Archive for the ‘knowledge’ Category

Know by Fact, Believe by Love

The title for this post comes from an entry by fellow Druid John Beckett on his blog Under the Ancient Oaks, which is well worth frequenting.  John closes with these beautiful words: “What I cannot know by fact, I believe by love.”

So here’s my riff on it, a prayer-song and a poem and a question.  I know the hawk flies overhead; I believe he is kin to me because we arise from the same world, share the same earth, water and air, and will return to them.  I know my heart still beats as I write this; I believe I will have more opportunities to love before it finally stops.  I know the touch of my beloved; I believe what love has taught me outweighs college degrees and years in school.  I know the gifts of time and silence; I believe I can make use of them not only for my own benefit but to give back to life.  I know the sun shines behind this afternoon of cloud; I believe the shade to be necessary as the sun.  I know gratitude is a choice; I believe it is one of the most powerful choices I can make.  I know the snow covers part of a world once green; I believe it will turn green again for many millenia yet, the cycles continuing.  I know the spider I rescued from the bathtub yesterday counts for little against the hundred of bugs I have killed at other times; I believe life cannot be valued in numbers alone. I know many things hard to believe; I believe some things I may never know.  And I am content that this should be so.

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Earth Mysteries — 5 of 7 — The Law of Cause and Effect

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

“Everything that exists is the effect of causes at work in the whole system of which each thing is a part, and everything becomes, in turn, the cause of effects elsewhere in the whole system.  In these workings of cause and effect, there must always be a similarity of kind between an effect and at least one of its causes, just as there must be a similarity of scale between an effect and the sum total of its causes.”*

Under the guise of karma, this principle is superficially familiar to more people, perhaps, than the other six laws.  Though not exactly what some people have in mind when they wish you “good karma,” as if it were the same thing as luck.  Where does luck fit in a world system of cause and effect? Worth considering.  A Wise One once remarked that it’s not always possible to be the cause in every situation — to initiate, to be the active force, to get things moving — but that if we must be effect, at least we can strive to be conscious effect.  Recognize the cause, and respond consciously, rather than be manipulated by it unconsciously.  Because who knows? — it may not have your best interests at heart.

That’s not to say that a cause is necessarily actively malevolent or is seeking you out to destroy you and unmake you.  But it may simply be a cause you or someone else set in motion at random, unconsciously, unintentionally.  If you’re its unconscious effect, it’s suddenly detour time.  Willing to go for a ride with a strange cause, one that beckons to you, flashing those stunning looks, that oh so beguiling smile?  Have fun!  Just don’t expect things to be the same when you get back.  Whenever that turns out to be …

You can be spontaneous and conscious too.  But be the cause.  Otherwise, what’s consciousness for?  I find that a fascinating, troubling question.

So many beings get along fine without the human excess of self-consciousness, that strange echo-chamber or feedback loop that tells us our thoughts, our feelings, our thoughts about our feelings, and our feelings about the thoughts we’re having about our feelings.  How often we long for pure experience, without that inner narrator who insists on supplying second thoughts, doubts, fears, insecurities, grubby little (or big) desires, and so on.  It’s like a bad voice-over in a film, a jangling mess that some spiritual traditions remedy with meditation to calm the “monkey of the mind,” so we can get at whatever of value may lie underneath the noise of consciousness.

OK, that’s human consciousness, and specifically self-consciousness, at its least attractive.  But what of consciousness itself?  It’s not all bad.  In fact, it seems to confer some evolutionary advantages.  A conscious being can make choices, react with more than instinct — maybe even live through challenging situations where instinct isn’t enough.  If you’ve observed animals, you can sometimes catch reflection and thinking.  Dogs and cats give evidence of it.  Both birds and mammals can learn and adapt, maximizing their ability to survive, and to pass on their genetic material to their offspring.  But is there more than evolutionary advantage to the species?  How about to the individual?

In more conscious creatures, play and possibly even pleasure are gifts that consciousness also seems to confer.  Otters play for hours, and birds — if you’re convinced by people like David Rothenberg — sing not only to defend their territory, attract mates and warn off rivals, but also to express joy. Is that too human?  Are we anthropomorphizing?

And creativity … to me that’s the greatest gift of consciousness. We’re problem solvers.  We love smooth sailing for sure, long for it deeply in the trough of trouble, but we’re often at our best when challenged, when pushed to grow.  Even our attempts at avoiding growth are frequently clever, creative, inspired.  We procrastinate, rationalize, justify, repress, suppress, distract ourselves, get addicted to something too small for the love we’re driven to express, and our suffering is outrageous, ridiculous, painful, outsized, exaggerated — often because we’ve made it just that way in our struggles to escape what we know we must do eventually.

And here’s the kicker:  even — and maybe especially — our avoidance just makes us stronger for when we finally do face down the problem or issue or challenge.  We’ve tried everything else, all the other options, and they’ve failed in some way.  So we bring to that eventually unavoidable moment of growth a head of anger and frustration, true, but also a chunk of wisdom and strength that we got precisely because we’ve resisted for so long.  That momentum, that power and wisdom with a glow of a little anger and a dash of curiosity under the fear — this very mixed package of preparation — may not always get us through the challenge.  It still may not be enough this time around.  Now we’re still effect, but we’re on the way to becoming cause.

