Archive for the ‘honoring the dead’ Category

Octobering   Leave a comment

[Updated/edited 22 Oct 2019]

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S. Vermont, Windmill Hill Pinnacle, looking west. Photo courtesy B. Blair.

Yesterday six of us, along with two malamutes, hiked the trail to the Pinnacle of Windmill Hill here in Southern Vermont. We’re well past the peak of autumn colors, but a blunt beauty remains, as oranges and yellows, ochers and burnt siena take the stage. The sky, restless, is already into November, brooding grayly over it all.

A week or so ago a friend was grieving for the end of a rich garden. The season can work that grief in us, ransacking the fields of our inward spaces, piling on change and loss and uncertainty in a thick melange, along with the aging of our mortal bodies, and whatever other challenges we face at the moment. Throw in the diminishing daylight here in the northern hemisphere, and the frosts and fogs and die-off of green vegetation, and it can hurt like The End, rather than a stage of the journey. One of the remedies she shared was her rediscovery of gratitude for the body, how the simple act of attention to breathing can bring solace. It goes in, it goes out. Draw in strength on the in-breath, then breathe out all that needs to go, that passes in time.

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Sometimes altars find us, rather than the other way around. A large boulder I’ve been meaning to drag and roll to my backyard grove has gained a partial moss and lichen mantle, so I took leaves I’d gathered on the hike yesterday, and a ritual bowl, a quartz stone and my ceremonial sword out into the afternoon sunlight and laid them across the uneven surface and took the photo.

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At the bottom right you can see one of the egg-shaped black walnuts that have been banging on the metal roof of our garden shed when they fall, or rustling as they subside in the grass.

The sword points south, toward the top of the picture, but the other directions don’t line up according to the SEA (standard elemental associations). To the east (left in the picture), our fishpond does its part to throw off the elemental alignments. The stone itself makes do for north, and also the earth, upholding everything else, while the leaves stand in for air. Even the sun seems to have found a different place in the sky than west, the shadows suggesting morning, not mid-afternoon.

You can call the altar a prayer, or a prayer your altar. Sometimes we need to “finesse our fanes”, to turn them on, help them reach us where we are, even as we stretch to find them, extending a tendril of thought, of feeling.

Breathe, and activate air. Drink, and water “comes back online”. Stand on the autumn earth, leaves crackling underfoot, melt from the morning frost glistening on your shoes. Sometimes presence already is prayer, our listening an offering, the few remaining crickets and grasshoppers sluggish in the low sun.

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The Faery Grail … is ultimately about the giving of food as a ritual of hospitality that creates communion between faeries and humans: the wisdom that it purveys is the neighborly consideration of all life that arises in human awareness as a consequence. Those who offer and drink from the cup in peace are the children of one universe, in communion with the natural world even as their ancestors were, who enjoy the ancestral feast. When the rules of faery courtesy are broken by violence, rapine and theft, the Faery Accord in broken. This is ultimately what causes the blight upon the human world that we call the Wasteland: the riches of the Rich Fisher no longer flow. Humanity enters into a warfare with Faery, displaced people wander the land without protection, and even the court of Arthur is visited by mocking and embarrassing tests. Fertility fails when the waters of the Faery Grail are withdrawn: but when they flow again, the land becomes fertile and is repopulated. People are brought once more into communion with their ancestral belonging (Matthews, The Lost Book of the Grail, pg. 274).

Faery Grail or Holy Grail, Christian or non-Christian, both cause and cure are the same, Matthews observes. (It is a symptom of our division and separation that we misunderstand and argue even about that, and suffer.)

Not as the world gives, do I give to you, says the Galilean Druid. Having scorned the gift, and abused the hospitality offered to us, how can we know the giver?

A topic for meditation and ritual and discernment, as the turn of the year that is Samhain approaches.

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“Many people”, this morning’s spam solemnly observes, “today іgnore the ability to see out of [t]heir [v]iew”. Like much spam, it’s badly edited, unidiomatic, and — often — true, albeit in sometimes truly weird ways.

How well do I see “out of my view”? Can I even begin to see out of someone else’s view until I see out of my own? Am I ever “in view of myself”, or am I the one thing I can never actually see? I don’t know about you, but with such questions I can easily pass a whole morning.

If there’s a supreme strength to the practice of Druidry, it’s in its potential to connect us where connection is badly needed — to the world that begins wherever we find ourselves, to our places, starting with our skin and bones, and flowing outward to the skin and bones of the world all around us. But though we named it uni-verse, “one-turn”, somehow we don’t quite believe our own label or the perception behind it — that it’s all turning together, intimately linked in every way. Hence, it often remains a potential, giving us a lifetime of work to explore how it — and we — manifest.

And if there’s a supreme weakness to Druid practice, it’s a naive belief that “it’s all good” — that everything would be fine if we’d just “get back in touch with nature” — that the “human project” can finds its whole purpose and satisfaction within this glorious physical world. Sustainable, reverent, cooperative, harmonious — these are enough.

We need more, because our own consciousness asks for more. Because when this “apparent world” fades, we confront other worlds with different challenges and questions. Now what?! A deist might say, “Pilgrim on earth, thy home is heaven; stranger, thou art the guest of God”. An animist has likely already encountered beings beyond the physical orders we encounter here — beings that wear different bodies than earth ones, clothed in astral or other forms. Even a staunch materialist would probably concede, along with Hamlet, that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. By “philosophy”, helpful footnotes inform us, Hamlet appears to mean our modern word science. And if there’s one thing most Druids would prudently admit, we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. Of almost anything.

“As a spiritual tradition based on reverence for and connection with the powers of nature”, writes Emma Restall Orr in her Druidry and Ethical Choice, “more than anything else Druidry teaches us to honour life … Druid ethics are built upon the release of ignorance and the respectful creation of deep and sacred relationships”.

Release of ignorance, I keep whispering wryly to myself — out of humbling, extensive personal experience — is a full-time job.

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Our Honored Dead   Leave a comment

[I’m teaching in a 5-week boarding school summer program this June-July for American (academic enrichment) and international (English as a second language) middle and high school students. The intensity of the pace accounts for the dearth of recent posts here.]

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Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery

 

Tomorrow we have a day off from classes for a visit to the Yale University campus. For the older students, we’ll also make a side tour of Grove Street Cemetery, listed as a National Historic Landmark for its historical interest (its first burial occurred in 1797 after a Yellow Fever epidemic), the names of its famous dead, and its enduring ties to Yale.

In the past year my wife and I’ve discovered our ancestors lived in the same small town (in a different state, near the Canadian border) around the same decade that Grove Street was established, and mostly likely they knew each other. And as we’ve been telling the students this summer, a well-landscaped cemetery can be a peaceful and unique experience, because it can enlarge our sympathies and imaginations beyond the immediate concerns of own lives.

Live long enough, I’m finding, and your sympathies may enlarge so that any dead become part of your honored dead. We share DNA from around the planet (one of my cousins had his DNA tested and found Greek and Central African markers in it), we all face the same challenges of dying and living, and if the dead have any honor in my memory, it’s because I give it to them.

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cover of the first edition (1894) of The Jungle Book

 

In Kipling’s Jungle Book, the human boy Mowgli says more than once to his animal companions, “We be of one blood, thou and I.” Such simple acknowledgements may at times matter more than many prayers and offerings, if they open our hearts to gratitude and the wisdom we inherit in our bones and our mortal dreams.

So tomorrow in my own way I’ll commemorate the “Grove Streeters” by reading and repeating their names, pouring libations of water (nothing stronger — I’m with adolescents, after all) in their honor, and acknowledging their part in shaping the world as we have it today. And always, I am confident, there will be others who will follow us and do the same, touched through their own sufferings and joys by a similarly enlarged sense of kinship.

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Images: Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery; Jungle Book cover

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