Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

“Holy Zombie? Earth Guardian?”

“You be the judge!”

[Updated Thursday, 23 May 2020]

[Alert: image of mummy appears in this post]

One of J. M. Greer’s “notes in passing” in his latest book, The Mysteries of Merlin, which I reviewed here, concerns a cross-cultural phenomenon that with careless treatment sounds like the makings of a script for some breathless “Hidden Mysteries” documentary, or a really good-bad horror film. With attention, though, we can discern a remarkable and ancient conception of sacrifice for the communal good that spans the globe.

In the West are the legends of Merlin, still alive and enclosed in his Crystal Cave, and Christian Rosenkreuz [Wikipedia link | Alchemylab account], reputed founder of Rosicrucianism, entombed for 120 years in a seven-sided vault, and eventually disinterred, perfectly preserved, with a book of Rosicrucian occult secrets in his arms.

Kobo_daishi

Monks carrying food at Okunoin mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wikipedia/creative commons

A similar tradition emerges in Japan, with stories clustering around Kobo Daishi (774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tradition holds that he did not die but remains in meditation to this day, entombed in Mount Koya, awaiting the future Buddha. Monks in the Shingon tradition present food at his shrine twice a day.

Greer points to stories of “an archaic magical operation by which a sufficiently knowledgeable and strong-willed person can pass into another mode of existence at death and function for many centuries thereafter as the guardian spirit of a family, a community, or an occult school. Legends in many lands tell of great sages and heroes of the past who descended into stone tombs beneath the earth while still alive, and the stone-chambered mounds of northern and western Europe are routinely connected with such legends” (Greer, pg. 33).

Tumulus_Dissignac

Megalithic tumulus mound, Saint-Nazaire, France. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077948

Legends such as that of the Seven Sleepers, a shared Christian and Muslim narrative, may also be connected here.

A successful outcome of such practices leads in Japan to people like Kobo Daishi, and to others who become sokushinbutsu, literally “living Buddhas” — the rite was performed as recently as 1903. Mummies of those who underwent the rite are preserved in Senninzawa (“Valley of the Swamp Wizards”), Yamagata Prefecture, and occupy locations of honor in temples otherwise reserved for figures of the Buddha. For a fascinating article on contemporary observances, with details of the living mummification regime, including a strict diet, pursued by those aspiring to this role, along with images of the mummified remains and the monks and temples caring for them, see The Buddhas of Mount Yudono.

Less successful outcomes of this operation, Greer suggests, account for at least some of Europe’s traditions of barrow-wights, vampires, and the orc-neas or “hell-corpses” of Anglo-Saxon legend (from which Tolkien lifted the name and image of the orc). In one sense, then, such beings are simply testimony to “good magic gone bad”.

odin-1886

Odin — Georg Von Rosen, 1886. Public domain

One thread of this story of ritual death specific to Europe, Greer asserts, is the magical three-fold death of Indo-European tradition, linked to air, water and earth, which we see embodied in the Norse god Odin, who is ritually slain, depending on the source, by being hanged, drowned and stabbed.

Christianity runs with this idea of the power of a magical or holy death, making it the center of its faith in a single divine being whose death can save many. Central to all of these magical and ritual self-sacrifices is their voluntary nature — the “sacrifice goes consenting”; the gift of the self is given freely.

The biblical Book of Hebrews explains the continuity between Jewish traditions of animal sacrifice each year in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Christian conception of the holy and sacrificial death of a god in the form of Jesus: “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). Animal or human sacrifices must be renewed because their benefit wanes over time. The sacrificial death of a god, on the other hand, need happen only once.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Additional resources:

Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. (Link to Amazon.) McFarland, 2010.

“Everything is Broken Up and Dances”

Google the title of this post, and chances are you’ll unearth three seemingly disparate connections. One is the title of a recent (2018) book by Edoardo Nesi. You might also find the Youtube trailer of a 2016 Israeli film by Nony Geffen with the same name. The third — the link between them, well down the list of URLs and capsule summaries — is the original, from lyrics by Jim Morrison of The Doors, where this line appears at the end of a stanza in “Ghost Song” off the 1978 album American Prayer.

In their own ways, both book and movie use the lyric line to evoke ghosts. Nesi’s book on economics is subtitled “The Crushing of the Middle Class”, while Geffen’s movie focuses on the story of a soldier suffering from PTSD after the third Lebanon war. In each case it’s the ghost of something lost, which makes living in this glittering, fragmented present of ours a hallucinatory journey. The Door’s album was issued after Morrison’s death, using recordings of his spoken word poetry, so that his ghost also looms over the work.

iris

not here yet — coming, coming …

The prayer of the album title is not just “American”, though some of its song references are. Like any prayer, it grapples with the worlds we live in, worlds of memory and dream and imagination, of the physical senses and of the possible worlds that time and human choice may unfold.

/|\ /|\ /|\

A facile reading of “Ghost Song” might suggest we can dance along with the fragments — make the best of the situation. This is a strategy that may work for some of us — I silently add it to my spiritual toolkit — but the current troubles tug and gnaw at us in ways that dancing may not ease. The loss of jobs and “normal” life, the stress of disease and the threat of disease, put us right in the middle of the break-up and fragmentation.

No single remedy exists. But multiple remedies do, and humans are remarkably resilient creatures. Most of us already have ways for dealing with the present craziness, and we’re always on the lookout for new ones. Yes, the snake-oil sellers and spammers and scammers crawl out of the woodwork in times like this to snare the vulnerable and careless, but that doesn’t negate our search for new practices, solutions, promises. Like any green thing we send out runners and branches questing for new soil, for air and water and light.

For Christians this weekend is about hope, about resurrection. No surprise, the festival comes at the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Christians in the southern hemisphere might consider matching their festivals to the season — Easter in September, Christmas around the June solstice — in order to align with a natural order they know God established. Likewise with Pagans down under. Samhain in May, and Imbolc in August. While celebrating beginnings as the leaves fall, or endings as the world greens all around us, may teach wisdom and the ability to distinguish other worlds from this apparent one, it’s out of harmony with the dominant dynamic the season is inviting our bodies to join and participate in.

If we look at the rest of “Ghost Song”, the first word commands us: “Awake”. I could stop there, or rather start there, and need nothing else. Awake, and keep awaking. But I keep going.

byard-snow

already past — what’s to come?

American Prayer” opens with vital questions: “Do you know the warm progress under the stars? Do you know we exist? Have you forgotten the keys to the Kingdom?” Read the rest of the lyrics and you see how Christian imagery pervades the song, how the song itself asks deeply Christian questions, which means questions for everyone, in spite and because of its obscenity and “politics”.

Without the profane there is no sacred. And often enough, though we don’t like to admit it, they trade places.

All right — but what can I do with this possibly useful fact?

/|\ /|\ /|\

One of the headlines in yesterday’s Guardian reads “Sesame Street’s pandemic advice for parents: ‘Find rituals, be flexible, take a breath'”. I take this Triad and meditate on its seven words “for parents”, and for children, too. Right now that boundary shrinks. We’re all parents and children too, looking for comfort and reassurance (assuming we’re not honing our skills at denial) and for the first hints of “what next?” We “parent and child” each other right now in all kinds of ways.

Sometimes the only ritual I can manage is to take a breath. But that’s a good one, because without it I won’t make it to any of the others. Let me re-order the advice: “take a breath, be flexible, find rituals”. Bend, breathe, ritualize. Breathe, ritualize, bend.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Bless, and the blessing spreads outward. We are blessing-bearers.

 

Sigil Vigil

Heartfelt thank-yous to you, my readers, for bringing page views to 90,000. I’m making a point of posting more regularly during these difficult times.

While this blog seems to be passing through a prolonged dry-spell with few comments, I draw encouragement from a steady international readership that averages about 50 visits a day. If what I write helps, encourages or just entertains you, please leave even a brief comment so I know I should keep doing what I’m doing. Your reaching out really matters and makes a difference!

/|\ /|\ /|\

Watching for seals. No, not the sea-going mammals this time — the marks, glyphs, signs and symbols that we both make ourselves and also perceive in the natural world.

Tabloids regale us endlessly with pop-culture versions of this — for example, the face of Jesus burnt onto a piece of toast. Equivalent perceptions occur in other cultures with equivalent cultural icons (e.g., Buddha in the sky). Even normally restrained scientists have been known to join in: a 2019 article in Popular Mechanics gushes about the “real face” of Jesus, with this tagline “Advances in forensic science reveal the most famous face in history”. Feel the tug of that headline?

We ask “But is it real?” all the time, of a great number of things, many of which can’t (or shouldn’t) answer.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

MAGUS banner featuring the Gathering logo

Psychology explains these phenomena as instances of pareidolia — if you see the word “idol” within the word, that’s not a mistake. Pareidolia is, to borrow a rhyme, “seeing faces in unusual places”. You might find this article on the topic from LiveScience interesting. Our human tendency to detect patterns in seemingly random visual inputs is what makes the Rorschach inkplot test possible. It’s also part of a complex human survival skill with multiple consequences.

The ability to attend to a pattern, to give it a meaning, empowers signs and sigils, but of course also makes written language possible. The shapes of the 26 squiggles of the English alphabet have little to no inherent meaning (you might argue that the S is vaguely snake-like, and snakes hiss — hence, the s-sound), but humans can detect and assign meanings to a wide variety of phenomena.

An effective sigil or seal can be created as a doorway to memory, to specific states of awareness, to understandings that may not stay with us while we’re dusting the shelves, changing a diaper, emailing the boss, or cooking a meal. But we can shift consciousness at will with the aid of a seal or sigil and know and do things otherwise beyond our capacity. Our schoolteachers know the value of holding a student’s focus and attention — these make all the difference!

druchr1

doodles for Druidry and Christianity logo — cross and grail

Christians wear crosses, Jews the Star of David, and followers of other traditions their own meaningful symbols. We also doodle both new and repeated shapes and signs, and we can expand on this human tendency and engage with a whole symbolic language if we choose.

tolklog

Tolkien’s initials as logo

Books on sigil making and sigil magic — the conscious seeking, design and use of signs and shapes to change consciousness — can of course assist. But the ability already lies in each of us — a birthright.

