Merry meet, and a good day to all of my readers. A few weeks ago popular Wiccan / Pagan author Christopher Penczk was in town at one of the local shops to promote his books and give a few workshops. I took the opportunity to stop by and meet him to see if I could perhaps get an interview from him for the blog and he very graciously agreed. While we were not able to sit down and do the interview while he was in town I was able to interview him via e-mail over a few weeks and am happy to share that interview with you now. Please check out Christopher’s web pages for information on his books and the Temple of Witchcraft here and here.
M.A.P. Thank you for agreeing to let me interview you for my blog Christopher. The first question I like to ask people when I interview them is, how did you come to be on a Pagan Path? I find it fascinating that so many of us on a Pagan Path came to it in many different ways.
C.P. I really came to the path as a skeptic. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school all my life, the last four years an all boys private school. By the time I consciously realized I was gay, but still in the closet, I really started questioning religion. Why was I rejected because of how I felt, or if I didn't want to be rejected, I couldn't act upon those feelings. It seems unhealthy. For a short time I happily accepted the idea of being the reject and outcast religious, and flirted with some less than helpful occult reading material based upon power, but I didn't think it was real. I think I was just looking for the inverse I what i was raised. I quickly gave up on that and started looking into eastern religions, specifically Taoism, Shinto and Hinduism. For some reason at the time Buddhism didn't catch my interest. But my studies lacked a direct experience. The closest I could get to eastern religion in NH twenty years ago was yoga at a gym. So they were nice philosophies, albeit a bit over my head at the time, but it wasn't real or grounded for me. I was searching and was an unhappy agnostic.
A family friend started introducing me to new concepts once I graduated high school. She was my art teacher for many ears, and my first employer with a gofer job at her studio. We would talk Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek statues. She taught me to look at history from the perspective of the Celts, rather than the Romans which blew my mind. History being written by the victors and all that. We talked quantum science as I was more of a science buff back then. I almost was a chemistry major, but shifted my focus to music right in my senior year of High School. So I appreciated her philosophies and art. She finally revealed that she was a Witch and seemed dumbfounded that I hadn't figured it out. I thought she was ridiculous, because there was no such thing as Witches. You have to remember this was way before the medial blitz of movies and TV shows featuring Wiccans and Witches . There was no The Craft or Buffy and i wasn't aware of any mainstream media activity by activist. I was just totally off my radar.
So I did what any arrogant and dramatic eighteen year old would do, I assumed I knew better and I had to "save" my friend from the crazy cult she joined. I read her books to understand why an intelligent and modern business woman would think she was psychic and could cast spells. Little did I know I would be a cult leader years later, so to speak. I soon realized there was no major hierarchy and no one was controlling her. That her philosophies made as much sense as anything else, but I was fascinated by the doing. She really did these things - running ritual, lighting candles, building altars and reading cards. It was all the things I liked about Catholicism, without relinquishing the self respect and control to another. And her particular line of Witchcraft, the Cabot Tradition, was welcoming of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. There was no discrimination against sexual orientation. She taught me about the Tarot and some meditation. And with her coven, I experienced my first Moon circle which was incredibly moving and powerful. Both the synchronicity of her call to the Moon Goddess, and the summer clouds parted to reveal the full Moon overheard and the chance to do a healing spell that was incredibly successful. It was a simple petition burned in the cauldron, but to this day, that technique is one of the most effective for me. Then when she said farewell to the Goddess, the clouds rolled back in. If only every ritual could have such special effects. But I needed something like that to get my attention, to hook it, so I would study deeper.
Eventually she took me as far as she was comfortable, and brought me to her own teacher, Laurie Cabot, the official Witch of Salem, MA and the founder of her own tradition. I like the academic style of set classes and syllabus, and her openness. Anyone was welcome to the first degree class, and she talked about how many people wouldn't continue, but much of Witchcraft was life skills and people were welcome to use them. Learning the science and philosophies first, rather than the crafting, was an important sequence for me. Telling me to light a candle of a specific color is one thing. Explaining why we were doing and the bigger ideas of how the candle would work, and how it could be connected to places and people, was much more effective for me. So that is really what opened the door to Witchcraft, paganism and the study of all sorts of occult and esoteric lore. Without that, I doubt I would have found Qabalah, Theosophy or shamanism.
