Review of “Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach”   Leave a comment

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Beckett, John. Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2019.

If you’re “new-ish” to Druidry, Paganism, etc., and you’re looking for a pocket definition of what all this stuff is, what it entails, what at heart it’s doing on the scene, here’s another Pagan and Druid writer, J. M. Greer, with a definition that works for many:

Above all else, Druidry means following a spiritual path rooted in the green Earth … It means embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit (Druidry – A Green Way of Wisdom).

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Like his first book, The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice (Llewellyn, 2017), this second book by John Beckett delivers on its title. I’m repeating here my preface to that review:

John is a fellow OBOD Druid. We’ve met at several OBOD Gatherings, and I’ve gratefully used and credited his excellent photos in several previous posts here. We’ve talked on occasion, but I don’t know him well, except as a reader of his excellent blog. I participated in his moving Cernunnos rite at East Coast Gathering several years ago.

Usually I only review books I feel I can discuss insightfully and enthusiastically: The Path of Paganism certainly qualifies. I’m adding this personal note as brief background and for completeness.

John’s Dedication page to this new book makes subtle and far-reaching points:

For those who serve their gods and communities when it’s easy and when it’s hard, who take their Paganism ever deeper even when there’s no map, and who trust their own senses when encountering things that some say cannot be: you are building something sacred and beautiful. This book is dedicated to you.

I don’t “do Druidry” primarily as a polytheist — in spite of what you might conclude, at least on the basis of my previous post about Thecu, and intermittent posts over time about Brighid, whom I listen to most closely, as triple goddess of healing, smithcraft and poetry. But I find much of value in this book, just as I did in John’s previous one. As John remarks about the “big tent” of Paganism, there’s room for a wide range of belief, because it’s practice that binds us together, and a well of common experiences.

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“dragon-stone”, Mt. Ascutney, August ’19

Go deeper, “where there are no maps”, and you learn even more deeply to trust what’s true — that is, what bears out that initial quality in your subsequent lived experience. Inner guidance proves valid, insights bear fruit, spiritual help clears the way to good things. There’s “troth” there — all those lovely older English words are clearly linked (and likely sprung from the same root as Druid, the initial d- regularly softened to t- in Germanic languages like English*) — something we can trust, solid as a tree, because of its inherent truth, so that we can form abiding relationships — multiple troths (as in betrothed) — with other beings and places where it manifests. These things quite literally “come true” — they arrive with a particular quality or atmosphere we learn to greet with joy, and to cherish, out of previous experiences with them.

As John perceptively notes:

Our mainstream culture talks about “having faith” that everything will work out OK even if we have no reason to expect it will. Pagans aren’t big on that kind of faith … There is a very utilitarian ethic to spiritual practice: do the work and you get the benefits. Don’t do the work and you won’t. Oftentimes the gods are gracious and give us things we have not earned. Their generosity is a virtue we would do well to emulate. But some things cannot be given, only obtained through sustained effort. No one could give me the experience of running a marathon or the wisdom I gained in doing it. I cannot command the presence of the gods in my life, but without years of devotional practice I would rarely hear them, much less understand what they’re telling me. Whether you want to be a marathon runner or a magician, a concert pianist or a priest, there is a high cost to being the best you can be. The down payment is due in advance and the ongoing payments never end. I’ve found them to be the best investments I’ve ever made (pgs. 206-207).

These comments come late in John’s book. If they showed up in the first paragraph, they might well bewilder or scare off many readers, and perhaps rightly so. His Introduction puts the book’s sections in helpful context. Here I’ll cite one in particular:

The Interlude of this book is titled “I like It Here — Why Do I Have To Leave?” Sometimes we find a certain level of skill and commitment and think we’ve found where we need to be for the rest of our lives. But in a year or two or ten, we start hearing a call to move on again. This section explores what that call looks, sounds, and feels like, why we might want to leave a place where we’re comfortable, and how we can begin the journey (pg. 4).

Finding our own pace, and place, is a lifetime’s quest that no one else can do for us (in spite of holy hucksters and Gucci gurus to the contrary). Nor does John claim “his” Paganism is for everyone. He writes, as he makes clear, as an “Ancestral, Devotional, Ecstatic, Oracular, Magical, Public, Pagan Polytheist” — and after he explains each adjective, he observes:

This is the religion I practice. Your journey will likely take you somewhere different — perhaps somewhat different, perhaps very different. But the methods and practices presented in this book will help you find your way regardless of the direction you take and what your deep Paganism does or doesn’t include (pg. 6).