The failure to meet the challenge this time, to pass the test, signals to us what we still need to do to be ready next time.  And the heightened emotion clinging to the lesson, the issue, and the events and people around it, flags it for us.  Never again will we completely be able to avoid it, to shove it entirely back into the shadows, and let ourselves slide into unconsciousness.  A tail sticking out of the box, or paw scratching at the door, or fur on the carpet, will be evidence of this animal self, our helper, our “trouble double,” that we’ve tried to hide.  We will be cause, even if we can’t yet pull it off.  Something in us knows this.  Our growth will seem to pursue us on its own — because we’ve made it ours by being cause even to a limited degree, and cause must, inevitably, unavoidably, have its effect.

All this time, we’ve not been idle; we’ve also been building up strength for our next attempt:  by more avoiding, maybe (if we’re really good at that), but also by a slowly growing awareness that growth is what we’re destined for, that we can actually work toward it, even if our own lives have to drag us there kicking and biting and howling the whole way, functioning as some of the causes we ourselves have set in motion.  There’s more strength building in us, and if there’s a cost, then we’ll pay.  (Another cause, another effect.)  We’re slow learners, because sometimes that’s the only way the lesson sinks in deep enough that we really get it good, get it down pat, and run with it.  One way or another …

And so the causes we absolutely needed to set in motion will become just the effects we need to experience down the road.  But because we grow as a result, the effects which were “everything we ever wanted” at the time will eventually come to box us in, because we’ve grown, and so they’re no longer enough for us.  Then they start to strand us, and constrict and blind and infuriate us, until we arise from them stronger and are again able to set new causes in motion.  Open-ended growth.  Our ideas of perfection often seem to involve stasis:  at some point we imagine we’ll “arrive” and not need to grow anymore.  Heavenly choirs and streets of gold, no telemarketers or spam or mosquitos or flu, and sitting around all day in Paradise Lounge, plucking at harps and sipping (virgin) daiquiris and margaritas.  Likewise our perspective on setbacks often doesn’t take in enough time to see the causes and effects playing out. Sometimes we can’t see them all, if they span multiple lives.  Or parallel ones, if you’re not prone to reincarnate like I am.

But back to perfection as stasis:  from what I’ve seen, that misses how the system works.  “Everything becomes, in turn, the cause of effects elsewhere in the whole system.”  No final perfection — that’s just another trap or sidestep.  Which is fine, if you’d like that experience: then it’s no trap or sidestep so much as interesting or even productive diversion.  (Having your cake is eating it too, after all.  Otherwise it just sits there.) We don’t arrive at long last at any unchanging endpoint.  That’s not perfection.  We’re travelers.  We may get rest stops, but the growth is endless.  “Eden bears those footprints leading out …”

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

Image:  paradigm shift.

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.

Secrets, Part Two

Secrecy often emerges as a national issue in times of crisis. Recall the debate over the Patriot Act enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, and the kinds of broad governmental powers the Act authorized, including significant reductions of citizen privacy.  Secrecy can become central to state security, and exists in uneasy tension with the “need to know.”

President Kennedy declared in an April 27, 1961 speech that unjustifiable secrecy is repellent,  dangerous, and virtually un-American:

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.*

Of course, he was addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and also standing implicitly against the Communist bloc and its perceived threat to the West.  (You can listen to a portion of Kennedy’s speech on Youtube here.)  Nevertheless his points are well-made, and still almost painfully applicable today, in the wake of Wikileaks and similar events.

Yet secret societies, in spite of Kennedy’s assertions, do have a long and well-established place in the history of America, and many still thrive today.  They flourish at many colleges like Yale, with its Skull and Bones the most famous — or notorious — of several societies for college seniors.  Another similar and infamous example, though not affiliated with a school, is the Bohemian Grove.  Both have generated entertaining conspiracy theories, books, films, and news articles, all of which occasionally offer pieces of the truth.  Both exist, and both count among their membership some of the most powerful and influential people in the world.  Bohemian Grove counts among its members George H. W. Bush, Clint Eastwood and the late Walter Cronkite, according to a Univ. of California Santa Cruz website.**  Should we be worried?!

Opening Night at Bohemian Grove

Many sororities and fraternities also share elements of secret societies, depending on their charters and missions.  Still other similar organizations enjoy spotless reputations, such as the PEO Sisterhood, mostly public in its support for education, but still retaining some secret aspects.

Secret organizations are in fact particularly American, or were in the past.  At the nation’s founding, all but two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were by some accounts members of the Masons or other society.  In the late 1800s, roughly 40% of the U.S. population belonged to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, the Grange, Knights of Columbus, Order of the Eastern Star, or other secret, service, fraternal or social organizations.  The 19th century was in many ways the heyday of such groups, which have declined since, even as Americans began to lament the loss of community cohesiveness and devotion to public service, unaware of the irony.

To step even further back in time, secrecy was after all crucial to the survival of Christianity, which took form as a sect within Judaism, and within a generation was perceived as a threat to Rome.  Suspected Christians were arrested, forced to worship the reigning Roman emperor (who in some cases claimed divinity) and recant their faith, or face execution in various bloody forms, including by wild animals, in the Circus Maximus, Colosseum or Amphitheater.  Until the emperor Constantine in the 300s made the religion a recognized faith of the Empire, Christianity was often an underground practice, with the ichthys (sometimes called the “Jesus fish”) as one of its secret signs, by which fellow believers might recognize each other.