Tolkien invented a sigil from the initials of his name (JRRT) that now appears on his books and has become a trademark of the Tolkien Estate. Companies and organizations know that a distinctive and readily recognizable logo is often a key component to visibility and reputation and success.

To point to just one immediate use of sigils anyone can put into practice today, in these times of distraction and seduction by social media, and by fear and anxiety, our corresponding ability to attend to what we choose, rather than an advertising campaign or a news outlet or political party, is a priceless human gift.

bkshlf

publisher logos on book spines — Pagans know the Llewellyn moon!

Place a meaningful sigil where I can see it during my day, write, paint or carve it on objects I use regularly, or sit with it in meditation, and I have a ready tool for shaping consciousness, guiding it toward my own purposes and desires, and focusing the energies that come through it into channels and actions that help, uplift and empower me.

And Josephine McCarthy, to choose just one author whose books are on my shelves, knows the value of a sigil as a distinctive cover for a book.

northgate

May signs point to good things for you!

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: Magic of the North Gate cover; Wikipedia for JRRT logo.

A Note on Magical and Musical Fire

In this post I’d like to touch briefly on a couple of magical and musical principles — the two things often overlap, if you’re paying attention. This is to some extent a Druid-Christian post, so some of you may want to spend time doing other things, if that flavor of Druidry — or Christianity — doesn’t work for you. (For instance, the video here drives my wife absolutely up the wall.)

Below is a 5-minute video of a catchy Christian worship song, “Everything Comes Alive”, from Toronto-based “Catch the Fire” [Wikipedia entry | official website], a non-denominational Charismatic movement. It’s part of an album compiled from a 2016 Revival. Recently it was posted to a Christian Druidry Facebook group, where it garnered likes, but — last I checked — no comments. I’d like to do some thinking out loud with and around it, to make some observations, and hope they will be useful to readers.

First, the video, featuring vocalist Alice Clarke, one of the movement’s worship leaders:

The song clocks in at 120 beats/minute — a tempo that’s splendid for inducing trance — and the Wikipedia entry on trance is particularly detailed and useful, whatever your orientation and interest, and deserves a careful reading, rather than me trying to paraphrase it here. And a look at the gathered worshipers shows many of them well on their way into trance as the song progresses, with its repeating choruses and singable lyrics and melody.

A subsection on general brain activity is revealing — rather than an either-or state, trance is a matter of degree and proportion among the four kinds of brainwaves:

There are four principal brainwave states that range from high-amplitude, low-frequency delta to low-amplitude, high-frequency beta. These states range from deep dreamless sleep to a state of high arousal. These four brainwave states are common throughout humans. All levels of brainwaves exist in everyone at all times, even though one is foregrounded depending on the activity level. When a person is in an aroused state and exhibiting a beta brainwave pattern, their brain also exhibits a component of alpha, theta and delta, even though only a trace may be present.

Music, not to belabor the point, is one of the most widespread and also acceptable ways of changing consciousness. It’s also among the safest. (How many of us “zone out” to a favorite song?!) Of interest is the attention that Catch The Fire pays to quality musicianship — whatever your musical tastes, the keyboardist is skilled, and Clarke has an appealing, ethereal voice. They clearly understand its value and power as a prime expression of spirituality. Or to put things in terms of the article on brain activity, “What am I foregrounding today — or right now?”

Though many Christians might take issue with calling their form of worship a magical act, it fits the definitions and standards quite nicely. Much of the difference between denominational Christianity and Druidry in their musical choices depends on past practices, local influences and expectation, much less on the effect of the music on consciousness. From meditative reflection to transitional interlude to invoking the Spirit, the awen, the Muse, the gods, the Presence, “music magics the moment”.

As I note on my page on Magic:

[E]ach day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness and back again.  We make these transitions naturally and usually effortlessly — so effortlessly we usually do not notice or comment on them. But they serve different purposes: what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation. And further, what we ordinarily do quite mechanically and often without awareness, we can learn to do consciously.

As we ponder how to effect the changes in our consciousness and lived experience that we desire (“that we need, that we can do, that needs to be done”), it pays to employ such readily available means as music. Within everyone’s reach is music in some form, either recorded, live from acknowledged performers, or made on the spot by ourselves. We can chant, play a recorder or whistle, find a percussion instrument among pails and cans, create a rattle from pebbles and resonant container of many shapes and sizes, and include such things in our spiritual practice, whether daily, or on special ritual occasions. (I have a small singing bowl I ring as I enter my backyard grove.)

Music draws beneficent energies to us, in our own consciousness, and from other beings around us.

/|\ /|\ /|\

 

Working the Tool-kit: Part 3

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

fire-GN

Summer Solstice bonfire, June 2019

Fire!

Or as I said some years ago here, “washed in the waters of the West, energized in Eastern airs, earthed in North’s left hand, fired in South’s right”. Indo-European languages retain indications of just such a ritual orientation, facing East, which many modern traditions incorporate in their ritual and directional work.

Or as Carl Buck puts it in his magisterial work, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages:

The majority of words for the main points of the compass are based either on the position of the sun at a given time of day … or on one’s orientation, which among the IE-speaking peoples was usually facing the sunrise (‘in front’ = ‘east’; ‘behind’ = ‘west’; ‘right’ = ‘south’; ‘left’ = ‘north’) … (pg. 870/sections 12.45-12.48).

A whole series of meditations and practices suggest themselves for exploration, as I change the ritual directions I face, and sense the Elemental Powers turning around me. Honor Earth and North, and I’ve got Fire, the sun, and the South at my back, and so on. You can, as some have, build up ritual and symbolic correspondences with phases of the moon, days of week, etc., along with the directions, affording a prayer or ritual cycle more intensive than the every-six-weeks of the Great Eight Druid seasonal festivals.

As always, rather than getting hung up over details or “ritual correctness”, or letting the letter kill the spirit, go with what works, what you are led to do, what lines up with other indicators in your life: dream, divination, reading, intuition, experience.

If you’re working with Druidry and Christianity, consider exploring the traditional directions associated with the four archangels, if an angelic connection serves you better. One set of associations from the Hermetic and Qabbalistic tradition orders them like this: Rafael/East/Air; Michael/South/Fire; Gabriel/West/Water; and Oriel/North/Earth. A similar though not identical orientation appears in the Hebrew Siddur prayer-book for evening or bedtime prayer: “To my right Michael and to my left Gavriel, in front of me Uriel and behind me Rafael, and above my head Shechinat El”. (Shechinat El is the “Presence of God”, the Shekhinah, as it’s sometimes spelled.)

Fire work, or apprenticing yourself to the Element, as I think of it, can begin with a fire pit, or candle-lighting, if an outdoor fire isn’t practical for you. From such simple work with each of the Elements, a profound and beautiful practice can grow over time. This is just one of the freedoms in which a Druid can wholeheartedly participate in a Christian or Jewish service, in part through some of its seemingly “smallest” ritual gestures and events.

As mage and author Josephine McCarthy describes it,

My deepest personal experience of that is with the lighting and tuning of the candle flame. The intent to light a candle to prepare the space for a ritual act developed from that simple stance, to an act of bringing into physical manifestation an elemental expression that lights through all worlds and all times: it becomes the light of divinity within everything (J. McCarthy. Magical Knowledge, pg. 70).

As a focus for meditation, for out-of-body work, for reverence, for kindling the spirit in times of heaviness and despair, Fire has no equal.

I wrote about one of my most vivid Bardic experiences with fire at MAGUS ’17. I’d invoked fire in my workshop, in a light rain that I kept backing into, out from under the tent where I was talking with the assembled workshop attendees. Fire, as it turned out, was in no way put off by a little rain.

I’ll close this post with that excerpt, which begins after the triple Awens.

/|\ /|\ /|\

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

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

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

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

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

The fire, friend,
the fire is in you.

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

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

/|\ /|\ /|\

Five Things I Love About This Blog

1 — First of all, you, my readers. Forget superficial social-media “likes” (though on occasion it’s true they’re heartening to receive). Many of the most-read posts here are curiously “liked” the least, or not at all — from which I conclude you’re too busy reading and thinking about them to worry overmuch about “liking” them, thank the gods.

devpaint

Older posts I haven’t referenced in years still get “views” — some of you are either referring friends to them, or systematically reading backwards and sifting through all the wordage here for anything that has value for you. Knowing how, with a little persistence, I can find a window into something of value in the odd or throw-away reference or turn of phrase in my all varied reading on- and off-line, it’s good to know some of you do the same.

2 — Further, you come from all over — from 102 nations, if I can trust WordPress site analytics. That means that important ideas I grapple with here, and get wrong as well as right, are reaching a wide readership, and provoking reflection. Not surprisingly, the U.S. and the U.K. are the most frequent source of readers, but other nations both expected and more surprising appear on this July’s roster of “Top 20” sources of page views — Turkey, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan (Germany and India also normally both feature among the Top 10 when I look at rosters for whole years but for whatever reason didn’t make it last month; Hong Kong isn’t a separate nation — why WordPress treats it as one is interesting to contemplate):

US: 958
UK: 137
Canada: 63
Australia: 44
France: 16
Spain: 15
Brazil: 13
Ireland: 10
South Africa 10
Romania: 9

3 — Our much-abused, misunderstood, but still persistent human instinct for the spiritually real, the true, the valid, the potent. To choose just one topic, if your sustained interest in a cluster of posts on Druidry and Christianity on this blog is any indication at all, we sense an intersection there that deserves our attention and exploration. Powerful stuff (a highly technical term) still flows into our worlds and consciousnesses from both traditions and practices, and particularly from their cultural-symbolic-magic conjunction. The Grail, we can say, has never ceased to nourish us.

4 — Our hunger for new — and newly-revitalized — spiritual and pragmatic forms into which we can pour our hopes, dreams, emotions, energies, practices and magic. Rituals, perspectives, prayers, songs, communities — these forms take a multitude of shapes, but any vaunted “decline” in religion that our media love to examine from time to time is very far from the lived experience of many people — we still long to re-link to the numinous, the sacred, the holy, the universal, as much right now as we ever did. Maybe more.

5 — How writing for an audience has helped shape both my writer’s craft and my spiritual practice. What I share, and what I keep private, have shifted over time. You’ve tolerated my moods, my humours, my obsessions, my sometimes narrow or limited perspectives, and you still keep coming back. Sounding my experiences and trying to understand them out loud has given me insight into what can and should be shared, and what shouldn’t or can’t. In this, our deeply confessional era in the West, silence is even more golden — as one of the old “Four Powers”* of the Magus (or of the Sphinx), it retains its place and purpose.

