Archive for the ‘belief and experience’ Category

Postscriptus Magicus   2 comments

Inspiration, the awen of the Bard, isn’t all or nothing. Sometimes you get one corner, a kind of foothold, a vantage point, enough to see more, to see a whole landscape through a window just before the window closes.

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The house of fire —
no closed doors —
only porches and windows
opening onto flame.

A few notes for other stanzas, and that was it. But sometimes a fragment is enough. You can jump-start with it, from it, months afterward.

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Sometimes, likewise, if we’re open and available, the trees really do tell us what we need.

I help oak, and oak helps me —
we’ll join to hold the energy.

This little rhyme came to me while we meditated at the foot of an oak — part of our ritual prep for the main ley-line rite at MAGUS ’18 last weekend. As much as the oak ogham stave in my hand, the rhyme helped me focus during the ritual. Our outer duir oak ring was charged with gathering and holding the energy the ritual would generate, until the moment our ring moved to the center altar and charged the stones waiting there. One fellow outer-ring participant said it felt at first like a very small pup trying to corral a very large beach ball. But then we joined together to “become one big-ass dog that could tackle it”.

Not surprisingly, the carefully-planned ritual generated a lot of power. I know I can often be slow in picking up on magical energies flowing around me. “Obtuse” wouldn’t be too harsh a word, much of the time. So I knew I had to deal with doubts about my usefulfulness as well as concerns about my vulnerability.

Now it’s easy to rationalize almost all magic. I do it myself, and I often do it well. But rather than debating whether it — or any other experience — is “real” or “genuine”, I can opt to apply different criteria and free myself for more useful tasks. A good logic-fest can be fun at times, but it’s often a tail-chasing exercise. Whether we’re falling in love, writing a song, painting, gardening, caring for others, or working with a dream journal, logic typically isn’t the first or the best tool to employ. A chisel, sandpaper, a potter’s wheel — all produce markedly different effects. They’re so not interchangeable!

Philip Carr-Gomm addresses the issue in his characteristically understated way. In this short Youtube clip he proposes something other than logic for looking at and assessing experience:

Rather than obsessing over whether an experience is true or genuine, I can contemplate its effect on me and my life. Have I benefited from the experience? While not all experiences are easy or painless, is the insight, perspective or compassion for others than I have gained worth it? “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Sometimes, a full answer to those questions may not come for months or years. And that’s OK. By themselves, experiences can resemble an afternoon at an amusement park. Pay your money, get your experiences. But their long-term effect and value is a more helpful measure of their worth.

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Brighid of the Snows   3 comments

The first stanza of Damh the Bard’s lovely song “Brighid” (below) places the goddess in the landscape of vision:

There’s a tree by the well in the wood,
That’s covered in garlands,
Clooties and ribbons that drift,
In the cool morning air.
That’s where I met an old woman,
Who came from a far land.
Holding a flame o’er the well,
And chanting a prayer.

Though here it’s the goddess who’s “chanting a prayer”, the bard has invoked her with song — his own prayer. And he’s gone to the “well in the wood” full of intention. Maybe not specifically to see the goddess, but knowing the tree and the well and the moment offer possibility waiting for human consciousness to activate. A gift of the gods, already given freely to us.

Here in Vermont a light snow falls as I write this, and I step away from the keyboard to take a picture.

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By February here, snow itself can signal spring to come. You can feel the longer light, and moments of snowy beauty remind you that wonder is never far away. The sap will be running soon in the maples, the sugar shacks smoking all day and night as the sugarmen boil down the sweet juice to syrup. Green will burst forth, improbable as that seems right now in a world of cold whiteness. So Brighid comes from a “far land” that is also always near to attention, intention and devotion.

Here across the Pond from the Celtic homeland, some North American Pagans can feel removed from the “gods of Europe”, bewailing their distance. This place, we can feel, isn’t “Their” land. Yet anyone who’s encountered a spiritual presence knows that place is a convenience of the gods, not a requirement — a set of clothes, not the being who wears them.

Yes, it would be splendid, we imagine, to visit that “tree by the well in the wood”, simply by stepping out the back door to a landscape steeped in stories and legends of the goddess. Yet we also know what familiarity breeds. Or as an African proverb has it, “Those who live nearest the church arrive late”.  The old saying that the gods like the offering of the salt of human sweat means effort is not wasted, devotion is repaid. Always, we have something we can offer them. And the gods give, but “not as the world gives”.

For you soon find that the gods are not merely passive reservoirs, to be drawn down whenever we happen to think of them and plug in for a re-charge, our rituals cannily crafted to work like the swipe of a credit card at a gas (petrol) pump. “Fill me up, Brighid!”

But wait, you say. Isn’t that just what we’re doing with ritual and song?

It’s really not a matter for argument, unless you need the exercise. Damh the Bard knows Brighid — you can hear it in the song. And out of love he’s traveled many times to the tree by the well in the wood. Brighid knows his name.

This, then, is one intention to cherish: may we serve them so that the gods know our names. Not to hold it up before others like a badge of pride, but as a spiritual resource to treasure and spend at worthy need. Or as Gandhi said, “If no one will walk with you, walk alone” knowing in truth you aren’t alone.

Ten years ago I didn’t honor Brighid. I didn’t “believe” in her, though I’d heard her name, thanks to all those who kept it alive in our world. Now I honor her, but I still don’t trouble myself about “belief”.

Instead, I take the hint and look. “I saw her reflection in the mirrored well”, Damh sings.

And I looked deep in her face,
The old woman gone, a maiden now knelt in her place,
And from my pocket I pulled a ribbon,
And in honour of her maidenhood,
I tied it there to the tree by the well in the wood.

Spiritual fire kindles in us at such moments.

A blessed Imbolc to you.

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Druid Theology, Druid Practice   5 comments

“Some people don’t understand when I say these are the things I believe.”

So Damh the Bard sings in his lovely song “The Hills They Are Hollow.” But his song begins, “As I walk upon this green land, this land that I love …”

For me, that’s where Druidry starts, not in belief, but in love and experience of the natural world and the land we live on.

Belief may or may not come later, when doors that will not open to intellect alone open to love. And if you feel the land is sacred, then quite naturally you feel like singing about it: “Let’s sing of the mystery of Sacred Land …”

Recently a visitor to this blog pm’d me to comment on what he perceives as the need for a Druid theology. It’s easy enough to feel that way, surrounded as most Pagans and Druids are by a larger culture still shaped by a religion where creeds matter much more than they do in Druidry.

My correspondent acknowledges he’s a solitary, and such a path can indeed be lonely at times. Alone, I may confront myself more directly and disconcertingly. Alone, I face truths that can be uncomfortable, inconvenient — and profoundly useful to discovery, creativity and growth. Groups can conceal and divert us from the necessary work of the self.

Yet one of the benefits of experiencing group practice is the reminder of the energies we all encounter and work with (or ignore). Yes, we can experience them all in solitary practice, sometimes more personally, vitally and intensely than in a group. Alone, I can move at my own pace, honor and learn from and serve the beings who speak to me, focus on what is meaningful and what lives within and around me.

But attend a Druid group event and you’ll find one of the hallmarks of Druidry is a wide diversity of belief arising out of that practice and experience. Such belief is almost always secondary — important certainly, coloring experience and shaping behavior, influencing interactions with others, nourishing opinions, and clarifying decisions about future practice. Standing together in a circle with your Tribe, belief matters much less. No one asks for a recital of your beliefs as part of any ticket of admission, or denies you because you don’t “believe in” the Morrigan, or you believe that the universe is a berry carried in the mouth of a trout swimming in a much larger ocean. After all, there are days I don’t believe in myself.

We face the altar, feel the sun and wind on our faces, acknowledge the always-turning year, hear the ritual words, and encounter through all our senses the reality of a marvelous cosmos alive with presences, forces and powers anyone can experience.

Walt Whitman says in his Leaves of Grass,

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Polytheists, animists, atheists, duotheists, monotheists, henotheists, eclectics, chaos magicians consciously selecting beliefs appropriate to their goals at the time — in the face of such variety, what can a Druidic theology say about belief in deity, the core of most credal religions — which Druidry clearly isn’t? What would such a theology achieve that Druidry doesn’t already have?

Yes, in the OBOD Alban Elfed ritual, we say the ritual words and recite the Druid’s prayer “which unites all Druids.” But from everything I’ve seen, the unity isn’t one of belief but of willingness to try out ritual for what it is and can be, to honor the sacred moment, and to hear the awen singing in its many forms. “Grant, O Spirit/Goddess/God/Holy Ones, your protection …”

“Why do we use the same ritual each year?” ask some of the regular attendees at the East Coast Gathering. Well, we do and we don’t. One common and shared autumn ritual during a weekend filled with name ceremonies, grade initiations, peace rituals, workshops, songs and the ritual of eating together with new and familiar people isn’t too much to ask.

