Archive for October 2011

“But ask the animals …”   2 comments

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you” — Job 12:7-8.

Mourning doves at the feeder this morning, blue jays squabbling on our standing-seam metal roof, shortly before dawn a fox leaping through the snow nearby, mice in the garage foraging on birdseed I spilled and haven’t yet swept up, a few geese lingering and looking forlorn as they forage in the dark water of a lake, made darker by contrast with the surrounding snows.

Visible kin, feathered and furred.  Beneath the surface of the pond, a few salamanders who haven’t yet burrowed into the mud to winter there.  Scaled kin.

And golden till the end — leafy kin — a young maple in our back yard, shouldering its way up among larger pines.

What can I ask, and what will they teach, tell and declare?

Isn’t everything open and shut at the same time, the glory and the wretched side by side, the fox killing the hare, the wonder of sunrise, a birth and a death both?

But what of the between, where we all live, where it is often neither?  The third way we pass over, because it constantly moves with us, never stopping to be wholly seen or felt, a shadow at our backs, a light in front of us, a suspicion of beauty and the marvelous: peering through the grime and fog of a dirty window, a commuter on the way to work, waving; a bare branch with exactly seven sparrows wing to wing, puffed against the cold; the surprise of light on water, perfect mirror; a child’s unflinching gaze.  O my world, altar of how many things to see and know and suffer and enjoy and give up and welcome again, how can I do anything else than love you, in the end?

Simple Beauty: First Snow, Oct. 28   Leave a comment

After a gentle, wet snow last night, the landscape is transformed.

The light before sunrise paints everything a lovely gray-blue, and in the stillness you can hear snow falling from branches as the temperature slowly rises.  Minute by minute the scene changes, so I hurry to photograph this brief beauty.

Our clothesline has quadrupled in size with its snow sheathe.

Even as I hurry to capture these images, still in the shade of the hill to the east, the tree-line across the road receives the sun, and the yellow leaves still on the trees begin to show through under the snow.

A few hours later, with the temperature risen to the mid-30s, the trees stand mostly snow-free.

Posted 28 October 2011 by adruidway in blessing, Druidry, nature, outdoors, trees

Sacrifice and Plenitude   Leave a comment

As we near Samhain (see previous post), I want to do some thinking out loud about sacrifice.  And that includes moving randomly, and in less than smooth gestures, as thought moves (at least mine does), and leaving some avenues for later reflection.  And input from readers, too.

Sacrifice literally means something that makes sacred or holy, though a sacrifice in contemporary usage has come to signify as well a loss or voluntary giving-up, in return for some advantage.  Why should the holy link with a giving up?  Something good, in exchange for something better.  It carries with it associations of unpleasantness or suffering — the difficulty or pain involved in the giving up, even if the advantage is fully worthwhile.

But need the sacrifice always entail giving up?  The making sacred of each moment may involve my giving up scattered attention, or a bad mood, but these are not usually things I’ll miss.

I go to my altar during a ceremony or ritual, and give in offering something I have purchased, grown or made — most recently, some home-made incense.  It has “objective” value, as far as that can be measured, in dollars or in what dollars can purchase.  But it has “subjective” value in terms of what it’s worth to me.  I hope it may have value as well to whoever receives the sacrifice.  Even more, if it costs me something essential to provide it, people often consider it a more “true” sacrifice.  And if it’s a fair exchange, I’ll gain an equivalent for what I give.  Well and good.  Many sacrifices stop there.  But what of sacrifice that gives all and expects nothing?

There is a joy in that kind of giving, if the sacrifice is voluntary.  Much was made in ancient cultures of the “sacrifice that goes consenting.”  A sacrificial animal delivered a bad omen if it resisted axe or blade, or shied away from the sacrificer.  Human offerings, though apparently fairly rare, might have their senses dulled with drugs, so that the pain or apprehension — or defiance — did not taint or diminish the sacrifice.  Does this reduce its value?  Does the sacrifice still go “consenting”?

