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A Hallowed Evening and a Conquest   Leave a comment

It’s almost here: Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain/Samhuinn, Dia del los Muertos, Day of the Dead.  Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most unusual festivals in the calendar. In this post I want to take a different tack, exploring history at least somewhat removed from the usual Christian-Pagan fireworks that continue to pop off annually around this time. Because the Druid-pleasing answer* to “Is it Christian?” and “Is it Pagan?” is “Yes.” What matters more, I hope, is what that can mean for us today.

pumpkinfieldsm

A recent (Tues., Oct 28) issue of the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper features an article on Halloween by British historian Ronald Hutton, who’s well known in Druid circles both for the quality and thorough documentation of his historical work and also his interest in Druidry. Among many other points, Hutton addresses the impression, widespread in Great Britain, that Halloween’s an import from the U.S. It’s not, of course, being instead as English as Monty Python and Earl Grey (and later, as Irish as the Famine, and Bailey’s Irish Cream). Hutton’s observations suggest a connection I’d like to make in this post, in keeping with this time of year. Hence my title, which will become clear in a moment. Just bear with me as I set the stage.

November, rather unimaginatively named “Ninth Month” (Latin novem), was called in Anglo-Saxon Blodmonath, the “blood month” — not for any “evil, nasty and occult” reasons beloved of today’s rabble-rousers, but for the simple fact this was the month for the slaughter of animals and preservation of meat for the coming season of darkness and cold.

Hutton observes that the ancestor to modern Halloween:

… was one of the greatest religious festivals of the ancient northern pagan year, and the obvious question is what rites were celebrated then.

The answer to that is that we have virtually no idea, because northern European pagans were illiterate, and no record remains of their ceremonies. The Anglo-Saxon name for the feast comes down to an agricultural reality, the need to slaughter the surplus livestock at this time and salt down their meat, because they could not be fed through the winter. A Christian monk, Bede, commented that the animals were dedicated to the gods when they were killed, but he did not appear to know how (and they would still have been eaten by people).

Hutton proceeds to examine how we can nevertheless reconstruct something of that time and its practices through careful research. As a Janus-faced holiday, Halloween marked the fullness and completion of the harvest and return home of warriors and travelers — a time to celebrate.  It also marked the coming of the hardest season — winter: cold, dark, often miserable and hungry, and sometimes fatal. People then measured their ages not in years but in winters — how many you’d survived. Hutton eloquently conveys all this — do read his article if you have time.

And because so much of North America bears the imprint of English culture, I want to peer at one particular autumn, and the Hallowed Evening that year, in England 948 years ago.  It’s 1066, a good year at the outset, as historian David Howarth paints it** in his wonderfully readable 1066: The Year of the Conquest. A year, strangely enough, both like and unlike our own experience so many generations later in 2014:

It was not a bad life to be English when the year began: it was the kind of life that many modern people vainly envy. For the most part, it was lived in little villages, and it was almost completely self-sufficient and self-supporting; the only things most villages had to buy or barter were salt and iron. Of course it was a life of endless labour, as any simple life must be, but the labour was rewarded: there was plenty to eat and drink, and plenty of space, and plenty of virgin land for ambitious people to clear and cultivate. And of course the life had sudden alarms and dangers, as human life has had in every age, but they were less frequent than they had ever been: old men remembered the ravages of marauding armies, but for two generations the land had been at peace. Peace had made it prosperous; taxes had been reduced; people had a chance to be a little richer than their forefathers. Even the weather was improving. For a long time, England had been wetter and colder than it normally is, but it was entering a phase which lasted two centuries when the summers were unusually warm and sunny and the winters mild. Crops flourished, and men and cattle throve. Most of the English were still very poor, but most of the comforts they lacked were things they had never heard of.

Howarth’s account continues, vivid in detail; he chooses the small town of Little Horstede near Hastings that dates from Saxon times for his focus, to examine the immediate and later impact of the Norman Conquest.

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

By early autumn of the year, things still looked promising for the English. True, their king Harold Godwinson, new to the throne just that past January, faced a dispute with the Norman duke William over the succession after the late king Edward passed. But Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law, he apparently had the late king’s deathbed promise of the throne, he was unanimously elected by the Witan (the English council of royal advisers), and he was a crowned and fully invested king as far as the English were concerned.

He was also proving to be a competent leader and warrior. When an invading army of some 7000*** Norwegians under Harald Hardrada and Harold’s exiled brother Tostig landed in the Northeast of England, Harold rode north in force, covering the 180 miles between London and Yorkshire in just four days, meeting and defeating the Norwegians on September 25 in the Battle of Stamfordbridge. The peace that the English had enjoyed was tested, but as word spread of this English victory, you can imagine the relief and the sense that all might well continue as it had for decades now. The rich harvest of 1066 went forward, and plans could proceed for the annual All Hallows celebration.

