When Family is More than Blood

Three Mother Goddesses of Egypt. Photo by RevKess.

My High Priestess shared an article with me in December 2014 about how many have turned the concept of the Coven into a Family. The author seems to feel that Coven members should be friends at most, hinted that near strangers may even be better. I may be interpreting her intent incorrectly. It is not my purpose here to pick apart the article or the author.

What family means to me…

Family is one of the most important things to me. Both in my mundane life and in my spiritual life. When you break it down, there really is little difference between the two. I have been working, in one way or another, with my Mother Coven for 23 years. That means that my chosen family has been a part of my life for well over half the time I have been in this plane of existence. I met the woman who would later become my HPS when I was a teenager, just starting to explore what was to become my path. She has been there for me through thick and thin, kicked my ass when I needed it, been a shoulder to cry on when I need that. She has been like a mother to me. My own biological mother accepted her as part of my circle of friends despite her being more than a decade older than me. Quite the glowing reference when you consider how troubled my teen years were – not that I was in a bad crowd, just had put myself into some very bad situations or been taken advantage of.

Over the course  of nearly two and half decades I have seen members of my Mother Coven come and go, many who went left of their own accord – moving away, finding different paths to walk. One has left us for the Summerlands, the man we all looked to as the father of our Tradition. Of those who have remained, and there are many of them, we all treat each other like family. Occasionally fighting with each other, but most often being there for each other.

Even among my friends, I see many of them as family. I have many brothers and sisters in all three circles of my life that means so much to me. My blood family, my Coven family, and my chosen family of friends. We are there for each other in one way or another, no matter what is going on. I’ve stood witness at weddings – even officiated a few, been a pallbearer when someone has died, stood up to the plate when one or another of my nearest and dearest needed someone at bat for them. I’ve even acted as “marriage counselor” for members of my extended family who were having relationship issues.

As our families grow and stretch, the roles have moderated a bit. I am not just a “son” to the HPS and a “brother” to my peers in the Tradition. I have become “uncle” to many, even “father” to a few. I’ve fostered two of the children of my HPS and been mentor to new members. When you look at things like a traditional family tree, our tree is more like knot work.

Within my chosen family that many would call friends, I have become an “uncle”, “aunt” even, to some of their children. One of my best friends and I refer to a young man as our foster son. She filled the role of mother for him when his own mother was unable to be what he needed and I provided him with a roof over his head and a safe place to be himself in all his wonder.

Most of these people in my life are closer to me than blood. We’ve fought for each other and with each other. We’ve cried together, laughed together. We’ve been more than siblings and less than lovers. No other way really to describe it. We’ve been there. For. Each. Other.

When I look at my Mother Coven I see a family. Dysfunctional at times, but a real family. I can’t really imagine things any other way. Every Coven I’ve ever worked with, every Circle, Grove, Kindred, has felt like the core members are a family. An Inner Court if you will. I’ve traveled around the Midwest and taken part as a guest in many rituals and spiritual observances. Those who were hosting those events, outside of the large festivals I’ve attended, were close-knit, a family of sorts.

What I do when my family is not around…

One of my first experiences with a Circle that was not my Coven’s, was a baby blessing and farewell to three of the four parents of that child. His biological mother had chosen to leave both her family and her Wiccan path. The child’s biological father and his other parents were saying goodbye to the area and to their friends, taking themselves to another part of the country, unable to bear the pain of being so close to their son and not be a part of his life. I was honored to stand in that Circle with this fractured family and their friends and neighbors who would miss them. It was a bittersweet experience, but one that I am glad I was able to partake in. Many of those that the family left behind remained close friends and family to each other, even to this day. That experience was 17 years ago. And I still hold it close in my heart. Hanging on my ancestor altar wall is a beautiful picture of the young child, who must be a senior in high school by now, one of his mothers and both of his fathers.

