Q14. What role does mystery play in your tradition?

We made the decision, early on, to intentionally break away from the “initiatory Mystery cult” model, and organize in an open “congregational” model. There is definitely a place for small, closed groups of heavily involved people, committed to training and exploring in depth the mysteries of their tradition. I think there is also a place for groups that are open to the public, for whatever level of involvement those people are presently interested in, and that is more of what we offer. I don’t think that deep exploration of the Mysteries is generally appropriate for an unscreened, mixed group. People are in very different places in their personal journeys. Some may not be ready for or stable enough to handle that kind of exploration. Some don’t have enough trust in the facilitators to fully engage with the experience. There is not enough of a relationship formed between the participants and the facilitators, to provide context and support for that sort of work. There isn’t the commitment to the weeks of months of preparation for a participant to be ready for that exploration, or the integration of the experience afterwards.

So our group rituals to not go into any deep exploration of the Mysteries. They might touch on a few things. They might draw on the experiences of those who have experienced certain Mysteries. They might intentionally evoke a curiosity for deeper exploration. They might even expose people to some of the power of those Mysteries. But they don’t, in general, deliberately try to guide people into an understanding of or experience of those Mysteries.

To back up a little – we’ll make a distinction between the “small-m mysteries” and the “big-M Mysteries”. The small-m mysteries are the secret or private aspects of practice or belief, the things only explained or revealed to people who are judged to be ready for them. Some traditions guard these secrets very closely. Some consider it dangerous for an unprepared person to be exposed to these things. Some think it dilutes the power of these things to have them widely available. Some just have recognized that people don’t put as much value on things they haven’t had to work for.

Our tradition doesn’t have any of these. There isn’t anything about our practice or belief that shouldn’t be revealed. There might be a few things we would want someone to have a little context before attempting to explain them, but nothing that is actually secret. Even the rare closed rituals we do aren’t secret – we’ll tell people exactly what goes on at them, and we’re generally only trying to screen out people who would behave inappropriately or who would find it disturbing.

The big-M Mysteries are “the Mysteries that guard themselves.” These are things that no matter how you explain them to someone, they aren’t going to “get it” on that deep level unless they’ve had an experience of them. Some examples are: “Everything is connected” “Death is part of life” “The distinction between sacred and profane is illusory” “Our words create reality” “All things move in cycles” “We are our ancestors” If there is any disinclination to reveal these big-M Mysteries, it is that sometimes having a superficial understanding of one of them can blind you to the deeper experience of it. You think you already know, so you don’t look any further. Some of them are things that you can come to a new and deeper realization of over and over throughout your life. There is no bottom to them. They are inexhaustible.

We do have some of this type of Mysteries in my tradition, even though they aren’t emphasized. I suppose the biggest one is basically “This is not metaphorical. The gods are real. This is all real.” That isn’t something we ever specifically try to convince anyone of, but it is an area where we are continually ready to provide support to the person who has just come to that conclusion. Possibly more than anything else, our purpose is to provide a support system for people to explore and come to terms with the reality of their spiritual experience, at their own pace. We have a fair number of long-term members who don’t see any of this as particularly “real”, and that is important too. It gives people who are teetering on the edge of this Mystery some sense of freedom. It takes some of the pressure off. But when it comes down to it, we are much more concerned with providing space for people to explore the reality of their experiences than we are with providing space for people to doubt those experiences. (There is no shortage of people who will support you in doubting the reality of your spiritual experiences, so we figure that part is already covered.)

There are some other Mysteries we continually touch on. Ones about the cycle of sky and earth. Ones about our relationship with food and life. Ones about the relationship between the gods and this world. Ones about the nature of sacrifice. It is nothing formalized, just a loose and evolving set of deeper realizations that we tend to come back to over and over. They can be understood metaphorically, symbolically, but for those who have understood them on a deeper level, we try to draw out that experience in our group rituals. We try to give context for understanding them, over time, so as people over time gradually draw themselves closer to them, they have the tools to navigate that experience.

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  1. ‘the (big) mysteries guard themselves’ – yes I’d agree to that 🙂 The closest you can get to transmission is poetry, almost…

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