Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category

“Holy Zombie? Earth Guardian?”

“You be the judge!”

[Updated Thursday, 23 May 2020]

[Alert: image of mummy appears in this post]

One of J. M. Greer’s “notes in passing” in his latest book, The Mysteries of Merlin, which I reviewed here, concerns a cross-cultural phenomenon that with careless treatment sounds like the makings of a script for some breathless “Hidden Mysteries” documentary, or a really good-bad horror film. With attention, though, we can discern a remarkable and ancient conception of sacrifice for the communal good that spans the globe.

In the West are the legends of Merlin, still alive and enclosed in his Crystal Cave, and Christian Rosenkreuz [Wikipedia link | Alchemylab account], reputed founder of Rosicrucianism, entombed for 120 years in a seven-sided vault, and eventually disinterred, perfectly preserved, with a book of Rosicrucian occult secrets in his arms.

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Monks carrying food at Okunoin mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wikipedia/creative commons

A similar tradition emerges in Japan, with stories clustering around Kobo Daishi (774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tradition holds that he did not die but remains in meditation to this day, entombed in Mount Koya, awaiting the future Buddha. Monks in the Shingon tradition present food at his shrine twice a day.

Greer points to stories of “an archaic magical operation by which a sufficiently knowledgeable and strong-willed person can pass into another mode of existence at death and function for many centuries thereafter as the guardian spirit of a family, a community, or an occult school. Legends in many lands tell of great sages and heroes of the past who descended into stone tombs beneath the earth while still alive, and the stone-chambered mounds of northern and western Europe are routinely connected with such legends” (Greer, pg. 33).

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Megalithic tumulus mound, Saint-Nazaire, France. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077948

Legends such as that of the Seven Sleepers, a shared Christian and Muslim narrative, may also be connected here.

A successful outcome of such practices leads in Japan to people like Kobo Daishi, and to others who become sokushinbutsu, literally “living Buddhas” — the rite was performed as recently as 1903. Mummies of those who underwent the rite are preserved in Senninzawa (“Valley of the Swamp Wizards”), Yamagata Prefecture, and occupy locations of honor in temples otherwise reserved for figures of the Buddha. For a fascinating article on contemporary observances, with details of the living mummification regime, including a strict diet, pursued by those aspiring to this role, along with images of the mummified remains and the monks and temples caring for them, see The Buddhas of Mount Yudono.

Less successful outcomes of this operation, Greer suggests, account for at least some of Europe’s traditions of barrow-wights, vampires, and the orc-neas or “hell-corpses” of Anglo-Saxon legend (from which Tolkien lifted the name and image of the orc). In one sense, then, such beings are simply testimony to “good magic gone bad”.

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Odin — Georg Von Rosen, 1886. Public domain

One thread of this story of ritual death specific to Europe, Greer asserts, is the magical three-fold death of Indo-European tradition, linked to air, water and earth, which we see embodied in the Norse god Odin, who is ritually slain, depending on the source, by being hanged, drowned and stabbed.

Christianity runs with this idea of the power of a magical or holy death, making it the center of its faith in a single divine being whose death can save many. Central to all of these magical and ritual self-sacrifices is their voluntary nature — the “sacrifice goes consenting”; the gift of the self is given freely.

The biblical Book of Hebrews explains the continuity between Jewish traditions of animal sacrifice each year in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Christian conception of the holy and sacrificial death of a god in the form of Jesus: “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). Animal or human sacrifices must be renewed because their benefit wanes over time. The sacrificial death of a god, on the other hand, need happen only once.

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Additional resources:

Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. (Link to Amazon.) McFarland, 2010.

Sigil Vigil

Heartfelt thank-yous to you, my readers, for bringing page views to 90,000. I’m making a point of posting more regularly during these difficult times.

While this blog seems to be passing through a prolonged dry-spell with few comments, I draw encouragement from a steady international readership that averages about 50 visits a day. If what I write helps, encourages or just entertains you, please leave even a brief comment so I know I should keep doing what I’m doing. Your reaching out really matters and makes a difference!

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Watching for seals. No, not the sea-going mammals this time — the marks, glyphs, signs and symbols that we both make ourselves and also perceive in the natural world.

Tabloids regale us endlessly with pop-culture versions of this — for example, the face of Jesus burnt onto a piece of toast. Equivalent perceptions occur in other cultures with equivalent cultural icons (e.g., Buddha in the sky). Even normally restrained scientists have been known to join in: a 2019 article in Popular Mechanics gushes about the “real face” of Jesus, with this tagline “Advances in forensic science reveal the most famous face in history”. Feel the tug of that headline?

We ask “But is it real?” all the time, of a great number of things, many of which can’t (or shouldn’t) answer.

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MAGUS banner featuring the Gathering logo

Psychology explains these phenomena as instances of pareidolia — if you see the word “idol” within the word, that’s not a mistake. Pareidolia is, to borrow a rhyme, “seeing faces in unusual places”. You might find this article on the topic from LiveScience interesting. Our human tendency to detect patterns in seemingly random visual inputs is what makes the Rorschach inkplot test possible. It’s also part of a complex human survival skill with multiple consequences.

The ability to attend to a pattern, to give it a meaning, empowers signs and sigils, but of course also makes written language possible. The shapes of the 26 squiggles of the English alphabet have little to no inherent meaning (you might argue that the S is vaguely snake-like, and snakes hiss — hence, the s-sound), but humans can detect and assign meanings to a wide variety of phenomena.

An effective sigil or seal can be created as a doorway to memory, to specific states of awareness, to understandings that may not stay with us while we’re dusting the shelves, changing a diaper, emailing the boss, or cooking a meal. But we can shift consciousness at will with the aid of a seal or sigil and know and do things otherwise beyond our capacity. Our schoolteachers know the value of holding a student’s focus and attention — these make all the difference!

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doodles for Druidry and Christianity logo — cross and grail

Christians wear crosses, Jews the Star of David, and followers of other traditions their own meaningful symbols. We also doodle both new and repeated shapes and signs, and we can expand on this human tendency and engage with a whole symbolic language if we choose.

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Tolkien’s initials as logo

Books on sigil making and sigil magic — the conscious seeking, design and use of signs and shapes to change consciousness — can of course assist. But the ability already lies in each of us — a birthright.

Tolkien invented a sigil from the initials of his name (JRRT) that now appears on his books and has become a trademark of the Tolkien Estate. Companies and organizations know that a distinctive and readily recognizable logo is often a key component to visibility and reputation and success.

To point to just one immediate use of sigils anyone can put into practice today, in these times of distraction and seduction by social media, and by fear and anxiety, our corresponding ability to attend to what we choose, rather than an advertising campaign or a news outlet or political party, is a priceless human gift.

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publisher logos on book spines — Pagans know the Llewellyn moon!

Place a meaningful sigil where I can see it during my day, write, paint or carve it on objects I use regularly, or sit with it in meditation, and I have a ready tool for shaping consciousness, guiding it toward my own purposes and desires, and focusing the energies that come through it into channels and actions that help, uplift and empower me.

And Josephine McCarthy, to choose just one author whose books are on my shelves, knows the value of a sigil as a distinctive cover for a book.

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May signs point to good things for you!

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Images: Magic of the North Gate cover; Wikipedia for JRRT logo.

From the Druid’s Prayer Outward

Ri, a’h Isprid, do iscod …

Grant, o Spirit, thy protection …

If I pray, or make a vow, in a constructed language like the one I used to translate the Druid’s Prayer two months ago, is the prayer worthy, or the vow valid?

One direct test: does the spiritual world take them seriously? How do I know? And what, in turn, can that tell me about intention, creativity, awen and gods I may not worry about “believing” in, but whom I’m happy to work with, if I ask and if they choose?

(O Bríd and Oghma, for the gift of speech already I thank you …)

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eastern counter-glow over our roof at sunset

“Sound”, says the Old Irish In Lebor Ogaim, The Book of Ogams or the Ogam Tract, “is the mother of Og(h)ma, and matter his father”. Sound becoming language, the tongue of human beings, mediated by a god. The awen you sing, from the deep you bring it. And I pray you will.

No, I’m not claiming for my nascent Celtic con-lang any sort of special divine or holy status. (At least not in advance.) All languages are holy, or could be. But yes, I am working magic, going with an intention, asking blessings on it, charging it with desire, putting in a sustained effort, sailing with the wind, trusting to its fulfillment in time, doing my part, perceiving it from the vantage point of already-manifested, working with the as-if principle, feeling it as much as thinking it — because feeling charges an intention till it begins to spark, and it kindles (mostly) along paths we’ve laid for it, following the principle of the path of least resistance.

“I look forward to seeing where this goes as you work through the details”, writes Steve.

So do I, whether he was referring to the language or the prayer behind it, or both, or something else. “Working through the details”, the concrete form or mold into which we invite the magic to pour, helps give it shape. But whether it fills that form, or another more open to its flow, isn’t wholly up to us. If you’ve been at all involved in the building of a house or barn, with concrete being poured, you’ve run across stories of the concrete forms blowing out, and the heavy wet stuff flowing everywhere you didn’t want it. Magic is alive, god/dess is afoot, as much when I stub a toe or mash a finger as when the magic shifts my life to wonder and growth. Force flowing into form.