*”to know, to dare, to will, to keep silent” — in Latin: noscere, audere, velle, tacere.

So thank you!

/|\ /|\ /|\

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 6

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

I love these next three arcana — so over-the-top! People write and talk about fearing the appearance of the Tower, or the Devil, in a spread or reading. The Star not so much, though we still invest so much emotion in all three images. I ask myself: need I fear reality? What would that even mean?

The DEVIL

15-DevilDevil’s Tower, Devil’s Hole, Devil’s Triangle, the New Jersey Devils hockey team, Devil’s Food Cake (to be distinguished from Angel Food Cake), Devil’s Advocate, even DEVILS, the Deep Extragalactic VIsible Legacy Survey. Anyone looking for mixed messages? Should we even bother to try to untangle this complex of images and associations? We just keep piling more on more.

Untangle? Absolutely! Or not so much untangle as explore.

For me, one powerful key to the Devil is his connection with the Magician, a harmonic or further spiral, 17 (7×2) removed. The hand positions of the Devil mirror the Magician’s, the right in particular matching the Hebrew letter for sh, Jewish El Shaddai Almighty God, that resembles a “W” (= Hebrew letter shin ש), the handsign that accompanies the priestly blessing, made famous in an entirely different context by Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek, as a sign for “V” for his planet Vulcan.

live_long_and_prosperThe Devil is the Magician is Us. It’s an image of the power humans have at their disposal, bend it as we will — and do. We can live long and prosper, or pervert the same power. As we all have, and no doubt will continue to do, on our long spiral journey.

Courtesy of a Judeo-Christian cultural surround and philosophical filter, citizens of European-based cultures may think of “evil” either as something non-existent (if God is “dead”, then so must the Devil be), or as a force from outside a normal, ordinary, essentially good universe. Time spent in the natural world can disabuse us of either notion: there are simply energy flows, some constructive, others contrary, and human choices often do much to amplify both kinds. (No surprise, I take it personally when I suffer, and I agitate for relief from my own particular suffering.) But both forces remain roughly balanced on the physical plane — hence a return to equilibrium in the flow of Tao that is one principal focus of Taoist practice.

We still tend to give “good” too little credit and “evil” too much, but that’s perhaps a further legacy of Puritanism and of dualistic thinking. Such over-simplification haunts American politics all too deeply, as intelligent foreign observers have long noted: Thus, on the American Left, we just don’t call it “evil” any more, but attach some other and often political label to it, as if it can be legislated away with the “right” people in office, if we can only vote out the backward, benighted, ignorant, toxic, patriarchal, gun-and-Jesus-loving, gay-bashing, hypocritical Deplorables that hold back all that is Good and True, and Progress will finally become the eternal norm. On the American Right, evil is alive and well, and successfully marketed in flavors both religious and secular, along with generous doses of paranoia, and typically describes things that snowflake Liberals, America-hating socialists, Pagan Greens, atheists, man-hating feminists, hidden-agenda homosexuals and baby-killing Darwinian believers support and advocate.

Both sides dearly love to loathe their Other. Do we all project much?!

The Christian sense that this is a “fallen” world in need of redemption compares to a Druidic sense that working with natural systems themselves can teach us how to sidestep a great deal of unnecessary grief in the first place, and wise observation and study can ease much of the unavoidable remnant that comes from living in a world subject to physical laws, time, change, aging, illness, death and rebirth. After all, it’s not humans alone, but animals, trees, mountains, our planet and the cosmos itself wear down and are renewed. “Everything She touches changes,” goes one Goddess-chant.

In the Arthurian deck, the card numbered 15 is the Green Knight. Aptly named, he is the force, as Dylan Thomas names it (links to whole poem),

that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.

And “answers” or elaborations to this come oftenest — you guessed it — from other bards:

To live at all is miracle enough.
The doom of nations is another thing.
Here in my hammering blood-pulse is my proof.

Let every painter paint and poet sing
And all the sons of music ply their trade;
Machines are weaker than a beetle’s wing.

Swung out of sunlight into cosmic shade,
Come what come may the imagination’s heart
Is constellation high and can’t be weighed.

Nor greed nor fear can tear our faith apart
When every heart-beat hammers out the proof
That life itself is miracle enough.

The Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton observed “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees”. This is a “gospel in 20 words” that Druids and Christians could share.

“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — ​what gospel is that?” — St. Oscar Romero. How do we reconcile this healthy sense of activism with Druidry’s deep love and desire for peace? Are they actually opposed, or do they — can they — spring from the same source?

“Speaking truth to power” has never been more necessary — it’s the Magician’s power, in hands we always need to question and challenge.

Matthews’ notes in the Hallowquest handbook accompanying one edition of the deck that the Green Knight “represents the challenger whom all seekers meet on their quest. He answers questions and gives advice, but he also sets riddles and puzzles. Those who think that they know everything he leads astray and torments. His greatest desire is to be bested by a worthy opponent” (pg. 52).

The TOWER

16-TowerTowers everywhere: in the Christian West, from Babel onward. And before that, too: ziggurats and pyramids and the earliest “towers” of all — mountains. Connections with Mary Magdalene, “Mary of the Tower(s)”. For the U.S., the association with the destruction of the Twin Towers of Sept. 11, 2001. We say “Never Forget” about too many things, as though holding on to painful memory is sufficient tribute, a kind of vicarious participation. It isn’t enough, if I’m to continue the journey the Fool — I — started.

Like the frequent occurrence of Mercury in Retrograde, once you start paying attention, sometimes we just seem to be traveling through continuous “tower time”. Maybe it’s a good practice to uncouple from the Tower. Stop climbing it, sighting it in our viewfinders, walk away for a time.

But then, too, falling from a height is an old primate dream. How many of us have experienced falling dreams, or a sense of vertigo shortly before falling asleep, a sensation strong enough to startle us awake again?

Let ourselves fall, and what do we discover? All the way down, and our perspective might change.

We might see in the Tower a challenge to the ego, to the self we manufacture as an interface between ourselves and experience. In many ways the self is the Tower. Edgar Allen Poe in “The City in the Sea” writes “from a proud tower in the town/Death looks gigantically down”. (For further information, consult your amygdala [link 1link 2 | link 3].)

Is there much more to say about the Tower? Of course!

The STAR

17-StarHow many of us long for, or follow, a guiding star? Do we star in the drama of our own lives? Lucky star, rising star, star-crossed, shoot/aim for the stars — we know no lack of idioms. Has life starred certain experiences, talents, people, memories, etc. for our life-long obsession or dedication? A dis-aster is an ill-starred event. How much of our experience of imagination, emotion, vision and dream involves our starry or astral bodies?

As with the previous two arcana, this arcanum resonates in so many ways. Meditation on each of the arcana returns deepening insight, and the Star is no exception.

For Christians, associations with the Star of Bethlehem and the lore of the Magi reverberate strongly, while Revelation 12 depicts “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”.

Tolkien plays on this ancient cultural resonance in The Lord of the Rings with Gandalf’s recitation of a piece of lore linking Numenor with Minas Tirith in Gondor:

Tall ships and tall kings
Three times three,
What brought they from the foundered land
Over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one white tree. (The Two Towers, Bk. 3/chapt. 11; “The Palantir”).

Again we see in the Card a nude figure with limbs — conscious links or connections — in more than one element. The eight eight-pointed stars connect with the seven heavens of Medieval lore, with the eighth, the region of fixed stars, above them. As a doubling of the elemental four, the Star is a higher octave of activity. Seven cards from the Hermit, it links to the cultivation of solitude and (spiritual) perception.

You might assume that reaching such an exalted state is the end of the journey. After all, Dante ends each of his three Books of the Divine Comedy — a book abounding in numerical and astrological symbolism — with reference to the stars. And the 33rd and final canto of Paradiso, the last of the three, closes like this:

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

but already my desire and will were moved,
like a wheel which equally/smoothly is moved/turned
(by) the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

But four more arcana remain for us to consider.

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGE: live long and prosper;

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 4

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

If the holy terrain between Druid and Christian calls to you, better your way than one belonging to another person that doesn’t fit you where you walk on your particular arm of the Spiral Journey. A week’s worth of your own meditations surpasses anything I can write here. These themes are suggestions, prompts, points of departure. They’re mine, and they may not be yours. Their use is as sparks, kindling, tinder, fuel, provocation. Your particular path may grow out of resistance or contradiction. Thus are (spiritual) muscles strengthened.

If you’ve (mostly) survived your adolescence, held down a job, learned to deal with roommates, siblings, coworkers, parents, teachers, traffic cops, jerks, (holy) Fools, the DMV, followed a dream, fell in love, lost a bet, failed at something, succeeded at something else, and arrived here, it’s pretty likely you’ve accumulated enough insight to learn something useful when looking at cards intended to evoke insight from your experiences! We can also never fully know how our words on such subjects may be exactly what another needs to hear.

The HERMIT

09-HermitHermits abound in world-wide lore and legend, running the gamut from hell-bound to holy. Depending on your temperament and the rebuffs that life generously doles out to all of us, you may find in the Hermit a kindred spirit, someone who chooses, as the French have it, reculer pour mieux sauter: “to draw back in order to make a better leap” back into the fray. Or eremitic withdrawal may become the theme for a lifetime, or a whole series of them. Plenty of secular examples come to mind as well, especially if you’re rich enough to build a life from your eccentricities, like billionaire Howard Hughes.

Modern examples include Thomas Merton, whose hermit tendencies can be summed up in the name of the monastic order he eventually joined: OCSO, the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, or Trappists. Not content with the already spartan nature of the Order, Merton withdrew further to a hermitage on the grounds of the monastery. His books and poems and increasing fame were one vital source of balance shaping his character into the wise monk, priest and author he slowly became.

J M Greer illustrates a Druid-focused model for practice just as potentially rigorous, especially for the solitary: the Gnostic Celtic Church. Greer highlights some of its distinctive features:

… the GCC does not train people for the standard American Protestant model of the clergy—a model that assigns to clergy the functions of providing weekly services to a congregation, “marrying and burying,” offering amateur counseling to parishioners, and pursuing political and social causes of one kind or another, and defines training for the ministry in terms of the same style of university education used by most other service professions.