What strikes me as a practitioner of two different spiritual paths is how much and how well the guidance in this book applies to any path. Of course its explicit polytheist and Pagan assumptions will not serve everyone, but the sections on examining our foundational assumptions, on regular spiritual practice, devotion, study, inclusion, ecstasy, communication with deity, community building, the risks and costs of deep dedication all bear the marks of thoroughly lived spirituality that anyone who has done similar work can attest to and recommend to others. The counsel can seem at times deceptively simple, because 99% of any glitter, hype and buzz has been scoured away by the inward work required.

And not everyone needs to do such work:

In the hyper-individualistic twenty-first century … everyone expects a church to cater to them. And many churches do … They’re struggling to “remain relevant” and they’re desperate to attract members no matter what it takes. My Facebook feed includes some Christians searching for “what meets my needs” and other Christians complaining about entertainment replacing worship. Given these two cultural forces, it’s no surprise many people in our wider society  (from which Paganism and polytheism largely draw their members) don’t know what to make of religions that 1) don’t claim to be for everyone, and 2) don’t attempt to cater to everyone …

So what are you going to do when you go looking for a group to practice with and a community to be a part of? You don’t want to change your identity to satisfy them, and they aren’t going to change their identity to satisfy you. Is there really no room for you in any religion? That can’t be right, or we wouldn’t have covens and orders and churches and such. You can’t get 100 percent of what you want in a group or a tradition. But you can probably get 70 percent, or 80 or maybe even 98 (pgs. 65-67).

John then discusses his involvement with several distinct traditions and organizations, including ADF, Unitarian Universalists, and OBOD, concluding:

There is room for me in all these organizations even though none are an exact match with my own beliefs and practices — that is, with my own religious identity … When I’m in one of their services or rituals I respect their boundaries and priorities and participate with them. When I hear UUs speak of “God” in monotheistic or even non-theistic language, I remember that in this context, the singular “God” is not what’s most important. What’s most important is a group of people coming together to form an open, caring, active religious community (pg. 68).

I’ll end with another excerpt from John’s most recent blogpost (link above), because in it he focuses specifically on polytheist practice and experience relevant to this review and how we might read his book:

A calling from a God doesn’t make you special and it certainly doesn’t give you any authority over others. Mainly it gives you more work to do. A fully-formed religion has room for both dedicated religious specialists and for those who simply want to honor the Gods and live ordinary lives.

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*initial d- softened to t- in Germanic languages like English: this is a regular historic sound change in the Germanic languages (but not their “cousins” — see below) as they evolved from Proto-Indo-European. The same change regularly shows up elsewhere, for example:

Latin decem “ten”, Greek deka, Sanskrit dasa, Welsh deg, English ten;

Latin ducere “lead”, English tug (and Old English heretoga “army leader”);

Latin deus “God, god”, Sanskrit dyaus, Old English Tiw (as in Tue’s day);

Latin duo “two”; Sanskrit dva(u), Greek duo, Welsh dau, English two;

Latin dens, dentis “tooth”; Sanskrit dan, dantah, Greek odon, odontos, Welsh dant, English tooth.

 

 

Creativity’s Messy 3: Gods   Leave a comment

I’ve written before about Thecu [ 1 (1 Jul ’17) | 2 (10 July ’17)| 3 (11 July ’17)| 4 (18 Feb. ’18)| 5 (2 Aug. ’18) | 6 (16 Aug. ’18)], sometimes rather obliquely, recording the few details I’ve learned about this goddess. I had to look up the dates of the posts — three in close succession from two and half years ago, then three more, six months apart, over a year ago. After that, noting that my first experience with Thecu dates from 2015, it was easy to conclude that divine time just doesn’t flow like mortal human time.

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Early this morning a little more material came through. Always a light sleeper, I tend to wake between 1:00 and 3:00 am most nights, often for just a short time. A few pages of a book usually send me back asleep till dawn.

This time, though, I was doing the writing I was reading:

Thecu Storm-bringer, Storm-rider, Storm-seeker … I needed to listen to her name — these three variations come through.

Thecu-yel “house of Thecu” — is this a temple or shrine? Brief visual impression of a stone vault in a high place, open to the sky.

offering of a cup of plain water

metal sheet incised with a nine-rayed star and the runes she previously showed me

I am her mov — a “house-beam” of Thecu-yel (???)

Here then are some things she’s apparently asking me to do: provide an offering cup or bowl, and prepare a small metal sheet with a nine-rayed star, each ray ending in one of the runes I’ve written about receiving previously. A few glimpses of cultural practice, some more words, names of things. No sense of urgency, and no promise on my part to see these things done. We’re in early stages yet, deity and human feeling out the terrain between us.

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Creativity and gods? you may be thinking. Well, I’m right there with you. We can forget that every relationship is a creation, a set of gestures and responses on both sides, doing and saying this, not bothering with that. Phoning or texting or meeting at least once a week, or every few months, in that charming/ dimly-lit/ busy/ quiet little coffee-shop/ corner pub/ boulevard deli/ open-air market. Or standing in each other’s kitchens after ritual, plate of potluck balanced precariously in one hand as we wave with the other, underscoring a point we’re making.

One of the messy, creative parts is discernment. True, at this point anyway, it’s pretty clear Thecu’s not drumming up followers. Nor am I the sort who’d join them in carrying banners into the streets to announce her advent, transcribing her holy books, doing the talk-show circuit to proclaim her most recent dramatic revelation, and so on.

I am curious about the words and names that came through, even as I wonder how much of that is my conlanging self at play. As with Paganism generally, what matters more — at least to Thecu, apparently — than any belief I may have about all this is my response to it. I’ll either do or not do what she’s shown me.

Of course I could write all this off as over-active imagination. (How many doors of possibility do we not walk through, with just that excuse dangling around our necks?) Or — with only slightly less transparency of process, along with a great deal more ego — I could declare myself her duly appointed priest-on-the-spot, and launch the book-and-workshop thing, inflated with my own stuff to make up for the sharply-limited amount of material the goddess herself has provided up to now. Padding for the sacred …

Instead, my curiosity fired as she probably knew it would be, I’ll do what Thecu has intimated, and we’ll both take it from there.

To close, I’m re-posting the prayer below from the 2nd link above:

How do I pray to you, goddess of storms?
Let this my prayer be a litany of questions.
How may I best honor you?

You gave me a glimpse, no more,
of landscape, cliffs lapped with green,
mist-hung and mournful,

with this foreign name to call you.
What is your service, what
may I do for you? Why

make yourself known to me?
Unlikely am I, no familiar of shrines,
a god’s service, formal prayer.

Then, too, I know so little of you.
Does naming you for others answer
your purposes? How do I answer you,

goddess of storms? Here are words,
intention, listening. Let this litany
of doubts and questions be first prayer.

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“Holy, Wise, Obscene, and Joyous”   Leave a comment

Today my adjectives arrive in a four-pack, all waiting, ready as a title. Actually, they sojourned toward me last night, but I was too tired to do more than note them and carry them into sleep. (What more to say with them?)

Not a bad way for a writer to compost.

Let’s start with holy, north, and earth. Each of us has a holy place — a home, city, spiritual retreat, dream, relationship, cause, purpose, goal — a place where we can store our treasures and sacred objects, a place that grounds us. (And if you don’t have one right now, you’re probably on quest to find one, among all the other things you’re doing.)

What’s your Jerusalem, your Mecca, your Well of Brighid? What’s your north star, your soul’s home, your rest and your dreaming?

Each of us is a holy place, a sacred discovery we may have great trouble with, not seeing spirit looking out of eyes looking into our own.

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Spinning, spinning. On to the east and late sunrise, courtesy of these long nights before the Winter Solstice. Wise, the east, realm of thought, of reflection. The hard-earned wisdom of every life, things we’ve learned, things we’ve always known, things we’re still discovering. It was among ferns that I first learned about eternity, sings Robert Bly, because deep-down, the echo, the rhyme, is just as important as the meaning. Ah, bards!

Obscene, the south? Work with me a moment. It’s the fire that gets us into trouble, as often as not. The untamed in us will have its way, in spite of our better judgment. “If I repent of anything”, Thoreau quips in Walden, “it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” (Can we also ask, what angel directed me, that I behaved so badly?)

Fire will have our way with us, in spite of other wills, all clamoring for us to do their bidding. Depending on how repressed (or connected) you are, obscene can be your modus operandi — when the going gets tough, you get bawdy. As if the universe finally is playing your song — backwards. Trickster emerges from his burrow, from her mountain pass — one glance and you see you’re twins. You wear each other’s skin. Chaos — because fighting fire with fire. In our native element …

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And West — joyous, the playfulness of water cascading, the tide unceasing, the crash of the surf calling us. Where will water float me to, this time? Pilot for my boat, old friend, let’s weigh anchor and be off again! River, stream, blood in my veins, in these earliest rhythms I know it again, eternal journey. I emerge out of it, I merge back into it.