When my Mother Coven decided to move, en masse, to Colorado I chose to remain in Nebraska. I stayed for my mother and for other blood relations. I did find myself afloat for a time, drifting around looking for something to fill the void in my spirit and in my heart. A friend introduced me to a meditation group. I found another family in that group. Readers of this site may remember me mentioning some of this last year. The meditation group was the “outer court” of a coven. They used, wisely, the meditation sessions to feel out potential new members, to see how they fit or if they should be directed elsewhere for their spiritual training. J, who was the priestess for our meditation circle, was a warm and inviting older woman. She and her new husband were opening their doors to new members to their coven. I never joined their coven, but I gained the confidence of both J and her husband P. Years later P became my roommate after their divorce and J made it possible for me and another attendee of her meditation group to pick up where she left off when she retired from public life in her late 60’s.

I eventually found some kindred spirits in another well established group in my area, a Wiccan Church. I am not Wiccan, per se, but I found myself attracted to some of what they were doing. A few years ago they asked me to combine efforts with them on a Beltaine rite. My discussion and meditation group that I had been running for a number of years had expanded into a large network of associated people around the globe. Those who were able to attend with this Church gathered at the home of two un-allied (to use a term) people for a largish outdoor ritual and celebration of Beltaine, about 50 people in all. Since then I have managed to make the time to attend a Yule celebration that this Church was hosting at the local Unitarian Church – co-hosting with a fledgling Heathen group, actually.

Every Sunday morning I go down to the local community radio station to co-host the world’s longest running Pagan content radio program, combined with the previous name for the show the broadcast has been going for over 28 years. The owner of the show, Murf, is the Mama Dragon – indeed she is Mama to many who listen. Our other co-host is like a sister to me. We are also joined by a woman from the above mentioned Wiccan Church. Which means that we have a Druid, a Wiccan, a Pagan, and a solitary practitioner around the microphones sharing music, stories, and conversation with ourselves and potentially millions of listeners around the word. We are not a Coven, a Circle, a Grove, or anything of the like. We are family. (You can listen to Murphy’s Magic Mess  Sunday mornings at 9am Central on KZUM.)

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Egyptian Collection. Photo by RevKess.

Working with strangers…

I can easily slide into a ritual or ceremony with virtual strangers. I can find that sacred center within myself and go with the flow. But it is not the same for me. The strangeness of people I do not know makes things a little off when it comes to fully enjoying the experience. I can connect with the Gods, but not necessarily with the ritualists or the intent of the rite. The connection that I have with those that I know well, those that are family, is lacking when I stand Circle with someone, or several someones, I do not know. When I do attend a ritual that is populated by virtual strangers I make every effort to connect with the leaders of the group or those who are hosting the ritual observance. If that is not possible then I try to at least get to know someone who is a part of the host group.

When I have attended festivals and other large events I do find that I cannot easily connect with the group as a whole in Circle. Another thing that makes this difficult is that many large ceremonies and rituals are comprised of so many people who do not know each other very well – if at all. The connection that so many need, even crave, in ritual work is just not there in these circumstances. What happens is a group of people just going through the motions. Which is a sad thing.

I’m not going to name names or events. I have attended a large Midwestern Pagan festival a few times. I love going. I enjoy the people, the speakers, the musicians, the camping. Despite the bug bites and the sunburn, I really enjoy these events. What I do not enjoy is the very large opening and closing rituals for this event. The organizers have done their best, I am sure, to address as many Traditions and Paths as possible. A commendable effort. Unfortunately they lose something when they do that. Ecumenical rituals are great, if done right. They aren’t easy to do right. Crowds of people, all with a different concept in mind, loosely gathered in a circle around a ritual bonfire is just a little too chaotic for me. I’ve stopped going to the opening and closing rituals at this event. Not because I think they are pointless, they just don’t do anything for me.

The smaller rituals and ceremonies that the speakers and presenters host as part of their workshops or privately at their cabin/camp site are, for me, much more enjoyable. They are more intimate, less chaotic. Usually the officiant has had more time to address the group, and even individuals, about what is going to happen. They have shared the words of the chants, or selected individuals to take active part in the rite.  Often times the participants have had time to get to know each other a little, even if only a round of introductions.

These smaller ceremonies and rites at large festivals have more meaning and impact for me. Even if I do not think of the person standing or sitting next to me as family or even friend, I have at least learned something personal about them. A name, magickal or mundane, gives a connection that is sorely lacking for me when standing in a crowd of complete strangers.

