I’m off to MAGUS, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering, in a few weeks. For those who can manage to attend, Gatherings can give a taste of true community. For Christians, ideally the power of baptism clothes everyone in unity: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:29). A deeper spiritual union does connect people who outwardly appear different, talk differently, live differently. It’s a measure of our struggle how often we lose sight of this profound truth.
Some two millennia on from Paul’s confident assertion of unity in Christ, issues rooted in social status, privilege, gender, class, ethnicity — all the things that keep rocking today’s headlines — haven’t gone away. Early Christians “held all things in common.” Druidry likewise points us towards our common wealth in each other, in all the millions of species we live with, and the planet we live on. We dimly remember this old understanding, if at all, in the names of things like the Commons, the Commonwealth in the names of states and nations, common ground, Holy Communion, community, even discredited Communism and other old words and ideas misunderstood, abused and abraded by ignorance and human weakness.
Druidry likewise celebrates the essential kinship of all things. “What we do to the land we quite literally do to ourselves”, as we keep discovering to our dismay and bitter relearning. Linked to places and ancestors, we inherit both specific and planetary pasts, and shape the future of our own bloodlines and also the biosphere we live in. “Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil … and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in the West, unless you know what you are about,” says the Master Summoner in Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
So often we plainly don’t know what we’re about. But the Web of Things does yield to power regardless, in hands wise and foolish. What have we summoned? Whether knowledge or ignorance launches an action, what goes around still comes around. Simple and difficult: until we value and claim our unity as more important than our differences, it’s the differences that will dog us and define who we are and what matters. Depending on your understanding of the purpose of life at this rung of the spiral, that’s cause for weeping, rage, incomprehension, humble acknowledgment, redoubling of efforts …
When we consider the nationalist fervour sweeping the West, surely we might benefit from wider practice of such awareness of unity. While the broad tolerance of difference that Biblical verse expresses can also appeal broadly to many Druids, side by side with it is a celebration of particularity. Sometimes Christians call this the “scandal of particularity”: the difficulty of accepting a single individual man — Jesus — as the savior for everyone. You know — what traditional Christianity teaches about his exclusivity: “no one comes to the Father except through me”. As in, “my way or the highway”.
There are many ways to work with assertions like these. We know all too well, on the evidence of centuries, what literalism offers and where it leads. Political religion — the system of creeds and salutes, conformities and genuflections to whoever holds the stick — exists in every culture. To pick just one blatant and current example, North Korea has made a religion and cult of the Kim family. Metaphorical understandings, because they grant freedom to each person, have always been suspect in some quarters. “Power-over” dies hard, keeps dying, never quite dies out.
Nonetheless, there are Druids who sit in pews and recite the creeds with no sense of hypocrisy or incongruity. That doesn’t mean that church attendance is anything like the only way to find even a fragile unity. It’s merely one option. Nor does that mean Druids who do sit in Church surreptitiously fingering their pentagrams and awens beneath street clothes have necessarily somehow immersed themselves in any of the myriad alternative understandings of Jesus as great moral teacher, example, political gadfly, Jewish mystic, cleverly-disguised New Age guru, just one of a series of divine avatars* and so on.
[*avatar: (Sanskrit) 1) an incarnation in human form of a god. 2) That icon of your net presence? A second meaning of the word, fast eclipsing the original.]
Options, options. How about Jesus as the inner consciousness in each of us that leads us on the next spiral beyond the apparent world? Or Jesus as a man working within the confines of a monotheism that his ongoing experience of the divine kept bursting at the seams? How many of us are, like him, the sort of people who, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40)? Do we even want to be? Why (or why not)? What would such close identification and intensity mean in this coolly detached age?
J. M. Greer in his The Gnostic Celtic Church which I’ve cited here previously offers one valid way among many to experience such kinship between Druid and Christian, noting that
a rich spiritual life supported by meaningful ceremonial and personal practice can readily co-exist with whatever form of outward life is necessary or appropriate to each priest or priestess … and the practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion (Greer, The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy, AODA, 2013).
To create forms that will answer to widely perceived inner need and aspiration will take devotion and dedication, but the seeds are many, and some have already germinated and flowered and borne fruit, in both likely and unlikely places.
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This series of themes points to possible directions, and offers a few leads here and there, but in most cases doesn’t offer anything like a full-grown practice — the thing waiting, a project ready for many hands. (I have my own version of such a project, half-complete, still very much a work in progress. I’ve taken it on as a study of awen and experiment, rather than an urgent spiritual quest. Right now I drink from other wells, myself.)
By way, then, of appendix or commentary or prophecy or something else to this theme, I quote below at some length from Kipling’s Jungle Book, now in public domain. Here Baloo, the wise old brown bear — not the manipulative Bill Murray-voiced version in the recent 2016 film — talks to Bagheera about teaching Mowgli the Master Word of the Jungle:
“A man’s cub is a man’s cub, and he must learn all the Law of the Jungle” [said Baloo].
“But think how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all thy long talk?”
“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”
“Softly! What dost thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is all bruised today by thy — softness. Ugh.”
“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance,” Baloo answered very earnestly. “I am now teaching him the Master Words of the Jungle that shall protect him with the birds and the Snake People, and all that hunt on four feet, except his own pack. He can now claim protection, if he will only remember the words, from all in the jungle. Is not that worth a little beating?”
“Well, look to it then that thou dost not kill the man-cub. He is no tree trunk to sharpen thy blunt claws upon. But what are those Master Words? I am more likely to give help than to ask it” — Bagheera stretched out one paw and admired the steel-blue, ripping-chisel talons at the end of it — “still I should like to know.”
“I will call Mowgli and he shall say them — if he will. Come, Little Brother!”
“My head is ringing like a bee tree,” said a sullen little voice over their heads, and Mowgli slid down a tree trunk very angry and indignant, adding as he reached the ground: “I come for Bagheera and not for thee, fat old Baloo!”
“That is all one to me,” said Baloo, though he was hurt and grieved. “Tell Bagheera, then, the Master Words of the Jungle that I have taught thee this day.”
“Master Words for which people?” said Mowgli, delighted to show off. “The jungle has many tongues. I know them all.”
“A little thou knowest, but not much. See, O Bagheera, they never thank their teacher. Not one small wolfling has ever come back to thank old Baloo for his teachings. Say the word for the Hunting-People, then — great scholar.”
“We be of one blood, ye and I,” said Mowgli …
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Images: face; Kim; Baloo.
Rhododendron in bloom in our front yard, loud with bees
Since I laid out “Seven Shoulds” for Druids in the previous post, it’s only fair that I should account for how, and how well, I myself manage to do them. Here goes …
1–”Druids should have a practice.”
Ha! I laugh ruefully, because I follow two paths. Sometimes that seems double the challenge. Who needs it? I sometimes think.
But I find that if each day I can manage a practice from even one path, it “spills over” to the other path. They link — a topic for a whole book, I’m beginning to suspect.
I “get credit” on both paths, to put it crassly. Yes, practicing for “credit” means I’m pretty much scraping the bottom of the awen (inspiration) barrel, but sometimes ya gotta go with what you get. Not every day is Lucas Industrial Light and Magic. (If it was, I’d fry and blow away.)
Having a practice also means keeping the ball rolling, the flame burning, even and especially when you don’t feel like it. Then the gift comes, luck turns things around, chance plays things our way, and a god or two peers at me directly for a moment. Because of our efforts? Not always directly, like calculating a sum in math. The universe is more than a spreadsheet. But without the practice, it’s funny how whatever luck and chance and grace and gift I experience will begin to dwindle, dissipate and drain away.
The Galilean Teacher observed, “Those who have will be given more, and those who have little will lose the little they have.” At first encounter, this piece of gnomic wisdom sounded to me like some kind of nightmare economics. Punish the poor, reward the 1%, and all that. But when I look at it as an insight about gratitude — a practice all its own — it starts making a lot more sense. Unless we make room, there’s no space left in us for more. We have to give away to receive. It’s neither more blessed to receive or to give. Both are necessary for the cycle to operate at all.
If I blog or compose verse or do ritual, if I chant or contemplate or visualize, if I love one thing freely without reservation or thought of what’s in it for me, I’ve reached out to shake hands with Spirit. I find that “energy hand” is always held out to us, but unless I offer my half of the handshake and complete the circuit, nothing happens. “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” goes the Zen koan. More often for me it’s “What’s the greeting of one hand offered?” Pure potential, till I do my part.
2–”Druids should be able to talk about Druidry.”
If inspiration fails, I fall back on John Michael Greer’s fine lines to prompt me into my own “elevator speech”: “Druidry means following a spiritual path rooted in the green Earth. It means embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit” (1).
Of course, trot that out verbatim in reply to most casual inquiries, and you’ll probably shut people down rather than open up a conversation. I’m a book addict myself, but I don’t need to talk like one.
So here’s a more conversational version. “For me, Druidry means walking a spiritual path that’s based in the earth’s own rhythms. I try to take an experiential approach to questions big and small. That means I value inner growth and personal contact with nature and spirit.” I find something like that offers plenty of handles if anyone wants something to grab onto. It also has the Druidic virtue of consisting of three sentences.
3–”Druids should show their love of the earth.”
Sometimes this can be more far reaching than just what we ourselves do. Our choices reach more widely than that. Who we interact with also has consequences. We had a builder in recently to rescue our garage, which for every one of the eight years we’ve lived here has been sliding another half-inch down the slope of our back yard.
It took us a fair while to find him. Referrals and ads and word-of-mouth turned up people we eventually chose not to work with. But this fellow was different. Just one proof among several: his attention to reseeding the lawn and cleaning up construction waste after he’d completed the repairs helped us show our love of the earth through our choices of our interactions with others. We didn’t see or know this fully until after the fact, of course. But it was confirmation — the sign we needed. Some days it’s all we get to urge us to keep on keeping on.
I chose this example rather than any other because it was subtle in coming, though just as important as recycling or using less or any of the other things we try to do to “live lightly.” Druidry need not always “speak aloud” to have effects and consequences. Ripples spread outward, hit the far shore, and return. “What you do comes back to you.”
4–”Druids should keep learning.”
Many Druids made this a habit long ago. They have another book or five ready when they’re done with the current one. That’s me. It’s a competition, I’ve come to believe, who will win, my wife or me. She’s a weaver and has baskets and boxes of thread, heddles, wrenches, loom-parts, table-looms, tapestry manuals, and two car-sized looms, all striving for space with my shelves of language books, histories, Druidry and magic texts, boxes of novel and poem drafts, newspaper clippings, letters, and more.
But as J M Greer notes, “Druidry isn’t primarily an intellectual path.” Thank goodness! I’m saved from the limits of intellect, however well I’ve trained and domesticated it! Greer continues: “Its core is experiential and best reached through the practice of nature awareness, seasonal celebration, and meditation” (2).
Druids find themselves encountering people to learn from, the aging carpenter or herbalist or gardener who’d love for an apprentice willing to put in the hard work. So then we happen along and appreciate them and “apprentice for a moment” if not a decade. They’re often self-educated, regardless of what level of school they’ve completed. They seek out people to learn from, and recognize and honor the same impulse in others. Druidry, among all the other things it is, proves itself a wisdom path.
Companion rhododendron in rose, always blooming a week later
5–”Druids should respect their own needs.”
Oh! This is sometimes so large it’s like the air we breathe all our lives, easy to forget. Rather than scold ourselves for lapses, failings and limitations, celebrate what we have done. “More than before” is a goal I take as a mantra. Even two steps backwards gains me some insight, however painfully won, if I look and listen for it. And it gains me compassion for myself and others in our humanness– no small thing. As a Wise One once remarked, who would you rather have around you, someone right or someone loving?
Some six years out from cancer surgery and radiation treatment and I still don’t have the energy I once did. I’m also that much older. But I can rage against and mourn new physical limits, or I can find work-arounds for what I need to do, and set clearer priorities for what really matters, so as not to squander what I do have. Sure, it’s still a work in progress. But I find I can detect small-minded attitudes and deep-seated prejudices in myself more quickly, and do the daily work of limiting their influence and filling their space with more positive thoughts and actions. That’s a gain.
Ever danced your anger? All emotions are energy responses. But I don’t need to sit and stew in them. I can use them to propel myself to new places and spaces and states. It’s an older-person magic, perhaps, or maybe just one I’ve been a long time in realizing and appreciating and practicing.
6–”Druids should serve something greater than themselves.”
Looking back at the list I included — “a person, a spirit or god, a relationship, a practice, a community, a cause, an ideal, an institution, a way of life, a language” — I realize I’ve served all of ’em at some point. Some people stick with one their whole lives. It becomes their practice.
Right now, underemployed as I like to say, I’m more of a homebody than I’ve been, and consequently around the house more. If I find myself sparked to annoyance or anger at my wife for some petty thing, as can happen in the best of relationships, I try to remember to serve her, to serve the relationship. Again, can I use my anger, rather than just seethe? Can I remember to bless my anger, transform its energy and spend it to uncover an underlying issue? What’s the pattern I’ve been feeding? Do I want or need to keep feeding it? Serve myself in this way, in the deepest sense, and I serve others, and vice versa. No difference. To paraphrase, all things work together for good for those who love something that lifts them out of smallness and limitation.
7–”Druids should listen more than they talk — and we talk a lot!”
I’ve certainly demonstrated that here in this post, to say nothing of this whole blog.
Fortunately, one of my go-to practices is listening. Do I do it enough? Wrong question. “Some — any — is more than before.” Both paths I follow commend practices focused on sound as a steady daily method of re-tuning, so that Spirit can reach me through every barrier I may erect against it. Chanting awen, listening to music that opens me, finding literal in-spiration — ways to breathe in what is needed in the moment — letting the song roll through me and back out to others in quiet daily interactions — these are the practices I keep returning to. Listen for the music, whispers my life.
The Great Song keeps singing, blessedly, through my intermittent disregard and obliviousness, till I remember to listen again, and join in.
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- Greer, John Michael. The Druidry Handbook, qtd. in Carr-Gomm, Philip. What Do Druids Believe? London: Granta Books, 2006, p. 34.
- Greer, The Druidry Handbook., p. 4.
Rook and partial eclipse, March 2015. Unretouched photo, Roger Brady, Kinsale College of Further Education, Kinsale, Co. Cork, Republic of Ireland
In this time of balanced energies, an image of bright and dark — rook and partial eclipse at the Spring Equinox.
This morning waking from dream, another image: a shining snake. A little poking around online brought up this fascinating connection from Greywolf’s blogpost for March 19, 2015 (bolded text is Greywolf’s):
The first Solar eclipse of 2015 happens with the New Moon in Pisces, joined by Mars and Ketu. Ketu is the tail of the celestial serpent, Rahu its head. Astrologically, they are the south and north nodes of the Moon. Eclipses occur when the serpent swallows the sun. This eclipse / New Moon will clarify and challenge our beliefs and spirituality, both Pisces themes. When Sun and Moon come together near the Node an eclipse results, producing a momentary disconnection and darkening our power source, the Sun. This literally leaves us feeling in the dark, and we may tempted to pursue the shadow side, or quick fix spiritual solutions, escaping into drug abuse or New Age fantasies. Be careful of such lazy, cynical options during the next 30 days. This eclipse happens in Uttara Bhadra Nakshatra, ruled by the God Ahi Bhudnya, the celestial serpent. This divine cosmic force is associated with clearing the last bits of dirt that are blocking the soul’s liberation.
I will accept this gratefully as divination, a clue to work with in the coming days, a time for (re)dedication.
Equinoxes are ideal times for initiation because of the access to energies they provide as the earth-moon-sun system shifts. A solar system triad!
While initiation can of course take place at any time, there is a formal and cosmic rightness to this twice-yearly period that can empower such rituals, as I know from experience.
Here is John Michael Greer on initiation. (You can read the full article online here — it forms part of a rough draft of his excellent book Inside a Magical Lodge.)
The idea that secrets will be revealed in an initiation creates a sense of expectancy, and can also give rise to a certain kind of fear; both of these are useful in the work of initiation.
The production of this receptive state forms the first phase of the initiatory process. Once it has been reached, the process of lodge initiation moves to a second phase, in which a set of carefully chosen images or events are experienced by the initiate, and then explained. These experiences and their explanations are heightened by the receptive state, and are intended to offer a new pattern for some portion of the initiate’s mental map of the world; the pattern may also be encoded, more subtly, in the underlying structure of the ritual itself. If the initiate accepts this new pattern — which does not always happen — the initiation has “taken.”
At this point, the process enters its third phase. The new initiate is given a set of conceptual, verbal and somatic triggers for the new pattern. Just as a memento from an emotionally charged event in the past can awaken not merely memories but states of emotion and consciousness, these triggers reinforce the new pattern every time they are used. They serve, in an important sense, as anchors for the initiation.
The three-phase process of initiation can be handled in various ways, and has been handled with various levels of effectiveness in the initiations used by different magical and fraternal orders. Like any other art, the art of initiation has its failures as well as its masterpieces. Making the situation more complex is the fact that most orders of both kinds use a series of initiations — the usual terms are “grades” or “degrees” — to carry out an extended program of transformation, each change building on the ones already made. In the fraternal orders, the goal of this program is typically nothing more profound (or more sinister) than basic personal maturity. In magical orders, by contrast, the possibilities for change are far greater.
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