This model evolved out of the distinctive social and theological requirements of American Protestant Christianity and has little relevance to other faiths, especially those that do not have the financial resources to support full-time ministers.  It has nonetheless been adopted uncritically by a great many alternative religious traditions here in America. It was in response to the very poor fit between that model and the needs of a contemporary alternative religious movement that AODA [Ancient Order of Druids in America] chose to pursue an older model better suited to its own tradition and needs.

Instead of growing from a single and largely American Protestant model, the GCC focuses on what it calls the Rule of Awen, because

there is certainly a need for men and women who are willing to embrace a new monasticism centered on a personal rule:  one in which the core principle of aligning the whole life with the spiritual dimensions of reality can express itself in forms relevant to the individual practitioner and the present age, in which a rich spiritual life supported by meaningful ceremonial and personal practice can readily coexist with whatever form of outward life is necessary or appropriate to each priest or priestess, and in which the practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion.

Greer always packs a lot in his sometimes academic prose: following Christ’s admonition, this means in short to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. We say we want freedom, but how many of us trust our own inner guidance sufficiently to discern what is “necessary or appropriate”, and avoid the “pathologies of political religion”?

As always, the simplest and purest way contains with it the hard-earned wisdom of lifetimes. Greer lays out the central challenge we all face:

… find and follow your own Awen. Taken as seriously as it should be — for there is no greater challenge for any human being than that of seeking his or her purpose of existence, and then placing the fulfillment of that purpose above other concerns as a guide to action and life — this is as demanding a rule as the strictest of traditional monastic vows. Following it requires attention to the highest and deepest dimensions of the inner life, and a willingness to ignore all the pressures of the ego and the world when those come into conflict, as they will, with the ripening personal knowledge of the path that Awen reveals.

How many of us have even begun to recognize and creatively respond to all the myriad “pressures of the ego and the world”? (After all, this is much of what I’ve long been practicing in my own way, as recorded in this blog, and you have ample evidence here of the challenges one person has faced.)

The Matthews’ Arthurian deck depicts the Grail Hermit: “Neither Druid nor priest, as hermit he mediates the functions of both”.

Where is the “third element” in each of my life experiences? As neither pole of a binary, how does it serve both and thereby a greater whole?

The WHEEL of FORTUNE

10-Wheel-of-FortuneThe Wheel or Spiral, the lungo drom or long road of yearning of the Romani, the Wheel of Becoming in Hinduism, “what goes around comes around” of folk wisdom, all point to the circular nature of life and the resonances that our actions establish.

Or as the Lakota holy man Black Elk puts it,

Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.

Worldwide, this circle or wheel is also quartered, divided into four fields or domains or regions. Yes, it’s impossible to square the circle , and the link will lead you into exquisite mathematical detail why this is so — but using this holy glyph or mandala as a teaching and learning device, as a tool in ritual, is another order of response to such an intersection of worlds. What is materially impossible is — often — spiritually essential. Or to put it another way, walking a spiritual path means squaring the circle every single day. (Or if you seek a spiritual practice based in mathematics, check out this origami link.)

For more insights that can lead to a unique personal practice with sacred geometry, and not incidentally provide further rich linkages between their profound influence in both Druidry and Christianity, check out Michael Schneider’s A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science.

JUSTICE

11-JusticeIn Matthews’ deck, the corresponding figure is Sovereignty: “our true self and the land are one”. The justice of this inner truth emerges in the great rebalancing that earth is currently experiencing, as the consequences of our past actions come home to us, and we begin to accept responsibility for them and to work off their effects. But we need not merely suffer them passively; we can work with them creatively for the purposes of transformation, which is what cause and effect are placed to afford to all who seek.

In the traditional deck, the figure is garbed and presented so that gender is not immediately clear. Latin justitia is a feminine noun, yet the figure of Justice as we have it here has a seated, balanced, imperial quality of the previous male figures in positions of traditional masculine power and authority.

As a further harmonic development of the Magician, Justice is a balanced expression of power: the upward right hand holds a sword, while the left grips a balance. The two pillars of manifestation again frame the seated figure, and a curtain conceals the region behind it.

What has been lost on the way to Justice? How is its expression still incomplete, indicating the need for further growth and unfoldment? What does rebalancing and attainment of a new equilibrium conceal or distract me from? What further currents of change and transformation remain that ask for my attention, and allow me to anticipate future expressions of Justice, of balance and recalibration and harmonizing?

The triple crown of Justice can be seen to reflect the magical current inherent in groups of three, and in the physical universe. The card commentary for this card in Matthews’ Arthurian deck includes this observation: “…the Goddess of Sovereignty gives three drinks from her cup, purveying the white milk of fostering, the red drink of lordship and the dark drink of forgetfulness. These she offers successively in her aspects as Foster-Mother, Consort and Renewer”.

“Mother, foster me to your service. Consort, empower us both through our union. Renewer, ease me as I strive to fulfill my vows to you”.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 3

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

winter sun

One of the vital perspectives that much modern Druidry can offer to Christian practice is an experimental approach. Rather than depending so heavily on creeds and affirmations of faith, we can approach statements in Christian and Jewish scripture as pointers toward practice, as statements of spiritual reality and awareness if certain prerequisites of practice, wisdom and experience are met, statements clothed in symbolism and perspectives than can sometimes translate to other terms and forms without diminution.

Here’s one such example: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps. 118:26). Whether as a statement of faith or a lyric in a praise-song, it often elicits a comforting familiarity. But why not take it for a spin? Because it offers at least three points for exploration, contemplation and practice, we could treat it as a Druid-Christian triad, and contemplation seed:

What does “blessed” mean?
What does it mean to “come in someone’s name”?
And what is the “name of the Lord”?

Coupled with this last question is a verse often directed at non-Christians, and prominent in mission-oriented publications and preaching: “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow” (Phil. 2:10). As a form of submission to a specific deity, a Christian islam, its initial meaning seems quite clear. All will acknowledge this particular form of deity, the Christian Son of God, in a future realization of his divine sovereignty. It’s a state yet to be fulfilled. Islam as an Arabic word for Muslims also conveys a sense of free will — it’s a voluntary submission. Of course, this is one form of understanding, and it need not be the only or even the most potent in effecting spiritual change.

Put these formulations in Druid terms and you might have recognition that the natural order has a discernible flow, a direction, an energy that humans resist and abuse only at an accumulating cost to themselves and to every other being around them. (Some have called this Lady Sovereignty.  It’s possible also to see in this a version the Shekhinah, the presence of God.) Blessedness in these terms is fruitfulness, harmony, awareness, creativity — all arising from recognition of and concord with the underlying flow inherent in nature, and an ability to navigate life changes successfully. If we come in the name of spirit, or bring with us and our decisions and actions such blessedness or harmonious accord with the flow of nature, it’s often quite apparent to others. A yogi may do this while performing the Salutation to the Sun. Or the Druid sitting under a tree to rest against its trunk and watch the sunrise, may acknowledge the presence of something far greater than the human self in these things. A human on a “path with heart” already carries an awareness of spiritual presence of which he or she is an integral part of the whole.

It’s then that we recognize, at least in our better moments, the authority of those who act from love and wisdom, not from selfishness or shortsighted opportunism. And the sages among us, whether Druid or Christian, both or neither, may not always be those publishing the books and presenting at major Gatherings or Conferences. It may be the white-haired gardener praying in the neighboring pew, face aglow with reverence for the goddess in Mary, or Mary in the goddess, fingernails still darkened with the good earth under them. It may be the quiet young Christian woman calling the quarters at the next Equinox ritual, honoring the four archangels, or the four gospel evangelists, or the four creatures of Celtic or some other tradition, welcoming the presence of spirit in so many varied guises and forms permeating every quarter of the compass.

In the experience of spiritual abundance and presence, then, Christian and Druid may find another meeting-place.

/|\ /|\ /|\

The LOVERS

06-LoversThe next Tarot image in our series is the Lovers. (The Matthews’ Arthurian image is of the White Hart, with the lovers Enid and Geraint in the foreground.) So much history and cultural change and commentary surrounds the myth or wisdom story of Adam and Eve that “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/”, as William Carlos Williams says in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, “yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there”. The story may simply not “work” for many of us as it once did.

We can read the card in one way as depicting the non-physical spiritual force that expresses itself in female and male, in all living things, both green and fruiting, and flaming with energy, as in the fiery-leaved tree behind the male figure. To get caught by stereotypical associations, or to balk at “masculine” or “feminine” attributes, is to miss the polarities inherent in the natural world that allow for manifestation — multiple polarities we all carry within each of us. In one sense, then, nature has always been “gender-fluid”: we know of species that can change genders at need, or at different points in their life cycle.

What do I really love? Does that love build or tear down my life? How does love help me manifest? What polarities work through me with particular force or energy? What ones might I beneficially welcome and work with in my life? Where else can I love?

The CHARIOT

07-ChariotThe Chariot in the traditional deck (or Prydwen, Arthur’s ship of journeying in the Arthurian deck) closes out the first of the three rows of the Major Arcana (if we lay out the cards in 3 rows of 7, with the Fool or Seeker as the one who moves through each on the Journey). And again, in one traditional interpretation, this first row has to do with the maturing self, the personal, the exploration and development of capacities and potencies of the individual.

The notes for Prydwen from the Arthurian deck: “the Otherworldly journey which is undertaken by all seekers, so that the inner life becomes the basis for a sound outer life” (pg. 36).

One applicable Biblical verse here comes from Luke 6:45: “Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their hearts, and evil people brings evil things out of the evil stored up in their hearts. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of”. I don’t know about you, but this is a useful barometer for where my attention is. And with luck, you have a friend or partner who calls you on your crap. “What did you just say?!” That’s when I learn, if I don’t already know, that I’m (once again) out of balance and have some work to do.

What is happening in my inner worlds? What is my foundation? Where can I continue to work to shore up that foundation for both my inner and outer lives? What cycle has ended so that I can finally see and account for its shape and influence, and now return to polish what was rough-hewn? How is my storehouse? What am I harvesting from the old cycle as I begin a new one?