More than a little humility can help keep us from acts of outright stupidity in the face of divine power manifesting. Insisting that magic go a certain way is like commanding the tide: the tide always wins. But not seeing it as a contest, but as a chance to sail on the seas of magic, lets me ride the waves, tack across the wind, or run with it, and reach harbor. A light hand on the tiller, a boat that isn’t an ego project, a “vanity vessel”, but a seaworthy ship.

Expecting the wind to drive my boat out onto the waves, steer it where I want to go, and deliver me without any further effort on my part beyond the “ask”, is folly beyond telling. To put it more crudely and memorably, in words a friend said to me recently, it’s just naive as f*ck.

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So what lies “outward from prayer”? (Between sacred and profane may lie the merest hair’s breadth. Live, pure, wise, fire and true are also among our four-letter words.)

Make the turn, just don’t insist on logic as the link.

The Great Triad of Jesus is familiar to many, but too often we forget the hard-earned admonition that immediately precedes it:

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

I know I squander the holy far too often, casting it aside like a paper wrapper around the candy of what I think I “really want”. After all that asking, seeking and knocking, I just let it slide from my fingers. So I take up the task again, asking, seeking, knocking — until I find that supple, elusive thing I need like blood and breath.

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I’m slowly reading two related books (like many “bookies”, I almost always have more than two going at any one time), to listen to them echo and ricochet off each other: Thomas Kunkel’s Enormous Prayers: A Journey into the [Catholic] Priesthood, and Rev. Lora O’Brien’s A Practical Guide to Pagan Priesthood. The first volume I’d salvaged free from the last day of a used-book sale where any remainders were given away to clear space. The second I recently bought used, though it appeared in 2019.

We still grant to “priest” and “priestess” an aura of magic and mystery — tarnished, yes, by years of unfolding Catholic scandal among others, while also reclaiming, often from non-Christian sources, new resonance and imagery and sacred fire. As one priest in Kunkel’s book exclaims, “… people are starving today for mystery, the power that grounds, suffuses and surpasses all things, that ever-present but elusive reality … as a result, our souls are withering from underuse and lack of nourishment.” And we know this because “people have a sickness that no psychologist or physician can cure …”

We need to move beyond prayer to find that use and that nourishment. Fortunately, many are beginning to wake again to themselves, and to reclaim that holy task, rather than yielding it to any other.

Priests and priestesses? Needed, yes. Needed very much at times. But not essential. The life we each hold (a trust, a sacred heirloom, a gift from the ancestors) is enough.

And may you know blessing as you too reclaim, and name, and flame.

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Kunkel, Thomas. Enormous Prayers: A Journey into the Priesthood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

O’Brien, Rev. Lora. A Practical Guide to Pagan Priesthood. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2019.

Jesus and Druidry, Part 3

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

In this post you’ll find me wearing my hat of the linking, connecting and informing Druid, so salt to taste.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

“My Druid is Christ,” wrote Saint Columba (521-597), among other things the founder of the abbey on Iona. Ask yourself what to make of such a remark from this early Irish missionary, working in what is now Scotland. You can even be Bardic about it, and shape your meditation into a triad of insights. Out of one of my meditations emerged a triad that begins: “Three things we serve, who love both flaming Star and branching Tree …”

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And out of such echoes from a distant past comes the Romantic conception that Druidry and Christianity initially co-existed in amity. Evidence exists both to support and refute such a view. But whatever the reality of that period, which we may never know, we can certainly identify its spiritual gold and and continue to create with it in the present.

OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints.  That Christianity provided the vehicle for Druidry’s survival is ironic, since the Church quite clearly did not intend this to be the case (pg. 31).

As I poke around “ironic survival” further in this third (Part 1 | Part 2) reflection on Jesus and Druidry, I note one quite obvious thing many others have of course commented on. The Galilean master is at his most Druidic when he speaks with images of the natural cycle of things:

Truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

An extensive Druid-Christian liturgy could be written with just the nature images that pervade Christian and Jewish scripture. Already many such resources exist. The OBOD website provides “Resources for Exploring Christian Druidry“, which include music, ritual calendars, books, and links to organizations like Forest Church.

Life and death are ironic, paradoxical. As integral gestures and movements of the cosmos, they’re also a “human thing”: we long for and fear the change that comes in death as in all such transformations. Initiation prefigures it, and life delivers it without fail. We all live and change, die and change. Druidry offers itself as a prime example of what it teaches, living, dying, changing and living again.

And Druidry, or at least Orders like OBOD, aren’t above borrowing and adapting rich language, Christian or not, attentive to the powers of Three. Nuinn (the Druid name of Ross Nichols, OBOD’s founder) writes:

Druidry is the Western form of an ancient universal philosophy, culture or religion, dating from the days of early man when the three were one (pg. 19).

This careful attention to triads and unities means that their presence in other traditions makes them attractive to Druid ceremony and ritual. Some OBOD rites include versions of the following Trinitarian as well as Druidic language:

May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light.

Rev. Alistair Bate, author of the OBOD website article “Reflections on Druidic Christology“, comments from a sensitivity to the contact points of the two traditions:

A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be “May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us”. This, I believe, would not only be more truly in tune with the bardic experience, but would also resonate with the Om/Creation idea found in the Hindu tradition. As we envision Awen, the primordial sound, echoing out of the void, we connect with our own creative inspiration as part of that first creative Word, which is in Christian terms, at once Christ and his Spirit.

And with greater enthusiasm, perhaps, than comparative or historical theological accuracy, Bate concludes his article, summoning to his aid the words of probably the single most influential Christian thinker and writer:

In the 4th century St Augustine declared, “That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity”. That the religion of our most ancient ancestors is in essence very similar to that of our more recent ancestors is the conviction that keeps some of us simultaneously both Druid and Christian.

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A Footnote on Orders and Flavors of Druidry

Some readers, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s Book of Druidry,

might be pleased to learn of such a dialogue between Druidry and Christianity, particularly when it results in specific action being taken to initiate a new impulse within the Christian movement. Others might be disappointed, hoping Druidry was exclusively ‘pagan’. But Druidry is a way of working with the natural world, and is not a dogma or religion … Druidry honours, above all, the freedom of the individual to follow his own path through life, offering only guides and suggestions, schemes of understanding, methods of celebration and mythical ideas — which can be used or not as the practitioner sees fit (pg. 14).

It’s important to note that OBOD Druidry differs here from Druid Orders like ADF which are more explicitly religious. There are of course also members of OBOD who practice it as their religion. Carr-Gomm writes from the same universalist Druid strain that shows up repeatedly in OBOD and in its stance toward other traditions and religions. Visit the current ADF homepage and you read:

Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) is a Pagan church based on ancient Indo-European traditions expressed through public worship, study, and fellowship.

Explore further and you find specifics of ADF belief and activity that would exclude dual membership in ADF and a Christian church for all but the most liberal Christian. Among these are

the ADF Initiate Program, a course of training into the ways of magic, seership and trance for ADF, and with it a current of spiritual initiation

together with a cultivation of ancestral seership and contact, and an explicitly duotheistic ritual structure:

As a part of the work of growing our spiritual current the clergy of ADF have been exploring an otherworldly locale and inner Nemeton where we have been forming relationships with beings we call the ‘Ancient Wise’, those of the Sacred Dead who were poets, magicians and priests, and who would be willing to join with us to help us all walk the elder ways. This has been done through the good offices of the two deities who we honor in every sacrifice, the Warders of the Ways, the Earth Mother and the Keeper of Gates.

Compare this to the frequent shifting of language in the opening of OBOD’s “prayer which unites all Druids” but which ADF labels (accurately) a creation of the Druid Revival of the last 300 years, and thus from their perspective inauthentic. Listen closely at any OBOD gathering and you’ll hear these variations and others:

Grant, O Spirit(s)/God/Goddess/Holy Ones, thy protection …

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Image: Iona Abbey.

Seed Meets Trickle

“A seed, a seed, at Imbolc a seed!”

“Ah, the seed has long lain there fallow, only at Imbolc do you at last feel it stirring beneath the snows.”

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Marie-Louise von Franz

“One must start where there is still a flow of energy, even if it is just a thin flow, even if it seems silly” — Mary-Louise von Franz, Animus and Anima in Fairytales (Inner City Books, 2002).

Before and at and around Imbolc, the god Lugh draws me powerfully. Naturally, because time isn’t linear, and the workshop talk I’ve agreed to at Lughnasadh, a six-month conjunction with Imbolc and another fire festival, is now at work (was, before I agreed to it), by the god’s hand, or my own, or — more confusing and interesting — both at once. Snow on the ground, the land still in the grip of the Frost Giants (I like mixing myths, personally, at least by season), and here comes Lugh to prod me into action with his spear. Or if not action, exactly, some kind of attention.

The shape of the talk as it comes to me now in bits and starts will deal among other thiings with the matter of encountering a god, but also of any new course of action, of imagination, of inspiration. These wear different cloaks, but from what I can see, under them they’re the same, or at least siblings, equal parts trust and terror at times. Energy — which is what we are at heart, intelligent energy on the move.

So the seed, the nudge to change, to move, to grow — it comes and roots itself in us. And when the root-strength that cracks sidewalks and shoves boulders aside and generally plays havoc with human ideas of permanence and endurance finally gets to work, things move.

sowerAnd often enough the seed then dies in the ground. What nourishes it? We stomp on it, uncomfortable thing, reminding us that something outside us wants to work its will with us, here, too. Right in the middle of streaming Netflix and election madness and ISIS and the woeful state of things and our own personal misery and joy, the particular flavor and color of crazy that the current year puts on each morning, mourning. Just because.

But let trickle reach seed and GERMINATION! Watch out! Funny, the vegetation god from the House of Bread (which is “Bethlehem” translated, as John Michael Greer obligingly reminds us) puts it this way in a Gospel, which really is supposed to be good news after all. Or as a Bard thinks of it, a song for the queens and kings we could be:

And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them, Listen, a sower went out to sow: And it happened, as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside, and the birds of the air came and devoured it. And some fell on stony ground, where not much earth was; and immediately the seed sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun rose, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and yielded fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some a hundredfold. And he said to them, Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

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We can play a part here in germination. (Says who? Well, I can argue about it, or I can try it out for myself. Which is more fun?) Where is my fertile ground? What god/dess is planting there? Where’s that trickle? Ah, there.

And so it begins. If I’ve learned anything to pass along, it’s the magic when seed and trickle meet. I can’t make seeds, but I can maintain a greenhouse for them. I can’t start the trickle, but I can pay attention when one comes — I’ve got ears to hear — and help it flow or block it. There. To work.

IMAGES: ML von Franz; sower.

 

 

 

 

“Here, everything has a container”

artofdreamsemBack from a seminar this weekend on the art of spiritual dreaming, with a series of quirky, honest, challenging speakers and panelists.  “Intimate” was a word I heard more than once to “describe the vibe”: the distance between speaker and audience collapsed in a remarkable way, so that we were all participants. Or as one speaker remarked, talking about his experience with dreaming and comedy and comedic training with the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, “you show up, listen and tell the truth.” If the truth isn’t yet funny-sad at the same time, you keep showing up, listening, and telling and digging. You bring it with everything you are. ‘Cause otherwise, what’s the point? Except maybe chocolate.

But the statement I heard during the seminar that has stuck with me is the line that provided the title for this post: “Here, in these worlds of duality, everything has a container.” Or to put it another way, “soup needs a pot.” My wife and I riffed on this on the drive home. Relationships, stress,  jobs, life: we’re just having “container issues.” The center around which the storms rage witnesses it all. Uncontained, it doesn’t get slimed or cracked, burnt or broken, stolen, ripped off, bungled, overpaid or underappreciated. Container issues, these. How to shift attention off the containers, even for a moment, is a source of great freedom and possibility. Don’t, say some. Can’t, say others. Shouldn’t, say still others. We listen, and we don’t, can’t — until we discover a “why not?” lying at the bottom of the bag, like a stale fortune cookie, or a light-switch felt for, in a strange house or hotel room, in the dark. And we do.  And so it begins.

Hence the “art” part in the “Art of Spiritual Dreaming.” As an art, it needs practice. Really improves with trying out and adapting and personalizing, missing and picking up and proceeding in fits and starts, in the best human tradition.

The first stages of practice can be squeaky, atonal cries, like the noises from that violin you or your nine-year-old has just picked up and attempted to drag a bow across. Or grunts and groans, as when you move into that yoga posture, and you suddenly can count every damn one of the 206 bones, plus assorted tendons and ligaments, in the human body. Your body, thank you very much. Sometimes the art consists in not crying. Or doing so, with all the tears and sobs the situation calls for. If you’re a puddle, you’re sometimes half-way to “soup without the pot.” Then you climb back in. Repotted.

Your art may be different. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” said a certain wise teacher not so many millennia ago. How your art comes to you is your life, what you’re doing today and tomorrow. And after that, maybe.  But when this art we’re all practicing becomes dogma, the artist — who’s the point of it, after all — gets lost in the bans, inquisitions, burnings, purges, pogroms, reformations, downsizings and re-organizations. (Looked at one way, it’s all church/work.) Let me out, says the Artist. I need to breathe. And when we confuse cop-out with drop-out, we’ve confused what Tolkien called the “the flight of the deserter” with “escape of the prisoner.” One is weakness, though sometimes we need to acknowledge weakness, too, just like with crying.  (Show up and tell the truth.) The other, the escape, is a necessity. The bush may survive in the prison yard, but it blossoms in open air. You and I dream every night (proven, documented, everyone single one of us, every night — remembering is just another art to practice) to escape the container into more open air.

We talked in the seminar about techniques.  They’re not hidden, not anymore. Half a hundred schools and temples and ashrams, synagogues and retreats and workshops teach them, sometimes try to claim them, copyright them even, if they’re reeeeely insecure, or greedy and want your $ or other equivalent metal and paper tokens.

Silence. Chant, kirtan, song. Prayer, mantra, favorite refrigerator-magnet team-building-button go-to verbal icon for centering. Icon, image, idol, focus, mandala. Posture, breathing, zazen, yoga, tai chi, krav maga, judo, karate. Ritual, rite, gesture, mudra. Dream, metaphor, lucidity, shift, imaging, visualization. All of these can rattle the container, making us aware of it if we mistake container for real deal, for the truth of what’s going on right now. Pursued with sufficient discipline and zeal, they begin to open doors. Too many! you may say. I’ve just begun with this one, and you’re dumping a truck-load on me.

All you need is to master just one technique, says the Teacher. Just one, and that will be enough.

Enough for what? Suspicious that someone’s selling you something? For me that enough leads to pure experience. Opinions just not needed till after, if at all. Tolkien describes his sense of new/familiar in one of many instances in The Return of the King, in the chapter “The Houses of Healing”:

… as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.

And if this metaphor, which is simply another technique, happens to work for you, you catch another glimpse that can be strengthened by one of the techniques here. Or if you’ve swallowed long years or lives of dogma and you practice denial as one of your (powerful) techniques for self-defense against liars and their lies, or simply if your spiritual taste is nourished by other food, it may not work, and you need to look elsewhere, and maybe else-how. And like so many things that may have started for you way back in high school, “you’ll know it when you find it.”

All of this is simply a larger over-technique. And because it’s shaped in words in this post, it may trip you up as much as help you. So with that caveat I pass it along for what it’s worth. Sometimes even an echo is enough to keep us going down the hall and out the gate and along the next path.

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nanowidge-mon11-17If you’ve been following my nano-progress in the last few posts, you’ll see by the numbers here (showing up and practicing my telling the truth) that I’m lagging in the numbers game. Words, word-count, Nanowrimo, this novel, writing — all containers.  Necessary, but not the final story. I’ve got plenty to write, but it’s coming slower than usual, because it feels good to get it right.

Like the story’s already out there, Emily’s sitting here in the living room, curled up near the fire on a snowy, rainy, yucky Vermont day. She’s cradling a mug of tea in one hand, reading or sketching or listening to music, waiting for the next segment I’m just finishing up, and I’m trying to tell it accurately so she’ll recognize it. Or I’m transcribing from a dream what she told me in detail, in Dirnive, which she granted me a pass to enter last night, and I have to punch “replay” and re-enter that dream to check the experience one more time against what I’ve got so far.

It’s coming through like a dream, not linear — that’s for later, with editing — and with textures and colors and sounds that will loom up suddenly and ask for space and time I hadn’t anticipated. A scene with her parents and brother, casually shopping in an antiques store. A class at St. Swithins that seems to link to Emily’s absence for about two weeks’ earth time, but nearly a year on Dirnive. To conceive and give birth to a child there. Because if she doesn’t, given the difference in time passage between the two worlds, her love will age and die quite literally before she herself is out of her teens. Which makes her parents grandparents — her mother would adore a grandchild, only not so soon — but grandparents of a baby they will never see. Because Emily can come and go between worlds — her worlds — but no one else can. I think. Emily doesn’t want to risk it, yet. She says. See what a novel can do to you?!

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Image: Art of Spiritual Dreaming — John Pritchard

Boku no Shinto: My Shinto, Part 1

[Related posts: Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3 || Shinto — Way of the Gods || Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2 || Boku no Shinto — My Shinto 1 | 2 ]

Following the magical principle of polarity to wing myself toward what I really want to write about, in the title for this post I’ve done something quite un-Nihonteki, un-Japanese — un-Shinto, in fact.  Japan’s native spirituality focuses on harmony between human and spiritual realms, a harmony which finds a powerful objective expression in the natural world.  “Seek Spirit?  Look around!”  Yet I used boku, I wrote “I” — as if “I” could possess Shinto, as if it were a thing among other things that a person could own or control or claim.  The i returns to its proper size in balanced relationship.  An outsized I is part of the challenge the West currently faces, as well as each of us individually.  Be yourself, we’re told.  What the hell does that mean, anyway? Still too much.  (Too much is not enough, says the lower-case zen master/fool in my ear.)

Sometimes I just need to back into it, the destination that feels nearby, though I can’t see it.  “Returning is the motion of the Tao” (chapter 40). Because if I try it head-on, all the old defenses go up like a bad reflex. An old i holds on even as a new one moves in.  They spar a little.  But what are wood and water doing while I stare at an i?

treesoncliffsm

“who are you, little i” asks e. e. cummings in a poem of that title, “(five or six years old)/peering from some high/ window; at the gold/of november sunset” — let’s make it May instead: we can, and e. e. won’t mind.  Will cheer us on, I suspect — “(and feeling: that if day/has to become night/this is a beautiful way)”

Participate in our own becoming.  A call, if we choose to hear and heed it.  Make it day when it’s night (for our next trick, do it without using electricity).  Or vice versa, turning off the glare of the spotlight on the self which isn’t the whole story.

After all, “five or six years old” is about right: didn’t that crazy Galilean say we need to become like little children again?  Is that “being yourself”?

Like is important: we can all imagine it, approach it, approximate it.  Journey towards it.  Try out “yes” till it drops the ” ” — that little chicken scratch that distracts us from so much.  Or become the chicken that makes the scratch.  That’s a power we’re granted, too. Shape-shift at will and need.  One thing becomes another, in the Mother, in the Mother.  Thanks, Mom.  Can faking it make it real?  Well, the pressure’s off if all I need to do is fake it.

(e. e., you saw it, said it elsewhere:  “i thank You God for most this amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes”).  And if “You God” doesn’t work for you, insert your own addressee of choice.

Need a spell to make it happen?  “Power of choice I grant thee, I grant thee, I grant thee.” O.K., proceed.

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tsubaki1

Entrance, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Washington state

Site stats show that my previous posts on Shinto are among the most popular here at A Druid Way.  The reason for that can’t be too far to find.  We crave like a food-hunger a spiritual reality that does not depend on belief (or at least not on belief alone), but is present to us whenever we’re present to it — and even when we’re not.  We may hunger for a Way or Ways, just like we yearn for dark chocolate or hot sauce or beef or fresh limes in guacamole (insert your favorite food hunger here), a harmony that we can begin to fall back into at any moment, wherever we are, just by shifting our attention, and restore a sense of balance and integrity. And not just a sense of them, but its reality — a poise for living that shows in our words and deeds.  We’ve all known this harmony, witnessed it in others, however briefly, which is why we can feel so disheartened when we lack it, when we’ve lost it, fallen out of it.  We know it’s possible because it’s there, in living memory, however far we stand from it right now, in this grubby, muddy present moment.

We’ve even got a Shinto shrine in the U.S., the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Washington State, if we need the reminder.  Which is what a shrine, among other things, persistently tries to be.  It’s here, all around us, what we seek.  And a few among us imported Shinto as a recognition of that consciousness, as a support for us when we lose our way.  From it we can jump-start our own (there’s a possessive pronoun again) American Shinto, if we desire it, if we give it space to manifest.  The kami know and dwell in America, too.

Though it’s not a perfect instrument, a song, a painting, a poem can remind us, point us in directions that can restore and heal. “The Spirit,” says Mary Oliver in her simply-titled “Poem,”

                        likes to dress up like this:
                          ten fingers,
                            ten toes,

                      shoulders, and all the rest
                        at night
                          in the black branches,
                            in the morning

                      in the blue branches
                        of the world.
                          It could float, of course,
                            but would rather

                      plumb rough matter.
                        Airy and shapeless thing,
                          it needs
                            the metaphor of the body,

                      lime and appetite,
                        the oceanic fluids;
                          it needs the body's world,
                            instinct

                      and imagination
                        and the dark hug of time,
                          sweetness
                            and tangibility,

                      to be understood,
                        to be more than pure light
                          that burns
                            where no one is--

                      so it enters us--
                        in the morning
                          shines from brute comfort
                            like a stitch of lightning;

                      and at night
                        lights up the deep and wondrous
                          drownings of the body
                            like a star.

(And so I ask myself, what isn’t Spirit?!  Is that being yourself?)

Tsubaki Grand Shrine -- harmony

Tsubaki Grand Shrine — harmony

“The Japanese,” says a BBC Religions page,

see shrines as both restful places filled with a sense of the sacred, and as the source of their spiritual vitality – they regard them as their spiritual home, and often attend the same shrine regularly throughout their lives. Shrines need not be buildings – rocks, trees, and mountains can all act as shrines, if they are special to kami.

Physical world as spiritual home: what a change that would make in us if we carried that knowing with us all day long.

A large shrine can contain several smaller sub-shrines. Shinto shrines can cover several thousand acres, or a few square feet. They are often located in the landscape in such a way as to emphasise their connection to the natural world, and can include sacred groves of trees, and streams.

How many of us find the kami in a garden, a window pot we lovingly water, a bird feeder stocked through winter, or whatever season in your area that otherwise challenges the small feathered lives around us?

Tsubaki Grand Shrine ritual

Tsubaki Grand Shrine ritual

Various symbolic structures, such as torii gates and shimenawa ropes, are used to separate the shrine from the rest of the world.

Separation as a reminder — not that one exists like some line in the sand, but one we need, in order to notice what’s right in front of our noses.

And so I remember to bow at the willow at the bottom of the hill where our house sits.  I talk to the crocuses.  Sometimes I forget.  Then I remember again.  Muslim mystics chant the dhikr, literally the “Remembrance” of that one Name ringing just behind our day-to-day awareness.  Or many names, each waiting to be cherished, each a kami, each a potential doorway to what we seek.  In a world of seven billion persons, a grand synthesis, a God for everyone, may not be feasible at this point in our consciousness.  But we can reverence that lopsided pine down at the corner, honor the robins and starlings on our lawn, respect our own bodies on this earth, and begin, again, to find our ways.  Isn’t that much of the promise of spring (and of so many of our human stories) — starting over?  The growing shout of green, the rising sap, birdsong and peepers calling into the night, what we call spring fever in our veins and nerves and sinews, obeying an old law we’ve almost forgotten.

In answer to a query about the viability of some form of American Shinto, about “What is Shinto to the West,” a Westerner observes,

Well, Shinto in the West is automatically different from Shinto in Japan. For some reason, Japanese immigrants and their descendents don’t seem to keep practicing Shinto very much, perhaps because of the difficulty in practicing a shrine-centered, community-oriented faith in a place with nearly no shrines (I can count the ones I know of on one hand!) and a very small and scattered community.

So, most of the North American practitioners I know of are of European ancestry, trying to practice Shinto alone and without shrines, and learning what they know from books. Many have some sort of cultural connection to Japan – either they’ve studied it academically like you, or else they have married a Japanese person, or they lived part of their life there, or have learned a bit about Japanese spirituality through the martial arts community. We have to adapt the religion to our new environment, e.g. finding replacements for unavailable supplies, translating prayers from Old Japanese into English, and trying to answer hard questions like, should we honour the spirits of Japan or try to identify the spirits of our own environment?

Druids have built their own shrines, and begun to listen to the spirits here on the North American continent, which differ from European or Asian ones.  Just the act of listening opens many doors.  What we often lack is the support of a community in our practice.  Many have the strength of self-discipline to sustain a solitary practice, but others need the interaction, inspiration and community spirit that can help through the arid periods where nothing seems to be happening and we’re stopped dead in the water.

For that reason alone many Americans stick with Christianity or Judaism, because it offers that support, even if they also seek out other founts of spiritual nourishment in places their Abrahamic fellow-religionists might balk at.  It’s the reason behind “spiritual but not religious,” which ultimately is often hard to pull off in practical terms, because spirit seeks a form, a practice, if only to come true to us, to enter our physical lives in manifest ways, as Oliver’s poem above reminds us. We do this and not that because it works.  Any claims about earlier or better or more spiritual or, Goddess help us all, divinely inspired and uniquely true forever and always, come along after.

Part 2 here.

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Mary Oliver. Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1986.

Images: trees on cliff; Tsubaki Grand Shrine images (homepage auto-sequence), accessed 9 May 2014.

DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1

[Part 2 | Part 3]

Ritual Language and the Case of Latin

Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes.  The most visible example in the West is Latin.  The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin.  For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites.  If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages.  Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.

tridmass

Language as Sacrament

The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.  The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning.  The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience.  What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words.  Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.

chantcoverAnd depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.

Issues with Ritual Language

One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible.  Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language?  Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer?  Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship?  Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.

“The King’s English”

kjvcoverFor English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611.  What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use.  A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.

Druid and Pagan Practice

When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably.  Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided.  Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general.  Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants?  If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity.  It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?

druidrite

Ritual Primers

Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page.  The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas.  To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy.  That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time.  Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you.  Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.”  As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give.  And finally, people can and will make mistakes.  In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.

(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels

Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way.  In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language.  While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists.  He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity.  This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters.  (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)

About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.”  Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation.  Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'”  An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be.  That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.”  But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience.  In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.

As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft.  After all, boxes are for things, not people.  Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”

Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity.  When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite.  The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.

A Human Undersong

Where to go from here?  Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience.  “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm.  “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song.  It’s universal.”  As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.

Paradoxes of Particularity

Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience.  (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the  sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**)  And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality.  We quite literally say who and what we are.  The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture.  And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.

In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.

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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.

*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.

**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context.  If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring.  Wonder is at the heart of it.  Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:

A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!

Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true?  If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.

I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)

Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!

If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.

Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014

Jesus and Druidry, Part 2

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

But what of the Galilean Rabbi himself?  Enough about trends, which I said last time I wasn’t really interested in. We may forget that Jesus is a common enough religious name of the time — a version of Joshua — “God saves.”  (It’s a name still popular today among Hispanics.) Thirty, and he’s still not married.  A disappointment to his culture, his family.  After all, both count immortality at least in part through heirs and bloodlines.  His mother tries to understand, received a sign when she conceived him, has her suspicions and hopes.

Reconstruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem

Reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem

An itinerant teacher and preacher, one of many, traveling the countryside.  On festival days, when he can, like many of his countrymen, he visits the great Temple in Jerusalem.  A short career: just a few years.  A group of followers who scatter at his death, denying him repeatedly.  A promising life, cut short by an ill-timed visit to the capital. The one who betrays him comes from among his own followers.  Roman overlords, touchy at the major festival of Passover, the city bulging with visitors and pilgrims, a powder-keg, awaiting a spark to flame into chaos.  A summary arrest and trial for the young Rabbi, followed by an ignominious and agonizing death.

Except unlike so many other such preachers, after his death Jesus is not forgotten, is eventually deified, gets elevated to membership in the theologically-problematic Trinity that Christians insist isn’t polytheistic. (If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck …)  What was it about him that came across as godlike? Sadducee

As with other spiritual teachers, we can see his divine intoxication ebbing and flowing, peaking and falling away again, a common enough human phenomenon. Most of us have known a peak experience at least once; we’ve also sadly  watched it slip away.

At times Jesus is a poor Rabbi working for justice and compassion, firmly ensconced in the tangle that is 1st century Judea, with its liberal agnostic Sadducees, conservative legalistic Pharisees and radical Zealots.  Israel, a stand-out nation, with its peculiar and demanding monotheism, an island of faith and practice in a sea of surrounding nations with their many gods. A politically contentious region, one the Romans occupy, “pacifying” it in typically straightforward Roman style, with local career politicians like Pilate. The Romans crucify troublemakers, tax the province for whatever they can squeeze out of it, and garrison it as a staging point for patrolling other legs of an Empire increasingly wobbly and quarrelsome and groping towards revolt.

More and more, this Rabbi draws a crowd when he stops to preach.  He’s a vivid speaker, his rural Galilean-accented Aramaic familiar to his audience.  He’s one of us, Joseph’s son.  Did you hear what he said earlier today, last night, a week ago? Almost always something memorable.

tribute-penny

Show me a coin, he asks those gathered around him one day.  A natural teacher, using whatever’s on hand to make a point.

Whose image appears on it? he asks them now.

It’s Caesar’s, they answer.

Exactly so, he says.  Distinguish rightly what goes where.  The coin, the tax, that goes to Caesar.  The divine , however, requires something different.  

Like what? his listeners wonder.

Good master, somebody else asks him, intent on his own issues. What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?

Don’t call me “good,” the Rabbi replies, after a pause.  I’m not. Call nobody good, except God.  And that’s not me, not me, not me the silence echoes, in case anyone was wondering.

The fig tree, when he reaches it, has no figs.  Of course not — it’s not the season for them. Jesus, hungry, tired and discouraged, curses it anyway, goes to bed with an empty belly.  Real son of God material.  Not likely.  Word of it gets written down, too.

I’ve been with you this long and you still don’t get it? he scolds his closest followers one day.  How long must I endure you?  Almost losing it. In public.  Another low point.  Another note that rings humanly true.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

That’s “this-world” Jesus.  He sweats in the Mediterranean summers, shivers in the damp, rainy winters.  Cries when his friend Lazarus dies. Bellows at the merchants and money-changers in the Temple.

Sheep and goats wander the roads as he walks from town to town.  It’s hot and dusty, it’s raining, it’s stormy.  The Sea of Galilee can turn to whitecaps in a minute, threatening the small fishing boats that work its coves and depths.  Workmen hail him, stop and question him, ponder his words.  His own people.  Fishermen, slaves, tax collectors, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, widows, children. The sick, the street people, the lepers and beggars, the homeless.  His message first of all must reach them, before anybody else.  They need it so badly.

wfieldBut at times we hear a different voice, sense a very different presence.  The Otherworld vivid, all around. (“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes …” writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, nineteen centuries later.) The Kingdom, here, now. This Jesus, so drenched with the divine that the rocks sing to him with it.  He can be wrapped in a shining cloud and commune with the ex-carnate Moses. Perceive the spiritual temptations of worldly power, available to anyone who begins to walk into the heart of the Great Mystery.  He can say, Satan! but he’s really talking to his own human capacity to choose for good or bad. The power that goes with deep awareness and choice.

This Jesus says The divine and I are one.  I came to testify to the truth. If you see me, you see the face of the divine.  I came so that people can have more abundant lives.  I came for you all.  And you are all my sisters and brothers. All children of God, all walking the fields and forests of the Kingdom.

This Jesus knows the divine is all-present, that the flow of Spirit sustains everything, that there’s always enough.

How to capture this inner truth in stories? A huge crowd, fed, with left-overs.  A leper healed.  A poor woman looking for love or a livelihood, taken in adultery or prostitution, forgiven — and no one to say “But wait!” or argue the letter of the law with the Rabbi with the shining eyes.  The accusing crowd, unsettled, disperses.

The hick Rabbi, dying a criminal’s death on the cross, thieves and murderers on both sides pf him, gasping as he asks God to forgive those who nailed him up to die a slow death.  The palpable sense of his presence after his death.

His consciousness rising and falling in its breadth of awareness of its own divine potential, its union with all things, its kinship with mustard seeds, with the birds of heaven and the foxes of earth and trees that clap their hands. What could be more human?  What could be more Druidic?

wstevehThe world has three levels: heaven, earth and hell. The leaven is divided into three portions and hidden for a time.  All things will be revealed. The divine is both different and the same, yesterday, today and forever.  Ask, seek, knock.  Druidic triads everywhere, once we start looking.  No, the carpenter’s son wasn’t necessarily a Druid. No, Jesus maybe didn’t “in ancient time walk upon on England’s mountains green,” as Blake imagines it in his poem “Jerusalem.”  Another story to convey the sense of the divine, here.  No reason to claim kinship where it doesn’t exist. But every reason to celebrate links and commonalities and similar wisdom, wherever, whenever they appear.

A man who touches the divine and tries to express it in a culture steeped in a monotheistic tradition of necessity will draw on monotheist images and tropes.  How else to express his sense of profound communion, except by an image of a family, father and children? How else to communicate the sense of despair and agony of being cut off from every hope and healing, except by images of lasting hell?  How else to convey the divine promise rich inside every breathing moment, except by saying something like It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom?

water into wineThe gift, already given, given every day, dawn, noon and sunset. The divine never offers less than all.  We strain to catch and carry the ocean in a coffee mug. We gaze at dawn and can never hold all that light.  We go for water, and it changes to wine, intoxicatingly alive.  Each spring, the world practices resurrection.  And yes, even the rocks are singing.

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Images: TempleSadduceesAugustus pennyGalilee; Van Gogh: Wheatfields; W Stevens quotewaterdrop.

Updated/edited 2 February 2014

Jesus and Druidry, Part 1

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

Midwinter greetings to you all!  It’s sunny and bitter cold here in southern VT.  The mourning doves and chickadees mobbing our feeder have fluffed themselves against the chill — the original down jackets — the indoor thermometer says 62, and my main task today, besides writing this post, is keeping our house warm and fussing over the woodstove like a brood hen sitting a nest of chicks.  Hope you’re bundled and warm — or if you live on the summer side of the globe, you’re making the most of the sun and heat while it lasts.

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gbshawThe long and complex associations between a dominant religion like Christianity and minority faiths and practices within the dominant religious culture, like Druidry, won’t be my primary focus in this post. I’m more interested in personalities and practices anyway. It’s from spiritual innovators that any transformation of consciousness spreads, and that includes people like Jesus. Or as George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) quipped in his play Man and Superman, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  I’m asserting that in the best sense of the word, we can count Jesus among the “unreasonable” men and women we depend on for progress.

Mostly reasonable people like me don’t make waves.  Cop out?  Maybe.  If I chose to stand in the front lines of protests against practices like fracking, wrote blogs and letters decrying the bought votes and cronyism of specific members of Congress, targeted public figures with letter campaigns, founded and led a visible magical or spiritual group or movement, made headlines and provided a ready source of colorful sound-bites, I’d win my quarter-hour of fame, and probably an FBI or NSA file with my name on it.* Maybe it would make a difference.  Maybe not.  Material for an upcoming post.

Back to the main topic of Jesus and Druidry.  As Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries,

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints.  That Christianity provided the vehicle for Druidry’s survival is ironic, since the Church quite clearly did not intend this to be the case (p. 31).

rookOne somewhat obscure but intriguing survival is the Scots poet Sir Richard Holland’s Buke of the Howlat(e) (Book of the Owlet), dating from the 1450s. OK, . Holland’s satirical poem is peopled with birds standing in for humans, and it stars an unhappy owl which has traveled to the Pope (a peacock) to petition for an improved appearance.

lainghowlatIn the process of considering the owl’s request, the Pope orders a banquet, and among the entertainments during the feast is a “Ruke” (a rook or raven) in the stanza below, which represents the traditional satirical and mocking bard (named in the poem as Irish, but actually Scots Gaelic), deploying the power of verse to entertain, assert his rights, and reprimand the powerful.  Thus, some two centuries before the start of the Druid Revival, Holland’s poem preserves memory of the old bardic tradition.  Bear with my adaptation here of stanza 62 of Holland’s long poem.  Here, the Rook gives a recitation in mock Gaelic, mixed with the Scots dialect** of the poem, demanding food and drink:

So comes the Rook with a cry, and a rough verse:
A bard out of Ireland with beannachaidh Dhe [God’s blessings (on the house)]
Said, “An cluinn thu guth, a dhuine dhroch, olaidh mise deoch.
Can’t you hear a word, evil man? I can take a drink.
Reach her+ a piece of the roast, or she+ shall tear thee.
[+the speaker’s soul — a feminine noun in Gaelic]
Mise mac Muire/Macmuire (plus indecipherable words)
I am the son of Mary/I am Macmuire.
Set her [it] down.  Give her drink.  What the devil ails you?
O’ Diarmaid, O’ Donnell, O’ Dougherty Black,
There are Ireland’s kings of the Irishry,
O’ Conallan (?), O’ Conachar, O’ Gregor Mac Craine.
The seanachaid [storyteller], the clarsach [harp],
The ben shean [old woman], the balach [young lad],
The crechaire [plunderer], the corach [champion],
She+ knows them every one.”
[+again, the soul of the speaker]

If you can for a moment overlook the explicit Protestant mockery of the Papacy (the Pope as a Peacock, after all), here, then, is an early Renaissance indication that the Bardic tradition was still recalled and recognized widely enough to work in a poem.  Holland’s poem is itself a satire, and in it, the bard demands food and drink as his right as a professional, shows off his knowledge of famous names, and generally makes himself at home, both satirizing and being satirized in Holland’s depiction of bardic arrogance.  (For in the following stanza, he’s kicked offstage by two court fools, who then spend another stanza quarreling between themselves.)

Thus, when the first Druid Revivalists began in the 1600s to search for the relics and survivals and outlying remains of Druidry to pair up with what they knew  Classical authors had said about the Druids, things like Holland’s poem were among the shards and fragments they worked with.  I’ve written (herehere and here) about the tales from the Mabinogion which, as Carr-Gomm points out above, preserve much Druid lore, passed down in story form and preserved by Christian monastics long after the oral teachings (and teachers) apparently passed from the scene. OK, .

More about Revival Druidry, the Revivalists, and Druidic survivals, coming soon.

[Part 2 here.]

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*It’s likely such a file already exists anyway: I lived and worked for a year in the People’s Republic of China, I had to be fingerprinted and cleared by the Dept. of State for a month-long teaching job in South Korea (a requirement of my S. Korea employer, not the U.S.) a couple of summers ago, and I practice not just one but two minority religions.  If you’re reading this, O Agents of Paranoia, give yourselves a coffee break — nothing much continues to happen here.

**Below is Holland’s original stanza 62 from his Buke of the Howlate.  With the help of a dated commentary on Google Books, and the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, I’ve worked on a rough translation/adaptation.  If you know the poem (or know Scots), corrections are welcome!

Sae come the Ruke with a rerd, and a rane roch,
A bard owt of Irland with ‘Banachadee!’,
Said, ‘Gluntow guk dynyd dach hala mischy doch,
Raike here a rug of the rost, or so sall ryive the.
Mich macmory ach mach mometir moch loch,
Set here doune! Gif here drink! Quhat Dele alis the?
O Deremyne, O Donnall, O Dochardy droch
Thir ar his Irland kingis of the Irischerye,
O Knewlyn, O Conochor, O Gregre Makgrane,
The Schenachy, the Clarschach,
The Ben schene, the Ballach,
The Crekery, the Corach,
Scho kennis thaim ilk ane.

Carr-Gomm, Philip.  Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century.  London: Rider, 2002.

Diebler, Arthur.  Holland’s Buke of the Houlate, published from the Bannatyne Ms, with Studies in the Plot, Age and Structure of the Poem.  Chemnitz, 1897.  Google Books edition, pp. 23-24.

Dictionary of the Scots Language.

Images: G B Shaw; rook; Laing edition of Buke of the Howlat cover.

Full Moon Reflection 1: “In every corner of my soul …

“there is an altar to a different god,” wrote the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935).  Perhaps that’s some explanation for the often mercurial quality of being this strange thing we call the self, ourselves.  We can’t easily know who we are for the simple reason that (often, at least) we aren’t just one thing — we consist of multiple selves.  We’re not individuals so much as hives of all our pasts buzzing around together.  Whether you subscribe to the reality of past lives or see it as a possibly useful metaphor, we’re the sum of all we’ve ever been, and that’s a lot of being.  And with past lives (or the often active impulses to make alternate lives for ourselves within this one through the dangerous but tempting choices we face) we’ve known ourselves as thieves and priests, saints and villains, women and men, victims and aggressors, ordinary and extraordinary.  When we’ve finally done it all, we’re ready to graduate, as a fully-experienced self, a composite unified after much struggle and suffering and delight.  All of us, then, are still in school, the school of self-making.

Doesn’t it just feel like that, some days at least?!  Even only as a metaphor, it can offer potent insight.  The Great Work or magnum opus of magic, seen from such a perspective, is nothing more or less than to integrate this cluster of selves, bang and drag and cajole all the fragments into some kind of coherence, and make of the whole a new thing fit for service, because that’s what we’re best at, once we’ve assembled ourselves into a truly workable self:  to give back to life, to serve an ideal larger than our own momentary whims and wishes, and in the giving, to find — paradoxically — our best and deepest fulfillment.  “He who loses himself will find it gain,” said a Wise One with a recent birthday we may have noticed.  We all learn the hard way, for the most part, because it’s the most profound learning.  Certainly it sticks in a way that most book learning alone does not.

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Versions of Your Life, and “Being Erica”

Since my wife and I are too cheap to spend money on cable, we get most of our programming through the internet.  Vermont sometimes gets tagged in people’s minds as one of the hinterlands of the U.S., though in fact it’s scheduled to have ultra high-speed internet by 2013, billed as “fastest in the nation,” and VTel (Vermont Telephone) installers are actually ahead of schedule in some areas.

One result of our cable-free existence and frequent obliviousness to whatever is “trending now” is that we often discover programs toward the end of their initial run, or well after they’ve already gone to syndication or archive status.  Hulu is one of our friends, so if you’ve already watched the Canadian series “Being Erica” and you’ve moved on to newer fare, this post may not be for you.  It may be a case of BTDT (been there, done that).  So my electronic alter ego here with his Druidry and opinions and evident desire to pry where it’s sometimes uncomfortable (but interesting!) to pry isn’t offended if you log off and go do your laundry, or at least surf onward toward something more engaging.

==PILOT EPISODE SPOILER ALERT==

If you’re still here, the show’s pilot episode does a good job of making the series premise clear.  32-year old Erica feels she’s over-educated (a Master’s degree) and under-fulfilled (single, and with a low-level telemarketing job).  The pilot brings her to a low point — she wakes up in a hospital bed after an allergic reaction, and receives a brief visit from a Dr. Tom, who leaves her with a business card that reads “the only therapy you’ll ever need.”  As Erica and the audience simultaneously discover, he’s able to send his patients back through time to deal with events in their pasts that they regret.  Not to “fix” them in some facile way, but to learn more fully what they have yet to teach.

Vancouver Actor Erin Karpluk, who plays Erica, reveals a wonderful vulnerability and resilience, and she develops a daughter-father chemistry with Dr. Tom, played by veteran Michael Riley.  There’s also a “Canadian” flavor to the series, by which I mean something mostly vaguely felt, but nevertheless detectable at certain moments: many episodes are less politically correct, more real, better scripted and more risk-taking than the typical formulaic and “safer” equivalent might end up being in the States.  There’s been abortive planning to make both U.K. and U.S. versions.

So you know I just have to make a connection about now.  Ah, and here it is, right on schedule.  In my experience, the past is not some fixed thing, written into concrete forever, like one false step into a bog that draws you down and suffocates you.  Instead, it depends for its whole existence on you, in your present, here and now, in these circumstances and with this awareness, to understand and explore it.  Change your understanding of the past, and your past itself can change in almost any sense you care to claim.  Not what the “facts” are, which is almost always the least important thing*, after all (peace to all those police procedural shows and their fans!), but how they matter and still shape you today.  Just as history gets revised through time, as we gain new understandings and perspectives, so too do our own experiences, choices and destinies appear new or different to us as we change.  That bully in grade school turns out to have helped us develop a thicker skin, or empathy — or an unacknowledged contempt for “trailer trash,” or a keen taste for revenge that dogs our heels to this day.  Pick your blessing or poison.

The future is what is fixed, the track we’re still following, and reconfirming right now with our current habits, choices and focus — fixed, and set in stone — until we “change” our pasts by knowing and owning them more fully.  Seen from this perspective, “fate” is undigested, rejected past that’s come back to haunt you.  Healing comes not from literally changing “what happened” — possible only through repression or selective recall — but from squeezing out of each experience every last drop of wisdom and growth we can get from it. Yes:  easier said than done.  Much easier, often.

But if we find our pasts too painful to deal with, we’ll not only carry them around with us anyway, regardless, but miss out on their lessons as well.  As therapist Rollo May said, “Either way, it hurts.”  The point is not avoidance of pain, but growth.  My past comes at me whispering (or shouting, depending), “Do something with your pain, Dude.”  Revisiting and re-imaging the past may sound all New-Agey and Hallmarky, but if it’s one way among many to heal, why mock it or discount it, unless you love your pain more than anything else you have?  “Yes, it may be pain, but it’s mine, my darling, my precious.  Go dredge your own.”  Gollum much?!

This present moment is the pivot, the hinge, the point of transformation, if I’m ever going to act on those New Year’s resolutions that now seem so distant.  How many of them have I achieved?  (In a December post, I confess to not making any, at least not big ones, partly for this reason.)  Baby steps.  What’s the smallest change I can make?  That’s often the best starting point, because unlike the large resolution, I really can do the small stuff, and stick with it.  And then build on it.  Treat it all as experiment.  Document it — write it down. (Oscar Wilde says one should keep a journal so that one always has something sensational to read.)  My life as lab for change.  Talk about a show.

Part of the appeal of “Erica,” of course, is watching somebody else go through this.  Yet this isn’t merely a voyeuristic thrill so much as it is a provocation to reflect.  A significant part of the interest of the series for me is that even Erica’s therapist Dr. Tom, while often truly guru-wise with her issues, isn’t God, or some perfected being.  (We often really can see and understand others’ problems more clearly than our own.  The challenge is not to abuse this insight, but make the most of it in the best way for our own specific circumstances.)  He still has his struggles too — deep ones, as we come to discover, ones that come play a role in Erica’s therapy, to the dismay and growth of both of them.

And my response was “How right!”  A perfect being would be a bit of a pain, and might have forgotten (or never known) what it’s like, this human gig.  Jesus is never more useful and accessible than when he suffers humanly: when his friend Lazarus dies and he weeps, when he gets angry and physical at the money-changers for profaning the Temple, when the fig tree has no fruit because it’s not the season, and Jesus curses it anyway, when his friends ditch him to save themselves.  This human thing, he gets it.

Incidentally, I’ve never understood the Christian obsession with sin.  We’re all guilty and imperfect.  Check.  We’ve messed up.  Check.  But the point is that our pasts are our teachers.  They help us grow.  Our “sin” is what tempers and forges and perfects us in the end.  Yes, it’s a long end.  We’re all slow learners, those “special ed” kids, every one of us.  A sequence of lives to learn and experience and grow and love in makes sense for this reason alone.  For God or any Cosmic Cop to damn us to hell for “sin” cuts off the whole reason we’re here, from this perspective.  It’s like flunking everyone out of first grade because we haven’t mastered algebra yet.  We’re not ready.  Give us time.  Life’s tough enough to break every heart, several times if necessary — and to remake it bigger.  OK, here endeth the lesson.

==Final Season Spoiler Alert==

Except not quite.  The fourth and final season — Hulu doesn’t carry it — of “Being Erica” comes out this month on DVD, and Amazon.ca just sent email confirmation that it’s shipped.  My wife and I are looking forward to watching Erica become a therapist:  “Dr. Erica” in her own right.  Isn’t that part of our journey, too?  Out of our experience we grow, and then we can help others along the way, specifically because of who we are, and what we’ve learned.  Our imperfection and individuality are our great gifts, which we grow into ever more fully.  That’s an eternity to look for, if you’re in the market for one.

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*Even facts prove slippery, as any attorney, judge and gathering of eyewitnesses knows.   But sometimes it’s precisely a fact that makes all the difference.  Then it’s usually a fact that confirms or disproves a perspective, and so it throws us back to the centrality of perspectives and understandings once again.

Image:  Being Erica.

A Triad of Wisdom, Far Afield

Druid teaching, both historically and in contemporary versions, has often been expressed in triads — groups of three objects, perceptions or principles that share a link or common quality that brings them together.  An example  (with “check” meaning “stop” or “restrain”):  “There are three things not easy to check: a cataract in full spate, an arrow from a bow, and a rash tongue.”  Some of the best preserved are in Welsh, and have been collected in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (The Triads of the Island of Britain*, pronounced roughly tree-oyth un-iss pruh-dine).  The form makes them easier to remember, and memorization and mastery of triads were very likely part of Druidic training.  Composing new ones offers a kind of pleasure similar to writing haiku — capturing an insight in condensed form.  (One of my favorite haiku, since I’m on the subject:

Don’t worry, spiders —
I keep house
casually.

— Kobayashi Issa**, 1763-1827/translated by Robert Hass)

A great and often unrecognized triad appears in the Bible in Matthew 7:7 (an appropriately mystical-sounding number!).  The 2008 edition of the New International Version renders it like this:  “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened for you.”

Apart from the obvious exhortation to persevere, there is much of value here.  Are all three actions parallel or equivalent?  To my mind they differ in important ways.  Asking is a verbal and intellectual act.  It involves thought and language.  Searching, or seeking, may often be emotional — a longing for something missing, a lack or gap sensed in the soul.  Knocking is concrete, physical:  a hand strikes a door.  All three may be necessary to locate and uncover what we desire.  None of the three is raised above the other two in importance.  All of them matter; all of them may be required.

And what are we to make of this exhortation to keep trying?  Many cite scripture as if belief itself were sufficient, when verses like this one make it clear that’s not always true.  Spiritual achievement, like every other kind, demands effort.  Little is handed to us without diligence on our part.

And though the three modes of investigation or inquiry aren’t apparently ranked, it’s long seemed to me that asking is lowest.  If you’ve got nothing else, try a simple petition.  It calls to mind a child asking for a treat or permission, or a beggar on a street-corner.  The other two modes require more of us — actual labor, either of a quest, or of knocking on a door (and who knows how long it took to find?).

It’s possible to see the three as a progression, too — a guide to action.  First, ask in order to find out where to start, at least, if you lack other guidance.  With that hint, begin the quest, seeking and searching until you start “getting warm.”  Once you actually locate what you’re looking for — the finding after the seeking — it’s time to knock, to try out the quest physically, get the body involved in manifesting the result of the search.  Without this vital third component of the quest, the “find” may never actually make it into life where we live it every day.

Sometimes the knocking is initiated “from the other side”  In Revelations, the Galilean master says, “I stand at the door and knock.”  Here the key seems to be to pay attention and to open when you hear a response to all your seeking and searching. The universe isn’t deaf, though it answers in its own time, not ours.  The Wise have said that the door of soul opens inward.  No point in shoving up against it, or pushing and then waiting for it to give, if it doesn’t swing that way …

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*The standard edition of the Welsh triads for several decades is the one shown in the illustration by Rachel Bromwitch, now in its 3rd edition.  The earliest Welsh triads appearing in writing date from the 13th century.

**Issa (a pen name which means “cup of tea”) composed more than 20,000 haiku.  You can read many of them conveniently gathered here.

book cover; door image.

Gods and Orphans

Sometimes you have experiences that just don’t fit.  They’re orphans, and like orphans, too often they’re left to fend for themselves, so they end up on the street.  Or else they’re stuck in a home by some well-meaning authority, where they may subsist uncomfortably for years in places where everyone else looks and acts and talks different.  There may not be enough love to go around, either, and like Oliver in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, they’re reduced to pleading, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

Monday night, before the hard freeze here (19 and windy) that threatened all the burgeoning flowers and trees, I offered up a prayer.  I don’t usually pray in this way, but I found myself praying for all the wordless Rooted Ones busy putting out buds and leaves and new growth in response to the warm spell that caressed so much of the U.S.  “I cry to the Powers,” I found myself saying.  A little more love here, please.  The great willow in our back yard has pale leafy fronds.  The currants are budding.  Crabgrass pushes up from dead mats of last year’s growth.  The stems of bushes and the twigs of trees show reddish with sap. At the same time, I took stock in what I knew in some traditions about plant spirits, the personifications of energies that help individual species thrive.*  Let the devas and plant guardians sort it out.  Serve the larger balance — that sort of thing.  Then the nudge to pray came, so I honored it.  Everyone has a role to play.  Then the goddess Skaði presented herself.

All this took place while I was driving down and then back home with my wife from an out-of-state trip to CT.  Bookends to the day.  We’d tried to be efficient with our driving and gas use, like the good Greenies that on occasion we actually are, and schedule several appointments for the same day.  So we rose early, drove through welcome morning sun and glorious light to have a thermostat and brakes replaced on our car, get eye exams and prescriptions and glasses before a sale ended on April 1, drop off a gift at a friend’s house, and get to an admissions interview for a certificate program I’m interested in.  (More about that as it progresses.)

We’d scheduled ourselves fairly loosely, but still the sequence of appointments mattered for times and distances to travel to the next stop.  So when the car service that we’d been assured would take no more than two hours now promised to consume most of the day, we got a loaner car from the dealership, rescheduled and shuffled some of our meetings.  Ah, modern life.  Maybe it’s no more than imagination, but at such times recall of past lives makes horse-and-buggy days seem idyllic and stress-free by contrast.  Back then we didn’t do so much because we simply couldn’t.  Does being able to do more always mean we should?

So, Skaði.**  Not to belabor you with too much detail: she’s a Scandinavian goddess of winter, hunting, mountains and skiing. A sort of northern Diana of the snows, an Artemis of the cold heights and crags.  I’d run across her a few years ago, when I was doing some reading and meditation in Northern traditions.  She loomed in my consciousness then, briefly.  Frankly I found Bragi, the god of eloquence and poetry and patron of bards, much more to my taste.  But there she was, for a short time.

I flashed on an image of Skaði then, and she seemed — and still seems to me — quite literally cold, implacable, uninterested in humans, remote, austere, elegant in the way ice formations and mountain snows and the Himalayas are elegant — and utterly forbidding.  Not someone even slightly interested in exchange, in human interaction.  Now here she was.  If you’ve been pursued by any of the Shining Folk, whether the Morrigan or Thor, Jesus or Apollo, you know that often enough they choose you rather than the other way around.  So you make do.  You pay no attention.  Or you can’t help it and now you have a patron deity.  Or something in between.  If you’re a bloody fool, you blab about it too much, insisting, and the nice men in white coats fit you for one too.  Or maybe you and Thorazine become best friends.  It’s at times like this that I’m glad of the comparative anonymity of this blog.  I can be that bloody fool, up to a point, and the people who need to will pass me off as just another wacko blogger.  And then this post will recede behind the others, and only one or two people will happen on it in another month or two.  The gods are out there, and they’re in our heads, too.  Both/and.  So we deal with it.  And I can step back to my normal life.  Or not.  I’ll keep you posted.

So Skaði of the daunting demeanor wants something.  I prayed to the Powers, almost in the Tolkien Valar = “Powers” sense — to anyone who was listening.  Open door.  Big mistake?  I’m a Druid, but here’s the Northern Way inserting itself into my life.  My call goes out, and Skaði picks up and we’re having this conversation in my head while I drive north on I-91 with my wife.  I’ve gotten used to these kinds of things over time, as much as you can, which often isn’t so much.  In a way I suppose it’s revenge — I used to laugh out loud at such accounts when I read them and shake my head at what were “obviously people’s mental projections.”  Now I’ve got one saying if you want protection for your shrubbery (God help me, I’m also hearing the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail at this point.  The Knights of Ni:  “Bring me a shrubbery!”), then do something for me.  What? I said.  A blog post, first, then a website shrine.  So here’s the blog post first.  I’ll provide the shrine link when I’ve set it up.

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*If you’re interested in an excellent account of this, check out The Findhorn Garden, originally published in 1976.  This Scottish community, established on a barren piece of land, “inexplicably” flourished with the help of conscious cooperation with nature spirits.  It’s documented in photographs and interviews.  There are several books with similar titles and later dates, also published by Findhorn Community.

**The ð in her name is the “th” sound in with.  I’m slowly realizing that part of my fussing over words, the urge to get it right, the annoyance at others who seem not to care about linguistic details, can be transformed to a gift.  So for me part of honoring Skaði is getting her name right.

Image:  Skaði.  I can’t draw or paint to save my life, so when I came across this stunning representation, a shiver slalomed down my back.  Skaði’s footsteps, I guess I should say.  This is in the spirit of my experience of the goddess.

The Fertile Virgin

“Only what is virgin can be fertile.”  OK, Gods, now that you’ve dropped this lovely little impossibility in my lap this morning, what am I supposed to do with it?  Yeah, I get that I write about these things, but where do I begin? “Each time coming to the screen, the keyboard, can be an opportunity” — I know that, too.  But it doesn’t make it easier.   Why don’t you try it for a change?  Stop being all god-dy and stuff and try it from down here.  Then you’ll see what it’s like.

OK, done?  Fit of pique over now?

I never had much use for prayer.  Too often it seems to consist either of telling God or the Gods what to do and how to do it (if you’re arrogant) or begging them for scraps (if they’ve got you afraid of them, on your knees for the worst reasons).  But prayer as struggle, as communication, as connecting any way you can with what matters most — that I comprehend.  Make of this desire to link an intention.  A daily one, then hourly.  Let if fill, if if needs to, with everything in the way of desire, and hand that back to the universe.  Don’t worry about Who is listening.  Your job is to tune in to the conversation each time, to pick it up again.  And the funny thing is that once you stop worrying about who is listening, everything seems to be listening (and talking).  Then the listening rubs off on you as well.  And you finally shut up.

That’s the second half, often, of the prayer.  To listen.  Once the cycle starts, once the pump gets primed, it’s easier.  You just have to invite and welcome who you want to talk with.  Forget that little detail, and there can be lots of other conversations on the line.  The fears and dreams of the whole culture.  Advertisers get in your head, through repetition.  (That’s why it’s best to limit TV viewing, or dispense with it altogether, if you can.  Talk about prayer out of control.  They start praying you.)  They’ve got their product jingle and it’s not going away.  Sometimes all you’ve got in turn is a divine product jingle.  It may be a song, a poem, a cry of the heart.  The three Orthodox Christian hermits of the great Russian novelist Tolstoy have their simple prayer to God:  “We are three.  You are three.  Have mercy on us!”  Over time, it fills them, empowers them.  They become nothing other than the prayer.  They’ve arrived at communion.

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Equi-nox.  Equal night and day.  The year hanging, if only briefly, in the balance of energies.  Spring, a coil of energy, poised.  The earth dark and heavy, waiting, listening.  The change in everything, the swell of the heart, the light growing.  Thaw.  The last of the ice on our pond finally yields to the steady warmth of the past weeks, to the 70-degree heat of Tuesday.  The next day, Wednesday, my wife sees  salamanders bobbing at the surface.  Walk closer, and they scatter and dive, rippling the water.

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I once heard a Protestant clergywoman say to an ecumenical assembly, “We all know there was no Virgin Birth.  Mary was just an unwed, pregnant teenager, and God told her it was okay.  That’ s the message we need to give girls today, that God loves them, and forget all this nonsense about a Virgin birth.”  …  I sat in a room full of Christians and thought, My God, they’re still at it, still trying to leach every bit of mystery out of this religion, still substituting the most trite language imaginable …

The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices, but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story (72-73).

So Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  She goes on to quote the Trappist monk, poet and writer Thomas Merton, who

describes the identity he seeks in contemplative prayer as a  point vierge [a virgin point] at the center of his being, “a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth … which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.  This little point … of absolute poverty,” he wrote, “is the pure glory of God in us” (74-5).

So if I need to, I pull away the God-language of another tradition and listen carefully “why it might still be an important story.”  Not “Is it true or not?” or “How can anybody believe that?”  But instead, why or how it still has something to tell me.  Another kind of listening, this time to stories, to myths, our greatest stories, for what they still hold for us.

One of the purest pieces of wisdom I’ve heard concerns truth and lies.  There are no lies, in one sense, because we all are telling the truth of our lives every minute.  It may be a different truth than we asked for, or than others are expecting, but it’s pouring out of us nonetheless.  Ask someone for the truth, and if they “lie,” their truth is that they’re afraid.  That knowledge, that insight, may well be more important than the “truth” you thought you were looking for.  “Perfect love casteth out fear,” says the Galilean.  So it’s an opportunity for me to practice love, and take down a little bit of the pervasive fear that seems to spill out of lives today.

Norris arrives at her key insight in the chapter:

But it is in adolescence that the fully formed adult self begins to emerge, and if a person has been fortunate, allowed to develop at his or her own pace, this self is a liberating force, and it is virgin.  That is, it is one-in-itself, better able to cope with peer pressure, as it can more readily measure what is true to one’s self, and what would violate it.  Even adolescent self-absorption recedes as one’s capacity for the mystery of hospitality grows:  it is only as one is at home in oneself that one may be truly hospitable to others–welcoming, but not overbearing, affably pliant but not subject to crass manipulation.  This difficult balance is maintained only as one remains [or returns to being] virgin, cognizant of oneself as valuable, unique, and undiminishable at core (75).

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This isn’t where I planned to go.  Not sure whether it’s better.  But the test for me is the sense of discovery, of arrival at something I didn’t know, didn’t understand in quite this way, until I finished writing.  Writing as prayer.  But to say this is a “prayer blog” doesn’t convey what I try to do here, or at least not to me, and I suspect not to many readers.  A Druid prayer comes closer, it doesn’t carry as much of the baggage as the word “prayer” may carry for some readers, and for me.  “I’m praying for you,” friends said when I went into surgery three years ago.  And I bit my tongue to keep from replying, “Just shut up and listen.  That will help both us a lot more.”  So another way of understanding my blog:  this is me, trying to shut up and listen.  I talk too much in the process, but maybe the most important part of each post is the silence after it’s finished, the empty space after the words end.

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Norris, Kathleen.  Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  New York:  Riverhead Books, 1998.

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