Swithun (d. 862), bishop, later saint, of Winchester

England was by this time thoroughly Christian (see St. Swithun, left), though folk memories of older practices doubtless persisted, mixed with a fair helping of legend and fantasy and uneven religious instruction from the local priests. The Christian retrofitting of Pagan holidays, holy sites and practices is well documented, and hardly unique to Christianity — the same thing occurs worldwide as religions encounter each other and strive for dominance or co-exist to varying degrees. To name just a few examples, take for instance Roman polytheism and many faiths in the lands of the ancient Empire, with Roman priests adding one more deity statue to the crowd for each new god they encountered, including the current emperor of course (with most peoples acquiescing happily except for those odd Jewish monotheists and their bizarre prohibition against such images!); Buddhism and the emergence of the Bon faith in Tibet; Shinto and Buddhism in Japan; and mutual influence between Islam, Sufism, and older practices like the Yazidi faith in the Middle East.

In his Guardian article on Halloween, Hutton notes:

allsaints-oswiecim

All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland

It is commonly asserted that the feast was the pagan festival of the dead. In reality feasts to commemorate the dead, where they can be found in ancient Europe, were celebrated by both pagans and early Christians, between March and May, as part of a spring cleaning to close off grieving and go forth into the new summer. On the other hand, the medieval Catholic church did gradually institute a mighty festival of the dead at this time of year, designating 1 November as the feast of All Saints or All Hallows, initially in honour of the early Christian martyrs, and 2 November as All Souls, on which people could pray for their dead friends and relatives. This was associated with the new doctrine of purgatory, by which most people went not straight to hell or heaven but a place of suffering between, where their sins were purged to fit them for heaven. It was also believed that the prayers of the living could lighten and shorten their trials, as could the intercession of saints (which is why it was good to have all of those at hand). The two new Christian feasts were, however, only developed between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, and started in Germanic not Celtic lands.

Yet all was not peace in England. The triumph that was the Battle of Stamfordbridge proved short-lived. Disturbing rumors kept arriving of William assembling an army of invasion across the English Channel on the shores of Normandy, in fact ever since January when Harold received the crown. The English king began preparations for defense. Yet as the days and months passed, and the good weather for such crossings steadily diminished as all of September and then early October came and went without incident, most people began to relax. England would enjoy a breathing space for this winter at least. Whatever might happen next spring, this late in the year no one chanced the storms, fog and rough water, least of all a large army that would have to arrive by boat.

battlemapYet William and his invasion force did just that. After weeks of bad weather, the wind finally shifted to favor the Norman leader, and he and his men set sail on September 27. When word came to the English king of the Norman landing, with ships and troops on the southern shore of England, king Harold and company rode back south, already weary from one major battle, right into another.

Careful excavation, study of contemporary accounts, and site visits mean that resources like the Eyewitness to History website can give us a portrait like this:

Harold rushed his army south and planted his battle standards atop a knoll some five miles from Hastings. During the early morning of the next day, October 14, Harold’s army watched as a long column of Norman warriors marched to the base of the hill and formed a battle line. Separated by a few hundred yards, the lines of the two armies traded taunts and insults. At a signal, the Norman archers took their position at the front of the line. The English at the top of the hill responded by raising their shields above their heads forming a shield-wall to protect them from the rain of arrows. The battle was joined.

Contemporary accounts record how the two armies fought all day, until Harold was dispatched with an arrow through one eye. Shortly after that, the disabled king was cut down by Norman warriors, and England’s fate turned.

Years later the Bayeux Tapestry commemorated a version of the event. But of course at the time there was no Twitter feed, no broadcast of news minutes after it happened by correspondents on the scene. No Fox News and CNN to digest and sort through the implications according to the politics of the day. Word of the battle and what it might mean would take weeks to spread, rippling northward from the coast where the first battles took place. For much of England, the Hallowed Evening, the All Saints Day of 1066 came and went without change.

At this distance, and without knowing the details, most of us may naturally have the impression Hastings was decisive. King Harold dead, battle won, QED. From there, we assume, William advanced toward London, accepted the grudging fealty of a defeated people, and after maybe quelling a few sparks of resistance or rebellion, took firm control of the throne and nation and ruled for the next 21 years, until his death in 1087.