M.A.P. You mentioned the television shows The Craft and Buffy in talking about how you came to be on a Pagan Path and how shows like that were not around. One of the questions I asked Margot Adler when I interviewed her was, What kind of influence do you think the recent influx of Magickal themed shows like Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and even Hercules and Zena have had on the pagan youth of today? Do you feel these shows give a positive outlook on Paganism or give youth an unrealistic view of a path that is actually much more grounded in reality? I am curious to hear your answer to this question.
C.P. I'm in favor of them for at least starting the discussion and opening doors to new ways of thinking and exploring. If someone doesn't know there is an option, then they can never explore. Not everyone is going to find a mentor first who opens the door. For many of us, books are the first teacher, but a TV show or movie can light the way. I do think they are really unrealistic and it's funny the questions I will get from younger people about the Craft. After Willow's escapades on Buffy, I was often asked question on getting addicted to magick. It was hard to explain that one can get addicted to a sense of power, but power over is really false in the long term. Magick itself is a way of life and seeing the world, not a drug to be addicted to like heroin. Some it got through to them. Some it didn't. It was funny to be accused by a teen of holding back the true secrets according to Willow. But life goes on. I also got a little tired of people asking me to teach them "light as a feather, stiff as a board." I had a lovely priestess friend who would end that questions with, "I’m such a good witch, I can do that trick with just one finger. Let me know you which one....." and proceed to tell them off.
I love some shows bringing some classic mythology themes to the mainstream again, but also cringe at how bad the mythology is, and as a theologian, a little disrespectful. Pagan gods can be super villains in sci-fi, but if that happened often to Jesus or Allah, there would be amazing protests. Perhaps we can better see the line between religion and fiction and be okay with it. But such portrayals can be kind of weird. Though I’m still a fan of Stargate SG-1. If anything helps people find their path, even if they have to wade through some entertaining mire, it serves the path of the wise and I’m for it.
M.A.P. We happen to have a mutual friend over in London, Mo, who has written a couple of guest spots on my blog here on Day for Doreen, and Day for Gerald. When he found out I was going to get the chance to meet you and ask you for an interview, I asked him if there was anything he would like to ask if I got to the chance to interview you. You talked about realizing you were Gay when you were finding your path this seems like a good time to ask his question which is, popular Witchcraft is often portrayed with a presentation of the sacred in terms of binary male or female gender and biology, and heterosexual relationship. There have recently been some controversies in the Pagan community about issues such as transphobia in the doctrines of some streams of feminist Witchcraft, while there has been a long standing critique of homophobia within various Pagan traditions. Many people have found a spiritual home in popular Witchcraft, but do you seen any problems for LGBT folks in modelling the sacred upon binary gender and heterosexuality? On a linked note, what alternatives are available within Wicca and Witchcraft?
C.P. I love Mo. He was very kind to me on a very difficult trip to the UK where I had pneumonia and was no fun at all. Glad to know he's guest blogging. It is an interesting question. Though a lot of my initial writing and minister was for the GLBTQ community, it hasn't really been where my focus in right now for my overall work. I was blessed, or some say hindered, that I didn't start with a British Traditional Wicca, aka Gardnerian/Alexandrian, is the only way to practice Witchcraft kind of training. My first introduction was the solitary priest holds the chalice and the blade, and both genders are in everyone, through the Hermetic Principle of Polarity and Gender. So it was never an issue for me. It was only when I expanded beyond my private circles of similarly trained people, did I realize that some found a gay priest, or a coven or all one gender, scandalous, even though not only was it already going on, but there are all sort of historic precedence for pagan orders of one gender or what we might call today different sexual orientations. Now is has swung around and its almost hard to find a straight, heterosexual priest in the Craft these days. Well, perhaps that's an exaggeration, but I think gays are more than the norm of ten percent in the pagan communities.