So far I’ve looked at this entirely from (my) human point of view.  If I make an offering to a god or thought-form or some higher wavelength of consciousness (and these may or may not be the same thing), I change the situation by my actions, even if only in a small way.  As a marker in memory, ritual breaks the flow of “profane” time with a division or irruption into consciousness of another kind of act.  Actions done consciously, with intention, in formal words and gestures and attitudes of mind and body, are simply different from our daily-life consciousness.  They feel different, and we remember them differently.  They mark time as altars, chapels, shrines, temples, churches and sanctuaries mark space.  Whether “holy” or not, they are different and distinctive for that reason.  They don’t fit the pattern.  In terms of consciousness, they are marked, while the “ordinary” is un-marked, the default mode of most of our experience.

But what of the view “from the other side”?  Apart from whether gods exist, the universe tends towards an equilibrium, at least locally.  Extremes don’t last, and we return to “normal.”  Almost.  The short span of “not normal,” of marked, of ritual time, of sacrificial consciousness, has left things changed, however small the change.  Does a god perceive such human action and awareness?  If so, how? And does what I’ve called ritual or sacrificial consciousness come across any differently to That Which Watches?

In crude terms, a sacrifice is a claim on another.  Roman culture expressed this as do ut des:  “I give, so that you may give.”  I’ll scratch your back if you will later scratch mine.  The initiative in this case comes from me:  if I act, you are obliged in some sense to respond.  There is trust here, a kind of faith in “how the universe works.” Many moderns might be utterly perplexed at this kind of thinking.  All I can say is, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

In mainland Chinese culture, everyone is conscious of guanxi, the obligation or connection they have with others.  In fact, one way of saying “you’re welcome” is mei guanxi — “no obligation or connection.” You don’t owe me; there’s no need to repay.  On the flip side is the the incidence of one Chinese literally chasing another down the street with a gift the first person does not wish to accept.  Take the gift and you acknowledge connection, obligation.  If the sacrifice is accepted, you’ve built up some credit with Another, with the divine, with Otherworld energies.  (Can we make a sacrifice without expecting anything, even if it’s just a sense of satisfaction or wholeness in the act of making the sacrifice?)

But the sense of sacrificial debt or obligation does not stop there. Again in Roman culture, the flip side, the necessary correspondence, is da ut dem:  “You give, so that I may give (in the future).”  Complete the cycle.  Establish reciprocity, build the relationship.  We depend on each other, gods on humans as much as humans on gods.  Note that the goal isn’t to pay off the debt, or reach a new equilibrium, but to establish a connection through mutual commitment and generosity — to build a history together.  In other words, to keep the exchanges going.

Eventually we may begin to see all our actions as ritual and as sacrifice.  Whatever we sanctify comes into to our lives through reciprocity, because we are inevitably part of the whole, in relationship with the cosmos.  “What you do comes back to you,” for the simple reason that you asked it to, by placing attention on it, by performing the ritual of desire and attention, and often, the dedication of resources, of the holy substance of the living world, to achieve or create or earn or win (or steal) whatever it was you thought you wanted.

But the act of desiring something, of investing energy and consciousness into it, changes us.  We all know the old saying:  be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.  When “it” comes, we’ve often moved on to other goals and desires, and no long wish for it, or even recognize it when it arrives.  We’re on to the next thing, and the consequences of one of our old wishes or desires may no longer fit us where we are.  We may even see it as a kind of obstacle, some piece of bad luck, a bump in the road, not knowing we asked for at some earlier point.

Here magic has its place, not as stage showmanship and illusion, not as Harry-Potter wand-waving, not as Hollywood “spfx” or special effects, but as a way of clarifying our desires and our consciousness, as well as reducing the occasions when we randomly or less than consciously send out desires for things we don’t actually want, or which won’t serve our best interests.  Instead, we learn (how slowly and often painfully!) to act with intention, to change consciousness through ritual, discipline, focused psycho-drama, meditation, making ourselves the center of change, which then ripples outward from our own changed awareness into the wider world around us.  All things flee from us, or come to us, in accordance with our state of awareness.

