducive to our particular online format. That doesn’t make the potential student a bad person, or a bad Witch, just not the right match for what we are offering. One school or one teacher cannot be all things to all people, and often in the process of trying to adapt to all teaching styles and needs, what can be done will suffer in the effort to do all.

It would be easier to have no requirements so that everyone passes. It would be easier to not check in when someone doesn’t submit their homework, or respond to a question or assignment in class, or follow up or engage at all. The first three months are often refunding registrations for people who didn’t realize that monthly homework in a specific format means monthly homework in a specific format. Some simply realize it’s not for them or not the right time or much more than they were ready for. Most online classes are fairly laissez-faire, and even though we cite our requirements quite often, many potential students assume that since other online correspondence courses are go-at-your-own-pace, we are too . . . but we are not. We’ve discovered—after many experimentations, explorations, and failures—that our school is just a little too big to operate that way.

We tend to fall on the side of benefit of the doubt and let those who sincerely seek try it out, even if every indication is that it’s not a match. We have always turned a few away, especially in the upper levels when past work, behaviors, or attitude weren’t in alignment with the school. In this year of multitude, we are being a bit more selective. Based on past experience, if your application has some things that make us think this is not a match, we are more likely to decline.

As an online class mainly done through the medium of self-reporting via writing, sometimes it’s clear that someone’s language and written skills might hinder them. We can often overcome that kind of challenge, since we understand that students present a wide range of writing skill and education levels. The harder issue is when someone avoids answering a question, as it is our practice to keep asking for the answer. Worse still is the “full cup” student who reports on past experiences repeatedly, indicating they don’t “need” to do this exercise as they have mastered it in another way. They show no willingness to be open to new ways, to find “beginner’s mind” in a new system, or be present in the moment. If that is the case, why take the class? I’ve had High Priestesses far more experienced than me humble themselves to start with beginner’s mind, and the fairly inexperienced tell me such work was beneath them. Guess who completed the course and who didn’t? You can see this attitude in some of the applications before we begin and usually the homework magnifies the problems, even with repeated feedback directing them towards something more helpful for us all.

Giving a space to someone who appears neither ready nor in alignment with what we know is coming takes that space away from someone who could be better suited. Many potential students assume an application is a formality, that paying the deposit guarantees acceptance. As you can imagine, this generates a lot of angst, hurt feelings, blame, and often angry emails to me and the staff.

How a rejected student responds tells us as much about the applicant as the application does. Some will ask advice for return. Others will nitpick our responses or wish to change the answers on their application. Some approach in sincere humility and want to see if there is a chance to reconsider. Some come in blame, and want to create a situation where they walk away feeling justified with their anger. Sometimes we do reconsider, or will consider again in the future. Other times the response simply confirms that we made the right call in declining.

Often traditional lodges and covens will refuse you twice and accept you the third time if you are right for the group, requiring that even good candidates prove their tenacity and willingness. However, there is no assumption of acceptance when you knock on the door to enter. Sometimes you need a current member to sponsor you. Is that appropriate today? Some would say that it’s abusive and game playing, but does anyone owe anybody else their time, energy, and magick? Seekers today often feel entitled, with the idea that information and experiences should be free and easily obtained by anyone asking, in the way they want it, or that ability to pay should open the door to any information, experience, or degree, also in the way they want it. Neither is true.

Sadly consumerism, even in magickal practices, can make people think this is fast food and you can have it your way, quickly, and it will be good. What’s the old saying when hiring someone? Of fast, cheap, and good, pick two. Magickal training should always be good, and that often requires an investment in time and practice, as well as resources. And good doesn’t always mean agreeable, happy, easy, or fun. Many good things for you are none of those qualities. If you can find someone with the information you want who is willing to give it to you via the experience and style that is most perfect to your tastes, that is great. But that is not the job of any magickal teacher. The magickal practitioner can offer services and determine which jobs and students intersect with their own style and purpose. You can’t be everything to everyone. But this often gives rise to the idea of gatekeeping and gatekeepers.

Gatekeeping usually refers to the process of how the “in” group blocks others from joining that group or tradition, often for arbitrary reasons. Social media has been both a bastion of gatekeepers and a critique of gatekeepers where the debate rages on who is legitimate, who belongs, who doesn’t, and why. Often what makes you acceptable to one group makes you a pariah in another, and vice versa. Concepts of privilege, commerce, and technology become part of the conversation of who has or doesn’t have access, but in the end, there has to be an inherent internal connection that trumps all the other factors and leads the way. Otherwise all the privilege, money, and access won’t make you a Witch.

When a school, tradition, teacher, or group declines to take you on, this doesn’t mean you are rejected from Witchcraft or magick, just this one particular avenue at this one particular moment. Yet any rejection triggers our rejection complexes, as many of us already feel rejected from family, religion, community, any mainstream institution. But learning from that is part of the process of being the Witch. The deep result is not acceptance from everyone and everything, but living in those places between and on the edge. I firmly believe who is a Witch is between them, their gods, their soul, and nature. I’ve deeply trained many people who later did not identify as Witches, and I’ve failed out many amazing Witches because they simply didn’t do what I asked them to do or because our time together had run its course. In the spirit of accessibility and fairness, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on those who would not spend the same on the class before them, to my personal detriment. I firmly believe who I teach is between me and my students, and ultimately if one of us decides no, it’s no for both of us. Teaching involves the relationship and karma between students and teacher, often past life connections, the egregore of the tradition, and the current of energies and information passed. To spend too much time and energy with someone who isn’t a match is a disservice, distracting them from finding the teachers and peers that are a good fit.

