Archive for May 2017

Moons of Spirit, Synonyms for God: Part 1   2 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

In his fine novel South of Broad, Pat Conroy writes:

His curiosity about the earth ennobled his every waking moment. His earth was billion-footed, unseen worlds in every drop of water and every seedling and every blade of grass. The earth was so generous. It was this same earth that he prayed to because it was his synonym for God (Pat Conroy, South of Broad, New York: Dial Press/Random House, pg. 3).

/|\ /|\ /|\

I’m adapting the 11 questions from Matt Auryn’s recent (May 27, 2017) post “Witchsplaining & How To Avoid It”, turning them around, upside down, and inside out, shaking them a little, and adding two more to make it 13 in total for this three-part series.

Matt’s original asks questions to help others avoid condescending or patronizing interactions – think “mansplaining” and apply it to Witchcraft. My adaptation repurposes the questions. (Who would condescend to themselves?!) It’s for myself and others who’d like a jumping off place for assistance and perspective in examining our interactions with Spirit. Among other things, I’ve modified the questions to make them into “hows” and “whys” along a continuum, rather than a matter of yes or no, all or nothing. You can think of a spiritual practice as an inward synonym for gods or God.

So here goes: if I feel Spirit or the Divine doesn’t seem to be speaking to me, here are some questions I try to remember to ask myself.  Versions have been kicking around in my journal for a couple of decades. You might think of them as “13 Moons of Spirit”, a year’s worth of spiritual investigation. Because if I haven’t visited some version of these recently, I’ll discover — or get prodded into remembering — that it’s time to return and incorporate asking and listening to them into my practice.

1. How have I already been asking for and seeking a connection with Spirit?

Almost everyone has some kind of practice already in place, at least in embryo. Take a walk, a jog or a drive after work to unwind? Read a favorite author or listen to the same song to help you fall asleep? Get up before everyone else, or stay up after everyone else, to find some “alone time”? Seek a particular household task (dishes, laundry, window-washing, vacuuming, etc.) as much for its rhythm as for its usefulness? Recite a favorite saying, charm, poem, etc., at a particular moment of your day, just before sleep, right after waking? (For some years, out for a jog each morning a little before sunrise, I’d whisper to myself these words from the Odyssey at the dawn: “The sun rose on the flawless brimming sea into a sky all brazen–all one brightening for gods immortal and for mortal men”.) You’re on the way to a practice already.

Often we assume that with Spirit we start from zero and move from no connection to full connection. Or sometimes we evaluate spiritual practices or paths like we rate internet connections or sports cars: 0 to 60 in how many seconds? Not fast enough? Change brands or makes of car. Get the speed you need! Sticking with a practice and timing it for results is like watching a pot for when it starts to boil, like waiting for seedlings to germinate, break through the surface and send out their first leaves. It will happen, and it also takes way longer if I sit there just watching for it. Finding something else to do can be an important part of my after-practice.

2. How can I open myself further to Spirit? How can I strengthen my “essential welcome” (see previous post)?

Asking for connection, all by itself, is a great start. Listening for answers and trying out nudges and hints is a fine second step.

What will I do with greater access, increased flow? How will I pass it on? (Otherwise it bottlenecks, and all the openness in the world to “more” won’t pass it along until I find an outlet. In-flow, out-flow. We are lakes, reservoirs, oceans, capacitors. Or if I’m feeling particularly modest, a tea-cup. Once I’m full, “more” has no place to go but over the sides. I need to get bigger, too. I need to pass along the gift.

IMG_1683

3. How have I responded when Spirit and I DO connect?

If I don’t record it somehow, it almost always disappears. Getting it down is a practice of gratitude all its own. Our minds are exquisitely this-world focused. That’s useful for driving a car, following a schedule, coloring within the lines. Want to keep a job, an appointment, a promise? Mind is your go-to guy.