STRENGTH

08-Strength“The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights” (Habakkuk 3:19). Or to be gender-fluid about it: “I honor Lady Sovereignty who strengthens me here on this Land where the deer runs, showing me how to walk the heights with sure feet”.

On this new octave, the second row of 7, Strength shares the infinity symbol with the Magician. You could say she is the Magician — renewed, re-imagined.

Is this coercion or forcing of our elemental and instinctual selves by our “higher” selves? Is it conscious awareness of the vitality of both, thereby making it our own more fully and completely — a union, where formerly there were two? The Lady here has greens and flowers for a belt — she is not separate from nature. Is she shaping and directing that animal strength?

Perhaps we can see one theme run from the prophet’s words that open this section to Whitman’s words in “The Beasts” in his Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid
and self-contain’d.
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in
their possession.

In some ways Whitman describes Paradise, a recognition of inner sovereignty that needs no one kneeling to another. The “self” that contains the beasts is the sovereignty of the Land, the Whole that cradles each individual in its arms, if we opt for the language of personification. Here it is animals leading the way in showing tokens of this “self”, already in their “possession”.

Is this what the Strength figure is trying to discover, or does achieve? Does Strength learn that strength unaided is insufficient — a realization that is the beginning of wisdom? It is our inner strength that issues forth in animals, too — our shared link, not one to dominate the other.

So I can do no better than end this post with words from U. K. LeGuin’s great Earthsea trilogy. Her magician or mage Ged learns from his own experience with beasts:

… in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGES: Pexels.com — winter pictures.

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 2

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

INTERLUDE

Druids have grappled with Christianity since it first arrived in Europe. While today we might take St. Augustine at his word (“that which is known as the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist”*), exploring it in new and creative ways (tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine!), most people throughout Christian history have understood the assertion as narrowly as possible. That is, Christ started a new religion focused on belief in the divine power of his sacrificial death and resurrection, which saves the believer. Pairing this with a transformation in awareness, the convert takes on a new life in Christ.

For many, however, Jesus Christ, or least the religion that bears his name, is problematic at best. (To choose just one among myriad issues to explore, note that neither Druids nor non-Druids use the name Taliesin, for instance, as a “swear-word”!) Many non-Christians today have suffered from unloving and aggressive evangelism, family harassment, workplace tension, physical threats and social ostracism, whether they practice a non-Christian spirituality or simply remain “outside” the Christian church.

I’m addressing this series of posts, then, primarily to a vast “excluded middle” — neither the “born-again” believer nor the scarred (and possible tarred and feathered) “heretic”, but the people awake to the “magical and generous” possibilities all around us, because you’ve already experienced them, and they answer a deep hunger in you like nothing else can.

Or as Krista comments:

Dean, I’m always especially interested when you write on this particular topic. Having been raised in the Christian Faith, and having had no quarrel with the Christianity of my youth, my own Druid practice always has something of a Christian flavor to it even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. But I don’t consider myself Pagan either. Always was a bit of a square peg. So throughout my Druid journey I’ve become very comfortable blending and assimilating and it works quite well in my private practice. It’s a bit more challenging in community practice, but I’m working on it and I adapt when it’s called for. I think it would do the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective. Thanks for taking it on!

One less-than-flattering label for this is syncretism. But religions and spiritualities, just like most human cultures, thrive by cross-pollination, as careful study of them across time will bear out. Similarly, in our genetics we’re mongrels, hybrids, blends, mixes. (Our sometimes uncomfortable surprise at recent DNA test-results illustrates one aspect of this.) Our current sensitivity to “cultural appropriation” is our heightened awareness of the violence behind forcible mis-appropriations. Or as John Beckett puts it bluntly in his The Path of Paganism, “Always credit your sources, never pretend to be something you’re not, and steal from the best”. It’s the lack of credit, the pretense, and the poor selection that make up most of our problems with shoddy cultural (mis)appropriation. The “weekend guru” offering workshops, intensives and retreats, and cashing in on an inferior grab of unacknowledged and imperfectly-mastered practices from another culture currently perceived as somehow more “authentic” or “powerful”, gives all borrowing and mixing a bad name.

[Lest you take issue with the possibly glib tone of John’s “triad of appropriation” above, let’s hear him at greater length from a recent post:

Are you being respectful to the traditions and cultures you’re drawing from, or are you grabbing whatever looks shiny to you? Are you working with them as whole systems, or as mix and match entrees on a spiritual buffet? And as a polytheist, my biggest concern: are you treating the Gods as holy powers and as persons with whom we can form relationships, or as objects to be used where and how you see fit?]

/|\ /|\ /|\

Another under-explored overlap is Druid and Hindu practice | another link | a third link | which offers some very provocative insights into cultural similarity and preservation of ancient traditions over long periods of time, and at “opposite ends” of the Indo-European area of cultural and linguistic origins and influence. Everything from archetypal themes in stories, to names of gods, music and musical instruments, and spiritual practices, show common ground in the cultures of Celts and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

And so I write these posts partly in the spirit of “doing the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective”. And as always, I’m exploring my own practices and perspectives as I go — one of the chief benefits of blogging.

The EMPRESS

03-EmpressThe Empress of the traditional deck, with her 12-star crown and sceptre, and the astronomical symbol of Venus next to her chair or throne, is another goddess figure. As an aspect or representation of the energies along the journey of the Fool or Seeker, she grounds us in the earth. The wheat growing at her feet, the waterfall to her left, the forest behind her, all place her “in the world” of both fruitfulness and change. Whether as Mother Earth, or Mary, or another goddess, or a living but impersonal archetype, or the fertile and fruitful energies within us, the Empress is a potent force and presence.

As Caitlin and John Matthews describe Guinevere in their version** of this card, as “the Empress of Logres (the Inner Britain), she creates the conditions for growth, establishing peace and contentment. She spins a thread of inner concord which is woven into the fabric of the land and its people. She imparts sensitivity to nature and harmonious awareness of all life” (The Arthurian Tarot. Thorsons, 1995, pg. 28).

What is the “thread of concord” between you and the land where you live? Only you can answer that: it can become a practice first to find out, and then to honor it in ways that you work out between you and the land. A grounding exercise of weaving or braiding a thread to carry with you as a reminder may help incarnate this awareness. Ritual can serve our need here, as in so many places.

What are the “conditions for growth” for whatever you wish to bring into your life? How can you begin to work them into your day to day work and awareness, so that they can manifest what you need? How can you serve others who are doing the same? Asking the questions can help the chance manifest, if I’m paying attention. If not, then next time around.

Archetypes, it should be said, aren’t something to “believe in”, and even less something to “worship” — though you certainly can if you choose to. (Let us know how it goes — you may discover something valuable to share.) Instead, and probably a better use of our energies and attention and time, they’re something to work with to see what they can help us do and understand about our lives.

The EMPEROR

04-EmperorThe Emperor in the traditional deck hews to traditional symbols and representations of patriarchal power: beard, crown, scepter, throne, armor, harsh and rather sterile landscape, rams’ horns adorning the throne’s arms and back. (It can be helpful for such reasons to consult other decks for different images and symbolism.) The fact that we’re experiencing the negative effects of imbalanced masculine energies in our lives simply tells us a piece of what needs healing and re-balancing. Scan most headlines and you realize many people haven’t a clue about how to begin to do this — itself a measure of how out of balance the energies have become for many. We’ve often jettisoned outmoded forms of spirituality, true — but neglected to replace them.

The Emperor’s number 4 is also represents the fullness of the human world, four-square in its founding on the four physical elements, before we shift our awareness to spiritual realities within and beyond them. The Pagan and Christian star alike points to the five-fold nature of all things, both physical and non-physical — a vital reminder of how the cosmos is constituted, which we overlook, and have overlooked, to our peril.

The spiritual, you might say, is what the physical *is* under its mask. Or to say it another way, the spiritual is always clear and apparent; it’s the physical that’s the mystery, the cloak, the concealer, the mist-filled branching off the path. We have simply forgotten to work our polarity magic, to walk a spiritual path of stewardship, to put it in Christian terms — we’ve thrown our planet out of balance over time, and now must spend at least as much time over the coming decades and centuries working to bring it back into balance and harmony.

The HIEROPHANT

05-HierophantThe figure in the traditional deck of the Hierophant, the “one who shows the holy”, may bring further associations of institutional authority and entrenched structures and imbalances.

Some decks re-order these first few cards, change their genders and assign them different symbolism, in an attempt to represent one or another version of a more balanced set of images. In the Matthews’ Arthurian deck the card depicts the bard Taliesin, the poet-as-way-shower-of-the-holy, especially of ways that stand outside formal structures and institutions. Today we find our bards and prophets among artists and performers, actors and politicians.

(Check out fansites and Facebook, Twitter and other social media, if you want to know how much the words and music and performances of artists matter to so many, if you don’t already have a deep appreciation for the power wielded by a multitude of visions and their visionaries. Again and again, people post how a performance or a lyric saved their lives, brought them down from suicide, changed their outlooks, gave them strength and courage and a vision to persevere through often impossible circumstances.)

Like the Hierophant, Taliesin is a guardian of tradition. We know all too well the dangers of distorted and abusive holders of traditional authority and power. Seemingly every other day, headlines trumpet the fall of another person — often a man — from a position of trust, authority and power. Such things have given tradition a bad name — except, again, in our modern reverence for everyone else’s traditions except our own. Traditional holders of wisdom, Native American or Tibetan or Mayan, still retain something of the original value that a tradition is meant to preserve.

For the other and often neglected face of tradition is that conserving function. We may conceive of tradition as “guarding from”, but more as “guarding for”. In his Elves, more than in any other expression in his fantasy works, Tolkien captures the sense both of preserving much wisdom and beauty through time, and of pervasive sadness at its seemingly inevitable loss. To cite just one example, even among the more hopeful, Gandalf addresses Aragorn in Book 6, Chapter 5 of The Lord of the Rings:

This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away.

Our contemporary sense of loss and disorientation at our crumbling institutions, corrupt as some of them have become, is also an opportunity to reconnect with legitimate traditions, many preserved inwardly by their keepers, where we can recover them through vision, gratitude, ritual, and readiness and humility to ask for guidance. Taliesin, in the Matthews’ rendering, is one such preserver or conservator. He “sits in a firelit hall. He tells the story of his initiatory transformations to two children who sit at his feet listening intently. The golden links of tradition pass from his hands to theirs” (The Arthurian Tarot, pg. 30).

