So this topic, it appears, is not done with me yet.
‘The task of religion’, writes retired Bishop John Shelby Spong,
is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see. It is to seek a humanity that is not governed by the need for security, but is expressed in the ability to give ourselves away. It is to live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended.
I admire Spong because so often he points toward values Pagans have long espoused and appreciated in other spiritual paths. (Whether Spong is in fact still Christian in any widely understood sense is for others to determine who concern themselves with such labels.)
Lorna Smithers comments on Part One:
A question this raises for me is what makes one a ‘good’ ancestor as opposed to a ‘bad’ one. Is being ‘good’ not a Christian concept? What would it mean a Druid/Pagan context? Something that springs to mind is Emma Restall-Orr’s phrase and book title ‘Living With Honour’.
Spot on. I’ve been a fan of Restall-Orr’s work since I first ran across it. For me, and I suspect many other Druids and Pagans generally, a ‘good’ person is indeed one who aspires to a life of honor.
I’ll return to Restall-Orr near the end, as a springboard, because that’s what I do with her writings generally. But here I want to look at what Spong offers as an outline for just such a life, to see what I can glean from this passage, from the thought of a ‘friendly outsider’ to Druid and Pagan thinking, and where I can go with those insights. Sit with me a little?
1–‘deepen the personal within us’: We’ve met and known people who keep growing throughout their lives, and one measure of this growth is that over time they become ever more deeply themselves. You can’t reduce this to a pat formula or recipe, though it is a quality we recognize in others when we see it. Those who listen to their depths gain a source of direction and clarity that strengthens their identity as a human being. We can detect it when it spills over into their daily actions and their treatment of others.
Call it spirit, conscience, listening to your guides or gods, Thoreau’s oft-cited ‘different drummer’, there’s integrity to such a life. Here’s the Thoreau’s passage from Walden — adjust for gender as needed:
‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality’.
Indeed, ‘vain reality’ strikes altogether too close to home for much we can find around us. We know from personal experience that it’s easy enough to get shipwrecked there. ‘Step to the music we hear’, then, is another way to put it. No OSFA — ‘one size fits all’. Such individuals stand out as all the more admirable because we have fewer models nowadays for such a life. Or perhaps they’re always in short supply.
A few words on the How of it: I’ve found these practices helpful in my own experience, and felt the lack of them the more keenly the longer I let them slide: daily contemplation, time spent in the natural world, listening and silence, a craft or skill practiced purely out of love, community service, doing one thing each day without thought of ‘what’s in it for me’, dream study, ritual observance, humor. Joining the Tortoise Order of Druidry — (very) slow and (reasonably) steady.
2–’embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see’: OK, I’ll bite. What is the ‘power of life’? Most Druids and Pagans would assent to this advice. I know I do, but I want to interrogate it as well. My crap-detector just went on high alert. Does merely being born qualify — does it present us with the ‘power of life’? Or what distinguishes this ’embrace’ from me just being a complete asshat and take-take-taking? Quite clearly, it’s the expansion of consciousness that enables a more penetrating vision. For if I go deeply within, I can begin to see more deeply around me. I touch what is most universal in what is most personal. If I’m not doing that, I’m not embracing the power of life. But what does that look like from outside? Vitality paired with vision.
What do the Wise among us perceive? What they’ve always perceived: the wellsprings of life lie in cause and effect, pattern, equilibrium, spiral, departure and eternal return — a movement and an order to things that contemporary life has largely abandoned, and yet which contemporary discoveries have also begun to confirm about a very old worldview indeed.
A few words on the How of it: By keeping up practices like the ones I mentioned above, I find I can more easily distinguish ‘me at my better’ and ‘me at my less than better’. Then my four-part strategy (one for each of the Quarters!): noticing the difference, assessing its cause, accepting responsibility and asking for help go very far towards maximizing what contributes to growth and widening of consciousness and compassion.
