Ah, me. We have yet another "High" Priestess who has made a mess of things.
The latest scandal du jure is about a woman who has been in the Pagan community for at least 12 years now. She fancied herself a powerful Coven leader and was something of a Diva.
Now, this lady belongs to a Tradition that values hierarchy and formal ceremony. For the sake of this writing, let us call them VTW's or Very Traditional Witches. The woman had studied with a Famous Teacher in that Tradition about ten years ago and she had risen through the ranks, as t'wer. The Teacher in question lives in this area and many, many people respect him. I can tell you from my own experience that he is learned man; more learned on Pagan matters than anyone else I have ever met. Most Pagans would do anything to own his library. I can't tell you if he is wise. It doesn't seem so.
I can tell you, though, about his teaching style. Here is one example: One day he got a new pet parrot and my friend went over to his house to see it. Famous Teacher is an expert on exotic birds and has quite a few of his own. The new bird was sitting in a large, lovely cage in his living room and the visitor asked if she could put a finger into the cage to pet the bird. "Yes, you can" he answered. Now, the visitor has known this man for a while, so she hesitated, thought for a moment, and then asked, "Will he bite." "Oh, yes" the man replied. "He bites quite hard." "Why didn't you tell me that!" the woman said. "You didn't ask me that" said the man. "You only asked me if you could try it." My friend took this as evidence that Famous Teacher was very wise, and he lets his student learn for themselves. What you learned, she told me, depends on asking the right questions and so the attainment of wisdom is up to the student. Very deep, yes? (1)
I think there's a difference between letting someone learn the hard way and teaching the easy way. Pretty much anyone can govel the groundlings.
To be fair to the man, I'm all for learning from consequences, per se. This way of teaching might actually work if:
1) you had extremely thoughtful, canny pupils like my friend,
2) no one would ever be in real danger from the lesson if you simply left it at that,
3) you really do know how to teach to more than one level of student and
4) you, the teacher, are willing to work hard with the one's who "don't get it".
If you think that's easy, try it sometime. (2)
As for her Ladyship, she is not canny, like my friend, nor does she tend to ask the right questions (especially not of herself!). Nevertheless she did study with him and achieved the level of 3rd Degree. I'm told that this promotion came as a surprise to most of the other people in her study group, some of whom are friends of mine. They remembered her from those years and they wern't impressed. They speculate that Famous Teacher granted her this honor, not because she was ready for it, but because his long time Co-Priestess had moved away and he had no one else available who would do the work. I suppose this could have ended happily if a) the person who initiated her had been responsible enough to keep an eye on her and b) she had any sense. Sadly, neither was true.
I wish I could say that she used her new authority well, that she saw her role as someone who served the community responsibly, and that she showed compassion, honesty, and wisdom towards her student.
Rather, it seemed to this Lady that being a "High" Priestess meant that everyone else had to stand up when she entered the room. Literally! This gives you an idea as to where this story is going.
I actually knew the woman and had even circled with her for a short time, many years ago, when I was attending an Eclectic Circle in the mountains on Pagan holidays. I put her down in my books back then as "mostly harmless", if a bit too full of herself. I knew from what she told me that her life was usually out of wack on some level, and that her problems (which were legion ) usually involved either relationships or money.
In the year or so that I knew her she seemed incapable of leaving her husband, even though she was unhappy and disliked him, he treated her badly, and he had started living and dressing as a woman. Honestly, folks, if your husband suddenly decides he wants to be a girl then give him a kiss for luck, advise him not to wear horizontal strips, and show him the door!
As a result of all this, she was not someone I would ever give responsibility to, nor, for that matter was she interested in the kind of charity or community work we do here at FCE. Her idea of a good time involved a maximum of attention for herself with a minimum amount of effort.
I'll give you an example: One time FCE invited her out to a three day camp out with our group. She ignored the no-smoking rules because she didn't want to walk all the way down one small hill to the designated smoking area. She had to be reminded several times by our volunteers about this when she was caught smoking in the wrong areas, and she was finally threatened with expulsion, after which she toed the line. This was not a PC issue. Our families were camping in the mountains, during August, in a high risk area, in fire season. We weren't kidding about those warnings and she was smoking near dry brush. Like I said, she didn't have much sense.