Except not. True, William was crowned king in Westminster on Christmas Day 1066.  But the following years brought their own troubles for the Norman king. Here’s the Wikipedia version (accessed 10/30/14; endnotes deleted):

Despite the submission of the English nobles, resistance continued for several years. William left control of England in the hands of his half-brother Odo and one of his closest supporters, William FitzOsbern. In 1067 rebels in Kent launched an unsuccessful attack on Dover Castle in combination with Eustace II of Boulogne. The Shropshire landowner Eadric the Wild, in alliance with the Welsh rulers of Gwynedd and Powys, raised a revolt in western Mercia, fighting Norman forces based in Hereford. These events forced William to return to England at the end of 1067. In 1068 William besieged rebels in Exeter, including Harold’s mother Gytha, and after suffering heavy losses managed to negotiate the town’s surrender. In May, William’s wife Matilda was crowned queen at Westminster, an important symbol of William’s growing international stature. Later in the year Edwin and Morcar raised a revolt in Mercia with Welsh assistance, while Gospatric, the newly appointed Earl of Northumbria, led a rising in Northumbria, which had not yet been occupied by the Normans. These rebellions rapidly collapsed as William moved against them, building castles and installing garrisons as he had already done in the south. Edwin and Morcar again submitted, while Gospatric fled to Scotland, as did Edgar the Ætheling and his family, who may have been involved in these revolts. Meanwhile Harold’s sons, who had taken refuge in Ireland, raided Somerset, Devon and Cornwall from the sea.

Pacification, oddly enough, usually involves violence.

Ideologies and politics trouble us this Halloween just as they did 948 years ago, on a misty green island off the continent of western Europe.

Centuries later, as blended Norman and English cultures formed a new unity, the Protestant Reformation which swept much of Great Britain blotted out the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayer for saintly intercession. But as Hutton notes, Halloween “survived in its old form in Ireland, both as the Catholic feast of saints and souls and a great seasonal festival, and massive Irish emigration to America in the 19th century took it over there.”

In fact, having made this a citation-heavy post anyway, I’ll give Hutton nearly the last word, which is also his last word in his article:

In the 20th century [Halloween] developed into a national festivity for Americans, retaining the old custom of dressing up to mock powers of dark, cold and death, and a transforming one by which poor people went door to door to beg for food for a feast of their own, morphing again into the children’s one of trick or treat. By the 1980s this was causing some American evangelical Christians to condemn the festival as a glorification of the powers of evil (thus missing all its historical associations), and both the celebrations and condemnations have spilled over to Britain.

On the whole, though, the ancient feast of Winter’s Eve has regained its ancient character, as a dual time of fun and festivity, and of confrontation of the fears and discomforts inherent in life, and embodied especially in northern latitudes by the season of cold and dark.

There’s a worthwhile Conquest. “Is it Pagan?”  “Is it Christian?”  Let’s ask “Is it holy?”

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Images: jack-o-lanterns; Harold on the tapestry; St. Swithunbattle map; All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland, 1984.

*Rather than dualities and polar opposites, ternaries and triples permeate Druidry. As J. M. Greer observes,

Can anything as useful be done with the three elements of Iolo’s Druid philosophy, or for that matter with the four medieval or five Chinese elements?

Nwyfre, gwyar, and calas make poor guides to physics or chemistry, to be sure. Their usefulness lies elsewhere. Like other traditional elemental systems, the three Druid elements make sense of patterns throughout the universe of our experience. Tools for thinking, their power lies in their ability to point the mind toward insights and sidestep common mistakes.

Take the habit, almost universal nowadays, of thinking about the universe purely in terms of physical matter and energy. This works fairly well when applied in certain limited fields, but it works very badly when applied to human beings and other living things. Time and again, well-intentioned experts using the best tools science has to offer have tried to tackle problems outside the laboratory and failed abjectly. Rational architecture and urban planning, scientific agriculture and forestry, and innovative schemes for education and social reform often cause many more problems than they solve, and fail to yield the results predicted by theory.

Why? The theoreticians thought only of gwyar and calas, the elements of change and stability, expressed here as energy and matter. They left something out of the equation: nwyfre, the subtle element of life, feeling, and awareness. They forgot that any change they made would cause living things to respond creatively with unpredictable changes of their own.

In every situation, all three elements need to be taken into account. They can be used almost as a checklist. What is the thing you’re considering, what does it do, and what does it mean? What will stay the same, what will change, and what will respond to the change with changes of its own? This sort of thinking is one of the secrets of the Druid elements.

**Howarth, David. 1066: The Year of the Conquest. Penguin Books, 1981, pgs. 11-12.

***A conservative figure — estimates range as high as 9000.

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DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 2 | Part 3]

Ritual Language and the Case of Latin

Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes.  The most visible example in the West is Latin.  The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin.  For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites.  If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages.  Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.

tridmass

Language as Sacrament

The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.  The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning.  The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience.  What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words.  Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.

chantcoverAnd depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.

Issues with Ritual Language

One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible.  Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language?  Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer?  Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship?  Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.