3–‘seek a humanity that is not governed by the need for security, but is expressed in the ability to give ourselves away’. Right, then — in place of fear or self-preservation, generosity and boldness. A kind of ebullience in the face of difficulty. We know it’s often those with little who will share most readily what they have. Every culture I know of cherishes hospitality among its values, and takes pride in the welcome of guests. But what does it mean to ‘give ourselves away’?
I’ll hazard a guess that it’s what Hinduism and Buddhism call dharma, which often gets awkwardly under-translated as ‘duty’ or ‘righteousness’ — better, perhaps, is living in accord with that ‘deep reach into the personal’ and that ’embrace of living’ which Spong’s already mentioned.
The U.S. Army makes it into the macho-meme catchphrase ‘Be all you can be’, but it’s not merely military testosterone lockstep cloaked as self-fulfillment. Scholar of Hinduism J. A. B Van Buitenen characterizes it as ‘neither act nor result, but the natural laws that guide the act and create the result to prevent chaos in the world. It is the innate characteristic that makes the being what it is … the pursuit and execution of one’s nature and true calling … it is the dharma of the bee to make honey, of cow to give milk, of sun to radiate sunshine, of river to flow.’
We can refuse our dharma. For humans, it is, after all, a choice. What moves a person seeking honor to follow such a dharma or cosmic principle of inner and outer harmony?
A few words on the How of it: here’s a quotation I used to carry around in my wallet. ‘One who counts his talents and volunteers from a position of strength does not know what service and the sacred are all about’. That may sound judgmental to you, but it helped remind me I never have to be perfect to serve. No one is. Just willing.
4–‘live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended’: the fourth value, as I understand Spong here, is a passionate courage that grows out of the previous three values. Look deeply into the self, and I will witness our common bond, the power of life that links all things, that joins me to other people and beings. From this I will long to give back, because that is what this life energy does constantly — to share what I have, knowing death brings no ending to this surge of cosmic energy flowing everywhere around me. To serve life in ways consistent with the previous three principles.
(Wait a bit longer for my fourth entry of ‘words on the How of it’.)
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Doreen Valiente’s ‘Charge of the Goddess’ offers eight virtues that have appeared in statements of values among Wiccans and Witches: ‘And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you’. You can find a helpful discussion of these at Witchvox here. And Asatru has its ‘Nine Noble Virtues’, which you can explore at Sacred Texts here.
Here are the words of Emma Restall Orr, whom Lorna mentioned earlier: ‘As a spiritual tradition based on reverence for and connection with the powers of nature, more than anything else Druidry teaches us to honour life … Druid ethics are built upon the release of ignorance and the respectful creation of deep and sacred relationships’ — Emma Restall Orr, Druidry and Ethical Choice. ‘Release of ignorance, creation of sacred relationship’ captures it beautifully. These twin principles follow each other in a potent circle, one leading to the other.
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A final personal note. I’ve started working with a teacher placement agency to find a position, and one of the supporting documents we’re strongly encouraged to include in our online files for schools to access is a ‘personal statement’ — something beyond the letters of reference, school transcripts and mostly colorless standard application details.
A personal statement is a reflection of your philosophy of education, your belief system in terms of pedagogy, and/or your ideas about teaching and/or administration. It is a way for your voice to shine through your file and reach out to potential schools … In sum, the personal statement is a way for you to add personality and depth to your candidacy and to convey how your background and accomplishments have prepared you for your next professional opportunity.
A few words on the How of it: My statement became ‘Eleven Strands of Philosophy’. The last ‘strand’ quotes and comments on the final lines from Dante’s Paradiso, because they succinctly capture at this point in my life where I hope to arrive, like Dante’s pilgrim self, having traversed three worlds and returned to this middle earth we love: ‘… by now my desire and will were turned,/Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,/By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’.
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Images: John Spong; Emma Restall-Orr.
Note: this post is punctuated (but not spelled) following British or ‘logical’ conventions because they really do make more sense than American ones.