In perfect love and in perfect trust…

That phrase is something that Wiccans and other Pagans hold as important in their spirituality.  Entering into a Circle or attending a ritual with people you do not know seems to go against that idea. How can you love and trust someone you do not know?

Many have interpreted this phrase in the larger context to mean that you love each person as an individual and trust that they will not violate your personal space or beliefs during the ritual or ceremony. This does put a lot of trust in strangers. Trust that we hope is not misplaced. Many have written about the risks that we can take when we stand Circle with people we do not know. Shauna Aura Knight has written about some of the risks that we take on her personal blog. Those are sometimes extreme examples, but they are real. They have happened and unfortunately do happen, more than we care to admit. Think of all the young women who trust an older male mentor to do them no harm. Think of all the children who trust that their elementary school teacher will protect them and educate them.

Others interpret it to mean that you love and trust your Gods enough not to allow any harm to befall you in that ritual space. Rationally this relies on our own gut instincts, that little voice in our head that tells us someone is not cool to be around, that nagging feeling that something isn’t right about how a ritual is being done. Spiritually it puts a lot of real trust into beings that we may not fully understand. Deities that we hope and pray love us also. I’m not going to argue soft polytheism vs hard polytheism, duotheism vs monotheism – at least not here. Let’s just assume that the Gods are real, in whatever capacity. Someone who lays that kind of trust in a being or beings that they feel that strongly about is in very good hands, I think. To paraphrase a rather (in)famous book, the Gods help those who help themselves.

As activists (and finally he gets to the theme of this site)

As activists we work with people we do not know all the time. We stand picket lines, march down main streets, do letter writing campaigns, write articles, etc, all with many many people we may never work with again, or even see face to face. If we are lucky we work with a group of fellow activists on a particular effort. These people may become friends or even family. But for the most part we stand in those picket lines, march down those streets, and write letters and articles for and with people we’ll only see a few times in our lives.

As a “written activist” (the main bulk of my work is either through writing or broadcasting) I am lucky to have a core group of people who I can use as sounding boards. People I can send my article drafts to or read them over Skype and get their opinions. I am unlucky in one very major way – I rarely get to know how those who read my articles or hear my voice react to what I have to say. As someone who writes I have accepted that few will actually comment on my postings. For the most part those who read either agree with the bulk of each article or have little to say that they feel can add to the conversation or debate the issue that I write about. Those readers are not going to comment, other than perhaps in a social media style of hitting “like” on Facebook or “favoriting” a Tweet or “+1” on Google+. When someone does comment or engage in debate over an issue it is a 50/50. They are either adding constructive content to the conversation or trolling to get my goat.

An activist who uses the written word, or broadcasts over the radio and internet air waves, faces few of the same headaches and heartaches as an activist who marches on city hall or pickets outside a GMO office building. I am rarely, if ever, physically in danger when I sit down to write, aside from carpal tunnel, back and eye strain. I don’t risk people throwing rotten food at me, bricks flying at my head, or bullets (real or rubber) being fired at me. There is no pepper spray being used against me. I don’t risk handcuffs and over zealous (scared) cops. Instead I face trolls, angry bloggers, offended readers, and hate mail. Frustrating, but not really dangerous.

And then you have the activists who both march and picket as well as write and speak out. Some of them are inspirations to me. Peter Dybing, Crystal Blanton. T Thorn Coyle, George Nicholas. All I view as spiritual mentors, and there are many more. Locally I am inspired by the Occupiers who camped out on Capitol Parkway in Lincoln, NE, the seven couples who are directly involved in the fight against the Nebraska ban on same-sex marriage (the seven couples who are named in the case, with a hearing scheduled for today) as well as the lawyers and PR people and other allies and couples fighting for marriage equality in Nebraska. Each and every one of these activists puts their neck out – they put their lives on the line sometimes, more often they risk verbal and physical abuse and retribution for their beliefs and actions, for fighting for what they believe to be right and just.

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If you are an activist you often put yourself in positions where you have to trust someone, if you are lucky someone you can call friend or even family, but sometimes someone you just met. You might have to trust them to watch your back during a demonstration, you might have to rely on them to watch guard while you pee behind a bush. Depending on the kind of activism you are involved in you might even need to depend on someone to protect you physically, from scared and angry people (including guards or law enforcement), from thrown bricks and pepper spray. When you stand side by side with someone you just met and face adversity and maybe even dangers you form a connection with that person. You might even become friends.

