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Grail 3: Part of the Rest of a Story   Leave a comment

And you might think after that last post, theres nothing more I can add to the subject. I boxed myself in with a few home truths. You make your own path by walking it. Done. QED. End of story. Except …

dockmt

One quality of a valid path is that it rewards the walking of it. Its not valid merely because somebody else says so. The only authority worth recognizing is ultimately the truth we each sense within, in the doing of it. (Good parenting means in part supplying the rudiments of crap detection to our children. Pass along even the minimum we picked up over some decades of living, then, when the time is right, let them risk burning their own fingers, if they must, while we stand by with first aid.)

In some places this capacity for judgment used to be called critical thinking, and for past generations, inner resources. In many places we seem to have abandoned them. If we havent already refined that organ of good sense so that it serves us reasonably well, wherever and whatever it is, we can begin work right there. Life will, quite ruthlessly and uninvited, lend a firm hand.

As Ernest Hemingway once quipped, when asked what was needed, before anything else, to succeed at writing: “a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector”. One reason this tool matters so deeply, and in wider fields, is this: “At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself”. (This corollary to Hemingway comes from Neil Postman’s invaluable classic essay, “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection”, available online here.)

And Postmans corollary also means knowing when to turn off the crap detector, consciously and intentionally, for purposes you choose. And the reason for this is significant:

“Each man’s crap-detector is embedded in his value system; if you want to teach the art of crap-detecting, you must help students become aware of their values”.

[Postman is talking to English teachers in this lecture/essay; he’s also talking before our current heightened sensitivity to pronouns, so cut him some slack if his wisdom outweighs his sexism for you.]

A pause here to regroup and reconnoiter:

  • my single most useful tool is a crap-detector;
  • its default target, when no others present themselves, is me;
  • my use of a crap-detector is an art;
  • and if I hope to learn how to use mine well, I need to know what matters deeply to me, because that’s where both my values and my crap live.

Where’s the Grail in all this, again? Bear with me. You’re here, if you’re following my promise in the first post in this series, to discover something about my way. Yours will, by the fact of your irreducible uniqueness, be different from mine, but also similar enough you may take away something useful.

Now you may already know all this — or think you do. In which case, write your own book, or run that weekend workshop, and tell us how it’s done (AKA how you do it). Apart from privileging your crap over mine, and separating me from some of my money in the process, I doubt you’ll be ahead in the end. I might be, if the experience helps me refine my crap detector.) The best things in life may, unlike your workshop, truly be free, but I work the hardest for them. But that way, oddly enough, I discover they’re splendidly my own, in a way yours can never be. They cost something far more valuable than money. They’re “free” in another sense because that’s what they make me. So: catch you on another rung of the spiral.

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ace-cups-tarot

a Grail image

As a form, a container for energies and aspirations, the Grail earns my respect. (It passes my crap detector.) As an object for contemplation and visualization, together with regular practice of the cauldron sound I’ve described, I’ve begun to learn what matters to me, which is partly to say what works for me, what kindles me, what echoes in my bones, what seeks me out because it’s mine, and what I belong to in ways I’m still discovering. The Grail can be a passport to our native country. With it, I can go home again.

And as always, I try to heed the best bards. T. S. Eliot says in his “Four Quartets” (a vastly superior poem, in my arrogant opinion, to “The Waste Land” because I come away from it better equipped for joyful growth): “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. Grail is perennially “first time” in its power to renew and heal, and in that way it’s a virgin experience. Spiritual renewal and rebirth bears this signature quality.

Paradoxes, like those in the preceding paragraph, are for me a sign and signal of approaching four-dimensional truth. As a Wise One once said, the opposite of a superficial truth is a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth is, often, another profound truth.

True poets and bards, they recognize this by instinct, and (at least in their better moments) never try to own it, only to announce the strange good news to us all through their words and songs. And we may catch ourselves shivering in recognition, another sign. This awe-tinged joy sparking in us, this inner alertness and attention and focus, is another quality the Grail can mediate, a quality I’ve learned to recognize with my crap-detector, which yields and bows. (Of course I can and should turn it back on — later — to assess what and where and, on occasion, what next.)

Up next — Grail 4: Elements, Tools, Guides.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com.

Regarding public domain status of the Rider-Waite tarot: “In the United States, the deck fell into the public domain in 1966 (publication + 28 years + renewed 28 years), and thus has been available for use by American artists in numerous different media projects”.

