“An infinity of tragic shapes …   Leave a comment

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to make thinking difficult.”

So run the final two lines from Charles Simic‘s poem “Letter.”

Except often it’s just not (only) about us. Trees loom and leaf for their own sake, expressions of energy just as valid without any human presence to comment on them or arrogate them for a poem, however talented or honored the poet (Simic won a Pulitzer in 1990). And I say this as a bard, a devotee of words and their crafting. I like some of Simic’s work very much.

Yes, human presences make their trails, but the seasons also have their say, wordless though it is.

Here’s an autumn view of a hill on a neighborhood walk that blesses my wife and me whenever we take it.

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And here’s the same path as winter dresses it:

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We make our paths through a world immeasurably larger than we are, a great comfort, I find. Sometimes the part of the Druid is listening, without comment. Of course, by itself listening doesn’t get the poems written, the blogposts online, the books and songs and stories heard and known and loved. But listening … oh, listening and looking, may you two always come first, springs of lasting wonder.

Initiation: To Serve in Order to Know (3) — Choice   Leave a comment

Is either choice more than blind?

Is either choice more than blind?

Do choices ever present themselves clearly to the self?

You summon your judges of hunch and experience and logic and passion, your own High Court. Finally they’ve assembled, all robed and solemn, but when it comes down to it, often the choice is no choice at all. Or all choices are equally bad. Or indifferent. Nothing to distinguish between them. Or both are good, better in fact than whatever you’ve got right now.

No wonder we resort to oracles and soothsayers, or follow a prophet who shows more than half a chance of being right. Or at least less wrong than everyone else. We must choose, but we can’t. Or the choice itself doesn’t matter. Or it matters supremely. Our lives in the balance. You get it. Familiar human territory. A deep intiation all its own.  How many choices you’ve faced — a measure of how far you’re being stretched.

(We say to our young people, “Make good choices.” Sounds wise, but how many of us start out by telling ourselves, “Yes, this time I’m definitely gonna make a bad choice”? OK, one night here and there you decide to throw caution to the winds. You accept things may go wrong — part of the thrill, in fact, till that kind of thrill gets old. But an actual good choice: how is it you make one, exactly?)

I use a Robert Frost poem for my divination today. (What? You have a better oracle? Use it then — but do let us know your results six months or a year from now. That’s only fair.) Frost has served me well in the past, and besides, with a name like that, how can I refuse?! The name itself is a rune, an ogham, a sybil-whisper on my skin. Sounds like he must have chosen it as a stagey pseudonym, part of a poet’s verbal bling, though he didn’t.

Of course, Frost and his poems aren’t garbed in the ivy blessing of centuries, like the Mabinogion is, or maybe the Colloquy of the Two Sages. The old New England sage and his poems can be homely, earthbound, regional. Names matter, yes. And if names are attached to something old and venerable, aren’t a lot of us willing to trust that something, regardless of its actual track record? Safe, familiar.

waterholeWe troop to the old water hole, not because it has water right now at our need, but because it did in the past. Or so solemn voices among us say. But how many skeletons lie around the caked mud of the dried-up hole? And even now we crowd each other to stare and speculate when the water might return, bubbling up clear and fresh.

In “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Frost writes about splitting wood. In the painful Vermont cold that stalks outside our windows right now, splitting wood and feeding our woodstove is about all I can manage. Set the log up, raise the axe, have at it. The rhythm gives you intervals to think in, and when the axe doesn’t hit a knot, and a single blow neatly drops and divides the wood, your bones and sinews know a rightness hard to find in other realms of living. The physical correlate to choosing, to making a good choice: you feel it.

How often the body knows and takes action before the mind can even begin to engage! How often reflex and instinct save our lives, sparking off the spinal cord before the slow processing of a choice can become a thought. We jump, duck, flinch, blink, dodge, twist, swerve, spin the wheel, slam the brakes — the body saves us so often we’re at a loss when the body itself fails, through sickness or injury or — eventually — death. Old Reptile Brain, we erect no altars to you, though you see us through more disasters averted than we can count. Here is your winter incense, your tribute, your prayers and offerings. Hot cocoa, stews and soups, curries, sauces, butter, wine, hearthstones warm to the touch, wool scarves, light and heat and familiar voices saying Come in, get warm.