As a wise person said, “The only miracle is a changed consciousness.”  That is the chief form of the plenitude that comes with true sacrifice — a test for its validity.

OK — now I’ve given myself lots of abstractions to test with specific concrete examples from daily life.  Any comments or observations?

Summer’s End — Halloween — Samhain   Leave a comment

We’re a few days from the old Celtic harvest festival at summer’s end.  For those of us the northeastern U.S., with the recent frosts and snow in the forecast, it feels like summer’s end as well.  As a time of endings and beginnings — the new year begins as the old one ends — it is a time of introspection, intuition, dream and creativity.  As an acknowledgment of change and completion, it can also include a remembrance of the dead.

The holiday was adopted by the Church and transmuted to a three-day observance from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.  It begins the night before, on  All Hallows Eve*, or Hallowed Evening (Halloween), continues with All Saints Day, and concludes on All Souls Day.  In many other cultures there are similar observances, though not necessarily all on the same dates.  Spanish speakers celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, and Christian Arabs observe Yom El Maouta, both meaning “Day of the Dead.”  The Japanese observe O-Bon, remembering and honoring their ancestors. Held during July or August, depending on location and local tradition, the holiday feels to me (I lived in Japan for two years) like a cross between Halloween and the Fourth of July.  Originating as a Buddhist observance, it also includes a dance — the bon-odori — to give thanks for the sacrifices of ancestors, fireworks, carnivals and a concluding Lantern festival, imaging the return of the souls of the dead. This Asian holiday captures the Druid spirit of Samhain for me: celebratory yet reverent, and family-oriented.

Druids and other Pagans have adopted the older Celtic name of Samhain or Samhuinn (pronounced approximately SAH-wen or SOW-en — the “mh” in Irish spelling indicates a sound like “w”) — as they have other Celtic names, since for them the holiday has association and symbols different from those current in the Church.  The “sam-” is cognate with English “summer” — the word means simply “summer’s end.”  (Christian anti-Pagan propaganda tracts like this one ignorantly and wrongly portray Halloween as “The Devil’s Night” and “Saman” as an evil “Lord of Death” — scroll down to the 15th frame.  No evidence exists for a Celtic deity with that name and association.  Besides, American commercialization of the day has obscured the invitation of its spiritual potential, though it remains still at hand.  Somehow Americans also seem to have trouble achieving both “mirth and reverence,” as the “Charge of the Goddess” in the Wiccan tradition exhorts us.)

At the school where I’ve taught for a decade and a half, students themselves often took the initiative to celebrate this autumn holiday.  Some two months into the school year, with exams looming and — for the seniors — college apps drawing more and more of their attention, they still found a supervising adult so they could get official permission and use school meeting areas, put up posters to invite everyone who wished to attend, and write their own rituals.  I’ve saved several years’ worth of photocopied ceremonies in wildly varying degrees of elaboration, and I’ve attended both large and small gatherings, indoors and out.  Some were largely excuses, it’s true, to dress up in capes and masks, light candles, scare and amuse each other, and then gorge on candy afterward.  But others were moving commemorations of the season, an opportunity for acknowledgment from everyone who’d lost a relative or friend in the past year.  The event helped acknowledge grief and cleanse the emotions through a group ritual of shouting and crying, burning messages in a cauldron, and closing with a group meditation.  If the larger culture doesn’t make room for such things, subcultures often do.

The autumn equinox last month was the first time I celebrated that holiday as a Druid, and with fellow Druids, at the East Coast Gathering.  In my part of the U.S., Druids are thin on the ground, though a couple of us are considering a small gathering.  But whether or not in the end we manage to find time for a group celebration, I’ll also observe the day myself, this marker of moving in time and experiencing the fullness of human life.

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*”All Hallows Eve” precedes the day dedicated to the hallows or saints (Old English halga) — All Saints Day.

Dance image link

Lantern image link

Gifts of Druidry   Leave a comment

On other blogs, I’ve also looked at practices and perspectives found in many places, Druidry among them, that are forming part of new-old ways of living on earth.  The video below captures something of what I’ve found in Druidry.  It’s got a nice flute solo and some good nature images.  How were you planning to spend the next two and a half minutes, anyway?!

What is it about trees?   Leave a comment

That presence in forest, grove or single tree is something kindred to me, so I walk under the branches, and touch the bark and speak with them, and listen.  Their slow gestures move in the air above me.  And the silence rings in my hearing.  Druids and trees — that was something I understood right away.  In childhood my closest friends were trees.  What is it about them?

The German poet Rilke captures a piece of it in one of his Sonnets to Orpheus:

A tree ascended there.  Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings!  Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed.  Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from just listening.  Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts.  And where there had been
at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,
a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind —
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

Trees get me to go “quiet in myself,” so that silence is not absence of speech, but a positive space that allows the stillness to unfold and open up and include the listener in it.  From it rises the “tall tree in the ear.”

Orpheus, the “you” of the last line, is a musician, a listener who hears the space between notes. He knows sound and silence blend to make possible the third thing of music. Wisdom speech, as opposed to chat and gossip, possesses that same character, emerging out of the silence which makes it possible, and bearing the imprint of its quality.

Such communion is a powerful tool. The rough “shelters” we construct out of our animal longings point us toward knowing these things, toward recognizing and gathering in the temple we can find “inside our hearing.”

Questioning Our Questions   Leave a comment

For those of us on a Druid path, Druidry comes to mean more than the pleasure most of us find outdoors under a sunny sky on a beautiful afternoon, because it has something to say to us all on dark days as well as bright ones. [For some of the ideas in the second paragraph, the quotation in the fourth, and some of the questions in the fifth and sixth, I’m indebted to an article in The Utne Reader by Larry Robinson, about the emerging field of ecopsychology.]

A range of voices — scientific, religious, societal, educational — have told us for a long time that we are individual, distinct objects in a world of other objects.  We are our bodies, and our bodies are machines — sophisticated ones, but machines nonetheless — and the problems we experience are mechanical ones:  we need tune-ups, adjustments, fixes.  We are imperfect, weak, broken, sinful, damaged by our parents, our childhoods, heredity, our own human nature or the cruelties of other people who deny us what we need.  But with the appropriate training, teaching, medication, treatment, therapy, alignment, adjustment, we can regain optimum functioning and get back “on track,” into the “grind,” the “swing of things,” the “race.”

flat rock with moss and leavesIf we look to most advertizing, we’re told that the solution to our unhappiness also lies in things.  With the right food, clothes, phone, car, drink, partner or credit card or (carefully marketed) “experience,” we ‘ll find the fulfillment we’re seeking.  The nagging malaise we feel will abate — some thing can fill it — and company X or service Y has just what we lack.  It’s quite simple.  We are things.  Our problems also lie in things. The fix is a thing; find the thing, and get fixed.

But if we dull and drug the deeper lack by treating it with the surface stimulus of a “thing,” something else happens: “when we treat only the ‘presenting problem’ and fail to address deeper existential concerns, our silence on these issues communicates that we find them insignificant.” By refusing to let the real issue emerge, we shunt it off to the side, we disguise its potency and drive it deeper.  Our “fix” just damages more, like a bad patch job when it gives way just tears a bigger hole. From such acts, whole cultures can decay. If the emperor has no clothes, and everyone follows imperial fashion instead of telling the truth, when winter comes, large numbers will get frostbitten. Such deeply embedded cultural deceptions can erupt into concrete, far-reaching physical consequences.

Thus the questions we’ve been given and told to answer are “What’s wrong with me?” and “What do I want or need?” “How can I get it?” and “Who can sell it or give it to me?” Druids acknowledge  that we must breathe and eat and drink to sustain bodily life, but pose different questions for us to consider in place of the others above:

What’s my place in the world? Not socially or economically.  We might also ask it this way: where am I–literally?  What am I connected to?  What sustains me each day?  What do I have to be grateful for?  What comes to me unasked, unsought?  How does the world around me provide air and water and food?  Who else is walking with me through the world?  What is their place in the world?  What sustains them?

I’ll discuss my own answers in a  coming post.

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