“The King’s English”

kjvcoverFor English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611.  What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use.  A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.

Druid and Pagan Practice

When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably.  Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided.  Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general.  Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants?  If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity.  It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?

druidrite

Ritual Primers

Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page.  The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas.  To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy.  That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time.  Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you.  Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.”  As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give.  And finally, people can and will make mistakes.  In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.

(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels

Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way.  In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language.  While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists.  He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity.  This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters.  (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)

About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.”  Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation.  Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'”  An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be.  That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.”  But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience.  In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.

As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft.  After all, boxes are for things, not people.  Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”

Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity.  When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite.  The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.

A Human Undersong

Where to go from here?  Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience.  “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm.  “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song.  It’s universal.”  As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.

Paradoxes of Particularity

Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience.  (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the  sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**)  And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality.  We quite literally say who and what we are.  The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture.  And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.

In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.

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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.

*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.

**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context.  If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring.  Wonder is at the heart of it.  Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:

A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!

Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true?  If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.

I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)

Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!

If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.

Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014

Jesus and Druidry, Part 2   3 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

But what of the Galilean Rabbi himself?  Enough about trends, which I said last time I wasn’t really interested in. We may forget that Jesus is a common enough religious name of the time — a version of Joshua — “God saves.”  (It’s a name still popular today among Hispanics.) Thirty, and he’s still not married.  A disappointment to his culture, his family.  After all, both count immortality at least in part through heirs and bloodlines.  His mother tries to understand, received a sign when she conceived him, has her suspicions and hopes.

Reconstruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem

Reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem

An itinerant teacher and preacher, one of many, traveling the countryside.  On festival days, when he can, like many of his countrymen, he visits the great Temple in Jerusalem.  A short career: just a few years.  A group of followers who scatter at his death, denying him repeatedly.  A promising life, cut short by an ill-timed visit to the capital. The one who betrays him comes from among his own followers.  Roman overlords, touchy at the major festival of Passover, the city bulging with visitors and pilgrims, a powder-keg, awaiting a spark to flame into chaos.  A summary arrest and trial for the young Rabbi, followed by an ignominious and agonizing death.

Except unlike so many other such preachers, after his death Jesus is not forgotten, is eventually deified, gets elevated to membership in the theologically-problematic Trinity that Christians insist isn’t polytheistic. (If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck …)  What was it about him that came across as godlike? Sadducee

As with other spiritual teachers, we can see his divine intoxication ebbing and flowing, peaking and falling away again, a common enough human phenomenon. Most of us have known a peak experience at least once; we’ve also sadly  watched it slip away.

At times Jesus is a poor Rabbi working for justice and compassion, firmly ensconced in the tangle that is 1st century Judea, with its liberal agnostic Sadducees, conservative legalistic Pharisees and radical Zealots.  Israel, a stand-out nation, with its peculiar and demanding monotheism, an island of faith and practice in a sea of surrounding nations with their many gods. A politically contentious region, one the Romans occupy, “pacifying” it in typically straightforward Roman style, with local career politicians like Pilate. The Romans crucify troublemakers, tax the province for whatever they can squeeze out of it, and garrison it as a staging point for patrolling other legs of an Empire increasingly wobbly and quarrelsome and groping towards revolt.

More and more, this Rabbi draws a crowd when he stops to preach.  He’s a vivid speaker, his rural Galilean-accented Aramaic familiar to his audience.  He’s one of us, Joseph’s son.  Did you hear what he said earlier today, last night, a week ago? Almost always something memorable.

tribute-penny

Show me a coin, he asks those gathered around him one day.  A natural teacher, using whatever’s on hand to make a point.

Whose image appears on it? he asks them now.

It’s Caesar’s, they answer.

Exactly so, he says.  Distinguish rightly what goes where.  The coin, the tax, that goes to Caesar.  The divine , however, requires something different.  

Like what? his listeners wonder.

Good master, somebody else asks him, intent on his own issues. What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?

Don’t call me “good,” the Rabbi replies, after a pause.  I’m not. Call nobody good, except God.  And that’s not me, not me, not me the silence echoes, in case anyone was wondering.

The fig tree, when he reaches it, has no figs.  Of course not — it’s not the season for them. Jesus, hungry, tired and discouraged, curses it anyway, goes to bed with an empty belly.  Real son of God material.  Not likely.  Word of it gets written down, too.

I’ve been with you this long and you still don’t get it? he scolds his closest followers one day.  How long must I endure you?  Almost losing it. In public.  Another low point.  Another note that rings humanly true.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

That’s “this-world” Jesus.  He sweats in the Mediterranean summers, shivers in the damp, rainy winters.  Cries when his friend Lazarus dies. Bellows at the merchants and money-changers in the Temple.

