Archive for the ‘animals’ Category

Revisiting Old Magic(ian)s   Leave a comment

rjstewartIn this post I enthuse about an early and continuing inspiration in my practice, and inevitably drag in other more idiosyncratic but hopefully still relevant associations along the way.  So first, the “old magician” of the title.  Scottish-born R. J. Stewart (b. 1949), a composer and author, is among the handful of contemporary practicing magicians whose work has done much to clear away accumulated Medieval and Victorian superstition and obscurity from magic.  Why, for instance, should I intone or vibrate a particular name during a ritual, unless I know what it is and what it’s meant to accomplish?

Inspired by Celtic tradition and the teachings of his mentor Ronald Heaver (1900-1980), Stewart has developed practices designed to heal both magician and environment, among other reasons Druids may be interested in him.  (His website deserves a visit if you want to learn more about him and his magic.)  Along the way, with his Inner Convocations and Inner Traditions practices, he’s also helped to articulate a comprehensible theory of how magic works and can be effectively practiced, reflected in workshops, audio projects, and books like Living Magical Arts (hereafter LMA).  That book was my first deep introduction to magic more than two decades ago, and I sit with my dog-eared copy in front of me now.

I value LMA in part because in it Stewart states basic truths succinctly and clearly — truths I find I need to come back to again and again. His work derives from personal experience.  That means that unlike too many texts on “magic,” it is no pastiche of the work of others, or a mere catalog of magical correspondences that do little by themselves to advance actual magical practice.  On the page, correspondences may look  nice (or scary, depending on your own personal fear factor) and decorative for the armchair magician — and who isn’t one of those, with all the books on magic you could read and leave lying around to impress or intimidate guests?!  But anyone half-way into a serious first-year study of magic can (re)create from experience their own list of equally effective correspondences.  That doesn’t render them somehow invalid or useless, but shows that they’re dependent variables rather than constants.  I wanted the constants, “unrealist” that I can sometimes be.

The fact that magical traditions worldwide share much common ground in things like tables of correspondences, while annoyingly refusing to agree on some presumed “basics,” like which direction is associated with which element, should of course give us a clue about what “matters,” what’s convention, and what the difference is.  (For more on this, see Mike Nichols’ wonderful “13 Reasons Why Air Should Be North,” now promoted to the status of a “Sacred Text” at ISTA, the Internet Sacred Text Archive, which if you don’t know, you should know, if only to “waste” large amounts of time exploring.)

spiralimgIn LMA, Stewart offers overviews, rationales, and a coherent and profound magical philosophy for what he presents. As he defines it, “magic is a set of methods for arranging awareness according to patterns.”  Worked with consciously, these patterns can help catalyze a transformation: “the purpose of magical arts is to enable changes within the individual by which he or she may apprehend further methods [of magic and transformation] inwardly.”  This transformation can come about because “magic attempts to relate human consciousness to divine consciousness through patterns inherent in each.”

One reason for the magical dimension of human reality is simply that, as biologists have been discovering, we’re pattern-seekers and pattern-makers in profound ways. That’s how we make sense of the world, the “one great bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” of things*.  Find the pattern — or impose one, if nothing helpfully steps forward as a clue to whatever’s going on in front of our noses.  Note that this predilection towards pattern-making is neither “good” or “bad” by itself — though it makes sense to assume, as at least a provisional view of reality, that if pattern-recognition is so successful as a survival strategy across so many species, it may actually have something to say about what “reality” is like, or how it comes across to consciousnesses still evolving to “grok” it.

fmofhrFor we share this “blueprint of consciousness” with other mammals, which is why I suspect we were ever able to domesticate animals like dogs, cats, sheep, geese, ducks, chickens, cows, horses, and pigs that have contributed so hugely to human civilization.  They’ve served us as sources of food, clothing, transportation, power for machines, defense, pest control, and companionship.  (Growing up, I remember a picture my dad displayed prominently in our house of five cows, each one representing a different breed of dairy cattle, with the caption “Foster Mothers of the Human Race.”   We kept a herd of the familiar black and white Holsteins, the most common breed in the U.S., the breed most people think of when they think “cow,” but the other four breeds were still important enough to our farm family that as a child I also knew Brown Swiss, Jersey, Ayrshire and Guernsey cattle on sight.)  If domestication isn’t a marvelous and far-reaching act of magic, what is?