I think that while any type of phobia should be actively worked on to be healed, I also think special spaces and time for particular groups and sub groups are necessary. I've had amazing experiences at men's circle and at queer circles. The space and intent was defined as such and those boundaries have been maintained and respected with no hard feelings. I think women's mysteries, men's mysteries, gay men's mysteries, lesbian, bisexual and transgender mysteries should all be freely and safely explored. The transgender community is a tough issue, as many had differing opinions on what consists a gender, from chromosomes to outward life or even legal status. I belong to a festival community called Between the Worlds, for queer pagan men, defined as gay or bi pagan men. I’m part of the town council as the PR Director. We had some serious conversations about where our line is regarding trans men who identify as gay, bi or queer. For us, the line was legal. If you are living your life legally as a man, you are eligible for the festival and we now make that clear in our guidelines. For some, there has been complaint that it’s an issue of money, as many cannot get the required changes to be legally recognized for their gender status. And I can understand that, but having such a clearly defined line works best for us. It can be quite difficult for people to not know where the boundary is and show up expecting to participate.
The Temple of Witchcraft welcomes everyone regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, including all transgendered people. We do have specific ministries for specific genders and most active is our Women's Mystery Group as part of our Cancer Ministry. We also hope to have soon more for the overall Queer Community in our Gemini Ministry and Men's Circles as part of our Capricorn Ministry. Those who are the Lead Ministers of an area set the boundaries and parameters of such gatherings and thus far things seem to be going well with clear and open communication. Our own mysteries are less focused on male/female polarity and fertility, but on death and resurrection and the sexual current to the life force. We honor the interaction of solitaries, partners as priest-priestess, priest-priest and priestess-priestess, but our own theology is more triune in nature, with the offices of the founders of the Temple embodying Power, Love and Wisdom. But I guess I’m biased being in a polyamorous triad, threes would resonate with me more than two.
When you go beyond what is often thought of as Traditional Wicca, you find mysteries that have nothing to do with sexuality, gender or orientation. I try to teach an overview of "mysteries" with fertility being only one aspect of five, for our five degrees. Fertility, and what most think of as Wicca, is part of our second degree training. The first degree deals with oracular, or psychic mysteries and meditation. Ecstasy, as embodied by modern shamanism, is the third degree. The Gnostic mysteries, direct knowledge of higher worlds, through Qabalistic and Hermetic training is the fourth degree and mysteries, and the death and resurrection cycle is the fifth mystery for training the High Priest/ess.
M.A.P. When did you decide to write your first book on Paganism and how did it come to pass that you were published?
C.P. That's a funny question, as my first book was never published. i was working on some class notes and material I found interesting for a small group that gathered once a month together that I ended up leading and teaching. My love at the time was astrology and magick, and used it as a lens to the see the world, from understanding deities to magickal correspondence and even personal spiritual lessons and patterns. I worked on gathering my notes, creating an ambitious, and poorly written large book. I tried for the academic voice of the expert, but wasn't really an academic in the topics I was writing. I consider it my graduate thesis. Very educational, but not necessarily fit for the public.
At the same time, I was practicing more and more forms of urban magick and energy work, as I worked in Cambridge, MA. I had lots of late nights in the music industry and wasn't keeping up with a more regular meditation practice or ritual schedule. I had to fit things in, and see the divine everywhere. I went from practicing in backyards and woods in New Hampshire to the urban environment of Boston. I think Boston is a very magickal city, and being inspired by such author as Grant Morrison, through his comic book, The Invisibles, as well my own partner Steve Kenson, who is a chaos magician and ecstatic, I started looking for the magick everywhere - clubs and bars, city streets, parks and trains. It gave me a less than traditional view. When I got the clear messages to start teaching and when I accepted, immediately got laid off from my music industry job at a studio called Fort Apache, I took the nine months of unemployment to teach classes and write City Magick, and even start Spirit Allies. They put into form my experiences working in Boston. Strangely since I got laid off, I didn't use them as much, but they were helpful to change rigid views on what magick is and isn't, and even back in New Hampshire, I keep their message close to me.
Everyone thinks there is some secret to getting published, but often its as simple as following the writer's guidelines from a publisher. My first book was rejected by everyone, but a very kind letter from the then president of Weiser, Betty Lunstead, writing under an assumed name. She did that to keep the potential crazies down. People get weird when their book is rejected. I was told it was her several years after she died as a business lunch with Weiser while visiting Maine. Her advice was very heartfelt and she suggested that the book was too long for a new author and too cold in tone. I took her advice and put that into practice when writing City Magick and Spirit Allies. I shot-gunned them out, sending multiple submissions, as publishing companies can take more their their suggested 3-6 months to get back to you. I found myself in a strange place getting offers from several different companies for City Magick, though after some strangeness with one of the major companies, I went with Weiser. It did take Weiser eleven months to get back to me. I ended up signing my first two books with them, and then my fourth. I got a lovely pitch from Llewellyn about future submissions, and a true understanding of my vision to put out a series of teaching books and CDs, so when Weiser rejected Inner Temple of Witchcraft, I contacted Llewellyn immediately and have enjoyed a great relationship with them for the Temple of Witchcraft series.
I find my process for inspired and led by spirit. I've had a lot of ideas that might be more lucrative, but in the end, I have to follow the muse when it points in strange directions. I can't say I really decided to get into publishing. I simply followed what I was enjoying and thought, hey, I have a book, I should send it off and see if anyone is interested. Oh no, well, I'll work on this idea. I think I would probably write books even if I wasn't publishing them. Just perhaps at a slower pace as I would have to be doing something else with the majority of my day.
M.A.P. Of all the books of yours I have read perhaps my favorite and the one I asked you to sign for me when we meet was your Magick of Reiki book. I was first introduced to Reiki close to 15 years ago now by the Priestess I was at the time working with. She was branching out and opening her own healing arts studio at the time and I was able to learn Reiki I and Reiki II from her. Latter on I was able to complete my Master's and have sense gone on to teach the occasional Reiki I class myself. I have found it very easy to integrate Reiki into every aspect of my practice from personal right down to using it within a Wiccan Circle, and not a day goes by that I don't use it. How were you first introduced to Reiki and what part does it play in your life today? What was your inspiration for writing your book on Reiki?
C.P. I think my first experience with Reiki planted the seed that would eventually be the Magick of Reiki book. My first experience in learning Reiki was with a very traditional Japanese branch of Reiki, with very non-estoeric student base. I was in a class of thirty with doctors, firefighters, nurses and housewives, and the concepts of energy, chakras and hands on healing were all brand new. I was a little bored at first, but curious to see what was different about Reiki. Yet in this lineage, everything was kept secret. No talk in Reiki 1 of symbols, and when I specifically asked about the attunement process, and asked if it used symbols, or passed a current like an esoteric initiation into an order or lodge, I was told they could not discuss it until you reached Reiki 3. When I asked about that, and was told that to be a Reiki Master, to take Reiki 3, was ten thousand dollars, I felt this was a scheme to bilk people out of money. When we shared, the students though I, and a fellow Witch friend, were nuts being Witches, even though the lauded the writings of Carlos Castenada and the upcoming Women's Herbal Conference. It was hard to explain that our work was similar in some way to what they were seeking. We felt a bit ostracized though they tried to be polite. The energy work was good, but not so substantially different in result to what i learned in Witchcraft. I like the "hands on Reiki on" approach and safeguards, but otherwise, didn't see the big deal. I got involved to help my mom with an injury, and the magick wasn't helping anymore. So we did Reiki. She underwent what we call a healing crisis, but I wasn't trained or prepared for it. She would get much better for short periods of time, followed by incredible pain as her body had difficulty "giving up" the illness. Part of her was still attached to it. We got scared, and I distinctly remember ending up in a doctor's office where the nurse practitioner said to us, "That Reiki. We don't know much about it. Could be dangerous." So we stopped doing it.
I was blessed to find a wonderful Reiki 2 teacher from a covenmate who felt my whole Reiki experience was skewed. I followed her advice and went to the Reiki 2 class and had a totally different experience. All my questions were answered open and honestly. When she didn't know, she told me, and if she felt it was a better conversation for Reiki 3 students, she told me that, but recommended books, including Diane Stein. We did divine invocation before sessions, and she always included Mother Nature or Mother Earth, to recognize my beliefs and experiences, along with the angels and saints and ascended masters. I was so inspired by the end of the class, she suggested when I was ready, to take Reiki 3, which she did not divide into Practitioner and Teacher levels as many modern Reiki Masters. I did and was very fortunate to do so. Her sensible but semi-esoteric approach was exactly what I needed at that time. I also went onto study Shamballa Reiki, or as its known now Shamballa Multidimensional Healing. While I liked the esoterics of that community, I didn't like the politics and constant changes to the system, so I teach as I learned it, with the original four levels.
I feel a lot of people in paganism and magick have had similar Reiki experiences when learning from those who do not identify in the same way. Much of my own student base and clientele for Reiki are pagans and Witches. I've noticed the division between those in the occult world of magicians, pagans and Witches and the New Age and Holistic Health Worlds of light workers, modern shamans and healers. So Magick of Reiki was my first attempt to bridge the gap. I followed it up with Ascension Magick, to help describe the history of both sides to each community, illustrating the common points and celebrating the differences. While I probably get the most positive fan mail from that book, it's my least read book as the size is daunting, but I wanted to put everything I could in it. My first Llewellyn editor considered it my magnum opus before she left publishing for the world of non-profits. While I still have a lot more to write, it was quite a milestone for me and representing a turning point in my own point of view and theology. It's hugely influenced the Witchcraft theology of the Temple.
M.A.P. In my over 20 years of involvement in the Pagan community I have seen so many changes it is hard to remember them all. What do you feel the biggest change in the Pagan community has been sense you have become involved in it?
C.P. That's a really great question. I think the biggest overt change is the lack of the broom closet. So few people I know anymore are closeted about their paganism. When I first got involved, there were few pagan kids being raised by pagan parents. Festivals were more hush-hush. Gatherings were hush-hush. We wondered if the neighbors would call the police for our first back yard Samhain celebration. So that's a huge change.
I think in terms of my favorite changes, the general pagan population is going deeper into the mysteries. There used to be a sense that once you read Scott Cunningham you knew all there was to know. And if you continue with the simple things and really listen and follow your experience, perhaps that was right. But serious pagan practitioners are looking to go deeper into their Craft, to see it as the mystery school for the soul that I believe it was once. Traditions have kept the mysteries alive, but I think the idea of spiritual initiation, transformation and empowerment through such experiences is gaining in importance among the community and I for one am happy to be a part of that trend.
M.A.P. I found your answer to the last question to be just as interesting. While I would agree with you that there does seem to be fewer people in the "broom closet" now, I can think of several that I know that still are. This leads me in a round about way to my next question for you. The answer I most often get to the last question I asked you is the invention of the internet being the biggest change. I can see how with the internet it would seem easier for some to stay in the "broom closet" because they never have to leave their home to get the information they want be it good or bad. How do you think the internet has changed the face of Paganism?