Sheep and goats wander the roads as he walks from town to town.  It’s hot and dusty, it’s raining, it’s stormy.  The Sea of Galilee can turn to whitecaps in a minute, threatening the small fishing boats that work its coves and depths.  Workmen hail him, stop and question him, ponder his words.  His own people.  Fishermen, slaves, tax collectors, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, widows, children. The sick, the street people, the lepers and beggars, the homeless.  His message first of all must reach them, before anybody else.  They need it so badly.

wfieldBut at times we hear a different voice, sense a very different presence.  The Otherworld vivid, all around. (“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes …” writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, nineteen centuries later.) The Kingdom, here, now. This Jesus, so drenched with the divine that the rocks sing to him with it.  He can be wrapped in a shining cloud and commune with the ex-carnate Moses. Perceive the spiritual temptations of worldly power, available to anyone who begins to walk into the heart of the Great Mystery.  He can say, Satan! but he’s really talking to his own human capacity to choose for good or bad. The power that goes with deep awareness and choice.

This Jesus says The divine and I are one.  I came to testify to the truth. If you see me, you see the face of the divine.  I came so that people can have more abundant lives.  I came for you all.  And you are all my sisters and brothers. All children of God, all walking the fields and forests of the Kingdom.

This Jesus knows the divine is all-present, that the flow of Spirit sustains everything, that there’s always enough.

How to capture this inner truth in stories? A huge crowd, fed, with left-overs.  A leper healed.  A poor woman looking for love or a livelihood, taken in adultery or prostitution, forgiven — and no one to say “But wait!” or argue the letter of the law with the Rabbi with the shining eyes.  The accusing crowd, unsettled, disperses.

The hick Rabbi, dying a criminal’s death on the cross, thieves and murderers on both sides pf him, gasping as he asks God to forgive those who nailed him up to die a slow death.  The palpable sense of his presence after his death.

His consciousness rising and falling in its breadth of awareness of its own divine potential, its union with all things, its kinship with mustard seeds, with the birds of heaven and the foxes of earth and trees that clap their hands. What could be more human?  What could be more Druidic?

wstevehThe world has three levels: heaven, earth and hell. The leaven is divided into three portions and hidden for a time.  All things will be revealed. The divine is both different and the same, yesterday, today and forever.  Ask, seek, knock.  Druidic triads everywhere, once we start looking.  No, the carpenter’s son wasn’t necessarily a Druid. No, Jesus maybe didn’t “in ancient time walk upon on England’s mountains green,” as Blake imagines it in his poem “Jerusalem.”  Another story to convey the sense of the divine, here.  No reason to claim kinship where it doesn’t exist. But every reason to celebrate links and commonalities and similar wisdom, wherever, whenever they appear.

A man who touches the divine and tries to express it in a culture steeped in a monotheistic tradition of necessity will draw on monotheist images and tropes.  How else to express his sense of profound communion, except by an image of a family, father and children? How else to communicate the sense of despair and agony of being cut off from every hope and healing, except by images of lasting hell?  How else to convey the divine promise rich inside every breathing moment, except by saying something like It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom?

water into wineThe gift, already given, given every day, dawn, noon and sunset. The divine never offers less than all.  We strain to catch and carry the ocean in a coffee mug. We gaze at dawn and can never hold all that light.  We go for water, and it changes to wine, intoxicatingly alive.  Each spring, the world practices resurrection.  And yes, even the rocks are singing.

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Images: TempleSadduceesAugustus pennyGalilee; Van Gogh: Wheatfields; W Stevens quotewaterdrop.

Updated/edited 2 February 2014

Song of the Water Druid   Leave a comment

waterfallA water meditation, to be read slowly to oneself, in the same way water flows and falls.

“The highest good is like water,” whispers chapter eight of the Tao Te Ching.  Jump in a pool or lake on a summer day, or take a hot shower after working up a sweat, and who would disagree?  Whisky, brandy and other distilled spirits have variously been called aqua vitae, “water of life.” And “whiskey-bey” or uisce beatha, the Gaelic for whisky, is literally “water of life.” St. Patrick reportedly used the term aqua vitae both for alcohol and the waters of baptism.  Jesus baptized with water (and — with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost — with fire:  with both masculine and feminine elements).  The Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the deep in the Biblical account of creation in Genesis, as if water were there all along, part of the primal substance God found on hand, in the dark, and used to create everything else.  Water the divine unconscious, adapting to whatever form it finds.  All things turn toward water.

“The highest good is like water.” Water itself says this, if I listen.  Splash of the ocean’s tide, fall of water in a cascade or fountain.  “Earth my body, water my blood,” goes the Pagan chant.  It’s in us, of us — we’re of it.  The human body is mostly water, we hear from many quarters.  Hydrate!!  We answer to what we’re made from, the amniotic fluids that bathe and nourish the growing fetus.  The womb shelters a pool, a miniature sea.  The Great Mother, Stella Maris, Star of the Sea.

Medieval magicians called water a “creature,” a created being, and the personification of water in the figure of the undine puts a face to the endlessly changing aspect that water wears.  To be a water druid is first to listen to water.  I never learned to swim till I reached my twenties, and a recurring dream throughout my childhood of falling into water and drowning left me with fear of heights over water.  (Heights by themselves, though, are no problem for me.)  There was my path through and to water.  I listened, though part of the act was listening to fear.  But that got my attention like nothing else could, so I count it useful.  I strive to listen wider.

meiyangselvagedao“Water benefits all beings without contending with them, and flows to the lowest places men disdain.  In this manner it approaches the Way.”  Tao, the way that water flows.  “dao ke dao fei chang dao”: the way that can be followed as a way isn’t the way the way goes, to “English” it rather clumsily.  Water flows, following its nature without thinking about it.

I don’t need to look any further for a sacrament, a way to make things sacred.  Drinking, bathing, being born is worshiping,  Attention, intention, makes the offering.  The words of the old Anglican wedding vow “With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship” get it right.  If we want to worship, we can begin with the body, with the waters ringing our planet and flowing in our blood.  We don’t need to disdain the body because it’s “only” flesh, but celebrate it.  To be alive is a holy act.  The elements help us remember this, signify it, and make it so.  Thus sings the Water Druid.

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Images: waterfall; Mei Yang Selvage‘s remarkable painting of the character “tao” or dao, with the final elonngated bottom stroke forming the boat the man poles.

On Not Straightening a Bent Genius   Leave a comment

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his manifesto, Walden, that he wished to follow “the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.”  Let’s suspend belief about the “every moment” part for now.  Most of us slack off; we’re not up to full time bent-ness.  But I suspect every genius is “bent” by the time it emerges, after the intense discoveries and trials of childhood and adolescence.  It is, after all, a time when we each face a personal apocalypse which — apart from recent 2012 apocalypse kerfluffle (a profoundly scientific and precise term), itself only the most recent instance of a few millenia’s worth of end-times hysterias* — is at root not a disaster per se, but an unveiling, a revealing.

That’s why the Biblical apocalypsis, a Greek word, gets translated “Revelations.”**  A revelation needn’t be a disaster.  We may seek from many sources for revelation or insight into our lives and situations.  But as far as adolescence goes, whether it’s some profound additional shock, or the more routine experience of our physical bodies running mad with hormones, hair, smells, urges and general mayhem, it can be a real humdinger of a decade.

Among other things, we begin to come to terms with the full measure of shadow and light we each carry around with us, a personal atmosphere with its own storms and sun, its seasons of gloom and glory.  As Hamlet exclaims to Ophelia (Act 3, scene 1):  “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.”

Quite a catalog of self-condemnation.  But on our “crawl between earth and heaven,” we can choose to do more than indulge in self-loathing.  It’s not a competitive sport, after all.  No prizes for “arrant-ness,” to use Shakespeare’s word.  This being human is a mixed bag, a potluck.  We work out our own answers to the question of what to do crawling between earth and heaven.  It’s an apt description: we truly are suspended at times, halfway to both realms, too rarely at home in either.

And so, rather than New Year’s resolutions, I prefer to look at themes and nudges.  If I take my own advice, courtesy of Yoda, and tell myself “do or do not, there is no try,” then “small moves” becomes the game.  Nudge a little here, prod a little there.  Few life trajectories change overnight.  If yours does, then all bets are off.  You’re probably in full-on apocalypse mode right now — and that’s apocalypse in the 2012 “all-hell-about-to-break-loose” sense.  It’s time to rewrite the manual, reboot, do over.  But the rest of the time, the smallest change can eventually lead to big consequences.  Lower expectations. Make it almost impossible for yourself not to follow through.

Now you’re not trying to change; you’re playing with change — which has a very different feel. If you want to commit to half an hour of exercise a day, for instance, make it five minutes instead.  Psych yourself out or in, your choice.  Small moves.  Make it foolishly easy, like using a credit card.  It’s just a piece of plastic, just a small thing you’re doing.  A game really.  I’ve been surprised how I can make changes, as long as I make them small enough, rather than big enough. Seduce yourself into change so small you can’t resist, like those bite-sized pieces of your current favorite snack addiction.  “Nobody can eat just one.”  And so on.