I'm not a Traditionalist sort of Witch myself, so my involvement with her (once I had left the Eclectic group) was limited to friendly "hi" at PantheaCon. It was only later that I began to hear of problems within one of the two local Covens she ran, and then only because I knew some of the people in these groups.
So it was, that several months ago I got phone calls from people who wanted advice. They said that two of their Coven members (a young heterosexual couple I'd known years before) were having marital problems and that this had greatly effected the Coven. The man is known to be an alcoholic with delusions of grandeur and so this news did not surprise me. I had already heard that he was unwelcome in several venues before that point. No one who had ever had to work with him or rely on him ever choose to work with him again. He is a bit of a dandy and only wants to be a front man. His idea of leadership is to tell other people what to do and take the credit.
The other partner in this couple is a sad, pretty, clueless gal who has problems with depression and keeps loosing jobs. She always had smoked too much pot, and it really showed. Now, it seemed that she was getting into much harder stuff. As often happens, the more these two drank and used, the more they fought and the more their personal problems affected the Circle.
What bothered me about this situation the most was that the "High" Priestess, the one who should have looked out for them all, was herself a registered nurse. Thus, she was fully capable of knowing the awful risks these two were taking, and she had the education, the skills and the means to stage an intervention. Yet she did nothing for this couple. She did not even offer them counseling, for Gods' sake, let alone teach them manners and boundaries.
Even when the other Coven members (finally!) told her about their concerns, she did nothing to handle the anger and misunderstandings this couple's behavior had created among the group. Not surprisingly, many of the members were now angry at their Priestess (and perhaps a bit at themselves?) and she did nothing about that, either. I find it telling that so few people were willing to tell her directly about their concerns, while others came to me or to other people in the community for advice. In some cases, others were brought into the argument, they took sides, and this only made things worse.
I advised anyone who asked me what to do to talk to this Priestess directly, and arrange for some conflict resolution among the group. I also advised them to vote on and set strong boundaries with this couple, arrange for consequences if these rules weren't followed, and then stick to them. I also recommended that they get some professional help in confronting the couple about their drug and alcohol problems. It's been my experience that healthy people don't make dysfunctional people any better. Rather, a dysfunctional person can make an entire Coven (or an office) go nuts; especially if they are enabled by the leader of their group.
Bottom Line: These people were Coven mates, after all, and they had all promised to help and protect one another. Those commitments are taken among these Covens for exactly this sort of situation, and Very Traditional Covens are said to take this sort of thing deadly seriously (all those swords and cords and oaths and such does tend to give one that impression). But in this case their commitment to each other went only skin deep. The Priestess, who should have led them better, at the very least, and protected them all, at most, was worse than useless. This seemed beyond even her usual silliness, and I soon found out why she was so distracted.
Meanwhile, back to the Coven... As it turned out (as it usually turns out) the members feared confrontation. So some simply choose to remove themselves from the situation, rather than deal with it directly. Two people finally got fed up and told the group that they didn't have time for the Coven anymore. On that news, the entire group quickly agreed to disband the Coven "for a while"; ostensibly, so that they could all take a rest and come together again at a later date. At that point, the more functional members breathed a sigh of relief to be out of it all, and wished the crazy couple well as they continued to speed towards the cliffs just in front of them.
True to form, the couple did indeed continue in their downward spiral, made worse now by the fact that no one they respected or trusted was there to give them a reality check. One reason no one wanted to Circle with these two anymore was that they had become involved with their drug dealer; a slimy person who dressed like a git and told everyone that he was a Vampire. (Well, I suppose in a way, he was). The police had already been to their apartment once before, and also to his, which was just a few doors down. None of these Coven members wanted to find themselves in a situation with 12 other people, all naked, standing in a circle in this couple's living room, just as the clock struck midnight and the police barged in the door. Well...I can't blame them for that.
