Archive for the ‘holy’ Category

Recall, Remembrance, Anamnesis — Druid & Christian Theme 8   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

“It is the hour of recall” — OBOD ritual.

“Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:20).

anamnesis (Greek ἀνάμνησις; English an-am-NEE-sis) 1) the Platonic principle that people retain knowledge from past lives and that our present learning involves a recollection of that past knowledge. 2) the Christian principle of recalling the events of Christ’s sacrificial death in the words and actions of the liturgy, especially during Communion or the Eucharist*.

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One way into the Greek word that may serve as a link between Druid and Christian practice is the English borrowed word amnesia, literally “forgetting”. An-amnesis is its opposite: “unforgetting, recall, recollection, remembrance, memorial action”.  And I’m going on from there for a moment and, at least for the purposes of this post, forming the adjective anamnetic “having to do with ritual remembrance”.

Druidry and Christianity both acknowledge the importance of anamnesis. Anamnetic deeds depend for their effect on both ritual and memory — actions intended to evoke a sacred event or time. Perform the ritual and bring to mind the holy. Sacrifice is “making sacred”, and we only “know” the sacred because in some way we re-cognize it: we know it again. Anamnetic acts acknowledge that even the best memory fades, so they recharge it with symbolic words and deeds.

At the “hour of recall” in OBOD ritual, we’re reminded that the rite is both timeless and bound by time. Its effect comes in part through memory: “let memory hold what the eye and ear have gained”. We’re also reminded that the apparent world and the inner world may overlap, but they’re not the same. Ritual sets aside a space for the inner and the sacred, acknowledges it, increases the overlap, and then reverses all those actions in the farewell, in order to safely restore the participants to the profane, mundane, “real” world of everyday life. (Because trying to function here while still in ritual consciousness is dangerous. We’re “spacey” and attentive to other things, not traffic lights, the blender’s sharp blades, those three steps down, our co-worker’s question, the toddler who darts into the intersection just ahead.)

I take part in a ritual, and its effects follow in time and memory. Likewise in Christianity, depending on how the word “this” is understood, whether once during the annual Passover (the setting where he spoke the words), or at every meal, or something in between, Christ commands his followers to “do this … in remembrance of me” — in a word, to practice anamnesis. “Proclaim the Lord’s death till he come again”.

A sacred meal shared with others is among the best kinds of fellowship. It’s an anamnetic act common to many traditions and cultures as a sign of religious faith, because it also expresses friendly hospitality and generosity. These acts of giving and giving back are inherently sacred. We can choose to recognize this by ritualizing them, or by foregoing the opportunity they offer.

How much of human consciousness, after all, is memory? How do we sustain the transformative power of any event we choose to value, except through recalling it, naming it, celebrating it, re-enacting it in order to vivify it and make it real again in some way in the present? “What is remembered, lives”.

Thus we celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, historical events, and so on. We tell stories of the living and of the ancestors. We even make up fictions the rest of the time, in order to remind ourselves what life is like, in case we lose sight of its shape and nature. And when we enter the mythic realm, the question to ask is not “Is it true? Did it really happen?” but “What truth does it teach? What holy thing does it help us remember?” When we com-memorate something, we remember it together.

And what we value, we dramatize. Greek theater began as religious worship: “Until the Hellenistic period [roughly 320 to 30 BCE], all tragedies were unique pieces written in honour of Dionysus and played only once, so that today we primarily have the pieces that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when the repetition of old tragedies became fashionable …” notes the Wikipedia entry on the theater of ancient Greece. Until later times, the theater was a sacred precinct. Weapons were banned, and actors were masked because their human identities, at least during the performance, was subsumed under the characters, often gods or heroes, whom they portrayed.

Julie Babin

coastal Louisiana, Gulf Coast Gathering — photo courtesy Julie Babin

What might all this mean for possible Druid and Christian convergences? Ritual is grounded in theater, in a dramatic portrayal of the memorable. “Let us remember the holy” is one piece of common ground where both can stand. Accepting that no one “owns” the holy is another. Why this is should be obvious, though it’s sometimes ignored in claims of “my god(s) and your god(s)”.  But sacred energy continually bursts free of limiting containers, and seeks new forms that refresh and rekindle and feed the spirit. if anything, it’s very much the other way around: the holy owns us. Sometimes it simply breaks through and claims us. You and I have no say in the matter. Other times, we may.

Old or new, liturgies can move us, but they are no substitute for direct contact with the sacred. We need no idolatry of rite placed above spiritual reality. The word’s not the thing it names. Much as I love words, I love the silences of the Great Mystery more. “Be still, and know …” counsels Psalm 46. Because there is that ability within us all that’s able to do this — to be still and come in contact with the holy. It’s our human birthright, and has nothing to do with belief.

Paradoxically (and what would many things amount to, without a touch of paradox?), old ways can come closer to Spirit than newer ones. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls”.** The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah says these words, looking back at ways already old in his time. Pagan and Christian can find more to share than either may often imagine — in silence, in ritual, in remembrance.

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*Like anamnesis, eucharist derives from Greek — in this case, from eucharistia “thanksgiving, gratitude”. Modern Greek still uses a related word (changed a little in pronunciation) to say “thank you”: ευχαριστώ [ehf-khah-ree-STOH]

**Jeremiah 6:16. The prophet gives these words to God to say.

Holy Fire   Leave a comment

Some things glow with it,
flame-keepers, hearths we return to
whenever the world dulls and grays,
whenever bodies earth themselves
too deeply, those mornings each of us
can count all two hundred and six bones
stacked here in our skeleton houses.

Some things touch and smolder,
some kindle, flare once, no more.
Others spark and ignite everything around them.

Fire says: be done with cataloging. I
will renew. In the end, leave everything
for a bright journey. Burn
slow and long.

A Hallowed Evening and a Conquest   Leave a comment

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

pumpkinfieldsm

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

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

Hutton observes that the ancestor to modern Halloween:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

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

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

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

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

In his Guardian article on Halloween, Hutton notes:

allsaints-oswiecim

All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacification, oddly enough, usually involves violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full Moon Reflection 2: More and Less   Leave a comment

Compassion has no religion.  Silence is not always indifference.  O great, listening, witnessing world, you too have something to say, something you always are saying, without words.  What comfort we can offer, miles and lives away from the families of the Sandy Hook school victims, and from other, newer sufferers since then, may consist of not filling the airwaves and spiritual spaces further, with our own shock or anger or sadness or dismay, or whatever other responses events may next provoke in us.  Even if we do not know the families or victims or any of those touched by an event, we may send sympathy, because we are not stones.  This is prayer, too.  But every turn of the world changes us because we’re in it together.  A great service is to love those who need love, and not merely to feel, to emote.  We can do more than relive pain, especially another’s pain, or make it ours.  Suffering needs no extra rehearsals, no practice.  There’s always more than enough to go around.

We’re not stones, but we may raise them into a cairn, a act that by its solidity and palpable weight can lift suffering even a little, if it may, stone by stone.  Let earth bear a portion of  the weight.  Allow this elemental power of Earth to transmute, to compost and transform, as it does all else that comes to it.  The turning of the year again toward light in the middle of winter, the planet doing again what the planet does each year, can be solace too, earth re-establishing its balance.  Soothing motion of the familiar, wordless touch with its animal comfort.  Moon growing again towards fullness, light on the world in the middle of darkness.

But sometimes we hate comfort.  Too often solace can reek of appeasement.  We stiffen.  One more easing is too many.  Intolerable.  Like words — already more than enough.  With no ready target we seek out whatever will serve, anything to shut up the noise, the roar of raw nerves jangling.  Anodyne.  Oblivion, even, at least for a while.

Grief is too steady a companion.  It knows us, it seems, deeper than a lover.  OK, we get it.  Pain too has something to say that will not be denied.  We make a place for it, and it moves in, gets comfortable, settles down for too long.  (How long is memory?  Is recollection what we consist of?  Do we relive, instead of living new? Does this become our only, instead of our also?)

When words do not do, I bring silence to the altar.  When I cannot pray, then that is my prayer, just the act of moving toward the altar, a center, a focus.

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The house has cooled overnight when I get up to write this.  In between the last two paragraphs, I open the door of the woodstove to put in another two logs.  In a turtleneck and sweats, I sit on the floor, feet toward the fire, with my laptop where its name says.  Warmth, says the body, unrepentant in loving what it loves.  Warmth too, radiating from the electrical current flowing through the machine I write with.  So little, but a little.  A start.

Encounter   2 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

Crying for vision, I step into the forest.  Early twilight cloaks me, and mist cloaks everything else.  A shiver stalks my spine. I feel something tread nearby with feet heavy as horses’ hooves, yet subtle and delicate as cloud.  How it can be both I don’t know.  Something breathes on my neck, though when I spin around I know nothing will show.  Yet.  I know I can freak myself out — I’ve done it lots of times.  This is different.  It is not fear, at least not fear as I know it.  Instead it comes as joy and awe mixed, like the charge of touching the bark of a towering redwood a thousand years old, or the first glimpse of a landscape wholly remade by a night’s snow — beauty unlooked for, encounter with something awake and vital and ancient that I’m paying attention to at last.

How to explain it?  Almost anyone listening would think I’m crazy, when all I can do is say “Look!  Don’t you see them?!” as they dance and stalk and whirl themselves all around us both.  And all the other person can do is shake his head at me, totally ignoring them as they gaze at him and size him up — perplexed, annoyed, amused, indifferent — depending on their natures.  I shrug and turn back to them, watching, listening, enjoying and returning their welcome.

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Updated 23 April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Mysteries — 3 of 7 — The Law of Balance   Leave a comment

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

Here, in the third of this series on J. M. Greer’s principles from his book Mystery Teachings, we come to the Law of Balance:

“Everything that exists can continue to exist only by being in balance with itself, with other things, and with the whole system of which it is a part.   That balance is not found by going to one extreme or the other or by remaining fixed at a static point; it is created by self-correcting movements to either side of a midpoint.”*

The Dao de Jing (Tao Te Ching), another keen guide to the natural order of things, observes, “Extremes do not last long.”  After storm, sun.  After destruction, rebirth.  But what are we to make of natural disasters?  How in hell, literally, are we supposed to “live in harmony” with an earthquake or hurricane or tornado?

Our science, which is just another word for knowing or wisdom, has only begun to recover some of the nature wisdom of our ancestors and spiritual traditions.  And perhaps too much time, at least in some of the “hard” sciences, is spent in pursuit of a grand theory, where close observation might serve our immediate purposes better.  But we’re recovering lost ground as we can.

The horrific tsunami of December 2004 in southeast Asia makes for a good study.  Here and there, among the human and natural devastation in its wake, are curious and instructive stories.  The case of 10-year Tilly Smith, vacationing with her parents in Phuket, Thailand, merits recounting.  According to the Telegraph‘s article, Tilly saw the tide drop unnaturally, remembered a recent geography lesson about tsunami warning signs from her school back in the U.K., and alerted her parents.  They were wise enough to listen to their daughter, warned the hotel where they were staying to evacuate inland, and over a hundred lives were saved as a result.

Another story comes from off the coast of India, in the Andaman Islands.  One of the aboriginal peoples living there is the Onge, who still practice hunting-gathering.  When the sea level abruptly, the tribe responded immediately.  After a quick ritual scattering of pig and turtle skulls to propitiate the evil spirits they perceived at work, they retreated inland.  Unsuspecting tourists and local fisherman walked the exposed beach and gathered the fish floundering there, only to perish in the approaching monster waves.  The National Geographic account from about a month afterwards includes commentary from Bernice Notenboom, president of a travel company specializing in indigenous cultural tourism and one of the few westerners to have visited the area.  She observed of the Onge, “Their awareness of the ocean, earth, and the movement of animals has been accumulated over 60,000 years of inhabiting the islands.”

While this isn’t exactly expert testimony, every member of the tribe did survive, and her reasoning is sound.  The commercial influence of Western culture has uprooted many tribes, and this is something Notenboom does know, since she’s on the forefront of it with her tour company.  She remarked that one day in another nearby village, an old man approached her and said, “It is great to have you here, but let’s not make it a habit.”  There can be a cost to careless physical ease and the acquisition of material abundance, and if we “gain the whole world and lose our souls,” to paraphrase the renowned Galilean master, we may be swallowed up, figuratively or literally.

Balance doesn’t mean stagnation.  Many Westerners have felt the stirrings of a vague dis-ease with their own lives.  We point to this or that cause, shuffle our politicians and opinions, our allegiances and subscriptions to cable, but to reuse the almost-cliche, it’s another version of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  When the problem is systemic, tinkering with symptoms won’t help.  The “solution” is not one single thing to apply like a band-aid, but it will indeed involve changes of heart, which will come in different ways for different  people over time.  Anyone who has a single prescription for the troubles that ail us is frankly talking out his ass. Getting the ____ into or out of political office won’t budge the problem.

The “self-correcting movements to either side of a midpoint” of the Law of Balance sound so innocent.  But whenever the balance shifts, the corrections come just as predictably and inevitably.  Whether we like them or not, welcome or resist them, is another matter entirely.  We forget that we’re not “in control”:  there’s no helm to manage, no boss to prop up in place so that “things keep going the way they always have.”  Already they aren’t, and they won’t.  We’re part of a whole:  whatever happens to the whole happens to us, and what happens to us happens to the whole.  This is good news for those who work with the whole, and bad news for those who think this particular rule doesn’t apply to them.

There is such a thing as natural “justice” — it’s another name for rebalancing — but not always as humans would have it.  There’s no court of appeal when we’ve fouled the air and water, destroyed local economies with mega-corporations, junk-fed ourselves sick, fought our way to a glutton’s share of the world’s resources which are running out, and tried to rationalize it all. Now we have to find ways to live through the re-balancing.  What tools do we need? The inner resources are still available, though we’ve burnt through so many outer ones. The classic question of “Where is wisdom to be found?” really needs to be answered individually.  It’s a fine quest to devote a life to, one that I happen to think is far better than anything else you can name. Right now especially, money certainly doesn’t look like it’s worth the game. I know that I feel more alive looking for wisdom, and finding a piece of it I can test and try out in my own life, than I do swallowing anybody else’s brand of fear and paranoia and cynicism.  This blog is a piece of that quest for me.  Whose life is this, anyway? Make of life a laboratory for truth.

In the end, balance really is a matter of the heart. One Egyptian image of the after-world that’s stuck with me is the Scales of Anubis. The jackal-god of the Underworld places the human heart of the deceased in his scales, to weigh it against the feather of truth, of Ma’at, the natural order, cosmic justice or balance.  (For inquiring minds, that’s Anubis to the right of the support post.) Only a light heart, literally one not weighted down by human heaviness (you can fill in the ____ with your favorite kinds), can pass muster. One distinguishing quality of the truly holy or wise ones that we encounter in their presence is a lightness of being, a kind of expansion and opening up. There is always possibility, a way forward. Whatever happens, we can face it better with that kind of heart beating in our chests. Look for that, in others and yourself, in your quest.

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Image: scales of Anubis.

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

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