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Grail 2: A Path, By Walking It   Leave a comment

[Grail 1 | Grail 2]

quimper grail

Christianized image of the Grail — Quimper Cathedral, Brittany

A path toward the Grail — whatever form your Grail happens to assume — may not look much like anybody else’s. It may not even look like a path at all. You call it your life. (As Druid Kris Hughes likes to say, “What other people think of us is none of our business”.)

We talk so freely in terms of a path, or a journey, that often we forget it’s a metaphor and take it as simple fact. Seven hundred years ago, Dante began his great poem the Divine Comedy “in the middle of the journey of our life”, suggesting that there’s just the one journey we all take. (He turns personal immediately after that, when he exclaims that he “came back to himself in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost” — where he had lost it. “The only way out is through”, says Robert Frost. “You got to get in to get out”, sing Genesis.)

Following on the metaphor, I try to “get somewhere” over time, teachers and parents urge me “make my own way”, it’s important to “look back” from time to time, to see “how far we’ve come”, to take stock “along the way”, to wonder “where we’re going”, “how long the journey will be”, and “when we’ll arrive”. We follow a yellow brick road to some Oz or other, or climb a Led Zeppelinesque stairway to heaven, or party along an AC/DC highway to hell, we look for guides and signposts, we’re told there’s no map, or just one, or millions. (If such pervasive metaphors interest you, check out George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By.)

The great Spanish poet Antonio Machado exclaims “we make the road by walking”* in Campos de Castilla (and in other collections).

Druid-like, I trust bards over bureaucrats, because objectively they listen to wider possibilities of awen.

The one essential is our participation in the cauldron sound, as I attempted to describe in the previous post, Grail 1. We all do this already, of course, by being born, blood thrumming with our heartbeats, attuning to the musics of our cultures, the sounds of our languages, the ceaseless waves of the sea. Birth grants us a “minimum daily requirement” of the all-pervading sound. But a quality journey asks for more, for some effort on our part. We can, of course, choose to tread water through our lives — one option, to be sure, and one that can appeal if life seems too hard otherwise.

The cauldron sound accompanies us as we set out, and with our conscious attention and participation, grows loud enough to help us find a path, guide us to walk it as only we can, and help us know when we’re done that the joys were worth all the pains.

Or as Carlos Castaneda’s teacher Don Juan Matus puts it, with the calm authority of one who has found out for himself:

Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. — The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.

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R Tagore

To say it another way, I strive “to be the cause in my own life”, not “the effect of other people’s emotions, viewpoints, and efforts to control us”.** The cauldron sound, “the one companion of my life”, as Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore sings, assists me in listening to my own song amidst the clamor of the “apparent world”, as OBOD ritual terms it. Some hear it as a subtle nudge, an intuition. Others hear it in the words of friends, a chance conversation with a stranger, a song lyric, a dream, a brightness in something read, or overheard at the grocery store. Awen will get through.

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*“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road — Only wakes upon the sea” — A Machado.

**Klemp, Harold. ECK Wisdom on Spiritual Freedom. 2018.

Images: Quimper Cathedral Grail WindowTagore;

Grail 1: Exploring the “Cauldron Sound” of Awen   Leave a comment

[Grail 1 | Grail 2]

Image result for awenWant a good overview of the awen in the life of another Druid? Don’t just take my word for it. Read Druid-in-two-traditions Dana Driscoll’s account here. [I’ve written about it, among other times, here and here.]

Looking for the lost melody of your life? For that sense of spiritual freedom you may have touched as a child? For the heart-song that so often eludes us in the busy-ness of 21st century living?

If there’s such a thing as a “container” for the awen, beyond the bodies of all things, it’s the Celtic Cauldron, proto-grail, womb, goddess symbol, under- and other-world vessel, humming on the edges of our awareness. To participate in its sound is to begin to manifest some of its properties. Put myself in sympathetic vibration with it, and I discover its powers of transformation. It accomplishes change through vibration — no surprise, when we know that every atom of the cosmos vibrates at its own particular frequency. That’s also part of why every major spiritual tradition on the planet includes chant, song, mantra, spoken prayer. The whole thing sings. When the bard Taliesin exclaims in one of his poems, “The awen I sing, from the deep I bring it”, he points us toward the pervasiveness of awen, its habitation in the heart of things, its flow through us, both lesser and greater, as we sing, and bring.

Dana observes, “One of the most simple things to do is to invoke Awen regularly as part of your practice.”

