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The Author's Corner

 



Lisa McSherry

Visit Lisa's website:
Cyber Coven

 

Magickal Connections:
Creating a Lasting
and Healthy
Spiritual Group

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magickal Connections:
TWPT Talks to Lisa McSherry

©2007TWPT


TWPT:   When was it that you first realized that the spiritual path that you are currently on was the one for you and was there an event that triggered this response? 

LM:  Yes and no. When I was a young girl, I was very interested in being Catholic (to the dismay of my atheist father and ‘recovering Catholic’ mother) which I discovered when I attended one of their schools. I loved the ritual, I loved the mystery, and I truly felt a connection with God. Even after I started attending public school, I went on my own time to services and although I didn’t have a cross in my room or anything remotely resembling a regular worship practice, I did get into the habit of ‘reaching out’ to God and talking with him when I was upset. 

Just before I turned 13 an upsetting incident occurred, but when I turned to God for comfort, he simply wasn’t there. A void existed and I was plunged into despair. I spent about a year looking into alternate paths to him – Buddhism, Hare Krishna, Anglican, Judaism, and a bit of ‘Left Hand’ stuff (so seductive to an adolescent!). 

But it was my mother’s copy of Spiral Dance that did it. There was a nearly visceral ‘click’ when I started reading about the Goddess. I didn’t hear the ‘hallelujah’ chorus or have a vision, but the feeling of absolute rightness was palpable. At Samhain that year (just after I turned 13) I held a simple ceremony in my room and dedicated myself to the Goddess as Her priestess. 

TWPT:  Prior to this point did you have any kind of spiritual background or exposure to other spiritual paths? 

LM:  I think I covered that in #1. But I will add that my core family is mostly Irish, with a hefty dose of Polish. So Catholicism was *the* religion in our family. As far as I know, until my parent’s generation, no one married outside the faith. 

TWPT:  What was it about this path's beliefs that first struck you as being very unique and different from what you had been taught about spirituality up to this point in your life? 

LM:  First and foremost – it was the direct connection. The fact that I didn’t need to go to church to talk to God was already a part of my experience. Finding a religion that made that the point was refreshing. 

Secondly, it was finding a God that looked like me (if you will). As an adolescent it was important for me to be able to find security in a deity that knew, intimately, what it was like to be a woman. (I have a slightly more refined vision now, but at the time it seemed to me that God’s omniscience didn’t really cover things like menstruation and horny sex.) 

TWPT:  How did you go about learning about this path once you had decided to follow it? Were there helpful books, organizations or people that acted as guides during those formative years?

LM:  Books were my guides for years. I was lucky, I grew up inSan Francisco and it was relatively easy to find occult bookstores – even when they were called feminist bookstores. Drawing Down the Moon was another book my mother already owned, but I found Diane Mariechild and Shakti Gawain on my own. Sybil Leek and some crazy male author (I forget who, but he had a very ‘Christian’ take on witchcraft that I found appalling, even though I kept the book for a long time) were others that I read. 

In true solitary fashion, I did a lot of figuring out things for myself. I’d try a ritual the way it was written, and the next time I would alter it to something that was more my style, or where it seemed appropriate. I didn’t do a lot of spell work (mostly because I couldn’t always see the ethics) but I did a lot of magick. 

It wasn’t until I got to college that I felt comfortable enough to start talking to others about my practices and working with others. 

TWPT:  What were some of your first impressions of the Wiccan/Pagan community at large once you started to meet some of the folks who were walking the same path as you?

LM:  HIPPIES! 

Sorry, but it’s true. Let me place that in context: I was raised by hippies and even lived in a commune for awhile. We were composting and raising our own food in the middle of SF for years. The house didn’t do the ‘free love’ thing, but there was certainly a lot of ‘find your path’ going on. 

So, I finally step out into the Pagan world as an adult and what do I find? Hippies.  It didn’t take long to see that there were people who looked like hippies, but had their act together, and those who couldn’t find an act if it was scripted for them. 

I felt like an oddball in an oddball community. 

TWPT:  On reflection back to that time did you see the community as having a cohesiveness or was it pretty much just scattered individuals/groups that occasionally met together during festivals and gatherings? Do you see us as having made much progress since that time in forming communities and seeing the larger picture?

LM:  It felt like there was a pretty cohesive community, with many individuals and smaller groups joining the larger for particular events, but not on a regular occasion. (Just to place this in context, this was in theSacramento,CA area, in the late 80s. Damn, I feel old when I think about how long ago that was.) 

I have to say that I just wasn’t enough past the self-centeredness of adolescence to think about whether there were witches and Pagans all over the country. Margot Adler told me there were, and that was enough for me.

TWPT:  Did you always enjoy writing or was that something that started after you began to follow this path? 

LM:  That’s a bit tricky to answer since I started practicing witchcraft so young. I can say that I always did well in my English classes and enjoyed writing when I could find a good ‘hook’ to write about. 

For me, writing is easiest when I stick to non-fiction, and I write about what I know. (Which is the advice ‘they’ always give to new writers.) I could, theoretically write about what I think I know, but I feel it shows up in the writing – it just isn’t as solid as when I am talking about what I know. 

I also resisted the fact that I am a writer for a long time. Even after I published a book I wouldn’t call myself a writer. Mostly because it isn’t something I do full time, and because it can be difficult or me to write on a regular basis. I have to have the Muse with me. If she isn’t there, I’ve got nothing to say. 

TWPT:  Like you the internet was important to my finding and learning about Wicca. Tell me about how you moved out onto the internet for the first time looking for information about being Wiccan/Pagan and what it was that you found when you got there.

LM:  I was a latecomer to the Internet. I didn’t really get online until late 1996, and I joined an online ‘wicca 101’ class in 1997. That class evolved into one of the first cyber covens, ShadowMoon. Prior to that, I’d dabbled a bit with Prodigy and the early AOL chat rooms, but I didn’t have regular access and always felt weird about checking it out at work. 

But ShadowMoon was perfect for me. After all of those years of working solitary, I found a class that filled in all of the cracks and details you just don’t easily get from books. My teacher (Mystara) had a solid background in a traditional training system and she imparted a huge amount of data in a short period of time. 

TWPT:  When was it that you decided that you'd like to share your ideas and thoughts in book form and how did you go about approaching a publisher with your proposal?

LM:  Back in 1999 I was laid off from work, and it took about 6 months to find a new job. By then I was working towards my 2* and had re-organized ShadowMoon’s class into a structured learning system; I’d also created a data-intensive online Book of Shadows open to everyone. So I took the gift of time and started writing about everything we were doing online – training, rituals, spell work, all of it. I just wrote about what I knew.

That became CyberCoven.Org: Creating and Maintaining Magickal Groups Online. When I felt I had a book, I researched how to write book proposals (my grateful thanks to the Public Library system) and sent it out, with sample chapters and a detailed Table of Contents to basically all of the ‘Pagan’ publishers. Mostly I got rejection letters, but they were nice rejection letters.

Eventually, Red Wheel/Weiser accepted my manuscript and published about half of it as The Virtual Pagan: Exploring Wicca and Paganism Online. That is (in my mind the ‘beginner’s book.’ The second half of that material I self-published as a PDF under the original title of CyberCoven.Org. 

TWPT:  Let's talk about your book Virtual Pagan. I was involved in the early days of the Prodigy community Wiccan/Pagan boards/chat and into irc chat. Do you look back on those mediums and other similar mediums as foundational to becoming "virtual" communities? 

LM:  Absolutely! There is an essay I wrote a number of years ago that traces the ‘history’ of paganism on the Internet. There were virtual rituals held as early as the mid-80s, and the connections people made online were incredibly important to the later surfacing of Pagans in theUnited States. 

We are a very secretive religion, and we lack structure. It is all too easy to feel that you are the only one in your geographic area that worships as you do. But when you are no longer restricted by geography, there can be a huge surge of confidence and growth as you reach out to find others like yourself. 

Howard Rheingold published the seminal work on virtual community in his 1993 book of the same title. He was a founding member of WELL and his discussions of how people create community online in the pre-WWW times is fascinating. Of course, once the WWW was implemented everything got HUGE very quickly. It was amazing. 

TWPT:  Do you see the virtual as something that can fully displace the physical in some instances and still meet the needs of the participants involved? 

LM:  Fully displace? Hmmmm . . . Technically, yes, and in some instances. There is a phrase that runs through our community to the effect that “a good magick-user can Work naked in the desert with no tools.” That, to me, is an example of virtual working. But in reality, there is almost always something physical, even if it is just the use of a computer to interface with the astral/cyber plane. 

I have done healing rituals, initiations, sabbats and esbats online, so I know that if it is done on the physical plane, it can be done on the virtual. But Working virtually is easier (or more focused) if it incorporates physical elements. For example, one abundance ritual we do involves cinnamon and eggs – infused with healing energy during the ritual and then eaten (with intent) the next morning. That, to me, is a good Working. 

Some people won’t find virtual work satisfying, and I think it is wise of them to recognize that and go with it. Personally, I’ll take any virtual ritual over some of the lackluster physical rituals I’ve attended over the years. 

TWPT:  Tell me about your efforts to work cyber rituals, to hold cyber meetings, to offer cyber teachings or just to run a cyber coven all online. 

LM:  (laughing) I’m tempted just to point you to my website full of essays and The Virtual Pagan. 

My coven holds an open Full Moon ritual each year (usually in April) and it is a wonderful experience. One advantage we have is that since we’ve been holding rituals online for 10 years now (including my pre-JaguarMoon time) we are really good at it. We know how to prep people, how to set the mood, and how to hold the energy. In fact, I think it is MUCH easier to shape energy online than physically, although the energy is usually not as intense. 

For us, it is important to keep the technology as minimal and as ‘low’ as possible. I understand those who desire to create entire virtual environments via graphics and avatars – and I think it’s a lovely idea. I’d certainly be interested in participating. But I have no interest in creating such an environment (I’m an absolute end user when it comes to technology. I don’t understand why or how it works; I just know the result I want to get). As a result, we can usually get even technological newbies to join us on IRC (where we hold ‘real time’ meetings, lessons, and rituals). So its more of a timing issue (what time is it where you are and where I am?) than anything else. 

Cyber work has its good points and bad. It is incredibly easy to start a cyber group, but not so easy to have it continue through the years. My ‘mother’ coven, ShadowMoon doesn’t exist anymore, for example and it took us more than five years to birth a daughter coven. I’ve been working online for about 10 years now, and my life has a certain rhythm to it as a result. 

I am blessed to have great people to work with – I don’t do it alone (at least not anymore). I have a wonderful High Priest who leads rituals, works with me on re-creating rituals and does a damn good job of mentoring. He’s also our webweaver. The other two coven members share ritual responsibilities, administrative duties, mentoring and are starting to lead rituals as well. Although I am the primary teacher, we are all going to be teaching more-or-less equally through next year’s cycle of classes. 

I am fully aware that it is not for everyone, and I don’t mind that I am (once again) a minority in a group of minorities. 

TWPT:  What are the shortcomings and what are the advantages of working this way?

LM:  The shortcomings all have to do with text-based communication, which is far less fluid and informative than face-to-face communication. Online, no one can tell if you are feeling blue, or want a hug. You have to say ‘I feel blue.’ Which can be very difficult. It is also easy to misunderstand someone. Calling someone an idiot can be teasing if accompanied by a laugh, but in print even a ‘smilie’ (:)) might not reduce the ‘ouch factor’. 

It takes a lot of self-responsibility and awareness to communicate well online. And let me hasten to add that although I do all right, I am by no means perfect at it! Mostly, if there is even a little negative emotion happening, I check my writing with another person – a coven mate, or my partner. Just to make sure I don’t have a snarky undertone or that the point I am trying to make comes through. 

The advantages are largely geographic. We don’t have to leave our house to attend a coven meeting, or a ritual. Talking with a friend or creating spontaneous ritual is as easy as logging on and making the connection. Communication happens throughout the day, not just once a week (or month or sabbat). If we truly are the only Pagan in our town, we don’t have to practice alone. 

This can be enormously helpful to those who are physically challenged. Some of the biggest difficulties of getting to and participating in ritual are simply not a factor when working online. If you can be at a computer for 1-2 hours (and not necessarily sitting), you can do ritual or participate in a lesson. 

TWPT:  The ultimate question would be for those heavily involved in the cyber world is do we need face to face contact at all to be able to be a fully functioning member of the Wiccan/Pagan community?

LM:  I think so. Not so much to be a fully functioning member, but if you are going to do anything outside of your circle, eventually you need to go look at people. Besides, its fun to dance around a circle occasionally.

I’m not a fan of extremes and so I (perhaps surprisingly) don’t advocate a 100% cyber practice. If nothing else, we are Pagans and we do need to get outside and ‘hang’ with nature. 

Personally, I’m incredibly shy and meeting new people (strangers!) is enormously difficult for me. This always makes people laugh because I’m friendly and go out to pagan gatherings all over the place and talk about what I know. My inclination is more along the lines of never leaving the house. But it isn’t healthy for me to be so introspective and so I make myself get out and talk. But I probably, no definitely, wouldn’t do it if I didn’t feel like it was a part of my service to the community. 

TWPT:  Your latest book is called Magickal Connections and is about creating a lasting and healthy spiritual group. Was there something in particular that motivated you to write this book?

LM:  A few years ago, at one of my speaking engagements, I got into a discussion with a well-known Witch who absolutely ranted about how awful the witch community was about gossip, slander and creating ‘witch wars.’ It was this person’s opinion that not only are we our own worst enemies, but that the Fundamentalists were actively targeting us. It got me to thinking about the training we receive (personal and non-personal). I realized that my background in psychology and sociology had been a great help to me in leading my own group, but that many of us lacked this training.

And lo, Magickal Connections was born. 

TWPT:  What are some of the main problems with forming and maintaining a functional group that meets the needs of the members over the long haul? 

LM:  First and foremost, a lack of serious introspection and self-awareness on the part of the leader(s). I see a lot of groups, especially online, that are formed with essentially no thought beyond how fun (or cool) it would be to be a High Priest/ess. 

Secondly, a lack of serious thought for the current and future plans. A group based around doing ritual has very different needs than one based on teaching, for example. Everything is different: Who you look to recruit, or accept into the group; when you meet; who takes on which roles; everything. 

Third, and finally, the ability to deal with conflict. Conflict can be healthy and useful, but we more often see it as absolutely destructive. It takes a healthy ego to be able to accept criticism and create positive change (see my first point, above). It also takes guts to be able to transform a destructive situation into a constructive one. As well, there is a time when a healthy group must undergo a period of conflict to remain healthy. 

TWPT:  Is the information contained in Magickal Connections drawn from your own experiences of being involved with a variety of groups?

LM:  Absolutely. As I said, I write about what I know. 

TWPT:  If you could only offer one piece of advice through this interview to those who are contemplating joining or forming a magickal group what would it be?

LM:  Be sure of what you want, and (if starting a group) that it is what the God/dess wants for you. If you are in it for ego you will be unhappy.

TWPT:  I've often seen seminars, workshops and courses offered in leadership training. How important is this kind of training as it relates to running a group of your own? Does this need to be taught by elders and others who are qualified teachers or can you just pick it up from reading books about leadership and applying the ideas? Can leadership be taught?

LM:  I think leadership training, no matter where you get it from, can only help. For magickal groups, being able to work with a leader -– good OR bad – is enormously valuable. (Being able to say to yourself ‘I will NOT do that’ is as useful as ‘I have to remember that.’) You can pick up a lot from books and they can be great reminders of principles and techniques. But if you get your training from reading, remember that you will very likely need to use it before it really becomes a skill. (Although, that is true for me – I have a hard time truly understanding something until I do it/see it done. It’s a slow way to learn, but I never forget a lesson.) 

Leadership can definitely be taught. Some people are lucky to be born leaders – they have charisma and intuition and are just good at it. Others, like me, need to be taught (and are often reluctant to recognize their abilities). One of the best things I did for myself when taking on the role of leader was that I surrounded myself with people I trusted to tell me the truth, even when (especially when!) I was making a mistake. Having that support got me through the years when I really felt like I was making it all up. Then I learned enough to start asking better questions and seeking out training from other sources and people. 

I’m still learning, and I feel that I always will be. 

TWPT:  Does writing get easier the more you do it? What did you learn from writing your first book that you applied to your second book? 

LM:  Remember that there was a five year gap between books (and it will likely be about five years before my next one is published, even though I already know what I want to say). In between the two I’d started writing much more frequently for magazines and online publications. I’d also been an editor at The Beltane Papers for a number of years. So my skills as a writer and editor had developed dramatically. (Before TVP my last writing had been in college.) So it was more a matter of refinement for me. 

I knew how to write a book proposal (and I got the same number of rejections for book 2 as 1) but my marketing proposal was better developed since I’d learned a lot about that aspect. Interestingly, the 2nd book took about half as long to edit – there just wasn’t that much for the editor to do! (I couldn’t believe it at first, I kept asking her when she was going to tell me to re-format whole sections or something.) 

TWPT:  When you make appearances at conferences what is the most positive outcome that you can imagine from someone taking your class and listening to you teach?  What is it that you personally get out of the interaction that you have with those who come to hear you speak? 

LM:  That they learned something. Which happens a lot. Every class I’ve given I have people nodding their heads, laughing as they recognize an example I give, and offering their own examples. It is great! 

I’ve been speaking for years and I regard it as part of my community service. When I talk with people about what I’ve learned and they say ‘Oh, that is JUST what is going on in my group’ I know I’ve opened a door and helped and otherwise total stranger. 

TWPT:  Tell me about the writing that you do outside of writing books. Is this shorter form writing as fulfilling for you as putting out a new book? 

LM:  Absolutely. I like completing tasks and writing shorter pieces gets me fulfilled faster. 

TWPT:  Will you be out on the road during 2007 doing some of the conferences and festivals? Anything that you are particularly looking forward to? 

LM:  I had a great time at the Toronto Pagan Conference in early March, and we’ve already talked about my coming back for a couple of talks again next year. In late April I’ll be at the Ecumenicon interfaith Conference (http://ecumenicon.org/conference/details ) in Baltimore doing my trademark talks on group dynamics. After that I am heading to London, UK where I hope to set up a few talks or at least meetings. 

That is all I have planned, but I am always looking to find new groups or events to attend. 

TWPT:  What are your hopes for the Wiccan/Pagan community (virtual and physical) in the coming years? What are some of the critical things that we should all be working on or towards?

LM:  It looks like we are coming out of a rough period where we were growing and going public and there was a lot of ‘fire’ energy we had to work through. We seem to be doing a lot better, at least on the surface. I still hear stories of negative politics, but they don’t seem to be tearing whole communities apart like they once did. 

I think we need to deal with the ramifications of growing faster than one-to-one training can cope with, and people who are ‘earning’ degrees through reading and passing multiple choice exams with no ritual or energy-manipulation experience. 

I also think we need to work on the problem of predators in our community. Aspects of the Pagan lifestyle and belief system(s) are vulnerable nasty people who only care about satisfying themselves. We need to get better about sharing information and protecting the newcomers. 

TWPT:  Any final thoughts you'd like to share with your readers as we close out this interview? 

LM:  I view my writing and sharing my thoughts with the community as a participative process. I speak, others speak and we all learn more than we knew before. Although facingnorth.net is the review site I created as a community resource, and jaguarmoon.org is my coven’s site, my main website is cybercoven.org, and that is where a lot of my writing can be found. 

Thank you for such an enjoyable interview.