Archive for the ‘four elements’ Category
Spirit animates all things, earth and water, air and fire. To live is to experience, in Christian terms, a continuous sacrament. The sacraments of Druidry are the elements. Spirit makes life sacred, and we know this to the degree we recognize and participate and commit to living fully and wholly.
The energies of the elements feature widely in both Druidry and Christianity. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, and water energies characterize the Bardic grade in many Druid traditions — inspiration and intuition, dream and emotion and astral awareness. The place of the Bard is the west, long associated with elemental water. Standing in the west, the bard also faces east — sunrise, beginnings, elemental air, perception and knowledge.
We’re always crossing and re-crossing elemental lines and boundaries. Neither earthy gnome nor watery undine, airy sylph nor fiery salamander, we’re all of these, linked to each.
We might see and call each person’s life a spiral of elemental baptisms. So we ritualize it as a sacrament and reminder. Each of us cradled in our mothers’ wombs, our earth bodies forming, the amniotic waters bathing us as we take on physical shape and substance. No breathing except what our mothers do for us. Then birth, and that first cry, a gasp of air in new lungs, the loss of that other body and its warmth, our first journeying into a world that offers us choices and ventures among all four elements.
What more earthy place to be born for a child of god — all of us children of the divine — than a stable? How fitting that in the traditional story, animals surround the holy newborn, with their hay and straw, along with the reek of dung and the puffs of animal breath. The Golden Tarot features the holy magician surrounded by beasts, implements and symbols of the elemental altar at his feet.
Yet even at birth, at such a private affair, surely a matter of just father, mother and child only, a star shines distantly to herald each birth. We saw his star in the east, say the Magi, the Mages, the Magicians, and we have come to honor him.
Follow your own star, counsel the wise ones of many traditions. You are my guiding star, say our love stories and tragedies. A star shines on the hour of our meeting, say Tolkien’s Elves. Nothing is random.
And disaster? That’s a dis-aster, an ill star that may shine and color our lives. But other stars also — always — are shining. We are never just one thing only. And the Ovate is the grade of the north, the mysteries of life and death, healing and divination, time and fate and return. We are earth at birth, but all of the elements in turn and together, too. Stand in the north, the place of earth, of incarnation and death, and take stock. Learn the herbs that heal and harm, chant the words and sing the charm.
The call of rivers and oceans, streams and pools and wells. Water baptisms, summer swimming holes, the daredevil dive from a height into water that some of us risk. Do we long to “make a big splash” as we enter our adolescence? Surely a time of water and emotion, of dream and imagination, as the world unfolds itself into our first inklings of adulthood, as hormones surge and wash through us, working their watery changes. And those stories of the Biblical flood, of Atlantis drowned, of Mu and Lemuria. We live our lives on a planet dominated by water, we carry in our veins a blood that mirrors the primeval ocean in its salts and minerals, our bodies made of water and earth, subject to the tug of a tidal moon.
Air that fills our lungs, that in-spires us, that makes up one of the rhythms of our whole lives, until we ex-pire, that last breath going out, just as with our first cry we took it in. Air that caresses sweetly or gusts violently, every element meeting us in all its guises, fierce and gentle. Jesus on the mountain, transfigured. Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by power, by simply existing, alive, a blend like each of us of the elements and spirit.
And there in his sight the diabolic or oppositional aspects of incarnate life pull at him. Cast yourself down, the voice taunts him: you won’t really die. Who among us hasn’t stood on a high place and imagines jumping, imagined not plummeting to death, but somehow floating, flying, a power beyond what human life gives? What will we do with this enormous power each of us has to heal or hurt, make or mar the people and places we live? Renounce it, ignore it, forsake it, abuse it, explore it, fulfill it?
Conception and taking on form, an earth baptism of the North.
Birth and first breath, an air baptism of the East.
Adolescence and its hormonal tides, a water baptism of the West.
Adult passion and dedication to a worthy cause, a fire baptism of the South.
Trace the traditional order and position of each element in that sequence — North to East to West to South — and you describe a zigzag, a Harry Potter lightning flash.
And to push further at the symbolism, to go all nerdy and allegorical for a moment, because we can, we’re all marked by a vol de mort, the will of death, a will shaping the particulars of this life that ends at death, whatever may or may not follow.
But until then!!