Gatekeeping from higher, deeper magickal learning is often as much for the safety of the student as it is for the ethics of the teacher. Like a coach or trainer in a sport, you want to challenge someone, but not overwhelm them. If a student doesn’t have the context or experience, the magickal muscles, for a greater feat, they can get hurt. Some injuries teach us, and we get better. Some are more serious. Yet unlike a sporting injury that is obvious to everyone, magickal breaks can go unnoticed and linger, creating potential dangers over the long haul. In the end, a Witch is responsible for what they attempt, but a teacher or mentor help or hinder a healthy process. I’ve had those who got an initial “no” do wonderful work and come back for an enthusiastic “yes,” but if they choose not to engage in a healthy matter, it is not my job to force them into that work.

I really want to focus on more advanced classes, as much as I realize that foundations are important and necessary. I don’t open many advanced classes to the public, as I don’t know how the general public will respond or use the material, so I take people whose foundations I know have been solid. Otherwise I’m culpable in harm. In an online format, I can only know if someone’s foundations are solid if I, and others, have witnessed them. I had an online student ask why I was asking for more detail about an operation. Didn’t I believe her that she had done it? Or did I think she was bullshitting me? I had to respond that I think everyone is bullshitting me until they build up trust. Online teaching has its drawbacks. Many of the seemingly pedantic requirements allow us to work with a large number of people by revealing who responds to what, who can follow instructions, and who is having an experience as we progress. The process builds trust, becoming less pedantic and more personal as the learning progresses. Like a piano player dying to jam with other performers but having to first demonstrate that they can play their scales, know their keys, and perform basics, foundations provide a common language in a tradition and for a group. Magick is rich and wide today, and we all use the same words, but they can mean very different things to very different people. Foundations are also common language in a tradition and for a group.

Teaching is as much holding the door open for another as keeping the gate. I feel a deep responsibility to hold the door open to those who would be helped by it. It can be hard to find certain doors and enter into certain mysteries. I began teaching, but didn’t want to be a teacher. It was a calling I resisted. I shared those teachings by writing the books, and writing them in a way that was for the person off the street, making no assumptions, but moving sequentially through the Temple series. If someone is serious about the material, but doesn’t get accepted or doesn’t want to take a class, the heart of it all is found in the book. The community- and tradition-specific stuff, what I pass to my personal students, is in the classes. I teach many public courses in person and online, plus I appear at conventions, festivals, and free Pagan Prides, write free blogs and articles, and do free video, radio, and podcast interviews to hold that door open, so when I put a filter to a specific point of entry, there is a good reason.

I’m a huge believer in what my dear friend and mentor Raven Grimassi called the Well Worn Path and the Hidden Path, explored in both his oracle card sets with Stephanie Taylor Grimassi and Micki Mueller and a deeper mystery teaching. We tread the Well Worn Path of our ancestors, but soon we reach a point where there is no clear path, where it’s Hidden. The more who walk the Hidden Path, the more well-worn it becomes, furthering the Well Worn Path for the next generation. Each of us is charged with taking it a bit further than our teachers did. Teachers should hope and pray that their students exceed them, not fall short. Students can do that better if their teachers can guide them for a time, until they are able to find the Hidden Paths.

For a while I tried to give some of my in-person students and community members the experiences I wished I’d had in my youth. I had the door held open for me by a wonderful mentor who soon opened the world of Salem, Massachusetts, but I had hoped for the more storybook apprenticeship, a Witchy Carlos Castaneda experience—plant walks in the woods, special teatime, rituals on the mountaintop, more personal conversations and mentorship. By the time I got to Salem, things were very business-like for me until many years later, well into adulthood and after my own independent successes.

One year I found myself particularly surrounded by a large number of young gay men, and it was easy to see myself and my own youth in their training. I totally projected my own desires for the path onto them, trying to offer something special, but my attempt was unrecognized and unwanted. I had more frustrations and failures that year, all of them my fault, than any year where I stuck with the program I offered. Those within the bounds and structure flourished, and those who I tried to give what I felt I had missed accepted my offering, but didn’t seem to realize the significance of it. Not being a parent, I had entered what a friend described as “the parent trap,” always trying to give your “kids” what you wished you had had without understanding that their lives, times, and experiences are not yours. They have to seek on their own as we have sought. That was a wise friend indeed.

The Ways of the Underworld Are Perfect. They must not be questioned. This is not because people must not be questioned, but because the ways of magick have ways. That is another Raven Grimassi saying we quote around here often: “The ways have ways.” Those who are truly meant to work with you will. Those who are not, won’t. Those who need to be kept out of the Craft for whatever reason, like an autoimmune response in the Witch Soul, will be moved someplace else right for them. Those who are needed, but who don’t believe it or are not in Witchcraft, will eventually be drawn back. Gates open and close. Gates swing both ways, and the ways have ways of bringing us to the most perfect gate, at the most perfect time.