From Cefalu to Sacramento
Part 1: From Crowley to SecklerTrying to figure out why there are so many different A.'.A.'. groups today led me to ask David Shoemaker how it all happened. His response began, "Well, to really understand that, you have to go back to the state of affairs when Germer died..."
We went on to have a discussion that went on over multiple evenings. These conversations filled in the gaps in my understanding, and explained the situation clearly. I had already gone through several of Jane Wolfe and Phyllis Seckler’s diaries, books, and personal correspondences, and had a pretty solid understanding of their personal experiences and the kinds of things they recorded for themselves, their superiors, and the things they said publicly. The things David Shoemaker shared filled in the practical, administrative, and functional gaps of the narrative that don’t get mentioned in magical diaries, or the kinds of letters shared between Phyllis and her superior in the Order about her HGA experiences, or in regular publications.
Reading Brother Wasserman's In the Center of the Fire provided an alternate view of the events surrounding a lot of the Order’s history, and shed some light on the peculiar impact of Marcelo Motta on the state of affairs we have to deal with today. While I completely disagree with Wasserman’s conclusions about Seckler, his memoir of the time provides a raw look at his experiences with the key players he interacted with and his own involvement with them.
Furthermore, Wasserman’s account is presented with a no-holds-barred honesty in which he documents the correlation between uncontrolled drug addiction and grandiose spiritual experiences, his own naiveté as a child of the sixties, and his fundamental lack of preparation to face the trials and ordeals he went through during this period of his life.
Tracking down reliable information relative to the claimants who trace themselves back through Grady McMurtry was more difficult. While there are reams of published materials available on the internet, much of it comes from questionable resources and unverifiable claims. Sifting through that was a nightmare full of dead ends, as you can imagine.
I ended up reaching out to my friends who trace their A.'.A.'. experiences back to Grady McMurtry, and wound up receiving an honest and clean account from a first-hand eye witness to the stuff that went down when it was going down. There are some interesting arguments related to the authority of Grady to take on students, or to represent the A.'.A.'. as its leader that, frankly, don’t make much sense to me. That said, with a couple notable exceptions, the people I’ve met in groups descended from Grady are consistently the kind of magicians I like to hang out with. They generally have done the Work, and have integrated it to the point where they can carry on a decent conversation without it degenerating into meaninglessness.
Documenting the history of the orders up through the last quarter of the 20th century e.v. is fairly easy. The people in question have left historic records, and their writings are fixed reference points to which we can refer as we discuss history. It’s historically documented. However, when we start getting past the 1970s e.v., we start to interact with people who are still alive, which makes it a lot harder to say, “this is what they did in their lives, and at the end of their incarnations in this plane, this is what they accomplished and what they’ve left us to sort through.” We simply can’t speak of the living conclusively, because they haven't, ah... concluded.
And because they haven't concluded yet, there's a lot left that can happen. Minds might change, people might see things differently, apparent successors might renounce all occultism and return to the religion of their birth, leaving everyone else wondering what the actual heck just happened, as one (cough cough cough Achad cough cough cough) does.
With this in mind, I think it’s probably best to just delineate the main points to date as they pertain to other people’s public statements, and then to focus on the events leading the A.’. A.’. to Sacramento.
Over the course of this work, I’ve been keeping track of things as they unfold using a timeline that shows the ongoing chain of events. It’s been pretty useful, I must say. I like pictures, dates, and small words to summarize things, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then this is definitely that picture:
|The Whole Enchilada|
We’ll begin at Cefalu.
It's April 1920, and Aleister Crowley and his whole squad is totally on point. He is Magus, he is the Prophet, he is the gate of manifestation of the Aeon of Horus, and he's got one of the very first hippy communes ever set up, in beautiful Cefalu, Sicily. He's got acolytes, disciples, and groupies. He's got it going on. The Abbey of Thelema is open for spiritual business, there's drugs, there's ceremonial magick, there's asana and pranayama, and all the sex you can imagine.
Things are going pretty well, if he does say so himself.
And he's not just a local phenomenon. His reputation and influence has spread around the world, even to the silver screen of Hollywood. He has been in touch with a young starlet named Jane Wolfe, and she has agreed to come and join him on his adventure, to participate in the grand experiment, and to devote herself to the teachings of the A.'.A.'..
When she arrived, she immersed herself into the communal life. Her diaries of the seven years she spent at Cefalu are a clear demonstration of what it was that Crowley expected from his A.'.A.'. students in real life. The exercises he assigned her, the documentation requirements, the progress made and the hand written feedback in the margins are a clear record of what it means to be a member of the A.'.A.'. the way Crowley ran things in actual practice. He came pretty close to following his own recommended approaches to things, but there were a lot of deviations as he saw fit. It's amazing to have such a complete record of what Crowley actually did with his students through her diary entries.
|A Closer View of Jane Wolfe's Time at Cefalu|
This didn't exactly work out the way Crowley had hoped. Wolfe spent months trying different tactics to find a way to help Crowley accomplish his intentions, but there was little money, less support, and none of the kinds of financial windfalls that would have been necessary for her to succeed in her mission. Over time, her health deteriorated, and she eventually had to return to the United States for surgery and recuperation.
When she had recovered, she returned to the service of the OTO and A.'.A.'. in California, joining Wilfred Smith at Agape Lodge II, which took the place of Smith’s initial efforts at Agape Lodge I in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. By the end of World War II in 1945, she was a pillar of the last remaining Thelemic community on the planet. Various individual members remained scattered around the world, and maintained communications with Crowley and Germer, but Agape Lodge had become the last active group in the body of the Order. And it was beset by the challenges of the birth pains of the Aeon, both within and without.
It was here that Wolfe met Phyllis Seckler, who became her student in the A.'.A.'.. Seckler was a pragmatic and intense person, whose experience as a high school teacher educating adolescents served her well in her later years in both the O.T.O. and the A.'.A.'.. Between June of 1940, and June of 1952, Seckler applied her tenacity, intelligence, and her Will to accomplishing the Work of A.'.A.'.. During this time, Wolfe's health again deteriorated, and eventually Karl Germer took over Seckler’s direct supervision within the A.'.A.'.. He acknowledged her attainment of the 5○=6□ grade in 1952, first in personal correspondence with Jane Wolfe, and later directly to Seckler.
The two continued their relationship as student and teacher throughout the rest of Germer's life. When he died in 1962, Seckler's actual grade was not a matter of public knowledge or commentary, but she was officially, per the O.H.O. of the O.T.O. and Head of the A.'.A.'., recognized as 5○=6□. This, as we will see, becomes important as time goes by.
In our next installment, we'll examine one of the primary sources of conflict within the Orders historically, the echoes of whose madness continue to be heard today.