Other baptisms, of suffering and love, growth and pain and knowledge, each time the elements forming and reforming in our experience. Bones breaking, healing. Bodies ill and recovering, hearts broken and full to bursting, minds challenged and sharpened by training and testing, blunted on battlefields and in factories, regenerated in gardens and gatherings, shaped in schools and lives.
In each life humans spiral through these baptisms, each renewing the experience and memory of the previous one, but also extending it, transforming it. Never twice the same, and yet familiar, too.
Jesus changing water to wine, a water-fire baptism of surprise at a wedding, a symbol of wholeness along the spiral, elements blending and merging. Jesus transfigured, on the airy mountain. Jesus crucified, the pain of incarnation and death, all the elements again, body and blood, breath and fire of pain, of ending. It’s finished, he says. in one gospel. I’ve done what I came to do.
Don’t each of us? To live at all, whether short or long, is to experience the whole gamut, every baptism multiple times. Death, yes. The tomb where they lay Jesus, and roll the stone door shut. Elemental baptism of earth again. Spiral, spiral.
For that’s not all. Because resurrection. Spring. Rebirth. In the northern hemisphere, look out your window. No need to believe any of these things. Walk out the door and experience them for yourself. Make a ritual out of it. Figure out after what it “means” to you. Live it.
To go pop-culture on you: I’ll be back, says the Terminator, mirror of the Creator. The great Ender, who promises a death before life even gets fairly launched. Prevent the future. But No fate — he doesn’t “win.” Instead, life changes him — our perception changes him. He becomes, death becomes, potentially at least, an ally, if a difficult one.
Death is the mother of beauty, says crazy old bard Wallace Stevens. (All bards, to make a verse or song or story, must be a little crazy from time to time. It’s good for them, good for us.) What?! I shout, outraged. Death is the mother of beauty, he repeats, quietly. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.
The gift of incarnation is to draw out from each element the fullness of what it offers. A ritual of elemental baptisms can help us recognize the opportunity of each as it spirals by, and ride the energies of the elements. Give me a rich, full life. I long to drink it all, the bitter, yes, inevitable. But also the sweet, the fair, the lovely, the shining, the joy.
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Images: elementals; Golden Tarot Jesus as Magician; scar.
photo courtesy Krista Carter
The 7th OBOD East Coast Gathering (ECG) took place this last weekend with over 100 Druids, friends and family gathering at Camp Netimus in NE Pennsylvania. [Go here for accounts of previous Gatherings.]
Netimus, a girls’ summer camp, has welcomed us each autumn for Alban Elfed, the Autumn Equinox. The non-human staff of coyotes, hawks, dragonflies, chipmunks and owls lets us know they know we’re present, too, adding their own wild signatures to the rituals, the evening fire circles and the day and night-time hours.
Hex in his drumming workshop
This year we celebrated the turning of the year among ourselves, without the headline special guests that can make registration for the Gathering a matter of internet frenzy and growing wait-lists.
We initiated ten new Bards, two Ovates and two Druids into the Order, as well as holding workshops on fairies, crystal jewelry, drumming, moon wisdom and beekeeping, and gathering in the camp dining hall for meals our devoted kitchen crew volunteers prepare with love, laughter and long hours of hard work.
Each evening brings the fire circle, always a draw. And this year we organized a more competitive eisteddfod, showcasing our singers, storytellers, musicians, dancers, fire-spinners and mead-makers, culminating in a final round on Saturday.
photo courtesy Gabby Roberts
The Ovates gathered mugwort Saturday morning as we prepared our gift to the Tribe during the main Alban Elfed ritual Saturday afternoon. An invasive that can take over, mugwort nevertheless has healing properties, healthful in teas and soothing as a smoked herb, too (when it smells remarkably like pot!).
photo courtesy Krista Carter
Preparing for Ritual
photo courtesy Nadia Chauvet
A nearly full moon rose overhead each night, bathing the Gathering in light, and making the Camp paths and steps a little easier to navigate if, like me, you forgot all three nights to fetch your flashlight from your cabin before dark — needing a light to find your light!
photo courtesy Alec Mayer
The rain — thank you, Spirits of Place! — held off till shortly after the closing ritual Sunday morning.
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The reason Camps like this happen at all is that enough people are willing to give of themselves. Rather than complain about what doesn’t happen to their own narrow liking, enough people contribute to what does.
And among the thanks, reminiscences and anecdotes that always leave us both smiling and teary during the final ritual, several comments stood out, like Frank’s. He thanked us for the opportunity to serve. Those people in our lives that we come to value the most are those who give without drama or ego display.