From the OBOD “Inspiration for Life” for 26 October: “Our greatest responsibility is to become good ancestors” — Jonas Salk (1914-1995). Search for information on Salk and you’ll find, beyond his discovery of the life-saving polio vaccine, that the original quotation has “be” for “become,” but “become” fits. It gives us room to grow into the role.
Growth? I don’t know about you, but most days I need all the help I can get. We can be as literal as you like. My father had a mild case of polio in the 1930s when he was a young man, and it stunted the growth of his legs. He would have been as tall as I am at 6’2″. When we sat, we were the same height, but standing, he was six inches shorter than me. He made up for reduced stature by work and persistence (if you’re uncharitable you might have called it cussed stubbornness). Sometimes we can feel like we’re cast against type in our own lives. What now?
If I approach the day, the season, this life, as roles, I can often feel my way into possibility. We’ve all slipped in backstage. From there we tried out for this role — like almost all the others we’re offered — just by being born. Set aside for a moment the question of whether any of us asked to be here. If we do indeed get recycled from one part of this universe into another, perhaps our own ancestors called us, and our parents made bodies for us and brought us back to the longest-running show of them all. Have kids, and we’re doing the same for them. No kids this time around? You won’t escape that easy.
Live in this world more than a handful of years and you’ll meet others you instantly warm up or cool off to. Mere chance? Unlikely. Instead, one big noisy, contentious family reunion. You never liked Great-Uncle Louis, only now (s)he’s your one-year old niece Lucy who just spit up on your new silk shirt.
Or that annoying nephew Luke who always manages to bring back your car with a few more dings and scratches whenever he borrows it. You’d say no but you still owe his mother a few grand from that tight period some years back.
After all, karma’s one of the most efficient ways of polishing rough edges. Get back what you give out. Until you decide to play it differently. A different take. An original interpretation. A dramatic break-through. A sensitive and well-rounded performance that elicits sympathy for a potentially unlovable character.
What roles will I play in this ancestor ritual that is my life? Can I live large enough that I qualify as a “good ancestor”? Do my choices make the future lighter, wiser, more loving? (The signs tell me I’ll get to find out in person. Back in a century or three to check in and live my own consequence.)
Some days I get a foretaste. I wake, sliding slowly out of bed feeling I’m already halfway to ancestor status. You know, when your body’s now the best barometer for tomorrow morning’s weather. Low pressure and my lower back aches. Rain coming and my shoulder throbs. At such times it’s slender consolation that half a millennium hence my thighbone may decorate some family altar, or that my brother’s great-great-great-times-10 granddaughters will drink toasts from my lovingly preserved skull.
No, Salk probably meant something more. While not all of us will fall fighting to defend our land for our descendants, in every age too many of us do.
But just as many of our battles are inward, and many outwardly calm or seemingly easy faces conceal, it may be, most grievous private wars. It’s fitting, then — humbling, sobering and just — that we may well return to see what becomes of our own deeds.
For me there’s no better perspective. I find myself asked to forgive less than glorious forebears. “Judge not, lest you be judged” can cut painfully close. Knowing my own struggles and weaknesses, I’ll toast them with a generous measure of compassion — not because they may “deserve” it, but because they need it, and so do I — even as I honor the great among them, this weekend on Samhain.
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Smithers, Lorna. The Broken Cauldron. Norfolk, UK: Biddles Books, 2016.
Change the names, goes the old Latin tag from Horace, and it’s a story about us.
Smithers, a Lancashire awenydd, poet, blogger at Signposts in the Mist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, has mediated in her latest book a challenging prophetic vision of psychic and environmental shattering in the image of the Cauldron, that ancient and present manifestation of birth, wisdom and regeneration. Spiritual vessel, military-industrial grail, the Cauldron contains both dream and nightmare.