So pattern-making is a “keeper” in our toolkit of magical strategies and techniques.  I sense the shades of my born-again and otherwise Christian ancestors flinching and cringing and flagellating themselves.  But magic is not a religion, and is certainly not anti-religion, but rather “a coherent set of traditions regarding human potential.” Or it’s becoming one, in the hands of competent modern magicians like Stewart.  And he goes on to assert that the god and goddess images of religion are imaginative images “engineered to a high standard of performance.” What that means is that magicians, without ever denying the power or value of such images, work through and beyond them because they want to experience and work with the reality which lies behind images and which energizes them.

Stewart’s style both in LMA and later books is educated and not a breezy, colloquial one.  If you’re hearing worship in my words, try again.  I don’t expect everyone will (or should) agree with Stewart. I don’t always. But his common-sense, grounded, characteristically practical outlook is refreshing and unusual when you look at the sometimes careless, unscholarly, irresponsible and misleading books on the market which promise a lot and don’t deliver. Use your reason and intelligence fully, as Stewart would urge, because they’re tools too. He remarks late in the book, “if the intellect can be turned to prove to itself that conditioned life patterns are false, it becomes a useful tool towards liberation.” No quick fixes here (I’m usually suspicious of books which promise those anyway), but a path worthy of prolonged dedication.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Stewart, R. J.  Living Magical Arts.  Blandford Press, U.K.  1987.

*attributed to author and psychologist William James (1842-1910)

Images: R J Stewart; magicHoard’s Dairyman “foster mothers”

Advertisements

The Four Powers: Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 3: Solstice Nestlings   2 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5]

This is the third in a series of posts about magic.  The first looked at two kinds of knowledge.  The second showed how, once we start really wanting to know, we run smack into uncomfortable discoveries about our real selves, not the glossy selfies we post like signposts to our most glorious dream of ourselves.  But self-knowing, a most valuable and prickly, disconcerting kind of knowledge.  This post is about the second of the four powers:  daring.

/|\ /|\ /|\

nest2A solstice gift from our front yard — four nestlings, blind and nearly featherless, born on the solstice in a nest the mother built between layers of fencing around part of our garden.  Still identifying the species (eggs look like a cowbird’s, but the mother is approximately sparrow-sized, dull brown and as a ground-nester, quite understandably shy and hard to photograph — a kind of thrush?).  You can just make out one remaining brown-speckled egg, unhatched, to the left, below the beaky fellow.  Any ideas, those of you who know birds well?

/|\ /|\ /|\

I’d drafted a third post in this series, about daring, several weeks ago.  Problem was, it had no spark, no daring at all.  No juice.  Ya gotta know it to show it — or to show it well, at any rate.

Then along comes the inner whisper I’ve learned to listen to. Rarely does it disappoint:  All beginnings are sacred.  Does that mean daring can embody holy force, blessed by the gods and equal to the risk?  Well, isn’t this one of our earliest lessons?!

An example:  Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was the last book Dr. Seuss published before his death in 1991, and it bears a youthful energy and excitement.  He hadn’t exhausted himself at all over the course of his career. Was this premonition (as well as a final gift for us all)?  Death itself, one more adventure, a change, a beginning. Daring.  You can watch a fine Youtube video of the poem recited by various attendees at the 2011 Burning Man.  Something more to light a fire under us, set to burning that inward itch that can never quite be scratched.

The German poet Goethe said,

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Daring means looking large, but also sometimes looking small, right underfoot. OK, got the lesson.  Birth at the Solstice, time of greatest light, the position of due south on the Wheel of the Year, the place of fire — and daring.  These nestlings hardly seem daring — too small and helpless — and they’re not the traditional media image of Stonehenge and various camera-eager painted faces and eccentrics.

