Archive for April 2017

Festivals & Holidays — Druid & Christian Theme 6   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

Happy Beltane! Go here for an enthusiastic if skewed view of the holiday, and here for The Edinburgh Reporter‘s take on this year’s celebration in Scotland’s capital tomorrow evening. As the Chair of the Beltane Fire Society says in the article:

Beltane is an event that cannot be described, it has to be felt, and that’s what makes it so special. We really want to reach out and welcome in the wider community this year, so come and share the beginnings of Summer with us.

Thornborough_Henge

Thornborough Henges, Yorkshire, England — site of modern Beltane festivals

[Here for more on the Thornborough 2017 Beltane.]

If you’ve been following this series on some of the shared imaginal territory between Druidry and Christianity, and you find your hopes both raised and disappointed, this preamble is for you. Of all the themes, festival and holidays are probably the most self-explanatory. Instead of worrying too much about what I’m writing here, go find a good Beltane celebration. You’ll know more afterwards than anything I cover here.

But if you’re kind enough to have stayed and you’re still reading, let’s take a look at the nature of this theme. Now I have something of a handle on the weaknesses in my own understanding and writing ability. Let’s lay that aside for a moment. You and I both bring to this discussion — as we do to everything else — our personal histories of living in societies where Christianity still dominates the scene. After all, for centuries it’s ruled the roost. It’s been the default setting: our laws, values, art, music, vocabulary and ways of thinking all still draw so deeply from Christianity that we can suppose that if we’ve “left the church” we’re “free” of it, and shaped no more by its perspectives and doctrines and worldview. [Yes, you may belong to the growing minority who grew up in a non-Christian household. Still, it’s pretty likely you celebrate Christmas in some way, and get some kind of Easter vacation without even asking.]

We assume, that is, if we no longer subscribe to a handful of Christian doctrines for spiritual guidance and practice, that we’re somehow “post-Christian”.  You hear that everywhere. Yet we can acknowledge how much Classical civilization continues to mold the West — we never imagine we’re “post-Roman” or “post-Greek”. To offer the most trivial example, one of our generic insults is “Go to hell!” — a distinctly Christian destination, one that’s unlike to freeze over any time soon. (We can check back in after another 500 years — maybe by then a more clearly post-Christian West will have taken shape. One of the best ways to test this is to live for a time in a non-Christian part of the world. Much of Asia will do, but so will the Middle East, Africa, and parts of South America. Get back to me after that, if you take issue with what I claim about persistent Christian influence in the West. I had to live outside the U.S. for three years to see something of this.)

In a word, we’ve all got baggage. Nothing surprising in that. But if by chance we still long to salvage something from Christian practice that moves us still — if we refuse to throw out an imaginal and spiritual baby, however troubling its family tree, along with an often foul historic bathwater — and we’re walking a non-Christian path, the many links and themes like these past few posts have explored can call to us quite strongly. Parts of the Mass may move you, or you love the lights and cheer of Christmas, or the palm fronds and joy of Easter, or the quiet of candlelight services where words don’t fill your head and your heart has space to expand into the richness of silence.

We can use that fact of emotional and spiritual connection, use it for insight and growth and exploration.

How? Bear with me. I’m suggesting a few ways in what follows.

palm and maypole

One of the delights of following a couple of blogs mining the same spiritual or religious vein is the interconnections they can weave over time. Obvious reasons for such common ground are shared experiences, comparable reading lists, current events, and so on. But sometimes you just end up in shared spaces, looking around and talking about what you’re experiencing, as if it’s in the air and water. (Which it is.)

I reviewed John Beckett’s new book in the last post, and John launches the interconnection this time, in his recent April 25th post “Why I Had To Make a Clean Break With Christianity“. If you follow his blog, you know that John has grappled with the lingering after-effects of membership in a fundamentalist church, and its mind-warping power on his worldview. He revisits that experience occasionally for hard-won, balanced insights anyone can use.

If you’re uncertain about the possibility of an rapprochement between Druidry or Paganism and Christianity, in other words, John’s got something to say you may find well worth your while.

There have always been, he notes, Christian groups with a wide range of practices:

Christianity was never a wholly new thing in any of its forms. It has mythical roots in Judaism, intellectual roots in Greek philosophy, and folklore roots in every land in which it was established. Some pagan beliefs and practices survived, but they were Christianized. They had to be –- in medieval and early modern Europe it was impossible to be anything other than a Christian (or possibly a Jew, in some places, at some times, for a while…).

These survivals and continuations include magic –- a lot of magic.