Want to retain the touch of a god, the breath of Spirit, the thrill of broadened understanding, the trance of ritual, the gift of love between luminous beings? Mind drops what doesn’t fit on its notepad, its index, its time-card. Write it down, record your voice telling it, draw it, sing it, etc. This, I’ve found, helps train mind to hold on to just a little more. Every once in a while I get a glimpse of how much comes and how little I notice. And reviewing such records helps prime the pump, blows away the cobwebs and reminds us of past connections. One daydream including a glimpse of hilltop or temple may be a lapse of attention. Five or ten “daydreams” of the same location, recorded over a year or three, (mind WILL forget!) is something else entirely. How will I detect the difference if I lose the recall?

Response generates response. Thanks, with no other practice, can take me amazingly far into other worlds where gratitude is the sole pass-key. Thanks, wonder, generosity: a holy triad.

4. How, if at all, have I formally apprenticed myself to Spirit? How, if at all, have I agreed to make Spirit or any Wise Ones partners in my training?

Making these kinds of agreements can be of immense help in training a stubborn and lazy human consciousness to serve more widely. Once I begin to serve, the tools and resources and opportunities begin to open up. Make the request or promise seriously to grow and serve — they amount to the same thing — and Spirit will hold me to it. The training and the feedback in the form of quicker reactions to my actions all help sharpen awareness. If it gets to be too much, I can always take a break. Dial it back. Soon enough, I’m restless and eager to grow again. Because on an endless journey, there’s no rush. Only a holy rhythm.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Advertisements

Essential Welcome   1 comment

[Edited 9:05 am, 29 May 2017]

Today I take for my divination the two rhododendrons blooming outside our bedroom window. One hasn’t wintered well, ungainly thing, and it needs pruning at the end of the season. Whether it was winter die-off or just increasing age, a good bit of the plant is brown and lifeless. But the blooming part is lovely as ever, the lush buds spilling open into flower at one with the birdsong that begins around 5:20 a.m. now, at first light.

IMG_1711

IMG_1710

It’s my mother’s birthday today — she’d be 98 if she were still with us, and I marvel each year as that number nears a full century. As many do, I’ve long found that spring and early summer can intermittently be times of intense nostalgia. Here again is new life, and in the midst of each lengthening day and its wonders, so many things seem intent on calling us to remember what has departed as well as what thrives and burgeons and grows. This is the Samhain-of-Beltane, the autumn in spring. Not a diminishment at all, but a deepening of each birth and renewal. All the earth, the dirt underfoot, is the substance of past life. In a very literal way, we could not live without the lives of those gone before us, their bodies nourishing and supporting ours, ours depending on theirs for every breath.

In her Celtic Devotional, Caitlin Matthews writes:

There are so many difficulties in our daily lives, so few incentives to act responsibly, so little support for personal spiritual growth that it is only within the broadest categories of spiritual hospitality that the soul can be encouraged to find its own natural pathway. This is especially so where the soul has been injured by intolerance and lack of charity, or scandalized by the unholy infighting of formal religion, or by its lack of respect for non-human life-forms and neglect of planetary and universal issues. These and many other reasons may drive people from formal religious adherence, but they do not stop the need for them to pray, to meditate or contemplate in union with the world …

The urge to follow a spiritual pathway comes in a variety of ways, but, in every case, the soul puts out its exploratory shoots in the context of personal devotion, testing the ground, discovering how Spirit responds, learning how true communion with the Divine can be brought about (Celtic Devotional, p. 8).

One of the many ironies of this period of human history is that while it can indeed be a time of difficulty and lack of support as Matthews describes, paradoxically it’s also a time where our need for a spiritual practice is all the more acute and obvious. Other supports for any inner life have been weakened or destroyed, and the emptiness of the available distractions shows all the more clearly. The outlines of what we need are clearer now than before.

Small wonder then that the spiritual power of authentic practice touches so many, and even a little bit can point the way forward. Whether it’s some form of Paganism or some other spiritual path that calls to us, the appeal is patent and powerful. In some form we feel the lack every day until we begin to nourish ourselves with a practice. The shape that practice takes will necessarily be our own. No one else can dictate what it should be for us. It will evolve with us as we set out on the journey.

For the beginning of a practice, then, a prayer-charm:

I weave the cincture of protection,
from the nine powers of nine trees,
strength of oak,
straightness of ash,
purity of birch,
absorbency of alder,
brightness of beech,
elegance of elm,
healing of willow,
power of holly,
everlastingness of yew.
Nine trees to circle me,
nine powers to guard me,
as the Summer song resounds.

