Esoteric Orders: A Survival Guide
          Section I: How To Find An Esoteric Order

Last Chapter: Claims to Fame, or the Question of Esoteric Grades

By now, if you’ve chosen to interact with a good Order which does not automatically accept anyone with a credit card, you will likely find yourself at a point where you’re in front of an interview panel, whether it be a conference call or face-to-face.  Most of these kinds of interviews consist of the panel drilling the candidate with all sorts of questions, and the interviewee finds himself navigating a veritable minefield.  Any aspirant would likely feel anxious at such a prospect, and that is completely understandable.

However, such an occurrence need not be a one-way street.  It is an opportunity, not only for them to judge if you’re right for them, but for you to judge whether or not their Order is right for you.  You shouldn’t be the only person on the hot seat in an interview like this.  Furthermore, if you are denied candidacy because you asked too many incisive or uncomfortable questions, then they’re not the people you want to join anyways.

Below is a fairly comprehensive list of questions you could potentially ask during your interview.  You are not going to get answers to all of them, nor should you.  Esoteric Orders should have some level of privacy for their members and their information.  If they let it all out for you, then you can be reasonably sure what will happen with information about you as well.  What may be even more valuable, however, are the things that are not said, or what information is to be gleaned from reading between the lines.

As a part of my initiation, will I be expected to swear an oath?

Such obligations are commonplace among esoteric Orders.  Depending on your faith, though, undertaking an obligation in such a manner might be in transgression with your religious doctrines.

Is there any clause contained in the oath which may conflict with my civil, moral, religious or familial duties?

Most Orders which are Freemasonic in nature, or are descended in some way from Freemasonry, will assure you, right in the Initiation ceremony, that this will not be the case.  However, there are some Orders which, in their higher grades, contain Oaths which obligate you to put the Order before your family.  This is a cultish practice and should be avoided at all costs.

Is there anything in the oath which may require me to swear an obligation to a person?

See above.  If you want a quick and easy litmus test to determine whether or not an organization is a cult, this is it.

Does your organization have written and ratified articles of incorporation, ordinances and/or by-laws?

Orders are called Orders for a reason.  They run on structure, rules and regulations.  The “house not built by hands” is instead built on principles.  If you are in a sizeable group that has no written by-laws and is led by a singular head who rules by fiat, you are not in an Order, you are in a cult.  Furthermore, a spiritual organization must also be ruled by the spirit of its laws.  If the leaders of the group leverage the by-laws to their advantage, or twist the letter of their by-laws to use against their members, then there is a different sort of power and control issue in the group, despite it not being a cult.

What is the history and origin of your organization?

For this answer, you’ll want to be reading between the lines as much as listening to the information given.  Truth be told, for the vast majority of esoteric groups out there, their origins are humble and their histories relatively short.  There is no dishonor in this, and for those who willingly admit it, credit them for the virtues of honesty and humility.  On the flip side, if the alleged history is long and their origins shrouded in antiquity and secrecy, that simply means that the tale is tall and there is much more cause to spend time in the efforts of busting the myth.  (Odds are it won’t be too difficult.)

Does your organization have a Charter, or Warrant of Constitution?

For any larger or self-declared worldwide orders, this is basically a follow-up question to the above.  Any well-established order worth its salt is going to issue some sort of writ of authority for their lodges to operate under their auspices within their tradition.  The important information upon such a document would be its date of issue and those whose hand had bestowed the warrant.  Witnessing but a single signature upon a charter may prove cautionary, as it could indicate there is only one person at the Order’s head.

How many Chiefs are there in this organization?  What are their grades?  How did they achieve them?

Similar to the previous question, you’re looking here for a cooperative group of leaders who spent years upon years working hard in their tradition and taking their lumps for their honors.  Spiritual growth, like alchemy, takes time, attention, care, and most of all, perseverance.  A solitary chief claiming a grandiose title because he performed a single ritual and “crossed the Abyss” is nothing but an alchemical flash in the pan.

Are there dues and/or initiation fees?

