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On Community as a Goal of OTO

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Sacred River explores spirituality grounded in religious naturalism & progressive ethics that is both non-theistic and non-supernatural.

I have been doing a lot of thinking over the last year or so about OTO...what it is and what it could be. I remain strongly dedicated to its success. I have several ideas about what that success might look like and, of course, that image might differ from others. I have read all our foundational documents and I’ve come to several conclusions. A major one is that several of the fundamental goals that Crowley wrote about are no longer realistic (if they ever really were).

For good or bad, I do not believe that OTO, as an institution, will ever become seriously influential in politics or social policy. When Crowley was around, the Freemasons were still a power to be reckoned with, and he had good reason to believe that OTO could supplant them in that arena. However, times have changed and the “fraternity” model is no longer a source of real influence (except perhaps in small isolated cases). Power in the West is being hoarded within corporations now, and OTO simply doesn’t have the resources to ever compete with that (at least not without going “mainstream” and using the masses to sway opinion, which I find highly unlikely).

I also believe that OTO will never have profess-houses as Crowley envisioned them (well, “never” is a long time, granted), although we might eventually have one or two in the US. I believe he saw OTO as, first and foremost, an organization of pseudo-monasteries in the vein of Rabelais, with local MOE bodies having the function of “training” initiates to reach the VII° so that they could then enter the profess-house system. There are two main reasons why this will not come to pass any time soon. One is that social reality has changed...it is now the rare individual that can become independently wealthy enough to stay in profess-houses without having to worry about working...and that’s assuming that she has a family that doesn’t mind her being away for weeks or months at a time. Yes, perhaps a few members, but not enough to support dozens of profess-houses in the US. Second is resources. I honestly believe that Crowley expected wealthy people to donate homes to the Order (he almost says as much in a couple of documents), and that the general membership would be wealthy enough to support their upkeep (adjusting for inflation, in 1919 Crowley had Seventh Degrees paying $689 a year in dues, Eighths paying $1378, and Ninths paying about $2000!). Obviously times have changed...it seems highly unlikely that we will have a bunch of houses willed to the Order and that we will have a slew of Hermits paying in $700-$2000 a year each. If we eventually had, say, 40 Sevenths, 30 Eighths, and only 20 Ninths, USGL would (adjusted for inflation) be raking in just over $110,000 in yearly dues just from the Hermits. Yes, Crowley planned on us being a lot more wealthy than we turned out to be.

So, if we aren’t here to directly influence politics or establish a plethora of Abbeys de Theleme, what are we here for? Although Crowley’s exact vision is unlikely to be realized, I think the concepts behind them can be. Outside of the mysterious goals of the Sanctuary of the Gnosis, I propose that there are two essential goods that justify OTO’s existence: the internal goal of creating vibrant Thelemic communities and the external goal of “training” initiates to do their Wills and establish Thelema in the world as individuals.

The latter goal is something that OTO is relatively good at. We have an established initiatory system that instructs members via symbol and allegory. We are on the cusp of creating our formal educational program, which will theoretically fulfill the Order’s function of teaching the Hermetic sciences. Informally, we have many members who are knowledgeable in the occult arts, and offer numerous workshops and classes. Although there is always room for improvement, this is an area that OTO does very well in—it has a relatively firm grasp of the essential principles, has a working system, and enjoys a dedicated group of competent people working towards improvement and refinement.

On the community end, we have a long way to go since this is where we are weakest as an institution. We have pretty much no programs whatsoever dedicated to specifically building and supporting healthy communities. It has probably been assumed that between the initiatory oaths and reasonably competent administration, that community would sort of take care of itself. This is, unfortunately, naive wishful thinking. A healthy community has to be worked on with intent. Without that effort, we get social fracturing, an insanely high attrition rate, and a decreased ability to work together towards common goals.

But why is community worth working towards? Well, that is what OTO was largely built for. Reading Crowley’s foundational documents, it is clear that OTO was (re)designed to be a society of Thelemites. Moreover, community is, in itself, a highly valuable thing. Science is showing us what philosophers and writers have been saying for a long time: community is literally necessary for good mental health and, when working properly, can be a great source of strength, knowledge, and well-being. It is not just a side-effect or a derivative of OTO—it is a goal unto itself, which should be nurtured and attended to with dedication and competence.

What should OTO community look like? As stated before, Crowley envisioned profess-house pseudo-monasteries. If this plan doesn’t come to fruition on a grand scale, all is not lost. A form of the profess-house community can be manifested in our initiatory bodies. Instead of separate houses, we can have dedicated spaces that will serve multiple purposes—initiations, ecclesiastical ceremonies, social events, and possibly even medium to long-term lodging. This is both more realistic and cost-effective than the Order having to support both local body spaces and profess-houses.

To my mind, the ideal Thelemic community is one that both challenges and comforts. It encourages individuals to grow and stretch out into new unexplored areas. It is willing to point out where things aren’t going right and offers pathways to grow beyond them. It provides common goals towards which members can manifest Stewardship (remember the Three Pillars: Material Sustenance, Service to Community, and Fraternal Support). In other words, it is a place to put in the labor of the Great Work within OTO.

