Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

A Note on Magical and Musical Fire   Leave a comment

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.

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Working the Tool-kit: Part 3   Leave a comment

[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.

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… 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”.

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Five Things I Love About This Blog   2 comments

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!

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 6   Leave a comment

[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.

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IMAGE: live long and prosper;

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 4   Leave a comment

[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”.

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 3   Leave a comment

[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.

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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.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com — winter pictures.

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 2   Leave a comment

[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?]

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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.

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*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.

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