Few and far between are the Orders which run completely pro gratis, and they are to be cherished.  In reality, however, they are typically taken for granted, which usually lends them to either begin assessing dues or fold altogether.  Good organizations then will have some sort of stipulation in case of poverty, so that no sincere seeker of the Light will be turned away simply based on the inability to pay dues.

What do the monies pay for?

Spiritual organizations will always have expenditures for consumable supplies, such as candles, incense, charcoal, and esculent items for eucharistic rites or mystical repasts.  Temple furniture and regalia are also common expenses and, although they are more durable goods, they too need to be repaired or replaced from time to time.  Some groups also have regular expenses related to the rental of a hall or lodge for their meetings.  This is the kind of answer you will likely get.

The information you are poking around for, however, is to try and find out if the head of the Order is getting any financial recompense, simply for holding the position.  Such begs the following question.

Are the financial books open?

In a healthy organization, the finances of an organization are managed by a treasurer and audited by some sort of governing board.  In such a case, the books may legitimately be closed to the overall populace.  Yet oftentimes, the person holding the purse strings is also holding the reins of power.  This may be necessary in a small spiritual circle, but remember that the two slipperiest slopes to corruption come in the form of money and power.

With whom will my personal information be shared?

If a secret society expects itself to remain secret, it is only right to expect that same kind of courtesy extended back to the people who wish to join it.  If such an Order has a formal application process, the information you provide should only be shared with the membership coordinator, the Chiefs of the Order, and the leaders of its closest affiliated group.

How many active members are there in your group, and how far is the next closest group?

Members of many Orders are oath-bound not to reveal the personal information of any individual member, but asking not who, but how many, should be a reasonable enough question to answer.  Some Orders are secretive about where their groups are located.  Some publish them prominently on their website.

By and large, size and distance, as well as the locations of an Order’s groups, are relative.  Its importance comes in when you’re considering joining an Order which claims to be international and flourishing.  Even then, having the next closest group be 500 or so miles away from you is actually rather close in the grand scheme of things.

Will I have a full Initiation team?

This is not to suggest that a small Initiation team is by default less effective.  It again goes back to verifying extravagant claims of Orders with worldwide temples brimming at the top with magical members.  Typically, by the time you arrive at the temple door and find your Initiation team is two people, out of a temple of two people, your application fee and dues money have already been long past spent.

Is there any portion of the Initiation, or any subsequent Initiations, ceremonies or rituals, which contain elements of any physical abuse to the flesh?

Ritual bloodletting was not an uncommon facet of Initiations in antiquity.  Some organizations carry on that ancient tradition.  Others consider such a practice to be barbaric and anathema.  Either way, this is something every Initiate should know up front.  Furthermore, regardless how you feel about such a practice, you would do well to remember that we live in the era of bloodborne pathogens.  The magical path is perilous enough without having to willingly open up a vein.

Will I be given a magical name or motto?

Being given a nickname among your friends is fine, but when it comes to your magical identity, the only person determining that should be you.  There is a Talmudic tenet that states that declaring your identity is a way of determining your destiny, and no person other than you should establish the aims, goals or destiny of your magical life.

What are the criteria for determining advancement within the organization?

Whatever the answer may be, you’re looking here for consistency and uniformity across the board.  Things like quizzing, testing and performance evaluations are good methods for this.  Naturally, exceptions can and should be made, but again, Orders are built on rules.  If the head of a group gets to decide free and clear who advances and who doesn’t, then fairness ends up being strictly optional.

Has anyone been blocked from advancing for any arbitrary reason and how often does that happen?

Sometimes, a head of an Order needs to take things into his own hands.  Still, such cases should be rare and, as much as possible, in accordance with the by-laws of the organization.  If the arbitrary cases are the norm rather than the exception, then the Chief is capricious at best and autocratic at worst.

The other thing you’re trying to root out here is any trace of prejudice among the leadership.  Granted, certain organizations exclude categories of people, and some of this is entirely reasonable.  For example, members must be of legal age, or Satanists are barred admittance from a Christian Mystical Order.  This should be spelled out up front, and only you can decide if such discrimination is acceptable to you.  However, if you start hearing insensitive or snide comments about people based on their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or something similar, chances are the Order does not solely judge its members on their merits alone.

Will I be denied answers to questions that are technically above my grade level?

