Behind the Broom: What the Books Don't Tell You
Witchcraft Philosophies, Action, Leadership, Humor, Outrage, Awkward Mishaps, Lovable Lessons, and a search for Grace with a clumsy Witch.
A Witch’s Compassion? What does that mean?
Let my worship be within the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. Therefore, let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.
I love the Charge. Who doesn’t love the Charge? Don’t you just want to roll around naked on it? I do. Its words read like goose down on the soul. Acts of Love and Pleasure are rituals of the Goddess??? Such an awesome faith. Beauty? Strength? Honor? Humility? GIMME ALL OF THE ABOVE WITH AN EXTRA SIDE OF EARTH WORSHIP! A few lines from the Charge re-set me when I’m tired and inspire me when feeling pretty uninspired. When I recite it, I feel my own soul’s desires streaming through the beloved words. Dear Goddess, I’m thinking, please let me exemplify those tenets of my faith like all those enlightened Witches I see in Facebook memes: The peaceful, smiling ones in the sunlit or moonlit groves of trees, sun or moonlight streaming onto their radiant/natural face and badass corseted, bell-sleeved dresses. Like You said, I’m sure I could find it within me...if I seek super hard…
Except for that part with the “C” word in it. For a nano of a second, my stream of Divine communion is most always interrupted. What does the Charge mean when it mentions “compassion”?
It’s such a peaceful word—the stuff that memes were made of. For a year, I’ve been scribbling about Compassion in my journal during my subway commute. It’s one aspect of Witchcraft’s spiritual practice that I find most ambiguous. It doesn’t seem as though there is a general consensus on the word’s identity.
On day, back in Catholic high school, the same religion teacher who fostered discussion about Christ’s compassion—unconditional love and eternal forgiveness—handed me a photocopied article of a Buddhist monk’s essay on compassion. My teacher encouraged me to meditate on compassionate action in regards to a friend of mine who was dancing down a drugged and boozey spiral—to act and speak up, not simply laugh at the situation. I remember only one sentence of the essay: The compassionate doctor does not spare the treatment out of fear of the patient’s discomfort. It meant doing what is difficult on behalf of others for their betterment, not for their comfort or enjoyment. Was I supposed to go tell my friend’s mom about all the drugs? Was that compassionate action?
I later read other monks’ descriptions of compassion as pure empathy for the suffering. If that is true, does it mean I “win” at being compassionate if I give a moment’s thought to the drug-addicted woman in my neighborhood who’s always asking for change because she’s in a rock-bottom kind of situation? The Christians believe compassion is in the giving. Would I be compassionate if I gave her money, bought her cigarettes, or gave her a slice of the pizza I bought to share with my partner? A Jewish writer once described compassion as being fully present with someone no matter the circumstances in their life. Should I have sat in silent support, though opposing my high school friend’s choices? Certain tenets of Islam stress the importance of compassion as working to alleviate suffering. Would it have been the compassionate thing to haul the friend to rehab? It’s a fluid term. All of these ideas have merit. But I’m not a member of any of those religions. What does compassion mean to me as a Witch and a Pagan?
Last week, I found a glimpse of an answer.
If you haven’t heard of Antoinette Tuff, you need to stop reading this and go look her up and then come back.
Now that you’ve read about her seemingly super-human grace under intense fire (talking a gunman out of his weapon and into surrender through telling him he was loved and not alone in his suffering), this woman and her act might just be living, breathing embodiments of Compassion. She was able to separate the human from the near-tragic mistake. She found tough, deep love for a stranger she would have had every reasonable reason to fear or despise. Is this what Compassion means? Even through stress and turmoil—perhaps even more during those moments—could compassion be finding common space where two souls can meet and Divine love can grow?
Compassion is usually the first thing hurled out the spiritual window when the going gets rough—along with good manners and constructive communication—yet this is when we need it most. Pagans are often encouraged to let go, to walk away, to protect-and-shield against perceived toxic or negative forces. In many ways, this is good. We are not encouraged to tolerate harmful situations or become subject to abuse through misunderstood ideas of humility. But in many ways, this is problematic. Through so much walking, blocking, releasing-letting-go, our communities often crumble and groups quickly disintegrate. We ruminate on our conflicts as though they were mythic battles, we soak up validation from others who remain on “our side” and so very often, those who are without a “side” in this story fall victim to loss of community when leaders and groups part ways and take sides.
The gift of conflict is its glimpse into the deeper recesses of human experience and spirit. The key to this door is compassion. Yet, compassion is stinky.
When I first started doing compassion-work, I imagined it as a glistening well from which my soul would draw when times were tough. It was. Kind of. Compassion makes a good well, but one covered in figurative and psychic slime. To find compassion, I had to dig for it through all that slimey grossness. When a Covener angered me, or a community member expressed concerns in a way I deemed talking smack, if a colleague behaved in a way I felt was self-serving but not serving myself, I sat my tush down on a park bench or before my alter and dug-dug-dug for compassion.
I combed through the grossest parts of me: insecurities masquerading as affronts, ego operating as anger, a “need to vent” actually being a “need to be told I was right,” plus a whole other laundry list of things that would snooze you into your keyboards if I kept going.
It would have been easier to walk, block, or shield, but I chose to solve these problems because it would be better for my community and frankly, myself, if I did. My route to compassion was in separating the problems from the persons. To do that, I first had to see the person. Perhaps a behavior was out of line—what might be going on with the person to prompt the action? For it to bother me so much, what within me was wreaking havoc that another person could rattle me so? Could it be that the practice of digging for the human in the harm may be what Compassion is all about?
It’s midnight and I’m now digging for the end of this blog post, taking breaks to pace through my apartment. Work is absolutely waiting for me tomorrow but sleep is almost as elusive as my answer to the Compassion question: What it really mean to the Pagan path. Maybe there’s a clue in we recognizing ourselves as not just stewards of this planet, but as parts of Her body. Maybe Compassion is in the finding of common humanity in one another. Maybe it’s not a definition, only a practice. Maybe it’s a journey. Maybe it’s humanity’s true Holy Grail or Cauldron of Rebirth. And maybe we truly cannot find it outside of ourselves, unless we seek it within ourselves first. I do believe that will be another whole blog topic. Probably a whole series or library. One of the greatest gifts of this spiritual path is its unique route for each person. This has just been a snippet of my own journey.
Are there times when walking-blocking-shielding is necessary? Absolutely. But is that always the best way or are we taking shortcuts for the comfort of our own egos? Is this the most nourishing course for our souls? Maybe we should be like the doctor analogy in the article my teacher gave me—but for ourselves. Dig for Compassion even though it’s not comfortable. Antoinette Tuff did not pardon the gunman but she did, as she put it, pushed past the pain. She dug deeper into her own well of compassion and saved the lives of possibly hundreds of children. If she could do this, can we each dig deeper into our own wells of Compassion when it might just be easier to fire off a snarky email to an ornery Covener, to back out of community commitments because of friction, or withhold our work ethics out of spite for seemingly ungrateful coworkers?
I don’t think there is an answer to the meaning of Compassion. I think it’s more a verb than a noun or adjective. I think it might be in the digging past the tough stuff to the place where we find ourselves as common elements—near identical molecules in the great Organism that is existence. I think it’s in the seeking.
At least, that’s what I’ll go with for now.
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