Through prose retellings of Celtic myth and legend, through poems that grapple with this world and that Other that has always deeply haunted us, Smithers links voices, times and places. She revisits the central Druidic myth: Gwion Bach’s transformational encounter with — and theft of — the Three Drops of Inspiration. Holding it up for careful scrutiny, she underscores its immense cost to species and planet. In one retelling she speaks in the voice of Ceridwen’s grotesque son Afagddu, “Utter Darkness”. It is for him that Ceridwen has set the Cauldron brewing in the first place, hoping for his transformation, posting the hapless Gwion to tend it. In a painfully apt contemporary twist, Gwion’s a negligent employee at a chemical plant, daydreaming through a reactor disaster, though acquitted in the subsequent court case.
But Afagddu’s gifted with his own preternatural wisdom, knowing Ceridwen still apologizes for him, even as she dreams of him “suave, clean-shaven, the head of the company in a priceless suit with ironed-in creases” (pg. 74). How we persist in our stubborn lusts and blind dreams.
The five subtitled sections of the book capture something of its span: “The Broken Cauldron and the Flashing Sword”, “Ridiculous”, “Drowned Lands”, “Operation Cauldron” and “Uranium”.
What will we do, we whose minds are “shrunken and empty of gods”? Smithers’ patron deity accuses us all in the person of Arthur, whose profaning raids on the Otherworld have gained humanity a magical treasure, true, but loosed a devastating tide of death. In a triad of admonition to human raiders on Annwn, the Otherworld, Gwyn ap Nudd declares: “Lleog, lay down your sword. Taliesin, cast your mind from praise poems. Arthur, be true to your bear-skin past, hear your bones and the star of the north” (pg. 10).
Listen to our bones, heed the stars: a quest each of us may still accept or decline.
For it is the Otherworld that restrains the increasingly violent rebalancing we have brought on ourselves. And it is there we find “a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe” (pg. 7).
As a solitary, Smithers turns here from a mythos that has long troubled her. She declares her preference for Afagddu, refusing “complicity in the mysteries of Taliesin” whose limitless hunger to despoil and pillage and consume “can only lead to the world’s end” (pg. 8).
It lies in grappling with the double edged-ness of the “flashing swords” of the raiders on Annwn, I would add, that we may at last learn wisdom. Can we learn to gauge and compensate for both gain and cost? Whether we do or no, the Otherworld will assert its balance. A unique book.
Someone called Samhain that in passing — “Great Hallows” — and it’s fitting.
No, you don’t have to enter. But entrances await you, in sleep and waking, in the thought and feeling of a moment, in the earth around you, to leave the daylight world. The season itself recalls you: the cooling earth, that nip in the air, scent of dead leaves and woodsmoke, bursts of color around the next turn that linger in the eye.
Not kings or nobles but shepherds know the hallowed times, like this turn of days towards the greater dark. In The Winter’s Tale the Shepherd says to the Clown (always a liminal, transitional figure in Shakespeare) “You met with dying things, I with things newborn.” That’s what I meet each Samhain season, both death and life. This is a Great Hallow, a tide of exchange between worlds. Not the tide of equinox, of balance, but what comes after the rebalancing.
Hallow: a word almost lost, a thing changing shape and name, a Samhain sign in itself.
Passage. That’s what Samhain offers, means of passage between the two realms. A holy occasion. Like so many holy things, misunderstood, feared, slandered. But most unfortunate of all? Ignored.
So I look at this image for just a moment, that gulp of time that’s all I need to jump-start wonder all over again. And I summon this liminal place within me, where all places also lie: Bryn Celli Ddu, the “Mound in the Dark Grove,” stand in for each of us and our own mythic image of the Place of Spiritual Exchange. (Here the Dead journey among us, looking for the same thing.)
We — all of us — have hallowed something all year long. Time to recognize it on All Hallows’ Eve.
What is dead, and what lives, in my life? How do they nourish and reflect and illumine each other? What Samhain question is my life asking me today and all this month?