A tangent. An article from a few days ago somewhat ruefully acknowledges that there’s actually a specific day — January 17 — when Americans see many of their New Year’s resolutions fail. (Your own culture, if you’re not a Yank, may exhibit lesser or greater persistence.) Since we seem to addicted to bad news these days, feel free to indulge here in some delicious negative thinking, if you wish. But then read closer: “Contrary to widespread public opinion, a considerable proportion of New Year resolutions do succeed,” notes a psychology professor in the article. Even at the 6-month point, according to studies, some 40% of resolutions — and their “resolvers” — stick with it. While the data pool may well need refining, still, that’s an astonishing figure. Better than the best baseball average. While “two outta three ain’t bad”, as the Meatloaf song tells us, even “one outta three” is pretty damn good, in so many human endeavors. And if you’ve read this blog for a while, you know my strategy for success with resolutions. Start so small that it’s next to impossible not to begin. “Oh, anyone can find 30 seconds a day”.

And this holds true with so many practices, spiritual or otherwise. A habit is simply an expression of equilibrium. The resistance to change is the resistance of all set-points and stasis and inertial systems — their first “response”, if we think of them for a moment as conscious beings, is to absorb the new thing rather than change on account of it. It’s a survival mechanism, after all, evolved over eons, to prevent dangerous over-reactions and hyper-compensations to what are often only temporary blips in the environment. We can’t afford to be thrown off by “every little thing”.

Why would this apply to something like the awen, a pervading cosmic sound and vibration? It’s already flowing through us, at a sustaining level, keeping us alive, the heart beating, the electrical system of the body sparking along. But upset that equilibrium unwittingly, kick the carefully calibrated network of bodily systems, and you risk the same thing rash occultists and yogis do when they raise the kundalini unprepared, force their way onto the astral plane too abruptly, shift the body’s and psyche’s equilibria by force of will, and then face all the unexpected consequences — illness, accident, poor judgment, disharmony — all the attendant symptoms of dis-ease, of a complex equilibrium under abrupt, too-rapid or even violent change.

So I begin small, and gradual, and see how it goes, if it’s worthwhile, if it adds to and builds on my life — as I already live it. This latter point is keenly important, I find. And I encourage you to try the awen, or — if you’re drawn elsewhere — its kin in other traditions. (Maybe one living near you: Om, Hu [link to an mp3 sound file], etc.) Give it a year of serious practice, and I will personally guarantee positive change, or your karma back. Other practices have their established value, but sacred sound is special.

The “rewards” of such a practice are not always easy to “calculate”. (Revealing that we even use such language). But practice, as you’ll discover, opens many doors we didn’t even know were there. As OBOD Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm notes,

Try opening to Awen not when it’s easy, but when it’s difficult: not when you can be still and nothing is disturbing you, but when there’s chaos around you, and life is far from easy. See if you can find Awen in those moments. It’s harder, much harder, but when you do, it’s like walking through a doorway in a grimy city street to discover a secret garden that has always been there – quiet and tranquil, an oasis of calm and beauty. One way to do this, is just to tell yourself gently “Stop!” Life can be so demanding, so entrancing, that it carries us away, and we get pulled off-centre. If we tell ourselves to stop for a moment, this gives us the opportunity to stop identifying with the drama around us, and to come back to a sense of ourselves, of the innate stillness within our being. And then, sometimes, we are rewarded with Awen at precisely this moment.

“The Holy Grail won’t go away” — and for very good reasons.

Next post: A Path, By Walking It.

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Don’t Go Away Just Yet, Grail   Leave a comment

Knight, Gareth. The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend. Aquarian Press/Thorsons, 1983. [More recent reprints available from other publishers.]

I’m reading Knight’s book as I draft a workshop proposal for the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Gathering. In spite of my tendency to discount such coincidences, I’ve found scant evidence for them. More often than chance could ever explain, two events will turn out to be not just linked in some way, but in a way I can learn from and grow by. And if you conclude I simply haven’t dug below my claims of coincidence into the sheer pervasiveness of chance that underlies it and rules the universe, I’d chuckle at the depth of your superstitious belief in chance, and continue learning from coincidence, a much richer journey altogether. Events talk to each other, and I want in on the conversation.