Soon after the Coven disbanded, the couple split up....sort of. The gal moved several apartments down the way from her husband and into the one where her Vampire Lover/Dealer still lived. Meanwhile, the husband kept drinking and, raging codependent that he is, kept giving his wife money. She soon lost her latest job, and to her deluded mind, he owed her support. (Don't get me started.) Now, it said that she's beyond cocaine and into meth. Goddess help her.
The last I heard from him was when I wrote to see if he was ready to get some help to stop drinking. What I got back was a miserable email in which he blamed everyone for his troubles but himself and denied that he had a problem. He's since cut himself off from anyone who tells him the truth, and no one I know has heard from him since. Sad to say, he was once considered by some to be an up and coming Pagan Leader (??!). I did not include myself in that group of believers, but then, I knew people who tried to work with him before. I know, too, that he saw himself as the true heir to the Famous Teacher. Did I mention that he and his wife both studied with this teacher, as well? (Not surprised? No, neither was I). I've watched this nice man work among us for many years now, and, in truth, he puzzles me. He is very (book) learned and is a most agreeable man. However, none of his (often sad and needy) students ever seems to get any better, healthier, more empowered or wiser then they were when they first came to him, and some of them have been with him for many years. When this happens consistantly, you have to ask "Why?".
Meanwhile, the drug addled wife was looking worse every time she was sighted. At my suggestion, she was invited to attend a Pagan Support Group run by a friend of mine. I had hopes that this group would help her to get her act together as it had helped so many others. When the wife was given the invitation, she then offered to lead the group, asserting to this person that she was an excellent Counselor and a very powerful Witch. She vowed (you can't make this stuff up, folks) that she could help those who had lost their way. She was gently told by my friend that this was a group of equals who came together to share experience, strength and hope, and that no cross-talk was allowed. If she came, she would be coming in to work on her own stuff, and she was not to try and tell other people what to do. She had no interest in this, of course, and has never attended a meeting.
And what about our Priestess, you ask? Well, she had money troubles yet again, and ended up moving from her condo (which she had owned) and renting a room from an elderly Pagan gal some months ago. Some weeks after her troubled Coven disbanded, I got a phone call from a friend telling me that her Highness had left town with her new boyfriend, leaving no notice to anyone and owing this nice Pagan woman over $2,500 in back rent. Now this woman who took her in was not rich and she depended on her renters to help pay her home mortgage, so it was a serious blow to her to be conned in this way.
Meanwhile, the other Coven, the one Miss Thing was still nominally leading, was in a tizzy over her absence. They called the Famous Teacher for help. This would be the guy who had taught this woman, initiated her, raised her to the level of 3rd Degree and sent her out into the world with that authority. He (no surprise) had no idea what she was up to, and told others to let him know if and when she came back into town.
Four weeks later, she shows up to announce that she is moving to another town with her new boyfriend and his soon to be ex-wife and will be living with both of them in their home. I didn't ask about that situation - I don't want to know.
Eventually, she did return to town, if only to get her stuff. I understand that the Famous Teacher then had a few words with her and that she was stripped of her leadership in the other Coven (which would have happened in any case, since she was leaving town.) I still have no idea if she retains her 3rd degree status, but I imagine that she will tell people she has it, and use this Teacher's name in vain, as well. Serves him right, in a way, as she is his creation.
I have no idea if the other woman ever got her back rent. I hope so. Again, to be fair to the Famous Teacher, I'm betting that he insisted on it. He may not be wise by my way of thinking, but I do think he's honest.
Well, that's the end of the story as far as I know it. No one is speaking to the couple in question and no one, it seems, misses their former Leader. Perhaps next time the people from this Coven won't wait for someone else to do something, but will do it for themselves. We can hope.
May the Goddess save us all from any more such "High" Priestesses.
(1) A British friend of mine read this note about his teaching style and replied to my sarcasm this way: "No. It's a 'movie Zen' trick you can get away with once, and it's taught by arseholes in a lost Tibetan valley." I think he summed it up, perfectly.
(2) We all miss you, Steve. Go in peace.