Archive for the ‘John Michael Greer’ Category

Living Like Snow   5 comments

The first exercise or technique in my workshop and booklet for Gulf Coast Gathering this Saturday is “Forming an Intention.”

There’s a lot of talk these days about “being intentional”. And I wonder: Did past generations somehow do it better? Did they set about what they were doing with more awareness than we do? Or is that the point: we can do better today because we somehow “get” the importance of intention? Really, I doubt both of these things. You or I? Yes, you or I can do better. “We” meaning large numbers of people? Not so much, then or now. Where to place and focus effort?

I love that when I google “intention” the first two definitions that appear are “a thing intended” (classic dictionary-ese!) and “the healing process of a wound”. I click on the link and that specialized medical usage comes well down on the list of meanings. Can intention, handled well, help with healing? Is that what intention is, one way to understand it? Healing?

What if I approach each action as an opportunity for healing? Some intentions heal, some don’t, or hurt more than they help. Would this change how I intend?

This last weekend I attended a regular “second Saturday” spirituality study group that’s been ongoing now for several years. The book we read is less important than the group, the intentionality of a monthly meeting, the ongoing flowering of awareness that comes from it, and from practice of a set of spiritual exercises together and individually that open the doors of insight. One of the group members, Bill, said something last Saturday I knew I had to include, giving credit where it’s due, in the final draft of the Gathering booklet:

Intention is a description of the limits of manifestation.

This is a fruitful theme for contemplation. If you choose to use it that way, I’d recommend you stop reading now and come back later, after you’ve gained your own insights into its reach. What follows below are some of mine.

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Outdoors, the nor’easter that’s been named Stella (the “star” of the show, that’s for sure), has begun to blanket New England and the mid-Atlantic region with a classic March snow. Right now, at 9:00 am or so, the snowfall is still gentle and steady. Later it will strengthen, and rising winds will transform the world into a snowglobe both shaken and stirred. Meanwhile, the indomitable chickadees flit back and forth between the front yard feeder and the branches of the mountain ash.

Intention doesn’t guarantee any kind of “success”. That’s not its purpose. (Why do it then? I hear myself and some of you asking.)

But intention does invite a flow, form a mold, shape a potential, and let us exercise our sacred gift as transformers of Spirit. “Spirit must express itself in the world of matter,” writes John Michael Greer, “or it accomplishes nothing. Insights of meditation and ceremony gain their full power and meaning when reflected in the details of everyday life” (Greer. The Druidry Handbook, pg. 138).

For me, even more importantly, intention sets up a precedent of balance. It’s a handshake with Spirit, a gesture of welcome. Spirit needs our individuality to express itself. It’s what we are. But we also need Spirit to work through us, or “nothing happens”.

I set the intention of flying out to the Gathering and a nor’easter may intervene, changing an intention, cancelling flights, closing an airport, disrupting human routine. Part of the skill of setting intentions is releasing them, and then navigating through what comes. (Insisting on a particular intention can sometimes and temporarily shift all the factors in one’s favor, but the juice usually isn’t worth the squeeze. Doubt me? Don’t waste time arguing. Try it out for yourself. And as the universe sets about kicking you down the road, use your black and blues as a now-personalized theme for reflection.)

If you’re still wondering what value an intention has, look again at the situation, but this time without the particular intention. The nor’easter comes anyway, and whatever else I’m doing — intentions there, too — the storm still impacts them.

So one point I draw from this? I want to be intentional about my intentions. I’m constantly creating them anyway, manifesting constantly. I get up from bed. I make coffee. I build up the fire. I may “plan my day” or “wing it” as things unfold around me. That’s what it means to “have a life”. I just may be more or less conscious as I do, and have, and am.

But intention isn’t something that only I have, or set in motion all alone onstage. In a world of multitudinous beings, intentions constantly line up or come in conflict all around us.

“The intelligent universe longs for an equal partner” (Gary Lindorf. 13 Seeds. Northshire Press, pg. 21). I can ignore the marvelous energy of intention and still live. But not as richly, as full of love, or as magically. What does it mean to be an “intelligent partner” to life? Partner: not servant, not master.

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“Intention is the description of the limits of manifestation”. Each of us has a set of experiences and talents and insights that give us a personal key to being intentional. As with most things, being intentional isn’t a matter of “either-or” but a matter of “less-more”. What are the limits of manifestation? Do I, does anyone, actually know? We make intention experimental — something to be explored.

stellaIn the last 40 minutes — it’s now 9:43 — the snow has intensified. An-inch-an-hour is nothing new for much of the northern U.S., but each time I “have time” or “make time” to watch, it never gets old. Like watching the tide, waves endlessly arriving on the shore. Repetition builds a universe. On one scale of things, you might call Stella a very “minor” event. Take a large enough view and almost everything turns small. The weather image of the continental U.S. shows the small portion affected. What does such a view offer? On a small enough scale, it’s all-encompassing. Here in southern Vermont, a cloud moving white in every direction.

It may seem strange to speak of “non-personal” events like weather in terms of intention, but then I think that the existence of anything forms or reveals its intention. After all, do I ever see snow except when it falls, or has fallen? That’s what snow is. And I imagine — intend — living more intentionally, living like snow, being an intention of Spirit, with the added and priceless human gift of witnessing as I do.

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Image: stella.

 

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“Doing the True”   2 comments

Truth’s subject to leakage at any time. Mostly, though, when that happens — when truth does manage, against the odds, to seep in — we strive vigorously to plug the hole any time more than a little discomfort spills out into our lives.

Praise then such discomforts, for what they can, even occasionally, reveal to us.

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A burst of activity from Canadian viewers has been showing up on the page stats — one of a few places more wintry than here. A shout-out to Canadians trying to feel spring in February. It’s there — just under the snow, and behind the patience that, with this most recent bout of storms, is wearing thin for all but the most ardent lovers of winter.

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“The world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be improved,” says the Tao Te Ching, ch. 29. Of all the books based on wise and penetrating observation of the world and its dynamics, for me the “TTC” holds a singular position. So I’ve pondered this verse ever since I encountered it as a teen-ager.

To speak to this assertion (which, if you follow the above link, can be read many ways), and unpack and qualify it for myself and my readers, here are two of John Michael Greer’s responses to comments on his recent Feb. 1, 2017 blogpost “Perched on the Wheel of Time“:

The notion that one person can transform the world is very deeply rooted in our culture, and it’s not entirely untrue; like most damaging beliefs, it’s a half-truth. Each of us can change the world, but how we can change it is determined by our cultural and historical context — and of course it’s also true that in a world in which everyone can change the world, no one person gets to change everything! It can be a real struggle, though, to break through the binary between “you can change everything” and “no one can change anything,” and grasp the many ways in which we all, to use a New Age term, help co-create the future.

It can be a valuable Druid practice to break through binaries, finding at least a third position between two poles. And discovering and walking the line revealed by repeated blundering into a damaging belief/half-truth — there’s another name for life, for the modest wisdom a person can accrue over several decades. How much can I co-create? Where are my energies best spent in trying? Can I co-operate with even one other person around me  — like a friend or partner, for starters — to maximize our co-creative acts?

And if this world can’t be “improved”? Well, certainly local conditions improve and deteriorate all the time, shaped in considerable part by the actions of individuals. Any overall equilibrium, though? I must ruefully admit that does seem to remain the same. But that’s not a reason to disengage. Greer expands on his perspective in a later comment on the same post, which I find persuasive as well:

…the Druid teachings I follow hold that this world, the world of human beings experiencing greed and hunger and a distinct lack of the brotherhood of man, is a necessary stage or mode of consciousness through which every soul must pass in due time. When we outgrow it, we move to a different stage or mode of consciousness, and the world stays the way it is so that it can provide the same experience to those who need it. Thus there’s only so much change you can make in the world — though there’s some, and making such changes are an important part of grappling with this mode of being. The changes that matter are those you make to yourself.

If a succinct statement of my bias is possible, Greer captures it in his last sentence here. “The changes that matter (most) to me are those I make to myself.”

First, because in the grand scheme of things I find change difficult. I’m assuming you do, too.

Second, because the changes I actually pull off, ones I make to myself, usually affect my immediate environment, where they’re more visible than they would be elsewhere. That means I get more feedback from them on what I’ve done, and whether it’s what I actually wanted. You know: life as laboratory.

Third, because I continue to learn the hard way that my understanding is often so imperfect in so many domains that I’d rather improve it and share what I’ve learned than botch my immediate environment out of ignorance or stupidity — and more likely, both. Humility is a really useful tool in my kit. Almost always I’ve ignored it at my peril.

And as for matters of scale, I’ve also met wise individuals in my life. Not many, but a few, human and non-human. But very, very few wise local governments, and even fewer wise nations. And that gives me guidance for where my energies are best spent — at least for me, in this cycle.

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So when anyone — whether Jesus or Donald Trump — offers up a version of “I alone can save you”, I need a lot of proof and demonstration before I’m willing to divert my energies to them from working in my own life.

Whitman sings in Song of Myself 32:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
    self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
    owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
    years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

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It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau/OBOD’s weekly “Inspiration for Life”.

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Images: snow on moss in Westminster, VT.

“Collapsing Now” and “Inevitable Progress”   2 comments

[OK, what follows is a rant. Continue for your own discomfort. I say little that’s new here. Just retuning and returning with notes I’ve sounded before. Mostly, as with blogging, I’m talking to myself, but out loud. Say it to see how it sounds. Flavo(u)r to taste. You indulge me by sometimes liking what I write, if it has any merit you can use. And your comments, as always, are welcome.]

“Collapse now”, counsels John Michael Greer, “collapse now and avoid the rush” as industrial civilization devolves and careers along an increasingly wobbly course. Greer, whose words and ideas have intermittently appeared here, is a “talk-walker”, someone who lives what he advises others to practice. An increasingly widely read blogger and master gardener, as well as author and mage and archdruid emeritus of the Druid order AODA, Greer lives largely off the grid. Owning no car, and growing a large portion of his food, Greer and his lived choices make his words carry more weight with me than the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.

Of course, Greer’s choices are just one possible set, and not even the best for many of us. But they’re his, not manufactured for and sold to him by someone else.

And Stephen Hawking? Just yesterday he wrote in an article in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that, yes, he’s lived a life of extraordinary privilege; that, yes, elites like him and his circle have long ignored the plight of working-class folks; and that, yes, recent elections and votes in the U.S. and U.K. and elsewhere betoken a cry of anger and anguish. But he can still write in an astonishing stew of ignorance and arrogance that

what matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react. Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake.

No, in fact, the reaction of elites matters far less. It will be quite predictable. We’ve seen it repeated endlessly over the span of millennia. They won’t do what they could do, because it’s really not even theirs to do, though we’ve often abdicated choice to them. But as we always have, we choose day by day to put into action the causes that bring us where we go next.

three-things-cannot-be-long-hiddenThat’s neither good or bad in itself: it’s simply how cause and effect have worked, and will continue to work. But so often it’s not in the self-interest of any elite to do what the “electorate” may want or need. That’s what makes them the elite. Plotting a course of self-interest is how they got to be elite. That’s what “people do” in such circumstances.

And — always — people can do something else. I can, and so can you. I did yesterday, and you did too.

Not according to Hawking, though. Current trends and practices

in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits [Hawking’s link] while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.

Inevitable, progress, socially destructive. There it is, in a nutshell, the reason we’re collapsing. The first two assumptions are just that, assumptions. The third factor looms before and around us, resulting from the first two.

We’ve demonstrated over time, far better than any New Age workshop or guru ever could, how we create our reality. Assumptions are, after all, powerful magical techniques. Hold them strongly enough, inject them with emotion and attention, and they shape consciousness. They make up the outer circumstances, often the inner ones, of life. One life, a billion lives, in high tech or on a factory floor or in a studio or classroom or garden. One life, a billion lives, filled with pain, joy, a mix.

“With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we are going to have to learn to share far more than at present,” says Hawking. But who will start today? You, privileged physicist Stephen Hawking? Whenever I read or hear “must” and “have to”, I know someone’s avoiding actually doing that “must” or “have to”, or, more likely, is shunting it off onto someone else’s shoulders. I try to minimize that in this blog, but my percentage slips from time to time.

Waiting for “elites” to act is exactly the wrong course of action. We each take steps each day to build whatever balance we have in our own lives. Sharing resources? One way I share is to “consume less”, of course. Will I recycle this bag or box, or throw it in the trash? Will I replace these lightbulbs with higher-efficiency ones, or maybe just not use lights as much? Candles, or darkness. Will I reduce my car-trips, combining tasks and appointments? Will I sell the car, and use public transport? (It may not be available.) Will I unplug appliances that eat energy even when they’re “off”? Will I grow anything at all that I can prepare myself and eat, rather than buy from halfway around the planet? Will I downsize a habit, a car, a house, a hoard of possessions, an attitude, a life?

One and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one make ten. “Suddenly” a lot? Nope. Accumulating every day. We know this. The world now vividly reveals the human psyche. (The fact that it also does many other things needn’t be lost on us either, in our species-centric obsessions. Other lives have their say.) Our Western popular culture now gives us The Hunger Games, Divergent, The 100, Terra Nova, Incorporated, The 3%, and so on.

The beauty of our individuality is that there’s no “single solution” but a multitude of choices, because we’re a multitude of people.

brian-savage-thank-god-a-panel-of-experts-new-yorker-cartoonThe city-dweller in a third-world nation foraging for scraps through piles of refuse exhausts her options and migrates with her family to another region where she can grow a small garden. Or find work. Or mount a protest with others large enough it draws media attention to a problem. Or, sometimes, die trying any of these. Sometimes we can shame ourselves into fixing things. Sometimes we just turn away. Every choice matters, every choice contributes to the pool. Nothing is lost. All that we do returns to us, so we can see our choices more clearly. Why else have worlds like this, where choice is possible and makes such a difference?

Americans, of course, are all elites in their own way. We’ve seen the figures, how we consume a very large percentage of the world’s resources, far larger than our share. Greer counsels “collapsing now” as something prudent, as an act of self-interest, because our two choices are not really choices at all. We can collapse more gradually, with foresight and preparation, or we can collapse painfully, in places violently, resisting change all the way down. Collapsing or not collapsing are no longer the options. How we collapse is.

It’s not some unique event, the collapse of a civilization and economy. History doesn’t so much repeat itself as find endless variations on a small set of themes. The collapse of a petroleum-consumption-empire-supported lifestyle doesn’t mean “the End” but it does mean massive change in a certain set of imbalances.

It’s safe to say large portion of the readership of this blog is blanketed, for now, against the worst sufferings these changes can bring. If you have both the leisure and opportunity to ponder the words of a privileged white blogger, you’re statistically pretty likely to be privileged yourself. Yes, we’ve been “inconvenienced” by changes already. Yes, our “standard of living” may be declining. Most of us aren’t yet starving, in prison, or dead. But our heads and hearts are troubled, our bank accounts are scary-shrinking, our stresses, health, credit-cards, relationships and uncertainties maxed out. We’ve had a foretaste, certainly. Those of us who live more on the fringes in any way will, like canaries in the mine, bear more of the assault of change. We’re already beginning our own forms of collapse, of hopefully creative down-sumption.

The healing, creativity, practical tool-kit, and hope that Druidry offers, like other spiritual paths also do, involve steps we can take now and daily. Whether we actually take any of them, whether we see them as beautiful and wise opportunities to begin to reclaim ourselves and our world, or as RAORPSEMFs, Ridiculous Avoidances Of Real Problems Somebody Else Must Fix, will determine to a great extent how the next minute, month and decade will go for any of us.

Yours along the journey,

A Druid Way.

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Images: Three things; panel of experts.

Is Magic Necessary?   Leave a comment

“I’m here to have an argument.” (Welcome to our daily flying circus.) I’m enlisting the aid of high art and low craft to get through this post.

This post is an argument — not a disagreement, but an argument in the older sense of the word: a proof, a seeking of an accurate assessment of our world. Did the title put you off? It’s going to get worse. Maybe you should just enjoy the Monty Python video, and let the net distract you from there.

Are you allergic to magic, having tried it and found it to be mostly flash and bluster? Does it simply not rouse in you any response — the kind of response you’ve learned to listen for, the kind you’ve come to trust intuitively along your spiritual journey?

You can sigh justifiably — go ahead! — as I pursue yet another topic tangential to your interests or needs. Check back in later. If you’ve been coming here for any length of time, you know I’ll roll around again soon enough to something you can use. Till then, compost and ruminate. It will do you more good. This post really isn’t a downer, but it’s one that will get few or no likes, and recede ignored into the archives.

Because mostly with this blog I’m arguing with myself, of course. (You’re all much too kind and rarely call me on my crap, for which I think I thank you.) But like a madman, I do the arguing semi-publicly, flopping and writhing on the sidewalk, because what else is worth doing, if I don’t also put myself on the line? Do I mean what I do and say, or not? All right then.

[If you’re not like me or most other humans, you move through life blissfully, largely untroubled by the shifts and turns of living in this world with a body that ages and will eventually die. If indeed you belong to that singularly uncommon group, please leave now. I have nothing to say to you. However, you perhaps have something to teach me. It’s likely you’re spending down a karmic store from a previous life. Spend wisely. But if in fact you’re an enlightened being here for the upliftment of others, and you have no personal life or what we now like to call issues but used to be more accurately called hang-ups*, please open your school/temple/retreat/grove/workshop and get on with your mission. The world needs your wisdom.

*hang-ups: those weak spots in our make-up that serve as ideal targets for tests and challenges and other people’s hang-ups. Shrike-like (warning: video at link!), they hang us up on the thorns of uncomfortable truths behind our comfortable illusions before they rip into us. Because pain is often the creator of awareness. I don’t know about you, but some of my most valuable learning has come at the price of pain. And — after the pain has passed — it’s usually worth it. Cancer, deaths in the family, end of relationships, arson, loss of friends: like most of us, I’ve had my share. And like you, I’m still here. The best revenge is living well.]

Having dispatched some of my readership with one or the other of the last few paragraphs, I ask those of you who remain to consider the following. If you want to grow or make changes in the world, or both, and you’ve been frustrated, recently or for a bad long while, here’s an observation worth trying out in the laboratory of the every day. To put it in concrete terms, if during the upcoming holidays you’re up against a Clinton or Trump supporter in your immediate circle (or, with a change of nation, Brexit or Erdogan or Putin or Modi, etc.) who just doesn’t see the world your way, step back a moment and prepare to get magical:

The tools of magic are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough. — J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88.

For “magical” effects, read “transformational.” I’m a sucker for a good transformation. Aren’t you?

It may be that our wands, like Ron’s, simply need replacing. We’re all “truth (im)moral high ground rights victory” and what we really need is just a new, and appropriately charmed, stick of wood.

51qgd7w1ecl-_sx408_bo1204203200_To add to the mix, I’ll add a line from the Hebrew Bible (Proverbs 16:32) that’s resonated with me since I was a teenager (read in your own appropriate pronoun): “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

Yes, I’m as subject to confirmation bias as the next person. I like this passage because I’ve seen in my immediate family the ravages that anger can leave. I’ve also shed any expectation that another person will or can do the work in my life that only I can do. (Politicians top that list, no surprise. Blame is always easier than change, and they’re so obligingly convenient to blame.)

iluupncRound this off with Gandhi’s admonition to be the change we wish to see in the world, and I’ve got a lot of changing to do. But better me than you, I remind myself: if I’m hard to change, you’re even worse. The world — by which I mean you and anyone else in my circle — refuses to do almost anything I want. Me, on the other hand, I’ve hand some success in shaping. Small steps, to be sure. “I love you, you’re perfect, now change.”

How to reach the depths? Like others who’ve learned the hard way, Greer lays out a number of testable, practical suggestions. (Because they’re not “new and improved” they get less attention than they merit.) You’ve already heard me grapple with a number of them on this blog.

What I’m proposing, then, once a week going forward, whatever else I’m doing, is an account of my own experience with some of these specific practices , together with my results. I like the spiritual laboratory of experience, not because I “succeed” but because my failures are often remarkably instructive. I learn how to hear and integrate wisdom or make room for enlarged awareness in my own odd life much better by making “mistakes” with it than I ever could merely by reading or giving intellectual assent to others’ ideas.

A sign I need to grow: I’m either strongly attracted to, or repelled by, a person, place, thing, idea, or feeling.

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Images: Wandlore; “I love you, you’re perfect, now change.”

 

 

A Review of J. M. Greer’s The Gnostic Celtic Church   2 comments

Greer, John Michael. The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy. Everett, WA: Starseed Publications (Kindle)/Lorian Press (paper), 2013. NOTE: All quotations from Kindle version.

Quick Take:

A valuable resource for those wishing to explore a coherent and profound Druid theology and to develop or expand a solitary practice. Greer offers pointers, reflections, principles — and a detailed set of rites, visualizations and images emerging from both AODA Druidry and Gnostic-flavored Celtic Christian magic practice.

Expansive Take:

John_Michael_Greer

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer continues to advance ideas and books that provoke and advocate thoughtful, viable alternatives to dysfunctional contemporary lifestyles and perspectives. The Gnostic Celtic Church takes its place among a growing and diverse body of work. Author of over thirty books, blogger (of the influential weekly Archdruid Report, among others), practicing magician, head of AODA (Ancient Order of Druids in America), “Green Wizard,” master conserver and longtime organic gardener, Greer wears lightly a number of hats that place him squarely in the ranks of people to read, consider, and take seriously, even if you find yourself, like I do, disagreeing from time to time with him or his perspectives. In that case, he can still help you clarify your stance and your beliefs simply by how he articulates the issues. In person (I met him at the 2012 East Coast Gathering), he is witty, articulate, widely informed, and quick to dispose of shoddy thinking. (As you can ascertain from the picture to the right, he’s also has acquired over the decades a decidedly Druidic beard …)

What all Gnostic traditions share, Greer notes, is that

personal religious experience is the goal that is set before each aspirant and the sole basis on which questions of a religious nature can be answered — certain teachings have been embraced as the core values from which the Gnostic Celtic Church as an organization derives its broad approach to spiritual issues. Those core teachings may be summarized in the words ‘Gnostic, Universalist, and Pelagian’ which are described in this book.

GC Church Front cover.inddThe Gnostic Celtic Church (GCC) may appear to step away from direct engagement with contemporary issues that have been the focus of Greer’s blog and recent books: peak oil, the decline of the West and its imperial overreach, and ways to begin laying the foundations and shaping a new, more balanced and truly green post-oil civilization that can arise over the next few centuries.

Instead of avoiding what amounts to an activist engagement, however, the book comes at these issues indirectly, outlining a set of core practices and perspectives for what AODA intends as “an independent sacramental church of nature spirituality.” The “independent sacramental movement ranks among the most promising stars now rising above the horizon of contemporary spirituality,” Greer observes in his introduction. Its freedom from the bonds of creed and doctrine has helped carry it to fresh insights and creativity, and deep applicability to the seeking that characterizes our era of “spiritual but not religious.”

What, you may be asking, does this have to do with Druidry? A lot. Or why would a Druid group include a “church” in the middle of its affairs? Read on, faithful explorer.

To examine in turn each of the three terms that Greer puts forth, the GCC is “Gnostic” because it affirms that “personal experience, rather than dogmatic belief or membership in an organization, can form the heart of a spiritual path.” This sensibility accords well with most flavors of Druidry today.  While there is an admitted theme of ascetic dualism and world-hating in some currents of Gnostic thought, Greer provides useful context: “… this was only one aspect of a much more diverse and creative movement that also included visions of reality in which the oneness of the cosmos was a central theme, and in which the body and the material world were points of access to the divine rather than obstacles to its manifestation.”

flameThe GCC is also “Universalist.” Among other early Church leaders, the great mystic Origen (184-254 CE) taught that “communion with spiritual realities is open to every being without exception, and that all beings — again, without exception — will eventually enter into harmony with the Divine.” The Universalist strain in Christianity is perhaps most familiar to most people today in the guise of Unitarian Universalism, a relatively recent (1961) merger of two distinct movements in Christianity. A Universalist strain has been “central to the contemporary Druid movement since the early days of the Druid Revival” (ca. 1600s) and “may be found in many alternative spiritual traditions of the West.” Both Gnostic and Universalist links existed within AODA Druidry when Greer was installed as Archdruid in 2003. For another perspective, check out John Beckett’s blog Under the Ancient Oaks: Musings of a Pagan, Druid and Unitarian Universalist.

“Pelagian,” the third term, is perhaps the least familiar. This Christian heresy took its name from Pelagius (circa 354-420 CE), a Welsh mystic who earned the ire of the Church hierarchy because of his emphasis on free will and human agency. Pelagius taught, as Greer briskly characterizes it, that “the salvation of each individual is entirely the result of that individual’s own efforts, and can neither be gained through anyone else’s merits or denied on account of anyone else’s failings.” Of course this teaching put Pelagius at odds with an orthodoxy committed to doctrines of original sin, predestination, and the atonement of Christ’s death on the cross, and to policing deviations from such creeds. A Pelagian tendency remains part of Celtic Christianity today.

Greer draws on the history of Revival (as opposed to Reconstructionist) Druidry and notes that the former places at its center some powerful perspectives on individual identity and destiny.

Each soul, according to the Druid Revival, has its own unique Awen [link: an excellent (bilingual) meditation on Awen by Philip Carr-Gomm]. To put the same concept in terms that might be slightly more familiar to today’s readers, each soul has its own purpose in existence, which differs from that of every other soul, and it has the capacity — and ultimately the necessity — of coming to know, understand, and fulfill this unique purpose.

None of this is intended to deny the value of community — one of the great strengths of contemporary Druidry. But we each have work to do that no one else can do for us. In keeping with the Druid love of threes, what we do with the opportunities and challenges of a life determines where we find ourselves in the three levels of existence: Abred, Gwynfydd and Ceugant. These are a Druid reflection of an ancient and pan-cultural perception of the cosmos. Greer delivers profound Druid theology as a potential, a map rather than a dogma. “It is at the human level that the individual Awen may become for the first time an object of conscious awareness. Achieving this awareness, and living in accord with it, is according to these Druid teachings the great challenge of human existence.” Thus while the Awen pervades the world, and carries all life, and lives, in its melody and inspiration, with plants and animals manifesting it as instinct and in their own inherent natures, what distinguishes humans is our capacity to know it for the first time — and to respond to it with choice and intention.

Thus, Greer outlines the simplicity and depth of the GCC:

… the rule of life that the clergy of the Gnostic Celtic Church are asked to embrace may be defined simply by these words: find and follow your own Awen. Taken as seriously as it should be — for there is no greater challenge for any human being than that of seeking his or her purpose of existence, and then placing the fulfillment of that purpose above other concerns as a guide to action and life — this is as demanding a rule as the strictest of traditional monastic vows. Following it requires attention to the highest and deepest dimensions of the inner life, and a willingness to ignore all the pressures of the ego and the world when those come into conflict, as they will, with the ripening personal knowledge of the path that Awen reveals.

All well and good, you say. The basis for a mature Druidry, far removed from the fluff-bunny Pagan caricatures that Druids still sometimes encounter. But what about down-to-earth stuff? You know: rituals, visualizations, prompts, ways to manifest in my own life whatever realities may lie behind all this high-sounding language.

Greer delivers here, too.  Though membership and ordination in the GCC require a parallel membership in AODA, the practices, rites and visualizations are set forth for everyone in the remainder of the book. That’s as it should be: a spiritual path can take either or both of these forms — outward and organizational, inward and personal — without diminution. And those interested in ordination in other Gnostic organizations will probably already know of the variety of options available today. Greer notes,

Receiving holy orders in the GCC is not a conferral of authority over others in matters of faith or morals, or in any other context, but an acceptance of responsibility for oneself and one’s own life and work. The clergy of the GCC are encouraged to teach by example, and to offer advice or instruction in spiritual and other matters to those who may request such services, but it is no part of their duty to tell other people how to live their lives.

If, upon reflection, a candidate for holy orders comes to believe that it is essential to his or her Awen to claim religious or moral authority over others as part of the priestly role he or she seeks, he or she will be asked to seek ordination from some other source. If one who is already ordained or consecrated in the GCC comes to the same belief, in turn, it will be his or her duty — a duty that will if necessary be enforced by the Grand Grove [of AODA] — to leave the GCC and pursue another path.

The ceremonies, rituals and meditations include the Hermitage of the Heart, the Sphere of Protection, the Calling of the Elements, the Sphere of Light, a Solitary Grove Ceremony (all but the first derive from AODA practice), and a Communion Ceremony that ritualizes the “Doctrine of the One”:

I now invoke the mystery of communion, that common unity that unites all beings throughout the worlds. All beings spring from the One; by One are they sustained, and in One do they find their rest. One the hidden glory rising through the realms of Abred; One the manifest glory rejoicing in the realms of Gwynfydd; One the unsearchable glory beyond all created being in Ceugant; and these three are resumed in One. (Extend your hands over the altar in blessing. Say …)

Included also are seasonal celebrations of the four solar festivals, the two Equinoxes and Solstices, ordination ceremonies for priests, deacons and bishops, advice on personal altars, morning prayer, evening lection or reading, and visualizations that recall Golden Dawn visualizations of rays, colors and symbols.

At a little over 100 pages, this manual in its modest length belies the wealth of material it contains — plenty to provide a full Gnostic Celtic spiritual practice for the solitary, enough to help lead to a well-informed decision if ordination is the Call of your Awen, and material rich for inspiration and spiritual depth if you wish to adapt anything here to your own purposes.

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Images: John Michael Greer; GCC book cover; flame.

A Hallowed Evening and a Conquest   Leave a comment

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

pumpkinfieldsm

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

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

Hutton observes that the ancestor to modern Halloween:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

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

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

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

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

In his Guardian article on Halloween, Hutton notes:

allsaints-oswiecim

All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacification, oddly enough, usually involves violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRL — A Druid Ritual Language, Part 2   3 comments

[Part 1 | Part 3]

I’ll be covering a fair bit of ground in this post, and supplying a larger than usual number of links (distractions?), since so many of you, my readers, come from such diverse perspectives and experiences. Thus it is that while some of what I say here will be sure to irritate, confuse or bore some of you, there’s a very fair chance the same sections won’t be the same irritants for everybody.  And with a liberal helping of what goes under the names of luck, awen, grace, and chance, some of it might actually be useful to you.

So what do you make of this video?!

Ritual and Ritual Language are Pan-human

One of my points in including the “Biker Blessing” — whatever you think of Pope Francis, the pontiff sure has his own style — is simply to illustrate two important points we keep forgetting:  all humans participate in and perform rituals, and they’re both utterly common and rather strange, when you actually begin to examine them more closely.

To give just one common example, if you intend to get hitched in a church, you’re not yet married until right after the presiding clergy says some equivalent of the words “I now pronounce you man and wife.” So what do those words do?! (For the nerds among us, this has been called the performative aspect of language, according to the theory of speech acts in a book with the fine title of How to Do Things with Words by Brit J. L. Austin.)

It’s because the West in particular often lacks (read “threw the baby out with the bathwater over the last century”) meaningful ritual that ritual has come to preoccupy many Druids and Pagans generally. But it bears repeating that ritual isn’t merely a Druid or even a Pagan concern: ritual and ritual languages cover the planet.

Here’s a remarkably respectful video from a 3-minute 2010 BBC broadcast.  (Title includes “OBOD” but no mention is made of it in the video itself, so don’t worry — I’m not proselytizing — really!):

“Ceremonies of Innocence”

Another common example. Depending on how you were raised, your parents taught you to say “thank you” and “excuse me.” In the process they likely also taught you that the forms themselves matter, as much as or often more than your heartfelt gratitude or apology. The discipline of saying the words themselves – often — was enough. (If you’re feeling cynical, you could argue that this is one of our first formal lessons in hypocrisy.) We may rail justifiably against “empty language,” but that’s not the fault of ritual. The emptiness of much empty talk issues from a lack of conviction or perspective behind it. As Yeats said in his poem “The Second Coming,” “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” So we get loudness and passion as the daily menu on far too many of our media of choice, while stillness and reflection flee for the hills. But (to mix metaphors) that’s where these two inexhaustible caves of treasures lie waiting. We can, if we desire to, recover the “ceremonies of innocence.”

A Side-note on Definitions

You may have noticed that I carefully sidestepped the issue of what “ritual” is and what a “language” is. If you want more information on these fascinating and often controversial topics than the quick-and-dirty Wikipedia links can give, and you don’t have a good town library handy, just search “magical use of ritual language” on Google Scholar. Earlier today (3/24/14) it returned 168,000 results. So even if upwards of 90% of these prove to be some combination of junk or dead links, you’ll find remarkable studies, academic and amateur and much in between. Enough in fact to launch you into a lifetime of fruitful reading and study on just this one topic, should you wish.  (See the end of this post for a detailed excerpt of  the Wikipedia entry for “magical language.”

All or Nothing

allnothingOf course, using ritual language doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition. A few words and phrases can often be sufficient to signal important parts of a ritual, or to heighten the charge of ritual atmosphere. Any decent magical training curriculum will show you this. Like all conscious acts, those performed with intention carry power. (Anyone reading this knows, for instance, the difference between a casually tossed-off “I love you” and the same words said with full attention and feeling. If you don’t, don’t come back here until you do. That part of your life obviously deserves more atttention than this blog.)

As an example of this “ritual sprinkle” approach, here’s an excerpt of the ritual use of Welsh from the “Grand Sword” page of the Gorsedd of the Bards (Museum of Wales online):

One of the Gorsedd’s oldest rites is the ceremony of partly unsheathing the Grand Sword. The Archdruid asks the following questions and the audience replies ‘Heddwch’ (Peace) three times:

Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd, A oes Heddwch? (The Truth against the World, Is there Peace?)
Calon wrth Galon, A oes Heddwch? (Heart to Heart, Is there Peace?)
Gwaedd uwch Adwaedd, A oes Heddwch? (Shout above responding Shout, Is there Peace?)’

Carrying a sword was one of the rites in Iolo Morganwg’s first Gorsedd in 1792. As a pacifist Iolo wanted to emphasise that the Bards met in peace and when a naked sword was placed on the Logan Stone they proceeded to sheath it as a symbol of peace in Gorsedd.

Bardic chair inscription: "the truth against the world"

Bardic chair inscription: “the truth against the world”

With no more than this much Welsh in a ritual, or even just Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd [approximately “uh GWEER uhn EHR-been uh BEED”] “the Truth against the World,” you can clearly set apart the language of your rite from ordinary language, and help evoke the heightened state of consciousness characteristic of much (not all) successful ritual.

Benefits of Ritual Language

If you want the John F. Kennedy version – “what ritual language can do for you” – here’s a start.

An FAQ of the Latin Liturgy Association site lists several “important benefits of using Latin” as a “sacral” language, including its close association with worship, as with the Arabic of the Qur’an, the Sanskrit of Hinduism and the Hebrew of Judaism. It also “helps us overcome limitations of time and place” and “participate in the universal reality of the Catholic Church, linking us with the generations” who preceded us. As the language of a sacred musical tradition, it also gives access to the plainsong and chant of the Church.

So Why Use a Distinct Ritual Language?

Huston Smith

Huston Smith

OK, you get that ritual and ritual language are powerful and widespread. But why not keep it to your own native tongue and skip the difficulty of learning another language besides? Who has the time for studying and mastering a dedicated language? Isn’t a dedicated practice more important? Aren’t ritual and worship and devotion in [insert your language here] better than none at all? This cry of the heart has a strong appeal. Its human roots are ancient. Huston Smith in his The World’s Religions (p. 34) cites a Hindu prayer, noting, “Even village priests will frequently open their temple ceremonies with the following beloved invocation:

O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations,
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

Surely this is justification, if indeed we need any? You may have seen this prayer incorporated into rituals as part of the reach toward the divine – I have. Of all human failings, surely what language we use in our quest must rank low on the scale of such things?

M. Isadora Forrest notes in her book Isis Magic, “Isis of the Ten Thousand Names provided Her ancient worshippers with a broad range of Divine aspects, functions and affinities” (pg. 8). So if we can approach spirit or divine realm using our own names for it, what’s the need for a separate ritual language? Can’t we reach and communicate with the Goddess [substitute your own preferred name here] using what is, after all, our “mother tongue,” the speech that is most intimate to us? Isn’t this language therefore among the most valid of tools we can use, if we wish to contact and plunge into the Otherworld, the divine realm? It reaches and extends from the heart.

Well, just like you generally appreciate home-baked over store-bought, deities show preferences. Among them are offerings, names and languages. That doesn’t mean that English or whatever your native language is won’t “work” as you lay the roses, pour the mead, light the cedar incense, offer the myrrh or dragonsblood or cinnamon, but it does mean that a more immediate connection is one benefit and advantage of using a ritual language. In part it’s a matter of dedication and devotion. Our efforts please the divine; as someone said – I’m quoting badly here – “the gods enjoy the taste of human sweat in their offerings.”

A tradition can have profound impact on our spiritual paths. Forrest observes (again, insert your preferred designation for “Goddess” and “Isis” as needed):

By examining the evidence this tradition has left us, modern devotees of the Goddess can be connected with and find inspiration in the ancient worship … We can discover the traditional ways Isis was worshipped and learn how her worshippers thought, talked and taught about her. In the stories they told, the religious purposes they agreed upon … we can follow the path of a very ancient religious tradition that can connnect us to our spiritual ancestors. By using the symbols they used and found meaningful– and by finding our own meaning in them – we are empowered by tradition. It can guide us, inpsire us, explain things to us. It provides potent archetypal symbols, sanctified by centuries of use, energized by the meaning invested in them. The devotion of thousands upon thousands of Isis worshippers before us can provide a path we can walk and a context for our own relationship

with the divine. Thus, “tradition can be an extremely valuable tool of connection with the Divine; yet it need not constrain us. Human religious history is a history of change” (9).

Ritual Language and Two Kinds of “Users”

The use of a special ritual language concerns two groups of ritualists in different ways. For writers or composers of rituals and liturgies, the language must be “composable in.” That is, it shouldn’t be so difficult to use that the creation of new rituals and liturgies is so challenging only a few can pull it off. This means that those who know the language can use it creatively. Need a new handfasting ritual, or a rite to plant potatoes? No problem! This also means that the first group can make the ritual accessible to the second and much larger group, the users or participants in rituals and liturgies. This latter groups includes not only the “usual suspects,” the regular participants in rituals, but also any visitors (assuming your rituals with a ritual language are open to them), and readers of any media like your group’s website that explains or presents rituals to a wider audience.

Which Ritual Language?

There are currently some 6000 human languages on the planet, though the number is decreasing dramatically. However, Celtic-inspired Druids need not sort through them; under a dozen ready and suitable options present themselves. (If you want to focus on Asatru and other similar northwestern European Heathen traditions, replace Celtic with Germanic tongues. Likewise, substitute some Slavic options, if you’re into Baltic Heathenism like Romuva, or Hellenismos if you’re a Greek Pagan.etc.).

Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish, Manx. Throw in Proto-Celtic if you wish. All but the latter have communities of speakers, grammars and dictionaries and various learning resources. (Proto-Celtic lets you try out an ancestral speech in a form that’s still being reconstructed as we speak. Enough exists to compose in it – barely.  See the next section for more possibilities.) Admittedly you’re most likely to encounter the modern forms of these, but dive into the modern form, and you can begin to make use of preserved older forms in manuscripts, chronicles, epics and legends, rich with symbolism and myth for rituals, prayers, chants, song lyrics, etc. as yet unborn, unwritten, unchanted, unsung.

Conlangs, Arise!

DanaeLang4

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Another option lies in the adaptation of a Celtic language to your purposes. Ritual language is already heightened, altered, shifted.  Well, a conlang or constructed language may fit your needs.  (For a detailed look at some possibilities, visit Mark Rosenfelder’s online Language Construction Kit.)  Conlangers have been modifying adapting, regularizing, extending and creating out of whole cloth an astonishing range of languages. A significant number of them exist in forms complete enough to use for ritual. And you can actually commission a language from the Language Creation Society. You too can do just as the producers of Game of Thrones have done with Dothraki, whose creator David Peterson has created other languages. Visit his website for a sampling.

Perplexed by the contradiction between authentic or historical and concocted or created ex nihilo? You’ve arrived at the classic a priori versus a posteriori nexus – a lively point of debate in the conlang community.

J M Greer

J M Greer

Ends and Beginnings

Had enough? Need a break? Or want to sample the sounds of some 30 European languages? Below is a Youtube clip featuring Celtic, Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, along with Greek, Albanian and Hungarian to round out the linguistic variety of Europe (see the note below for a complete list of languages and approximate times). You may have visceral reactions to accents, pitches, sounds. I urge you to make note of them. See if you can get down in words what it is that appeals or doesn’t appeal to you in the sounds and overall sprachgefühl, a wonderful German word that literally means “speech-feeling” — the character of a language. This can be helpful as you consider the sound of any ritual language you might want to use. It may also prove useful if you’re wondering what languages you might want to study in the future (if you’re following the language learning advice of John Michael Greer in his talk “A Magical Education”). And there’s a chance it may spark a dream of a past life when you may have spoken a form of one of these languages yourself.

Here’s the 32-language video:

A Next Step

In DRL —  A Druid Ritual Language — Part 3, I’ll look specifically at Welsh and then at a couple of conlangs as candidates for ritual languages.

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Images: Huston SmithGame of Thrones; all/nothingDanaelect4;  J M Greer; bardic chair.

From the Wikipedia entry for “Magical Language“, accessed 3/23/14, which I cite below for its interest:

The performance of magic almost always involves the use of language. Whether spoken out loud or unspoken, words are frequently used to access or guide magical power. In “The Magical Power of Words” (1968) S. J. Tambiah argues that the connection between language and magic is due to a belief in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe. Bronisław Malinowski … suggests that this belief is an extension of man’s basic use of language to describe his surroundings, in which “the knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action.”Magical speech is therefore a ritual act and is of equal or even greater importance to the performance of magic than non-verbal acts.

Not all speech is considered magical. Only certain words and phrases or words spoken in a specific context are considered to have magical power. Magical language … is distinct from scientific language because it is emotive and it converts words into symbols for emotions; whereas in scientific language words are tied to specific meanings and refer to an objective external reality. Magical language is therefore particularly adept at constructing metaphors that establish symbols and link magical rituals to the world.

Malinowski argues that “the language of magic is sacred, set and used for an entirely different purpose to that of ordinary life.” The two forms of language are differentiated through word choice, grammar, style, or by the use of specific phrases or forms: spellssongsblessings, or chants, for example. Sacred modes of language often employ archaic words and forms in an attempt to invoke the purity or “truth” of a religious or a cultural “golden age”. The use of Hebrew in Judaism is an example.

Another potential source of the power of words is their secrecy and exclusivity. Much sacred language is differentiated enough from common language that it is incomprehensible to the majority of the population and it can only be used and interpreted by specialized practitioners (magicianspriests, shamans, even mullahs). In this respect, Tambiah argues that magical languages violate the primary function of language: communication. Yet adherents of magic are still able to use and to value the magical function of words by believing in the inherent power of the words themselves and in the meaning that they must provide for those who do understand them. This leads Tambiah to conclude that “the remarkable disjunction between sacred and profane language which exists as a general fact is not necessarily linked to the need to embody sacred words in an exclusive language.”

Video roster of languages and times; “FSI + a number” refers to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute ranking of difficulty for an English speaker, 1 being easier, and higher numbers being comparatively more difficult/requiring more hours of study:

0:00 Serbian—FSI 3
0:21 British English
1:03 Albanian—FSI 4/FSI 2
1:18 Finnish—FSI 4
1:46 Slovakian—FSI 4
2:25 German– FSI 2
2:56 Macedonian—FSI 4
3:26 Portuguese—FSI 1
3:54 Ukrainian—FSI 4
4:19 Croatian—FSI 4
4:50 Moldovan—not listed
5:48 Swedish—FSI1
6:14 Russian—FSI 4
6:52 Italian—FSI 1
7:22 Slovenian—FSI 4
7:49 Danish—FSI 1
8:22 Polish—FSI 4
8:44 Romanian—FSI 1
9:13 French—FSI 1
10:00 Byelarussian—not listed
10:24 Bulgarian—FSI 4
10:54 Greek—FSI 4
11:22 Czech—FSI 4
11:52 Dutch—FSI 1
12:35 Bosnian—FSI 4
13:00 Spanish (Castilian) – FSI 1
13:30 Estonian—FSI 4
14:02 Norwegian—FSI 1
14:53 Lithuanian—FSI 4
15:20 Irish Gaelic—not listed
15:52 Latvian—FSI 4
16:26 Icelandic—FSI 4
16:52 Hungarian—FSI 4
17:30 Slovenian—FSI 4

Edited/updated 10 July 2014

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