And our efforts in this quest (“lest any man should boast” as Christian scripture says [Ephes 2:9] of “works”, which by themselves can never be the only component of a quest) are part of our purification, our testing, a step along the path, not the sole key to growth. We are each one being in a cosmos of other beings, each with intentions and purposes, some which can align with ours. The hand of tradition, the wisdom of the Ancestors, the spiritual reality of the worlds, reaches out to grasp ours when we show we are ready.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*Augustine of Hippo. The Retractions, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Mary Inez Bogan. Vol. 60, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1968), 52. [Book 1, Chapter 12, article 3.]

**Here are the names of the cards in the Matthews’ Arthurian deck: (0) The Seeker, (1) Merlin, (2) Lady of the Lake, (3) Guinevere, (4) Arthur, (5) Taliesin, (6) The White Hart, (7) Prydwen, (8) Gawain, (9) The Grail Hermit, (10) The Round Table, (11) Sovereignty, (12) The Wounded King, (13) The Washer at the Ford, (14) The Cauldron, (15) The Green Knight, (16) The Spiral Tower, (17) The Star, (18) The Moon, (19) The Sun, (20) The Sleeping Lord, and (21) The Flowering of Logres.

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 1

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

In this next series of seven posts, I’ll be following a classic Tarot interpretation of the Fool as the querent or seeker who journeys through the aspects and archetypes of the Major Arcana. And I’ll be writing from some perspectives I hope will be useful to Druid-Christian travelers along the Green Ways of Spirit, and will in turn inspire comments and insights from you that can enrich us all. Take this as rough draft — I’m working it out as I go.

[Note: The tarot images used here, from the original Rider-Waite Tarot, are now in the public domain in the U.S.]

FOOL or SEEKER

0-FoolSo important is the animal accompanying the Fool from the outset that almost every deck includes some creature accompanying the human figure of the Fool.

Whether we see this as our animal inheritance, part of our make-up as a physical being with age-old drives and instincts, or as a guide or companion distinct from us, the dog (or three birds in the Arthurian tarot) is with us from the beginning.

Why a fool? Nearly every significant tradition on the planet counsels us against arrogance or hubris, and in no place is this caution more needful than on our own spiritual journeys. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise” (1 Cor 4:10). The classic Zen master seeks to help a student recover that “original face, the one you had before you were born”.

Echoing this insight is the old Victorian Bard William Blake, a holy fool himself, who also said, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”. Want an interesting exercise? Ask in meditation or dream to see the trees of the Fool.

WBlake

Are they the trees of Paradise? The Medieval Legend of the Rood or Cross follows the main story line of the Biblical narrative with a tree or trees continually reappearing in different guises, first in Eden, then as a seed from that original tree buried with Adam’s body at Golgotha, to become — depending on the versions — part of Noah’s Ark, a bridge that the Queen of Sheba crosses, and eventually the Cross that Christ dies on.

(Where is the seed planted in me to disrupt all my false and narrow assumptions? What tree lifts its branches in my life, sending me places I’d never go on my own?)

And similarly, too, in Tolkien’s Silmarillion: there he recounts stories of how the Light from the original Holy Trees in Valinor is captured in the Silmaril gems, those greatest achievements of the Elven Feanor, whose name means “Spirit of Fire”, and follows their dramatic history through the volume. Trees, Light, Fire: we have them with us as we travel, even as we have the solace and guidance of an animal companion by our sides.

C. S. Lewis in his final novel, Till We Have Faces, draws on the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. The title echoes a line in the novel:  “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Lewis explained this to a correspondent, writing that a human “must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask”. In one way, then, the Great Work is to be me, the original self, wearing the face I had before I was born, “because no one comes to Spirit except through me”.

Ask an ancestor to show you an original face.

We might also see the sequence of cards coming after the Fool as masks that the Fool tries on along the journey, learning from each role or incarnation or experience, but never wholly defined by any of them. Or, alternatively, as initiations each soul must experience on its journey. (Looking for just four? Try the Elemental Sacraments that appear in the life of Jesus and offer themselves as well in slightly different guises to Druid and Pagan generally. And if you’re like me, you remember you may experience each one multiple times along you spiral path. I prime the pump occasionally and try one out myself, if it hasn’t come along recently on its own.)

MAGICIAN

01-MagicianThe Magician, numbered 1 in most decks, is a prime number, expressive of unity, the fullness of Awen, of Spirit before creative activity begins on the physical plane. The serpent that forms his belt recalls the admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

As a lightning-rod for spirit, one hand raised to heaven or fire, one lowered to earth, garbed in fire and pure white, the lemniscate figure-8 of infinity above his head, he is a potent figure for many. And another mask.

In the Golden Tarot, the Magician is Christ, beast-Master, Lord of Animals, able to communicate with them in ways many humans have often lost and must work to regain. He knows as well the beast nature and the human nature, honoring and blessing them both. In our steps along the spiral, we sometimes cut ourselves off from what some have called our elder brothers and sisters.

Ask the spirit in all things to help you see how to participate in healing the breach.

In Hindu myth we enter the worlds with an adi karma, an initial nudge that lands us in physical bodies, and sets our feet on the spiral journey back home. “True voyage”, says U. K. LeGuin innocently, “is return”.

What is it about being human? The German poet Rilke exclaims in the first of his masterwork, the Duino Elegies:

Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world.

Some versions render it our interpreted world. We’re the ones, after all, who filter experience through memory, intention, language, culture, emotion, training, expectation — a whole set of potent magical transformations animals only partially know, filters which immeasurably enrich our lives but also deeply complicate them. The Magician is master of transformations, able to ride successive changes but not be overwhelmed by them.

I enter each card in imagination and look around. What can I see, smell, hear, imagine, receive in hints and glimpses?

How can I find a home in this world? How can I be a refuge on the road for others here like me?

The HIGH PRIESTESS

02-High PriestessIn the Matthews’ Arthurian Tarot, the figure is the Lady of the Lake. In both decks — the Rider-Waite pictured here, and in the Arthurian deck, in contrast to the Fire-red of the Magician, we see the Water-blue of the Priestess or Lady. Launched into the world of polarity, we encounter a different kind of initiation, and Initiator.

While there is great wisdom in the occult maxim of Dion Fortune that “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess, and there is one initiator”, it’s also true that many people have experienced the Powers of the Worlds as distinct beings, and until we have experience of them ourselves we may wisely keep silent about them. We already know from childhood onward that what’s true on the physical plane may not work on other planes, and vice versa. Try out the effortless flight of the astral dream world on earth, and gravity has a way of asserting its own reality regardless of our wishes or beliefs.

With a crescent “moon at her feet”, and also featured in her headdress, the High Priestess is in some ways an embodiment of Isis, and of Mary as well. She has her own balance, seated between the Pillars of Force of much classical magic practice, and positioned in front of a garden of fruit trees. With both the equal-armed cross on her breast and the title “tora(h)” or book of laws in her lap, she is a complex of many meanings, all worth exploring. “May your word to me be fulfilled”, goes one version of Mary’s words to the angelic message and messenger at the Annunciation. The fulfillment of the word “tora” may be as “rota” or wheel: the Fool’s journey or spiral continues.

But the feminine is not passive, as the stereotype often runs. Possibilities are endlessly sent to us by spirit, by the cosmos rippling its energies through every one of its creatures. We can refuse them. And we often do.

What law governs this moment? What is still spinning in my life? What annunciations come to me each day? What words have I accepted and allowed to fulfill themselves? What and who have I turned away from the door?

Poet and rocker Malcolm Guite writes in his poem “Annunciation”:

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy …

We’re invited more often than we know to say yes to things that terrify us. We’ve imbibed our fears along with the advertisers’ marketing jingles that we know through repetition even if we despise the product. If repetition can accomplish so much, let me turn it to my purposes, rather than somebody else’s. As author Peter Beagle famously declares, “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams”.

Or to turn to another great Bard, the late Leonard Cohen, who sings in “Anthem”, with great Druid counsel:

The birds, they sang
At the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.

Yeah, the wars
They will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold and bought again
The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

No, the dove is never free, not till spiral’s end, but the Light keeps getting in. The dove keeps descending, bringing the blessings of spirit, keeps setting out from the Ark to find land after flood, keeps returning with a leaf in its beak, keeps on keeping on. (Male, female, polarity. Though it’s heresy in some quarters to say it, we’re all much more than a “gender” or “orientation”. A stereotype is a simply firm or fixed reference point in a world of changes, not something to attempt mistakenly to incarnate personally — impossible, anyway!)

How am I the High Priestess? How am I still the Magician? What has the Fool discovered so far of balance and polarity?

/|\ /|\ /|\

Listening to Each Other — Recent Comments

A series of recent comments here has been helpful to me, even as I try to gauge how to approach these posts, and how far and where to take them.

I had breakfast with a Druid friend this morning, a short while before he’ll be off for an extended cross-country skiing trip, far from regular tourist routes, hiking in and out, and camping and staying in trail-side shelters. I value him in part because he’s a good listener, and as a consistent character trait, he seeks to find balance in his own reactions to his daily inner and outer life, even as he shares them with others. It makes for some priceless insights, if I shut up to catch them.

Such reflection is a gift, something to cherish and encourage in others. I try to listen here in the same spirit, when you comment in posts about what’s going on in your worlds and experiences. Often of course I don’t not know enough of your circumstances to comment usefully, but I keep listening partly for that very reason. Who knows the whole story, even of our own lives? (The late ABC commentator Paul Harvey called his popular broadcast The Rest of the Story. We keep paying attention, if we’re wise, because the story hasn’t ended yet by any means, and we’re all part of it, telling our piece as we live it. And if you suspect reincarnation is an accurate aspect of the story, its chapters can grow quite lengthy indeed.) Listening, patience, gratitude: a triad cutting across all traditions, proven countless times over and over in its profound power.

tree2-17-19

Krista writes:

Dean, I’m always especially interested when you write on this particular topic. Having been raised in the Christian Faith, and having had no quarrel with the Christianity of my youth, my own Druid practice always has something of a Christian flavor to it even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. But I don’t consider myself Pagan either. Always was a bit of a square peg. So throughout my Druid journey I’ve become very comfortable blending and assimilating and it works quite well in my private practice. It’s a bit more challenging in community practice, but I’m working on it and I adapt when it’s called for. I think it would do the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective. Thanks for taking it on!

