Druid Theology, Druid Practice   5 comments

“Some people don’t understand when I say these are the things I believe.”

So Damh the Bard sings in his lovely song “The Hills They Are Hollow.” But his song begins, “As I walk upon this green land, this land that I love …”

For me, that’s where Druidry starts, not in belief, but in love and experience of the natural world and the land we live on.

Belief may or may not come later, when doors that will not open to intellect alone open to love. And if you feel the land is sacred, then quite naturally you feel like singing about it: “Let’s sing of the mystery of Sacred Land …”

Recently a visitor to this blog pm’d me to comment on what he perceives as the need for a Druid theology. It’s easy enough to feel that way, surrounded as most Pagans and Druids are by a larger culture still shaped by a religion where creeds matter much more than they do in Druidry.

My correspondent acknowledges he’s a solitary, and such a path can indeed be lonely at times. Alone, I may confront myself more directly and disconcertingly. Alone, I face truths that can be uncomfortable, inconvenient — and profoundly useful to discovery, creativity and growth. Groups can conceal and divert us from the necessary work of the self.

Yet one of the benefits of experiencing group practice is the reminder of the energies we all encounter and work with (or ignore). Yes, we can experience them all in solitary practice, sometimes more personally, vitally and intensely than in a group. Alone, I can move at my own pace, honor and learn from and serve the beings who speak to me, focus on what is meaningful and what lives within and around me.

But attend a Druid group event and you’ll find one of the hallmarks of Druidry is a wide diversity of belief arising out of that practice and experience. Such belief is almost always secondary — important certainly, coloring experience and shaping behavior, influencing interactions with others, nourishing opinions, and clarifying decisions about future practice. Standing together in a circle with your Tribe, belief matters much less. No one asks for a recital of your beliefs as part of any ticket of admission, or denies you because you don’t “believe in” the Morrigan, or you believe that the universe is a berry carried in the mouth of a trout swimming in a much larger ocean. After all, there are days I don’t believe in myself.

We face the altar, feel the sun and wind on our faces, acknowledge the always-turning year, hear the ritual words, and encounter through all our senses the reality of a marvelous cosmos alive with presences, forces and powers anyone can experience.

Walt Whitman says in his Leaves of Grass,

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Polytheists, animists, atheists, duotheists, monotheists, henotheists, eclectics, chaos magicians consciously selecting beliefs appropriate to their goals at the time — in the face of such variety, what can a Druidic theology say about belief in deity, the core of most credal religions — which Druidry clearly isn’t? What would such a theology achieve that Druidry doesn’t already have?

Yes, in the OBOD Alban Elfed ritual, we say the ritual words and recite the Druid’s prayer “which unites all Druids.” But from everything I’ve seen, the unity isn’t one of belief but of willingness to try out ritual for what it is and can be, to honor the sacred moment, and to hear the awen singing in its many forms. “Grant, O Spirit/Goddess/God/Holy Ones, your protection …”

“Why do we use the same ritual each year?” ask some of the regular attendees at the East Coast Gathering. Well, we do and we don’t. One common and shared autumn ritual during a weekend filled with name ceremonies, grade initiations, peace rituals, workshops, songs and the ritual of eating together with new and familiar people isn’t too much to ask.

Because it’s a ground form, a common experience for everyone, nothing too daunting for a first-time attendee, whether OBOD member or visitor, familiar to the experienced ritualist who can fine-tune the ritual pacing, catch the moment when a squadron of hawks soars above the Gathering, or a cloud of dragonflies visits the circle, or owls hoot in the woods. The wind lifts from the east at exactly the moment East is invoked, and everyone can share the connection.

My correspondent says, “Until we have a theology, I fear druidism will not be taken seriously by those outside of our thought … I do believe our fantasy perceptions need crushing and only a theological work can place [our Druidry] alongside other faiths on a level of reality.”

But is reality in fact one thing? Is an insistence on one reality — always somebody else’s, I notice, never mine — what we need now, or have ever needed? Do “the Fae dance on Midsummer’s Eve”? Perhaps we need more, not fewer, “fantasy perceptions” in a world where a large portion of people routinely cannot see the stars at night because of light pollution, where a Guardian columnist notes that our language mirrors our declining ability to notice and name the natural world:

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose-poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

“One of the most striking characteristics of Druidism,” writes Philip Carr-Gomm, “is the degree to which it is free of dogma and any fixed set of beliefs or practices” (What Do Druids Believe? Granta Publications, 2006, pg. 25). “It honours the uniqueness of each individual’s spiritual needs. In this way it manages to offer a spiritual path and a way of being in the world that avoids many of the problems of intolerance and sectarianism that the established religions have encountered.”

And so I submit that it’s always good to know what you believe, as a way of doing what Carr-Gomm describes: honoring the unique form of your spirituality. Get it down in writing for yourself, grapple with it — and keep it on hand so you can revise it as your life takes you in unseen and unforeseeable directions. But never suppose it can serve you as a club to beat others “for not doing it my way” unless you want others to beat you with theirs.

Why let a belief-reaction, a secondary response to the primacy of experience, dominate my consciousness? No, thanks. Beliefs change. Any religion which rests on a credal foundation will always be rocked by a world that shifts beneath it, by words that will forever need updating as understanding changes, by a nagging sense that reality stubbornly persists in not conforming to belief. Rather than blaming Satan or some evil Other, Druidry looks at the world and strives to learn from it. Imperfectly, humbly, joyfully.

Are there beliefs that most Druids share? Sure. But more interesting to me are my own experiences and the conclusions I draw from them. Below I offer part of a previous post from some eight months ago as an approximation of my own theology, always subject to change without notice, as any honest theology should be. Here are six things I believe:

/|\ I believe that to be alive is a chance, if I take it, to be part of something vastly larger than my own body, emotions, and thoughts (or if I’ve learned any empathy, the bodies, emotions and thoughts of people I care about). These things have their place, but they are not all.

/|\ I believe this because when I pay attention to the plants and animals, air, sky, water and the whole wordless living environment in and around me, I am lifted out of the small circle of my personal concerns and into a deeper kinship I want to celebrate. I discover this sense of connection and relationship is itself celebration. Because of these experiences, I believe further that if I focus only on my own body, emotions, and thoughts, I’ve missed most of my life and its possibilities. Ecstasy is ec-stasis, “standing outside.” Ecstatic experiences lift us out of the narrowness of the life that advertisers tell us should be our sole focus and into a world of beauty and harmony and wisdom.

/|\ I believe likewise that the physicality of this world is something to learn deeply from. The most physical experiences we know, eating and hurting, being ill and making love, dying and being born, all root us in our bodies and focus our attention on now. They take us to wordless places where we know beyond language. Even to witness these things can be a great teacher.

/|\ I believe in other worlds than this one because, like all of us, I’ve been in them, in dream, reverie, imagination and memory, to name only a few altered states. I believe that our ability to live and love and die and return to many worlds is what keeps us sane, and that the truly insane are those who insist this world is the only one, that imagination is dangerous, metaphor is diabolical, dream is delusion, memory is mistaken, and love? — love, they tell us, is merely a matter of chemical responses.

/|\ I believe that humans, like all things, are souls and have bodies, not the other way around — that the whole universe is animate, that all things vibrate and pulse with energy, as science is just beginning to discover, and that we are (or can be) at home everywhere because we are a part of all that is.

/|\ I believe these things because human consciousness, like the human body, is marvelously equipped for living in this universe, because of all its amazing capacities that we can see working themselves out for bad and good in headlines and history. In art and music and literature, in the deceptions and clarities, cruelties and compassions we practice on ourselves and each other, we test and try out our power.

/|\ /|\ /|\

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5 responses to “Druid Theology, Druid Practice

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  1. Appreciated this post, maybe because I’ve had the experience of being “beaten over the head” not primarily by religious people, but New Age people who insist that I believe just as they believe. And grieving with the Guardian columnist about the loss of words and substitution with words from the digital world, just as many are replacing human or animal relationships with their screen connections (I’ve had instructive experiences lately with a friend or relative believing Facebook or Google more than their own senses – their “lying eyes” as my husband used to say – or experience). I am a solitary also and seek to find at least an occasional circle, but can live with not being “beaten over the head” by people who demand that I worship the Morrigan or own an athame or the like – or buy some high-tech “inner resonance” device for meditation …

    • Cindy, sounds like you’ve found a balance between solitary and group work. What is it about us that makes “believe Facebook or Google more than our own senses?” Ouch! Glad you liked the post. Blessings!

  2. “Ecstatic experiences lift us out of the narrowness of the life that advertisers tell us should be our sole focus and into a world of beauty and harmony and wisdom.”

    Thank you. I especially needed this right now.

    • AKK, thanks for visiting and commenting. It’s been a hard last few weeks for many. Change works through the world in unexpected ways that can blindside me even as I think I know they’re coming. All the more reason for a practice that eases us back to joy when our human world says “weep.” Some friends of mine fast from social media, news, etc. — it’s a useful way to reduce the noise around us so we can hear birdsong, wind, awen, our own breathing again. Blessings to you.

  3. Thank you,

    I generally fast on the weekends (small children) and with winter fast approaching in Alaska I am struggling with embracing the dark and mourning the loss of light and warmth.

    I think it’s time for me to take a nice long hike and enjoy these last day of Autumn.

    Blessings,

    AkKimber

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