Because it’s a ground form, a common experience for everyone, nothing too daunting for a first-time attendee, whether OBOD member or visitor, familiar to the experienced ritualist who can fine-tune the ritual pacing, catch the moment when a squadron of hawks soars above the Gathering, or a cloud of dragonflies visits the circle, or owls hoot in the woods. The wind lifts from the east at exactly the moment East is invoked, and everyone can share the connection.

My correspondent says, “Until we have a theology, I fear druidism will not be taken seriously by those outside of our thought … I do believe our fantasy perceptions need crushing and only a theological work can place [our Druidry] alongside other faiths on a level of reality.”

But is reality in fact one thing? Is an insistence on one reality — always somebody else’s, I notice, never mine — what we need now, or have ever needed? Do “the Fae dance on Midsummer’s Eve”? Perhaps we need more, not fewer, “fantasy perceptions” in a world where a large portion of people routinely cannot see the stars at night because of light pollution, where a Guardian columnist notes that our language mirrors our declining ability to notice and name the natural world:

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose-poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

“One of the most striking characteristics of Druidism,” writes Philip Carr-Gomm, “is the degree to which it is free of dogma and any fixed set of beliefs or practices” (What Do Druids Believe? Granta Publications, 2006, pg. 25). “It honours the uniqueness of each individual’s spiritual needs. In this way it manages to offer a spiritual path and a way of being in the world that avoids many of the problems of intolerance and sectarianism that the established religions have encountered.”

And so I submit that it’s always good to know what you believe, as a way of doing what Carr-Gomm describes: honoring the unique form of your spirituality. Get it down in writing for yourself, grapple with it — and keep it on hand so you can revise it as your life takes you in unseen and unforeseeable directions. But never suppose it can serve you as a club to beat others “for not doing it my way” unless you want others to beat you with theirs.

Why let a belief-reaction, a secondary response to the primacy of experience, dominate my consciousness? No, thanks. Beliefs change. Any religion which rests on a credal foundation will always be rocked by a world that shifts beneath it, by words that will forever need updating as understanding changes, by a nagging sense that reality stubbornly persists in not conforming to belief. Rather than blaming Satan or some evil Other, Druidry looks at the world and strives to learn from it. Imperfectly, humbly, joyfully.

Are there beliefs that most Druids share? Sure. But more interesting to me are my own experiences and the conclusions I draw from them. Below I offer part of a previous post from some eight months ago as an approximation of my own theology, always subject to change without notice, as any honest theology should be. Here are six things I believe:

/|\ I believe that to be alive is a chance, if I take it, to be part of something vastly larger than my own body, emotions, and thoughts (or if I’ve learned any empathy, the bodies, emotions and thoughts of people I care about). These things have their place, but they are not all.

/|\ I believe this because when I pay attention to the plants and animals, air, sky, water and the whole wordless living environment in and around me, I am lifted out of the small circle of my personal concerns and into a deeper kinship I want to celebrate. I discover this sense of connection and relationship is itself celebration. Because of these experiences, I believe further that if I focus only on my own body, emotions, and thoughts, I’ve missed most of my life and its possibilities. Ecstasy is ec-stasis, “standing outside.” Ecstatic experiences lift us out of the narrowness of the life that advertisers tell us should be our sole focus and into a world of beauty and harmony and wisdom.

/|\ I believe likewise that the physicality of this world is something to learn deeply from. The most physical experiences we know, eating and hurting, being ill and making love, dying and being born, all root us in our bodies and focus our attention on now. They take us to wordless places where we know beyond language. Even to witness these things can be a great teacher.

/|\ I believe in other worlds than this one because, like all of us, I’ve been in them, in dream, reverie, imagination and memory, to name only a few altered states. I believe that our ability to live and love and die and return to many worlds is what keeps us sane, and that the truly insane are those who insist this world is the only one, that imagination is dangerous, metaphor is diabolical, dream is delusion, memory is mistaken, and love? — love, they tell us, is merely a matter of chemical responses.

/|\ I believe that humans, like all things, are souls and have bodies, not the other way around — that the whole universe is animate, that all things vibrate and pulse with energy, as science is just beginning to discover, and that we are (or can be) at home everywhere because we are a part of all that is.

/|\ I believe these things because human consciousness, like the human body, is marvelously equipped for living in this universe, because of all its amazing capacities that we can see working themselves out for bad and good in headlines and history. In art and music and literature, in the deceptions and clarities, cruelties and compassions we practice on ourselves and each other, we test and try out our power.

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A Triad on the Mighty Ones   2 comments

triskele“Three reasons for supplicating the Mighty Ones: because it is a pleasure to you, because you wish to be a friend of the Wise, because your soul is immortal” — traditional.

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Like many I revere Brigid. This time of year it’s easy in our house — the fire in our woodstove reminds me of one of her domains, and the lovely orange and blue flames of well-seasoned wood could wake any heart to poetry. I honor her in thought whenever I recall her, I honor her in action by lighting the fire, a daily practice this time of year. To see the wood take flame, to feel the house temperature begin to rise each morning once a good burn gets going and I can close the flue — how could these not be a pleasure, a cause for celebration?

the_godsI love that none of the usual default reasons that our monotheistic culture provides for supplication or prayer come up in this Triad: to save your soul, or to avoid hell, or to please a god or God, or to make up for some human weakness. No, the reasons here are splendidly other, and the first — the first! — is pleasure. Ask yourself, “Do I actually like the company of the Divine? If not, why spend time pretending I do? But if I do … ‘Can I have some more, please?'”

Or perhaps I don’t know either way. So why not find out? One reason to revere and honor and supplicate — lovely old word! — the Mighty Ones is find out what happens if I do.

immortals-the-godsAnd to be a friend of the Wise? For me that means I value wisdom, value those who aspire to it, and aspire to it myself. It’s a measure of our times that wisdom isn’t a word we hear very much. Maybe because it’s fallen out of favor. Maybe because many have abandoned it for cheaper thrills online and off. The company and friendship of the Wise! This, too, is a pleasure I hope you’ve had.

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s-la-lost-horYesterday out of a mix of nostalgia and procrastination at improving my Nanowrimo word-count, I was skimming through James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, which gave us the fabulous Shangri-La. (I first read the novel in high school, at the insistence of an English teacher who also pulled us through Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. You can practically determine my age to within a few years just by those details, if you happen to follow — or yourself suffered through — trends in U.S. secondary education. You can find Hilton’s work online at Project Gutenberg Australia here.)

Hilton gives us the following wonderful exchange between Roberta Brinklow, a British missionary, one of a number of Westerners stranded in the Himalayas at the monastery of Shangri-La, and the English-speaking Chinese monk Chang, who is the principal go-between for the little band of Brits and the Tibetan natives.

“What do the lamas do?” she continued.

“They devote themselves, madam, to contemplation and to the pursuit of wisdom.”

“But that isn’t DOING anything.”

“Then, madam, they do nothing.”

“I thought as much.” She found occasion to sum up. “Well, Mr. Chang, it’s a pleasure being shown all these things, I’m sure, but you won’t convince me that a place like this does any real good. I prefer something more practical.”

“Perhaps you would like to take tea?”

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy stories that deal with the meeting of cultures and the delightful misunderstandings that inevitably result. Of course, my sympathies in this instance lie where Hilton’s also appear to — with the long-suffering Chang.

What good does wisdom do?! Oh darlin’, if you have to ask …

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And the best reason of all which the Triad gives us (if like us the Celts saved the best for last)? Because we recognize the gods are our kin — because what is immortal in us answers the call of what is immortal in them.

I don’t need to have any belief about this either way (“More slackness!” as Hilton’s Miss Brinklow might have said).  I can experiment instead. Am I immortal? Let’s see if I can actually get some inkling either way. Do the gods have something worth my learning, something that may touch on just this issue? Why not supplicate them and find out for myself? Could there be a connection between an experience of the divine and a greater understanding of what it is to be human?

Wherever did we begin to imagine that such questions ought to be matters of belief rather than personal experience?! As if we were asked about the taste of fresh berries and cream on the basis of our knowledge of somebody else’s report, rather than the bowl of them sitting right in front of us! Here’s a spoon. Dig in …

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IMAGES: triskelegods of war — Deviant Art; immortals — the gods; Shangri-La.

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