However, such a community is not only a place of labor. It is also a place where members can rest, play, and rejuvenate. When one needs assistance, it is available. When there is grief, she will find comfort. While the everyday world of work and city life can be isolating and empty, the local OTO community is a sanctified oasis of warmth and joy. After the pillars are erected, the citizens celebrate!

As I said, in many ways we have a long way to go. I am very pleased to know that there are some local bodies out there who are putting forth effort in these general directions and are meeting with some success. However, that is not enough. We need a major cultural shift within OTO...one that openly values community as a goal, equal to the study of magick and the performance of our rites. This must happen at every level, from grassroots efforts at the local level to Grand Lodge providing them support. It is not so much an issue of policy as it is an articulation of priorities and the development of tools to manifest them.

As it now stands, OTO has some major obstacles in the way of moving forward in this direction, most of which are cultural. In other words, they are imbedded in the way we think and act...they are our implicit modes of behavior. Disclaimer: every local body is different, of course, and I would never try to suggest otherwise. Naturally the following comments cannot be applied equally to all bodies...they are generalities that seem to be relatively prevalent. Every local body should take an inventory of its attitudes to see if any of these are present, and to what degree. Only by looking at our weaknesses can we work them out of the system.

1. The Cult of Poverty. I believe there are many members who, consciously or not, believe that money and OTO do not mix. Somehow money is unspiritual, unmagical, or that it contaminates our efforts. The result is a lack of resources for things such as a comfortable and effective temple, quality equipment, and funds to carry out larger group projects...all things that are vital for taking our communities to the next level. Moreover, embarrassment in talking about money can lead to avoidance of openly dealing with financial challenges, which can lead to crisis. We must openly and firmly promote the idea that money is a magical tool, just like any other, and that its moral value is determined solely by how we earn and spend it.

2. Social Insulation. It is very very easy for a group of initiates to become socially exclusive. This can happen without members even being aware of it. While such insulation can result in some positive feelings for those included (such as feelings of exclusivity and belongness), it is ultimately bad for the community as a whole because it alienates certain segments within the larger social scene while stifling new membership. Moreover, such a social group tends to get “stuck in its ways” which keeps it from being vibrant and fresh. Senior members must watch out for this effect and work to keep the group open, so that new people, new ideas, and new ways of doing things can find their way in.

3. Right Way Battles. This is one of the most tedious, asinine tendencies that many magicians tend to have. We love to fight over the “right” way to do things, especially initiations and the Gnostic Mass. When this mindset infects a local body, it can be demoralizing at best and socially destructive at worst. We must do two things: 1) learn to recognize that there are policies to follow (which certain officers are oath-bound to obey, so we should all just get over that one and suck it up...either play the game with a good attitude or take your balls and go home), and (2) as long as said policies are fulfilled, acknowledge that everything else is a matter of personal understanding and proclivity. As such, we should learn to celebrate diversity of style and interpretation where our rites allow it. This helps keep our celebrations lively and fresh, since practitioners will feel open to question the texts and to find their own unique ways of interpreting and expressing our rites. The general attitude should be one of joy in our celebrations, coupled with respect for the ritual authority inherent in our Order.

4. Skills over Character. For whatever reason, I have observed that in many cases, we in OTO tend to value skills and knowledge over character. While skills and knowledge are naturally important (as they are in all serious endeavors), enough people with a lack of character can seriously injure the well-being of a community, no matter how skilled or knowledgeable. I believe there are four essential character traits that are ideal within a fraternal environment: courage, integrity, cordiality, and foolishness. These guide behavior so that a member will be willing to take risks, be honest (both with self and others) and responsible, be sincerely warm and ebullient, and be open-minded, inspired, and willing to not take oneself too seriously. By openly promoting such character traits and seeing them as a necessary part of fraternal behavior, we will reward positive social behavior that is such a strong component of a healthy community. [See more on the Four Character Traits here...]

5. We are not Christians. This underlies a lot of our social problems. In shorthand: Christian orgs are very social...we are not Christian...therefore we should not be social. Again, this is more likely to be unconscious than something in clear awareness. This tendency also extends into other areas...Christians raise money, so we shouldn’t. Christians have nice churches, so we shouldn’t. Christians are open and friendly with guests, so we shouldn’t. Et cetera. We need to really examine this tendency in ourselves and recognize that we should not make decisions based on what Christians do (and then do the opposite), but on what our needs are and the best way to accomplish them. As long as we try so hard not to be Christian, we will hamstring ourselves needlessly.

While promoting healthy communities is something that takes work, it isn’t rocket science. All it takes is intent and some honest effort. Addressing such barriers as above that exist within a community while promoting things like keeping the group open to newcomers, rewarding excellent character equal to knowledge and skills, celebrating ritual diversity, making decisions based on need and efficacy (not on how closely it matches Christians), and becoming comfortable with money will go a long way towards creating a healthy environment. There are, of course, many other things a local body can do to promote community, and it is up to each to decide what is best for them. The first step is simply to acknowledge that it is a priority....that it is something we value and that we will make it happen. Abrahadabra!