We think too much of ourselves.  I’ll think less, on alternate days, to see how it feels.  This is real trying — not an attempt that focuses on probable failure, but the testing, the probing, the experimenting, as in “trying the cookie dough,” or “trying a kiss on the first date,” or “trying on a new set of clothes.” There’s self-forgetfulness available in the fascination of the game-like quality life takes on when we cease to take ourselves quite so seriously.  Instead, we may come to revere some other thing than the self.  Because one of her insights is apropos of what I’m getting at, I’ll close here with Barbara Brown Taylor, from her 2009 book An Altar in the World:

According to the classical philosopher Paul Woodruff, reverence is the virtue that keeps people from trying to act like gods.  ‘To forget that you are only human,’ he says, ‘to think you can act like a god — that is the opposite of reverence.’ While most of us live in a culture that reveres money, reveres power, reveres education and religion, Woodruff argues that true reverence cannot be for anything that human beings can make or manage by ourselves.

By definition, he says, reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding. God certainly meets those criteria, but so do birth, death, sex, nature, justice, and wisdom.  A Native American elder I know says that he begins teaching people reverence by steering them over to the nearest tree.

‘Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?’ he asks them.  If they say yes, then he knows that they are on their way (20).

So maybe I’ve seduced you into trying or tasting your life and its possibilities instead of getting hung over changing it.  May you find yourself on your way, may you celebrate what you discover there, may you delight in reverence.***

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*See John Michael Greer’s Apocalypse Not (Viva Editions, 2011) for an amusing take on our enduring fetish for cataclysm and disaster.  You’d think that after Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, the Japanese tsunami and nuclear disaster, hurricane Sandy, and the yearly shootings we endure, we’d be fed up with real actually-documentable apocalypses.  But no …

**The name of the Greek sea-nymph Kalypso means “Concealer.”  Undo or take off the concealment and you have apo-kalypse, unconcealing: revelation.

***Once my attention is off myself, I find that change often happens with less wear and tear.  Reverence can seduce us into other ways of being that don’t involve the stressors we were “trying to change.”  We may not even notice until later.  I get so busy watching the moon rise I forget what I was angry about.  Anger fades.  Moon takes it.  Reverence, o gift of gods I may not know or worship, I thank you nonetheless …

Updated 2 Jan 13

Full Moon Reflection 1: “In every corner of my soul …   Leave a comment

“there is an altar to a different god,” wrote the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935).  Perhaps that’s some explanation for the often mercurial quality of being this strange thing we call the self, ourselves.  We can’t easily know who we are for the simple reason that (often, at least) we aren’t just one thing — we consist of multiple selves.  We’re not individuals so much as hives of all our pasts buzzing around together.  Whether you subscribe to the reality of past lives or see it as a possibly useful metaphor, we’re the sum of all we’ve ever been, and that’s a lot of being.  And with past lives (or the often active impulses to make alternate lives for ourselves within this one through the dangerous but tempting choices we face) we’ve known ourselves as thieves and priests, saints and villains, women and men, victims and aggressors, ordinary and extraordinary.  When we’ve finally done it all, we’re ready to graduate, as a fully-experienced self, a composite unified after much struggle and suffering and delight.  All of us, then, are still in school, the school of self-making.

Doesn’t it just feel like that, some days at least?!  Even only as a metaphor, it can offer potent insight.  The Great Work or magnum opus of magic, seen from such a perspective, is nothing more or less than to integrate this cluster of selves, bang and drag and cajole all the fragments into some kind of coherence, and make of the whole a new thing fit for service, because that’s what we’re best at, once we’ve assembled ourselves into a truly workable self:  to give back to life, to serve an ideal larger than our own momentary whims and wishes, and in the giving, to find — paradoxically — our best and deepest fulfillment.  “He who loses himself will find it gain,” said a Wise One with a recent birthday we may have noticed.  We all learn the hard way, for the most part, because it’s the most profound learning.  Certainly it sticks in a way that most book learning alone does not.

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Earth Mysteries — 7 of 7 — The Law of Evolution   Leave a comment

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

So here we are at the last installment of this seven-parter.  Indigestion and too much caffeine.  No, not the series, though you may be thinking or feeling that, too.  Looking back over earlier ones I realize each post has gotten more random than the preceding one.  Not sure if I’ve done Greer a favor, writing about his seven keys — keys belonging to all of us — but doing it in such a way that they’re more “notes for a revolution” than anything like a review.  You can’t just dump a bunch of principles by themselves on people and expect them to see how they fit, exactly. Which is what I’ve sorta done anyway.  Inoculation by reading.

Like I said, they’re more notes for a revolution, so that when it comes, you’ll recognize the advance guard and maybe the sound of the explosions and know you’ve seen and heard something like this before, and maybe deal with it better or more inventively than your brother or neighbor out here panhandling and prospecting with the rest of us.  “Look what I found!  It’s a … well, I don’t have a name for it, but it might be useful at the weekly swap-and-steal.”  Heaven consists of the spare parts of creation that didn’t get used elsewhere.  We’re destined to mine the scrap heaps for the gold everyone’s tossed there by mistake.