Face a choice, and what does the body say? How is it that we know things “in our gut”? Can we “stomach” what we opt to do or not do? One guide for choice, right there. A spiritual barometer we often look past. Too homely, when we want glamour. But especially good at guiding us away from bad choices, if not always toward good ones. Go with your gut.

My choices can often look skewed even from the first moment I face them:

Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”

And the pause that choice may bring to me, if the spinal column hasn’t already intervened to propel me one way or another, as often as not muddies things rather than clarifying them. “Two tramps in mud time”: my choices.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

Getting and spending. Is my life only this log-splitting, this routine? It has its rightness and beauty — but right now I’m sick of them. Cabin-fever? Seasonal affective disorder? Hunger for the return of the Light? Sure. Have you felt it, the call to serve something more than this daily routine? Right now the power I might spend for any common good goes to splitting logs. At least it keeps me warm.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

Even before I choose, too often I sense the danger of choosing at all. Choice can stun us into inaction. Even thinking about it may throw everything into jeopardy — “if you so much as dare to speak.” But also, that’s just what the season does. One step forward, two back. (Right now, mid-February, I’ll take mid-March gladly.)

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Old love. There it is. “The time when I most loved my task” hits me when I see I must give it up. Or when it’s not mine anymore, but belongs to someone else. Or its shape has changed, and I must find it elsewhere, with few clues to guide me. Move along, move along. Oh, where? But no, that’s not yet the end of the story. (“Everything will be all right in the end … if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end,” says Sonny in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Nope. Can’t manage sunny in the middle of winter. You ask too much.)

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

carvedinstoneI long to “know a fool,” even if it turns out it’s me. I can take it. Know things for what they are — that’s half of choosing, right? Because if I can’t do that, how can I choose? Choices come, and everything I’m doing turns “theirs of right.” They claim it all, swamping my direction, my focus, my energy. So I turn to careful, linear logic. An “appropriate tool” for the moment?

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right–agreed.

Here is the claim of need, stronger. After all, we pay attention — right has a price, right is a need. Spinal column says so. Gut may say so. You feel it, that need, creeping along nerves and veins, feathering your skin, the breath of something you can’t yet make out. But real. Hot real.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

That may be what I seek. Right now, though, I don’t even know. What am I yielding to? Separated, fractured, scattered, longing for two to be made one. Not sure I’m the one to achieve it. But worth achieving. We mate and strive to obliterate the division between us, if only for a brief interval. We choose and strive to make our choice the only thing worth doing. We live and strive to make a life worth more than the death that ends it. High stakes. Lower them, oh lower them any way I can.

In the last lines my oracle speaks more clearly. Not sure though if I can listen, if I can hear it.

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Love and need, two guides for choice. I can live with that. I do live with that. So do we all. Faces of the same thing?

This is the Initiation of Choice, sorting out need and love. Difficult initiation. Usually lifelong. We serve it as we struggle with it, and it opens, or delays us till we earn it.

2-out-of-3And want? Oh, love and need are enough to grapple with. Need and love will open a space to figure out want, which often takes third place.  Probably should, if we’re honest. Though it rarely does, since we bundle need and want into a lump of trouble for ourselves. That old Meatloaf song: “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” Ah, but which two?!

And two questions follow the initiation, which we answer as we can, from out of who we are: Can I love through the choice I need to make? Do I need what I’ve spent my life loving?

Those are the challenge questions of the initiation of choice. I serve my life by how I answer.

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 Images: choice — paths; carved in stone; two out of three.

Imbolc Moon   Leave a comment

Earlier today my wife and I walked through the brilliant winter sunlight on the neighborhood loop that took us past snowfields already blue with late afternoon shadows.

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Looking southeast around 3:30 pm

I’ve quoted the Philip Larkin poem “First Sight” before, but today it seemed perfect as a tribute to the goddess whose hearth (or in our case, woodstove) I worship at particularly intensely on these frigid midwinter days.

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Imbolc as guide: more than half our wood remains.

Spring will come, and as goddess of fire and smithing, Brighid warms and heals and shapes us. Lack of any promising evidence for that change bothers her not at all.

Larkin’s poem means more to us, because just four miles from our house a local farmer milks his herd of some 90 sheep and sells a variety of sweet, rich cheeses in a little shed halfway down the lane to his milk barn. Lambing season is usually later than February in the Northeast, for the simple reason that it’s too cold for the newborns in anything other than a heated shelter. Push the ewes to conceive too early in the fall, and you’ll end up with dead lambs. Larkin captures this time of change in a somewhat milder climate, but still snowy.  Memory had me reciting his lines again to myself as we walked. I had to come back and locate the poem to fill in the gaps I couldn’t bring to mind:

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasureable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

snow-lamb

This always moves me — a transfomation we simply cannot see coming merely by looking around us. No evidence here, at least none we can make out. Even, sometimes, a “vast unwelcome.” Life in this world is catalyst. It never leaves us alone. What gifts of the gods and spirits and our own ancestors will wake and grow in us? Will we let ourselves be surprised? Brighid, may it always be so!

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The rangy willow in our backyard has been feeling the sun these past several days. Even with its branches garbed in snow, you can make just make out in the crown of the tree the first faint reddish-green hint of spring in the depths of this February cold. Imbolc upon us. “They could not grasp it if they knew,/What so soon will wake and grow.” Memory of other Februaries wakes and hints at what will return, against the odds.

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Backyard willow

With the triplet of Imbolc, Groundhog Day (in the U.S.), and a full moon tonight on Feb 3, it seemed right to celebrate today and tonight, the third day of the three. And this evening my wife and I enjoyed homemade potato soup rich with leeks and garlic and sour cream — we practiced the traditional Italian “mangiare in bianco” — literally, “to eat in white” in observance of the moon, without also “eating blandly or lightly,” as the expression can indicate, too.

The hill to our east, cresting perhaps four hundred yards above our roof, delays sunrise and moonrise both. Moonrise tonight “officially” hit Brattleboro VT at 5:09 pm. We wait for it longer here.

At first I thought the image below was a discard. A tree-trunk obscures one edge of the moon, and the horizon is hazy. But then I saw it perfectly captured our Imbolc experience. Slowly the sky cleared as the temperature continued to drop towards 0 (-18 C), as it has the last several nights. Hunger Moon* rose higher, and the moon-shadow of a pine in the backyard leaned out dark against the snow in the moonlight. I took another shot.

imbolcmoon

Moon around 6:45 pm, shortly after clearing our hilltop

Praise to Brighid and life and light, warmth human and divine in our veins, in the animals and plants around us! May our vision of the Whole become clear as the moon this night.

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Moon around 8:00 pm

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*Hunger Moon” is one of the Native American names for February — and never fails to make me shiver.

Image: Snow lamb.

A Druid in the Life of a Day   2 comments

sunriseSunrise, are you waiting for that sliver of moon to invite you? This time of year I’m up before you, and waiting in the perfect frozen peace of January pre-dawn.

Slowly our snow-covered fields flower from purple to gray to white, and then bloom golden with light. A cardinal with pinfeathers puffed against the cold ignites the snow when he lands beneath the bird-feeder, all impossible red. Ah, day at last, over the eastern hill you come, and here we are, in the eye of the sun, loving the light though we may forget to say so. I will say so now, while I remember. All praise for light inside and out!

Yes, I can be a Druid in the life of a day. But bring on night and darkness and my Druidry can suffer a sea-change. You know you’re a Druid when death moves you not at all, says a tendril of awareness. When you may not even notice you’ve changed realms. Well, but I’m not there yet, I reply. I have no trouble with death. I drop into darkness each time I fall asleep. It’s dying that troubles me. And others’ deaths that are hard to take, though with the gift of Sight we may know them after and visit them still. It’s the body comfort I miss, voice and touch and the daily-ness of a life lived next door to my own. I know you’re around, Ancestors without your skins on, but I miss you here.

I light this flame to gift the darkness, not contend with it. Each has its place, here in Abred*. “Know all things, be all things, experience all things”: some say this is our destiny, as we move through the circles of existence. Maybe. Not sure yet. Don’t need to be. This circle right now, right here, keeps me plenty occupied. Nine awens for the day for the day’s choices and gifts easy and difficult. Nine awens for the gods unknown and known who grace us with the Breath of Asu, sound and light both. Nine awens for you, little soul, beast, bird or human, watching at the gates of Abred* for the flower of destiny to unfold its next petal as you become.

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Images: sunrise.

*Abred. The great Revival Druid and brilliant forger, Iolo Morganwg, wrote in his compendium of wisdom and fabrication the Barddas that all beings move slowly from Annwn, the unformed, to Abred, the first world, our present circle, “probation,” and from there to Gwynvyd, the “white world” of the next advance and “perfect freedom,” and on from there to Ceugant, “infinity.”  And the way there is long and full of experiences until, ripe with knowing all things each circle has to teach us, we take a step to the next.

Do I “believe” it? That’s not the important question to me, or to many Druids. How well does it explain things? What can I learn from it? Those are the important questions. Whether it’s “true” or not is quite beside the point. I’m not interested in creedal religion; that’s one reason I’m a Druid, after all. I don’t have a statement of faith; I have a practice that includes various beliefs that evolve as I do. I don’t want to sit in the restaurant and wait to be served from another’s choice, to use Philip Carr-Gomm’s image (go to 4th paragraph). I want to work in the kitchen, help it come together for myself. This is Abred, the world of probation, after all — of proving and testing and trying out.  So I’m game — I try it out, try it on for size.

Initiation: To Serve in Order to Know (2) — What About Power?   Leave a comment

woe-leg[Part One]

[For a previous series on this topic, go here.]

What I want to talk about here, others say well and beautifully, so this post will invoke quotation for these two potent magics. And in anticipation of what’s to come, if you haven’t given yourself the wise pleasure of reading Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, promise yourself you will soon — your library may well have its own copy or can get you one through interlibrary loan — a “magical familiar” as powerful as any in the pages of medieval grimoires.

A “young adult” fantasy, Wizard has as much to say about magical power as any book I know. If you haven’t read it, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, and I feel I succeeded. And if you know of a book that teaches more than Wizard about these things, please send me the title!

Here’s more from J H Brennan as he continues to recount his first steps in magical training:

What actually attracted me to magic was not service but power. Nothing grandiose, of course. I had no burning ambition to rule the world or enslave hordes of beautiful women. (Well, maybe just one or two beautiful women…) But I was undoubtedly a prey to a disease which is becoming even more prevalent with the increasing complexity of modern society: a feeling of helplessness.

There are many reactions to such a feeling. Some people embrace political credos. Others get religion. A few (usually male) take to beating their spouses. I turned to magic, which seemed to me to be the ultimate antidote: for what is magic if not a secret system which promises control of damn near everything?

You will be desolate to learn it did not work. Although I spent some nine years in daily Qabalistic training and learned a great deal in the process, I remained Clark Kent: no amount of magical leaps into ritual phone boxes could turn me into Superman.

(J. H. Brennan, Foreword, The Ritual Magic Workbook, p. 4.)

If you’re honest, your first reaction to Brennan’s admission may well be, “Then why bother with magic?!”

In fact it’s a deeply legitimate response, tangled with helplessness. In so many peoples’ lives today — I’m thinking only of our own time — so much anger, pain, suffering, despair, all because we sense a deep truth about ourselves, but one that the world does much to discount, deny and distract us from: our spiritual selves are strong. LeGuin captures this wisdom at the outset, in the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea. Her mage hero Ged is still young, but even untrained, in a moment of crisis he draws on a profound truth about himself: “He … raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength” (A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Edition, 1975, p. 8).

Our detestable weakness never quite overwhelms that inner knowing, though we may well go under without a lifeline, without support, without confirmation, without some practice that sustains us, whether it has the label “spirituality” or not. Despair at not being able to get at our strength has destroyed many lives. It’s cruel, that despair. In our search for a door to the power in us that we dimly recognize, but which seems to elude us day after wretched day, we may clutch at a cause, as Brennan notes — politics, or religion, or magic — or, if we’re half-under already, at abusive behaviors that may not target others in our lives, but ourselves, though all abuse brings “collateral damage.” Which is double-talk for karma.

The appeal, the draw of power, is clear.

Ged’s teacher, a wizard named Ogion, tries to show Ged the realities he faces in a world where power can be used well or badly. After Ged encounters one who uses her power in a questionable way, and has had his own terrifying encounter with a dark spirit just before this conversation, Ogion admonishes him:

The powers she serves are not the powers I serve. I do not know her will, but I know she does not will me well. Ged, listen to me now. Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise.  Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do, you must know the price that is to pay!

When we hear this, it’s too much.  More evasion, more powerlessness! We’ve apprenticed ourselves to those who claim to know, and instead of — at last! — affording us even a little taste of power, they scold us for not knowing anything, and set us instead to memorizing, or visualizing, or some other repetitive task that smacks of elementary school drills. (For of course that’s where we are — in school, at a beginner’s level. Again. How long this time?!)

Predictably, Ged rebels. Note what motivates his response:

Driven by his shame, Ged cried, “How am I to know these things when you teach me nothing? Since I have lived with you I have done nothing, seen nothing–”

“Now you have seen something,” said the mage. “By the door, in the darkness, when I came in.”

We seek power, yet once we commit to a magical or spiritual path, often the first thing we meet is darkness. In ourselves. Distinctly not fun.

Ged was silent.

Ogion knelt down and built the fire on the hearth and lit it, for the house was cold.

There it is in plain words — Ogion demonstrates literally the “Path of the Hearth Fire” that is one of the magical and occult paths we can take.  And he does it not in words but in actions LeGuin describes — the daily tasks of an “ordinary life” that can be done with magical awareness of their place and purpose, a responsibility that we can serve while we learn — a way that actually leads to our ideal “inner Hogwarts” without fleeing from the obligations of our “mundane” world which have far more to teach us than we know.

Then still kneeling [Ogion] said in his quiet voice, “Ged, my young falcon, you are not bound to me or to my service. You did not come to me but I to you. You are very young to make this choice, but I cannot make it for you. If you wish, I will send you to Roke Island, where all high arts are taught. Any craft you undertake to learn you will learn, for your power is great. Greater even than your pride, I hope. I would keep you here with me, for what I have is what you lack, but I will not keep you against your will. Now choose …”

(A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Edition 1975, pgs. 23-24.)

Power greater than pride: Ogion nails the issue. As J. H. Brennan notes, implicating many of us:

The problem with arrogance is that it is a quality for which I have a sneaking admiration. Consequently it plays a greater part in my character than it really should.

(J. H. Brennan, Foreword, The Ritual Magic Workbook, p. 4.)

There’s a whole book of wisdom to be unpacked from Ogion’s words, which deserve extended meditation. I’ll zero in on the last two: “Now choose.” How can we choose before we understand the consequences of choice? As Tolkien says (in talking about translation*), “We constantly need to know more than we do.”

Choice? That’s another post …

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Images: A Wizard of Earthsea — cover.

*translating Beowulf. In J R R Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien). Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, pg. 191.  For much more on this that you probably could EVER want to know, come to the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI this May 2015, where I and many others will be delivering papers on Tolkien’s translation — and in my case, on his peculiar theories of “correct style” and how this intersects with his whole legendarium and the power of imagination.

Initiation: To Serve in Order to Know   4 comments

[Part Two]

During the year and a day of your training, you’ve studied, practiced, visualized, rehearsed, memorized, subjected yourself to physical and psychological tests and disciplines and — perhaps in spite of your own better judgment of your readiness — you’ve finally been chosen as a candidate for initiation.

init-duo

The day of the ceremony arrives. You may be dressed in a particular ritual way, or you may have bathed and simply be wearing new clothes. Perhaps a single jewel or ring you now wear gives you something you find yourself toying with as you wait. Probably you’ve been given specific instructions to help prepare you and assist you in entering the desired state of consciousness. Or the absence of such instructions has the same effect.

You’re nervous, too, and the other members of the group who are participating in your initiation don’t do anything to dispel that nervousness. In fact, they may be sympathetic and kind to you, and their very kindness will only increase the mystery. What am I getting myself into? you ask yourself. This and other questions are good ones to ask — though they may have no answers.

In many occult and magical orders, potential new initiates face a challenge when they enter the ritual space where their initiation will take place. “What do you seek?” goes one variant of the verbal part of the challenge. Depending on what you’ve been taught or are expecting, the rumors you’ve heard, or the nature of the particular group you’re with, the question can catch you off guard. It’s meant to.

In an intro to an online magical training document by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, J. H. Brennan relates his own experiences, and doubtless those of many other people, here (see pg. 4) . He comments wryly that, not surprisingly, why we seek is often a bigger determining factor in our experience than what.

We all do things for the best possible motives, of course; and nowhere more so than in the esoteric arts. It is relatively easy to discover that the only really acceptable excuse for magical study is embodied in the statement I desire to know in order to serve. That was the answer I was prompted to give to the ritual question during my own initiation. I dutifully gave it; and it was a lie.

What actually attracted me to magic was not service but power.

“I desire to know in order to serve” has its motivations all lined up for inspection. It’s a “good doggy” answer.  It’s noble-sounding, and as the “really only acceptable excuse,” it’s comforting to give it and feel good about having such an answer to give. Because in this logical and scientific age of ours, don’t you need an excuse for something as wacky and bizarre as the study of magick — especially spelt with a -k — that doesn’t make you sound like a raving loony?!

So let’s reverse it. “I desire to serve in order to know.”

One of my teachers said this yesterday.  It rang true to me because he demonstrates service in what he does, in how he listens to the people he meets, and in how he stills his own agendas and instead of what he thinks, he strives to hear what’s needed. He does these things with humility. And just as important, he models this for others, not as something he turns on to impress others and then drops once he’s “offstage,” but as something he’s continually practicing until it accompanies him, his words and his actions like a fragrance.  And that makes you want to do the same.

A few months ago I encountered a goddess in contemplation. I heard her name, an epithet — Stormbringer — and a little more. The only way I can find out more about her is to serve her. Slowly I gain a clearer vision of who she is and why she is manifesting to me, now.

I can enlarge my understanding of service. I serve when I grow — a larger vision spreads its fermentation through human consciousness, because my actions emerge from what I hold in my heart and thoughts.

We serve when, rather than getting bogged down in irritation, anger and fear, we assume a playful approach to problems. Then the lightness of spiritual insight and creativity can lead us to solutions we might not have found on our own. And our playfulness, when it’s respectful of others, can help lighten their loads, too, and smile, if possible, or laugh. We serve in small things, done without thought for anything except the doing, and the doing well.

(OK. Got it. Dang — give you a soapbox and you just don’t let up, do you?)

I serve when I open myself to receive love from others , and find I must “enlarge my spirit to receive the gift,” as Ursula LeGuin describes it in her fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea.

giftinhandI serve my when I ask to understand the causes underlying an issue or problem in my life, not just to remove the problem so I can get on with my agenda. (Often enough, my agenda is the problem. The apparent problem is a gift, to show me something I need to learn. Otherwise it wouldn’t keep coming back again. And again. Funny how much easier it is to see in other people’s lives.)

Difficult gift, what do you have to teach me? Can I enlarge my heart for you, too? Right now, when you come knocking again, when it’s really not convenient at all? Can I let my impatience dissolve and make my listening a gift to you?

We serve when we recognize ourselves in others, when we recognize others in ourselves, and see the Great Mystery, as the Lakota Sioux call it, the Wakan Tanka, in the eyes of those we meet every day.

We serve when we practice gratitude. A powerful practice I’ve proved to myself: keeping a gratitude journal, with daily entries. Just reading it over can jump start me out of depression and back into engaging my life. Gratitude grows and spreads to others its divine infection.

And so, in serving, what do I know that I didn’t before? Has knowing become less important, and service more?

Now, about power

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Images: guide and initiate; gift in hand.

A Review of J. M. Greer’s The Gnostic Celtic Church   Leave a comment

Greer, John Michael. The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy. Everett, WA: Starseed Publications (Kindle)/Lorian Press (paper), 2013. NOTE: All quotations from Kindle version.

Quick Take:

A valuable resource for those wishing to explore a coherent and profound Druid theology and to develop or expand a solitary practice. Greer offers pointers, reflections, principles — and a detailed set of rites, visualizations and images emerging from both AODA Druidry and Gnostic-flavored Celtic Christian magic practice.

Expansive Take:

John_Michael_Greer

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer continues to advance ideas and books that provoke and advocate thoughtful, viable alternatives to dysfunctional contemporary lifestyles and perspectives. The Gnostic Celtic Church takes its place among a growing and diverse body of work. Author of over thirty books, blogger (of the influential weekly Archdruid Report, among others), practicing magician, head of AODA (Ancient Order of Druids in America), “Green Wizard,” master conserver and longtime organic gardener, Greer wears lightly a number of hats that place him squarely in the ranks of people to read, consider, and take seriously, even if you find yourself, like I do, disagreeing from time to time with him or his perspectives. In that case, he can still help you clarify your stance and your beliefs simply by how he articulates the issues. In person (I met him at the 2102 East Coast Gathering), he is witty, articulate, widely informed, and quick to dispose of shoddy thinking. (As you can ascertain from the picture to the right, he’s also has acquired over the decades a decidedly Druidic beard …)

What all Gnostic traditions share, Greer notes, is that

personal religious experience is the goal that is set before each aspirant and the sole basis on which questions of a religious nature can be answered — certain teachings have been embraced as the core values from which the Gnostic Celtic Church as an organization derives its broad approach to spiritual issues. Those core teachings may be summarized in the words ‘Gnostic, Universalist, and Pelagian’ which are described in this book.

GC Church Front cover.inddThe Gnostic Celtic Church (GCC) may appear to step away from direct engagement with contemporary issues that have been the focus of Greer’s blog and recent books: peak oil, the decline of the West and its imperial overreach, and ways to begin laying the foundations and shaping a new, more balanced and truly green post-oil civilization that can arise over the next few centuries.

Instead of avoiding what amounts to an activist engagement, however, the book comes at these issues indirectly, outlining a set of core practices and perspectives for what AODA intends as “an independent sacramental church of nature spirituality.” The “independent sacramental movement is the ranks among the most promising stars now rising above the horizon of contemporary spirituality,” Greer observes in his introduction. Its freedom from the bonds of creed and doctrine has helped carry it to fresh insights and creativity, and deep applicability to the seeking that characterizes our era of “spiritual but not religious.”

What, you may be asking, does this have to do with Druidry? A lot. Or why would a Druid group include a “church” in the middle of its affairs? Read on, faithful explorer.

To examine in turn each of the three terms that Greer puts forth, the GCC is “Gnostic” because it affirms that “personal experience, rather than dogmatic belief or membership in an organization, can form the heart of a spiritual path.” This sensibility accords well with most flavors of Druidry today.  While there is an admitted theme of ascetic dualism and world-hating in some currents of Gnostic thought, Greer provides useful context: “… this was only one aspect of a much more diverse and creative movement that also included visions of reality in which the oneness of the cosmos was a central theme, and in which the body and the material world were points of access to the divine rather than obstacles to its manifestation.”

flameThe GCC is also “Universalist.” Among other early Church leaders, the great mystic Origen (184-254 CE) taught that “communion with spiritual realities is open to every being without exception, and that all beings — again, without exception — will eventually enter into harmony with the Divine.” The Universalist strain in Christianity is perhaps most familiar to most people today in the guise of Unitarian Universalism, a relatively recent (1961) merger of two distinct movements in Christianity. A Universalist strain has been “central to the contemporary Druid movement since the early days of the Druid Revival” (ca. 1600s) and “may be found in many alternative spiritual traditions of the West.” Both Gnostic and Universalist links existed within AODA Druidry when Greer was installed as Archdruid in 2003. For another perspective, check out John Beckett’s blog Under the Ancient Oaks: Musings of a Pagan, Druid and Unitarian Universalist.

“Pelagian,” the third term, is perhaps the least familiar. This Christian heresy took its name from Pelagius (circa 354-420 CE), a Welsh mystic who earned the ire of the Church hierarchy because of his emphasis on free will and human agency. Pelagius taught, as Greer briskly characterizes it, that “the salvation of each individual is entirely the result of that individual’s own efforts, and can neither be gained through anyone else’s merits or denied on account of anyone else’s failings.” Of course this teaching put Pelagius at odds with an orthodoxy committed to doctrines of original sin, predestination, and the atonement of Christ’s death on the cross, and to policing deviations from such creeds. A Pelagian tendency remains part of Celtic Christianity today.

Greer draws on the history of Revival (as opposed to Reconstructionist) Druidry and notes that the former places at its center some powerful perspectives on individual identity and destiny.

Each soul, according to the Druid Revival, has its own unique Awen [link: an excellent (bilingual) meditation on Awen by Philip Carr-Gomm]. To put the same concept in terms that might be slightly more familiar to today’s readers, each soul has its own purpose in existence, which differs from that of every other soul, and it has the capacity — and ultimately the necessity — of coming to know, understand, and fulfill this unique purpose.

None of this is intended to deny the value of community — one of the great strengths of contemporary Druidry. But we each have work to do that no one else can do for us. In keeping with the Druid love of threes, what we do with the opportunities and challenges of a life determines where we find ourselves in the three levels of existence: Abred, Gwynfydd and Ceugant. These are a Druid reflection of an ancient and pan-cultural perception of the cosmos. Greer delivers profound Druid theology as a potential, a map rather than a dogma. “It is at the human level that the individual Awen may become for the first time an object of conscious awareness. Achieving this awareness, and living in accord with it, is according to these Druid teachings the great challenge of human existence.” Thus while the Awen pervades the world, and carries all life, and lives, in its melody and inspiration, with plants and animals manifesting it as instinct and in their own inherent natures, what distinguishes humans is our capacity to know it for the first time — and to respond to it with choice and intention.

Thus, Greer outlines the simplicity and depth of the GCC:

… the rule of life that the clergy of the Gnostic Celtic Church are asked to embrace may be defined simply by these words: find and follow your own Awen. Taken as seriously as it should be — for there is no greater challenge for any human being than that of seeking his or her purpose of existence, and then placing the fulfillment of that purpose above other concerns as a guide to action and life — this is as demanding a rule as the strictest of traditional monastic vows. Following it requires attention to the highest and deepest dimensions of the inner life, and a willingness to ignore all the pressures of the ego and the world when those come into conflict, as they will, with the ripening personal knowledge of the path that Awen reveals.

All well and good, you say. The basis for a mature Druidry, far removed from the fluff-bunny Pagan caricatures that Druids still sometimes encounter. But what about down-to-earth stuff? You know: rituals, visualizations, prompts, ways to manifest in my own life whatever realities may lie behind all this high-sounding language.

Greer delivers here, too.  Though membership and ordination in the GCC require a parallel membership in AODA, the practices, rites and visualizations are set forth for everyone in the remainder of the book. That’s as it should be: a spiritual path can take either or both of these forms — outward and organizational, inward and personal — without diminution. And those interested in ordination in other Gnostic organizations will probably already know of the variety of options available today. Greer notes,

Receiving holy orders in the GCC is not a conferral of authority over others in matters of faith or morals, or in any other context, but an acceptance of responsibility for oneself and one’s own life and work. The clergy of the GCC are encouraged to teach by example, and to offer advice or instruction in spiritual and other matters to those who may request such services, but it is no part of their duty to tell other people how to live their lives.

If, upon reflection, a candidate for holy orders comes to believe that it is essential to his or her Awen to claim religious or moral authority over others as part of the priestly role he or she seeks, he or she will be asked to seek ordination from some other source. If one who is already ordained or consecrated in the GCC comes to the same belief, in turn, it will be his or her duty — a duty that will if necessary be enforced by the Grand Grove [of AODA] — to leave the GCC and pursue another path.

The ceremonies, rituals and meditations include the Hermitage of the Heart, the Sphere of Protection, the Calling of the Elements, the Sphere of Light, a Solitary Grove Ceremony (all but the first derive from AODA practice), and a Communion Ceremony that ritualizes the “Doctrine of the One”:

I now invoke the mystery of communion, that common unity that unites all beings throughout the worlds. All beings spring from the One; by One are they sustained, and in One do they find their rest. One the hidden glory rising through the realms of Abred; One the manifest glory rejoicing in the realms of Gwynfydd; One the unsearchable glory beyond all created being in Ceugant; and these three are resumed in One. (Extend your hands over the altar in blessing. Say …)

Included also are seasonal celebrations of the four solar festivals, the two Equinoxes and Solstices, ordination ceremonies for priests, deacons and bishops, advice on personal altars, morning prayer, evening lection or reading, and visualizations that recall Golden Dawn visualizations of rays, colors and symbols.

At a little over 100 pages, this manual in its modest length belies the wealth of material it contains — plenty to provide a full Gnostic Celtic spiritual practice for the solitary, enough to help lead to a well-informed decision if ordination is the Call of your Awen, and material rich for inspiration and spiritual depth if you wish to adapt anything here to your own purposes.

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Images: John Michael Greer; GCC book cover; flame.

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