The range of contexts in which secrecy manifests can be surprisingly wide.  The discipline of keeping a secret sometimes serves as a test for membership in a group.  If you can keep a secret about something insignificant, then you may earn the right to gain access to the greater secrets of the group, because you’ve demonstrated your integrity.  Shared secrets are a key element to defining in-groups and out-groups.  In the Middle Ages, much knowledge was automatically assumed to be secret.  If it was disseminated at all, it appeared in a learned language like Latin or Greek which only literate persons could read and access, and as often it was a zealously-guarded guild or trade secret which only guild members knew.  Significantly, the Old French word gramaire meant both “grammar” and “magic book,”  and is considered the most likely source of the word grimoire, also meaning a magic book.  Inaccessible or secret language and hidden or secret knowledge were the same thing, and occult meant simply “hidden.”

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” — you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance  German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.  Note how these are often connected with the experience of initiation, discussed in a previous post.

It’s vital here to note that it is not secrecy itself but the nature of the secret that is crucial in assessing its significance accurately and dispassionately.  I continue to cite J.M. Greer for his lucid and keen observations about the importance and potentials of secrets and secrecy, and the influence of his thinking pervades this series of posts.  I mentioned in Part One that though we all take part in the web of communication, there are ways to see it from the outside and more objectively.   We can occasionally and briefly free ourselves of its more negative effects and minimize its compulsions, then return to it for its positive benefits of human solidarity and companionship. As I’ve mentioned, solitude can temporarily ease its influence, and grant us a clearer space for reflection.  Another group which experiences a consciousness apart from the web are sufferers of mental illness, who are sometimes involuntarily forced outside it.  There they may perceive the arbitrary nature of cultural assumptions and behaviors, the “blind spots” inherent in every culture  and human institution, and the hollowness of social convention.  Their unwitting shift away from the web can make their perceptions, words and actions bizarre, frightening and difficult to manage.  Clearly there is danger in breaking the web, or leaving its patterns of coherence that allow us to make sense of the world.

Greer observes:

To have a secret is to keep some item of information outside the web, so that it does not become a part of the map of the world shared by the rest of society. A gap is opened in the web, defined by the secret, and as long as the secret is kept the gap remains. If the secret in question is something painful or destructive, and if secrecy is imposed by force rather than freely chosen, this kind of breach in the web can be just as damaging as the kind opened by madness.  If secrecy is freely chosen and freely kept, on the other hand, it becomes a tool for reshaping awareness, one with remarkable powers and a range of constructive uses.**

An examination in the next post of the conscious use of secrecy for positive ends will conclude this series.

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*A transcript of Kennedy’s entire speech is available at the JFK Library here.  (The quoted portion above begins in section 1, after the prefatory remarks.)

Bohemian Grove dinner image and article.

Grimoire image.

**Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge.  p. 116.

Answering Molly

I teach at a boarding school, and a few years ago, one of my freshman advisees asked a seemingly innocent question during one of our first meetings.  I was still learning the scores of new names teachers must match with faces each fall, but Molly’s inquiry made her stand out from the other students:  “What question should I ask, and what’s the answer?”

I vaguely remember replying that I’d have to give  her question some thought, but I’d be sure to get back to her.  As a bit of playfulness, the matter might have ended there.  But Molly brought up the question again, almost every time we saw each other in fact, and it soon became a kind of inside joke.  She graduated before I wrote this, but she’s on Facebook, so I’ll be sending this along to her, only half a decade late.

Ideally, teaching and learning invite questions.  Good questions distinguish students who are thinking well, and they can move classes in rich and unforeseen directions. Good students and teachers distinguish themselves by the mileage they can get out of each other’s questions.  How often I’ve shut students down by dismissing a question out of lack of time, answering it poorly, not hearing it as it was intended, or deferring it in the face of “more important things” and ultimately forgetting it.  A class often comes alive with student questions.  They break up a teacher monolog, and — better, often, than teacher questions — reveal student thinking, which may well be superior to anything the teacher has planned for the day.  For me, following wherever such questions lead at least once a week has proven worth the time again and again.

For questions imply answers.  Insofar as it can be put into language, a desire to know carries the seeds of its own response.  Often we already “know” much of what an answer should “look like” – which some might say is a problem, because it conditions the kinds of answers we can receive, or those we will devote the most energy looking for.  When the man searching for his lost key is asked why he’s looking under a streetlight, he replies, “Because that’s where the light is.”

If we ask simple informational questions, such as “What time is it?” we already know a great deal about the form of the answer.  “Half a cup” or “Poughkeepsie” or “grayish green” won’t do for answers in this case.  “Not yet” edges somewhat closer, since it has at least something to do with time.  “4:18 pm” serves very well, whether or not it’s accurate, because it has the form of the kind of answer we seek.  So it satisfies the formal requirement without necessarily satisfying the content requirement.

In the case of “large” questions, though, it can be more difficult to recognize whether an answer even satisfies the formal requirement.  But as The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy insinuates, though we may have an answer,  even one as specific as 42, without its “inciting” question to steady and direct it like a rudder on a boat, an answer by itself may not help us very much.

Mary Oliver notes in one of her poems, “there are so many questions more beautiful than answers.” Living in our questions is one way to keep a spiritual search alive. Resist the craving for an answer too soon. In her poem “Spring,” she asserts, “‘There is only one question:/how to love this world.”  The biggest questions may not have an “answer” in any  sense we expect or demand, but they may nonetheless propel us in necessary or powerful directions, ones we need to travel.

Molly’s inquiry is a meta-question – a question about questions.  It asks about quality.  It also assumes the listener might know more than the speaker, at least about questions and their answers.  It implies that another can recognize – and provide – good or worthwhile questions worth asking, can anticipate the kinds of questions you may have, and has good answers.