Here at “summer’s end,” which is a good approximation of what Samhain* means, I listen. A full time job, that — all these voices now, as one cycle nears completion and the second takes its birth. Then the greater stillness of Winter, and its own energies and lessons.
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Image: exterior–Trish Steel; southern Vermont sumac; Bryn Celli Ddu interior — Wolfgang Sauber.
(I love how ddu “dark” [approx. “thoo”] in Welsh has that shape and spelling after a feminine noun like celli “hill,” that double dd, following the rules of sound and spelling change that run counter to English habit. Words as wands of transformation for the tongue.)
*irish Samhain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinne, both from Proto Celtic *samonios. The Coligny calendar names a “three-night festival” trinoxtion samonii, in Gaulish, a older and now extinct relative of Irish and Scottish Gaelic: Gaulish samon “summer, Samhain.”
The Welsh proverb A gwir yn erbyn a byd — “the truth against the world” — hasn’t lost any of its force. It still offers a challenge, read one way; and a simple statement about the nature of things, read another. Or maybe they’re the same thing.
The words appear on a chair in the Welsh parliament house in Machynlleth. The chair itself is fairly recent, the words traceable at least to Iolo Morganwg and the first Gorsedd of the Bards in the 1790s.
This relatively modern chair may serve us as an apt stand-in for the Siege Perilous, the “Perilous Seat” of Arthurian lore. In the old story as Malory retells it in his Morte D’Arthur,” He shall be born that shall sit there in that siege perilous, and he shall win the Sangreal.” Looking beyond pronoun gender, if you have no truth in you that you will maintain in spite of the world’s ways, don’t even think about sitting there. Better than the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, the Chair puts you where you deserve, weeding out the unworthy with death.
What truth, you ask? In each moment I can assert the possibility of spiritual integrity in each person I meet, while striving to manifest it first in myself.
I can’t wait for the other guy. “You first”? If we all do that, who will ever grow? We see around us the eyes of the spiritually dead. (Some days we join them.) The sad conclusions they’ve come to, in the face of suffering and setbacks, have no life in them. They’ve bowed out and accepted a living death. They (we) are the wounded kings and queens of our present-day Wasteland.
In times like this, spiritual integrity can mean living with intention, living counter to the prevailing mood of pessimism and despair. But more importantly, counter to living without any intention at all. You know, the home-from-work, plop down in front of the TV or computer and insta-drug. Waiting to be entertained (is that so bad?), to be led, to be fed, to be used for another’s purposes because we have none of our own. Well, maybe it is so bad.
So I nip in, trailing some accidental courage, and I lay bait for truth, only half-conscious of what I’m doing. Some days that’s the only way I end up getting any. “Gonna get some” has prodigiously awful overtones these days, but I’ll apply it to truth instead. And having baited the truth, maybe even bravely, for a moment or two, my boldness gives out and I turn tail, racing back to my hole and waiting for events. For a change. For something to happen. Almost (I whisper it) anything but this.
And there’s the actual peril for most us, if we brush against our own version of the Siege Perilous. We already all know it firsthand, and Churchill put it into words: “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” Even Perilous Seats turn out to disappoint. Nothing happens. Except …
OBOD Druid rituals include in their opening the words “Let us begin by giving peace to the quarters, for without peace can no work be.”
Well, that decides it, then. No work can be, I mutter to myself. We’ve witnessed the efforts towards peace and justice, how each must be founded on the other. Hard work.
The Welsh ritual asks “A oes heddwch?” Is there peace?
The ritual answer is yes. Ritual can after all prefigure reality, open a door to its happening. It IS reality, on another plane, one we may wish to echo and emulate here. Or is peace a possession solely of some Otherworld, never to make its way here? Always a grail that’s over there, not here? “Grail on a shelf.” Good luck with that, shouts a chorus of wannabe truth-speakers.
The Galilean Master said to his devotees, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” Following the example of the Wise of many lands, we too can learn to give, and not as the world gives, but as our inner truth leads us.