This is going to be a matter of preference from group to group.  Personally, I’ve just found such a practice to be little more than a source of pretentiousness.

Can I study individually outside my Order studies?
Again, only you should get to decide how you want to live your spiritual life.  If a mentor or Chief outright forbids it, then there are significant control issues in the organization.

Will I be assigned a personal mentor, and what grade will he be?

A single Chief can’t be expected to mentor everyone in the group, so commonly, mentors are assigned to new Initiates.  Typically, your assigned mentor should be a fairly high grade, or at very least, a couple full grades ahead of you.  Anything less may be an indication of mismanagement of the group or some other issues.  On the flip side, if a large group only has its head as its teacher, you may need to be careful that what you would be receiving is in fact teaching and not indoctrination.

Are there any mentor-student relationships that are more than just mentor and student?

Relationships in occult circles are notoriously common.  This should be no surprise when unusual people share similarly unusual interests.  What you’re looking for here is any indication of favoritism.  Most of the better Orders out there do not allow people in a relationship to be a mentor and student, so as to not give off the slightest illusion of impropriety.  On the other hand, I know of one Order whose Chief started bringing his Neophyte girlfriend into Inner Order meetings, and that was one of many reasons which caused a major schism.

How do mentors, and especially the Chiefs, handle questioning and criticism, constructive or otherwise?

The one thing that is certain is that the spiritual path is not smooth, and those who tread upon it will have moments of disagreement with other such seekers.  What should be expected at these times is that the mentors and Chiefs should act like the adults in the room.  If they are able to listen much more than they speak, and approach conflict with composure, and even compromise, then these are the people you want to follow.  If the attitude of their leadership is to expect their students to fall in line, and to be seen and not heard, then the students are not the only ones who have some growing up to do.

How much influence will they have over my personal life?

Chances are the answer you get will be “none”, but this is something you will need to check against time and time again.  Such meddling begins slowly, like making backhanded comments about people with which you associate.  Before long, you may be cautioned to stay away from ex-members who have “fallen from the path”.  You may even face disciplinary action or be ostracized if you keep those lines of communication open.  That kind of peer pressure may be found in high school, but should never be found in esoteric schools.  Furthermore, if such control tactics are used heavily and frequently, you might just be in a cult.

How do I report any misconduct, and is there an appeals process?

It would seem that very few esoteric organizations have any sort of formal process for transgressions, ethical or otherwise.  Appeals, if any, usually go to a Chief, if so allowed.  What you’re really looking for here though is a feel for how an organization treats its whistleblowers.  The best Orders out there will perform due diligence of the claims from the lowest Neophyte, without fear or favor, and if found to have merit, even a Chief may topple.  The worst will punish the whistleblower, if not outright expel him, and circle the wagons of the power base in order to save face.

When was the last time you had to expel someone and why?

This is a follow up from the previous question.  Chances are you won’t get a lot of details here, if any, but perhaps you can at least get a time frame.  If an Order has a lot of expulsions, there is one thing that all those expulsions have in common, the Chief who did the expelling, and that is precisely where the true problem lies.  The most solid and stable Orders have a strong egregore, and such currents have a way of cleansing themselves.  Either way, rare should be the times that a head of an Order should have to oust a fellow by fiat.  Any expulsion is an indication of a categorical failure, and the ex-member, the leader, the group and the Order all have their own share of the blame.

When was the last time the head of the Order apologized for something?

The initial reaction you will probably get here is anything from a pregnant pause to stunned silence.  Upon first glance, one might think that a Chief who apologizes too much would be weak, but nothing could be further from the truth.  He who is exalted is humble, and should be able to admit mistakes when he makes them.  Those Chiefs who cannot bring themselves to admit their own wrongdoings are guilty of spiritual pride, the very vice of the Adept.  Those organizations which prop up their Chiefs as unquestionable and infallible are not esoteric Orders, they are cults, plain and simple.  So if you get an answer to this question that drifts away from a direct answer and turns into a two-minute hagiography of the head of their Order, you too should take a turn, as in simply turn around and walk away.

Next Chapter:  A Quick Reference Guide to Logical Fallacies

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