Tradition, Lineage, Practice
I’ve heard it said that in Christianity, faith, hope and love abide, and that the greatest of these is love.
In witchcraft, at least in my witchcraft, it is tradition, lineage and practice which abide, and it is practice which is the greatest of these.
Tradition consists of the collection of lore, belief, liturgy and instruction that is passed down to, or collected by the witch. It is the body of theory, the ideological matrix into which the practitioner integrates to create a coherent worldview. In the Craft, we have drawn from history, myth, folklore, herbalism, divination, vision, mythology, and a multitude of other sources to create our traditions. Some were handed down to us, others we researched and collected on our own, some are the result of our own experiences.
Lineage describes the line of teaching and initiation that stretches back to the origins of whatever brand of witchcraft we follow. At its greatest, it is the unbroken chain of living Witch Fire that is passed from initiator to initiate. At its least, it is a list of names of those who preceded you in a particular line.
Practice is what the individual makes of his/her Craft. Practices may be described in the traditional lore but it is practice, as a verb, that makes the witch.
You can be a witch without a tradition, (after all, there must have been a witch before the lore was assembled to be passed on). You can be a witch without a lineage, (because all lineages have to start somewhere). But you cannot be a witch without a practice, (there are no non-practicing witches because being a witch is not a matter of faith, hope or love; you cease to practice witchcraft and you cease to be a witch), and it is the practice that determines the authenticity of the witchcraft.
A witch is as a witch does.
I have been extremely fortunate in that I have been gifted with both a tradition and a lineage, but it is my practice that maintains my validity. And without the last, the first two are nearly worthless. I won’t say completely worthless, but will explain why later.
Having a tradition and a lineage bestows certain benefits, such as a covine of experienced and learned folk who have walked the same path to go to for guidance. It also means that much more traditional lore has already been assembled, including lore from non-published historical sources of various vintages. In addition it means that I have been guided in my learning and practice by people who have done it before, and can learn from their triumphs and mistakes along the way. A close covine also provides much fertilizer for personal awareness and development, and no shortage of drama and intrigue to keep life interesting and with which to keep one’s moral compass calibrated.
The tradition and the lineage exist both within and without the individual witch, unlike the practice which is inextricably bound to the Witches’ Craft. Because of this, it is possible for a person to pass on lineage and tradition in theory without him/herself having a valid practice. This person may be part of an initiatory line, may have lore to pass on, but the spark of Witch Fire does not live in his/her practice. Many have been the mediocre initiatory parents who give birth to a gifted child who far exceeds them, and also there are those exceptional brethren whose magical child is, nevertheless stillborn. And again there are those who, having accomplished what the gods set out for them to do, fall by the wayside and return to the base clay from which they came. That is why those who have have a tradition and a lineage in the absence of a valid practice may still serve a purpose; to carry on a mummers play of the Craft until they can pass it on to one who can invest it with life.
What makes a valid practice?
I approach this from several vantage points.
First, practicing the Craft is like playing a musical instrument, or building a house. You need to know what you’re doing, and the only way to figure out what you’re doing is by doing it, over and over, preferably under expert guidance, every day, for hours at a time, for several years until you become proficient in it. Then, once you become proficient, you throw yourself even deeper into it and you see if you have a talent for it. The effort must be total for the results to be meaningful. And to allow for total absorption in the practice, you must develop proficiency in the technique.
My second vantage point is the writing of the 13th century Soto Zen master Dogen. He eloquently described the requirements for authentic practice in a very simple way. He said authentic practice occurs when one side is bright and the other side is dark. Practice requires an intensity of focus and energy wherein anything that isn’t the object of your practice disappears into oblivion; hence one side is bright, the other side is dark.
The next two points are interconnected. In order to be inspired, or to inspire, (as in ‘to breathe in’), you must first breathe out. Breathing out means letting go of what you have, creating a void, a lacuna, which the gods, the spirits, the universe are then able to fill. Practice involves letting go of the personal self. If your practice results in feelings of self-satisfaction, filled with hubris or if your practice becomes self-aggrandizement, it isn’t creating space for inspiration.
For a practice to be authentic, I feel it needs to be:
Simple, but not easy.