Can there be peace if we each insist on our own truths against the world — against each other’s? Isn’t that in fact the origin of so many conflicts? Especially in America, with everyone shouting “It’s my right!” and no one saying “It’s my responsibility.”
Peace within us doesn’t preclude needful action. It does lay the ground for clarity and compassion out of which all true transformation grows.
And for me that’s a foundational truth I’ve had to learn the hard way. Many others would like to change me to fit their views of the world. The harder and more worthwhile challenge is to change myself to fit my view of the world. If I can’t manage to do that, why expect anyone else to? Or turning it outward, ask me to change in your way only when you can show me you’ve changed. Otherwise, I have my own changes to work on. That cuts down mightily on truths in conflict. And it keeps us all busy failing our way to success, says my inner cynic.
The Welsh ritual:
Y gwir yn erbyn y byd, a oes heddwch? The truth against the world, is there peace?
Calon wrth galon, a oes heddwch? Heart to heart, is there peace?
Gwaedd uwch adwaedd, a oes heddwch? Shout above responding shout, is there peace?
One good example outweighs a lot of words. (Some questions need to be asked, some answers given, three times so we can hear them.) But once we have the example, then the words draw energy from it, and carry some of that truth that runs “against the world” and toward spiritual integrity and harmony. Words are empty only when hearts are. Full heart, full words.
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Image: chair; Iolo plaque.
It’s the fate of too many worthy people to receive attention at their deaths that would have served everyone better had it flourished while they were still alive. Fortunately, this needn’t be the case with Bill Mollison, father of the permaculture movement, simply because his ideas most definitely live on after his passing.
I’ll confess upfront: I know only a little about Mollison and permaculture. So let’s allow him to speak for himself, as he amply can. You can read a transcript here of a 2005 interview with Mollison that appeared in Green Living magazine. There Scott London, the interviewer, summarizes Mollison’s achievement quite succinctly in a short introduction:
Permaculture — from permanent and agriculture — is an integrated design philosophy that encompasses gardening, architecture, horticulture, ecology, even money management and community design. The basic approach is to create sustainable systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste.
Mollison developed permaculture after spending decades in the rainforests and deserts of Australia studying ecosystems. He observed that plants naturally group themselves in mutually beneficial communities. He used this idea to develop a different approach to agriculture and community design, one that seeks to place the right elements together so they sustain and support each other.
Mollison’s sensibilities and actions have won him many fans among Druid-y types. (For a splendid Druid blog and blogger walking the talk, which you might enjoy if you don’t already know of it and her, visit The Druid’s Garden.)
Still largely unknown outside of his native Australia, Mollison’s ideas have impacted agricultural practices. As London notes:
Scott London: A reviewer once described your teachings as “seditious.”
Bill Mollison: Yes, it was very perceptive. I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.
So many bellwethers, prophets, forerunners we’ve ignored to our cost. For as Mollison notes in the course of the interview,
In the early 1970s, it dawned on me that no one had ever applied design to agriculture. When I realized it, the hairs went up on the back of my neck. It was so strange. We’d had agriculture for 7,000 years, and we’d been losing for 7,000 years — everything was turning into desert. So I wondered, can we build systems that obey ecological principles? We know what they are, we just never apply them. Ecologists never apply good ecology to their gardens. Architects never understand the transmission of heat in buildings. And physicists live in houses with demented energy systems. It’s curious that we never apply what we know to how we actually live.
Applying what we know to how we live: if we seek a clear life goal, a sane and humane practice, and a justification and outline for a spiritual path, that’s an excellent place to start.
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[Updated 7 Oct 2016]
Images: Bill Mollison.
For an instructive contrast (to say no more right now), consider the words of Adam Smith (1723-1790), which might well have appeared just yesterday, unchanged, in the Times or Guardian or Wall Street Journal:
says Canadian poet Charlotte Hussey.