As a Pagan and Druid, John knows magic because he practices it, and from that practice he knows from the inside how pervasive magical practice actually is. If you’re human,  in other words, you’ve both done magic yourself and had others practice it on you. The less conscious, and therefore weaker, the more random in its effects. But most Westerners have confronted one extremely common form of debased magic in advertising — the manipulation of emotion, desire, image, sound and verbal conjuring for a specific purpose: to sell you stuff. And though most of the more radical Protestant denominations have worked assiduously to purge their churches from any perceived taint of Catholic magic, it manages to creep back in unseen.

Magic doesn’t care what you believe – magic cares what you do. Work this magic properly and you’ll get results.

But I can’t do this magic. I had to make a clean break with Christianity and I can’t go back, not even to work magic with the aid of powerful spirits.

Wait, you’re saying. The title and theme of this post is Festivals and Holidays. What’s that got to do with magic, anyway? You’re always going on about magic. Enough already!

Well, “ritual is poetry in the world of acts“, wrote OBOD founder Ross Nichols. And poetry works with image and emotion. You see where this is going? Poetry is magical art, verbal magic. And rituals and festivals, if they’re potent and memorable, are stuffed with poetry and theater. There’s a reason that a wedding at a justice of the peace can be much less satisfying than a church or temple wedding, regardless of what you believe. (Because what you do is another matter.)

We long for ritual, even as we’ve managed to banish a bunch of it from our lives. So we pour it into wedding planners and other secular makeshifts that can deplete our bank accounts without delivering the goods. (“But do you really feel married to this man?” my mother-in-law asked my wife after our non-church wedding. Note: we had two weddings, secular and spiritual to cover all the bases. Neither one “churched”.)

So. Most of the “Great Eight” holidays of the Pagan Wheel of the Year have their Christian counterparts. We needn’t rehash old arguments about who “stole” whose holiday. If Druids, and Pagans generally, would like to find common ground with Christians, shared celebrations of holy days are one place to look.

Interestingly, of all the Eight, Beltane has perhaps the weakest Christian link. Yes, May 1st is the feast day of two apostles, James and Philip, in the Catholic church. In northern and central Europe Walpurgisnacht on April 30th, the eve of the festival of the eighth-century saint Walpurga, on May 1, came to be associated with witches. Beltane on the other hand was almost exclusively a Celtic holiday until it was claimed by neo-Pagans in the middle of the last century. Six months out from the start of winter at Samhain (“summer’s end”, the Celtic sam– cognate with the sum– of English “summer”), Beltane also fits the rhythms of the year-long cycle of seasonal celebrations, heralding the beginning of summer, of energy and fertility and well-being.

Whatever you do, wherever you are, try to find a way to celebrate the season.

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Images: Thornborough Henge; palm and maypole.

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Review of John Beckett’s The Path of Paganism   2 comments

Beckett, John. The Path of Paganism: An Experienced-based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn, 2017.

[Note: John is a fellow OBOD Druid. We’ve met at several Gatherings, 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 [link below]. I participated in his moving Cernunnos rite a few 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.]

pathofpaganismJohn Beckett knows intimately the Pagan call to service. More importantly, he heeds it. On his Patheos blog and in this book, he serves both newcomers and experienced Pagans alike with insights and examples from his own experience at every turn. Rather than adding to the seemingly ever-growing list of “Paganism 101” books for beginners, replete with tables of correspondences, ready-made (and therefore usually too-generic) rituals, how-to’s and endless reading lists, John offers something far more useful.

Here is a book that can guide the reader into a personal exploration of what the path of Paganism can mean and where it may lead. While he sometimes suggests a range of possible answers, he’s more interested in helping us find questions worth asking. He may give us his answer, but it remains his. He never runs afoul of our sovereignty by claiming it’s THE answer. His examples, drawn from his experience, are meant to charge us up to find our own.

Rather than advocating for a particular Pagan ethics, for instance (Recycle! Eat organic! Protest X policy! Boycott Y or Z Company!), he says instead, “Go for a walk … When we establish our connections to the natural world, it begins to affect us. We start to feel the intrinsic value of nature, and we start thinking about what reverent care might look like” (pg. 58). He trusts the integrity of readers to decide for themselves.

Thus in a section on ritual, he writes: “A member of your Pagan group has asked you for an initiation. After some conversation you’re convinced the desire is genuine … You’re not part of an organization that has an established initiation ritual … Now what do you do? As with any new endeavor, begin by educating yourself. Fortunately, even though the details of most initiations are shrouded in secrecy, there’s a lot of information available on the internet – more than enough to give you a good idea of what to do and how to do it” (281). This is solid advice whether you want to self-initiate or initiate others.

