[This issue, we sit down with author and witch, Lisa McSherry. Here, she discusses her forthcoming book, A Witch’s Guide to Crafting Your Practice; the importance of breaking away from polarities and dualities; and her upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: How do you define your personal spiritual path? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Lisa McSherry: The label I most often use for myself is witch. Some of my formal training was in American Eclectic Wicca, so I did call myself Wiccan for a while, but my practice has expanded past that boundary. Witches deliberately live in the liminal and disrupt society, no matter how normal we look and act; our very existence provokes change and reaction. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of personal responsibility and work constantly to increase our personal growth through self-knowledge and energetic activity. Our magic may be small and only for ourselves, or large and encompassing the world, but it is eclectic in nature and rational. Intuition may guide us to the start of our practice, but we do our work from a place of knowing what does – and doesn’t — work for us.
ev0ke: Which Deities, spirits, or other powers do you honor?
LM: At this point, and for several decades now, Mercury has been my Deity. He sort of snuck up on me when I was writing my first published article (in PanGaia magazine) and we’ve been working together ever since. By choice, my devotion to Him is through writing. (I’m not interested in being a thief, or commerce!) It’s a difficult form of worship in some ways because there are times when I think to myself “that’s it, that was the last thing I ever need to write again.” Inevitably I’ll find myself digging into the nooks and crannies of some idea, in a way that only makes sense if I’m planning to write about it. Right about then He’ll come along and nudge me to get started, and off I go on another project. He’s a trickster, so I don’t always appreciate how He teaches me although I’m always the better for it. Trickster deities often get a bad rap. They don’t (only) cause trouble, they are experts at deflating people full of themselves or making the sarcastic jab that points out a hidden (or not so hidden) flaw in an argument. Just like any good relationship, working with Him evolves and uplifts.
ev0ke: Your new book, A Witch’s Guide to Crafting Your Practice: Create a Magical Path that Works for You will be released in October 2022. First, congratulations! Second, how did this book come about? Why a book about personalizing magical practices?
LM: Thanks very much! This book came about because I realized I’d been teaching students the basics of witchcraft for more than 20 years. Even with the other teachers in my coven, we can only reach a fairly small number of people during our year-long Art of Ritual class. After a lot of pondering, I decided the best way to reach more people was to publish a book based on the class materials. Even so, the final product differs significantly from the course material because it lacks active classroom engagement, but I think it will achieve similar results.
ev0ke: A Witch’s Guide to Crafting Your Practice includes a series of lessons. How and where did these lessons originate? Are they based on your experiences or those of other practitioners?
LM: When I founded JaguarMoon more than 20 years ago it was in fulfillment of my calling as a teacher. I specifically wanted to offer a place for seekers looking to learn more about modern paganism but not sure what direction they wanted to go in. Like, if you absolutely know that what you want is to be a Gardnerian, don’t come to us, go find a Gardnerian coven! But if you don’t have a specific calling, we’ll help you find your way. At the time I took the training I’d made and been given and synthesized it into a series of 12 modules covering all the basics of witchcraft. Although it was rooted in witchcraft, I took care to keep the class from ever saying this was the One True Way. I felt, then and still, that there is always another way to get through the forest; that there are many paths to spirituality.
But we’re small, by both choice and necessity; we can’t teach more than a double handful every year while maintaining our standards. By taking the curriculum and transferring it into a book I hope to reach a broader audience.
ev0ke: Can you give us an example of one of lessons in the book?
LM: Let’s talk about magic.
Scott Cunningham once said, “Magic isn’t the empty parroting of words and actions; it is an involved, emotionally charged experience in which the words and actions are used as focal points or keys to unlock the power that we all possess.” Magic is alive within and all around you; you don’t need to believe in it; it never goes away. One way witches see the Universe is as being composed of energy. Whether solids, liquids, or gas, the form does not matter; it is all microscopic particles held together at the sub-atomic level by energy. Proven by modern science, this view of the Universe is thousands of years old, as we see from the teachings of the Vedic sages in India. Energy is not static; it is responsive and dynamic with movements that mimic fluid.
We interact with energy every day, albeit unconsciously; it takes its shape from us, reacting instantly and as naturally as air conforming to the earth’s surface or water to the seafloor. However, when we consciously interact with energy, bringing our intellect and — most importantly — our will, to bear, we create magic. Magic is the art of consciously focusing and controlling the energy of the Universe.
