Becoming an Ancestor, Part 2   2 comments

So this topic, it appears, is not done with me yet.

spong‘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.

restall-orrHere 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.


2 responses to “Becoming an Ancestor, Part 2

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  1. I like the idea of a ‘Tortoise Order of Druidry’ 🙂

    The fact that schools are encouraging applicants to share their personal philosophies of education rather than just jumping through hoops is encouraging!

  2. Lorna, the hoop-jumping is alas still alive and well at most public schools. With 20+ years experience, I still need student teaching hours to qualify for a public school teaching license. Private schools and placement services for them offer more flexibility. Of course, boarding schools demand much more of a total lifestyle commitment, too!

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