Here goes with the last Law.  (Of course it’s never the last law.  There’s always another one, like yet another stray that won’t leave, moping around for scraps.  Throw it a bone, or a filet. Watch what it does with it.)

“Everything that exists comes into being by a process of evolution.  That process starts with adaptation to changing conditions and ends with the establishment of a steady state of balance with its surroundings, following a threefold rhythm of challenge, response and reintegration.  Evolution is gradual rather than sudden, and it works by increasing diversity and accumulating possibilities, rather than following a predetermined line of development.”*

A shiver of awe and delight coursed through me when I first read this one.  Maybe nobody knows where humanity is headed — it’s not something mapped out beforehand.  “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit,” says the Beloved Disciple in the eighth verse of his third chapter.  (What, you didn’t know portions of the Bible are a Druid stealth device?  Look twice before crossing.)

Sure, our DNA has something to say about it, and so do the causes we’re always setting in motion.  These will shape our experience and our future.  But they’re our causes.  We can change.  And we want to “accumulate possibilities” because these mean freedom.  The dead-end singleness of conformity and bland homogeneity leave us hankering for the quaint, the queer, the mysterious, the odd, the doesn’t-fit, the original, the new, the surprising, the fresh.   After all, we left Eden (some versions have us kicked out, but the result’s the same) and we’ve been on quest ever since.  But “pave paradise and put up a parking lot”? Not what we really want, is it?

In  “To Holderin,” the German poet Rilke writes to a compatriot:

Lingering, even among what’s most intimate,
is not our option.  From fulfilled images
the spirit abruptly plunges towards ones to be filled:
there are no lakes until eternity. Here falling
is our best.  From the mastered emotion we fall over
into the half-sensed, onward and onward …

We suspect so much more of reality than we let on.  Or than it does.  It’s not safe to do so, but it’s right, in the best senses of the word.  Who ever wanted what is merely safe, when fuller life offers itself to us?  Well, some people do, and often enough they get what they desire, and before long beg to be freed of it.  Poetry means “making” in Greek, and we all make, we’re all makers, poets of our lives.  Song is our native tongue, or could be.  It’s that melody playing just beyond hearing that we’re always trying to capture, to get back to.  That crashing sound?  That’s just another person banging around the music room in the dark, trying to pound out a melody.

While we’re listening to Germans, here’s Martin Heidegger:  “To be a poet in a destitute time means to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods.  This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.”  Cool, just so long as we know the holy really isn’t safe at all.  No place to hide.  Here’s Rilke again:

Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness.  More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise …

Sometimes you get the sense from Rilke, like from other madmen and seers, that you’ve always known what he means, that in fact you’ve done what he’s saying, even though you may not be able to say it yourself.  But he manages to.  We leave saying to the poets as if they’re somebody, but not us, who forgets you aren’t supposed to say these things, or that nobody expected you could say them.  But you say them anyway.  And get inconveniently booted to the curb by your neighbors, who  take over “for your own good,” and after you comes flying what you thought was your life.

So you pick yourself up, brush off the worst of the dust, and keep going, without a life if you have to.  Not as if nothing has happened, but as if everything has, and it keeps on happening.  Who else do things happen to, but us?  We’re mistaken if we think that disconcerting little factoid that reaches the news but which happens in “some other part of the world” — outer Don’t-bug-me, central I-don’t-care-yo! — isn’t our concern.  Next week I’ll find refugees from there in my basement, peering up at me.  My new psychic friends, walking my dreams, if I don’t see them actually fishing through my garbage, desperate for food or love or those pieces of my life I decided weren’t worth my time.

Oh, Druids are a little bit crazy, more so on certain days of the week than others, and most of all under certain phases of the moon.  We’d cry if we weren’t laughing so hard, and sometime it sounds much the same.  But the spirit lightens a little, and we see the outlines of a Friend where before was only a little mannikin of sadness or despair.  We keep doing this for each other just often enough to go on, suspecting ourselves of the worse motives, and probably right to do so.  But there’s a fire over the horizon, and singing, and the party’s going on without us. It’s the same fire in our heads.

Shapes move and stumble around the fire, vaguely familiar, so that after joining them it seems we know them, we left them years ago, but this is a reunion where we see everyone’s suffered and grown, though some have become knotty and twisted, like old trees.  But there’s a few among us brave enough to hug them anyway, and bring them into the Dance. And so we dance, all night, the last stars twinkling when we finally stumble home to bed and a delicious, bone-weary sleep.  And later, who knows what waking?

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*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

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