To effect change, we must move beyond petty desires and the gadfly of our Id, our Younger Self. That self is interested in satisfying wants and desires, and like a magpie, is distracted by any new, shiny object. It is a deep source of power, a pool of energy connected directly to the primal elements of the world. Younger Self controls our instinctive behavior and understands movement, music, ritual, rhyme, water, stars, and shiny things. To impress Younger Self, we need to get its attention through tricks. It likes simple rhymes and soothing or repetitive music. Candles and incense get its attention and tell it that what we’re about to do is important and interesting. While we are fascinating Younger Self, we must reach out to our Higher Self, the best in us, our connection to the Divine so that our natural passions align with that which sees further and broader than we can. Regular meditation and mental exercises aid this connection. When we do magic, we raise energy, focus it on the desired outcome, and then direct that energy to manifest our will. For newcomers, this can feel impossible, but I assure you it is only difficult and gets easier with practice. Working magic requires a change in consciousness, often aided by external factors and symbols. Through magic, we influence or control the world around us; this is a tremendous responsibility requiring a high standard of morality.
It also requires work. You can cast a ‘perfect’ spell, but it will go to naught if you don’t back it up in the physical realm. Magic is the blueprint; it’s up to you to build the structure that allows your will to manifest. If you run into trouble or experience unintended consequences, go back to that blueprint and take a look at what you were Working for — maybe you got precisely what you asked for (as opposed to what you wanted)? We live in a multi-dimensional Universe, and it’s difficult for us to think beyond three dimensions, so it’s less of a surprise that the spell didn’t work as it is that any spell does work!
Magic is like a coin — you only see one side of it. But working with energy and magic teaches us to acknowledge the reality of the parts we can’t see. The entire object has an existence on its own, but it also inhabits a realm we cannot see. If belief is the primary tool in witchcraft, then Will is the engine that powers it.
If your physical reality is a mess, it will be exponentially more difficult to manifest your will. The saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ is vital. For example, if you find yourself short of cash, you might say, “I want to pay all my bills by the end of this month.” Sounds like the right solution, doesn’t it? But what if what comes to you is a part-time job that sucks up all of your free time, and getting your bills paid messes up your relationship with your lover?
One can be a witch and never work magic. If we choose to work magic, however, we are seeking power with the intent to use it to deliberately alter our world in alignment with our will. Magic (and spellcraft, how witches manifest their magic) is spiritual power. If you want to do magic, you are saying to the universe that you are ready and willing to access the cosmic power plant and use that energy to effect change. Magic is both a science and an art, and using it begins with disciplining our mind to focus our will. As we do so, we are transformed.
Witches do not accept things as they are. We look with discerning eyes and deep awareness of what is and work to make it better. We ask, “what if?” and begin to see what is needed. We realize that others cling to illusions like a child clings to its blanket and choose to make different choices. When we think for ourselves and make decisions based on awareness and a desire for change, we move outside of society.
Magic requires consciousness. Magic requires awareness. Magic requires Will.
ev0ke: Polarities and dualities (Deity, energy, elements, and so on) are very common in magical practices. In “A Witch’s Guide to Crafting Your Practice” you break away from this idea. How and why? What compelled you to do so, and how has your practice changed as a result?
LM: My original practice was monotheistic. I was a big fan of Goddess and had no interest in working with a male deity. In the late 90s, I started formal training with a woman whose background was Wiccan, which is a tradition that sees Deity as dual-gendered. Back then my personal growth meant dealing with my feelings about men and God and I ended up working with both a male and female Deity. But I never saw it as an absolute, that energy or Deity had to be one, or the other.
Stepping away from the duality I’d been working with – well, for decades – came subtly, but inevitably. It started when I found myself asking why we had gendered roles within our rituals and rewrote our rituals so that High Priest/ess became Lead and Second. When I did so, the people I circle with told me that they felt empowered to step into differently gendered ritual roles and explore different modalities found within themselves. They felt able to do something I had long done in “drawing down” both the sun (God) and moon (Goddess) in rituals as well as embodying many Names and Aspects. As a group, we have found that we raise power, move, and have it accepted by Deity no matter the gender of the participants in any role.
The world did not come to an end. If anything, it’s led to a broader view. Deity is too big and everything we ascribe to it – names, aspects, gender, — is just a human attempt to understand and put it in terms we can work with. It’s also very foundational – Carl Jung held that we all have different energies within us and that no one is solely masculine or feminine. In a sense, it’s the strength of Dion Fortune’s comment that “All gods are one god, all goddesses are one goddess, and there is one initiator.”