Maybe you can explain it by my suspicion of the universe, one of my admitted biases. I find this an odd but useful approach. It sounds like I’m a skeptic, still a popular stance in a world that nevertheless keeps on not conforming to our desires, whims and wishes, in spite of things like the Law of Attraction (which tends to operate inwardly, I’ve found, not in the world of physical form). I apparently get to keep a doubting and superior viewpoint, which is what so many unexamined beliefs afford — protection for the ego. But deep down, a part of me knows there’s almost always much more going on than meets my ill-trained eye. My ego’s been pummeled often enough along the way to discovery that I take yet another instance of it as a good sign I’m getting warm. This universe, it turns out, has a will of its own.

I say “ill-trained”: raised in some of the materialist and psychically-polluted environments that pass for much of what is called Western civilization*, it’s little wonder I don’t see things for what they are. It took me the longest time to determine that most of the illusion is in me, not in things. We’ve been trained away from much of the truth of things. Like death and rebirth, polarity, spirit guides and companions, energy centers in the earth, the power of ritual, the centrality of the imagination in our emotional and physical health, the daily magic we all practice, the value of a spiritual discipline, the power of mass belief for good and ill. Basically everything you can find in that section of many bookstores, however obscured by bad writing and incomplete knowledge. And much more importantly, it’s our vast human heritage, the largely unwritten world of experience our ancestors keep whispering we really need to pay attention to, in our DNA, our dreams, our daily lives.

Veteran comedian Steve Martin used to mock human pretension and idiocy in his 70’s routines with references to things like “how I turned a million in real estate into twenty-five dollars in cash” or “how to make money off the mentally ill”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the problem of mental illness was less acute then or at least less visible, though its roots lengthened daily underground. Of course, large numbers of writers still practice this lucrative trade, on both sides of the bookstore aisles, and on the workshop circuit, stumping for stop-gap measures to make the status quo more quo. We thought the karmic consequences of Western civilization’s less happy choices would all appear on the physical plane, which is where, after all, we’d apparently set them in motion. But we didn’t expect the damage to ourselves to take form before the physical-world effects fully caught up with us. Or as the Wise say, all the planes of existence are connected. We couldn’t despoil a physical world without having already despoiled our own inner worlds.

grailachemyWhat does the foregoing rant have to do with Arthur, or a secret tradition? Knight gets right to it on his first page. He explains “the hold that the legends of Arthur and his Knights exercises on the imagination … they enshrine a secret Mystery tradition … which was also the guiding force behind the old stone circles and trackways of Western Europe”.

Or as Mara Freeman puts it in the first line of her book, “The Holy Grail won’t go away” (Grail Alchemy: Initiation in the Celtic Mystery Tradition. Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 2014).

Thank the gods for that.

As the French knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail tells Arthur, who has just pompously invited his master to join his Quest for the Holy Grail (and you can hear the capital letters in his voice), “He’s already got one” (around the 1:10 mark).

If I come at the Grail with a team of knights, appropriately theatrical music suitable to my nobility accompanying me on my way, and mounted like Arthur, I too may be met with the taunting the French knight offers Arthur and his companions. Grails are, paradoxically, a dime a dozen. One on every street corner. In every castle.

Nonplussed, Arthur asks diffidently, “Can we come up and have a look?”

Of course, no single source of healing will meet our need, given that we’re such a various and noisy and difficult tribe. (Or as the French knight replies to Arthur’s request for a look, “Of course not! You are English types”.) From so many paths and tracks, we converge at this present moment, and do what we will. And learn from that.

Knight outlines what he calls the Lesser Mysteries of Arthur, Merlin and Guinevere: lessons and practices for the individual, for the group, and for polarity working with both individual and group as part of spiritual service. But, you might say — and Knight does — that this is the introductory material. The Greater Mysteries concern the Grail, the old Celtic Cauldron of Regeneration we meet with in myth and legend.

My intermittent dissatisfaction with OBOD ritual and practice, as I’ve shared here, has slowly led me to developing my own practices connected with the Grail, in an idiosyncratic form and tailored to my quirky nature. It’s hardly a system**. Spend too much time systematizing anything, I keep re-learning, and too often it dies in your hands. (Knight notes (pg. 175) provocatively that “archetypes, like individuals, are capable of redemption”.) I’d rather practice what seems to work.

Pieces of it that may be of use to others I’ll try to share in the next series of posts.