Now all of this is unfair to load onto a probably offhand and casually teasing question.  But by continuing to ask it, Molly slowly transformed it into a kind of riddle or meditation object, deepening its significance.  What a lesson there!

One kind of answer to that question is also a general one, and sounds like advice for someone setting out on a journey:  ask the best kinds of questions you can, and trust that you also need to seek out your own answers.  Those anyone else can supply, except for day-to-day matters, aren’t really worth your time, except as provisional responses, first approximations to the answers you can best provide for yourself.  Question authority, because some sacred cows stopped giving milk a long time ago.  Question authority to find out if that authority deserves the name — does it feed you stock answers, or does it actually possess the power to lead you toward your own answers?  And better, authorize questions — encourage yourself, and others, to keep asking.

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Image:  cartoon

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 4: “Things of Earth”

Historical novelist Mary Stewart writes vividly of 500 C.E. Britain in her “Merlin Trilogy,” which begins with The Crystal Cave and the childhood and youth of Merlin the enchanter, who will become Arthur’s chief adviser.  Here (1970 edition, pp. 174-5)  are Merlin and his father Ambrosius discussing the Druids.  At this time, in Stewart’s conception, laws are already in place banning Druid gatherings and practices.  Merlin has recently discovered that the tutor his father has arranged for him is a Druid.

* * *

I looked up, then nodded.  “You know about him.”  It was a conclusion, not a question.

“I know he is a priest of the old religion. Yes.”

“You don’t mind this?”

“I cannot yet afford to throw aside valuable tools because I don’t like their design,” he said.  “He is useful, so I use him.  You will do the same, if you are wise.”

“He wants to take me to the next meeting.”

He raised his brows but said nothing.

“Will you forbid this?” I asked.

“No.  Will you go?”

“Yes.”  I said slowly, and very seriously, searching for the words:  “My lord, when you are looking for … what I am looking for, you have to look in strange places.  Men can never look at the sun, except downwards, at his reflection in things of earth.  If he is reflected in a dirty puddle, he is still the sun.  There is nowhere I will not look, to find him.”

Of course, anyone who followed this noble-sounding principle to even reasonable lengths would have a very interesting and possibly very exhausting time of it.  As I mentioned in my post about Open Source religion, when virtually every human practice with any numinous quality about it can be  and has been pressed into service as a vehicle for religious encounter and a means to experience a god or God, then sacred sex won’t even top the list of things a person might do “to find him.”

Yet Merlin (and Stewart) have a point.  Spiritual inquiry and practice require a kind of courage, if they are to remain fresh and not decline into dead forms and mere gestures of religion. It is these things that the media quite rightly criticize.  When I’m in the grip of a quest, I only hope I can continue to be brave enough to follow out conclusions and — if need be — “look in strange places.”  It looks like courage to an observer, but I find that ultimately it’s a kind of honesty with oneself.  I want to keep looking.  Anything less feels suffocating and aggressively pointless, like painting garbage or eating styrofoam.  Any self-disgust we feel almost always arises from living a lie, which poisons our hours and toils and pleasures.

“Things of earth” cannot ultimately satisfy the inner hunger we feel, but they are valuable pointers, sacraments in the full sense, vehicles of the sacred.  To return to everyone’s favorite numinous topic, pursue sex of any variety, sacred or otherwise, and you’ll prove again for yourself one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell:  “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  Of course, along the way, as a witty recent post on Yahoo Answers has it, it may often happen that “The road of excess leads to the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet of Gluttony, which leads to the Bordello of Lust, which then leads to the Courthouse of Divorce, the Turnpike of Bankruptcy, the Freeway of Despair, and finally, the Road to Perdition.”  Blake did after all call these the Proverbs of Hell.

We just don’t discuss what comes after Hell.  Blake says it’s wisdom.  Hard-earned, yes.  And there are easier ways, which is one good thing that the Wise are here for.  Rather than following any prescription (or Prescriber) blindly, I hope to ask why, and when, and under what conditions the strictures or recommendations apply.

So we return and begin (again) with the things of earth, these sacred objects and substances.  As sacraments, earth, air, fire and water can show us the holy, the numinous.  Their daily embodiments in food and drink and alcohol, precious metals and gems and sex, pleasure and learning and science, music and literature and theater, sports and war and craft, are our earliest teachers.  They are part of the democracy of incarnate living, the access points to the divine that all of us meet and know in our own ways.

Drink deep, fellow traveler, and let us trade tales over the fire.  And when you depart, here’s an elemental chant by Libana, well-known in Pagan circles, to accompany you on your going.

 


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Images:  The Crystal Cave; The Proverbs of Hell.

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 3: Questions and Authorities

So if you found my previous post about fear and death (and nerds — yay!) a bit too off-putting, here’s a reprieve.  What else might a new “religious operating system” have on offer? In a Huffington Post article from some time ago (Sept. 2010) titled “The God Project:  Hinduism as Open Source Faith,” author Josh Schrei asserts that the principal distinction between Hinduism and other more familiar Western faiths is not that the former is polytheistic and the latter are monotheistic, but that “Hinduism is Open Source and most other faiths are Closed Source.”  (We’re already increasingly familiar with the open-source approach from computer systems like Linux and community-edited resources like wikis.) In this series on what a more responsive and contemporary religious design might look like (here are previous parts one and two), this perspective can offer useful insight.

If we consider god, the concept of god, the practices that lead one to god, and the ideas, thoughts and philosophies around the nature of the human mind the source code, then India has been the place where the doors have been thrown wide open and the coders have been given free rein to craft, invent, reinvent, refine, imagine, and re-imagine to the point that literally every variety of the spiritual and cognitive experience has been explored, celebrated, and documented. Atheists and goddess worshipers, heretics who’ve sought god through booze, sex, and meat, ash-covered hermits, dualists and non-dualists, nihilists and hedonists, poets and singers, students and saints, children and outcasts … all have contributed their lines of code to the Hindu string. The results of India’s God Project — as I like to refer to Hinduism — have been absolutely staggering. The body of knowledge — scientific, faith-based, and experience-based — that has been accrued on the nature of mind, consciousness, and human behavior, and the number of practical methods that have been specifically identified to work with one’s own mind are without compare. The Sanskrit language itself contains a massive lexicon of words — far more than any other historic or modern language — that deal specifically with states of mental cognition, perception, awareness, and behavioral psychology.

It’s important to note that despite Schrei’s admiration for Hinduism (and its sacred language Sanskrit — more in a coming post), the West has all of these same resources — we just have developed them outside explicitly religious spheres.  Instead, psychology, so-called “secular” hard sciences, social experimentation, counter-cultural trends and other sources have contributed to an equally wide spread of understandings.  The difference is that far fewer of them would be something we would tag with the label “religion,” especially since the pursuit of things like ecstatic experience — apart from some Charismatic and Pentecostal varieties — generally lies outside what we in the West call or perceive as “religion.”

The underlying principle that drives such a range of activity perceived as “religious” also stands in sharp contrast with religion in the West.  (Of course there are exceptions. To name just one from “inside religion,” think of Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God.) As Schrei remarks, “At the heart of the Indic source code are the Vedas, which immediately establish the primacy of inquiry in Indic thought.” To put it another way, India and Hinduism didn’t need their own version of the American 60s and its byword “question authority,” because implicit in open-source religion is “authorize questions.” Nor did they need debates over Creation or Evolution, because scientific inquiry could be seen as a religious undertaking. Schrei continues:

In the Rig Veda, the oldest of all Hindu texts (and possibly the oldest of all spiritual texts on the planet), God, or Prajapati, is summarized as one big mysterious question and we the people are basically invited to answer it. “Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?” While the god of the Old Testament was shouting command(ment)s, Prajapati was asking: “Who am I?”

This tendency to inquire restores authority to its rightful place.  In an era in the West when so many faux authorities have been revealed as spiritually hollow or actively deceitful, we’ve arrived at a widespread cynical distrust of any claims to authority.  But true authorities do still exist.  Their hallmark is an invitation to question and find out for ourselves.  Jesus says, “Ask and you will know, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.”  These aren’t the words of one who fears inquiry.  To paraphrase another of his sayings, when we can learn and know the truth about something, we will meet an increase of freedom regarding it.  It will not intimidate us, or lead us to false worship, or mislead us.  One identifier of truth is the freedom it conveys to us.

Authorities also benefit us because out of their experience they can guide us toward the most fruitful avenues of inquiry, and spare us much spinning in circles, pursuing wild geese, and squandering the resources of a particular lifetime.  Whether we choose to follow good advice is a wholly separate matter.  Authorities can point out pitfalls, and save us from reinventing the wheel.  At a time when so many look East for wisdom, only recently have we been rediscovering the wisdom of the West hidden on our doorsteps.

Examples abound. The Eastern Orthodox church has preserved a wealth of spiritual practices and living exemplars in places like Mount Athos in Greece.  The Pagan resurgence over the last decades has done much useful weeding and culling of overlooked and nearly forgotten traditions rich in valuable methods for addressing deeply the alienation, disruption, dis-ease, physical illness and spiritual starvation so many experience.  Individuals within Western monotheisms like Rob Bell and his book Love Wins have served as useful agents for reform and introspection.  While it may not be always true, as Dr. Wayne Dyer claims, that “every problem has a spiritual solution,” we’ve only just begun to regain perspectives we discounted and abandoned through the past several centuries, mostly through the seductions of our increasing mastery of a few select processes of the physical plane and their capacity to provide us with comforts, sensations, entertainments and objects unknown until about 75 years ago.  We’ve self-identified as “consumers” rather than spiritual beings.  Hamlet identified the problem centuries ago: “What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?”  Or as another of the Wise asked, “What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  Let us be soul-finders and soul-nourishers.  Otherwise, why bother?

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Images:  open-source cartoon; veda; Mount Athos

Jesus the Druid, Part 3: One Word

“Behold!”

In this single command, Jesus is profoundly Druidic.  Catch the moment, he says.  Watch the divine as it swirls around and in you.  You can witness the marvelous if you simply pay attention.  Listen!  Look!  Seeing and hearing are a good start.  Now do more.  Put yourself into your attention. Make it purposeful.  Don’t just hear — listen. Don’t just see — look.

“If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6:22).  A wonderful assertion– one to test, to try out, to prove to oneself, not merely to accept passively.  A promise.  Singleness of vision, the devotion and dedication to witnessing what is really there, as opposed to what we assume or fear, wish or ignore.  Some have seen this passage as a reference to the yogic “third eye” chakra, the Hindu Shiv Netra or Sufi Tisra Til.  Why not both, and something else besides?

In the second half of her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Shouldn’t all attention bring to light more and better questions?  Wouldn’t we be bored to tears with a life of all things answered?  Give me bigger and deeper questions, give me earth whole again, give me all I already have.  Give me birth in this moment.  We are constantly being born, arriving at ourselves, a remembering, a finding out of the utter strangeness of being alive, and being human in this moment, our eternity, the only time there is.  The past is only memory, and changing.  The future is hopes and fears.  Take the now with both hands.

Jesus the Druid, Part 2: Animal Models

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  (Matthew 10:16)

A regular menagerie of a sentence!  Sheep, wolves, serpents and doves. If inanimate things like stones can testify to divinity (see previous post) and proclaim truth in the face of human delusion, then certainly birds and beasts can do the job, too.

Here Jesus is admonishing his followers, as he commissions them to spread his teaching, that the world is full of wolves.  His disciples won’t appear on the scene with an army at their beck and call.  They don’t carry letters of introduction, or a case of free product samples to tempt the potential client.  No email blast or flurry of tweets precedes their arrival.  No, if they’re to succeed, they’ll need specific attributes which he characterizes as the wisdom of serpents and the harmlessness of doves.  And note that you can’t transpose those qualities; who would welcome a person “wise as a dove” or “harmless as a serpent”?!  Bad advertizing.  It’s a recipe for disaster. But more importantly, would serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness actually work?  Hold that thought.

A persistent tradition in the UK at least eight centuries old has Jesus spending some of the “lost” years — between his appearance in the temple at 12 and the start of his public ministry around age 30 — in Britain, studying with Druids.  William Blake, associated with revival Druidry during his lifetime in the 19th century, penned the famous hymn “Jerusalem” (this version hails from the last night of the ’09 Proms, a popular annual summer music series in the U.K.).  The lyrics were put to music about a century later, and the piece has become a perennial favorite, a kind of unofficial British national anthem:

And did those feet in ancient times
walk upon England’s mountains green?
and was the holy lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

These lines of the opening stanza seem innocuous enough, if fanciful.   A Middle-Easterner would surely have it rough during a British winter — it isn’t always “green.”  The tradition continues from there, claiming that after Christ’s death, Joseph of Arimathea (who provided a tomb for the body) either sent part of the Grail to England, or made the journey himself and founded a church in Glastonbury, or planted there a thorn tree long venerated as holy.* Whatever the truth of these events, it makes for a striking symbol and image.

But Blake continues, and this is when his poem turns odd:

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

As a proto-Druid, Blake gets his ecological digs in here:  the “dark Satanic mills” of the early industrial revolution are already at work spewing smoke and ash over London.  While most Druids today have no intention of attempting to “build Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land,” the song brings divinity one step closer.  Who complains if some versions of our ancient history bring with them a delicious shiver of magic or imaginative religious reconstruction?  But is the way to achieve divinity on our shores through “mental fight” and metaphorical battle?  The sudden shift to the quadruple imperative of “Bring … bring … bring … bring” summons up images of a bronze-age charioteer.  But what of the “arrows of desire”?  Here the image is of Eros, Cupid, the piercing quality of sudden strong feeling.  Is it the poet speaking as “I” in the last stanzas?  Or as someone else?  Is it Blake’s idea of Jesus?

You may not remember, but I asked you a few paragraphs back to hold the thought of serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness.  Some of the “wisdom” accrues from the belief that serpents are uncanny beasts, for they are able to shed their skin and achieve a kind of rebirth or immortality.  And the serpent in the Garden that haunts the Western pysche tempted Eve not to the Tree of Life (Eve!  EVE!! The other tree!  Eat from the OTHER tree!!) but the Tree of Knowledge.  As I tease my students, “Major mistake.  Become immortal first, and then get the knowledge of good and evil.”  The harmlessness of doves is less problematic.  Though city dwellers may have their foremost associations with pigeons as flocking beggars in parks, or as producers of statue-staining and public-building-defacing birdshit.

But consider again.  If you know something — I mean really know something of life-changing power — you need to come across as seriously harmless.  Otherwise people have this nasty tendency to string you up, burn you at the stake, remove the supreme discomfort of your ideas and presence at all costs.  Your wisdom puts you in mortal danger.  So reassure people first, and work your changes quietly, harmlessly.  A major piece of strategy!  Some devious or disgusting trick you’d expect to discover about that other political party — the one you don‘t belong to and affect to despise as the epitome of all things vile and loathsome.  Is that why this year’s political reality-show contestants (I mean presidential candidates) come across as less than competent?  (Repeat after me:  “All candidates vile and and loathsome, all con-men big or small, all morons foul and putrid, Democrats/Republicans have them all!”**)

So  animals embody a divinely-commissioned strategy for survival.  The wisdom of the serpent, long despised, is not dead, but sleeps in each of us, waiting the touch of the divine longing to rouse and waken it in the service of life.  The son of God (we are all children of the divine) summons it forth from us.  It lives, tree of knowledge and tree of life united, identical, twining its way around our hearts, which know — when our heads deny it — which way to go, what we need, where to find answers others say are “forbidden” or “not for mortals to know.”  On the contrary — they’re specifically intended for mortals to realize.

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*The Glastonbury thorn has lately made headlines.  It (there are actually several in the area, believed to spring from a single parent) was hacked down two years ago this month (with some historical precedent, if you read the article) and then recovered enough by March of 2011 to put forth a new shoot.  Another demonstration, as if we needed it, that old things do not just disappear because we hack at them or find them out of place or inconvenient.  They have a habit of return, of springing back to life.  Another habit from the natural world for us to imitate …

**This uncharacteristically acerbic side-note is not part of the actual blog.

Interim

A singe grosbeak inspects our feeder, and as I look out through the living room picture window at the bird plumped against the cold, there’s a reflection in the glass of flames from the woodstove inside.  In its orange vigor, my fire faces west, Druidically inappropriate, but very welcome on this grade A gray day.

In the northern U.S. that’s an image of this time of year: reflections, of heat inside, of life still proceeding outdoors and in, of the time of year itself.

The interval between Thanksgiving and the December holidays can be a delicious space, a “meanwhile” or middle-time for re-tooling and starting to close up shop on the current year.  To feel that it’s often too busy, or merely filled with worsening weather forecasts, as though that is all it has to offer, is to miss something profoundly meditative about these days.  What’s the opposite of miss?  Attend, intercept, catch, be there.  Whatever it is, that’s what I want to do.

There is as well in November and early December a late-autumnal melancholy, it’s true.  The peak of Thanksgiving has passed, and some may see the next months as a pretty solid trudge through the valleys (in our boots, scarves and gloves, and hauling snow-shovels) until the climb to the next holiday.

So when I can take a look from this end of the year at a season at the other side of summer, I do. Off to that start of spring transience which mirrors something in us now as well. I followed a link from an article in today’s NY Times and there on the page was the sudden pure pleasure of “Sakura Park,” a poem by the late Rachel Wetzsteon (pronounced “wet-stone”). Take a visit to late spring, six months ago, or six months to come. The cherry trees (the sakura of the title) are in bloom …

Sakura Park

The park admits the wind,
the petals lift and scatter
like versions of myself I was on the verge
of becoming; and ten years on
and ten blocks down I still can’t tell
whether this dispersal resembles
a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.
But the petals scatter faster,
seeking the rose, the cigarette vendor,
and at least I’ve got by pumping heart
some rules of conduct: refuse to choose
between turning pages and turning heads
though the stubborn dine alone. Get over
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade
but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness
(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.
There is still a chance the empty gazebo
will draw crowds from the greater world.
And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:
the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.

Yes, that’s a poet for you — insisting on a connection between cherry petals and the growth of self, when all the cherry need do is be a self beautifully ready to attract bees, produce fruit and fulfill its cherry-tree-ness.

And yes, there’s a whiff of early middle-aged cynicism creeping in here (Wetzsteon died at 42), the dry rot that afflicts so many who tell themselves to be content with meanwhiles.  “Give up on rooted happiness!” she urges.  There is still green chance and raw luck and sweet grace in the world, but until they salvage something greater than what’s at hand, be content with meanwhiles, the poet advises, the “far from nothing” moments that hum with possibility even now.  So it’s back to trees, where maybe we should have remained.

Too often we are literally “self-important.”  We worry about the self like a barefoot child abandoned in a parking lot, or an opened can of tuna that will spoil unless we eat or cook or refrigerate it.  The cherry tree sends out blossoms unworried about November.  Not because November won’t come, but because it’s not November when it’s April.  And when November comes, the tree will be a cherry in November, awaiting the next humming moment.

And yes, if I meditate among the swaying branches and crackling leaves this time of year (trying to fluff myself against the cold like an outsized bird, so I can sit or kneel a few minutes without shivering and breaking my focus), the “stolid tree on fire” matters more than it did before, and my own concerns matter less.  Restoration that we seek, visit all who long for it.  Find it in the silent witnesses of trees.  We who listen for “a voice that will save us” forget what burns in front of us, the fire in the stove in the living room, this day passing with us into “later” and darkness and tomorrow, the trees wintering, summering and wintering again, the air itself, with its metallic crispness on the tongue and in the nose, the fire that burns in all things.

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The 50,000-word deadline this Wednesday 11/30 at midnight looms before us “wrimos,” and I’m finally within range.   Woo-hah!  The Nanowrimo site obligingly lets participants grab icons of progress — anything to keep us writing.  Much of what I’m drafting now is detail, filling in missing scenes, background, snatches of dialog with disembodied characters, pieces of Harhanu physiology and psychology — and I suppose, not surprisingly, a brand-new and potentially primary character — because of course what I expressly did not need at this point is a strong new presence telling me “when you are done, you are not done, for I have more” — to paraphrase Omar Khayyam in his Rubaiyat.  He already has a name (Tehengin) which he obligingly repeated to me till I got it right.  But, probably, I do need him — in some way which I’m sure he’ll inform me about.  In detail.

So anyway, here I dance at 44212 words, taking a break to blog, before I return to dance some more.  Wish me well in this home stretch.

Spiral

A spiral differs from a circle.  There’s motion in it, and change.  The track or trail of movement is itself motionless. (Well, comparatively:  the boat’s wake dissolves in ripples, the jet trail fades, but some time after, at least; the jet’s long gone.)  It records the journey.  But journey in a spiral is not repetition.  It’s recognition, re-encounter from a fresh perspective.  History, planetary or personal, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often spiral.

[Originally when I took the photo I was simply looking for a background that would contrast with the bowl.  Only later after I’d uploaded the photo did I realize that the grain of the wood holds at least as much interest as the spiral design of the bowl.  Talk about not seeing the obvious.]

You may remember the chorus in Joni Mitchell’s lovely song “The Circle Game”:

And the seasons they go round and round
and the painted ponies goes up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
from where we came
and go round and round and round
in the circle game.