As a ‘hard polytheist” or believer in the reality of distinct spiritual entities, John doesn’t shy away from hard questions. In a chapter titled “The Gods,” he notes, “If you’re on the cusp of being ready to hear, you may not know what to listen for. You may be inclined to interpet a religious experience in a nonreligious manner” (pg. 74) Rather than attempting to persuade or convert anyone to belief, however, John offers some useful tests to help anyone understand their experience. “If a god is calling you, odds are good they want you to do something: make an offering, tell a story, do something to help their work, or do something to make yourself ready to do something bigger at some point in the future. Be prepared to respond with action” (pg. 75). This is advice I can use right now: put into practice my current understanding, testing it for its validity.

John opens his book by observing, “No matter how you came to this point right here right now, wanting to learn more about Paganism, you aren’t starting from scratch” (pg. 1). As John makes his intention clear, this book can help activate things you already know. With supportive and enthusiastic reviews from Damh the Bard, Kristoffer Hughes of the Anglesey Druid Order, Kirk Thomas of ADF, and author and blogger Jason Mankey, this book will leave you highlighting parts of the text to try out and check back in with months and years down the road.

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Image: The Path of Paganism.

Edited 28 July 2017

Grail and Cross — Druid & Christian Theme 5   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

symbol pageAs with so many geometrical figures, both solid and planar, the Grail and Cross, cup and intersection, are figures that belong to no single group or culture.

Of course cross and star, cup and sword, wand and flame, etc., may be adopted by one or more groups as symbols with meanings specific to the group, but that doesn’t mean the cross is exclusively “Christian”, any more than trees “belong” to Druids alone. The most powerful symbols expand beyond the confines of association with any one group. If they didn’t, we might question their worth.

To choose just one example, the five-pointed star is Pagan, Christian, and more besides. Most of all, it’s an anciently human-devised shape, made to represent a host of ideas and perceptions. Many of the most enduring symbols are mandalas, sacred forms, that often show a high degree of symmetry, or other visual and pleasing harmony. Contrary to what you may have heard, sacred geometry is alive and well, and lives still in our eyes and hearts.

Among the Sumerians, millennia before Christ, the star or pentagram was a logogram meaning “corner, angle, nook, small room”. In Medieval Europe, the star could represent a series of Christian fives: the five wounds of Christ, the five chivalric virtues of a knight, and so on. (The medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight develops this theme at some length.) And as one form of endless knot, the unicursal star or pentagram stood as a symbolic defense against evil. How many nations feature stars on their flags and among their other national symbols? That’s quite a range of meanings and interpretations — and possible uses!

All this said, both Grail and Cross are now firmly entrenched in the Western world as specific symbols, straddling Pagan and Christian understandings of emotion and physicality, manifestation and transformation, magic and divinity. Still, modern instances can reinforce (and subtly reinterpret) older usages. Note this comment about the fictional “Grail Cross” at symboldictionary.net:

This emblem, best known as the “grail cross,” is not a genuine religious or historical symbol, but I receive so many questions relating to the symbol that it is included here. This emblem appears in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” as the emblem of “Brotherhood of the Cruciform* Sword,” the fictional secret society who serve as Guardians of the Holy Grail in the movie.

With its myth- and symbol-making power, modern media is rife with magical purposes — the subject of a separate post, if not a book or entire library. Want a “new” symbol to become charged with meaning and significance? Get it into a film that generates pop-culture buzz and fandom!

gchaltertopAnd because in much of the West we don’t know any more what to do with either sacred or profane, the two go together like a horse and carriage, or jam and toast, hooking up like the hormonally crazed. So here, for your reflection and pondering on the doubled hallowing and polarizing powers of human consciousness, is the “Grail Cross Halter Top“. So many symbols bare their midriffs at some point, turn commercial, and even have a go at sexual reinterpretation. (Here’s the Katy Perry version. Note the addendum on the right-hand image: “steal her style”.) Hence the need for “new” symbols, which are often the oldest ones returning once again to present consciousness at need.

For what the original symbols point to is precisely what their commercial cousins claim to but cannot offer: transformation, youth, beauty, power, energy, fertility. Who doesn’t seek the Grail?

Grail and Cross are one more way for Druids and Christians to find points of communion and exchange, without sacrificing their distinct identities. And such communion can be literal: bread of the earth, wine or grape juice as the blood of sacrifice, the ritual words either Druid or Christian, depending on the purpose, those attending, the group and the rite. What does your imagined shared Druid and Christian ritual look like?

I’ve written here before about the Forest Church movement, and there are creative imaginings, poems and songs that explore this common territory. You can read one instance here, about Jesus and Merlin:

What if
Jesus and Merlin were to meet
At twilight
In the garden, in the grove,
One looking forward to the Skull of Golgotha,
One looking back on the Sacred Head of Bran? …

What could they give to one another
These prophets circling in their Time-long orbits?

You might try out the poem’s answers to these questions on your sense of possibilities. And if they don’t work for you, write yours.

After all, there are as many meeting-points as people. If the holy terrain between Druid and Christian calls to you, better your way than one belonging to another that doesn’t fit you on your arm of the spiral journey. A week’s worth of your own meditations surpasses anything I can write here. These themes are suggestions, prompts, points of departure. They’re mine, and they may not be yours. Their use is as sparks, kindling, tinder, fuel, provocation.

One such locus for both traditions is healing, as OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm has written,

laby-grOne of the most important tasks that face us today is one of reconciliation, whether that be between differing political or religious positions … the Christian community, far from taking fright at a perceived regression to a pagan past, can ally itself with [Druidry] which is complementary, and not antagonistic to Christian ideals and ethics …

St. Columba said “Christ is my Druid” and I believe that if we take Druidry to represent that ancient wisdom which lies deep within us, and that can connect us once again to the Earth and her wonders, we can understand how we can be Christian Druids, Buddhist Druids or Druids of whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development.

As you will know, Christianity in these islands built upon the foundations laid already by the Druids –- their seasonal observances were developed as festival days, their sites were built upon with churches, and the Druids welcomed Christianity for they with their powers of seership and connection to the Source knew of Christ’s coming, and allowed their practices to develop into what became known, at least in Scotland, as the Culdee church.

This segues into the next theme in this series: festivals and holidays.

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Images: symbols; Grail Cross Halter Top; grand-mother and -daughter at labyrinth.

The Kinship of All — Druid & Christian Theme 4   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

face-unityI’m off to MAGUS, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering, in a few weeks. For those who can manage to attend, Gatherings can give a taste of true community. For Christians, ideally the power of baptism clothes everyone in unity: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:29). A deeper spiritual union does connect people who outwardly appear different, talk differently, live differently. It’s a measure of our struggle how often we lose sight of this profound truth.

Some two millennia on from Paul’s confident assertion of unity in Christ, issues rooted in social status, privilege, gender, class, ethnicity — all the things that keep rocking today’s headlines — haven’t gone away. Early Christians “held all things in common.” Druidry likewise points us towards our common wealth in each other, in all the millions of species we live with, and the planet we live on. We dimly remember this old understanding, if at all, in the names of things like the Commons, the Commonwealth in the names of states and nations, common ground, Holy Communion, community, even discredited Communism and other old words and ideas misunderstood, abused and abraded by ignorance and human weakness.

Druidry likewise celebrates the essential kinship of all things. “What we do to the land we quite literally do to ourselves”, as we keep discovering to our dismay and bitter relearning. Linked to places and ancestors, we inherit both specific and planetary pasts, and shape the future of our own bloodlines and also the biosphere we live in. “Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil … and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in  the West, unless you know what you are about,” says the Master Summoner in Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

So often we plainly don’t know what we’re about. But the Web of Things does yield to power regardless, in hands wise and foolish. What have we summoned? Whether knowledge or ignorance launches an action, what goes around still comes around. Simple and difficult: until we value and claim our unity as more important than our differences, it’s the differences that will dog us and define who we are and what matters. Depending on your understanding of the purpose of life at this rung of the spiral, that’s cause for weeping, rage, incomprehension, humble acknowledgment, redoubling of efforts …

When we consider the nationalist fervour sweeping the West, surely we might benefit from wider practice of such awareness of unity. While the broad tolerance of difference that Biblical verse expresses can also appeal broadly to many Druids, side by side with it is a celebration of particularity. Sometimes Christians call this the “scandal of particularity”: the difficulty of accepting a single individual man — Jesus — as the savior for everyone. You know — what traditional Christianity teaches about his exclusivity: “no one comes to the Father except through me”. As in, “my way or the highway”.

kim and missilesThere are many ways to work with assertions like these. We know all too well, on the evidence of centuries, what literalism offers and where it leads. Political religion — the system of creeds and salutes, conformities and genuflections to whoever holds the stick — exists in every culture. To pick just one blatant and current example, North Korea has made a religion and cult of the Kim family. Metaphorical understandings, because they grant freedom to each person, have always been suspect in some quarters. “Power-over” dies hard, keeps dying, never quite dies out.

Nonetheless, there are Druids who sit in pews and recite the creeds with no sense of hypocrisy or incongruity. That doesn’t mean that church attendance is anything like the only way to find even a fragile unity. It’s merely one option. Nor does that mean Druids who do sit in Church surreptitiously fingering their pentagrams and awens beneath street clothes have necessarily somehow immersed themselves in any of the myriad alternative understandings of Jesus as great moral teacher, example, political gadfly, Jewish mystic, cleverly-disguised New Age guru, just one of a series of divine avatars* and so on.

[*avatar: (Sanskrit) 1) an incarnation in human form of a god. 2) That icon of your net presence? A second meaning of the word, fast eclipsing the original.]

Options, options. How about Jesus as the inner consciousness in each of us that leads us on the next spiral beyond the apparent world? Or Jesus as a man working within the confines of a monotheism that his ongoing experience of the divine kept bursting at the seams? How many of us are, like him, the sort of people who, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40)? Do we even want to be? Why (or why not)? What would such close identification and intensity mean in this coolly detached age?

J. M. Greer in his The Gnostic Celtic Church which I’ve cited here previously offers one valid way among many to experience such kinship between Druid and Christian, noting that

a rich spiritual life supported by meaningful ceremonial and personal practice can readily co-exist with whatever form of outward life is necessary or appropriate to each priest or priestess … and the practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion (Greer, The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy, AODA, 2013).

To create forms that will answer to widely perceived inner need and aspiration will take devotion and dedication, but the seeds are many, and some have already germinated and flowered and borne fruit, in both likely and unlikely places.

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This series of themes points to possible directions, and offers a few leads here and there, but in most cases doesn’t offer anything like a full-grown practice — the thing waiting, a project ready for many hands. (I have my own version of such a project, half-complete, still very much a work in progress. I’ve taken it on as a study of awen and experiment, rather than an urgent spiritual quest. Right now I drink from other wells, myself.)

baloo-mowgli

By way, then, of appendix or commentary or prophecy or something else to this theme, I quote below at some length from Kipling’s Jungle Book, now in public domain. Here Baloo, the wise old brown bear — not the manipulative Bill Murray-voiced version in the recent 2016 film — talks to Bagheera about teaching Mowgli the Master Word of the Jungle:

“A man’s cub is a man’s cub, and he must learn all the Law of the Jungle” [said Baloo].

“But think how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all thy long talk?”

“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”

“Softly! What dost thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is all bruised today by thy — softness. Ugh.”

“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance,” Baloo answered very earnestly. “I am now teaching him the Master Words of the Jungle that shall protect him with the birds and the Snake People, and all that hunt on four feet, except his own pack. He can now claim protection, if he will only remember the words, from all in the jungle. Is not that worth a little beating?”

“Well, look to it then that thou dost not kill the man-cub. He is no tree trunk to sharpen thy blunt claws upon. But what are those Master Words? I am more likely to give help than to ask it” — Bagheera stretched out one paw and admired the steel-blue, ripping-chisel talons at the end of it — “still I should like to know.”

“I will call Mowgli and he shall say them — if he will. Come, Little Brother!”

“My head is ringing like a bee tree,” said a sullen little voice over their heads, and Mowgli slid down a tree trunk very angry and indignant, adding as he reached the ground: “I come for Bagheera and not for thee, fat old Baloo!”

“That is all one to me,” said Baloo, though he was hurt and grieved. “Tell Bagheera, then, the Master Words of the Jungle that I have taught thee this day.”

“Master Words for which people?” said Mowgli, delighted to show off. “The jungle has many tongues. I know them all.”

“A little thou knowest, but not much. See, O Bagheera, they never thank their teacher. Not one small wolfling has ever come back to thank old Baloo for his teachings. Say the word for the Hunting-People, then — great scholar.”

“We be of one blood, ye and I,” said Mowgli …

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Images: face; KimBaloo.

Fire — Druid & Christian Theme 3   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?

fire-ring

Deborah Lipp notes in her The Way of Four Spellbook (Llewellyn, 2006):

Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules (pg. 10).

Now Lipp’s observation both captures the nature of fire and also feeds our stereotypes about impulse, passion, strong feeling. How often we may long — or fear — to be out of control, fearless, spontaneous! Who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point? Why would the Australian-inspired Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain opt for its advertising slogan “No rules. Just right”? Because there is indeed a rightness to fire — it can only flame up where there’s something to burn, after all. And most of us have been storing combustible material for a long time. How else to explain our explosions, outbursts, flares of temper? Even our language about these things draws on fire for metaphor.

Following the theme from the last post, we can speak of a fire baptism. You’re wholly in it when that happens. The full experience, nothing held back.

John the Baptist, Jesus’s precursor, explains to those asking, “I indeed baptize you in water … but he that cometh after me is mightier than I … he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire”. We sense the power in fire, of all the elements closest in so many ways to Spirit. It can purify, transform, forge and anneal. Its extreme heat can also scorch, char, consume and destroy. Each element transforms its own way. “We didn’t start the fire”, sings Billy Joel. “It was always burning since the world’s been turning”. But he goes on: “We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”. And sometimes we even try to “fight fire with fire”. Yet we also long for fire to kindle cold hearts, to heat a flagging will, to spark the spirit deepest in us. We yearn to be fire.

“O! for a muse of fire”, cries Shakespeare’s Chorus in the first line of Henry V, “that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. We long to blaze, because we feel in fire something native and free. We are both it and other, too, as with all the elements. “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”, says Jose Luis Borges. The elements are natural sacraments, folds and garments for Spirit all around us. For fire, we light candles in so many traditions, for so many reasons, the flame cheering to the eye and heart.

I both am and am not fire. Self and other: the quest of our days, the distinction we cherish and also long to cast away. Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, shaman, through all these experiences and intuitions we still ask ourselves, each other and the world: “What makes a good burn?”

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Maybe the purest ritual Druids and Christians might share is one which seeks not to fill our ears with answers, but that gives us space and silence to listen to and ponder the questions. In some ways, the long, slow burn of Spirit in us is fire in its most potent form of all.

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Beltane approaches, that festival of fire. The Edinburgh-based Beltane Fire Society celebrates 30 years this year of a dramatic festival of thousands, from 8:00 pm to 1:30 am. Here’s the “Drums of Beltane” subpage of the Society’s website. As the page notes,

Beltane may be known as a fire festival, but it may as well be considered to be a drum festival too. Drums are the beating heart of Beltane that create the rhythm of the festival, drive the procession forward, and soundtrack the changing seasons. They have been an integral part of Beltane since our tradition was first re-imagined on Calton Hill in 1988.

Looking for a fix of Beltane energy to get you launched? Here’s a video of the Drum Club which will be among the groups performing this year for the event. Just the first five minutes will give you a fine taste of Beltane fire in sound form. We can spark from anything, but sound and rhythm are powerful keys.

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Image: fire.

Elemental Baptisms — Druid & Christian Theme 2   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

Spirit animates all things, earth and water, air and fire. To live is to experience, in Christian terms, a continuous sacrament. The sacraments of Druidry are the elements. Spirit makes life sacred, and we know this to the degree we recognize and participate and commit to living fully and wholly.

-- by Fi BowmanThe energies of the elements feature widely in both Druidry and Christianity. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, and water energies characterize the Bardic grade in many Druid traditions — inspiration and intuition, dream and emotion and astral awareness. The place of the Bard is the west, long associated with elemental water. Standing in the west, the bard also faces east — sunrise, beginnings, elemental air, perception and knowledge.

We’re always crossing and re-crossing elemental lines and boundaries. Neither earthy gnome nor watery undine, airy sylph nor fiery salamander, we’re all of these, linked to each.

We might see and call each person’s life a spiral of elemental baptisms. So we ritualize it as a sacrament and reminder. Each of us cradled in our mothers’ wombs, our earth bodies forming, the amniotic waters bathing us as we take on physical shape and substance. No breathing except what our mothers do for us. Then birth, and that first cry, a gasp of air in new lungs, the loss of that other body and its warmth, our first journeying into a world that offers us choices and ventures among all four elements.

jesus--magicianWhat more earthy place to be born for a child of god — all of us children of the divine — than a stable? How fitting that in the traditional story, animals surround the holy newborn, with their hay and straw, along with the reek of dung and the puffs of animal breath. The Golden Tarot features the holy magician surrounded by beasts, implements and symbols of the elemental altar at his feet.

Yet even at birth, at such a private affair, surely a matter of just father, mother and child only, a star shines distantly to herald each birth. We saw his star in the east, say the Magi, the Mages, the Magicians, and we have come to honor him.

Follow your own star, counsel the wise ones of many traditions. You are my guiding star, say our love stories and tragedies. A star shines on the hour of our meeting, say Tolkien’s Elves. Nothing is random.

And disaster? That’s a dis-aster, an ill star that may shine and color our lives. But other stars also — always — are shining. We are never just one thing only. And the Ovate is the grade of the north, the mysteries of life and death, healing and divination, time and fate and return. We are earth at birth, but all of the elements in turn and together, too. Stand in the north, the place of earth, of incarnation and death, and take stock. Learn the herbs that heal and harm, chant the words and sing the charm.

The call of rivers and oceans, streams and pools and wells. Water baptisms, summer swimming holes, the daredevil dive from a height into water that some of us risk. Do we long to “make a big splash” as we enter our adolescence? Surely a time of water and emotion, of dream and imagination, as the world unfolds itself into our first inklings of adulthood, as hormones surge and wash through us, working their watery changes. And those stories of the Biblical flood, of Atlantis drowned, of Mu and Lemuria. We live our lives on a planet dominated by water, we carry in our veins a blood that mirrors the primeval ocean in its salts and minerals, our bodies made of water and earth, subject to the tug of a tidal moon.

Air that fills our lungs, that in-spires us, that makes up one of the rhythms of our whole lives, until we ex-pire, that last breath going out, just as with our first cry we took it in. Air that caresses sweetly or gusts violently, every element meeting us in all its guises, fierce and gentle. Jesus on the mountain, transfigured. Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by power, by simply existing, alive, a blend like each of us of the elements and spirit.

And there in his sight the diabolic or oppositional aspects of incarnate life pull at him. Cast yourself down, the voice taunts him: you won’t really die. Who among us hasn’t stood on a high place and imagines jumping, imagined not plummeting to death, but somehow floating, flying, a power beyond what human life gives? What will we do with this enormous power each of us has to heal or hurt, make or mar the people and places we live? Renounce it, ignore it, forsake it, abuse it, explore it, fulfill it?

Conception and taking on form, an earth baptism of the North.

Birth and first breath, an air baptism of the East.

Adolescence and its hormonal tides, a water baptism of the West.

Adult passion and dedication to a worthy cause, a fire baptism of the South.

harry-potter-scarTrace the traditional order and position of each element in that sequence — North to East to West to South — and you describe a zigzag, a Harry Potter lightning flash.

And to push further at the symbolism, to go all nerdy and allegorical for a moment, because we can, we’re all marked by a vol de mort, the will of death, a will shaping the particulars of this life that ends at death, whatever may or may not follow.

But until then!!

Other baptisms, of suffering and love, growth and pain and knowledge, each time the elements forming and reforming in our experience. Bones breaking, healing. Bodies ill and recovering, hearts broken and full to bursting, minds challenged and sharpened by training and testing, blunted on battlefields and in factories, regenerated in gardens and gatherings, shaped in schools and lives.

In each life humans spiral through these baptisms, each renewing the experience and memory of the previous one, but also extending it, transforming it. Never twice the same, and yet familiar, too.

Jesus changing water to wine, a water-fire baptism of surprise at a wedding, a symbol of wholeness along the spiral, elements blending and merging. Jesus transfigured, on the airy mountain. Jesus crucified, the pain of incarnation and death, all the elements again, body and blood, breath and fire of pain, of ending. It’s finished, he says. in one gospel. I’ve done what I came to do.

Don’t each of us? To live at all, whether short or long, is to experience the whole gamut, every baptism multiple times. Death, yes. The tomb where they lay Jesus, and roll the stone door shut. Elemental baptism of earth again. Spiral, spiral.

For that’s not all. Because resurrection. Spring. Rebirth. In the northern hemisphere, look out your window. No need to believe any of these things. Walk out the door and experience them for yourself. Make a ritual out of it. Figure out after what it “means” to you. Live it.

To go pop-culture on you: I’ll be back, says the Terminator, mirror of the Creator. The great Ender, who promises a death before life even gets fairly launched. Prevent the future. But No fate — he doesn’t “win.” Instead, life changes him — our perception changes him. He becomes, death becomes, potentially at least, an ally, if a difficult one.

Death is the mother of beauty, says crazy old bard Wallace Stevens. (All bards, to make a verse or song or story, must be a little crazy from time to time. It’s good for them, good for us.) What?! I shout, outraged. Death is the mother of beauty, he repeats, quietly. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.

The gift of incarnation is to draw out from each element the fullness of what it offers. A ritual of elemental baptisms can help us recognize the opportunity of each as it spirals by, and ride the energies of the elements. Give me a rich, full life. I long to drink it all, the bitter, yes, inevitable. But also the sweet, the fair, the lovely, the shining, the joy.

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Images: elementals; Golden Tarot Jesus as Magicianscar.

The Trees — Druid & Christian Theme 1   2 comments

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tree-of-life

[This post begins a series of explorations of nine themes that can serve as sources of ritual and common ground for Druids and Christians. I’m setting forth on such a series for two reasons. First, reader interest spiked, with visitors from over a dozen countries in the 24 hours after “Jesus and Druidry, Part 3” was posted. Second, I include myself among the interested.

The great majority of us have Christian friends, relatives or co-workers. Also, many of us know Biblical stories and images, and count them as part of our “wisdom-store”. Some of us have also experienced the more toxic forms of institutional religion but nonetheless have managed to hold on to a love for the Light in its Christian garb.]

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“Image is more transformational than doctrine”.

As I started to draft a list of Druid-Christian themes, that message came through sharply. How to make generous use of imagery in helping to energize the transformations Druidry — and Christianity — can provide? John Muir writes, “The power of imagination makes us infinite”. I’d amend that: the potential in the wise use of imagination can reveal our limitlessness. Not as snappy, but more accurate, for me.

First on my list of image-themes is “trees”. As a primary Druid focus, trees also link to Christianity. One obvious example appears in the book of Genesis with its two trees in Eden, the tree of knowledge* and the tree of life. If Druids are tree-knowers and seekers of tree-wisdom, these two trees have something to teach.

ramon_llull_tree_of_knowledge

arbor scientiae — tree of knowledge

One year as I read Genesis with my high school students in freshman English, a student quipped that the real problem was one of sequence. Adam and Eve simply ate from the wrong tree first. “What are we supposed to take away from this? Go for immortality, then knowledge!” (The other order may leave you wise but dead.)

Wit can take you surprisingly far at times. Perhaps the serpent as well was mistaken in the advice he gave. Why no mention of the other tree? Was immortality in fact already an option at that point? After all, God never banned that second tree. Or did we need it, even then? Was that an early mystery? Isn’t life inherent in all we are and experience? We’ve all sensed the undying in us, even as the physical body faces all the many challenges that will one day wear it out, even as our beloved Druid trees must eventually fall.

We can also see in the two trees a kind of psychic split, perhaps — a split in us, in our consciousness. But together the two name a wholeness that Druidry and other traditions point us towards. The cycle of birth and death reveals an underlying energy or vitality — the thing that makes worlds possible, that greens (and reddens) them with life, with chlorophyll and hemoglobin. “From the One come Two; from the Two, Three; from the Three, the Ten Thousand Things”, says the Tao Te Ching.

A persistent Christian legend has it that the wood for the cross of the Crucifixion originates from the Tree of Knowledge, or in some variants of the story, from a tree that grew from seed that Adam’s third son Seth planted in his father’s corpse. A full circle of ritual story here, or better, a spiral: it’s a tree that stands at the center of the Christian drama. Literally, wood serving as the stage for the unfolding of the human experience of the loss of innocence that comes with maturation, and the return, for those willing to make the effort to learn and grow and change.

The fruit of the tree of knowledge is, after all, desirable, because it holds the power “to make one wise”, as the serpent tells Eve. Life (the Hebrew meaning of Eve) tells us as much.

Why not then a Druidic-Christian “Mass of the Holy Trees”?

“Tree and leaf, breath and fruit, wisdom and life — all these come from you …”

bri-cross-shoulderBring branches and leaves, images of both cross and spiral, Brighid’s cross serving well for a combination of these. A cross — the quartered world of directions and physical energies, the elements, the cycle of death and life. Spiral — an image of eternity, of rebirth and continuity, the cycle continuing.

But wait … there’s more.

The book of Revelation gives us the image of heaven or eternity in the holy city, foursquare (four again!) and whole. And through it runs

… a river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of the main street of the city. On either side of the river stood a tree of life, producing twelve kinds of fruit and yielding a fresh crop for each month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1-2).

“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”: the tree of knowledge has merged with the tree of life — or rather there is no difference between them. All the healing we have sought in knowledge now issues from a double(d) tree — one on “both sides” of the river. And it is fruitful in every month, a cornucopia, a message that each month has its life and healing energy, freely given, whatever the apparent season. In the middle of a city, a human and humanly-shaped place, grows life in its most potent imaginal form as Tree, the world-tree, a worldwide image and cluster of stories.

Here are powerful images to unite Christian and Druid observance and practice. A second Druid-Christian theme is up next.

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Images: tree of lifeBrighid’s cross tattoo; tree of knowledge.

*Tree of Knowledge: the illustration comes from Ramon Llull’s Arbre de Ciencia or Tree of Knowledge. Llull, aka Raymond Lully (1232-1315), was a renowned medieval writer and thinker, who studied both Latin and Arabic science and mathematics.

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