How many of us hear even a part of our own experiences in what Krista shares here? Neither Christian or Pagan. It’s a perspective and an experience I suspect is more common than we recognize. “Square-pegged-ness” could probably define a number of us, and in fact much contemporary spiritual practice across traditions echoes this sense of having to find and tread our own paths. Because what price “purity” of belief or practice strictly within the confines of one tradition or school, church or community, if spiritually we’re suffocating or starving there? It can take a deal of work just to recognize such a priority, and honor such a spiritual imperative.

The influx of the divine that swirled and took shape in and around Christianity still has valid things to teach us, even as individual churches and whole communions and major denominations struggle to find their way.  The existence today of over 20,000 Protestant denominations, to say nothing of other Christian traditions, testifies to the difficulty of satisfying the questing individual soul with system and conformity, doctrine and creed.

Group practice and community often mean more to many people than words of affirmation recited at a particular portion of the weekly service, though they may describe much of value, too. But the flame that burns at the heart of what is called Christianity does not appear to keep itself neatly smouldering within any bounds set by humans, any more than it does in other spiritualities. If it did, how much would it really be worth? Instead, it kindles and warms anyone who brushes up against it for any length of time. Inconveniently so, dynamically so, wonderfully and provocatively and endlessly “inspiritingly” so.

What other perspectives or flavors of Druidry do we often overlook, besides the Christian one(s)?

Until we can begin to answer that question adequately, I’m borrowing, for the space of a quotation anyway, some monotheistic but non-Christian flavor from Tolkien’s Silmarillion, hearing in it an echo of Druidic awen, and a further gift of the elemental fire that kindles us all:

Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

And disabledhikernh writes:

Thank you for this post. I am hard pressed to find other Druid Christians, so I have felt kind of isolated as such. Now I don’t 🙂

Isolation, that challenge to solitaries — and how many of us are solitary, even if we enjoy a local community of others, before and after we gather with them? The anvil of solitude can forge us spiritually in ways nothing else can, though the costs can be correspondingly high.

(One of my spiritual practices, for what it’s worth, found in other interesting places, too: If this experience is happening for me rather than only to me, what can I take from it? Where can I travel with it? What doors does it open, and not just close? What beauties glow behind the doors? What deities flare and bloom there? How far, I whisper to myself, half in fear, half in wonder, how far can I really go?)

Steve has been sharing something of his journey in previous comments, and writes:

This series of posts is proving to be a thoughtful and thought provoking treatment of what is a “delicate” subject in many circles. When I first encountered some of your earlier posts on the intersection of druidry and christianity I admit to taking a very cautious approach, almost an attitude of “this is too good to be true”. With time to read and think about what you are saying it seems more likely that you are speaking from hard won, first hand experience. Thank you for doing this.

“Delicate” is apt. Steve’s caution here sounds at least as hard-won — and needful — as any experience of mine, and vice-versa. My caution in how definitively I assert something, how deep I dig, how far I push, what I ask that I can’t answer, is ongoing. Rather than encounter walls, or provoke readers unnecessarily with observations I can’t back up from experience, I want to explore respectfully — mostly so I miss as little as possible of value as I go.

One of the most startling overlaps or intersections of traditions for me happened during an initiation. I still don’t know altogether what it “means”, though it was over five years ago now. In a clear inner encounter, all the more unexpected because I hadn’t opened a Bible in many years, I saw how

out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and his face was like the sun shining in its strength (Revelation 1:20).

Rather than “meaning” anything at first, the experience shaped me within its own context, just like other profound experiences, whether of pain or joy, grief or wonder, which we analyze only later, and put labels on, as we “process” them, seeking to incorporate or reject them, expanding or contracting them to “fit” what we can accept at the time. At the time, this experience confirmed for me the energy and love behind the initiation, flagging it as powerfully memorable.

bosco-verticale

Milan’s bosco verticale — vertical forest, completed in 2018*.

(After a car accident over three decades ago now, I surveyed the overturned and totaled car I’d been driving, walked gingerly over a puddle of broken glass to retrieve my wallet, flung from the dash out the window by the impact, massaged a sore neck that was my only physical outcome of the event, and marveled in gratitude that no one had been hurt. Anything the accident “meant” came only later: Insurance claims. My sometimes-psychic brother, agitated all morning before my phone call home to explain what happened and ask to be picked up. The eventual replacement of the car. The job interview I was returning from, the mantra I’d been chanting, my mindset, the weather, the other driver, and so on.)

Part of the gift of the initiation experience is that I was largely able to let go of what it “meant” at first and focus on accepting its effects on my awareness. What it “meant” and “means” has continued to unfold, though not necessarily along “orthodox” lines. And that no doubt drives some of what I write here. Images and metaphors as divine “transparencies” or hierophanies, ways to connect to the limitless, ways it “shines through”, are part of our spiritual furniture, and part of my bias or individuality or inner architecture. They may or may not be yours, but you have yours.

May you find and explore them richly.

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGE: urban trees — public domain; Bosco Verticale — Milan, Italy’s “vertical forest”.

*For more info and pictures of the Vertical Forest, see this article.

Oh, Slip Away to the Wilderness!

Slip away to the wilderness and pray.

I bless and consecrate you with water … with spirit, and with fire.

/|\ /|\ /|\

How often we’re put off by language — or drawn in and inspired, and for mostly the same reasons. The first piece of wise Druid counsel above comes, in fact, from Luke 5:16, describing what Jesus often did. Seems like a piece of uncommon good sense these days for anyone to practice, a sacred intention to add to our hours.

forest2

Another version* puts it like this: “Jesus often went away to other places to be alone so that he could pray”. Does that feel like anything most of us need to do regularly, to get off by ourselves so we can hear ourselves and our awen speak, and not merely listen to the strident echoes of the “24-hour news cycle”? Hear what life is constantly saying to the chakras and energy centers of our being**.

The second line above comes from Matthew 3:11-12, where John the Initiating Chief (Christians may know him as John the Baptist) names the powers he and Jesus invoke when blessing and hallowing others who seek out that particular ritual. Water, spirit, fire. What is baptism but blessing — literally, dipping in water and other holy substances or elements? A baptism in an initiation, and vice versa, symbolized by elements that have always been holy worldwide: water and fire, and spirit that animates them all. Call them elemental sacraments as I have, if that brings them into closer kinship and familiarity and comfort.

/|\ /|\ /|\

peak-sky-water

One of my teachers observed that just as we can choose to go through initiations organized and conducted by others, we can initiate intentions and directions in our  own lives. An actual ritual can help to impress this on the mind and senses, reifying it, to use technical language — making it “thingly”, bringing it through “right down to the physical”.

So I find my own ways of slipping away into wilderness to pray, listen to the trees, sing the awen, and prepare.

And initiation? Many have long looked at the Biblical Book of Revelation as a guide to our inner spiritual architecture, with the seven churches it describes in detail as the varying focus and health of our seven inner energy centers, typified in various traditions as chakras or by other names, the spiritual eye among them, along with the halos on pictures of saints, the sacred heart, the gut instinct, and so on — yet another piece of the philosophia perennis, the Perennial Wisdom we cloak with our regional robes, names and forms, then “name and claim” as the Sole Truth of the cosmos (which we just so happen to be in exclusive possession of).

So you have a vision, and it’s natural to be told to get it down in words before it fades:

Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden candles is this: The seven stars are the messengers of the seven Gatherings, and the seven candles are the seven Gatherings. (Revelation 1:20).

Then you work to initiate your vision, with the Messengers (Instant or otherwise), and the Light sources you find at hand, LED, spiritual, human. A little paraphrase that I assert does no injustice to the original, and we’re on Druid territory. And why not vice versa? Rework a Druid ritual in Christian terms, and see what you may discover.

We can initiate or baptize our complete body, energies centers all working together, to (re)call it to its holy purpose as an Ancestor-in-the-Making, a Walker-between-the-Worlds, a Holy One. If the world around us, or some other world we’ve walked in lately, seems sacred or holy, or some other ideal summons us, we can “level ourselves up”, to use the language of gamers — shift energy and consciousness, so that we mirror and embody — incarnate — that holiness, rather than working against it.

So I choose the time of ritual with care, honoring the harmonics of the planets and stars, the tides of earth and our lives. Three days, or maybe seven, beforehand, I slip away to the wilderness and pray. As part of my ritual — perhaps the core of initiation, or perhaps other words come — I say, “I bless and consecrate you with water … with spirit, and with fire”.

And perhaps I close with some version of the blessings from recent posts, drinking what seems right to drink, making an offering from that drink to whoever it feels right to honor at the moment of the rite:

I now invoke the mystery of communion, that common unity that unites all beings throughout the worlds. All beings spring from the One; by One are they sustained, and in One do they find their rest. One the hidden glory rising through the realms of Abred; One the manifest glory rejoicing in the realms of Gwynfydd; One the unsearchable glory beyond all created being in Ceugant; and these three are resumed in One.

May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be with us always …

/|\ /|\ /|\

*Easy-to-Read Version, 2006, Bible League International.

**Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 2:29).

Some Notes for Druid-Christian Ritual Design

In the previous post I looked at the beginnings of a Druid-Christian ritual, letting the two traditions talk to each other through their images, rather than drawing on theology or metaphysics. (Druids and Pagans generally do have theologies — many of us just haven’t explored them in great depth or gotten them down in writing yet. Practice usually is more interesting, anyway.)

Name a purpose, and we can draft a Druid-Christian rite for it. Want a wedding, or a blessing, or an initiation? Both traditions have rich materials to draw on. Among other references and resources, Isaac Bonewits discusses ritual design at length in his book Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work. Note Isaac’s focus on public: I use private Druid-Christian rituals that might not appeal to others, given our different histories and experiences with religions.

beach

Shansui, the Chinese word for landscape: “mountains (and) water”

Already tired from too much thinking? Use the image above. Enter the scene. Walk that beach. Feel the warm, wet sand between your toes. Feel the wind play through your hair. Listen to the awen of the waves, calling. Salt air, seagulls.

