Archive for the ‘earth spirituality’ Category

“Nothing in my spam queue” as a Guide

Log in to WordPress, check your site, and with luck you read a notice that announces “Nothing in your spam queue”.

Imagine: even spam has been lining up to see you! You’re not as small and insignificant as you thought!

Spam — the stuff that clamors for my attention whether it deserves it or not. First cousin to Fake, Faux, etc. Cut down actual trees, put models of ’em in a Tree Museum*.

A whole Spam world? Sign me up! Take the Blue Pill …

The subtitle of this post could well be: What’s So Bad about the Apparent World, Anyway?

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Finding hollow spaces to celebrate richness. Mt. Ascutney State Park, Vermont.

The “Apparent World”, you’ll recall from previous posts, and as OBOD ritual reminds us, is this one, this world of apparently firm surfaces that consist of little more than the orbital shells of electrons surrounding atoms — nothing “substantial” at all. Spam. This world of matter, energy, space, time, friends, relatives, partners, pets, car, house, job, neighbors, Current Political Crisis #437, aliens, the solar system, all the galaxies beyond it — apparent. Yes, all these things really do “appear”, which is what apparent means. What else, after all, would anybody expect them to do?

“As the Apparent World fades …” says the ritual. Well, maybe I like this Apparent World. After all, I’ve spent 2-3-4-5-6-7 decades acclimating to it, acquiring skills to deal with it, maybe even occasionally thriving in it. I’m invested in it, even if those annoying Others have paved paradise and put up a parking lot*. Yes, I know I have to leave it all too soon. How could I forget that? Reminders all around me every day, even in the best of times, as if I’d forget otherwise! Sometimes ya gotta deny the end just to notice and enjoy everything that comes before it. Smell the flowers, they tell us. Hey, sometimes denial is one of the best and most adaptive survival strategies of all!!! “Some of the happiest people I know …” and so on.

Because just when I think it’s (only) apparent, it shifts on me and becomes fabulously, dangerously, pulse-quickeningly real.

“But wait. There’s more!” Paradoxically, many of the same people reminding us about The End also keep telling us there’s so much beyond it. Huh. What? How’s that work?!

Thoreau has something to say about that. Love him or hate him, he’s on the money often enough to deserve our clear attention:

Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one.

“Counting one” can be a ritual. Maybe the ritual I’ve been longing to do, but for any number of reasons I haven’t yet done. Yes, fishing’s also a grand ritual, as any devotee knows. So is drinking, too. And seeing the sandy bottom, detecting its shallowness. Noticing eternity. Daydreaming of fish in the sky, pebbles like whole planets and stars. Longing to drink deeper.

Our Apparent World, for all its richness, is paper-thin, and with eternity banging at the door and peering in through the windows, and always beginning right now, why deprive myself of that glorious abundance, especially when I don’t have to? In another paradox, it turns out that the true Masters of self-denial, the rabid ascetics and flagellants [warning — link to rites of self-crucifixion in the Philippines!] are those who restrict themselves to the Apparent World, never bothering to drink and detect and long and notice and count. But only a few of us are really cut out for the Apparent World, though almost everything’s set up for their convenience. Most of the rest of us run around vainly trying to arrange “something more”. I’m speaking to the latter group. Because if you’re content with apparent, why do anything different? You’ve got what you need, and I don’t need to photobomb your perfect selfie. Delete this blog from your feed immediately. Otherwise, I’m your spam.

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A post appeared this morning on an OBOD Facebook page from a new bard uncertain about where she could find in the published course rituals any kind of entry point for herself. The rituals she’d encountered so far felt too grand, too dramatic. She wasn’t sure where or how she fit, or how they fit her. She also noted she was a Solitary, with no group nearby to experience that form of ritual with.

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Who else is solitary and may have something to teach me? Do I know?

One of the replies to her post took an interesting tack. Yes, ritual can exist to impress others, the commenter noted, taking them to places they might not go on their own. The dramatic gesture, the theatrical staging, often matter more in such cases where people can beneficially be surprised out of skepticism or ironic detachment or a long-established cool by an honest-to-god encounter with a god, or a spirit, or themselves, or another world, or even this one. But ritual can also be for ourselves, and take any size or shape we wish.

We all do ritual every day, all day long, anyway. Why not make these moments work more beautifully and magically for us, rather than spamming our attention with thoughts, opinions, images, emotions, possibilities and so forth that just don’t fit us and who we are and where we want to go?

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*with thanks to Joni Mitchell and her “Big Yellow Taxi”.

 

Beyond 101

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moss and lichens claiming my backyard altar stone

What might moving beyond “Paganism 101” or “Druidry 101” look like?

(The number refers to one common identification system at colleges and universities for introductory courses. Higher levels — with their prerequisites of knowledge, experience and ability — come with higher numbers.)

Part of the difficulty stems from our diversity. The Druid and Pagan circle is an apt metaphor. We stand together facing a small piece of turf, both literal and figurative. That’s our common ground. Our group, our grove, our gathering of friends shares a common goal. We’ve come together to celebrate the harvest or a particular phase of the moon, or hold a handfasting or croning or saging. We’ve got “Purposes”. Turn outward from the group circle, though, and start walking, and we grow farther and farther apart.

That’s not a bad thing in itself.

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eastern newt / eft in pine woods

Jason Mankey also gets at some of the issues of the “beyond” factor in his post “The Trouble with 101 Books“. Partly it’s a consequence of living in a world of time and space — things keep changing, and so do we.

For Druid bloggers and polytheists like John Beckett, moving beyond 101 means deepening your relationships to the deities you connected to, among other things.

For an herbalist or gardener, it may mean developing your craft by studying nutrition and alternative healing, perhaps offering your skills professionally. It may mean getting a certificate in permaculture, or developing a hardier species to thrive where you live, challenging your ability to grow a larger percentage of your own food, teaching others, and so on.

For some of the members of the Druidry and Christianity Facebook group, the challenge is to find ways of being Christian that honor their spiritual discernment, while also acknowledging the powerful call of spiritual realities and opportunities of the natural world which are often ignored or considered actively suspect in the eyes of mainline churches and congregations and pastors.

Painters, sculptors, musicians work to sharpen their skills and develop their individual styles, and with enough talent coupled with a knack for marketing may even generate some income from their abilities. Some, but usually not enough to quit the day job.

If you don’t recognize yourself and your own experiences in this small handful of descriptions, you understand intimately how far you’ve walked from your own circle or community, just as much as if one of these descriptors more or less captures where you are right now and what you’re doing. Praise for the keepers and participants of circles, for the communal centers they offer!

For a mystic and walker of boundaries, it can mean exploring realms others don’t visit very often, including states of consciousness, ritual approaches, and a growing personal vocabulary to talk about such experiences, along with attempts to find parallels in other traditions and in the work that centuries of Bards in so many cultures have gifted us with. If a Bard somewhere seems to know about what I’m experiencing, I take that as a helpful guide to the terrain I’m walking. But if readers aren’t familiar with that particular association or reference, or if it doesn’t resonate for them, it may not help clarify what I’m talking about very much.

Often the work is so idiosyncratic and personal that it’s hard to share. Or when we do, others don’t quite know what to make of it. I found I learn best when I ask questions. As a ready way to minimize spiritual deception, especially self-deception, I find it unsurpassed. But long ago I also learned that the kinds of questions that interest me most often make other people prickly and defensive, or cause them to look at me strangely, or throw things, or turn away and find somebody else to talk to. So to avoid ostracism and rebuffs and a generalized loathing of my presence, I mostly turn my questions on myself and on my experiences and understandings of the world.

It’s true that such preoccupations can lead to a markedly reclusive lifestyle, so I bless my guides and mentors for nudging me into a career in education and teaching, thereby avoiding even greater eccentricity. If twenty-five years of teaching at the secondary and university level has shown me anything, it’s demonstrated that students like to ask questions of their own on occasion, rather than always answering other peoples’. The same holds true for groups and structures. Young adults are always forming their own groups, with structures that make sense to them, rather than answering to or serving the needs of adult administrators trying to justify their salaries.

When I write about my preoccupations here, I realize I’m writing first for myself, and only secondarily for others, because otherwise I wouldn’t know what to say. Your Druidry 201 and or Paganism 450 Honors will not always overlap with mine. That’s as it should be. Thoreau addresses this phenomenon in the first chapter of Walden with characteristic dry humor:

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.

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Thank you to all my readers for helping this blog reach 100,000 page views. While I write first for myself, I wouldn’t have kept going without knowing you were also reading and thinking about these things.

Gates to the Otherworlds 2

[Part 1 | Part 2]

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One of the Putney, VT stone chambers

Unknowingly, we also shut most of the gates to Otherworlds ourselves. Hence religion — literally, “re-linking”. Both bad and good news here, for the keys (hidden, discovered, at the end of the quest — pick your legend) are in our hands.