And along with them, those hungry for something they haven’t figured out yet, but which stalks and seduces them at times and places like Stonehenge at the Solstice, because — or in spite of — the crowds and muddled energies moving every which way at an old sacred site.  Now the Henge is beginning to get a little more care from English Heritage, which administers and tends to such locales, and will be re-routing the A344 motorway, grassing over its current nearby transit, and constructing a more distant visitors’ center to restore more of the atmosphere and quiet to the place.  Those of us with a sea between us and the Enclosure of Merlin, as Britain was once called, can view  Stonehenge here with a 360-degree panoramic viewer at the English Heritage website, placed so that you stand and look outward from the center of the Henge.  No people present in the images — just you and the stones.

What takes birth in us during this time of light and heat and sun?   (And moon — the recent “supermoon,” which is just the largest moon of each calendar year, when our companion planet looms a little closer in its ellipse around the earth.)  The planets themselves prod me monthly, yearly, to dream  and act.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Daring to question may seem easy.  Americans claim it almost as a birthright to “question authority”  — at least if you believe the bumper stickers.  Daring to question others matters, if it’s not merely mindless — there are plenty of self-styled authorities these days who deserve challenge. But what is more excellent and harder is to question what we ourselves think we know, but may never have actually tested. The Queen in Alice in Wonderland admits, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and she was just getting started. The second step involves daring to follow through on the answers, the consequences. What’s on the other side? What am I most afraid of? What don’t I even know enough to fear? How can I use fear to motivate me and move me where I want to go? “Fear it and you’re near it.” Stare down a single fear, and you can often uncover remarkable energy to be released. Fear takes work — work is energy — face the fear and recover the energy it grabs.

Then comes daring to make the most of this life, because it’s worth daring. One of our greatest powers is to imagine, so much that I often feel that to imagine should be among the four powers, or included if five were listed instead of the love affair with fours found in so much of Western magic.

Too often we think of daring as what we do when we’re young and stupid — we feel that daring is fine “until we know better.” Do we know better? Or have I just given up on daring like I have on much else, not because it’s stupid — or I am — but because it asks too much of me, it’s easier to sit back, let others, rest on my laurels — be that older-wiser-sadder person.

Daring keeps me from resting easy once I get bored. Those are two great guides: fear of change and boredom with the same-old, same-old. Daring works equally well with either, prods me to move beyond both.

“Everything is permitted, provided you accept the consequences of what you do.” Imagination is fuel for daring, both for a glimpse of a step off the beaten path, and for a vision of what stepping off will mean.

Dare well, and I am free. Can I live in that new open space, or do I run back, slam the door behind me?  Do I dare to love my freedom more than my pain?

/|\ /|\ /|\

Updated 30 September 2014

A Ghost-Druid Dialog   Leave a comment

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

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

That kind of seeing and holding requires a special focus, a clear attention, I think, as I hurry to lunch, distinctly UN-focused, a dozen thoughts jangling, after two very different conversations with students during conference period.  My freshman advisee Walt has asked about the intricacies of some scheduling for sophomore year, while Ann, a junior and a former student, has come to talk about polishing a remarkable piece of journal writing from her freshman year for possible publication.

At the dining hall table where I often sit, Mr. Madden, Mr. Ritter and Mr. Delahunt are chuckling about an old piece of school gossip concerning the previous administration.  Ms. Valenti  joins us, and the conversation soon shifts to the deer that appear early almost every morning in the yards of the faculty residences on the campus periphery, where Ms. Valenti and Mr. Madden live in senior faculty houses.  Ms. Valenti describes the ten- or eleven-point buck she saw standing motionless in her driveway earlier in the week.  Mr. Delahunt mentions that he’s learned a small herd of deer beds down each night in a wooded gully between the new science building and the peripheral faculty housing. I cheer silently for these animal lives thriving, often just beyond our knowledge, in this apparently suburban part of the world.

At first I think all of this is mere distraction, but Blake reminds me yet again there’s a whole world here, eternity and infinity too, if I only see and touch them.  We all gobble our food, and I hurry back to my first afternoon class with my seniors.  So many grains of sand: underfoot, on the stairwell carpets of the English building, in my second-floor office when I reach down to pick up a fallen paperclip from the floor.  Each one a world, if I had time to see it.  Next year I will have time, because this is my last here.  Voluntary poverty, or insanity, or more than a little of both.