Finding that balance between trust and caution, between taking a stand and self-preservation, is one of the challenges of being an activist of any kind. Trusting someone to be there by your side, to stand up and defend you when you are threatened balanced with the cautious instinct to not rely on a perfect stranger. Taking that stand yourself, for something you are passionate about, and balancing it with the primal instinct to protect yourself from harm of any kind. These balancing acts, and others, are things we do every day as humans and more so as activists.

I’m reminded of a recent incident at my bills-paying job: I work with a conservative Christian who comes from a military (and regimented) background. He’s convinced that only his brand of Christianity is valid, let alone that all who do not follow Christ are doomed to the fires of hell. For some reason, I believe it had to do with a headline in the local paper, he decided that work was an appropriate place to express his view that Mohammed was a “pervert” (to use his term). I snapped to attention. Luckily no customers were in the store at the time. I looked him dead in the eye and said “That is your opinion. O-pin-ion! Mohammed is their prophet just as the Christ is your prophet.” That shut him up. I also expressed to him that our work environment is not the appropriate place for such discussion – we work in a very ethnically and religiously diverse part of town. I am not looking forward to the day when he utters such a sentiment with a Muslim or a Jew in the store – let alone some of his racial prejudices. I didn’t pause in my reaction, I didn’t weigh the risks of calling him out on his bigotry at work. Balancing his right to express his beliefs against my right to my own was not even a consideration. Balancing his right to his beliefs against the potential harm those beliefs could bring to himself or the business if expressed in front of customers was my concern.

These small acts of activism, like with the above mentioned coworker, may not seem like much to some. They are important. Each time we trust ourselves to make such a stand we are furthering whatever cause we are standing up for. Be that racial and ethnic equality, marriage equality and LGBTQ protections, a woman’s right to choose, whatever that cause – standing up, even in small ways, benefits us all.

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About revkess

Rev. Philipp Kessler (aka RevKess) is a simple small town Pagan who has found himself near neighbors with the Nebraska state capital building and the politics of the Cornhusker State. He has been involved with the Pagan community for 20 years. Co-founder and international facilitator of the Pagan Alliance Network, co-owner of Pangaia Metaphysical Store and a High Priest in the Covenant of Cernnunnos Tradition (12 years). He is also a Pagan broadcaster; celebrating four years as a "minion" (cohost) on KZUM's Murphy's Magic Mess, the world's longest running Pagan program on terrestrial radio (20 years in April 2013). Along with KaliSara he hosts the Pagan-Musings Podcast on the Pagan-Musings Podcast Channel, with Zaracon he hosts the Pagan Weekly News also on PMPChannel, and with Corwin he hosts Lavender Hill (Nebraska's first LGBTQ news and talk program) on KZUM.

5 thoughts on “When Family is More than Blood

  1. Anon

    Thank you for sharing your own positive experience with coven as family. Sadly not all covens are as good as the one you describe and have a close friend healing from emotional, physical, and spiritual scars left by a coven that claimed to be “family”.

  2. RevKess Post author

    I am so sorry to hear that, Anon. As I said in my article, whenever we open ourselves up to people we do take certain risks. I’d like to believe that the covens or groups that can leave such scars are few and far between. They do exist, which is unfortunate. Perhaps in a follow-up article I will write about how to deal with such situations.

  3. Atheopagan

    As someone who is completely alienated from his birth family–I have no contact with them at all–my circle has been my family now for 24 years. It is they I rely on when I need someone.

  4. Atheopagan

    I also encourage you to consider broadening your definition of “activist”. Writing and speaking or participating in direct action are not the only kinds of activism; mine has mostly been in lobbying of elected officials and working in political campaigns. I want the decision makers to be the right kinds of people, and to make the right decisions.

    Some of us put on a suit and go to meet the Dragon where it lives.

  5. RevKess Post author

    Yes, Atheopagan, going straight to the law makers is a form of activism. One I was trying to allude to with the letter writing. I did neglect to mention that many do work directly with their local, state, and federal (national) lawmakers.

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