This is one the hardest posts that I have ever had to write. My heart is breaking, my soul aches and my emotions are just about drained. My eyes are read and puffy from the hours of crying. I know the spirit world well, but the physical loss of someone important to you still makes your heart bleed.
It was the early 2000’s and I was 19. Having never fit it in with people, I was striving to find my spiritual place in the world. I finished High School where I was made fun of a lot for being “the weird girl with weird books” and “weird jewelry”---you know the usual: pentagram rings, bat necklaces, Scott Cunningham’s “WICCA For the Solitary Practitioner”—those “weird things. I was free from the conforms of High School hell and was searching for a place where I could find “like minded” people. More importantly, wanted to LEARN. I wanted someone to teach me. I needed a teacher or mentor. It seemed every group I met with was “its our way or the highway” or were strict about who they let in (in other words, established cliques!).
With the feeling of lost hope of ever finding a teacher, I discovered Our Lady of Enchantment. It was a “church” based in New Hampshire run by Lady Sabrina. The best part-- Lady Sabrina offered mail order classes (yes boys and girls---MAIL ORDER CLASSES—before the time of online classes you had to stamp and mail away your course work!!). I signed up for my Herbology and Metaphysics and passed, happily hanging my certificates on the wall in my tiny apartment I rented from my grandmother.
However, you know when they say that a teacher will find you when you are ready. Well, it’s true. One day while I was on AOL Instant Messenger (you 90’s adults get the feels), I got a message from a guy with the screen name Balaam. Turned out that he knew and studied and was initiated by Lady Sabrina herself! He said that he ran an eclectic group/coven (I use coven here only to mean a group of magickal folk that practice alternative religions). His group was in West Roxbury (like 5 minutes from my house!) and wanted to know if I wanted to meet and discuss the group to see if I would fit in.
(Ok……reflectively looking back on that as an adult—I am thinking “Wow Z, what a great way to get yourself murdered. Meeting a strange guy on the internet who has a “group” in his “home” …. But hey, I was like 19 so fuck caution!)
Well, Balaam and Tinuviel (my screen name at the time) decided to meet at Deno’s sub shop in West Roxbury (pretty much the place I would be eating after ritual for the next 10 years!). Its only a short 5-minute drive from my house, so I figured it was safe. I mean, who is going to kill someone in a sub shop?? Besides my intuition was not giving off alarm bells, so I figured I was safe. It was February 1st, 2003. I remember it well because it was the date that the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded. As I walked into the sub shop, shaking off the snow from my boots, I began to look for a guy matching the description that Balaam had given me. And there waiting in a booth at the front was a curmudgeonesque motorcycle gang kind of looking man with a grey Fu-Manchu moustache. Yep. Balaam.
We chatted a long time. Let him know what I was seeking, and his group sounded just like what I was looking for: eclectic, met regularly, hierarchy, the chance to be initiated. It was perfect. He then offered to take me to his home to show me the Temple.
(Ok ok…. yes, I know. “For fucks sake Z---you could have been killed! Going to a strange house with a strange man” --- again I was like 19 remember?? You do dumb shit at 19!).
During this entire meeting, my intuition never gave me a single that something was wrong. I felt comfortable and of course said yes. Balaam and I walked to his house and he brought me up the attic steps to an amazing Temple space. Candelabras, candles for the Quarters, giant altar, statues, a circle taped out on the floor, the most amazing smell of frankincense resin still hovering in the air. It was surreal. Like walking onto some old movie set with Vincent Price playing a sorcerer. The candles flickering on the altar from the night before. It was perfect.
I officially started attending ritual and it forever changed me. The Temple of the Seekers was partially a study group and partially a ritual group. While we did honor the Wheel and the moon phases, we also did rituals for various Gods/Goddesses. When I say eclectic—I mean it was eclectic! It was also where I learned about Ceremonial Magick. I had heard of it, but never really understood it. But over the years that I attended ritual and worked with Balaam, everything clicked. I could draw sigils and put up the LBRP in no time.
The Temple of the Seekers was made up of the best people you could find from all backgrounds. It was just how a coven/group should be. Black, white, Hispanic, gay, straight. It didn’t matter. And people came and went. But the group was open minded and non-judgmental. It was what I wished the world would be like. Everyone getting a long and not having to worry about being judged. We were like an extended family. The Temple of the Seekers became my home. I finally found a place to fit in.
One night after ritual, Balaam approached me and asked if I wanted to work with him privately for study. How could I say no! We would meet on off Temple weeks and have topics to discuss. I learned a lot from him. He taught me about the different types of pentagrams, how to draw them. How to do invocations and evocations. How to read the tarot cards correctly. I was an apprentice, and it was amazing.
After a year in the group, I decide to be dedicated. After my dedication ceremony I felt even stronger roots. I was growing not just magically, but spiritually. Being apart of the Temple of the Seekers helped to broaden my mind and I began studying other non-traditional religions and beliefs. It was like a door had been open for me to places I never thought I would go.
Balaam was more than just a High Priest; he was a good friend. I could talk to him about anything. When I said that I wanted to get a tattoo (my first mind you), Balaam told me he would take me to get my first “tramp stamp”- (he was not very subtle with words- but that is why he was great!). On a cold rainy fall day, we drove to Alston, MA and I got my first tat at Sting Ray. Balaam of course peaked in on my session many times, mostly because I think he just wanted to see if I could handle the pain.
Balaam was the kind of person who emanated wisdom and knowledge, and yet a had a big personality, swearing profusely and making dirty jokes. A real-life version of Baron Samedi! I remember I was his secret Santa one Yule. I found him a shirt that said, “All I Want for Christmas is Santa’s Naughty List.” It was an appropriate gift. Balaam introduced me to sushi and shumai and Israel Regardie and Aleister Crowley, Egyptian ushabtis and most importantly the Goddess Lilith.
In 2005, when my friend Melissa died, Balaam made sure that the Temple did a death ritual to honor her spirit. It was a surprise for me. I had no idea that we were doing that until after our regular ritual, Balaam handed out the death ritual to all us. It was those little things that made him even more special. How I wish I had a copy of that so I could perform it now for him.
In 2004, I decided I wanted to be Initiated. It’s a big deal in the magickal community to be initiated. Its like a rebirth. I will never forget that night! It was in November. November 21st, I believe. I had been on a strict diet for a month in preparation for initiation. And on the day of my initiation I was fasting. As a duty prior to the ritual, I had to clean the Temple. I love cleaning; but not when I have been fasting all day! The amount of dirt and dust from the candles and incense was like cleaning tar off a road. It took me six long hours and very dirty feet to get that room sparkling! Eventually, the High Priestess of the Temple called me down for a ritual bath. During the bath, the electricity went out. The whole block, it seemed, had gone into darkness (I’d like to think it was just for me!). With that said, my initiation was quite amazing. There wasn’t the soft music of Gerald Jay Markoes “Meditations Music of Ancient Egypt” playing the background as it did at all rituals. There was just me, bare ass necked, blind folded and bound. And trust me, if there was anyone who could bind your hands and feet so you were completely vulnerable--it was Balaam! Being spun around by Balaam and Zephyr. I remember the words, the oaths I took at the tip of a sword aimed at my heart, the ritual. And most of all, I remember Balaams booming voice saying, “From now forth, she will be known as Zehara.”
I was reborn. Zehara.
There was an awakening after my initiation. I felt like a stronger minded individual. There was something that ignited me. And once Zehara entered the world—there was nothing I could not dream or do. It was shortly after I was initiated that I started officially taking belly dance classes. And then…I started performing…. Then I started performing with snakes…so I added the Hebrew word “Nachash” to the end of my name. I was now the Bright Serpent. Everyone knew me only by Zehara. And even after years of performing and teaching, I will never be known to others under any other name but Zehara.
Balaam had given me a binder with all the rituals, rules and information I needed to continue my journey. I added to it often, when he would give me spells and rituals from his own collection. Since then I have added to it throughout the years with various information that I have received from my other studies. The small binder Balaam gave me, is now a huge binder going into its second edition. Its my Book of Shadows.
Balaam always told me how happy he was that I went on to teach magick. It was what he wanted me to do. Teach others. I thought about starting my own Temple many times, but I still have never met the right people nor the right place to teach everything Balaam taught me. For now, it’s just workshop snippets here and there. Someday, maybe, I can do what he really wanted me to.
Balaam was a friend and spiritual father to me. When the Temple no longer existed, I felt a loss. I lost my family and my friends. I lost my home. Yet, somehow, I knew that Balaam was always around, and I could just send him a quick message and get an answer. When he opened SEEK BOOKS, I donated a bunch of my personal collection to the store. It was his dream to open a book shop. He taught me to follow my dreams. He was important to me. He was single handedly the most influential person in my life. I still have the robe from Temple and the red cord that Balaam handed me after initiation, which means even more to me now than it did years ago. Balaam taught me that we are all seekers in this world. Seeking to find out who we are and what our place is in this world. “Gnothi Se Auton,” --Know Thyself. He would say that when he placed the oil on our foreheads and entered the Temple for ritual. We are always seeking to know who we are.
While I understand death more than anyone ever needs to, and while I hold strong to the belief that there is life after death, the physical loss of my teacher and my friend hurts. In a strange way, I feel orphaned. I know I have all the knowledge and wisdom he parted on me, but knowing he is no longer here physically hurts me. It is the human part of me that is pained. My spirit knows he has only transitioned to another place.
Before ritual, myself and another initiate would have to go and set up Temple. One of the things we did was to honor the ancestors by lighting candles and reciting: “I light the light that they have made, may darkness flee this temple. I light the path that they have set, may I follow it in their wisdom.” Since the time I first uttered those words until today, I never stopped to doing that. Even now, as a Voodoo practitioner, I light my altar candles and repeat the exact same words. It was hard today to do that, as a I mumbled through tears, my voice cracking as I lit the candles. Balaam lit the path, and I only hope that I can follow it in his wisdom.
My spirituality changed and shifted since I was a seeker in the Temple. I found Voodoo, a religious practice that feels right to me, and still allows me to integrate everything I learned from Balaam into it. I understand death more. I understand the spirit world more.
I knew his time was getting close, and I needed him to know how much he meant to me. Last month, I sent him a card telling him how important he is to me. How much of an impact that he has had on me. He sent me a sweet and short message back: “You're a big part of my life too. Stay well.” I feel lucky that I was able to let him know that before he passed away.
In Voodoo, there is no concept of Heaven or Hell. There is only the land of the Ancestors. And the Ancestors, they never leave us. As difficult and hard as it is losing my mentor, I know in my heart and spirit that he is with the Ancestors, willing to continue to be a source of wisdom for me on the other side.
We all strive to leave our mark. We all want to be remembered for something. Balaam left an indelible mark on me that I will cherish until I too, enter the world of the Ancestors.
To my friend and teacher, Balaam: I love you. I miss you. Thank you.
May you seek no more.
P.S. I named my new python Psyche :) I remember all the stories you told me about your boa Psyche. The name felt right.