Class goes fast with my fifth period Brit Lit seniors.  Many of them read from the satires they’ve written in imitation of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  We don’t work on Blake, but here is eternity, too.  For a few moments we’re all paying attention, laughing at a satire of college admissions, or the sleep deprivation so many students face, not thinking about anyone or anything else — about the test next period, the sick friend, the college rejection letter, deadlines, schedules, midterm tomorrow, the weather, or whether a visionary dead white male Romantic poet may or may not have anything useful to say to us.

blake

Mr. Blake, we survived the 2012 fake apocalypse, I feel like crowing.  His ghost seems to nod, looking out the window at the light fog that huddles over the nearest quad.  Maybe that’s the best we can do, right now, our version of eternity: bad apocalypse.

Unwilling to share their satires, the sixth period seniors struggle with Blake.  We work through a couple of the easier poems, and soon I can tell it’s “drag” time.  I drag them through a few more, trying to open up the sometimes seeming-simplistic usually-complex lines.  Blake’s ghost sighs heavily.  An uphill climb for everyone, even though I’m working harder than usual to exhume the poet from two centuries of cultural and historic static that seems to buzz between the words on the page and the lives of my students.  I give them a creative writing exercise, and one soft-spoken girl produces a lovely poem inspired by the lines at the top of this post.  Her lines offer almost all sensory detail, a lovely lyric, with none of the teen angst that normally trails after much adolescent poetry like a homeless dog.  I give thanks for such things.

Blake, old sage, tyger-burner, Jerusalem-singer, painter and poet of the 19th century as strange and full of possibility as our 21st … what else do you have to tell me?  I listen as I write, content for a moment to hear the voice of silence in and around the clicks and taps of the keyboard.  “Hear the voice of the Bard, who past, present and future sees …”  With the view out my window circumscribed to the present only, I can tell I have my work cut out for me.  Blake’s ghost nods encouragingly.  Time to begin again.

/|\ /|\ /|\

image:  “Beatrice addresses Dante”; William Blake

Updated 23 April 2015

Wintering Over   Leave a comment

To “winter over” has always sounded encouraging to me.  It may be a matter of full-on hibernation …

or merely that human sleep of cold weather that lingers through the darkness, drives us to seek out heavy, fat, rich foods in ancestral echo of our animal heritage, and longs to do nothing more strenuous than curl up and dream.  There is animal “faith,” if you want to call it that, built into our bones and blood: the world will not turn away from us while we sleep, and we shall wake again to life.

The dormouse in the picture has it about right:  sleep with food half your size (hazelnuts, in this case), wake up, snack, pee, then back to sleep again.  Drowsing comes much more easily now, especially after daylight savings time has shifted our days and brought evening creeping into the afternoons.  With that extra jolt of possible light (this IS November, after all), mornings may be brighter and better, if you’re a morning person, but let 5:00 or 5:30 pm roll around and it feels like late evening already.  Then today, with snowfall along the east coast as the winter storm makes its way along the same path Sandy took a short time ago, and you have hibernation mode with a vengeance.

May New York and New Jersey find their hazelnuts, their winter store of energy and life.  A prayer to the South, where the people are cold in the dark, and my living breath upon it.  A prayer to the west, where the frozen time has come, and my living breath upon it.  A prayer to the north, warmer than many places closer to the equator: my living breath upon it.  A prayer to the east, with winds cold and damp: my living breath upon it.   Let all that breathes move its prayer with each inhalation and exhalation.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: dormouse.

Updated 8 Nov ’12

The Fur Teacher   2 comments

This will be a sentimental “cute doggie” story only in passing.  Not because I’m averse to sentimentality (I’m often a “softie” as my wife reminds me), or because emotion is somehow automatically suspect (it’s not), but because sentimentality on its own can be a distraction when there’s some other and more valuable discovery I can usually make.  Such a discovery may underlie the sentiment it raises like a flag waving, a blush at sudden emotional vulnerability.  But the discovery itself often reaches much deeper than sentiment can take us. Let sentiment always claim first dibs on my attention and I may never make the discovery that so often seems to slip past right under my nose. It’s like, well … licking off the dressing and throwing out the salad.  OK, imperfect metaphor, but you get the idea.