It asks nothing, it asks my all: “Labour is blossoming or dancing”, sings W B Yeats, “where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Dancer, dance — holy, wise, obscene and joyous.

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I spin a quarter turn to the right, then start the cycle again. Holy is now the east, from where the day’s first light blesses us all. Wise is the south, that animal fire un-quenched in us, kindling life, kindling each other. Obscene is now the west: how wet and juicy everything is! — being born, eating, bleeding, loving, sweating, dying. We swim through lives. And joyous is the earth: to be here at all, snow and sun, leaf and love and loss, every place it’s happening, solid, rooted, here.

(Turn another quarter turn to start, then — when you’ve finished, another. How do the Four line up this time? Two meditations for you, to continue two more quarter turns, to look and listen, to explore.)

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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Creativity’s Messy–2: Druid & Christian   Leave a comment

No surprise (though I’m often slow on the uptake), after the period of inner work I detailed in the recent “Listening to Inwardness” series, that creativity should be the theme of these posts. The awen, like water, seems to follow the paths of least resistance in our lives, so for me it manifests in language creation, and in returns to themes I’ve looked at already but need to spiral with. And in physical reminders, too, as this body ages, to exercise, to eat healthy, to stretch, to listen.

And that means a challenge I’m noting for myself, even as I record it here for you: creativity left unmanifest, ignored for too long, can out itself through my weaknesses, too, amplifying them, doing a full-on “mercury retrograde” to my daily life on the spot, when a hundred little things that might go wrong will absolutely find a way to do so, if they can. If that divine energy that is creative always has got nowhere else to go, I’ll have a right royal row with my wife, stub my toe on the woodstove base, get splinters in my palm while chopping wood, break a clean plate while emptying the dishrack — all in the same morning. Like electricity, creativity will ground itself along the most direct path to earth.

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Another instance of the messiness of creativity rests in our spiritual encounters and how we respond to their challenges and opportunities — to those places and moments where something rattles our cages, and with any grace induces us to sort out what’s habit and inertia and no longer helpful to our lives, and what remains valid on a new round of the spiral of our journey. Person, place or thing, it doesn’t matter: each asks us to bring the fire in us to bear on problem solving, on spiritual creativity at work in daily life — in a word, at finding joy. But ignore the lesson-opportunity-blessing, and just as with the smaller moments, so the bigger ones, as R. J. Stewart observes:

It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20-21)

Creativity is one of the most enjoyable ways to “unlock” that I’ve experienced. But it’s almost guaranteed to be messy!

I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog my own attempts to plumb some of the numinous encounters and intersections of Druidry and Christianity, a deep and rich vein to explore, as writers and teachers like John Philip Newell have done in several books.

Here’s Newell in his 2012 book A New Harmony* on the “sound of the beginning” — a pretty close description for the awen, at least as some Druids experience it:

New science speaks of being able to detect the sound of the beginning in the universe. It vibrates within the matter of everything that has being. New science is echoing the ancient wisdom of spiritual insight. In the twelfth century Hildegard of Bingen taught that the sound of God resonates ‘in every creature’. It is ‘the holy sound’, she says, ‘which echoes through the whole creation.’ If we are to listen for the One from whom we have come, it is not away from creation that we are to turn our ears, it is not away from the true depths of our being that we are to listen. It is rather to the very heart of all life that we are to turn our inner attention. For then we will hear that the deepest sound within us is the deepest sound within one another and within everything that has being. We will hear that the true harmony of our being belongs to the universe and that the true harmony of the universe belongs to us. … Everything arises from that sacred sound.

So far, so Druid. But in the same book, Newell then turns toward issues that often receive less insightful treatment in too much of Druidry. Spend time in Druid communities and you encounter firsthand what they struggle with, too: addiction, abuse, imbalance, illness, spiritual immaturity and blindness, ignorance, superstition, fear, anger. In other words, with the human weaknesses that beset every other human community.

Newell observes:

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey towards wholeness. We will not be well by denying the wrongs that we carry within us as nations and religions and communities. Nor will we be well by downplaying them or projecting them onto others. The path to wholeness will take us not around such awareness but through it, confronting the depths of our brokenness before being able to move forward towards healing. As Hildegard of Bingen says, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the ‘knowledge of good’ and the other is the ‘knowledge of evil’. If we lack one or the other we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of unitary vision. We will live in half-consciousness instead of whole-consciousness.