Looking for a calendar, a whole set of practices and observances? The Pagan festival year lines up quite well with classical Christianity, for reasons that have been thoroughly (endlessly) explored and documented. Who knows how many Pagans sit in pews with Christian relatives at Yule and Easter, knowing other names, and sensing both kindred and at times estranged presences and energies?

For foundations for daily practice, one need look no further than the example of J M Greer’s The Gnostic Celtic Church, where Greer notes:

… personal religious experience is the goal that is set before each aspirant and the sole basis on which questions of a religious nature can be answered.

Greer also asserts as a piece of (Universalist) belief:

… that communion with spiritual realities is open to every being without exception, and that all beings — again, without exception — will eventually enter into harmony with the Divine.

What do I want and need? Do I even know? How can I find out?

The world’s spiritual traditions offer hundreds of variations on practices to answer just such questions. It’s good to check in from time to time, asking such things, living with the questions till they bud and leaf into answers, or into more beautiful questions.

As Mary Oliver sings, “So many questions more beautiful than answers …”

We change, and our practices need to keep up. Singing the awen, or other sacred word, is one tested and proven practice most traditions put forth for those seeking a new path, or a new branching along a path we know already. I sing till things clarify. Often for me this may take weeks, or months even … “Patience”, says one of the Wise. “Is not this our greatest practice?”

(But I just want to get to patience NOW …)

smudging

Smudge the whole cosmos, if necessary

Greer outlines practices for those interested in exploring a “Gnostic, Universalist, and Pelagian” Druidry. The ceremonies, rituals and meditations include the Hermitage of the Heart, the Sphere of Protection, the Calling of the Elements, the Sphere of Light, a Solitary Grove Ceremony (all but the first deriving from Druid AODA practice), and a Communion Ceremony that ritualizes the “Doctrine of the One”:

I now invoke the mystery of communion, that common unity that unites all beings throughout the worlds. All beings spring from the One; by One are they sustained, and in One do they find their rest. One the hidden glory rising through the realms of Abred; One the manifest glory rejoicing in the realms of Gwynfydd; One the unsearchable glory beyond all created being in Ceugant; and these three are resumed in One. (Extend your hands over the altar in blessing. Say …)

If you tried out Greer’s prayer above, who or what did you bless? If you didn’t, why not try it now? Say the words aloud …

Looking for a short form? Abred (AH-bred), Gwynfydd (GWEEN-veeth), Ceugant (KAY-gant).

/|\ /|\ /|\

I’ve looked before at these lovely Welsh names for the levels of being according to Celtic lore:

With the love of triads and threes that marks so much of Celtic art and story, it’s no surprise that the Celtic conception of our spiritual journeys should mirror this same triplicity. From the starting point of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, we move forth and back through three states of manifestation and consciousness, in a kind of dance that sees us revisiting old lessons until we’ve fully mastered the material, spiralling through different forms and perspectives.

Most of us hang out for a considerable time in this present world of Abred, this place of testing and proving. From here we proceed to Gwynfyd, a world of liberty and freedom beyond the pale shadows of these forces in our present world. Back and forth between Abred and Gwynfyd, with dips into Annwn here and there. And last comes Ceugant, an unbounded, infinite realm. By definition, no end point, but a new beginning. The horizon recedes.

/|\ /|\ /|\

And lest someone coming to the beginnings of Druid-Christian practice from the Christian side wonders how to begin with all of this stuff, consider this.

Nicholas Whitehead opens his curious book Patterns in Magical Christianity like this:

Christianity is a magical religion. This is not so controversial a statement as some might think. For all religious traditions are potentially magical by the simple fact that they embody or employ symbols, myths and rites that are mediatory, that intend or enable the translation of spiritual energies between levels of reality (pg. 13).

The author outlines a set of characteristics of such magical symbols, noting they

  1. “are inherently appropriate”. He gives the example of a plant, with roots in earth, flower in the air, and “within its stem the life bearing sap rises and falls. Because of its intrinsic structure, the plant is a symbol for the ideal spiritual life … we live upon the earth, with our roots within the land. We are nurtured by the soil in which we live. Yet, without losing our connection to it, it is our destiny to rise above the land, to flower in the crowning glory of the light … Again note that we cannot make the plant into a symbol. It is simply is a magical symbol by virtue of its inherent structure and its role in the rhythmic life of the cosmos”.
  2. “always participate in a greater reality”.
  3. “enable the translation of energies between levels of reality”.
  4. “are trans-rational”.
  5. “are polyvalent”.
  6. “tend to assemble in groups” (pg. 16).

Of course there’s a tremendous amount to unpack here — which is why it takes Whitehead a book to do so, along with a set of exercises he has developed in a workshop in order to put these precepts to the experimental test. Rather than debate them, which is a head trip I (mostly) don’t plan to take, they’re worth simply trying out, just as one would test the statement that water freezes at a certain temperature, rather than debating whether the claim is true. Of course adding salt, raising a wind over the surface, setting the container in a vacuum, and so on, all change the experimental parameters.

In the same way, my beliefs, intention, mindset when I experiment, past experiences, and spiritual awareness will all figure quite largely in any results I achieve. I’ve found I’m more interested in learning how certain things are valid or operational for me. That is, do they help me get somewhere worth reaching? Otherwise, an inner nudge or whisper usually alerts me: Move along — these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Later I can play the thought and reason game for what it’s worth. Sometimes a lot, sometimes quite little.

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGES: Pexels.com

Greer, John Michael. The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy. Everett, WA: Starseed Publications (Kindle)/Lorian Press (paper), 2013.

Whitehead, Nicholas. Patterns in Magical Christianity. Sunchalice Books, 1996. (More recent editions exist, though I haven’t yet been able to find one.)

Drafting a Druid-Christian Rite

Ritual, remarks British Druid and author Emma Restall Orr,

is the process of taking time out of the rush of life in order to remember what is sacred, that when we return to the road we do so with a soul once again open to inspiration and creativity. How we do it – and how long it takes – to be effective depends on how scattered by distraction and tangled in need we are. It can be as simple as pausing, breathing deeply, acknowledging the gift of life, the land beneath, the sky above. It can take weeks of preparation, days of fasting, hours of concentration, to fall into the moment of realization about how we can live awake and with honour, not just believing nature is sacred, but unconditionally treating her as such.

ritual bathing

ritual bathing

Judging by the continuing readership for a group of posts here on Druidry and Christianity, the vital possibilities of such a concord live still for you as much as they do for me. They branch and grow, and rich fruit hangs from their boughs.

Our instincts aren’t wrong. The two traditions are twinned in ways we may never untangle, but we can explore what they can contribute to each other right now. One way to do that — certainly not the only way* — is through ritual.

Already we hold hints and fragments in our hands. In the Christian Bible, Luke relates the experiences of a rich man, the chief tax collector Zacchaeus. “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way” (Lk. 19-3-4). Sometimes we need to shift perspective, to climb out of our lives to see them more clearly.

Later in the same chapter, (Lk. 19:37-40), the followers of Jesus are overcome with joy and are peacefully celebrating. But their exuberance apparently touches a nerve — it seems excessive and undignified to the Pharisees, among the Powers-That-Be of the day:

And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him [Jesus], “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Have we not all felt such joy, that the stuffy, fearful, joyless ones around us want to rebuke us for our happiness?!

/|\ /|\ /|\

incense

[The rite begins. Parts not yet assigned.]

Let the Great Gates open. For we hear voices crying in the wilderness … (1)

Climb your own sycamore! What will you ever see until you do?!

The stones are crying out at our silence (2).

If our houses of prayer and celebration have become dens for thieves, then it is meet and fitting that we repair to the green places of old (3).

For the Wise have counselled us, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (4).

Our teachers are at hand: “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you, or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you” (5).

Let our prayers rise like incense (6), born of earth, moistened in its making, lit by fire, wafting through air.

“They have dressed the wounds of our people with scant care, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace at all” (7).

We will answer the call to peace, and serve. Let us give peace now to the quarters, and renew the Great Work again …

“May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light” (8).

/|\ /|\ /|\

Some readers, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s Book of Druidry,

might be pleased to learn of such a dialogue between Druidry and Christianity, particularly when it results in specific action being taken to initiate a new impulse within the Christian movement. Others might be disappointed, hoping Druidry was exclusively ‘pagan’. But Druidry is a way of working with the natural world, and is not a dogma or religion … Druidry honours, above all, the freedom of the individual to follow his own path through life, offering only guides and suggestions, schemes of understanding, methods of celebration and mythical ideas — which can be used or not as the practitioner sees fit (pg. 14).

Rev. Alistair Bate, author of the OBOD website article “Reflections on Druidic Christology“, comments from a sensitivity to the contact points of the two traditions:

A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be “May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us”. This, I believe, would not only be more truly in tune with the bardic experience, but would also resonate with the Om/Creation idea found in the Hindu tradition. As we envision Awen, the primordial sound, echoing out of the void, we connect with our own creative inspiration as part of that first creative Word, which is in Christian terms, at once Christ and his Spirit.

And with greater enthusiasm, perhaps, than comparative or historical theological accuracy, Bate concludes his article, summoning to his aid the words of probably the single most influential Christian thinker and writer:

In the 4th century St Augustine declared, “That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity”. That the religion of our most ancient ancestors is in essence very similar to that of our more recent ancestors is the conviction that keeps some of us simultaneously both Druid and Christian.

And as many others have long noted, the Galilean master is at his most Druidic when he speaks with images of the natural cycle of things:

Truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

An extensive Druid-Christian liturgy could be written with just the nature images that pervade Christian and Jewish scripture.

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGES: Pexels.com

*Other practices one could initiate, as Emma Orr notes above, might be “as simple as pausing, breathing deeply, acknowledging the gift of life, the land beneath, the sky above”. Or correspondingly complex, and “take weeks of preparation, days of fasting, hours of concentration, to fall into the moment of realization about how we can live awake and with honour …” We decide what it is we need, rather than any authority over us. And often the best decisions arise from experimentation, and from an openness to trying something new.

1. Matt 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23.

2.  Luke 19:40.

3. Mark 11:17.

4. Jeremiah 6:16.

5. Job 12:8.

6. Psalm 141:2.

7. Jeremiah 8:11.

8. Closing of OBOD ritual.

%d bloggers like this: