Saturday, April 3, 2010

Paying for Initiations, Paying for Services, Paying for Spirituality

A question recently arose on the Yahoo group Witch Essentials about paying for initiations. Gaia, the moderator, is a Wiccan priestess and noted that in Wicca charging money for initiations is strictly forbidden. I pointed out that initiation into Vodou is extremely labor and resource-intensive. Drummers must be hired for several nights, and large quantities of herbs, liquor, animals, flowers and other supplies must be procured. Several people will need to be near the djevo (initiatory chamber) throughout the week-long ceremony.  Holding this for free would soon bankrupt the house:  as it is, most houses in my experience are lucky to break even after a kanzo ceremony.  While I don't know the specifics of Wiccan initiation, I've been led to believe that the process is considerably less costly in terms of time and material requirements.

My understanding is that Gardner's proscriptions against charging for services were rooted in his concerns about England's Witchcraft law. At that time Britain was just getting over a Spiritualism craze, which had ended with quite a few "mediums" cheating little old widows out of their pensions and the like. The authorities assumed anyone who was identifying as a witch was doing so to bilk the gullible. By prohibiting witches from making money off the Craft, Gardner hoped to separate himself from the seedy con artists. (It also helped that most of Gardner's coven came from a social class where they didn't need to make a living selling charms and spells: he was a retired civil servant and solidly middle-class, unlike the hedge witches and cunning men of the day).

After reading through reams of advertisements for Ascended Master Vacations, Sacred Peruvian Quartz Crystal Magic Wands, Mongolian Spiritual Herb Baths and the like, I can definitely see some merit to ol' Gerald's proscription.  I am well aware that the Kanzo ceremony could easily become yet another vacation opportunity for someone seeking to add to their collection of "life-changing spiritual experiences." Instead of a sign that one is committed to the lwa, a kanzo could become a sign that you had sufficient disposable income and accrued vacation time. And there are plenty of spiritual con artists who will happily fleece the sheep for anything they can get.  I've talked to plenty of people who have lost thousands of dollars trying to bring back a lost love. I've even run into a few who were convinced I had to be a fraud because I didn't want large sums of money to do the work!

But I've also seen the "Witches do not charge for services" degenerate into "no Witch should charge ME for acting as my 24/7 on-call teacher, counselor and spiritual leader" and then to "no deity has the right to expect any kind of sacrifice from me."   Along the way the universe is transformed from a place of glory and terror into a great training-school that exists solely to lead the mystic to Enlightenment. The deities become what Raven Kaldera has called "the great Barbie dolls who give you stuff." And many capable, enthusiastic Pagan clergyfolk burn out and withdraw from the community after their starry-eyed idealism runs headlong into their students' sense of entitlement.

There are two great lessons to be found in the runes Fehu and Gebu: the payment for services rendered and the gift which is given in anticipation of future favors. Both runes are (like all the runes) primal forces which shape our world, our society and our lives and both are intimately connected with rights and responsibilities.  Fehu teaches us that very worker is owed a proper wage: Gebo teaches that every worthwhile gift comes with obligations attached.  Those who don't understand that should meditate on the laws of Thermodynamics, which teach us that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction.

That exchange does not have to involve a set fee given in exchange for your degree. You can pay your initiator and your coven back by contributing your time and your wisdom to the Craft. ("Ask not what Wicca can do for you, but what you can do for Wicca").  And you can remember the debt you owe when your initiator falls on hard times. As Isaac Bonewits, who has weathered several financial storms and health issues, said:
Neopaganism cannot survive as a movement if 99% of us remain takers most of the time and only 1% are givers. I have been delighted to meet some of that 1%, but we need to increase that percentage dramatically over the next several years, or some of Pagandom’s best known elders are going to be living—and possibly dying—on the streets...
The gods who sustain you, and the teachers who initiate you, have given you a tremendous gift. It is fitting for you to recognize that and to respond accordingly. Gardner said that your initiators and high priestesses can't ask you for money: common courtesy says that they should not have to do so. If we want to be harbingers of a New Age and founders of a new magical community, we are going to have to accept our responsibilities to our community and to those who work to build and sustain it.