C.P. Interesting. I think it was only a year or two after getting into the Craft that I got my first email account, so for me they have kind of coincided. I remember looking on Wicca forums on the old AOL, and got into some very good conversations there. So I guess I can't really speak to this from experience. A lot of it is the obvious and usual stuff. My teachers had to network in person - see unusual jewelry, notice if someone said "gods bless you" instead of "god bless you" when you sneezed, that kind of thing, and strike up some non-threatening conversation to feel out the other person. I’m really inspired by the ability to reach out to people anywhere and commune about paganism. True, the information can be good or bad and you might not really have the education to know when you start, but I like hearing about people's practices, and find it amazing to have talked to pagans in not only the UK before ever visiting, but Brazil, Italy, Poland and Russia. While I’m blessed with all sorts of mail these days due to my book writing, I got into some great conversations before I was ever published with people overseas. I like to hear what they are doing personally, and how the seasons play out where they are. I think the internet also provides a lot of opportunity for would be writers and teachers. Much of my start was writing for local magazines and journals, and some online. I got to correspond with people, and receive some pretty direct feedback, sometimes nice and sometimes not so nice. I look at the amazing work with The Witch's Voice, where so many people get a forum to really be heard. It's amazing. It can be good to get that kind of response and feedback before looking at a more national, and permanent forum. Internet connections also help pagan activism work and membership outreach. I don't think we would have had the Pentacle Quest with Circle Sanctuary be so successful without the networking afforded to pagans online. I also don't think my own organization would have the outreach that it does without the internet. While I had some concerns about it, our online training program has attracted people appropriate for it, and i feel we've been able to do some real work in consciousness evolution and magick with people, despite the distance. It has also afforded others a chance to mentor newer students via email and online forums who probably wouldn't have had in person mentoring experiences.
M.A.P. Where would you like to see the Wiccan / Pagan movement be and heading in the next 5 to 10 years.
C.P. It's a hard question. I think often the best things are unexpected and not controlled, so I'm not sure I'm in a place of wisdom to really know where it's going, or what would be best for it. I think we walk a difficult line of presenting our wisdom to the world. I think the lack of Earth centered theologies to the main religious discourse and general world view of humanity is one of the ills of our world. If more were awakened and even those who are awakened, acted more, to be in harmony with the Earth, rather than separate from it or to dominate it, things would be better. Easier said than done, as many environmental options are out of the reach of some pagans at this time. I still drive a normal gas consuming car. I use a lot of electricity. But if a fundamental shift in thinking can occur, we can create the new paradigms of the next era. The problem will be presenting this wisdom and point of view to the world, without losing our mystery, without sacrificing the practices that make this a school for the soul that really isn't for the masses. Fine line for us to walk. I think in many ways, those in the Craft are like a dark mirror. A part of us needs to be on the edge of society. But how do we do that without being totally alienated from society? We have to be accessible enough for people to find us, enticing enough so people realize our particular beliefs can be helpful in the greater whole, but not create a dogmatic tradition for the masses like a Catholic Church. I think we're in a precarious point of our history, not unlike the Christians before the formation of the more formalized church. Thankfully I don't think we'll head in that direction. I think I probably answered more about where we are heading in the next ten to twenty years, but these are the thoughts on my mind when I think of our future.
M.A.P. What advice do you have for folks young and new coming to this path and their exploration of it?
C.P. I'm a huge believer in regular meditation no matter what the spiritual tradition, but particularly for Witches because I think we spend so much time manifesting and asking for things, via spell work, it is good to first learn how to slow down the mind, perceive and listen to higher guidance. I'm a fan of pathworking style meditations and that was one of the main reasons why I wrote The Inner Temple of Witchcraft, to provide a solid foundation before getting into spells and rituals. I'm also a big believer in digging a well first before going much further. Find something you resonate with, and stick with the practice or tradition, even when it gets hard, boring or repetitive. We have to go through all that to strike water and find something that sustains us before we go exploring into a million other things. Once we know what's its like to hit water, we can recognize it in other practices and traditions. Without it, we go on digging a bunch of holes without getting water. I'm fine for that at first, till you find something that fits, but you need to go deep and without digging deep roots, you'll miss out on a lot.