Stepping away from gender duality opened my awareness to how keeping our definitions binary locks our viewpoint into that of self and other, that when we enforce gender stereotypes, we ultimately disempower everyone. I may have been assigned female at birth, but I am neither my womb nor my procreative status.
ev0ke: So much of popular culture treats witchcraft as a practice without an ethical basis or a moral center, when this is far from the reality. Ethics play an important part in the work of many witches. How have ethics played a role in your magical work, and what cautionary examples do you offer to readers in the book?
LM: Like pretty much every person who works with magic, I’ve wrestled with the ethics of my magical practice; particularly when I was new to magic and working without a teacher or group. I just didn’t have a way to work out whether my practice would harm unintentionally, and no one to ask. The religion I was raised in had some rules, but just being a witch was breaking the first one, so I made a lot of choices based on gut instinct. Mostly it worked out, but the Me of now cringes a bit when looking through my first Book of Shadows. There were a lot of “make that person . . .” spells, a lot of very selfish energy spent, and mostly, nothing came of it; they were just a huge waste of energy and focus.
As more information came out it became easier in the sense that I knew what others thought and felt, but almost everyone was saying the same thing, “do no harm.” And that is a fine guideline when you are new to magic, it’s certainly the safest course . . . but it lacks resonance and strength in the long run.
Consider that many of our actions cause harm: eating, driving a car, working for a multinational company. What we end up doing is much more like, “do your best to cause the least harm possible.” Even that intent falls by the wayside when it comes to real-life issues of survival; I’m not going to say no to working for a multinational if I have no other options. It becomes downright problematical when you layer in larger issues, like justice. What it comes down to is this: being an ethical witch requires a willingness to take responsibility for all of our actions, even the ones we don’t intend. This is a very difficult path to walk and while we can all exist as a community, in the end, each witch makes choices based on their own process of personal growth.
ev0ke: A Witch’s Guide to Crafting Your Practice is being released by Llewellyn. Why that publisher? Did you approach them or did they come to you?
LM: This is my fifth published book with my third publisher, so I had a bit more to go on than new authors. Llewellyn has been publishing more and more interesting works over the last several years and also has a wider distribution network than the other publishers I’ve been able to work with, but that was only part of my decision framework. I’m fortunate in that I have relationships with many publishers because of the work I do with my review site, Facing North and I get to read a lot of what they produce. I’m also friends with several of their authors and could ask about the editorial and promotion processes. Having all of that information made it easier to approach Llewellyn and pitch the original idea to them.
ev0ke: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
LM: I live in Portugal, so my US-based in-person events are limited. I’m doing an online presentation at the Magickal Women Conference on November 17th and at the Changing Times, Changing Worlds conference on the weekend of November 12-13th. I’m also booking a lot of podcasts! The best way to check where I’m talking is my website.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
LM: I do have more material from the original manuscript that I’d like to publish as a kind of “deepening your practice.” That needs polishing and will be my focus later this year. I’m also noodling on a sacred calendar project. The idea is to find the Deity or sacred event for each day of the year as an opportunity to invite the sacred into our daily practice. It’s a big research project and has some potential issues with cultural appropriation that I need to address before I’ll be happy. A little further off is a book about carrying one’s spiritual practice when traveling. I recently moved to Portugal and it’s creating a lot of change in my practice. There were a lot of things I took for granted in the States — I can’t count on there being a local source for incense or candles, for example — and it’s really shaking up my longtime spiritual practices.
Lisa is an Author, Priestess, and world traveler. Her first book, CyberCoven.Org was published in 2001, followed by The Virtual Pagan, and Magickal Connections: Creating a Healthy and Lasting Spiritual Group. In 2021 she completed a massive revision and expansion and republished it as The Virtual Pagan 2.0. Her latest A Witches’ Guide to Crafting Your Practice, is due out from Llewellyn Worldwide in October 2022. She edits and writes reviews for Facing North: A Community Resource where you can find hundreds of reviews of items for the Pagan/New Age/Spiritual community. Since 2000 she has led JaguarMoon coven, teaching the Art of Ritual class and working with her coven celebrating the seasons, working magick, and exploring the Mysteries in an inclusive, mentor-based framework. After retiring from mundane work she moved to Portugal to create a new life experiencing the culture, history, art, and food(!) of Europe in a slow, deeper fashion. She can always be found at www.lisamcsherry.com.