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*Every civilization offers much to admire, and ours is no exception. The best music and art the West has produced rival the best of other civilizations. Coming to terms with the corresponding limits and faults of a civilization is part of the work of its maturation. No civilization lasts forever. This simple fact still seems to shock many, who apparently believe the West, or at least the United States, is somehow exempt. But if anyone doesn’t also glimpse the weaknesses of the West by now, that person simply hasn’t been paying attention. It’s doubtful, in fact, that such a one has even been conscious for the last 75 years. As with preceding civilizations, we will corporately (if not individually) deny our problems until they overtake us and execute harsh justice on its false suppositions and its deeds, and on those inheriting both their benefits and drawbacks. Which is all of us.

Arthurian legend as Knight examines it addresses such cultural and civilizational collapse and one means of renewal and rebirth.

Social justice warriors: we appreciate at least the relatively sane among you for sounding the alarm and putting a few of your fingers in the dike, but karmic payback on a scale you can’t achieve is already starting to take shape.

**Those seeking a system may find Freeman’s book and its associated practices and workings help answer that search.

Ritual Rummaging   Leave a comment

John Beckett (6 January 2019) writes:

A ritual is a series of interrelated actions designed to accomplish a spiritual goal. It may be a celebration, but it’s more than a party. It may honor certain spiritual persons, but it’s more than singing praises. It may work magic, but it’s more than a spell.

Couple this succinct overview of ritual with OBOD founder Ross Nichols’ “Ritual is poetry in the world of acts” and you’ve got a fair bit to go on, if you want to do some rummaging about in ritual spaces and energies.

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Ross Nichols leading a procession of the Cornish Gorseth in the 1970s. Wikipedia Creative commons.

For starters, form matters. What makes a lively seasonal festival ritual more than a party? After all, some parties also have a form. If it’s a birthday, maybe there’s a welcome period for everyone to assemble, settle in and get something to drink. Then food — a buffet or even a formal sit-down meal — followed by presents, and then games, or dancing, or some other group activity. Or maybe the whole evening is food, mingling and music, with presents dropped off on a designated table. There may be formal start and ending times, or apart from one announced activity — often, the food — there’s no set beginning or close. “Show up when you can”. Still, people often know what “birthday party” typically means. There’s some kind of loose format in most people’s expectations, unless the invitation says otherwise.

If a ritual has assigned roles, it can begin when all the participants have assembled. Beckett talks about how ritual ideally doesn’t have an “audience”. While it’s a performance, no one should be so detached as to be merely a spectator. At our most recent Vermont OBOD seed group celebration of Winter Solstice, we held a ritual “post-mortem” discussion as some dishes for our potluck dinner were warming in the oven. With just enough members attending that foggy evening to carry out the ritual-as-written, it’s true each of us “had a part”. But more importantly, as one member observed afterward, it’s what we do with and for other participants during the ritual that makes the difference. “I support them”, she said. While one person is assigned to speak the words that “call North”, for instance, everyone else can do so, too. Add your intention. Feel the direction. Visualize, sense it on your skin. Imagine the participant serving as North to be garbed appropriately for the direction, crowned and armed with symbols of earth. In fact, if we expect North or any of the other directions to manifest and be a palpable presence, just such group energy and support are essential. Otherwise, what are we doing calling the directions?

I’ve queried the opening words of the standard OBOD ritual format before, in previous posts. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, welcome to this Rite of …” Lovely, but what IS “the power of star and stone”? And if I don’t know, then how do I know I want to call on it, invoke it, welcome the assembled group with and by it? Is it the same as “the power of the land within and without”? Do either of these have anything to add to our rite?

Or let’s say I chose to forego seeking and supplying a merely intellectual equation: “power of land = X”. I let the words move me wherever and however they’re meant to, trusting the ritual and relying on our group’s reverent and “heart-ful” performing of it to answer such questions in due time, if at all. Let the intention and the energy of the assembled members carry me over any rough spots, and all will be well. OK, but then how do I support the herald who proclaims these opening words, if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing? If we all imagine different things on hearing the words, we generate a diffuse generic energy (or nothing much at all) that may not come anywhere near to what the “power of star and stone” could do, if we knew what we were about.

Mean clearly, and you can carry people with you.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

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Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of the play.

Listen to an informed performance of Romeo and Juliet and when Juliet says these words, it’s the third “Romeo” that she stresses: “O, why do you have to be Romeo? Any other name would be fine. But no: you turn out to belong to my family’s enemies!” If you don’t know what you’re saying, you can’t mean what you need to mean. The words won’t mean what they could. Understand what Juliet says, and her next lines make perfect sense:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy …

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Dionysus in ’69. Photo by Brett Brookshire.

Because drama is a component of ritual, films and plays have something to teach us about owning the words and actions of ritual in deep and creative ways. Ancient Greek drama was sacred to Dionysus. In Athens, no weapons were allowed in the theater precinct during the Dionysia Festival of tragedies and comedies. The ritual of theater was an act of worship, a sacred thing dedicated to the god.

Serious about addressing ritual glitches, the crew of MAGUS ’17 asked participants to memorize their parts. Come ready to speak with intention, since you won’t need a piece of paper in front of you. Improvise, once you know the energy of the traditional words. Call North, and let us hear and feel North. I was North, a small but important part. I did call North, with original words and images I’d been composing orally — I felt their power myself — then flubbed a short line North says a page or two later that I couldn’t remember and couldn’t for the life of me find, for an ungodly amount of time, as I pawed through the printed ritual in my hand. Ritual flow broken, I finally found my place and shamefacedly read off my line.

Fortunately, Druids are forgiving folks. It both did and didn’t matter. Ritual isn’t made or marred by a single person. Smiles and laughter heal many a weak line reading, dropped candle, overenthusiastic blessing with water. It took time before I could laugh, because I was so annoyed at myself — all the more reason I needed to.

Contrast this with my Ovate self-initiation: my wife away for the weekend, all lights in the house extinguished except for a single small candle. I sit on the floor in a dim and flickering circle of light, words of the open and closing ritual at hand, but foremost in my awareness a dedication I speak as the words come to me, along with a palpable sense of witnesses around me as I proceed. The ritual pacing my pace, the words my words, the experience my own and that of those who, I sense, share it with me. Powerful, personal, memorable, unscripted at its peak, and especially potent for that reason.

The two poles of ritual? Both valid, necessary — and each distinct.

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Images: Ross Nichols; Juliet; Dionysus in 69.

Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part Four   Leave a comment

[Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four]

Why now? Well, this fourth and final installment was promised “soon”, at the end of Part Three — on October 14, 2015.  “Soon” can apparently mean more than three years later. Are we on that much-abused term Pagan Tyme here?

Also, someone recently visited one of the posts, reminding me of the series. Thank you, anonymous reader.

A third reason? Perhaps the best: both the quest and the poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight end shortly after New Year’s Day.

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Sex, death, magic — none of these are alien to whatever spirit pervades things, God on high, or pervading Mystery; Goddess who wears all things as her forms in this world, or spirits, devas, demons; Platonic archetypes, or thought-forms who share and shape the cosmos with us.

How do I know? Because these things — sex, death and magic — haven’t been added to the mix. They’re part and parcel of it, part of its shaping, its innermost warp and woof, dynamic, its movement and melody. There’s no break in the continuity among the many ways life propagates here. Things vibrate to each other, so that more of them can join the show, even as the older ones yield the stage, so that the human and world family continues.

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“But wild-looking weather was about in the world”, as Simon Armitage* translates the poem, rousing his hero Sir Gawain on a wet and windy New Year’s Day (like yesterday was, here in New England!), the day of his deadly appointment with the fearsome Green Knight. Enough of feasting and dalliance! We get some 40 lines of the dressing of both knight and his trusty steed Gringolet — anything to delay the inevitable — until finally nothing remains for it but to depart.

Let’s pause for a moment, and recall the twists and turns the tale has taken:

The Green Knight came to Camelot a year ago at Christmas, a fabulous two-week affair of feasts and revelry. The enormous stranger crashes the party. He bursts in on the court uninvited, unannounced, and taunts the assembly. He and his horse, too, people keep noticing, are green. Entirely green. Uncannily green. Magic’s clearly afoot.

The Green Knight has offered a great ax, and the first blow, to whoever has the guts to take him up on his challenge. No one answers. “What, is this Arthures hous?” scoffs the Knight. A pathetic showing from such legendary fighters!

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From the British Library manuscript, showing the beheaded Green Knight. (MS Cotton Nero A X, art. 3, fol. 90v.)

The King himself, his blood up at the interruption, the rudeness and the mockery of the man, is ready to answer and seizes the ax. But the king’s nephew Gawain rises and claims the challenge for himself: “This melee must be mine”.

“I schall stand hym a stroke”, says the Green Knight, as long as Gawain agrees to one in return — in a year and day. Repeat the terms, just so we’re entirely clear. And Gawain does.