(Matthews, Celtic Devotional, pg. 86)

May you live and grow and flourish in groves of protection.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Matthews, Caitlin. Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings. Rev’d ed. Gloucester, MA: Fairwinds Press, 2004. (First published by Godsfield Press, 1996.)

“Connected and Blessed”   4 comments

“… if we could reduce Paganism down to its essentials”, write the Higginbothams in their 2002 book Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions, “we believe its two most central concepts are interconnectedness and blessedness” (pg. 2). I look at the two trees on the cover. Let the left one be connection, I say to myself, and the right one blessing.

llew-higginI quote this book because it’s on my mind. The Pagan group of some dozen members I’ve recently helped to form here in southern Vermont is discussing it as a way toward building some common ground. We’re Wiccan, Pagan, Druid, agnostic and more, veteran and newcomer, from our 20’s through our 50s.

If we seek connection and blessing, it helps to know where to look for them. It’s no surprise that “current events” offer scant help in seeing and experiencing either one. But then, if I’m looking to daily sensationalist media accounts of human mistakes and suffering for inspiration and guidance, what do I expect? The news that gets reported is commonly bad. Pain and suffering pull in eyeballs, and sell advertising. Most informational media, you can soon conclude, aren’t ultimately here for our benefit at all. To be “informed” commonly means nothing more than to know the bad news in the distance. You could easily be excused for wondering how there’s any world left, after just a week of “current events”. What won’t “go to hell in a handbasket”, if we give it half a chance?

But we also make our own news every day, closer and more important. The only two givens: I was born and I will die. Between those two mile-markers lies everything to make the worst and also the best life I can. Everything begs for our attention, the most precious thing we have. Where to put it?

After a day of rain and cold, morning sun. Outside these house walls, where my wife and I are sorting  through a few decades of packrat-dom — simplify, simplify! — the blossoming crab apple in the front yard draws an orchestra of bees.

IMG_1694

Connection and blessing. They come like a handshake — the offer’s there, but I need to extend my hand as well, if I want to complete it and bring it home. All the disasters in the world do not negate the possibility of connection and blessing. Like the frame for a picture, they only accentuate its value. The only reason I’m here at all is because of connection and blessing. Pass it on, says the crab apple, the sweet spring air, the buzz of bees. Do your best to pass it on.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: Llewellyn Publications.

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

Speaking Trees: a Reading   2 comments

danas reading

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheer

At MAGUS ’17, Dana (on the left — check out her excellent blog The Druid’s Garden) generously offered readings for several of us, using her set of tree staves. You can see four of us (I’m on the right) sitting bundled in every layer we brought with us — the weather had turned cold.

I’d sat in on a couple previous readings (with permission!), and Dana’s infectious love of trees and tree lore made each reading memorable and full of wisdom. With her combination of hands-on experience and extensive reading in herbals and Native American lore, each of us learned anew how Druidry has much to teach. I say “how” because any time spent in Druid practice shows us we go just as far as we’re willing to put in time and energy.

If we’re new to divination we may bring to it our skepticism, or an uncritical acceptance of whatever we hear, or a cherished obtuseness to anything outside our blinkered perspectives. Having run through these and a range of other even less useful inner “sets” in the past, I tried simply to listen. Drawing for an awen spread of three staves — past influences, present circumstances and future tendencies — can help give a sense of dynamics that may be working through some part of our lives.

My notes here are a merging of Dana’s reading, my own study and insight from subsequent meditation and reflection.

Here are the three staves I drew: birch, white pine and cottonwood.

Birch (genus Betula) is a common hardwood, with species ranging worldwide throughout the northern hemisphere. The northeastern U.S has perhaps a dozen species. The bark, famous for canoes, also makes excellent kindling, I’ve discovered, even when it’s damp, because its oils will still burn. With medicinal, cosmetic and industrial uses, the birch is widely used. It’s also a pioneer tree, adaptable to varied conditions, among the first to appear in pastures, meadows and burnt areas. As such, birches frequently represent beginnings, initiations, growth, renewal, and so on. The associated ogham is beith. As part of my Ovate work, I’m identifying the trees on our 2 and a half acres, and there are nearby birches to get to know.