Sentiment deserves its proper place.  That’s a lesson on its own, I’ve found — figuring out what that place is in all the various experiences of our lives — and worth its own post.  But this is a story about animals as our teachers, a theme in Druidry (and elsewhere, of course) that never grows old, at least for me.  And it’s a story about one particular furred teacher, in this case a dog.  Often animals are some of our earliest and best teachers.

Some time ago, while my wife Sarah was slowly recovering from cancer surgery, the after-effects of follow-up radiation, and the side-effects of long-term use of an anti-seizure med, she fulfilled a two-decade dream of getting another Newfoundland.  For those of you who don’t know them, the Newf is the more mischievous cousin of the St. Bernard, with whom it is sometimes confused. Both are the giants of the dog world.  And both drool pretty much continually.

Sarah’s first Newf, her beloved and mellow Maggie, saw her through a rough time in her teens.  But her second Newf, Spree, was entirely different in temperament.  Strong-willed and stubborn, unlike Maggie in the latter’s eagerness to please, and formidably intelligent, where Maggie could be somewhat dim, Spree simply demanded much more from both of us.  Leash-training, house-breaking, socialization — all were more involved than either of us had experienced with previous dogs.  Spree’s first mission seemed to be to wrench Sarah out of a lingering mild post-op depression — by canine force, if necessary. “I am now your black-furred, drooling world,” she insisted. Lesson One:  “There’s more to pay attention to.  Watch (me)!”  A second Lesson followed closely on that one:  “You can still trust this physical body (to take care of me, for a start.)  There are years of use left in it.  Now move that fanny!”

Maggie had suffered from severe hip-displasia, a weakness in many large and large-boned breeds like Newfs that can leave them effectively crippled.  Sarah was determined by any means in her power to avoid this with Spree, if she could.  She researched bloodlines and ancestries, kennels and breeding practices.  Finally she made her choice from a recently-born litter in Ohio, eight hundred miles from our home.  On top of that, Sarah was prepared to cook from scratch all of Spree’s food for her first two years, while her bones grew and she matured.  Spree did in fact end up with good bones, as a couple of tests demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction, and she never suffered from displasia, but she had a number of food allergies that plagued her the rest of her life. The next Lesson didn’t seem to be only “Guess what?  First problem down.  Next?”  It was more like “In the decade or so I am with you, I will stretch you and teach you to love more.  And you’ll be starting with me.  Ready?”

During all but the first of the eleven years Spree was with us, we lived in a dorm apartment at the boarding school where we worked.  Most of the freshman girls in our dorm adored her — certainly she was a great conversation starter for any visitors.  We put up a dog gate to protect the dog-phobic minority, an obstacle Spree despised.

It’s true that at 124 pounds she did outweigh many of the girls.  (More than once, out and about on campus with her, we heard pedestrians near us exclaim, “Oh my God, is that a bear?!”)  And on evenings when I was on dorm duty, Spree had her many fans among the girls who just had to pet that soft lush black fur before they could settle down to study hours.  And during breaks they’d come back to visit — Spree of course, not me.  One of the lessons here, which she seemed to express with a contented doggy gaze at me as she received the girls’ caresses which she took as her due, was “Remember the wisdom of the body.  It is after all your life in this world.  We all need touch to thrive.  (I volunteer to demonstrate.  Pet me.)  Remember good food.  (Feed me.)  Remember exercise.  (Walk me.)”

The last few months of her life, Spree dealt with bone cancer that started in her neck and shoulder and spread, weakening bone and aching more and more.  We always knew Spree had a very high tolerance for pain. A score of incidents throughout her life had shown us that. Injuries that would set other dogs crying or yelping she would bear in silence, and keep on running, playing, eating — whatever was more interesting than pain.  We learned to slow her down for her own good many times, to minimize further damage, to check just what had happened, to bandage and treat and clean her.  In her final weeks, however, even on medication, her suffering continued to increase. It was winter, and she would ask to go outside several times a day to lie in the snow, her great coat keeping the rest of her warm enough, as she chilled and eased the hurt, rolling slowly in the snow, then lying on her back and side for half an hour or more at a time.  The three shallow back steps to our small yard were eventually agony for her to climb either up or down, but she refused the sling we’d borrowed to help her.  She cried out only once, in her last days, when it simply hurt too much.  A Lesson:  “I stayed longer than my kind usually can. [The average Newf life-span is roughly 8 years.]  Make the most of what you’re given.  You two are obviously slow learners on that score.  Why else do you think I hung around this long?”