Now this proves very useful advice, I’ve found. All the materialist skepticism to the contrary, imagination springs from an inward compost and leaf-mold, yes, and also a vital, creative capacity we all possess as our human birthright. Even those of us who’ve tried to cast it away, if only because to nourish dream and hope can hurt much more than indulgence in flat despair. That means almost all of us. Maybe our singers and poets and wild-eyed prophets number among those who simply can’t forget any longer.*
And some of the Wise will tell you that imagination is the astral sight: we see by other means than merely light rays reaching the retina and dashing up neurons to the brain. Light everywhere has its place, but physical light does not account for those familiar or haunting landscapes we’ve never visited, companionable (or challenging) beings we have never met, and so on. Or indeed, landscapes and beings we have met before. Just not here.
And Hussey’s Ecobardic Manifesto asserts, among its other points, both the return of and our singular need for “the prophetic vocation to look into the inner truth of things and speak, on behalf of the community, what need[s] to be spoken.”
But do we even want to hear “what needs to be spoken”? And if we opt to listen, how do we distinguish this needful message in the midst of the clamor and noise of all the other increasingly hysterical voices around us?
Small steps. I keep returning to this most helpful strategy. Our own practice of silence is a beginning (and advanced) step that helps with discernment of an inner truth we each know for ourselves, if we listen. If we can’t discern it, we can imagine it. Finding a still point beyond the mind chatter. Walk along a quiet sidewalk with trees, find a park, a quiet corner of your apartment or condo or neighborhood. Stillness as practice.
Focus or mantra or prayer. For Christians, scripture like “Be still and know that I am God” makes a powerful start. Pagans have an equivalent range of seed-verses and prayer-songs.
Sometimes the name of deity, or a suitable word like awen or om or amen.
Song or chant in a language you don’t know, to take you out of your talking head (and anybody else’s, too).
Symbol or mandala or image, for those who prefer the non-verbal. Cross, triskele, star, Platonic form, face of a beloved.
Counting your breaths.
Worship kinetically: pick up colorful leaves, play in the mud, lie on your back and watch the clouds. The skills we practiced effortlessly as children have not abandoned us, though we may have “put away childish things” as we raced off to concern ourselves with “matters of importance” and the wide word of adult stress and doubt and angst.
Substances used reverently, like various smudges and smoking herbs, fermented drinks, and so on, have featured in worship and ritual and self-care for millennia.
More important than what I do is doing it often enough that it becomes for me a spiritual practice.
I cannot remember the paternal grandfather I was named for: he died 14 years before I was born. All I have of him are three yellowing photos and a handful of stories. But I imagine him when I honor my ancestors of blood and spirit, and he’s more alive to me as a result. A link, however tenuous, that I (and he, from his side) can strengthen at will.
One of the OBOD Bardic practices is the inner sacred grove. So what kind of place will I make as a spiritual sanctuary for myself and any inner guide whose counsel I seek? I resort to this place to leave a symbol, a dream recalled I want to ponder, or to begin a poem, resolve a problem, express my gratitude, build an altar, light an inner flame, begin and end a ritual, recall during moments of challenge and joy. What I imagine can become as real as anything I build with lumber and mortar, nails and plaster and insulation. (And the grass there doesn’t need weekly mowing. Though the trees, oak and birch, rowan and ash among them, are growing well.)
Imagine, and I remember.
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IMAGES: Charlotte Hussey; D W Easton, circa 1925, on his mail route in Niagara Falls, NY.
*”I think we’re living in a culture that’s so demanding: You never feel like you’re good enough. It wears people down. People are exhausted at the end of the day. They go home and have a drink as a way to cope with all of this—a lot of people have to self-medicate because it would be hard for them to look in the mirror otherwise. The whole concept of being conscious—that’s hard work. A lot of people just don’t want to sign up for it.” “Alcohol as an Escape from Perfection.” Atlantic, 10/13, accessed 10/4/16.