The past is a beginning. It’s not destiny, but simply a direction taken. I find the past a surprisingly fluid thing. (The birch is flexible). Because as I grow and change, I perceive my own past differently, coming to value some difficult experiences for what they taught me, and seeing whole decades in a different light than they appeared at the time.

To choose just one example, my first serious relationship, shortly before I met my wife, dragged me along an emotional roller-coaster, passionate and full of drama at the time. But it taught me patience, dispelled a fair amount of romantic nonsense, and showed me that kindness more than anything else should grow at the core of my relationships if I want them to last.

Rather than a fixed past, I find it’s the future that’s fixed — at any single moment. But then the moment shifts, my awareness and choices enter in, and the future shifts as well. Taking a reading is like sounding the depth of coastal waters — it’s accurate for that interval, but you need to know if the tide’s coming in or going out. Twelve hours earlier or later, to say nothing of twelve days or twelve years, conditions will have changed. Birches aren’t especially long-lived, but they “open the way” for others.

White Pine (Pinus strobus), like the Birch, is a common tree in the northeast U.S. Other Pinus species flourish in Europe and Asia. A softer wood, a long-lived tree (the record in the U.S. is 500 years), the white pine is prized for woodworking, lumber, and medicinal properties. It’s the “peace tree” of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois, and it has also produced the tallest trees in the eastern U.S. (the famous sequoias take the prize in the west). Pine needles contain quintuple the vitamin C of lemons, and a needle tea is a healthful drink — a good medicine for me, because I’m prone to lung and skin problems. Algonquian tribes in the region knew other uses — the Adirondack Mountains in New York take their name from the Mohawk adirodaks, meaning “tree-eaters”, their term for the Algonquians.

As a guide to the present, white pine tells me, in Thoreau’s words, “be not simply good, be good for something”. And as a Druid, to me this means to be good at something, too. For a long time I’ve worked with words, making a living as teacher and writer. Druidry urges me to expand my knowledge and practice, and learn my neighbor trees better. It’s time to give back more, to support trees in distress, learn the landscape and do my part to help the biome as it adjusts to climate changes. (Both for its useful info and for its misleading title, spend a few minutes with “American trees have started migrating west and no one knows why“.)

As I delve more deeply into the Ovate grade, and improve my knowledge of healing, otherworld mysteries, and divination, white pine is a worthy signal tree and spiritual landmark. “If not this, then something better” has been my mantra during a protracted job search. Looking outside my accustomed region/specialty is both good job-search advice and good  physical-spiritual foraging advice, too. Go further afield.

Cottonwood (Populus species) is the third stave. Dana and I laughed at this one. At least the cottonwood she had in mind is not a native to the east, but a western tree, so this third stave seems to confirm and extend some of the energetics present in the white pine above. (Some species do inhabit the eastern U.S.)

Cottonwoods constitute a varied group of trees, including aspens and poplars. Populus trichocarpa is the first tree species to have its genome sequenced. It grows fast, and can reach nearly 60 feet (18 meters) in about a decade. Varieties of cottonwoods have flourished in unlikely places, and helped re-tree barren areas, notably the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Like the birch and white pine, it has food and medicinal uses.

As a tree speaking about the future, the cottonwood is a good reminder both to play to strengths and also to try out new areas, to adapt, to “do my own thing” while finding new niches where that “thing” can thrive. “Grow where you’re planted” isn’t bad counsel as a start — we all do that inevitably anyway, at birth. It’s flowering after that that’s the work of our days. “To go to seed” isn’t a bad thing, despite the connotations of “seedy”. How else to pass along who we are, what we’ve gained? To give back as we do, completing the cycle, walking the circle, answering the Druid call to service.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers.

 

“First and Last Things” — Druid & Christian Theme 9   2 comments

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

Now that I’ve reached the end of this series on some possible shared spaces between Druids and Christians, I’d like to pause and take stock.