Spree in her final springtime, age 11

The last hour of her life, at the vet’s office, was  on a snowy winter day (she loved the snow). Dazed from a liberal dose of morphine, but as a result now blissfully free of pain, she enthusiastically greeted the three of us, Sarah and me and a fellow Newfie owner, who came to say goodbye as she was euthanized. Several difficult lessons.  “There will be pains and pain.  Guaranteed.  You can still do much.  There will be hurt, but there’s no need to grant it more power over you than it must have.”

Spree greeted the vet who came to administer the euthanasia with her typical curiosity and people-love.  A wagging tail, a nose pressed into the person’s thigh.  The last seconds before she passed, she lay full-length and at ease.  The vet had earlier inserted a catheter in her left paw to make both morphine and euthanasia easier to give, fuss-free.  Spree nosed the syringe that held the dose as the vet pushed the plunger.  “What is this?”  Always she had explored her world first through her exquisite sense of smell.  Near-sighted as she was her whole life, smell was her go-to sense.  It is of course the chief sense for most dogs, but so much more so, almost obsessively so, in her case.  Each shopping trip we brought into the house required a comprehensive smell-check, each item sniffed and investigated completely, regardless of whether it was (to a Newf) fit for food.  In part, the Lessons here seemed to be “Sniff out whatever comes into your orbit.  Find out its nature, whether it directly concerns you or not.  And enjoy the physical senses.  They also do not last, but each will tell you much about this life.”  And yet another lesson:  “Dying may suck, true.  Death, however, does not deserve our fear.  Pain does not last forever.  Be curious about everything.  Friends, isn’t that a better way?”

Animals teach wordlessly, and therefore often more effectively, through their nature as other spiritual beings who share the planet with us.  Here I have interpreted into language some of that teaching as best I could, without excessive anthropomorphizing.  I send gratitude for this fur-teacher in our lives.  And I thank old wisdom-teacher William Blake for writing, “Everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”

/|\ /|\ /|\

Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil   Leave a comment

To get you into the spirit of Imbolc and Groundhog’s Day tomorrow, February 2nd, here’s a Youtube video documenting record attendance at Gobbler’s Knob outside Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog’s Day, 2008.

If you’re impatient and don’t wish to watch the entire seven-minute video, begin with the first 20 seconds or so, as the town’s “Inner Circle” in black coats and top hats process to Gobbler’s Knob, and then cut to when the action picks up again with Phil’s appearance shortly after the four-minute mark.

For the “official” Groundhog Day site and up to the date info, as well as other videos, visit groundhog.org.

Jesus the Druid, Part 2: Animal Models   Leave a comment

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  (Matthew 10:16)

A regular menagerie of a sentence!  Sheep, wolves, serpents and doves. If inanimate things like stones can testify to divinity (see previous post) and proclaim truth in the face of human delusion, then certainly birds and beasts can do the job, too.

Here Jesus is admonishing his followers, as he commissions them to spread his teaching, that the world is full of wolves.  His disciples won’t appear on the scene with an army at their beck and call.  They don’t carry letters of introduction, or a case of free product samples to tempt the potential client.  No email blast or flurry of tweets precedes their arrival.  No, if they’re to succeed, they’ll need specific attributes which he characterizes as the wisdom of serpents and the harmlessness of doves.  And note that you can’t transpose those qualities; who would welcome a person “wise as a dove” or “harmless as a serpent”?!  Bad advertizing.  It’s a recipe for disaster. But more importantly, would serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness actually work?  Hold that thought.