Our closing ritual talked of all four elements, including the humility of water, that takes whatever shape we ask. Alban Elfed, Light on the Water, is a festival of the West, of Water, of balance and change, the dynamic that Druids revere, and strive to navigate with all the grace and wisdom we can muster.
photo courtesy Alec Mayer
Thank you, everyone, two and four-footed, winged, scaled, legless, and unbodied, who made this ECG another splendid opportunity for the Tribe to gather and celebrate and grow.
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Beltane’s nearly upon us, and Alison Lilly’s most recent blogpost “Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer” catches the energy behind this fire festival. For it is after all the day of the Fires of the Celtic solar god Bel, as even a traditional source like the BBC calmly informs us on their website. Some seasons you’ve just had enough of the world, and most of all yourself as a tame fire, to paraphrase Alison. Do check out her blog. She evokes and invokes Beltane in a personal and poetic meditation.
You too may long to spark, flare, burn and roar. Heap the kindling of my life and ignite, you whisper — or shout. Beltane is here for you.
Part of the Bardic training of Druid groups like OBOD and others, and much of the initial work in the outer grades of the magical Order of the Golden Dawn focuses on exploring and balancing the elemental energies flowing in and around us. We don’t — normally — want to burn up or out. But a healthy conflagration may burn off the wintry torpor that clings to our mood and outlook. Beltane is tonic, purgative, exhiliration, ignition.
The symbolism of the four physical elements of earth, water, air and fire persists in the cultural and magical imagination of the West because they express important truths about human life. They serve as a powerful shorthand for a whole cluster of ideas, images, experiences and memories, and their presence in ritual and story, song and myth will endure as long as we inhabit the same worlds where they manifest.
Their existence as physical entities endows them with the further potential to serve as sacraments. As always, though we keep forgetting, reverence and engagement are our choice, an opportunity like any other that we may welcome or reject. Here, too, fire can kindle us to possibility and change.
Fire Temple, Chennai, India
Further afield from Celtic-flavored European Druidry, fire is also central to the religious practice of Zoroastrians, the people popularly known as Parsis. Their Fire Temples offer just one more illustration of why reducing fire to an explanation like “rapid oxidation in an oxygen-rich environment like earth’s atmosphere” says nothing about our actual experience of fire, its light and warmth and flickering presence, and its long association in human consciousness with spiritual reality, energy and life. Anyone who’s experienced a good bonfire knows this to some degree. It’s our human art to extend these experiences and celebrate their effect as spiritual opportunities for transformation and joy.
Zoroastrian Sadeh Festival
Fire calls to ancestral human memory. Cultural practices and beliefs that center on it only endow it with additional significance and power. Druids may say as part of ritual “Let us pray with a good fire,” an invocation traceable to the worship of the Hindu Agni and a hymn in the Rig Veda (Bk. 1, 26). And Wendy Doniger in her translation* notes that “When Agni becomes the priest, his robes are both the flames and prayers.” Thousands of years of human experience with fire has not dulled its power.
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Whether you’re part of an OBOD Beltane gathering that follows the traditional ritual, or some other group and ceremony, or you’re a solitary celebrating alone in your own way, may you too share that shiver of anticipation and delight as the day and the rite opens for you at the birth of summer. May you and the Sun both grow in strength. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, we welcome you to this rite of Beltane …”
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IMAGES: Fire Temple in Chennai, India; Sadeh Festival;
*Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda: An Anthology. One Hundred Eight Hymns, Selected, Translated and Annotated. Penguin Books, 1981, pg. 100.
So my Druidry goes to work and I find out, a little more, what it can do.
This last September, when my wife and I were visiting friends on our way to the 2014 East Coast Gathering, we stopped in at a community antique shop. Normally I don’t visit such places, but this one, run as a non-profit, drew us in. Though my wife didn’t find the odd weaving item she’s perpetually on the lookout for, shuttle or reed or bundle of heddles that she can often locate used, I met a dragon.
I say “met” because elemental encounters with beasts like dragons are gifts to celebrate. But was this draig-athar, the air dragon I first took it to be? Or maybe draig-teine, the fire dragon? Oh, too much mind, not enough listening.
The right wing was missing. I picked it up. Heavy as earth, and earthbound with that missing wing — probably brass, that fire metal composed of tin — and copper, a water metal. As a candle-holder, also linked with fire. All of them mined from earth. All four elements in one. Candle holder on the top of the head … in Chinese dragon lore, the dragon possesses a chimu, which enables it to fly. As the Han Dynasty scholar Wang Mu observes of the dragon: “Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called chimu. If a dragon has no chimu, he cannot ascend to the sky.”
Let go of labels. But fly without one wing? Transmute! There was my augury, if I wanted one. Don’t let mere appearances decide your reality. Or, to make it short and sweet — fly anyway.
Five dollars lighter (paper standing in for coin — metal again), I carried the dragon from the shop to our car. Back in Vermont, he (she?) sits facing west on a window-sill near where I’m clearing a space for an altar. Just out the window is a thermometer. In other words, there’s enough symbolism here to keep me busy with metaphors and correspondences till both dragon and I dissolve into our component elements, the life force binding us long ago withdrawn.
Struggling with diet and energy levels and an ornery GI tract still sorting itself out after radiation for a prostatectomy? Fly anyway.
A Druidic invitation to see possibility in limitation — the only place we find it. Fly anyway.
A one-winged brass dragon
What I want: “a return to how things used to be.” But what do I need, apparently, among other things? Greater compassion for myself, for others dealing with the body’s trials and challenges. Patience with changes already set in motion. Definitely a stronger capacity not to let mere appearances decide my reality.
That’s all you got?
No. But it’s more than I had.
A fair trade?
Wait and see.
Really? “Wait and see”?!
Can you imagine the missing wing — see it there, mirroring the left one, ready to sweep wide and catch the wind?
So just because you can’t fly in one place, you stop flying in all the others?! Choose again.
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Images: dragon from the Nine Dragons scroll; air dragon from the Druid Animal Oracle — image by Will Worthington; the brass dragon.
Our bodies already know the Goddess – this is our oldest magic.
I relied on this insight in planning for the workshop at this year’s East Coast Gathering, whose theme was “Connecting with the Goddess.”
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Goals and plans I had for the workshop:
The heart of the workshop is a hands-on look at various ways to make a physical book/scroll/altar object that explores/invites/incorporates ritual, ogham/runes, art, prayer, poems, questions, magic and daydreaming into a concrete “link” to the Goddess as we experience Her — or desire to experience Her. Think “book” as “portable paginated/folding/roll-up ongoing altar-in-process.” I’ll talk about inspiration, nudges, hints and ways to listen, inviting and hoping for participant sharing and input! The seed for the workshop comes out of the fact that I’m a prime example of somebody who doesn’t have a consistent Goddess practice (though She’s seeing to it that’s shifting, too), but when She wants my attention, She gets it, like with this book, and workshop.
It’s probably a good thing we don’t always hear how ambitious we sound. Young or old, you eventually learn to deal with the inevitable gap between vision and manifestation. If you’ve managed to hold on to any of that original and wonderful idealism of youth, you also realize that the gap isn’t a reason to despair, or to dispense with vision, but rather a sign of just how important vision is.
The physical world, so important for manifestation, by its nature tends to lag behind the swiftness with which vision can appear. But that lag is precisely part of this world’s immense value: its inertia and density allow for greater permanency and resistance to change, so that we can experience the results of vision over time — and fine-tune it if we choose. Unlike in dream, where the subtle stuff of vision or imagination can wisp away so quickly, physical manifestation tries to linger.
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The Goddess is generous. Or alternatively, if you prefer the cynical version, I belong to the OCD Order of Druids. Creativity, as the saying goes, is messy. I over-planned for the workshop, ending up with far more material than any mortal could begin to do justice to in a mere hour, and this post is my penance, or confession. Or further indulgence. And maybe — in the way it often arrives when we’re not paying attention, even in spite of ourselves — a spark of awen.
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“Creating A Goddess Book,” with focus on “book” in order to free it from the psychological shrine many Druids, and Pagans generally, tend to put books in. Instead of paper, a book of leather, or metal, or cloth — individual sheets, or a single longer scroll. A nudge to try out the qualities of other substances than paper, than the admittedly inviting blank books on sale in chain bookstores, or even Ye Friendlie Lokal Paygan Shoppe.
Each workshop participant received a packet to practice with, consisting of a rectangle (approx. 3″ x 4″) of vegetable-cured leather and a similar-sized rectangle of .019″ aluminum, wrapped in a larger swath of canvas cut from a shop drop-cloth from Home Depot. A wood- and leather-burning tool, a few screwdrivers, some markers of various kinds, a few words about inspiration and the importance of working to manifest things on the physical plane as one powerful way to connect with the Goddess. Suggestions for inscribing/writing/ incising a short prayer, vow, magical name, etc. Reference tables of Ogham and runes for those who wanted to inscribe words with some privacy, as a personal meditation. I pointed out that you could cut all three materials with kitchen scissors. Besides the wood-burner, no fancy tools required. Then I shut up and let participants have at the materials. Done!
Hex Nottingham’s leather and metal “pages” — photo courtesy Hex Nottingham
Except for the next flash of inspiration in the planning process, which would not let go: a “Nine-Fold Star of the Goddess” you can try out here at one of several websites that illustrate the steps.
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A sampling, with some commentary and additions, from the workshop handout:
“Spirit must express itself in the world of matter or it accomplishes nothing. Insights of meditation and ceremony gain their full power and meaning when reflected in the details of everyday life.” — J. M. Greer, The Druidry Handbook, p. 138.
This world, here, is the realm of mystery. Spirit is simple — it’s this world that’s so surprising and complex in its changes and ripples, its folds and spirals and timings. Make something, I tell myself, labor with the body, and then I can often approach the Goddess more easily, dirt under my fingernails, sweat on my face. She likes bodies. I’m the one who keeps forgetting this, not her.
“Work with a Goddess long enough and you learn to hear Her call. You learn to pick her voice out above the noise of contemporary society, above the words of teachers and friends, and even above your own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes what you hear is not what you expect.” — John Beckett, “A Rite of Sacrifice,” Mar. 4, 2014.
“Shaper, you have made and shaped me. Honor and serenity are yours. I am your garment, you the indwelling spirit. Work with me in everything I do, that all may know you. Energizer, quicken me. Measurer, clear my path. Protector, guard me safely. Initiator, take my hand. Challenger, transform me. Savior, be my help. Weaver, make my pattern bright. Preserver, heal me. Empowerer, make me wise.” — adapted from Caitlin Matthews, Elements of the Goddess, p. 118.
Rilke’s fragment, a whole meditation in itself, or a daily morning prayer.
Oh, I who long to grow,
I look outside myself, and the tree
inside me grows.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
And Larkin’s poem “Water”:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
— Philip Larkin
After delighting in this poem, make an exercise of it. Choose one of the elements. It can be water, as in the poem, or one of the others. Finish the sentence: “If I were called in to construct a _____, I should make use of [element].” Keep going: a series of statements, a meditation on the one you just wrote, a free association. Whatever gets you putting words down. You can try this over several days with all the elements, or at a different pace, if you’re working with the elements on your own.
The ECG schedule this year put the Goddess Book workshop immediately after Thursday’s Opening Ritual, so people arrived still bubbling from the ceremonial jump-start for the weekend.
“In every world, in every form, in every way, I am near you, I uphold you, I comfort you, I guide you, I deliver you from each limitation until my freedom is yours. Your body is my chalice, your heart my echo, your form my shadow, your pulse my footstep, your breath my passing.” — from my own Goddess book.
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1. Once you hold the Star of the Goddess in your hand, write the names of the four elements and Spirit, one near each of the points. Complete this step before reading further.
2. Which elements sit on either side of Spirit? Contemplate on their positions there. Are they elements that help support your spiritual life? Are they especially active? Are these the elements that need extra attention and balance?
3. Consider a section in your Goddess book for vows: experiment with them, not as harsh, unyielding obligations, but as tools for studying resolve, testing experience, practicing manifestation of your intent, and so on. They need not be “public” – write them in ogham, runes, etc. Start small and easily achievable.
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Dedicating a Goddess Book: Blood, sweat, tears, spit, etc. can mark our books with our earthiness: a commitment to be honest with the Goddess about our path, its ups and downs, to remember her presence with us, and to acknowledge what we need, what we doubt, what we’re willing to work for – whatever feels right to include. Make a ritual of it. Do it quietly, simply, without fanfare, with silence making its own ritual. Or call out all the stops, bells and whistles. Then dance, feast and celebrate.
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Allow a Goddess book — it could be a single sheet or “page” specifically intended for this purpose — to return slowly to the elements on an outdoor altar. Or bury it in the Mother’s good earth. Thus is the vow fulfilled that the Mother takes into Herself, as She will take all things back in time, and return them again.
“All things are holy to you. This book like all things lies among the faces you show to me; may I learn from you daily, drink deep from your well, and body you forth as your child.” — from my Goddess book.
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A small ritual. Take a few deep breaths. Sing the awen, or other name or word that grounds and focuses you. Holding your cupped hands in front of you, say: “I make this altar for the Goddess, a space where she may act in my life.”
Holding the Star, or your journal, or other ritual object meaningful to you, or nothing else at all, ask yourself: What specific space or doorway exists in my life for the Goddess to manifest or to act in? Pay attention to hints, images and answers as they come.
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And again: Our bodies already know the Goddess – this is our oldest magic.
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Images: ogham; star.
[Part 1 | Part 2]
Below are images from our recent visit to Spirit in Nature in Ripton, VT, some eight miles southeast of Middlebury as the crow flies. An overcast sky that day helped keep temperature in the very comfortable low 70s F (low 20s C). At the entrance, Spirit in Nature takes donations on the honor system. The website also welcomes regular supporters.
As an interfaith venture, Spirit in Nature offers an example of what I’ve been calling Shrine Druidry, one that allows — encourages — everyone into their own experience. Everyone who chooses to enter the site starts out along a single shared path.
The labyrinth helps engage the visitor in something common to many traditions worldwide: the meditative walk. The labyrinth imposes no verbal doctrine, only the gentle restraint of its own non-linear shape on our pace, direction and attention.
Beyond the labyrinth, a fire circle offers ritual and meeting space. Here again, no doctrine gets imposed. Instead, opportunity for encounter and experience. Even a solitary and meditative visitor can perceive the spirit of past fires and gatherings, or light and tend one to fulfill a present purpose.
Beyond the circle, the paths begin to diverge — color-coded on tree-trunks at eye-level — helpful in New England winters, when snow would soon blanket any ground-level trail markers. When we visited, in addition to the existing paths of 10 traditions, Native American and Druid paths branched off the main way, too new to be included on printed visitor trail maps, but welcome indicators that Spirit in Nature fills a growing need, and is growing with it.
The Druid Prayer captures a frequent experience of the earth-centered way: with attention on stillness and peace, our human interior and exterior worlds meet in nature.
The trails we walked were well-maintained — the apparently light hand that brings these trails out of the landscape belies the many hours of volunteer effort at clearing and maintenance, and constructing bridges and benches.
A bench, like a fire pit and a labyrinth, encourages a pause, a shift in consciousness, a change, a dip into meditation — spiritual opportunities, all of them. But none of them laid on the visitor as any sort of obligation. And as we walk the trail, even if I don’t embrace the offered pause, the chance itself suggests thoughts and images as I pass that the silence enlarges. I sit on that bench even as I walk past; I cross the bridge inwardly, even if it spans a trail I don’t take.
Sometimes a sign presents choices worthy of Yogi Berra’s “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Perhaps it’s fitting to close with the North, direction of earth, stone, embodiment, manifestation — all qualities matching the interfaith vision of this place.
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This is the 200th post at A Druid Way. Thanks, everyone, for reading!
In this post I enthuse about an early and continuing inspiration in my practice, and inevitably drag in other more idiosyncratic but hopefully still relevant associations along the way. So first, the “old magician” of the title. Scottish-born R. J. Stewart (b. 1949), a composer and author, is among the handful of contemporary practicing magicians whose work has done much to clear away accumulated Medieval and Victorian superstition and obscurity from magic. Why, for instance, should I intone or vibrate a particular name during a ritual, unless I know what it is and what it’s meant to accomplish?
Inspired by Celtic tradition and the teachings of his mentor Ronald Heaver (1900-1980), Stewart has developed practices designed to heal both magician and environment, among other reasons Druids may be interested in him. (His website deserves a visit if you want to learn more about him and his magic.) Along the way, with his Inner Convocations and Inner Traditions practices, he’s also helped to articulate a comprehensible theory of how magic works and can be effectively practiced, reflected in workshops, audio projects, and books like Living Magical Arts (hereafter LMA). That book was my first deep introduction to magic more than two decades ago, and I sit with my dog-eared copy in front of me now.
I value LMA in part because in it Stewart states basic truths succinctly and clearly — truths I find I need to come back to again and again. His work derives from personal experience. That means that unlike too many texts on “magic,” it is no pastiche of the work of others, or a mere catalog of magical correspondences that do little by themselves to advance actual magical practice. On the page, correspondences may look nice (or scary, depending on your own personal fear factor) and decorative for the armchair magician — and who isn’t one of those, with all the books on magic you could read and leave lying around to impress or intimidate guests?! But anyone half-way into a serious first-year study of magic can (re)create from experience their own list of equally effective correspondences. That doesn’t render them somehow invalid or useless, but shows that they’re dependent variables rather than constants. I wanted the constants, “unrealist” that I can sometimes be.
The fact that magical traditions worldwide share much common ground in things like tables of correspondences, while annoyingly refusing to agree on some presumed “basics,” like which direction is associated with which element, should of course give us a clue about what “matters,” what’s convention, and what the difference is. (For more on this, see Mike Nichols’ wonderful “13 Reasons Why Air Should Be North,” now promoted to the status of a “Sacred Text” at ISTA, the Internet Sacred Text Archive, which if you don’t know, you should know, if only to “waste” large amounts of time exploring.)
In LMA, Stewart offers overviews, rationales, and a coherent and profound magical philosophy for what he presents. As he defines it, “magic is a set of methods for arranging awareness according to patterns.” Worked with consciously, these patterns can help catalyze a transformation: “the purpose of magical arts is to enable changes within the individual by which he or she may apprehend further methods [of magic and transformation] inwardly.” This transformation can come about because “magic attempts to relate human consciousness to divine consciousness through patterns inherent in each.”
One reason for the magical dimension of human reality is simply that, as biologists have been discovering, we’re pattern-seekers and pattern-makers in profound ways. That’s how we make sense of the world, the “one great bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” of things*. Find the pattern — or impose one, if nothing helpfully steps forward as a clue to whatever’s going on in front of our noses. Note that this predilection towards pattern-making is neither “good” or “bad” by itself — though it makes sense to assume, as at least a provisional view of reality, that if pattern-recognition is so successful as a survival strategy across so many species, it may actually have something to say about what “reality” is like, or how it comes across to consciousnesses still evolving to “grok” it.
For we share this “blueprint of consciousness” with other mammals, which is why I suspect we were ever able to domesticate animals like dogs, cats, sheep, geese, ducks, chickens, cows, horses, and pigs that have contributed so hugely to human civilization. They’ve served us as sources of food, clothing, transportation, power for machines, defense, pest control, and companionship. (Growing up, I remember a picture my dad displayed prominently in our house of five cows, each one representing a different breed of dairy cattle, with the caption “Foster Mothers of the Human Race.” We kept a herd of the familiar black and white Holsteins, the most common breed in the U.S., the breed most people think of when they think “cow,” but the other four breeds were still important enough to our farm family that as a child I also knew Brown Swiss, Jersey, Ayrshire and Guernsey cattle on sight.) If domestication isn’t a marvelous and far-reaching act of magic, what is?
So pattern-making is a “keeper” in our toolkit of magical strategies and techniques. I sense the shades of my born-again and otherwise Christian ancestors flinching and cringing and flagellating themselves. But magic is not a religion, and is certainly not anti-religion, but rather “a coherent set of traditions regarding human potential.” Or it’s becoming one, in the hands of competent modern magicians like Stewart. And he goes on to assert that the god and goddess images of religion are imaginative images “engineered to a high standard of performance.” What that means is that magicians, without ever denying the power or value of such images, work through and beyond them because they want to experience and work with the reality which lies behind images and which energizes them.
Stewart’s style both in LMA and later books is educated and not a breezy, colloquial one. If you’re hearing worship in my words, try again. I don’t expect everyone will (or should) agree with Stewart. I don’t always. But his common-sense, grounded, characteristically practical outlook is refreshing and unusual when you look at the sometimes careless, unscholarly, irresponsible and misleading books on the market which promise a lot and don’t deliver. Use your reason and intelligence fully, as Stewart would urge, because they’re tools too. He remarks late in the book, “if the intellect can be turned to prove to itself that conditioned life patterns are false, it becomes a useful tool towards liberation.” No quick fixes here (I’m usually suspicious of books which promise those anyway), but a path worthy of prolonged dedication.
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Stewart, R. J. Living Magical Arts. Blandford Press, U.K. 1987.
*attributed to author and psychologist William James (1842-1910)
Images: R J Stewart; magic; Hoard’s Dairyman “foster mothers”