Both Druidry and Christianity still tend to be “one-winged”, and in opposite ways. (That’s partly why each could learn much from the other.) To grossly over-generalize, Druids celebrate the good, and glory in images of that old Garden and those ancient Trees, while underplaying the human evils that beset Druids and their communities as much as anyone, and forestall them from entering more fully. Christians may understand and even fixate more on the evils, and have much indeed to say about sin, but underplay and even distrust the gifts and capacities, lessons and potentials of a world that can catalyze the spiritual growth and maturity they often refuse.

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Part of this particular creativity lies in the practice of listening across traditions. John Beckett writes in a recent blogpost apropos of traditions, DNA, supposed bloodlines, and their dubious guidance for “choosing your religion”:

We dream of finding a heritage that’s mine, that provides connection and meaning.

Too many of us, though, fail to understand that mine means “where I belong” and not “what belongs to me.”

Rather than looking for roots in DNA, put down roots with the land where you are: observe it, touch it, eat it. Honor the spirits and other persons who share it with you.

Or to paraphrase a certain Galilean: Why do you seek the living among the dead?

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Awen a ganaf — o dwfyn ys dygaf, says Taliesin, in his poem Angar Kyfandawt. “(It’s) the awen that I sing — (it’s) from the deep that I bring it”. (Or in my flowering Celtic ritual language, Bod an awen a canu mi, o’n duven a tenna mi.) But the bard continues (rendering by K. Hughes, From the Cauldron Born):

It’s a river that flows; I know its might,
I know how it ebbs, and I know how it flows,
I know when it overflows, I know when it shrinks …

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*Newell, John Philip. A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul. Jossey-Bass, 2012. Republished as A New Ancient Harmony: A Celtic Vision for the Journey Into Wholeness. Material Media, 2019.

Creativity’s Messy–1: The Druid’s Prayer   2 comments

In previous posts [A Celtic Conlang |Invoke for a Tongue 12 | Druid Ritual Language 123 ] I’ve written about the inspiration and the rudiments of creating a ritual Celtic language. And one of the first obvious places to try it out is with the Druid’s Prayer.

(As a small offering, this is in partial repayment of a sacred vow to Brighid and Ogma, mentioned in “Invoke for a Tongue” above.)

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June trail on Mount Ascutney to the north

The prayer’s widely known, though it hasn’t yet fulfilled the preamble it’s often given in OBOD ritual — “Let us join in the prayer that unites all Druids”. Yet the energy released just by saying those words (preamble, or prayer, or both), even if they’re not “true”, deserves a separate meditation all its own: “the truth against the world”. (In Welsh, that’s y gwir yn erbyn y byd. And it sounds good in both languages. But what is it?)

You can find a few other forms of the prayer at this link, but here’s the OBOD version I hear most often in the States, so I’ll work with it, because it’s familiar.

Grant, O Spirit, Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all existences;
And in the love of all existences,
the love of spirit and all goodness.

In OBOD group ritual, “Spirit” works for most of us as an acceptable choice in the first line, among other versions of the prayer that offer “God, Goddess”, etc. — one of which we may prefer for private rites. (I tend to sing the awen much more often than I offer any sort of prayer, but that’s my animism talking. As verbal as I often am, a non-verbal approach short-circuits a lot of my mental crap and attunes me more quickly than most “talky” methods can.)

With some basic knowledge of Celtic languages*, I can set myself the challenge of respecting the sensibility and intent of this prayer as I “other” it into a fledgling ritual Celtic language. For a start, I’ve got an approximate dozen words to work on, most of them nouns: all, existence, goodness, grant, justice, knowledge, love, protection, spirit, strength, the, understanding, and your (thy). And that’s not even counting the title of the prayer, which in Welsh is Gweddi’r Derwydd “Druid’s Prayer” or Gweddi’r Orsedd “Gorseth Prayer”.

One of the great gifts of this kind of David-Peterson Game-of-Thrones constructed-languages special-interest “nerdiness-on-steroids” activity is that it compels one to look very closely at the words we say year in and year out. Great gobs of assumptions, some inherited — no surprise — from Christianity, pervade the Druid’s Prayer: does Spirit grant anything in response to this prayer, and if so, under what conditions? What does “protection” mean, concretely? What kind of “strength” are we asking for? How are “knowledge” and “understanding” different? (They’re tricky to translate!) “Justice” means different things to different people — is it the same thing we mean by “equality”? Or something else? How many of us actually do “love justice” in any useful sense, if we look at the world right now as any sort of evidence? And “existences”? Is that the same thing as “anything that exists”? Then why not just say “all things”? And so on.

Now that I’ve irritated at least some of my readers in the process of unraveling this prayer, and emptied it of almost any meaning until I can answer even some of these questions for myself, let’s move on to unmaking it in another mode — everyone’s favorite torture from secondary school: grammar!

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Because we’ve got a few Celtic grammatical processes to work out, too, for our language: (1) the imperative of grant, which is simply a more formal word for give; (2) the vocative or “direct address” form for spirit, rendered above as “O Spirit”, which can mutate the following noun (one of my students was named Megan; she hated that in Irish her name became, more or less, a Wegan “O Megan”); (3) any grammatical changes that happen to nouns following a possessive pronoun, here thy, or your; and (4) any changes that happen to nouns in phrases like “in protection”, or after other nouns, like “knowledge of justice”. (For those of you in the know, these are the famed Celtic mutations that bedevil the learner.)

But for the purposes of the draft below, I’m ignoring all four of these. Time for tweaking later.

Pesad an Derwidhe

Ri, a’h Isprid, do iscod;
ha’n iscod, nerth;
ha’n nerth, doithus,
ha’n doithus, gothved,
ha’n gothved, gothved cowireth,
ha’n gothved cowireth, i cared,
ha o’i cared, cared pob an bode,
ha’n cared pob an bode, cared Isprid
ha pob an mat.

This works out, more-or-less literally, to the following: Prayer of the Druids. Give, o Spirit, your shielding, and in shielding, strength; and in strength, wisdom; and in wisdom, knowledge; and in knowledge, knowledge of fairness; and in knowledge of fairness, its love, and out of its love, love of all worlds/existences, and in love of all of worlds/existences, love of Spirit, and of all goodness.

I know you have a range of reactions to this: (1) Cool! (2) Uh, what? (3) Why go to the trouble of making and teaching yourself a fake Celtic language when six real ones already exist? (4) Does Spirit care what language we use? (5) You’ve changed some of the meanings in the prayer. (6) Get a life! (7) I love this! And so on.

(1) Ah, you too suffer from the same pleasant affliction I do regarding language — this stuff is awesome, our most amazing creation ever!

(2) The tryptophan still hasn’t worn off yet. This is just a dream. You’ll wake up in a few more hours and everything will be fine. Stay away from any more turkey, though.

(3) Only six? There are several other Celtic conlangs out there. The more the better, I say. And if you want to make one, you need to know something about “real” Celtic languages. Besides, if I can speak it, and you could if you wanted, and we could pray in it, and find meaning and comfort using it, what exactly makes it fake?

(4) Yes and no. Unverified Personal Gnosis says it can swing both ways. Spirit doesn’t care, and spirits may care deeply.

(5) Meanings change every time we mean them. Take a look at the different versions of the prayer. I’m still reflecting on “God, impart Thy strength; And in strength, power to suffer; And to suffer for the truth …”

(6) I’ve had several so far, and will probably have several more.

(7) You sound like you’re a happy person in general.

I’m copying this prayer into my day-book, so that I’ll have it on hand at my bedside, and I can think and dream with it, trying it out. Already it feels more usable to me than either the English or Welsh version. And if I use it and gain benefit from it — if it sparks further development of this language for prayer and ritual — that’s a definite good, to my thinking.

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*some basic knowledge of Celtic languages: If you have a gift for languages, you can pick up a linguistic knowledge of one in a handful of hours — a sense of what the basic word order is, where the complexities lie, points of potential common ground with any other language you may know, and so on. It’s like visiting a city in a foreign country with a good map and helpful suggestions from natives: an afternoon can give you a general sense of how the main streets lie, what some of the prime tourist spots are, where to eat, how to “sample” the city without pretending to the intimate knowledge only a native or long-time resident can acquire fully.

Listening to Inwardness–4   Leave a comment

[Part One | Part TwoPart Three | Part Four]

IMG_3378When I began this series of posts on the 21st of November, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that the practice it recounts would run for seven days, ending today, the 27th. But one of the benefits of my year-long work with Wayne London, MD*, in his exploration of the spiritual potential of the labyrinth, has been a deepening understanding of symbolism and ritual.