A persistent tradition in the UK at least eight centuries old has Jesus spending some of the “lost” years — between his appearance in the temple at 12 and the start of his public ministry around age 30 — in Britain, studying with Druids.  William Blake, associated with revival Druidry during his lifetime in the 19th century, penned the famous hymn “Jerusalem” (this version hails from the last night of the ’09 Proms, a popular annual summer music series in the U.K.).  The lyrics were put to music about a century later, and the piece has become a perennial favorite, a kind of unofficial British national anthem:

And did those feet in ancient times
walk upon England’s mountains green?
and was the holy lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

These lines of the opening stanza seem innocuous enough, if fanciful.   A Middle-Easterner would surely have it rough during a British winter — it isn’t always “green.”  The tradition continues from there, claiming that after Christ’s death, Joseph of Arimathea (who provided a tomb for the body) either sent part of the Grail to England, or made the journey himself and founded a church in Glastonbury, or planted there a thorn tree long venerated as holy.* Whatever the truth of these events, it makes for a striking symbol and image.

But Blake continues, and this is when his poem turns odd:

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

As a proto-Druid, Blake gets his ecological digs in here:  the “dark Satanic mills” of the early industrial revolution are already at work spewing smoke and ash over London.  While most Druids today have no intention of attempting to “build Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land,” the song brings divinity one step closer.  Who complains if some versions of our ancient history bring with them a delicious shiver of magic or imaginative religious reconstruction?  But is the way to achieve divinity on our shores through “mental fight” and metaphorical battle?  The sudden shift to the quadruple imperative of “Bring … bring … bring … bring” summons up images of a bronze-age charioteer.  But what of the “arrows of desire”?  Here the image is of Eros, Cupid, the piercing quality of sudden strong feeling.  Is it the poet speaking as “I” in the last stanzas?  Or as someone else?  Is it Blake’s idea of Jesus?

You may not remember, but I asked you a few paragraphs back to hold the thought of serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness.  Some of the “wisdom” accrues from the belief that serpents are uncanny beasts, for they are able to shed their skin and achieve a kind of rebirth or immortality.  And the serpent in the Garden that haunts the Western pysche tempted Eve not to the Tree of Life (Eve!  EVE!! The other tree!  Eat from the OTHER tree!!) but the Tree of Knowledge.  As I tease my students, “Major mistake.  Become immortal first, and then get the knowledge of good and evil.”  The harmlessness of doves is less problematic.  Though city dwellers may have their foremost associations with pigeons as flocking beggars in parks, or as producers of statue-staining and public-building-defacing birdshit.

But consider again.  If you know something — I mean really know something of life-changing power — you need to come across as seriously harmless.  Otherwise people have this nasty tendency to string you up, burn you at the stake, remove the supreme discomfort of your ideas and presence at all costs.  Your wisdom puts you in mortal danger.  So reassure people first, and work your changes quietly, harmlessly.  A major piece of strategy!  Some devious or disgusting trick you’d expect to discover about that other political party — the one you don‘t belong to and affect to despise as the epitome of all things vile and loathsome.  Is that why this year’s political reality-show contestants (I mean presidential candidates) come across as less than competent?  (Repeat after me:  “All candidates vile and and loathsome, all con-men big or small, all morons foul and putrid, Democrats/Republicans have them all!”**)

So  animals embody a divinely-commissioned strategy for survival.  The wisdom of the serpent, long despised, is not dead, but sleeps in each of us, waiting the touch of the divine longing to rouse and waken it in the service of life.  The son of God (we are all children of the divine) summons it forth from us.  It lives, tree of knowledge and tree of life united, identical, twining its way around our hearts, which know — when our heads deny it — which way to go, what we need, where to find answers others say are “forbidden” or “not for mortals to know.”  On the contrary — they’re specifically intended for mortals to realize.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*The Glastonbury thorn has lately made headlines.  It (there are actually several in the area, believed to spring from a single parent) was hacked down two years ago this month (with some historical precedent, if you read the article) and then recovered enough by March of 2011 to put forth a new shoot.  Another demonstration, as if we needed it, that old things do not just disappear because we hack at them or find them out of place or inconvenient.  They have a habit of return, of springing back to life.  Another habit from the natural world for us to imitate …

**This uncharacteristically acerbic side-note is not part of the actual blog.

%d bloggers like this: