Informal Training

Informal Training

Author:   Mama Fortuna 

If I were planning on performing brain surgery, I would probably want to attend medical school first.

Lucky for me – and for anyone undergoing brain surgery – I’m not planning on doing any such thing. I’m merely planning on altering reality, which does not, in fact, require a medical degree in the slightest.

In fact… does it require any degree at all?

For some people, there’s something comforting about knowing that the person leading your religious ritual has some sort of credentials. Someone, somewhere, has deemed that That Guy up there invoking the gods is strong enough, responsible enough, and knowledgeable enough to handle the spiritual needs of a large body of people. Likewise, if there’s magic to be done, then That Guy can handle it because he’s passed some sort of test.  He knows what he’s doing.  Pressure’s off.

For other people, the idea of letting somebody else direct their rituals or spells makes them awfully uncomfortable. “Just who ARE these people who decided That Guy should be in charge? Why can’t I do it myself?”

And let’s face it – some people just do not play well with others.

I am such a person.

I’m skeptical by nature.  If someone tells me that they have the Secrets of the Universe™, my first instinct is not to say “Wow!” and throw piles of money at them, but rather to cackle maniacally and say, “Yeah, and I’m the Queen of Atlantis.” While this doesn’t exactly make me popular at parties, it does keep me from placing my trust in people who don’t deserve it. If somebody wants to teach me something, they had better expect me to interrogate them. Frequently.

I believe very strongly in personal responsibility.  I feel that every person on the planet is ultimately responsible for his or her own destiny. Therefore, even if you’re engaged in formal traditional training, it is your duty not to follow along blindly. Question everything. You’re dealing with concepts like your soul, here. If you were buying a new car, you’d ask plenty of questions.  Shouldn’t your spiritual path be afforded more thought than that?

A true teacher won’t mind if you ask questions. A really good teacher will expect you to, and a fantastic one will kick your ass if you don’t.

Looking back, I can safely say that the best teachers I’ve ever had – mundane or otherwise – were the ones who recognized the importance of personal experience. I learned the most from teachers who pointed the way and then stood back, letting me make my own discoveries and yes, my own mistakes. This method might be more frustrating, but I also find it infinitely more rewarding because everything you learn is taken to heart. There’s also a much greater sense of accomplishment to be had – you really earn your insights, rather than just having information handed to you.

And let’s face it — sometimes you won’t truly learn a lesson unless you learn it the hard way. No matter how many times you might have heard that summoning Pazuzu in your living room is a Bad Idea, you might not ever really believe it until you try. (Note: the author has nothing against Pazuzu personally, but feels he serves as an excellent example due to his lousy PR.)

If you have the drive and the ability to think critically, then a flesh-and-blood teacher isn’t exactly necessary. Your desire to improve yourself spiritually and magically will force you to try, try, and try again. In many ways, not having someone there to lay out the basics for you will make you work even harder, as you’ll imagine you need to keep up with some imaginary class of initiates. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, if only through trial-and-error.

Traditional ritual is not useless, mind you– there’s something to be said for tried and true methods. They can certainly be time-savers, to be sure, as you eliminate a lot of that previously mentioned trial-and-error. But we no longer live in small rural communities where 90% of people are illiterate; we live in the information age, where supposed ‘secret’ teachings are available for $24.99 on  If you really have your heart set on learning how to perform the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, you can do a Google search and presto! Knowledge at your fingertips. (Like magic, I’m tempted to say.)

This knowledge is pretty useless without practice, of course. The motivated practitioner realizes this and will take the time and effort required to master the techniques he/she learns. And all that practice translates into more personal experience. The learning never stops.

One of the downsides of sticking to a strict formal training regime is that some people fall into the trap of “this is the way it is done, and this is the ONLY way.” Gosh, sounds awfully dogmatic when you put it like that, doesn’t it? For many people, one of the allures of Paganism is the lack of rules etched on stone tablets and the encouragement of creative thought. While some people are content to do things the way they were taught and only the way they were taught, others find such an attitude stifling.

Ritual and magic are, I think, meant to push a person’s limits. You learn more about yourself – and indeed the world around you – when you force yourself to explore boundaries. It’s awfully hard to do that, however, if you don’t try and think critically and creatively about what you already know. How can you grow if you’re not willing to challenge yourself?

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” cry the Chaos Magicians. I think that all Pagans could benefit from meditating on what they mean by that. (Whether or not you wind up agreeing with it is totally irrelevant.)

The emphasis on personal interaction with deity in religious matters is another thing that is so attractive about Pagan paths, and to claim that one has to go through a series of qualifying events in order to truly be able to experience the Divine would seem to run completely counter to that idea. Is it truly necessary to complete some sort of theological course before a deity deigns to speak to you? I don’t think so, and if the stories of fellow Pagans are to be believed, the gods don’t think so either.

That’s another thing – if people are truly interacting with gods, wouldn’t that alone be sufficient to act as a learning aid? In my experience, if the desire to learn is present, the gods tend to be more than willing to teach. And I personally place a lot more importance on what my gods have to say rather than what any High Priest or Priestess does.

Formal training certainly has its place in Paganism, but it should not be viewed as the only method for judging how serious a person is about their faith, or as a measuring stick for magical adeptness. If a person does not hold a third-level degree in the Fantastic Coven of Our Lady of the Moonbeams, but they have been practicing and pushing their own magical limits for fifteen years, does that automatically mean they are not as skilled as some Pagan ‘elite clergy’?

If it does, then I think the Pagan community needs to re-examine its values.