Often we tend to think of symbols as arbitrary, confusing them with signs like +, %, !, etc. But symbols run deeper, and often cross cultures (though they may change in some of their associations). Even more confusing are objective things, like the sun, that can also function as symbols. So while we can begin to list what the sun “means” — light, growth, warmth, illumination, a god, Jesus, the center of a solar system, and so on, that doesn’t exhaust its symbolic power. Experience the sun vividly, like at sunrise or sunset, watch it pierce the clouds and clear the sky, see it in a dream, and you begin to know its symbolic power in other ways.

The opposite tendency, of course, is to assume that a symbol, because it lies deeper than a sign, and often operates at more subtle levels, is therefore universally “true” or always appropriate, apt or fitting. Encounter the imagery and symbolism of a radically different culture, though, and you can see how symbols depend on lived experience. Water for a desert people can mean something much different from what it does for an ocean-side tribe whose lives revolve around fish and boats, storms and tides. Rain as a symbol in a song or a dream carries a different power.

One of the ways that Dr. London has worked with the seven-path labyrinth is to link it to the Hindu system of chakras (and also to the human sleep cycle). In this case, the number seven has a particular symbolic power, as it does in both Christianity and Druidry, of course, as well as in numerous other cultures — obviously including Hindu culture.

schneiderIn part, this symbolism of seven comes from a quartering of the moon’s cycle of 28 days, so that like many cross-cultural symbols, it augments its force by linkages to an objective reality. The largely planet-wide acceptance of a seven-day week points to a kind of symbolic “fit” with human experience.

Did the original builders of labyrinths perceive something of this symbolic fit or aptness? Is that why the seven-path labyrinth is by far the most common form of this pattern on the planet? (Investigate the 11-path Chartres labyrinth!) Who knows! But what remains to us is a set of associations that organize themselves around seven in a multitude of ways. Examine the evidence in such popularizations as Michael Schneider’s A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art and Science (Harper Collins, 2014), and you begin to see how number symbolism is a particularly deep-lying symbolic sequence in our human experience and perceptions of the physical (and non-physical) world. Fear not, if you’re not mathematically inclined — Schneider’s book relies on images and diagrams, art and hands-on exercises, to bring home his several points.

Like any map, a symbol cannot include everything that it represents. It’s a selection, a set of choices and decisions about priorities. No map can “contain the universe”, nor can any symbol recall to consciousness the entirety of what it symbolizes. This is less a “limitation” of the symbol than it is a given parameter of consciousness in a world of space and time. To insist it be otherwise — to demand that one truth represent the cosmos — is like insisting that the ocean wash over everything. While that might sound at first like an ideal, in practical terms it means we all would drown.

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3-2-1-Seq-crp

In his work, Dr. London therefore begins where the seven-path labyrinth begins, at path 3. If we follow the path sequence, as the labyrinth itself suggests — 3-2-1-4-7-6-5 (see previous post for the path numbering) — we find that the extremes of 2-1 and 7-6 are always bounded by returns to the center. (We reach the center of the labyrinth not by path 7 which is “the closest”, but by path 5). To make this clearer, Dr. London notes, we can rewrite the labyrinth path sequence like this: 3-(2-1)-4-(7-6)-5. Our departure, like our arrival, emerges at or near a center: 3, 4, or 5. This fits at least with my sense of a return to the world of lived experience.

Rather than a linear journey ascending the chakras to the full flowering of realization at the 7th chakra as an endpoint, then, Dr. London’s work with the labyrinth suggests a different and more spiraling journey.

Walking the labyrinth, then, is a ritual vision quest (is there any other kind?), following a sequence we cannot miss. This isn’t a maze, but a labyrinth, with a pathway in, and also out. We begin with enough consciousness to enter at path 3 — the manipura chakra, the solar plexus, the gut instinct, the self-assertion to choose to “perform the ritual” — to begin a quest, though we may not know where it will take us. What hero or heroine does, when they set out? Setting out on path 3, as Dr. London observes, “we leave the world of time and space”.

Without that choice, we do not walk with enough awareness to benefit directly from the quest. We are merely swept along by circumstance. (Here, Dr. London’s work on the connection of the sleep cycle to the labyrinth enters the picture in a fascinating way — if we’re not conscious enough to do spiritual work with intention, the sleep cycle nevertheless reconnects us to the cosmos and divinity at a minimal “survival-maintenance level” each night. We are never wholly abandoned to the limitations of life lived in time and space. In theistic terms, the presence of God always reaches out to us. In non-theistic terms, our connection to the cosmos endures — nothing can sever it. “Sleep on it” remains good advice. Again, “we leave the world of time and space” as we enter the realm of sleep).

If we’ve gotten this far — again, we’re starting at the middle, as with Dante’s opening lines to the Inferno, “in the middle of the journey of our life” — we’ve already been walking these paths, knowing they are not entire ends in themselves, but important elements along the way. We simply cannot walk a whole path without them.

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As a symbol, and as a map of the spiritual quest, I find Dr. London’s work useful in my own life, as a spiritual yardstick along the way. We’re still editing a forthcoming publication enlarging substantially on these ideas, tentatively titled “Spiritual and Healing Aspects of the Classic Seven-Path Labyrinth”. His work on what he calls the Grid at the second link below is also ongoing.

Image: Chartres Labyrinth

Link to 2015 iBrattleboro article on Wayne London, MD. Additional links may have expired in the interim.

Listening to Inwardness–3: Labyrinth   Leave a comment

[Part One | Part TwoPart Three | Part Four]

Beneath the snow, the holly — 
behind the clouds, the sun …

holly11-19

Where the verse is going, I have no idea. I’m still listening for the rest of it.

I like how the tiny red holly berries in this photo from yesterday morning are barely visible under the light dusting of snow, but also how once you see one or two, you start to see lots of them. Living as I do in New England and enjoying our glorious winters, I’ll still readily admit to a special fondness for things that stay green all year …

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In Part One of this series, I observed:

If one mythic image for the Summer Solstice is Stonehenge on Salisbury plain — “in the eye of the sun” — a corresponding image for Winter Solstice is the passage tomb of Newgrange, deep in the earth.

knossos400BCE

440 BCE coin from Knossos — Wikipedia image

For most of us, a solstice visit to Newgrange in Ireland isn’t in the works this season, but a ready and powerful alternative — one native to the whole planet, really — is the labyrinth.

Working with the labyrinth can parallel the inwardness that places like Newgrange invite us to experience.

[The Wikipedia entry at the link in the previous sentence deals with the double meaning and usage of the word. The Cretan labyrinth associated with the minotaur — the deadly monster at the center — is actually a maze, intended to bewilder those who enter and cause them to lose their way at the very least, if not get eaten. “Amazed” is originally confused. But as the entry goes on to note, many even early representations of that most famous of labyrinths were unicursal — not really mazes at all. Instead, like the coin image to the left, they have a single course or path — one way in, and one out. You can’t get lost.

It’s as if the deeper symbol overtook the old story of Theseus, Ariadne and the monster, or ignored it. The labyrinth is not a trap, then, but becomes an image of return, rebirth, a “there and back again” experience that a certain Hobbit would recognize immediately.]

It’s this labyrinth, the classic “seven-path” version, that I want to explore here*, in part for the value of the number seven and its associations.

Walking the labyrinth has been demonstrated to have beneficial effects. Much of the evidence is admittedly anecdotal and needs further study. But the one thing that is clear from the experience of many people is that as a meditative experience, walking a labyrinth can induce a profound state of centeredness and re-equilibration. Much like the parallel and balanced movements of tai-chi, movement through the labyrinth consists of alternating directions, whether moving out from within, or in from the outside.

3-2-1-Seq-crpIf we number the pathways in order from outside to the center, we get a diagram like this. Whether the labyrinth opens right or left, the sequence of pathways is the same: 3214765. (In addition to forming a pleasing musical sequence if the notes are matched up 1C 2D, etc., on the C-scale, many other associations are possible. Chakras … Tarot cards … I leave this to you as a series of meditations to explore.)

The steps to draw a labyrinth are simple, once you learn the “seed” or starting design for the figure.

labyseedgrow

The picture above is taken from Mid-Atlantic Geomancy, where you can also find the seeds to draw three-, eleven- and fifteen-path labyrinths. (Once you learn one, you’ll see how the others follow organically.) I also wanted to include a picture with the name Jeff Saward (link to pic and brief bio), because he has done so much valuable work on labyrinths over the decades.

Here’s a Youtube video suitable for kids on how to draw a seven-path labyrinth. It incidentally also illustrates how even drawing the figure can have a meditative quality:

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*In recent decades, in case you happened not to notice, there’s been a revival of interest in labyrinths. New Age authors have seized on the labyrinth as a form of “spiritual technology”. Churches as well as parks, and growth-and-retreat centers, offer labyrinth walks and meditations. You can find permanent ones made from wood, green hedges, stone, sea-shells, and other more unusual substances, as well as portable ones made of tea-lights, or painted on canvas that can be unrolled for use, and then rolled back up and stored or carried to a new location. The World-wide Labyrinth Locator can help you find some of the more permanent ones in your region.

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