As children all of us spent at least some time peering from the gates of an Otherworld into this one. That’s almost a definition of childhood. Imagination came so readily then that we thought nothing of it — it was our native tongue, our common language. We thought nothing of it because our journeys back and forth between the worlds felt completely natural, for the simple reason that they are. How many of us have heard children endlessly repeating a word or phrase, self-enchanting, practicing one form of word-magic to launch themselves into another world, another state of consciousness? Or the youngster who asks for an adult to read the same bedtime story over and over again, never tiring of it, making it part of the before-sleep ritual, that transition to another world, another state of consciousness? Or watching the same children’s movie day after day, delighting in the ritual of sequence, of beginnings and endings, of transport out of one state of awareness and into others? Or childhood games, with their frequent patterns of losing and finding, of repetition and transformation together. Anyone can be “it” — until the next round. (For whatever “it” may be this time, consult your right hemisphere.)

Almost effortlessly we arrive into this life, knowing firsthand, instinctively, how to make such journeys, only slowly letting go of that precious knowledge as we acclimate to this world.

With enough practice and experience here in this life, we’re able to mock up difficulties and obstacles of all kinds for ourselves in the opposite direction. In fact, we get r e a l l y good at it — when I have time, when I’m not so stressed, later, next weekend, when I finally get a break from work, when the kids are asleep, after the virus retreats, when I’m not so strapped for cash — never perceiving that it’s exactly such priorities which too often shut us off from the very wonder, healing and rebalancing we long for and so desperately need. Rather than slipping in and out of worlds with ease, we root ourselves deeply in just one, then struggle to connect to any others. Rather than tapping into sources and fountains of rejuvenation that would make this life easier, less stressful, more magical, we resolutely “put away childish things”, then wonder why we feel empty and unfulfilled. If we want a clear demonstration of elemental earth out of balance, we can look at its grip on us, holding us back from mingling with the other elements and with spirit. Hence the needful work with elemental ritual.

Through ritual we can let this “apparent world” fade, as OBOD rites describe it. And one strategy for doing that, given our busy lives, is to slip into such ritual spaces and places in the middle of whatever else we’re doing. This practice in itself mimics the between-the-worlds quality we seek, so it models what it induces. Make the intervals and practices small enough we can’t not enter them. They can also become components of the larger rituals we practice.

We don’t need robes, candles, incense, banners, deity and elemental figurines, gongs, bells, swords, wands, altars. True, things like these can help, but they’re not necessary. Sometimes a single short prayer-chant, practiced once an hour through the day, or on some other schedule (every 15 minutes, or each time you get up from your chair, or at each break, etc.), can begin to open doors.

With each breath I take I walk between the worlds.

The previous post offered a somewhat longer prayer: I invoke the three gifts of Mon …

And the usually brief triads are another short piece of poetry and singing, of verbal magic to enchant ourselves into other worlds.

200px-InfiniteOr if you’re more kinesthetic, and words don’t do it for you, a ritual gesture or kind of movement, or for other sensory orientations, sound, color, smell, and so forth. The previous post offered the infinity symbol as gesture or sign, a way of signaling the openness that always walks with us, the ability to slip in and out of other worlds in an instant, and then return. Drawing it might help. (Doodling is one way many of us enter daydream, another world, and to shift consciousness, etc.)

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In another few days this blog will hit 100,000 views — one indication that in the nearly nine years of its existence it’s continued to serve those who read and return to ponder the kinds of things I write about here. The international readership it’s acquired heartens me as well — it’s not speaking merely to a North-American base.

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cover of 1st edition, Wikipedia/Allen Lane

I do a lot of re-reading (“if it was worth reading once, it deserves at least a second go”), and right now I’ve returned to Richard Adams’ Shardik, his 1974 novel about “the power of God in a bear”. Adams, though better known for Watership Down, felt that in Shardik he had written his best work.

We have echoes of bear-and-human connections in the bear-cults of early Europe, and in the Korean Dangun legends of the bear-ancestors of humans. Jean Auel’s series that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear picks up on this, and there’s more than one Facebook page devoted to the phenomenon.

Some flavours and expressions of Druidry devote attention to the shape-shifting that can open doors, to the more shamanic aspects of our past and our potential, to the animal-human links that can help restore us to balance and fuller experience of humanity. Books can often point us in such directions.

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Porth i’r Byd Arall — Gate(s) to the Otherworld

[Part 1 | Part 2]

So reads a sign at Llyn Cerrig Bach, a small lake on the Welsh isle of Anglesey or Môn.

porthirbydarall

photo courtesy Kristoffer Hughes

Porth “door, gate”, related to portal; i “to”; (y)r “the” byd “world”; arall “other, another”.

(Incidentally, one of the best online Welsh dictionaries is maintained by the Prifysgol Cymru/University of Wales.)

How to find and pass through such a gate?

In addition to the photo above, Welsh Druid chief and author Kristoffer Hughes [Facebook link / Voices of Modern Druidry entry] offers this bilingual triad on his Facebook page:

Dyma dri o roddion Môn,
Traed y Derwyddon ar y Tir,
Cylch tragwyddol y Môr,
Coleuni diderfyn yr Awyr.

The three gifts of Môn,
The feet of the Druids upon the Land,
The eternal circle of the Sea,
The Sky’s unbounded illumination.

Here are the Three Elements of Earth, Sea and Sky — Tir, Môr and Awyr. The Welsh names work very well all by themselves as a chant and prayer: tir [teer], môr [mohr] and awyr [ah-weer].

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In 1942, a hoard of some 150 objects was discovered near the end of the lake, apparently deposited there as votive offerings. Among them is this splendid bronze plaque, now held in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff:

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crescent plaque / Wikipedia

How do we find and pass through portals to the Otherworld?

I invoke the Three Gifts of Môn,
and seek entrance to an Otherworld,
to where it is right and fitting for me to journey.
Feet of Druids, guide my steps.
True return I seek, for I have been there before,
not merely in dream and vision, and in desire,
but fully, born out of it into this life,
in the eternal circle of the Sea,
returning to it after time and times have ended here.

In this air I make the sacred sign
[with the forefinger of your dominant hand,
draw an infinity symbol in the air].

By the power of Earth, Sea and Sky,
assist me to make the journey anew,
and recall what I discover there,
so that I may share it after
for the good of the whole.

Recording the experience, whatever comes, is a valuable tool for making any subsequent journeys, and as a landmark of our practice. By making a record, I learn how I journey, which may be very different from the path others take. It may be that I recall with different senses active. Some see, but others hear, or touch, or return with no distinct impressions until they lift a musical instrument, or write a poem, or paint or draw. The more different kinds of outlets we provide in our lives and practice, the more the Otherworld can touch us here, and we can locate and recognize and draw on its inspiration.

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For more information, and images of other signposts like the “Gate to the Otherworld” mapping the region, visit “Anglesey Visualizations installed” at Monumental UK.

For an 8-minute Youtube interview with Kristoffer Hughes about the history of Druids in Wales, and their shamanic background, go here.

 

Boasts, Toasts, Oaths, and Growth

I wrote a few years back about toasts, boasts and oaths as part of a Lúnasa ritual at Mystic River Grove in Massachusetts, and I’m revisiting the topic here, because it’s a rich one to explore further. Anyone interested in Lugh, his Welsh counterpart Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and associations with Lunasa need only Google for more info than any ritualist could use in 50 rituals. Use the search box on this site for my other posts on the subject.

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This triad of ritual actions is especially fitting now, because Lugh is the god whose nasadh “assembly” gives us the name of our current seasonal festival Lughnasadh, or Lúnasa in reformed Irish spelling. Lugh is described as samildánach — “equally skilled in many arts” — certainly reason enough for boasts, toasts and oaths as components of Lunasa ritual. Emulate the god and celebrate the pluses in our lives. His festival includes games of skill, a kind of Celtic Olympics.

Without much squeezing or distortion, we can also see each action as associated with a specific time: past, present and future.

Boasting generally looks to the past, to something already accomplished. “I’ve done it before (and so I’ll do it again)”. We could even see the modern job resume as a kind of contemporary and restrained boast — it highlights our relevant employment history, our training and experience. Likewise, a good job interview is a delicate balance between touting our accomplishments and demonstrating our self-awareness, an understanding of our weaknesses — cleverly transformed, of course, into opportunities for growth in the service of our next employer.

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The Flyting of Loki

A boast naturally seeks recognition and praise, or acknowledgement at the very least. (A suspicion of pride and an awareness of its dangers pervade the Judeo-Christian moral heritage of the West, so a Pagan restoration of justified pride is long overdue. The point, after all, is to do something praiseworthy, something that fully deserves boasting about.) As a result, it can also be an occasion that calls for responses from others that tease the boaster, as much as for compliments on an achievement done well. A roast, another rhyming theme that fits well here, is an invitation for just such teasing and carefully-tuned mockery. Through it we test the self-confidence of the boaster, their ability to “take it”, and check their anger, and sometimes to respond in kind. African-American playing the dozens and the Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon flyting each ritualize an exchange of insults. The Norse Lokasenna, sometimes called the Flyting of Loki, is just one historical and literary example. In one form or another, the “rap battle” has long been alive and well.

Toasts are often expressions of gratitude or celebration for something that’s happening now in the present. We salute and celebrate another, whether person or object, event or location. In some way it’s a form of blessing. We toast a newly-married couple, we christen and launch a boat, we hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a completed factory or auditorium or museum. As with boasts, toasts often ask for toasts in response, and some cultures formalize such exchanges. Further highlighting the link between boasts and toasts, it’s often considered “good form” to lightly tease a person or couple we’re toasting, as a way of showing affection.

Oaths usually look toward the future, to something we intend to achieve. As a promise or vow, an oath can be an acknowledgement of a debt we’ve garnered in the past, but oriented towards a general time to come. Or it can be more like a promissory note, specifying terms of repayment, the conditions for fulfillment, etc. In the oral cultures where they mostly originate, oaths are a matter of public memory. We make them publicly so that others witness them. A sense of a commitment made with others’ knowledge often helps the oath-maker to fulfill the oath. It’s a way to utilize any shame, any fear of loss of face if we fail, to motivate us, just like we imagine the praise if we succeed, the enhanced reputation and public standing.

This triad of ritual behaviors can feel somewhat contrived in the West, because each is a ritual action less common today than in the past. As an opportunity to revive ceremonial forms and a chance to explore a triad of potent group ritual gestures, boasts, toasts and oaths deserve to be incorporated in our rites and celebrations.

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These ritual acts are also chances for growth. Part of the cultural change we’ve undergone in the West over the past several centuries has been a shift toward internalizing these three rites. Rather than boasting publicly, we read books on motivation and struggle to deal with self-esteem issues. We take workshops on resume-building and interview skills and networking. We internalize our weaknesses and strengths, though we now hand over to social media an increasing share of our once-private lives, in a curious reversion to the older cultural patterns of turning towards a community for much of our identity.

chickensThe pecking order of birds, the ranking among herd animals, a usually stylized aggression to establish social position, can shade into bullying among humans, a specific form of cruelty. Animals generally stop once one of them establishes dominance over the other. We see animal rituals in the submissive gestures of wolves, stags, chimps, etc. who yield to a stronger opponent. A human bully doesn’t stop, and equivalent gestures of submission may simply encourage greater cruelty. The point of bullying is not merely to establish dominance, which is the goal of most alphas, both female and male, but to cause pain.

Specifically Druidic responses to bullying are often rooted in community. We look for our values to nature and to what we have in common, and a response to a bully is often a communal one. Isolation, banning, shunning, communal expressions of disgust and repulsion, all can have their effect in awakening shame and regret, or at the minimum ending the behavior and any opportunities for it to continue.

Just as important, however, are opportunities for clearing one’s name, for redemption, for forgiveness, for reparations and restoration. Ritual has a place in this as well. The fear and anger that often underlie bullying behavior can be dis-empowered. Elemental re-balancing can play its part — earth can eat the heaviness and sense of blockage and obstruction that comes from wrong-doing acknowledged. Water can cleanse and purify, air can lift and lighten, and fire can purge and burn away.

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The One True Druidry

[Updated 5 August 2020]

is the one you’re actually practicing, as opposed to any ideal in your head. Or least so it looks from where I’m walking through the woods, or sitting at the kitchen table.

From new Druids on one of the OBOD Facebook sites introducing themselves, asking questions, sharing their sense of discovery on this new journey, to battle-scarred Christians on the Druidry and Christianity site, recounting their journeys out of toxic groups and towards a Jesus who’s always been praying in the forest, as well as blessing the tidal basins along the seashore and listening in the desert sands, or standing there in the next room, gazing at the statue of his brother Lugh, or his sister Brighid, we’re walking any number of possible and imagined paths to see what the next steps reveal.

Can we map out some of the characteristics of what “true Druidry” might look like?

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incense / Pexels.com

ONE

For a start, we can lay claim to the sense of the Hippocratic oath (NIH website). Though the oath doesn’t include the explicit words “First, do no harm” that are often attributed to it, the sense behind those words is clearly present. One of the signal advantages to walking a solitary path is that no dysfunctional group will muck up your journey. Add to that the reassurances in the study materials of responsible Orders to do what feels right, and simply to set aside any exercises or materials that don’t. Most people connect with a group, if at all, through a friend or acquaintance, and that’s as good a way as most. Likewise, the practice of Druidry should be the practice of non-harming.

Of course, Druidry like any other valid path can be an instrument to help unstick us if we’re stuck. It tends to do this gently, pointing us toward sources of balance and healing. More vigorous and rigorous forms and practices are also available. As we come into healthier balance, we often are drawn to find ways to lighten any undesirable impact of our words, actions, thoughts and feelings. Just as taking up the study of Druidry should do no harm to us, our practice of Druidry should do no harm to Others.

TWO

Good teaching supplies options to students: you can find ways to adapt the course of instruction to your interests, circumstances, and so on. A water-loving tree mentioned in your reading, for instance, may not grow anywhere near you in your home climate, a dry one unlike the British isles, but another tree in your yard or town piques your interest and attention, and can teach you much. Your local tree becomes your teacher for the month (and beyond) as much as your formal written study materials. Knowing this, authors of good materials generally point you toward such teachers, who constitute a central part of earth spirituality. “The Land is your greatest teacher”.

A Druid proverb here might be “Do not overlook teachers you may not expect, or who don’t match your preconceived notions of what a teacher should look like. For these include some of the best teachers you will meet”. Or more succinctly: “Expect the best teachers, whatever forms they may take”.

THREE

Many people recount experiences of synchronicity in their study: the lesson on animal guides arrives when you’ve encountered or been dreaming of an animal, perhaps the animal mentioned in the lesson. A book reaches your hand that opens up a topic you’ve just been thinking about. A conversation with a friend touches on an issue you’ve been struggling with, and that brings its own comfort. Any focus maintained over time tends to provoke such experiences. Are we simply more alert to things already present in our lives? Does our study “cause” them to arrive when we need them? Is the green world listening in some sense to our spoken and unspoken wishes and thoughts? Pondering such questions is also part of Druidry, and helps to shape our response to the synchronicities.

BAM Druid Gather

“It takes night to see fire best”. Full moon at BAM gathering, Sept. 2019.

FOUR

Ritual observances as the tides and seasons change, something as simple as a blessing over a harvest, or a libation to the full or new moon in recognition of its beauty and mystery as a door to spirit, deepen our experience of living in time, and also afford us glimpses of timelessness. “The apparent world fades”, says OBOD ritual. (Don’t worry, whisper the flowers on the altar. It hasn’t gone away. It’ll still be there when you return.)

Ritual both intensifies our awareness of the “ordinary” and opens us to the non-ordinary. Often ordinary and non-ordinary share qualities, or merge and blend and shift in ways we hadn’t noticed before. (Are they the “same”? Both no and yes seem true or accurate answers. Compare Tolkien’s proverb: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes” — The Fellowship of the Ring.)

At Lunasa or Imbolc, Brighid may have something to say to Lugh, and vice-versa, and via ritual we find we can listen in to their conversation. Or we turn our words, gestures and ritual elements to one of them and it seems that the other answers. As the Wise have reminded us, just because Brighid or Lugh may not exist, that doesn’t mean they have nothing valuable to say to us. Such categories of things get re-arranged. We start to realize how large and multi-form and marvelous the cosmos can be — a blessing of freedom and possibility in itself.

FIVE

“Guard the mysteries! Constantly reveal them!” wrote Beat poet Lew Welch some 51 years ago now, in 1969, in his poem “Theology”. In one sense, that’s what the experience of doing Druidry feels like. The really profound things can’t be conveyed to other people anyway, but only experienced. Any mystery we “guard” is also something we’re trying to reveal to anybody interested, through our rituals and actions, our stories and our own practices, our urging to others to practice for themselves so they can have the experiences, too.

Doreen_Valiente

Doreen Valiente / Wikipedia.

The act of revealing often takes the form of a kind of guarding. With both mirth and reverence, as Doreen Valiente puts it in her Charge of the Goddess, we approach the sacred at the heart of the world, in ourselves and in other things. We model this as best we can because of our own repeated experiences.

Our approach is a participation and honoring; our participation is an approach. The guarding itself is an invitation — apart from initiations, our Circles are typically open to respectful visitors, and we do what we do “in the eye of the sun” unless the event runs into evening hours, as feels right for Samhain.

SIX

Curiosity seems a common trait many Druids share. Almost always there’s something that sparks their interest. Often it’s an avocation, something done as an amateur in the original sense of the word — out of love. There are many remarkably accomplished and educated people among Druids I know. They take up new studies and practices, pursue training through more formal diploma-ed and certificate programs, as well as less formally, through reading, apprenticing, experimenting, returning to and building on a hobby, study, or passion of their youth or acquiring a new one.

“So many things worth knowing” could serve as a motto for many. Like Gandalf, they often enjoy digging, learning things in the process not yet generally known or accepted. “Among the Wise I am the only one that goes in for hobbit-lore”, remarks Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. The wizard’s specialty proves to be “an obscure branch of knowledge, but full of surprises. Soft as butter as they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots. I think it likely that some would resist the Rings far longer than most of the Wise would believe”.

SEVEN

Transformation and spiraling seem to characterize living teachings. We change, the teachings themselves seem to morph and change and shift, what we thought we were and knew transforms, and we spiral to see the same old things in new ways, encountering higher harmonics of the no longer “same old thing”, so that our experience and wisdom deepen as a result. Another common proverb expresses this well: One thing becomes another in the Mother …

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Working Your What, Part 2: Spirit-ware

We hear about computer software and hardware, and the humorously-named wetware, that pink and sloshy stuff inside our skulls.

I propose the term spirit-ware for all the applications that run without physical forms. Just as you don’t need to believe in Apple or Linux or Google or Microsoft to use their applications and other products, you can get along fine without belief in spiritware and yet still try it out. In fact, we all do that every day. Belief is just one technique among many.

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Walpole-Westminster Bridge over the CT River, Bridgehunter.com/Library of Congress

Experience of the four elements can often provide a bridge for those seeking to understand both lowercase and uppercase spirit/Spirit. Ritual can help us focus in on how North feels different from East, bringing it home with earth and air as ritual experiences, and also with the enlarged awareness of presence that ritual can facilitate.

Or to give a local geographical and political example, does anyone believe that “Vermont” and “New Hampshire” are anything more than very powerful symbols and metaphors that we agree on for the sake of convenience? (When I cross the bridge at Westminster, VT and drive east to Walpole, NH, what’s much more “real” than any change of state boundaries, to me anyway, is my encounter with the Connecticut River that defines most of the eastern Vermont border and western New Hampshire border.)

Go back a few hundred years and pieces of what are now two New England states belonged to Canada, France, New York, and so on. Go back a few more centuries, and the whole region is Wabanahkik, the Dawn Land of the Abenaki people. “So which is it?” Any answer depends on time and place.

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Over on the Druidry and Christianity Facebook site, a member posted a question about “false gods” in connection with those who worship Brighid and similar figures. How do we know what they are?

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Waxing moon, two evenings ago

For better and worse, I tend towards a pragmatic approach towards Others, especially Others without their skins on.

I understand that such an approach may not work for everyone, particularly for those who’ve committed to a specific creed and worldview. The longer I live, though, the less I believe I know what “false god” even means any more. Yes, I know how such expressions get used, but often that seems like finger-pointing and competitiveness between different religious factions. There are so many kinds of beings, some with skin and some without. And from what I’ve seen, they’re a real mix of good, bad and in-between, so that my criterion tends to be Jesus’s wise standard: “by their fruits you shall know (i.e., distinguish) them”. Which is how I also tend to discriminate between a good and a bad used-car salesperson, plumber, restaurant, potential life-partner, etc.

I also don’t think I really “worship” anyone or anything. Some people do — it’s an important part of their spiritual and religious life. But what I do know is that some beings earn my respect and attention, and others don’t. I find I’m more interested in relationships than worship, and as with any worthwhile relationship, I need to listen, be available to do what’s needful, pay attention, show my gratitude, go with the flow, and live my commitment in my actions.

And I find that demands more from me than most of my beliefs do, which my life keeps revising on me anyway, often when I least expect it.

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The early Church made a distinction between three kinds of reverence/worship: the Greek terms doulia, hyperdoulia, and latria, or reverence, great reverence and worship (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latria). Latria is for God alone, while saints may receive lesser devotion. Well and good.

But I don’t know how to apply such labels realistically to what I do each day, no matter what it may look like on paper. If a dear friend helps me out when I’m down, spends time with me, listens, checks in to follow up on me, takes me out to dinner, etc., the ways I’d show my deep gratitude in response, at least to someone watching from the outside, would probably look an awful lot like latria, or worship/sacrifice. Yet I’m not “worshiping” my friend (or at least not any more than I worship any close friends) when I give a gift in return, or write them a poem or song in gratitude.

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sunset two nights ago, from our front yard

Is writing and singing a love song to someone else a form of worship, or simply expressing love? Does it have to be one or the other? We can attempt to define and prescribe which actions fall in which category, but the person’s intent seems far more important to me, and that’s often where doctrine has least to say, since its purpose, often, is to direct behavior, something visible and measurable, so that we may begin to achieve a glimpse of the result of holy intentions and actions. It can be an indirect way to catalyze a spiritual practice, but for some it’s a useful one.

One of the loveliest modern songs of devotion to Brighid is by Damh the Bard. It’s a favorite of mine and of many. Listening to it, I’m not concerned with doctrine but with the love he expresses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMxeYEhUxYw

Granted, Damh isn’t a Christian Druid. The distinction between human and god matters less in both song and the experience of many Pagans. You’ll note if you listen that Brighid is both “old woman” and “goddess”. (Maybe if we let go that distinction our care and treatment of the elderly might improve.)

One commenter at Druidry and Christianity observed:

But when it comes to pagan gods (let’s assume for the moment that there was a goddess Bridget and a Saint Bridget and that it’s possible not to conflate the two), I think it’s not so much a question of what constitutes “worship,” as it is a question of who/what pagan gods actually are. Are they spiritually beings set up against God? Are they under God? Are they unaligned? Is it even possible to have an unaligned spirit?

There are different kinds of answers to such questions, and which ones satisfy anyone asking the questions seem to depend in turn on the intention, expectation, experience, belief and individuality of those asking. Ultimately, one goes with what accords with one’s inmost sense of truth. No one else can supply that, but only influence how much we trust it.

Prayer may supply an answer individually, though we’ve always seen different and sometimes diametrically opposite answers to apparently the “same” prayer. In response to prayer guidance, some join one church that others condemn — also as a response to guidance received in prayer.

The experience of God’s sovereignty for others means that Biblical verses like Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” are sufficient answer. God’s creation is good, and his Word is fulfilled.

Medieval European angelology suggests a whole range of spiritual beings — evil, unaligned and good. Much Christian magic of that time involves cooperation with the good ones against the evil ones. Or sometimes evoking and extorting from the more dubious ones as much occult knowledge as you can, before banishing them back to their respective realms. You just had to make sure your magic circle was as secure as possible, so you wouldn’t get eaten. (For a contemporary fantasy take on various ways you can get eaten, among many other things, see Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, set among Yale University’s secret societies, featuring an anti-heroine named Alex, who’s able to see spirits — much to her dismay.)

Divination can help as well, though from a Christian perspective it can be just as suspect as the subject of potentially evil or non-aligned spiritual beings themselves.

Ultimately, I find, it seems to come down to a paraphrase of C. S. Lewis’s observation: “You can’t really study people [or gods]; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing …”

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A Triad, and a Window

Many variations on the following theme exist. Socrates receives credit for it, among other thinkers. Sometimes it’s called the “Three-Way Filter”. So no, it’s not originality I’m claiming, but utility. As a simple but profound guide in these challenging times, this triad answers a deep and pervasive need. It asks us three questions, in a form so compact we can’t help but use it if we wish:

Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Twitter would mostly dry up, if we followed this Triad. Social media as a whole would shrink to a more appropriate and sane size, and not co-opt reason and good sense. My wife and I attribute our durable marriage to both of us practicing this Triad with each other. Because where else do we live our lives most deeply except with our loved ones? If it works there, our way of life, it might even work elsewhere.

Imagine how our patterns of consumption and our interactions with others would approach something more conscious and intentional. Politics as we know it would change radically. And the shaming of others that we indulge in for not meeting standards we ourselves also fall short of would also shrink. (And again: if I can practice this with my partner whom I love, I gain skill for practicing it with others whom I may not love as much.)

Why?

Because often enough I can say “yes” to two of the three criteria. And though the song lyrics tell us “two outta three ain’t bad”, aiming for all three remains the goal. “Why not excellence?” asks ADF, one of the major Druid orders today. Why shouldn’t we aspire?!

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When we push against this apparent world, and see it begin to pixelate, a new path can open for us …

It’s interesting to me that, of the three criteria, “kind” is most often the criterion that catches me. I don’t normally think of myself as a particularly heartless or cruel person, yet “kind” is often my sticking point. We reach to claim the moral high ground with “true” and “necessary”, but I end up where it’s kindness that’s lacking.

Try imagining this Triad as a political platform, I say to myself, whatever my place on the political spectrum. And if I can’t, what does that say about my politics, or about my hopes for any kind of justice?

Or as “the only morality I need”, how does it stand up? It’s remarkable how thoroughly the Triad reaches into choices, values, treatment of others — a whole range of ethical issues.

Now let’s couple this Triad with the famous Christian Triad of Jesus: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. You can derive a whole series of useful meditations on the various pairings of the Three of Jesus with this other Three. And not just the obvious linkages, either — for instance, “Is it necessary?” is a truth we often toss aside, because in our self-indulgent age we feel justified simply if we want something. Voila — no further criteria needed! Likewise with freedom, at least in 21st-century America: if anything constrains me, it must violate my rights. Never mind that it’s good for the whole. Never mind that a whole range of behaviors are denied me, that laws constrain me and would have constrained me during most major civilizations we have knowledge of, because much of “what I want” may not be good for others. (We each have our lists.)

But is any of this Druidic? asks my pesky inner Druid. Well, consider the Instructions of King Cormac, and let me know how well this Triad of Truth, Kindness and Necessity lines up with the counsels of the King.

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Which brings us to death, which can seem a very un-Druidic subject.

First ethics, then mortality. Wow, you really know how to market yourself to your readers, and offer upbeat blogposts.

So it’s fitting that one of the most irrepressibly cheerful Druids I know should speak about death, and from daily, intimate, firsthand knowledge. Here’s Welsh Druid Kristoffer Hughes speaking on the subject on the occasion of the re-issue of his meditation on mortality, under the new title As the Last Leaf Falls. As someone who deals professionally with dead bodies and the bereaved every day, as a mortuary worker (in the States we’d say morgue), he knows the death industry firsthand.

“You can tell an awful lot about a society just by the manner they deal with the dead”, notes Kristoffer. He traces much of our contemporary Western outlook, practice and ritual to Queen Victoria, who dressed in mourning for 40 years.

 

 

Dip in at any point in this half-hour talk and you’ll gain something of value. “The medicalization of death and grief profoundly impacts all of us in the West”, Hughes says, around the 8:00-mark. “Death always brings in the big questions and the Spirit — but that is not the domain of medicine … We’ve created institutions of death whereby the indignities of death can occur without offending the sensibilities of the living. And I see that every day quite viscerally …”

At the 9:00-point, he notes “A basic anxiety runs through humanity … we are all going to die. And that sound quite depressing, doesn’t it? I might need a mouthful of gin just to offset that. But please don’t judge me. I’ve been in a morgue since quarter past 7:00 this morning”.

“Life … a terminal sexually-transmitted infection …”

“There’s no fundamental universally-correct truth that will alleviate everyone’s anxiety …”

“We need meaning … significance … transcendence …  When there’s no meaning, we find people under their desks sucking on Valium the size of their heads …”

“We’re told to conform to other people’s meaning … and that can be a frightfully difficult task”.

“So often when people shine too brightly, [other] people might want them to dim their light. And I say to you never dim your light. Ever. Shine. ‘Cause that’s the purpose you are here. Your eyes are windows through which the universe experiences itself. How can you not shine? If anybody tells you to dim your lights, tell ’em to buy a pair of shades …”

Later (around 16:25) he cites Taliesin: “Know what you are when you are sleeping. Are you a body or a spirit or an occult radiance?” Sleep, he says, the “little death” we each experience every night, is a prime key to insight and awareness about what death actually is.

Re the Covid-19 virus, he says, we lack meaningful rituals to cope that we used to have. “Ritual has fractured”, says Hughes. And the emotional relocation that is grief is far more difficult to navigate. So we need new rituals to help us travel the emotional relocation of grief, of honoring the living and the life of those who’ve left.

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Spiritual Practice as Laundry

A mundane laundry triad: It needs doing, you do it regularly, and you see the benefit in practical terms: clean clothes.

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elemental laundry: water, earth, air, fire …

While people have individual laundry rituals — you must fold clothes a certain way, or you can only wash certain items together, or you sort into whites and colors, while somebody else sorts by fabrics, or gentle versus regular machine cycle, or you use specific detergents on specific categories — laundry everywhere needs washing. It’s a deeply human activity.

I talk so much about spiritual practice for several reasons. Those who do it know its profound value, while those who don’t tend more often than not to busy our political landscape and to make headlines of various less-than-positive kinds. By “less-than-positive”, please note, I don’t mean less-than-comfortable. A spiritual practice worth doing should in fact unsettle us if we’re stuck — and that’s a good thing. If I’m entrenched in a rut, I need to be plucked from it, and a good spiritual practice is a rut-plucker.

Do laundry long enough and you begin to discover its seasons and rituals, its smaller and larger gestures. During warm weather, hanging clothes outdoors may be an option (as a rural and stingy Yankee, I get to save several hundred dollars each year drying clothes on a line from early April through late October, and gathering in wonderfully sun-breathed clothes besides. Ah, blessed sweat equity). You may wash more in cold weather because you wear more in cold weather. You may also begin at length to practice economies — better (and less) detergent, or scent-free choices, or more efficient machines, or certain days where doing the laundry just makes better sense. You may struggle against housing ordinances which prohibit clotheslines, or you may frequent laundromats or public laundries with their own rules and practices.

Travel or visit others (before these wry, random and ructious covidious times, and hopefully afterwards, too!) and you face different laundry adventures, washing items in a sink, or in your friends’ or sisters’ machines, or in a hotel laundry room. Leave the ritual you know and you discover how much of a habit it has become. Pack a suitcase, and you’re drawing on accumulated clean laundry to see you at least partway through the journey. A good practice grants you just such a reserve you can draw on.

Some practices will shrink or shred or discolor some of your laundry. Note that nothing in such a practice is “wrong” by itself: only the combining of actions and objects that don’t work well together causes the problem. How far I can extrapolate from that lesson is itself a useful meditation.

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Water, air, earth … gifted already. Add the fire of my intention. / Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

And I ponder how the goal of laundry isn’t clean clothes by themselves, exactly. It’s more a person well-clothed in fresh apparel. We want to wear the clean clothes, not merely gaze at them in a pile. I can shower twice a day, but if I have to put on dirty clothes again after a shower, I’m working at cross-purposes with myself. Another reflection for meditation, for the place of a practice.

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At a certain point, laundry can become a spiritual practice, an apparent reversal of the title of this post. But not really: a sound spiritual practice nourishes our capacity to make a practice out of more and more of our lives. If I’ve been doing a practice for a while, and I can detect how it has enlarged me in good ways, that’s a valuable indicator, a signpost along the way that we often do not learn in schools, or from those who by rights should be conveying to us the keys and secrets to making the most of our decades here in this strange and marvelous world. But I will not fault them: it may well be that they in their turn did not ever learn it themselves. If I’ve caught even a glimpse of that possibility, I’m blessed indeed. A ritual of compassion for the ancestors: share with them this gift, let them sense something of its resonance for me, let it flow backward and forward in time.

If we’re fortunate, we can number among our family or friends or teachers someone who makes a spiritual practice out of daily life. Their company is a gift and a pleasure, because whatever they do, they do with love. Children may experience this around a grandparent or other mentor. What we do in the presence of the loving spiritual practitioner matters far less than the doing of it in that presence. The quality of that presence outflows. It’s like a fragrance or vibration we take with us. Begin with something small that you do often, said my teacher one time. If it’s tying your shoelaces, tie them with love. When you’ve made that a practice, then slowly expand it to other things.

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Towards “a More Perfect Union”: Belief & Practice

It’s good to take out our beliefs from time to time and lay ’em side by side with our practice. Good, because a disconnect between them is like dirt in an engine — friction wears things down. I can deal with it only if I know about it. We see it most readily in our relationships, but somehow look past it in our own psyches. We grow closer to another person, or we drift further apart, and we can often trace the causes and turning points, but we discern it less easily in other dimensions of our existence. At least in my own experience, such “grit in the works” burns energy, grows stress, sparks illness, ignites irritability, and seeds confusion over goals. So it’s good to pay attention and apply remedies.

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Our inner worlds are sometimes less “in our faces”. Photo by Luis Quintero / Pexels.com

I say, for instance, that I want to improve dream recall, and I seem to believe it, yet I ignore my pre-sleep routine. Rather than affirmations, dream review, and care for my late-night reading choices, I read for pure entertainment, falling asleep with glasses on and my finger in a book. Many things lie outside my ability to manage and improve, so why not focus on those I can? Then, paradoxically, the number of things I can manage and improve often enlarges, because I’m not wasting energy on internal conflict.

Back in 2016 I outlined my principal beliefs as I could perceive them then, partly in response to a comment from a reader talking about his sense of the need for a Druid theology:

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

If the tools of Druidry are worth anything, they’re up for the task of helping us grow, both in groups and alone. We find ourselves in a universe of ceaseless growth and change, so it makes sense that both our beliefs and practices should mirror this larger world we inhabit, if they’re to be of any use and value. Daily meditation, time outdoors in nature, ritual observance,  ongoing study, and creative expression make up the lives of many Druids who find value in these practices.

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Where’s my attention? (Mt. Ascutney, VT, looking southwest)

The “more perfect union” of the title (from the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution) doesn’t automatically mean that practice must conform to belief (or belief to practice, either), but simply that we attend to the harmony between them. That harmony means they can balance and inform and influence each other.

So here are those beliefs, with today’s notations, observations, etc. following after, indented.

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

Not only is it a chance, but my life experiences seem to push and prod me toward that awareness of a “something larger”. Most of my suffering, if I’m honest, also seems to issue from resisting that direction of growth. If compassion — literally, “feeling or suffering with” — doesn’t enlarge in me, I pay for it with a sense of futility, waste, depression, impatience, boredom. But how I might become part of the “something vastly larger” is as varied as each of us is. My practice is for discovering the “how” and embodying it.

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

Joy doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s at least as infectious as any virus. We’ve all known and experienced those moments of joy and “outlift”. Again, how I “lift out of the small circle of my personal concerns and into a deeper kinship” is my practice. If my practice isn’t currently helping me achieve that, that’s worth attending to, and changing.

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“Stilling the pool of nwyfre is the task of the art of breathing” — J M Greer, The Druidry Handbook.

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

I’ve written before about both the possibilities and limitations of language, out of personal experience and professional training. The “wordless places” we reach and explore don’t necessarily come to us by worry over names and words. Tearing down a Confederate monument, to use a current example, or renaming an airport to drop an association with a politically incorrect person, may apply a dollop of relief to pain, but it won’t address the underlying cause of that pain, which arose, and still arises, from a refusal to do the inner work required.

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

As inhabitants of multiple worlds, we often neglect the claims they make on us, and also forfeit the advantages they confer if we would only attend to those claims. This world is just one among many. Such statements seem either self-evident to people, or completely obscure. I find there’s almost never much middle ground.

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

“Being at home everywhere” is a kind of vairagya, or not putting all my eggs in a basket that isn’t designed for them. It’s a remarkable and deep practice I’ve been exploring for decades, in various forms, and have only begun to understand.

St. Paul talks about something similar, as far as I can tell, in a challenging passage in Philippians 4:11: “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content”. It’s definitely not indifference, or obliviousness to others’ suffering, but something much more profound. In fact it seems to enable me to help more, not less, when I get myself out of the way of what the other person or situation needs. One small example: rather than imposing what I think my hospice client needs, some of my greatest service lies in listening to him. And sometimes that’s very hard, when I want to “fix things”.

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

The sense we have from time to time of being both natives and foreigners in our own lives reflects our varying capacity to work with this human consciousness, recognizing its limitations and also its great virtues for growth and discovery. And Druidry provides tools for working with it, and also discovering other kinds of consciousness, each with its own particular strengths. Why limit myself to just one?!

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Being a tree for a while — Louisiana Live Oak

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Solstices Before Us

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May we find what kindles …

With just a few changes, you can readily adapt my recent Beltane Solitary rite for the Solstices tomorrow, winter or summer.

Earth below me and in my bones,
Sky above me and in my breath,
Seas around me and in my blood,
by the Power of these holy Three,
I proclaim this to be sacred time and space …

A Solitary has the advantage of spontaneity. With the skeleton framework of a ritual as a guide, you’re free to improvise, to slow or quicken your pacing, to substitute words, drop or expand a section to fit the moment’s need. Just like with poetry and song-writing, you need just enough structure as a form to create with, and enough freedom not to feel boxed in. You find wings of a definite shape and size — they’re real, after all — and with them you can fly.

As with ritual, so with ritual politics: unlike the blood-curdling threats accompanying initiations in days not so long ago, the wiser rituals (and their ritual-writers) remind the initiate that no bindings are laid upon you, and should ever you, your guides or spirit wisdom counsel you to depart (or change the ritual, or strike out on your own path), do so with blessings. Anything else smacks of power-over.

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The June Solstice here in central New England means our local snakes are finally active both day and night. Although we’ve seen the more aggressive cottonmouth in the area, it’s the common and docile garter snakes (thamnophis sirtalis) that usually hunt our lawns for bugs and frogs and the occasional mole, which have come to sun themselves on our driveway each morning. This supple fellow from yesterday was about 18 in/46 cm.

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The Carr-Gomms write in their Druid Animal Oracle:

Although some legendary dragons are strongly linked with only one of the four elements, many of them happily partake of the characteristics of all the elements: sleeping in water holes, curling their bodies around hills by day, and flying through the air or breathing flames whenever they wish. Quintessentially alchemical, they speak of the energies and powers that exist both within our own selves and within the landscape around us (pg. 135).

A good reminder for the Solstices — the alchemy for transformation is always on hand, in encounters possible everywhere. After all, earth, sea and sky are all in me, too. We be of one kindred, o serpent.

And so when Jesus says wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also, can you feel it? Spirit with us, around and inside us. May we gather in that awareness, wherever we are, by twos and threes, bird and beast, ancestor and neighbor.

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Greetings to visitors from Brazil, whose numbers are up today! Muito obrigado!

Solstice Season 2020

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My friend B’s sauna stove — fire in midwinter, fire of midsummer.

Light balancing north and south, nights and days in their interchange, sleep and waking and the opportunities during each for connection and discovery. May we hear the earth speaking, may the Ancestors alive in us show us the good paths, may each encounter give us space to practice our hard-earned wisdom.

French Visitors

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A burst of over 50 views from France so far today! Bienvenus, mes amis! Que les benedictions soient! A quick comment on any post is helpful — something you’re looking for, or would like to see more about in the posts here? Please let me know!

Winter and Summer Solstices

That time again … The solstices, winter and summer, are just a little over a week away. Our solstices — let’s claim them, not as something we “possess”, but as intervals and energies that embrace and sustain us. Alban Arthan, Alban Hefin [links to short posts on the OBOD Druidry.org site], the names OBOD uses for Winter and Summer Solstices, are often rendered respectively as the “Light of Arthur” and the “Light of the Shore”.

You can find some of my previous posts on Solstice here, for both Winter and Summer seasons. First, a three-part series from last winter, December 2019: Gifts of Solstice 1 | 2 | 3.

Flaming toward Solstice looks at the lead-up to our Vermont Summer 2019 celebration, and then there’s this  post of mostly images from that celebration. 13 Gift Day Flames for Solstice Solitaries offers practices for either Solstice. Days of Solstice can also apply to both seasons. 19 Ways to Celebrate Summer Solstice is pretty self-explanatory. But while focused on summer, it also suggests practices adaptable to winter.

Ritual of Installation of a New Chosen Chief

Solitaries, ritualists, O.B.O.D.-friendly Druids and anyone interested in ritual surrounding a transition of leadership in Druid Orders may find the recent OBOD installation of Eimear Burke worth time spent with this 25-minute Youtube audio-only recording. Close your eyes as the introduction suggests to increase your attention and you may gain additional insight from that focus.

Welcome, Eimear, and blessings to Philip for his 30+ years of service and leadership.

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Binary Prisons and Spiritual Freedom

From the heart of the awen to you, from the love each being manifests simply through existing in its uniqueness, from the possibility the cosmos is always showering forth to this moment in life.

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One of the distinctive dynamics of our world is that it appears to function as a stable system. It continually seeks equilibrium or balance. How can that be, I hear myself mutter, when the last 200 years look like some of the most violent and tumultuous in human experience? After all, one of the foundational understandings of Druidry and some other spiritual paths is that human and natural worlds both unfold according to the same patterns and principles, because both exist as parts of the same dynamic flow. How I talk to and treat my garden plants and how I interact with my neighbors come to resemble each other. Douse my plants with pesticides against all manner of worms and bugs; gas, cuff, asphyxiate and shoot the vile Others — many make a direct equation between these acts.

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In the words of the Dao De Jing, that old Chinese classic that attempts to make useful observations on how energy flows through both natural and human worlds and institutions, “extremes don’t last long”. Not because they’re “good” or “bad”, but because extremes are inherently unstable and unsustainable. Push for one extreme, and the planet’s tendency towards natural equilibrium will reassert itself. The world will rebalance in the opposite direction, often with just as much vigor as our initial push towards one extreme. Attempt to eliminate all bacteria, and superstrains of the pesky little fellows will emerge, literally to plague us. Oust the Foreign Devils, and then it’s the Communists/Nationalists who polarize the land. Throw off the imperial yoke of the British Empire, and in time those evil Party X or Party Y people will break into our new Eden and foul things up. Round up and imprison-exterminate-exile-convert all those evil Others, and a new Other will take shape. In a demonstrable sense, the (binary) door always slams us in the back on our way in or out.

OUR HUMAN GENIUS is MANIFESTATION

That decidedly does not mean we shouldn’t work for changes we desire. After all, we can each point to successes in manifesting at least some of the things we want — manifesting is what we do each day. It does mean that when we enter a binary dynamic and pursue one side too forcefully and unskillfully, the back-and-forth of rebalancing that results may end up strengthening both sides to roughly the same degree. The result is a feedback loop, a self-reinforcing polarization that builds and builds. But a binary isn’t our only choice, just one among a good range of ’em.

As Exhibit A of an active binary, examine media on both ends of the recent U.S. political spectrum, and you soon see how each pole has come to adopt apocalyptic rhetoric and characterize the victory of the other side, whether in November, or tomorrow, or right now, as “the end of America”. Each chooses a side, dons the appropriate Superman-Batman-Jedi Knight-Righteous Warrior-Crusader costume, and sallies forth to do battle. Eventually, regardless of my current score in the game, I stand convinced of my moral superiority, I keep fighting the good fight, and I exhort others to do the same, or shame them for an uncaring heartlessness almost as bad as siding outright with the Opposition.

Long-time readers of this blog know that over the decades I’ve grown to admire J. M. Greer for his useful and test-able insights. One of his more acute set of observations concerns the kind of polarization we now face. His “Getting Beyond the Narratives: An Open Letter to the Activist Community” is well worth studying. It’s a thoughtful response to a specific book, so you can see previous instances of what we’re facing today, but it’s also a good look at our ongoing tendency to entrap ourselves in binaries of Us vs. Them, Good vs. Evil, Civilians vs. Police — and at productive ways out from such binary prisons. Greer writes at one point:

When activists define their role wholly in terms of resistance and refusal, of “articulat[ing] a NO to the system” rather than pursuing a positive ideal, they guarantee that they’ll perpetually be scrambling to counter some new assault by the system, trying to maintain an inadequate status quo against the threat of further losses, rather than making the system and its defenders scramble to counter efforts to change the status quo for the better.

He reminds us of what Buddhists have called upaya, “skillful means” for moving forward. He looks at binaries, or reifications of a situation, but also at the remarkable energies that can be liberated for our use when we sidestep such polarizations. Such binaries, he notes,

are problematic because they can distract [people] from points of access where their actions can make a difference. Consider George Lakey’s fascinating account of the Otpor movement against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in his article “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” (pp. 135-160). One of the tactics Otpor members used to halt police violence against them was to take photos of their wounded and make sure the family members, neighbors, and children of the police got to see them. This was a brilliant bit of magic. The individual human beings who made up that reified abstraction, “the police,” were stripped of that identity by a spell of unnaming, and turned back into neighbors, husbands, children, parents: people who were part of civil society, and subject to its standards and social pressures. That couldn’t have been achieved if Otpor had reified and protested “police brutality,” since that act would have strengthened the reification of police as something other than ordinary members of society.

A STRATEGY for BOTH LARGE and SMALL

This potent strategy is one I can apply not only to the kinds of events now convulsing many places in the U.S. but also to other stagnated, reified situations where I’ve labeled myself into a dark place.

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irises already flowering — early this year

A similar strategy of depolarization emerges in an NPR segment (link to recording and transcript) broadcast two days ago on 4 June. The segment’s titled “Police Officers, During Protests, Are Resembling Soldiers In War Zones”. In a short 5:02-minute interview, the NPR reporter speaks with Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer, now a Savannah, Georgia police officer, who has chosen to live in the same neighborhood he polices. Skinner remarks:

But I think that instead of a war … you change it. You have a neighbor mindset. And it sounds really cheesy. (Laughter) It is cheesy. But it’s effective. And that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for whatever is kind and effective. I believe that instead of calling people civilians, call them your neighbor because they are. I live here. I work here. I don’t say that police should have to live where they work. This is a personal choice I made. But it really drives home the fact that the people I’m dealing with every day — it’s not a metaphor — they are my neighbors. And so I have to treat them as such.

So many current problems look intractable and unmanageable because we’ve imagined them in a particular way, pumped them full of our doubts and fears at least as much as our optimism and hope. We’re getting back what we’ve been putting in. Greer suggests:

Make an effort to experience the world around you as though today’s global corporate system isn’t a triumphant monster, but a brittle, ungainly, jerry-rigged contraption whose managers are vainly scrambling to hold it together against a rising tide of crises. See the issues that engage your activism in that light, not as though you’re desperate, but as though the system is. It’s a very different perspective from that of most activists, and reaching it even in imagination might take some work, but give it your best try.

The point I’d like to make, once you’ve tried on both stories of the future, is that both of them — the story of corporate triumph and the story of corporate failure — explain the past and present equally well. The actions of the IMF and the World Bank in the last decade or so, for example, can be explained as a power grab by a doomsday economy in the driver’s seat, but they can equally well be explained as desperation moves by a faltering elite faced with a world situation that’s more unsteady and ungovernable by the day.

Which of these stories is true? Wrong question. The events that define either story haven’t happened yet, and which story people believe could well determine which way the ending turns out …

Yet of course these aren’t the only two choices. Philosophers of science have agonized over the hard realization that any given set of facts can be explained by an infinite number of hypotheses. Mages, by contrast, revel in the freedom this implies. The freedom to reinterpret the world, to abandon a story of desperation for one of possibility and hope, is basic to the worldview of magic. It’s a freedom that today’s progressive community might find it useful to embrace as well.

Finally, Greer shifts gears to a magical alternative of a very practical and particular kind, one that opens up options to us for concrete action, rather than closing them down to the brute oppositions of a dysfunctional binary like some of the ones we’re in:

Toward the beginning of this letter I mentioned that the structures of consciousness are tools of magic. In the system of magic I practice, those structures are identified with the numbers from 1 to 10, understood not as quantities but as abstract relationships. You can experience anything through any number (though numbers above 10 denote relationships too complex for the human nervous system to handle). Each number has its strengths and its weaknesses. If you’re working deliberately with the structures of consciousness — which is to say, if you’re a mage — you choose the structure/number you use based on the effects you want to get. Most of the time, for reasons too complex to get into here, you choose one, two, or three.

Anything seen through the filter of the number one is called a unary. When you see something as a unary, you highlight qualities in it such as wholeness, indivisibility, and isolation. See it through the number two, as a binary, and you’ll highlight different qualities such as division, conflict, balance, and complementarity. See it through the number three and still different qualities such as change and complexity will be highlighted. All these have practical implications. If you want people to cooperate and build community, get them to think of themselves as part of a unary; if you want them to quarrel and resist change, convince them they’re on one side of a binary; if you want them to make change, make them think of their community and their world as a ternary.

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May our practices, whatever they are, wherever we draw inspiration, help us grow and learn and act wisely and lovingly in the coming weeks and months. May we see and hear the wise teachers already in our lives. May we work for the good of the whole.

Solstice 2020 — and a New Moon

The co-occurrence of astronomical events multiplies their psychological effect. Even if the new moon and the coming solstice (winter in the southern hemisphere, summer in the north) on this June 20-21 weekend offer no more than a psychological effect, they would be worth acknowledging and celebrating. But for many they offer much more.

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As markers of both sacred and secular time, they locate us in the moment. No thanks, you might be saying. Any moment but this. It can help to think of what our ancestors had to bear, but that’s often easier when our own troubles don’t crowd around us and nip our heels. At such times we may not have the leisure or perspective to be grateful our forebears survived long enough to keep the line going, to pass along whatever wisdom they’d garnered, along with their DNA. The advice to “live always in the present moment, because it is the only one that’s real” sounds wonderful — until the present sucks. Then it’s anywhere and anywhen but here and now. So we time-travel with a vengeance, distracting ourselves through whatever means we can lay hands on. Sometimes it can seem like the best prayer we can offer for others is may your distractions bring you comfort. Wine, weed, wool-gathering, to name just a few.

But pursued with intention and love, moon and sun festivals lift us out of ourselves. We’ve all had the experience of playing sports, or gardening, or some other activity where we’re so intent on what we’re doing we don’t notice the cut or scratch or other injury until some time later, or until we spot the blood or bruise. Only then, with the coming of our attention, do we feel the sting or ache. For an interval, something else was more important and more interesting than pain. Celebrating seasonal and planetary cycles can help us focus where we choose to look, not where our circumstances pluck and tug at us to look. Always? No. Often enough to help us reset and recalibrate? Yes.

Sun and moon, they reconnect us. The jarring frequency of fluorescent lights can bother the eyes, and the hum of them overhead can be an irritant. Sunlight and moonlight don’t feel that way. They energize, unfolding us to ourselves and our surroundings. They bathe us in light, in a vibration billions of years old, native to our atoms.

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Antelope Canyon, New Mexico — a play of light and form. Image: Pexels.com

As archetypes with physical analogues, moon and sun help tune us in to other archetypes, if we choose. We can begin with the physical realm, and let experiences accumulate without jettisoning our critical intelligence, taking us step by step more deeply into wonder and joy. Our ancestors painted animals on the walls of caves, danced the hunt, linked with a clan or tribal spirit, saw in animals a brother and sister that could guide and teach, advise and protect. An animal, they long ago discovered, isn’t “just an animal”. One of the large and wonderful lessons of Druidry, as in many other paths, is a simple and profound one: Things are more than they appear.

You might call it the iceberg principle. What’s immediately visible is a key to what’s underneath. We seem to get this with the people in our lives we know reasonably well. We see through a friend’s odd mood or gruffness or silence or manic laughter into a more underlying movement and wait or prod or listen as we’ve learned to do. Moon and sun reward a similar friendship and patience.

The next full moon arrives in just a few days, and I’m revising and tweaking the draft of my recent full moon ritual, and thinking about dark moon and new moon rituals, too. With the clearer skies much of the world is enjoying with the enforced reduction of traffic and travel, this could be an ideal time to deepen acquaintance with the Two Lights in our skies no one needs to plug in, or pay a utility to operate.

And so the voice of a Druid comes, and says to me, even as I say to you:

I bless you in each of your moons,
your fullnesses and your dark nights.
I bless you in your changing faces,
in the pearl shadows of your twilights.

Because who doesn’t need blessing, and to bless ourselves, and to bless others, and to welcome the blessings of others coming our way!

And we can say to ourselves, and to each other:

In between, when we dance or dream,
we trade places with tree,
beast, or spirit of the grove,
and soon or late we uncover
another doorway that opens
for us to walk the sky.

Some of our truest names are written in sun- and moonlight.

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Druiding without (an) Order — 2

[Part 1 | Part 2]

path28In the previous post, I looked at thirteen facets of Doing Druidry that mostly revolve around inquiry and study. You can’t easily be a Druid without engaging in at least some form of one or more of them, because each of them connects you to the worlds where Druidry happens. (If that sounds restrictive or dogmatic or exclusive to you, just go back and look at the list! Got something to add that makes you a Druid? Tell us a little about your journey as you go for it!) The list doesn’t characterize only beginning Druidry, but serves as a rough outline for the kinds of studies that can occupy Druids their entire lives. However, that’s not the only thing happening in the life of a Druid.

In this second post on Doing Druidry without an Order, I want to look at five less tangible aspects of Druidry (and other traditions) that may have occurred to you as you read the previous post. These five are initiation, spiritual formation, community, proficiency and service. From the first glance it should be clear why they’re harder to talk about and describe in terms that people can identify. But that fact in itself makes it worthwhile to try. As you may come to see, these five aspects are closely linked things, almost versions of the same thing.

Initiation

Like other intensely personal experiences, initiation will always be a live issue for many of us. What it is, who can experience it, who can oversee, facilitate or “give” it, what happens when we undergo it, and what we become as a result,  can all provoke passionate discussion and disagreement. Most spiritual traditions have an equivalent of one or more initiations among their practices, and the most non-religious among us still experience “built-in” initiation in human events like birth, death, sex, grief and creative flow. Change characterizes each of them. You’re not the same afterwards. When and how you discover this, however, can range very widely.

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We could claim that one of the things that distinguishes modern Pagan practice from older traditions is the option of self and group initiation. As a comparison, Christians, for instance, can’t usually baptize themselves; to become a Muslim requires two witnesses to hear you recite the shahadah, and so forth.

Like other groups, OBOD succeeds tolerably well in having it both ways: the coursework for the grades of Bard, Ovate and Druid includes self-initiations that members can perform, and as a member of the Order you can request a group initiation with other members, and these two initiations aren’t “the same thing”. The rituals are different, the outcomes can be different, yet paradoxically they are in important ways “the same”.

You don’t need to do both a self and a  group initiation, but it makes little sense to continue unless you do one of them. (Doing both gives you a feel for their interconnections and value.) They’re part of doing Druidry. If you’re doing Druidry without an Order, you’ll come quite naturally to initiation in your own way. Your life will see to that. You can seek out initiation, of course, adapting published rituals to your purposes, or crafting something unique to your own experience. Or you can wait until an experience shapes itself into an initiation, which you may not recognize until after the fact.

For an earlier 3-part series on initiation, go here.

Spiritual Formation

This largely Christian term has no ready Pagan equivalent, though this aspect of practice certainly exists in all spiritual traditions. Christian spiritual formation means molding or conforming one’s life to Christ. In Pagan terms it means moving beyond, diving deeper, maturing in practice and wisdom. You begin to embody more of what your tradition values and holds up as an ideal, of what your deepest spiritual connection opens up to you, and open you up to. Pagans speak of Elders, those with earned authority and sacred connection, in ways similar to how Christians speak of saints, of holy individuals that spirit shines through.

One of the joys of a practicing group is the heightened chances of encountering and knowing such people, learning from their example and growing through associating with them. Being around them can constitute a form of initiation. As a number of the Wise have remarked, spirituality is “caught” rather than “taught”. We’re all in training.

Community

The most obvious difference between the experience of the Solitary and the Order member might seem to revolve around community. Christians acknowledge the priceless gift of others. In Hebrews 12:1, for instance, the sense of a supporting community, many without bodies, pervades the verse: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”. The interior worship spaces of Orthodox churches often have icons on almost every available surface, emphasizing this spiritual presence of a larger community than only those “with skin on”.

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icons at Varlaam Monastery — image courtesy Andrea Kirkby

Pagans may talk of raising power, while Christians acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit. Isaac Bonewits notes:

If the people in a group have bonds of genuine friendship or love between them, their ability to perform ritual will be greatly enhanced. The psychic and psychological barriers that most people keep between themselves will be fewer and more easily breached. This is why Wiccans place so much emphasis on “perfect love and perfect trust” — love and trust, even when imperfect, tend to strengthen each other and increase a group’s psychological and psychic unity (Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, pg. 105).

Of course, one of the discoveries Druids make is that they are never alone. Solitary, but not alone. A whole world of Others surrounds them, and if that is where community lies for that particular Druid, that is the call to answer.

Proficiency

We can become refined in the presence of others. Lifted out of our own concerns by the group energy, we can begin to “see larger” than when we arrived, and to take something of that enlarged perspective home with us like a fragrance or flavor to our hours and days. Elastic beings that we are, the company of other people “facing the same direction” can stretch us more than we can easily stretch ourselves, making us more flexible, adaptable, compassionate and empathetic. Think of the privilege of finding a good listener, someone who can still their own concerns and focus their attention on you and your world. How many of us know the love another can express in hearing and seeing us, even if they say little or nothing else? Our lives have been witnessed, our struggles acknowledged, we can walk from there a little lighter of heart.

By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus, and a good test of a group or Order in the simplest of terms is the kind of people they produce. Are they enjoyable to be around? Do they lift you up or drag you down? Are they kind to each other?

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Service

I desire to know in order to serve, runs the vow in more than one magical order of repute.

So I was struck when my teacher remarked one day that he serves in order to know. That’s how I grow and learn, he says. Offer yourself in “the unreserved dedication”, as some Orders call it, without qualification or expectation, and you will benefit. I get so tired of hearing about service, remarked one long-time member. Go apart for a while, counseled our teacher. You’ll be eager to return when you see how it’s a gift of love. You may just need to be on the receiving end for a time, for that to happen.

We may first begin to recognize the value of service when others serve us with love. If you’re like me, you may have a favorite restaurant (pre-virus, if necessary) where the food isn’t the main thing that draws you back. Yes, the meals are good. But it’s the ambience, the atmosphere, the attentiveness and welcome of the staff, the mood of other customers treated hospitably, that shapes your total experience. We go back for the service as much as anything, we say, when people ask.

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In every case, Solitaries find ways to fulfill these aspects. It may demand more flexibility and creativity, or it may take the Solitary in directions others do not understand. Service to the non-human world, for instance, can often pass unseen, unacknowledged for an entire lifetime, known only to the “bird and beast, bug and beech” the Solitary serves.

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