Hit the green bloke hard enough now, his uncle the King advises Gawain, and you needn’t worry about any future payback. And Gawain heaves the ax and strikes the Green Knight a fearsome blow that does in fact behead him.

But decapitation is small inconvenience when you’re magical. Picking up his own head, the Knight calmly reminds Gawain he’s now bound to take a return blow, a year and a day hence.

“Thou shalt seek me thyself, wherever thou hopest I may be found” says the green head the Knight holds in one hand.

But “What is thy place?” asks Gawain in considerable dismay. “I know not thee, knight, thy court nor thy name”.

The Knight turns the head toward Gawain. “To the Green Chapel … I charge thee” to receive “such a dint as thou dealt”. Many men know me, “the knyght of the Grene Chapel”.

A year and a day. “So come, or be called a coward forever”, as Armitage renders it. At that, the Knight swings up into the saddle and rides off.

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For a long while, procrastination serves Gawain quite well. In fact, he delays his departure and delays it again, until finally bad weather has returned the following December. Set yourself a year and a day to accomplish a task, and you too may feel, as I have, that it’s too much time. Too much, too little. Find a balance. Isn’t that what magic’s about?

Gawain sets off at last, and after many travails arrives at a court that he’s told lies very near the Green Chapel. No need to seek further. So he can spend the final few days at his ease.

Once again, the holiday entertainments at court are lavish. Each day the lord of the region goes out hunting, while Gawain remains in the castle, increasingly tempted by the lord’s lovely, charming wife. Her boldness and obvious wish to sample the love of a knight from the famous court of Camelot become harder and harder to resist with each passing day. Nothing like sex-and-death to blend and kindle our heightened awareness of each. Not quite a liebestod, a “love-death”, an operatic aria or duet preceding the suicide of lovers. Or maybe agreeing to such an insane challenge as an exchange of blows with edged weapons is indeed a form of suicide, when your opponent is magical.

“Strangely enough, it all turns out well”, says Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love.

“How?!” demands Shakespeare, as do other characters in their turn.

“I don’t know”, Henslowe admits. “It’s a mystery”.

Mystery or not, on the third and last day of these temptations, the lady convinces Gawain to wear her girdle at his fateful appointment. “No hero under heaven might hew him” who wears it, she urges him, and so at last he relents. Succumbs to fear. Cheats. “What should we call it but what it is?” But what is it, really? Has Gawain forfeited his honour? Squandered his good name as a knight of Arthur’s court for merely personal safety?

The poem itself offers a number of delicious clues to an answer different from any expected yes or no, and as it does so, to use film-making terms, it pans neither right nor left, but draws back and offers a wide-angle shot.

First is the fact that Gawain does yield to the Lady. He’s no “perfect knight”, whatever that means — not some bloodless ideal, but rather a mortal man.

Next is the triple blow the Green Knight offers him. As with a year and a day, we’re in magical territory with this set of threes. At the first blow, Gawain flinches, and the Knight chides him for it. At the second blow, a test of his resolve, Gawain holds firm. He readies himself for the third, which the Knight delivers, but this time merely to nick his neck, just enough to make it bleed a little.

The challenge, by its own strict terms, has been fulfilled. Gawain stood a blow in return for the one he gave the Knight a year and a day before.

But hold a moment. Gawain has also fulfilled the terms of the second contract, between himself and Bertilak, returning kisses — all he received — in exchange for the wild game the lord brings home each day. Except for this morning, when the Lady gave him the girdle, but Gawain offered no exchange to Bertilak for that.

Third is the Green Knight’s behavior here, at Gawain’s resorting to the trick of the girdle. The Knight reveals himself, and calls Gawain on his failure — but gently!

At the third time thou failed …
And therefor that tappe [of the ax] touched thee.
For it is my wede [garment] thou wearest, that same woven girdle —
My own wife weaved it for thee, I wot [know] well …
I know well thy kisses and thy conduct also,
And the wooing of my wife — I wrought it myself.
I sent her to assay thee …
Thou art the most faultless fellow that ever went on foot …
A little thing you lacked, loyalty …
Not for wooing, or any other wild work,
But that you loved your life, so I blame you less.

Fourth is Gawain’s own overblown sense of shame at being found out: “I am fawlty and falce, and have been ever”, he exclaims. Has he even heard the proportion and balance in the Knight’s estimation of him? As the ground shifts with the Knight’s revelations, both we and Gawain learn that the lady, the Knight and the whole of Bertilak’s castle are all players in a larger play — which Gawain wants nothing to do with, now that he’s been found wanting, even a little.

For Bertilak/the Green Knight reveals still more. Keep the girdle, he urges. Behind all this show is Morgan Le Fay, your uncle king Arthur’s half-sister — and thus your aunt — she who learned magic from Merlin. Come back to the Castle and finish out the New Year’s feast with us. You’ll be most welcome, all trickery now done with.

But Gawain declines. I’ll wear this girdle, yes, and thank you. But as a token of my weakness and sin. And then follows a traditional Christian catalog of men tricked by women, from Adam and Eve on down.

However, the poem’s not yet done. Gawain returns to Camelot and confesses everything to the assembled court, resolving to wear the girdle openly as a penance for the rest of his life. The court holds deep affection for him. Arthur comforts him, and everyone laughs — laughs! Then the knights of Camelot all agree that each of them will also wear a green belt as well, slanting across the chest — for Gawain’s sake! For that was acorded the renoun of the Rounde Table. And so the girdle becomes the sign and symbol of the Order of the Garter, founded in 1350. What good is your shame, if others transform it to honor?

And last is the subsequently-added French tag that closes the poem, the motto of the Order of the Garter, and an admonition to the reader: honi soit qui mal y pense — “shame to anyone who thinks it bad”, we might say. What goes around comes around, say others, centuries later than the Medieval poet.

Perhaps you hear it differently, but in these multiple ending moments I hear Pagan laughter. Tolerant, forgiving, intimately familiar with human weakness and pride, capable of the long view, able to shape good from misfortune, and delighting in the often ironic reversals that achieve these things.

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*Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007.

Year 7 at A Druid Way   Leave a comment

At the close of my seventh year with this blog, I’m devoting a post to taking stock.

First, thank-yous to everyone — nearly 10,000 of you this past year — who keep coming back to read, to ruminate, and to comment.  As I note on my About page, quoting Philip Carr-Gomm:

Just as the spiritual path can be characterised as the ongoing attempt to both remember yourself and forget yourself, so blogging can be seen as a challenge to both be more personal, more open, more sharing of the riches of a life and at the same time to take yourself less seriously, to let go of the concern about what other people might think about you, and to reveal rather than conceal your curiosity and amazement at the often crazy world you find yourself in.

As a spiritual practice, writing here keeps me turning over my experiences and perspectives — a good thing, I’ve found, for both consciousness and compost. This coming February 2019 I’ll join a panel of speakers with the rich topic of “Spiritual Lessons from Everyday Life”, and my time with this blog will definitely contribute. Human experiences have no “size” that I can determine, despite any labels we apply to them. Seemingly “small” ones deliver impacts that may not fully mature for years, while the splashier ones often fade quickly as dreams. You keep turning them over, turning them over, and good stuff emerges, which you know in retrospect mostly because it nourishes what will grow in the future. If I neglect this, soon all I have is a midden that smells, attracts pests, and I learn I’ve forfeited an opportunity for work that is real. Fortunately I can pick up the pitchfork and shovel at any moment and begin.

What other people bring to say, and how they respond to what I share here, seems to work much the same way. You learn it’s often not about you at all, whatever you thought. Each of us makes individual journeys so idiosyncratic and often difficult to get into words that what amazes me is we’re able to share anything at all. Or as I have occasion to exclaim to my wife, I’ve slowly learned that two things are simultaneously true, in the best traditions of paradox: that I’m nothing like other people, and that I’m exactly like other people — I’m an alien, or I’m your twin. This blog usually lands somewhere along that continuum.

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Three of the most popular posts this past year originate not from this year but from my 2017 “Druid and Christian Themes” series. This intersection of traditions still lights up for me, as it apparently does for a sizable proportion of readers. Otherwise, the only excuse I can offer for my choice of topics is also Thoreau’s: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” But beyond Transcendentalist Yankee Smart-assery, he makes a subtler point: go deep enough inside yourself and you will find things to say that resonate for others at least some of the time. The odds of this happening are about the same as for baseball, so an average of .300 is respectable indeed.

Looking a little further at the Druid-Christian intersection I recall how Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints (p. 31).

Since I find I’m citing Carr-Gomm a lot in this post, I’ll end with one more observation by him that I find still most topical today, the 30th of December 2018:

One 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.

May we each find and recognize “whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development”. Blessings of the coming New Year to you all.

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