How many of us have experienced anger, frustration or a kind of spiritual PTSD from our contacts with Christianity? How many have found one or more of these posts irritating or painful? Yet how many still feel drawn to something alive in Christianity or Christian practice?

From the wild stats this particular series has generated, I have to conclude it’s provoked a whole complex, difficult medley of thoughts and feelings. Consider, as I have, new readers from outside the circle of the most common visitors — North Americans and a few western Europeans, with the occasional Australian or New Zealander. This series, however, has drawn readers from Iraq, China, Turkey, India, Japan, Hungary, Singapore, Greece, Pakistan — and a readership from all of these nations showed up not just for single post but for most of this series.

And what should appear here as the 9th theme? Magic? Prayer? Initiation? Heresy — the right to choose — along with heterodox beliefs and practices? The Otherworld? Divine kingship? All promise rich materials as fitting ways to close. I’ll probably tackle at least a few of these in the coming weeks. If only because a series like this, like a devotional practice undertaken with love over time, almost always generates a momentum no finite thing can contain.

aceofcupsOr what about a shift of terminology? Would that help at all with any of these themes? If instead of “Baptisms of the Elements”, we called them “Elemental Sacraments”, would that easier name make a difference? Would it make it any easier to move beyond instinctive antipathies and past traumas?

Christian Druids and Druid Christians have already found ways to integrate their practice and ritual, celebrating spirit as it actually manifests, regardless of creeds. Some of the best links happen in community and fellowship. We experience something together beyond words, even as we struggle to embody it in language. But it’s that initial encounter, not the subsequent formulation in speech or writing, that constitutes the source of spiritual energy.

Saint Francis sings in part:

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.

Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us …

Here is insight and wisdom and reverence indeed, one that may find resonance for both Druids and Christians.

An “incarnational” Druidry, one that shares with Christians a deep gratitude for natural beauty and for the mystery of birds and beasts, for the holy gifts of choice and speech, thought and reason, for birth and dying and rebirth, and for the voice of the sacred in dream, vision, prayer and ritual, and for the transformational power that a spirit-filled person can manifest, whatever the tradition, will earn respect and a hearing in any quarter a Druid would want to find one.

Likewise, a humble Christianity, one which seeks first to model love of self and other, of spiritual freedom, of service and stewardship of the created world, of care for the body, and delight in our kinship with the natural world, one which reads with reverence the Book of Nature, will move and persuade and welcome Druids and other Pagans far more than any scriptural proofs or the tongue of condemnation, doctrine or preaching.

“Let our deeds and our shining faces be our testimony”.

/|\ /|\ /|\

 Image: Ace of Cups.

Recall, Remembrance, Anamnesis — Druid & Christian Theme 8   Leave a comment

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

“It is the hour of recall” — OBOD ritual.

“Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:20).

anamnesis (Greek ἀνάμνησις; English an-am-NEE-sis) 1) the Platonic principle that people retain knowledge from past lives and that our present learning involves a recollection of that past knowledge. 2) the Christian principle of recalling the events of Christ’s sacrificial death in the words and actions of the liturgy, especially during Communion or the Eucharist*.

/|\ /|\ /|\

One way into the Greek word that may serve as a link between Druid and Christian practice is the English borrowed word amnesia, literally “forgetting”. An-amnesis is its opposite: “unforgetting, recall, recollection, remembrance, memorial action”.  And I’m going on from there for a moment and, at least for the purposes of this post, forming the adjective anamnetic “having to do with ritual remembrance”.

Druidry and Christianity both acknowledge the importance of anamnesis. Anamnetic deeds depend for their effect on both ritual and memory — actions intended to evoke a sacred event or time. Perform the ritual and bring to mind the holy. Sacrifice is “making sacred”, and we only “know” the sacred because in some way we re-cognize it: we know it again. Anamnetic acts acknowledge that even the best memory fades, so they recharge it with symbolic words and deeds.

At the “hour of recall” in OBOD ritual, we’re reminded that the rite is both timeless and bound by time. Its effect comes in part through memory: “let memory hold what the eye and ear have gained”. We’re also reminded that the apparent world and the inner world may overlap, but they’re not the same. Ritual sets aside a space for the inner and the sacred, acknowledges it, increases the overlap, and then reverses all those actions in the farewell, in order to safely restore the participants to the profane, mundane, “real” world of everyday life. (Because trying to function here while still in ritual consciousness is dangerous. We’re “spacey” and attentive to other things, not traffic lights, the blender’s sharp blades, those three steps down, our co-worker’s question, the toddler who darts into the intersection just ahead.)

I take part in a ritual, and its effects follow in time and memory. Likewise in Christianity, depending on how the word “this” is understood, whether once during the annual Passover (the setting where he spoke the words), or at every meal, or something in between, Christ commands his followers to “do this … in remembrance of me” — in a word, to practice anamnesis. “Proclaim the Lord’s death till he come again”.

A sacred meal shared with others is among the best kinds of fellowship. It’s an anamnetic act common to many traditions and cultures as a sign of religious faith, because it also expresses friendly hospitality and generosity. These acts of giving and giving back are inherently sacred. We can choose to recognize this by ritualizing them, or by foregoing the opportunity they offer.

How much of human consciousness, after all, is memory? How do we sustain the transformative power of any event we choose to value, except through recalling it, naming it, celebrating it, re-enacting it in order to vivify it and make it real again in some way in the present? “What is remembered, lives”.

Thus we celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, historical events, and so on. We tell stories of the living and of the ancestors. We even make up fictions the rest of the time, in order to remind ourselves what life is like, in case we lose sight of its shape and nature. And when we enter the mythic realm, the question to ask is not “Is it true? Did it really happen?” but “What truth does it teach? What holy thing does it help us remember?” When we com-memorate something, we remember it together.

And what we value, we dramatize. Greek theater began as religious worship: “Until the Hellenistic period [roughly 320 to 30 BCE], all tragedies were unique pieces written in honour of Dionysus and played only once, so that today we primarily have the pieces that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when the repetition of old tragedies became fashionable …” notes the Wikipedia entry on the theater of ancient Greece. Until later times, the theater was a sacred precinct. Weapons were banned, and actors were masked because their human identities, at least during the performance, was subsumed under the characters, often gods or heroes, whom they portrayed.

Julie Babin

coastal Louisiana, Gulf Coast Gathering — photo courtesy Julie Babin

What might all this mean for possible Druid and Christian convergences? Ritual is grounded in theater, in a dramatic portrayal of the memorable. “Let us remember the holy” is one piece of common ground where both can stand. Accepting that no one “owns” the holy is another. Why this is should be obvious, though it’s sometimes ignored in claims of “my god(s) and your god(s)”.  But sacred energy continually bursts free of limiting containers, and seeks new forms that refresh and rekindle and feed the spirit. if anything, it’s very much the other way around: the holy owns us. Sometimes it simply breaks through and claims us. You and I have no say in the matter. Other times, we may.

Old or new, liturgies can move us, but they are no substitute for direct contact with the sacred. We need no idolatry of rite placed above spiritual reality. The word’s not the thing it names. Much as I love words, I love the silences of the Great Mystery more. “Be still, and know …” counsels Psalm 46. Because there is that ability within us all that’s able to do this — to be still and come in contact with the holy. It’s our human birthright, and has nothing to do with belief.

Paradoxically (and what would many things amount to, without a touch of paradox?), old ways can come closer to Spirit than newer ones. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls”.** The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah says these words, looking back at ways already old in his time. Pagan and Christian can find more to share than either may often imagine — in silence, in ritual, in remembrance.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*Like anamnesis, eucharist derives from Greek — in this case, from eucharistia “thanksgiving, gratitude”. Modern Greek still uses a related word (changed a little in pronunciation) to say “thank you”: ευχαριστώ [ehf-khah-ree-STOH]

**Jeremiah 6:16. The prophet gives these words to God to say.

MAGUS 2017: The Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S.   13 comments

The first of what richly promises to be an annual event, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) took place over this last weekend, Thursday to Sunday, at Four Quarters Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The initial inward glimpse of the Gathering came to one of the organizers almost a decade ago.  There’s yet another indication, if I need the reminder, of the possible time-gap between first seed and outward manifestation.

And our hosting venue, Four Quarters, an interfaith sanctuary launched in 1994, was the perfect place to hold a Beltane Gathering. As the Four Quarters home page observes, it’s

a membership-driven non-profit, a vibrant community of real people living real lives. And Four Quarters actually owns the Land, buildings and equipment that make our work possible, forever set aside from the vagaries of private ownership.

The lovely and wild 150 acres of the sanctuary lie in the Allegheny foothills in southern PA, just miles from the Maryland border. Home to a stone circle, labyrinth, retreat center with bunkhouse and dining pavilion, a brewery, a drum and dance circle, sweat lodge, a handful of permanent residents, and the clean-flowing Siding Creek defining part of its periphery, Four Quarters strives to

honor the many world traditions that reflect an Earth Based Spirituality, and we work to support those traditions and welcome their people. We do not teach “One Way” of belief. We do not have “The Answer”. We do have good questions.

Here’s the Stone Circle seen from the north, a work in progress (with annual megalithic-style stone raisings open to anyone willing to join the rope-pulling and log-rolling stone lifting team). Note the nearly three-foot-long camp bell suspended from the tripod in the foreground — a deep voice audible throughout the property.

circle w bell

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A wide-angle shot can’t capture the majesty of the stones or the power of the circle. Here’s a closer view of some of the lovely rough surfaces, mottled with rust in places, asking for touch and communion.

stone closeup w flah

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The first time I walked the circle Thursday evening, I sensed a quiet hum of presence. The next time I came more at ease, eager to touch and listen to the land and the inner voices. By the time I reached the eighth stone, sudden tears filled my eyes. The circle holds indisputable power.

Here’s one of the altars near the center of the stone circle. The ancestors speak strongly here, if I give even half an ear.

ancestor altar in circle -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

How to convey the blend of the speaking land, the personal and the tribal at such Gatherings?! You come as someone new to Paganism, or to OBOD more specifically. Or you come knowing you’ll reunite with your people once more, across the miles. If we saw each other every day, we might begin to forget the human and spiritual wealth that surrounds us. In ritual, in conversations in the dining pavilion (below) or over coffee during breaks, we’re reminded that we’re never alone, no matter how solitary we may live the rest of the year. Inner connection exists over any distance.

dining pavillion -- W Flaherty.jpg

dining pavilion — photo courtesy Wandy Flaherty

Typically when I reflect on a Gathering a few days after, one or two things stand out sharply. But when I started naming them over breakfast this morning, I ended with a list of a score of items — nearly the entire weekend as I experienced it, a blend not to be parcelled out in soundbites or highlights.

From the place, with its cool air crackling with oxygen from the vigorous trees, to the faces and energy of the Tribe and its rituals, formal and informal, to the songs of spiritual presence that all places offer, everything stands out in memory.  Impossible to narrow down. This post is a small attempt to hint at that Everything — to urge you, if you want a taste of a particular kind of marvelous, to attend a Gathering if you can.

The way of the Solitary can indeed be a blessed one, but the Tribe also offers a great deal to reinvigorate even the most hermetic of Solitaries. A Gathering can paradoxically reaffirm the Solitary, because you meet other Solitaries. You witness the integrity of the individual path, as well as the gift of the Tribal way. Gatherings have changed me into an avid Tribe-seeker, at least a few times each year, so that when I retreat to my own smaller circle, the closing words of OBOD ritual echo true: “May our memories hold what the eye and ear have gained.”

/|\ /|\ /|\

“Kindling the Flame” was our Gathering theme. We apparently also needed the blessing of Water, in the form of steady rain from late Thursday afternoon through the night, and intermittently all Friday, to help remind us that all the elements gather, whenever any one of them is invoked. “Thus is balance preserved”.

Thursday included an opening orientation by our special guest OBOD Druid Renu Aldritch, a workshop I delivered on “Kindling Our Sacred Fires”, the opening ritual, and preparation for Bardic initiations the next morning.

After breakfast Friday, we initiated 12 Bards. Like many others, I’ve come to see how priceless it is to support initiations and attend whenever I can, regardless of whether I have an assigned “role”. The rite washes over us all, renews the experience each of us had during our own initiation, helps us rededicate, and allows us to greet the newly initiated within ritual space.

Always there are small hiccups and endearing glitches during a ritual. I think without them we’d have to make sure we added them. And we come to expect them: they humanize a dramatic moment, when someone with a major or minor role misplaces a prop or drops a ritual spoken line, topples the incense or bowl of water, mispronounces a magical name, and so on. We laugh, disarmed, and then the next part of the ritual can reach deeper, because we’ve opened up that much more. Each initiation is unique: tears, laughter, the presence of Spirit, the call of bird or beast to punctuate a word or silence.

Friday gave us Renu’s workshop, “Kindling the Spiritual Warrior”, a theme that bears ongoing attention. Dana’s workshop “Land Healing on the Inner and Outer Planes”, her ritual later that afternoon, “Ogam Tree Galdr in the Northern Tradition”, her generous personal readings using her own tree divination system, and her conversation fired many with renewed love and commitment to this path. That evening also brought initiation to three Ovates under moonlight and the background throb of drums from a drum workshop. We couldn’t have asked for a better ritual setting.

Downhill from the Labyrinth, prepping for the evening Ovate initiation in the open air: Renu, Dave, Ahote, me and Cat. (We opted later for a covered stage, in case the rain continued.)

planning for ovate init -- gail Nyoka

photo courtesy Gail Nyoka

Saturday gave us Wanda’s workshop, “Awakening Your Beltane Sensuality” with its creative chance to heighten one sense by muting the others. Now that the rain had ceased, we could hold our main Beltane rite in the stone circle.

Here’s an evocative pic from Saturday night, the Fire Circle alight, a few dancers visible, along with Brom, our Fire Master, tending the flames.

magus beltane

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

By Saturday night I’d mostly finished my other ritual responsibilities, including providing a glitch for the main Beltane ritual where I had a speaking part — I dropped a line. “When that ritual pause goes on a little too long and you look around, you’re probably what’s missing”, as someone quipped over the weekend.

I was looking forward to enjoying the Fire Circle without performing for the eisteddfod, the Bardic arts portion of most OBOD festivals that welcomes the evening fires and the awen-inspiration of a Gathering and offers it back again in song and poetry and story.

But as Bards know from experience, the awen sometimes has other ideas. Fire gave me an opening line a few hours earlier during dinner. And it kept gathering more lines to it, right up to the evening Fire Circle. Verses kept changing and I didn’t have pen and paper handy, so I kept playing with lines and rhymes and their order. “Fire says improvise” came the first line. I’d invoked fire, after all, during my workshop, in several different ways. What did I expect?! Here’s the poem:

Fire says improvise —
no surprise,
when such orange wonder
seeks out skin and eyes.

Fire can burn all to black
but before,
that hot roar lifts me
to soar beyond
anything I thought to think I lack.

Most times I’m no fool —
how does this jewel
get to be so hot and cool?

Old rule, it says.
Burn madly, gladly,
or — if you must — sadly:
one way only among those other two.
For I will heat you from your crown
to your open-toed shoe.

The fire, friend,
the fire is in you.

Just get up and say it, came the nudge. Doesn’t have to be polished. I delivered the lines, gazing at the flames the whole time, then stumbled back fire-blind to my seat on one of the Fire Circle benches. The version here is close to what I remember saying, probably edited a little. Fire didn’t want an editor. Just flame, large or small. The other Bards obliged, and this eisteddfod was among the most varied and interesting I’ve known.

One of the oldest pieces of spiritual counsel in the Indo-European tradition is this: “Pray with a good fire”.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Below is an informal altar by Siding Creek, which curls around Four Quarters, another voice audible through much of the Sanctuary as a background whisper.

siding creek altar -- renu

photo courtesy Renu Aldritch

Four Quarters brews its own mead, a taste of the Land to take inside the body. Warmed by place, fire and fellowship, we return to our lives richer by each person who attended. Long live MAGUS!

Coffee Dragon -- Wanda Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A final view of the Circle through the eye of the Mother Stone:

throught he mother stone -- Wendy Rose Scheers

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

%d bloggers like this: