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The Author's Corner

 

Judy Harrow

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Spiritual Mentoring:
A Pagan Guide

 


Wicca Covens

 

 

Wicca Covens:

TWPT Talks to Judy Harrow
©2001TWPT


TWPT:   You mention on your bio page at your website that you started to study Witchcraft back in 1976, was there anything in particular that prompted this course of action at that particular time in your life?

JH:  I think three things in my life converged. I really can't say which was more important, because all three are very important to me.

I've always had a love of ritual. 

I've been a "tree-hugger" since childhood. I had some wonderful experiences in a nature-oriented summer camp and in the Girl Scouts. I'm a born and bred New Yorker, but always lived near a large park. I could always find peace and strength by getting outdoors and under trees.

I have always believed in the principles that later became known as feminism.

So, for me it was the classic Pagan "homecoming" experience. When I discovered that there was a spiritual Path and a supportive community that worships Mother Earth through creative ritual ... well, I just walked right in and never looked back!

TWPT:  How was it that you made contact with others of like mind once you had decided to pursue this spiritual course in your life?

JH:  My lover was very involved with the science fiction community, which included lots of Pagans. That's how I discovered that contemporary Paganism and Witchcraft existed. I became interested and started reading about it. After a while, I decided I wanted to participate, see what this way of worship was like in practice. I asked some Pagan friends of ours, and they took me to my first public ritual. That was Samhain, 1976.

TWPT:  How would you describe the Pagan population that existed in New York at the time that you attended that first public Samhain ritual? Were public rituals like you attended open to the general public or only open to those who had contacts within the performing coven to issue an invitation?

JH:  The first Pagan ritual I ever attended was at Samhain of 1976, and was sponsored by the Manhattan Pagan Way Grove. I hesitate to call Pagan Way an organization. Rituals were in somebody's home during the winter, in a public park during the summer. They were not advertised, not really open to the public. But any person who had been coming regularly could bring a friend without needing to clear it first -- that's how my friends brought me. There were gatherings for each Sabbat, always involving a formal ritual followed by a potluck and party. This was a good way for people who thought they might be interested to experiment with participation. Local coven leaders would also come to Pagan Way, to socialize and to meet the new seekers, see if they wanted to invite any of them into their training groups.

Today, an organization called New Moon fills some of the same functions. But it is much more open to the public, and the Sabbat celebrations are probably ten times the size. Paradoxically, it's easier for a newcomer to find New Moon, but it's far more difficult for a serious seeker to connect with a coven there.

I'd say that Pagan Way was primarily a gateway to pre-Initiatory training, for those who felt called to make that commitment, while New Moon is primarily a place where Pagan laity come to worship the Gods. Both groups serve(d) both functions, the difference is in the emphasis.

TWPT:  What role if any did the social climate of the time play in how and where you could practice your faith?

JH:  I was here in liberal New York, so there wasn't much problem. We had our warm weather rituals right in Central Park. Also, I had a civil service job, so I was absolutely safe from religious discrimination.

TWPT:  Tell me about your initiation as HPS and your progression from there to a 3rd Degree Gardnerian.

JH:  I joined a group, studied and practiced, and had those rituals when my elders and I felt that the time was ripe. I took my Third Degree in November of 1980. Obviously, I can't discuss the specifics of those rituals.

TWPT:  What kind of mindset does the initiate need in order to complete the various stages and emerge on the other side as a functional Gardnerian capable of training others to follow the same path. Ritual forms will change from place to place and from coven to coven but I'm sure that there are qualities and traits that would help a person to succeed in this pursuit. What did you see in yourself as you moved through these various degrees?

JH:  This is difficult for me to answer because it was very long ago and, at that time, it was very subjective.

I have to say that many people back then got their degrees just by hanging around for the traditional year and a day and not offending anybody. I know of Third Degrees of that era -- and, even more unfortunately, also much later-minted ones -- who can do nothing more than learn a ritual by rote from a book and repeat it endlessly. I know of groups where they have done exactly the same rituals, word-for-word invariant, for ten years or more. That's all they ever teach their students.

And they actually pride themselves on this -- they think this is what it means to follow a Tradition! 

I think that both the people and the Gods deserve better than that. 

At the time that I hived, I had just completed a Masters degree in Counseling. My graduate program stressed "competency based" education. This means that they rated us on what we could do, not on our understanding of theory or anything else. So my partner and I tried to analyze the competencies - the skills - required of a good priest or priestess. Much of our present coven training is still competency based.

But that turned out to be an oversimplification, too. I've been studying the process of shamanic or mystical development in many different traditions - doing the research for my next book, which will be about spiritual mentoring. They just about all hold that a teacher cannot guide a student to where the teacher has not been. If you think about it, the same insight is found among secular counselors and psychotherapists: you need to sort out your own "stuff" before you can effectively help others to sort through theirs. So, before we give somebody Third, which in our Tradition conveys authority to hive off, to train and Initiate others, we obviously need to make sure their skills are adeqquate, but that's not enough. We also need to feel OK about their good heart, their right motivation, their wisdom and compassion, their deep, clear and conscious connection with the Ancient Gods ... all the "subjective" stuff I was in such reaction to 20 years ago.

It is subtle, certainly. But as long as we confuse subtle with subjective, there's too much room for mistake or abuse, for elevating people on the basis of simple longevity, or even for how much they are willing to flatter the coven leaders. What we need to do is talk together about what character traits are essential, or desireable, and how we will help our students develop them and how we will recognize them when they are achieved. That's what I'm really thinking a lot about now, and that's the conversation I'm hoping to have with other Pagan elders.

Judy Harrow in her work area.

TWPT:  While we are on the subject of degrees and traditions, there are those who feel that we are losing touch with our roots and that some of the wisdom of the elders of the Craft is being lost because of the current climate surrounding our community, what are your feelings on this subject and how might we stop this erosion of the foundations of our belief system?

JH:  This is one of the places where my opinions are a bit heretical. We were taught that Wicca is a religion without a laity. It did look that way back in the seventies, but time has shown us that the concept was not really accurate.

Back then, we were pretty well concealed, hard to find. That meant that only the very strongly motivated found their way in. As we became more visible, easier to find, naturally some people who were less driven still managed to find us. Those folks became the new Pagan laity. I don't think there's anything wrong with good-hearted lovers of Mother Earth who are using our religion to stay attuned to Her cycles and provide guidance and power for the other worthy things they do in their lives.

But what their presence shows us is that Wicca is not simply a religion. 

My religion is Paganism, same as theirs. Wicca is a more concentrated, committed way of being Pagan. It's like all Franciscans are Catholic, but not all Catholics are Franciscan. And I'm deliberately using the term "Franciscan," the name of one particular committed religious order within Catholicism, to emphasize that the Wicca are not the only committed Pagan religious order. There are also Druids, Asatruar, etc.

I don't think the advent of the Pagan laity in any way erodes or weakens what we have within our covens. If anything, I think coven training is both broader and deeper than it was when I was beginning. And there are many more trained Witches, even though we are a smaller proportion of the Pagan community than we were 20 years ago.

So I don't see anything that needs to be prevented or repaired, just the growth and normalization that we really should have expected all along.

TWPT:  Tell me about the formation of Proteus Coven and what expectations you had for it.

JH:  I started a study group when I was a Second Degree, and Initiated them and hived off soon after receiving my Third. That is absolutely classic practice. My coven maiden, a Second Degree, is teaching our current pre-Initiatory study group right now.

My then-partner and I hoped to create a group with solid and thorough training, an emphasis on creativity in ritual, a strong commitment to protecting and healing Mother Earth, and an absolute allergy to authoritarianism. I'm very, very pleased with the results we've achieved.

TWPT:  What are some of the advantages of working with a coven as opposed to being a solitary practitioner all of your life?

JH:  I've never been a solitary, so it's hard for me to make that comparison. Maybe it's just that some of us are temperamentally inclined to community and others to individual practice. For me, a coven is like an intentional family, the people I count on and who I hope feel they can count on me.

TWPT:  What brought about your affiliation with CoG and what benefits are there from being affiliated with such an organization?

JH:  The coven in which I was trained was CoG affiliated, so it seemed natural for Proteus to affiliate when we hived. I think of CoG as sort of a "professional association" for Witches, comparable to the Bar Association, the American Medical Association and similar groups. As I see it, such organizations have two main functions.

The first is public information and public education. Professional associations look out for the interests of their members, make sure their side of the story is heard, even lobby for their interests. I think over the years CoG has done an excellent job of public education and interfaith work, and it shows in the far greater respect we now enjoy. All Witches, perhaps all Pagans, benefit from this work, whether they support CoG or not. But it seems wrong to receive these benefits without making whatever contributions you can. 

The second function is continuing professional education. Historically, CoG is not as strong in this area. Perhaps if more people got involved and directed their contributions that way, more could be done.

TWPT:  Was this sense of doing your part for CoG that led you to further involvement beyond just your affiliating your coven with the organization?

JH:  Yes, plus it's just my personality to involve myself actively in whatever group I might join.

TWPT:  There was a long list on your website about the various positions and responsibilities that you had within the CoG organization, could you give us the capsule look at what you did and why you took on the many positions that you did.

JH:  I was First Officer (president), Second Officer (vice-president, responsible for coordinating the annual Merry Meet gathering), Public Information Officer and Credentials Officer at various times during the eighties and nineties.

Then I stepped back from that in favor of my writing and work with the local Interfaith Council. For the life and health of any organization, it eventually becomes appropriate to pass leadership to younger hands.

TWPT:  Tell me about your struggle to obtain clergy status in New York City and how the Civil Liberties Union was able to help you achieve that goal.

JH:  I got my first CoG clergy credential in the coven where I was trained, which was also CoG affiliated. I was living in New York City at the time. They have a clergy registry there, part of the marriage license bureau. So, when a couple takes out a marriage license, has a ceremony, and returns the license, the signature of the officiant is checked against the clergy registry before the certificate of marriage is issued.

So I went down to the registry, but they would not register me because I was not credentialed through a church known to them. Now, all of this was 20 years ago, so I'm hazy on the details. But what I remember is that every time I went down there, they told me I needed something else. I was never even able to get them to refuse me in writing, and it went on for about five years.

Finally, I appealed to the New York Civil Liberties Union. We had a conference that included the clergy registry people, the NYCLU people and me. We agreed to a compromise. I went back a week later with the paperwork we'd agreed on, and they refused me again! At that point, the City Clerk (who was in charge of that office) said he would have to get a legal opinion from the Corporation Counsel (the City's in-house lawyer). The Corporation Counsel issued an opinion in our favor, and the City Clerk hid it in the files.

At that point, a young journalism student was writing an article on this mess, as his Masters thesis in journalism school. He found the Corporation Counsel's opinion and got a copy to me. Then I went back, with the opinion in hand and accompanied by the NYCLU lawyer, and finally got registered.

The date was symbolically appropriate, so I've never forgotten it: January 15, 1985 -- Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

TWPT:  Has your struggle with the city made it easier for those that have come after you seeking the same thing?

JH:  Yes. Nobody that I know of has had any trouble registering since then.

TWPT:  Your involvement with the community continued to grow in the 80's, tell me about the Pagan Pastoral Counseling Network and the New York Area Coven Leaders' Peer Support Group. Why did you form them and what kinds of needs were you able to meet via these groups?

JH:  I have a Masters Degree in Counseling. As it happens, I was going to graduate school at night during the same years I was receiving my coven training. I was struck by how many times we were doing very similar activities - like guided meditation - only calling them by different names.

It's also become very clear to me that people talk over both spiritual and secular perplexities in their lives with their coven leaders. So every coven leader does "ancillary" counseling - and so do clergy of most other religions. Most of them learn their skills by experience, and do quite well.

Since I'd had the unusual advantage of professional training in counseling, I felt an obligation to share that with other Pagan clergy in a variety of ways. The Pagan Pastoral Counseling Network was actually a sort of round-robin newsletter for Pagans in the helping professions, a way for us to network and pool our knowledge so as to better serve the community. Then, with another priestess who had her Masters in Counseling, I created the Counseling Basics workshop. That has been presented, in weekend intensive form, in many different places -- and I will do it for any Pagan group who wants it. This is a free offering -- I only ask that they cover my travel expenses and the copying costs for the handouts.

The Coven Leaders Peer Support group ran for six years. It was a place for coven leaders to share insights and get feedback on coven issues, and pool knowledge on subjects like group dynamics, teaching methods, etc. Members came from several different Traditions, so we stayed away from discussing rituals or anything else that might be oathbound.

TWPT:  To this point in time what kinds of writing had you been doing?

JH:  Lots of training material for my coven, much of which is on the coven web site for anybody who can use it. Articles about how psychology, religion, magic etc all work together and influence each other. One book so far, Wicca Covens, which is primarily about group dynamics.

Another in the works - no title yet, but the topic is spiritual mentoring, so that would be about working one-on-one to assist another with their magical and spiritual development.

TWPT:  What brought about your involvement with the Modern Rites of Passage book? What kinds of essays did you contribute to the collection?

JH:  I'm incredibly grateful to the editor, Chas Clifton. He is a fine Pagan writer, and a professor of creative writing. Chas did a lot to mentor my transition from amateur to professional writer. My essay on working with underaged seekers had already been published in Enchante magazine. Chas liked it and wanted to include it in the anthology.

The other, longer essay on military service was written because I wanted to reach for a bit more balance in my own understandings. I had been an anti-war activist during the American invasion of Viet-Nam. By interviewing all those veterans, I was able to gain some insight into what it was like for those who chose the other path.

TWPT:  You also had a two year stint as a producer of a radio program on WBAI radio in New York called "Reconnections", how did that fit into the scheme of things and what was it that you brought to the show?

JH:  My working partner at that time had a two-hour radio show, mostly call-ins but also interviews, music, just a miscellany. I was his associate producer, helped with all aspects, learned how to edit tape and produce sound from him. Eventually, he gave me a 15 minute segment of my own, where I was the person in charge.

The word "reconnections" has the same meaning as the word "religion." The "ligion" root is also in words like "ligament." So the "Reconnections" feature was about the activities of religious progressives of all faiths: peace activists, feminist theologians, etc. I limited Pagan features to no more than one in ten. The idea was to attract listeners of all religions, let them hear about the good things each other were doing, and - oh, by the way - include good things Pagans were doing in the mix. If I had focused exclusively on Pagans, I would have drawn an all-Pagan audience. Instead, I wanted to let others know about us, gain a hearing for our ideas.

TWPT:  You mentioned earlier that you had written most of your Coven materials and the essays for Chas Clifton's collection but did you have desires to go further and write books of your own?

JH:  I had vague thoughts of someday writing a book ... later. It seemed like too large a project to take on while I was still employed. The opportunity arrived before I felt ready, and was too good an opportunity to pass up. Making us "offers we can't refuse" could be the Gods' way of inducing us to grow.

TWPT:  When was it that you decided to write your first book and how did you go about pursuing that goal?

JH:  I heard that the publisher wanted somebody to write a book about group dynamics in covens. That's something I know a lot about, because I was lucky enough to have the graduate education in counseling. I believe that we are born with certain talents and blessed with certain opportunities in our lives. These are gifts from the Gods, and also they can be seen as "callings," potentials that we are supposed to actualize. When we accept initiation, we become priestesses or priests, what that means is we consciously commit ourselves to respond to those callings, to place those talents and the fruits of those opportunities at the service of the Gods and the community.

What made writing the book difficult is that we bought a house at about the same time. Fixing it up and moving into it turned out to be a horrendous project that took over a year. So, the deal I made with my husband was that he did all the packing, 100%, I did not help at all. Then, after the manuscript was in, I did all the unpacking and decorating.

The Internet made it possible to write the book the way I did. As you know, I have a background doing radio documentary production. A lot of that art is editing together various interviews to tell a story. So, I gathered a list of about 35 working coven leaders, from all over the English-speaking world. I did not create a list-serv -- this was just before doing that became easy, and besides some of them had privacy concerns. So they did not interact with each other, which might have been a great deal of fun, but only with me.

I chunked the project down to make it less scary. I told myself I was not writing a book, but a series of related articles called "chapters." For each one, I did some reading and research, formulated what I thought were the 2 or 3 key questions, then emailed them to my list of coven leaders. Then I wove together excerpts from their responses, just as though I were cross-cutting interviews for a radio piece. I integrated that with what I had learned from my reading, of course. But I think the contributions from the coven leaders are the heart of the book.

Remember, I was still working a day job. My advance was nothing like large enough to support me, or even provide a travel budget. So, there's no way the book could have included that breadth of experience or depth of wisdom without the Internet.

TWPT:  What kind of feedback have you gotten from readers since it was first published?

JH:  Very soon after the book was released, the publisher went bankrupt. So the book was unavailable for most of a year while the bankruptcy was in litigation, and, of course, nothing at all was done to promote it. I got very little feedback at all, but what I got was good. Now, another publisher has purchased the rights and the book is available again. I'm hoping it will find good distribution this time around and be useful to many people, in the service of the Gods.

TWPT:  You already mentioned that you are working on a new book project about mentoring, could you give us a little more detail about what you hope to achieve in writing a book about this topic?

JH:   "Spirituality" is getting to be a very popular word right now, a fairly hot topic among professional counselors and therapists. But some of the definitions that are currently floating around seem to me to dissolve the word into invisibility. One article I read in a recent issue of a professional journal defined it as nothing more than the human drive to grow and improve. That just doesn't satisfy me.

For me, spirituality means something tighter, more specific. It means all those activities people do to create, clarify, deepen, sustain, etc. their conscious contact with Deity, however they understand Deity. Twelve steppers will probably recognize this as a re-wording of Step Eleven. Specifically Pagan spirituality, then, would be activities that we do to develop our conscious contact with Deity within a Pagan understanding: immanence, polytheism, pro-pleasure, feminist, all that stuff.

Some of the Christian denominations have a fairly well-developed tradition that they call "spiritual direction." Buddhists have an equivalent. Basically, it lies somewhere between counseling and coaching -- working intensively with individuals, one-on-one, helping them develop their  spirituality. 

So, what I'm doing is reading up on spiritual direction in other religions and seeing how much of it is useful or adaptable for Pagans. I'm calling this "mentoring" because I think the word "direction" has an authoritarian ring to it, which is discordant for us. I perceive this book about one-on-one  work as a balance of sorts to my first book, which was about group process.

TWPT:  If you were to take the broad view of the Craft movement since you started back in the mid 70's, what are some the accomplishments we have made as a community since that time?

JH:  I think we have two intertwined growth paths, one internal and one external. We need to keep those in balance. If we let the external run ahead of the internal or divert energy from it, we degenerate from a religion into a social or political movement. If we let the internal run too far ahead of the external, we could become very smug and self-satisfied, priding ourselves on our devotion to the Gods but not living in accordance -- in a word, hypocrites.

So, internally, as I see it, our training is far more thorough than it was. We still do spellcraft, but it's no longer the primary attraction for most of us --nature spirituality is. By living in and with this faith for a generation, through all the normal joys and sorrows of life, we have deepened in understanding. We are building a sub-culture: arts, scholarship etc that express our perspectives on life and faith.

Externally, our first goal was acceptance. First, we needed to become well enough known to gain for ourselves the protection of America's traditional freedom of religion. That's done, although we may have to defend our gains under the present administration -- they are no friends of the First Amendment, no friends of the Earth, and most certainly no friends of ours! Next we needed to be taken seriously by theologians of other religions. We needed to gain a seat at the tables where the conversations about religion and values were taking place. That's done. Ironically, although we could not gain entree before we were politically safe, our access to learned theological dialogue is far safer now than, for just one example, the religious practice rights of military Pagans.

TWPT:  Taking that same viewpoint what do you see as areas of the Craft or the Pagan movement in general that still need to be worked on?

JH:  Internally, we need more of the same. Really, there's plenty of room for growth and improvement of all that we do. I think we also need to be very strong about resisting the threat of commercialism, which corrupts everything it touches. I think it's also essential that we celebrate and cherish -- and maintain -- our traditional structures: covens and lineages. It's a bad mistake to think that eroding this will promote individual freedom. Structureless mass movements turn individuals into interchangeable parts. In small affinity groups, like covens, each person matters.

Externally, defending our own right to exist is necessary but not sufficient.

Besides a right to exist, we need a reason to exist. What I think this means is that we need to develop an effective advocacy for the sacred value of Mother Earth. In terms of our interactions with the larger society, I think we should model ourselves on the Quakers. They have been a minority for 300 years, but a respected minority because of their consistent and honorable lifeways and their clear advocacy for social justice. We could offer a similar clear and steady voice speaking for ecological sanity.

TWPT:  What can we look for in the future from you as an author and an activist within the community?

JH:  Externally, I've recently become active in the New Jersey Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling. This is a state branch of a special interest sub-group of the American Counseling Association. I'm on their executive committee. It's the other side of the street -- all these years I've been trying to bring Pagans useful concepts and techniques from the world of counseling and psychology, and now I'm bringing an accurate picture of Paganism and Wicca to the professional counseling community. Similarly, I'm on the steering committee of the Interfaith Council of Greater New York.

Internally, I'm really not much of a community activist. I try to develop my own personal spirituality. I read and I write. There are a couple of other writing projects under consideration, but it's premature to speak of them. I'm exploring a long-neglected interest in photography and a new fascination with computer graphics. I'm hoping that retirement will allow me to pick up the loose thread of sound production. I work with my coven, which is in a happy, active phase right now.

TWPT:  As we close the interview do you have any final thoughts or wisdom you'd like to share with our readers?

JH:  It's become something of a cliché, but I think the late Joseph Campbell got it right when he said "follow your bliss." Let us be guided by joy and wisdom as we re-construct the Old Ways. May we live in peace with each other and with our neighbors. Thank you!

TWPT:  Thank you for taking time to talk with me and I certainly do hope that your book Wicca Covens gets a good chance at reaching its intended audience this time around.