Joni, it’s lovely, and it’s easy to be seduced by the beauty of your song, but you’re wrong.  Or at least, you’re right only about one choice among many.  It’s a game, and therefore we’re no more captive than any player is who agrees to the rules in order to play at all.

We can choose to play the game this way and be participants in time.  That’s the only way to live in a material world anyway, from what I’ve seen:  in time.  Once we release the drive to “get ahead” or “win the race,” we can begin to jump through time, from moment to moment, recognizing “infinity in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour,” as William Blake has it.  Time is illusion, yes — but in the sense of play (Latin ludere, lusus, illusio = in+ lusio — “in the game”):  a set of rules to make sense or pattern out of the flow of experience, which is e-lusive. We need “before” and “after” in order to begin (or return) to experience “now.”  The moment of illusion, of play, then broadens and deepens.

“Time is the stream I go fishing in,” says Thoreau.  I use this as a mantra when I get stressed about deadlines, minutes ticking, the illusion gaining hold in a way that’s no longer a game, no longer pleasant to be playing. There’s nothing wrong or cruel about time, once we let go the fear that comes with clinging to any particular moment — of resisting the play because life is supposedly such a serious thing.  “Eternity is in love with the productions of time,” Blake says in another poem.

These “long lessons” are ones I keep learning.  Most of us do — most of us are slow learners — earth’s a place for those with “special needs.”

To live any other way is to suffer needlessly — never my favorite thing to do, anyway — and to be trapped in regret and loss.  We’ll all have a taste of these if we live long enough, as part of the balance that comes with fullness of life — why seek out more, and worse, elevate them to a kind of icon of authenticity?  “I’m not human unless I make a fetish of my suffering,” some people seem to say.  “I AM my suffering,” say others.

The Circle Game goes best when we treat it as a game, as a shape of experience.  But it’s not the ONLY one.  We hear of people being “lost in the past.” How about seeing what it’s like to lose yourself in the present?   Nowhere is now here, to make a linguistic jest with wisdom at its core.

Robert Frost was on to it in “Birches.”

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.  Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

If I don’t experience it on this curve of the spiral, it won’t be there for me the next time to “come to and begin over” in that “can-be-delightful” encounter of the “familiar-new” that often flavors our experiences. I cheat myself of so much joy, thinking there’s someplace “where it’s likely to go better.” Now, here, is when and where it’s at.

A Druidico-linguistic Rant

OK, indulge me in a fit of professional pique.  Grr.  And afterward, having carefully checked my counterpoints below, show me where I went wrong.  Until then, my case stands against careless authors and bad linguistics.

I spent undergrad and grad years studying linguistics, both in class to get degrees, and on my own, to “follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one,” as Thoreau says of himself.

So when any published authority who should know better does a bad job with linguistics, it provokes my ire and righteous indignation.  Stings me to creative invective, expressed in various naturally-occurring and invented languages.  If you’re a fan, think Firefly and Joss Whedon‘s creative use of “gorram” and Chinese for the characters when they need a good brisk curse to capture their feelings that won’t get censored by feckless Anglo censors.  (So I slightly misused feckless.  It’s such a great word, I’m automatically forgiven.  Why isn’t there a feckful?!)

When it involves an attempt to set the record straight about Druids, we particularly need careful scholarship, along the lines of Ronald Hutton, whose consistently excellent and thoroughly researched books shrink Romantic inflation, while leaving the essential mystery.  In fact, that could be a definition of mystery:  what remains intact, even more vital, after the facts have been established.  Mystery isn’t obscurity, but a depth beyond easy ratiocination.  It transcends language, though intuition and imagination are both on to it.  It’s home turf for them.

People believe all kinds of nonsense about language, and often on flimsy evidence — perhaps because in the West, most people know only one language, so the ways of them durn furriners will always be inscrutable — not a true mystery, but the consequence of mere ignorance.

A classic example I’ve cited before:  “Samhain is the Celtic god of death.”  It really isn’t, but people get seduced by the appearance of authority and mistake it for the real thing.  This is reminiscent of Kipling’s Monkey People in The Jungle Book:  “If we all say so, it must be true.”  The linguistic falsehood is still reprehensible, but it’s understandable here in propaganda like the anti-Pagan tract in which this Samhain citation appears.

On to the source of my wrath.

A Brief History of the Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis is a necessary book, providing analyses of evidence for an understanding of Druidry that aren’t available in print elsewhere.  He’s cited as “a foremost authority on the Celts,” is the author of half a dozen  books on the Celts, and for the most part deserves this accolade and others.

But …

How is it, then, on page 96, that he can foolishly, carelessly assert that “the very word Teutonic is derived from the Celtic word for tribe, tuath in Irish”?  This is simply wrong.  “Teutonic” comes from Latin teutonicus, and refers to the Germanic tribes.  The cognate word — the “sister word” in Germanic, because both Celtic and Germanic are daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) — is thiudan-, related to King Theoden in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Deutsch, the German word for ‘German.’  However much Ellis would like the sound laws of PIE to reflect his desire for Celtic to be the mother tongue, they don’t and it’s not.  Neither is Germanic, of course.  However, Proto-Indo-European IS.  And Ellis knows this, but lets his carelessness sway him into a baldly wrong, and worse, misleading assertion.  The Celts indeed contributed much to Germanic culture, and that includes words as well as objects, but tuath isn’t one of them.

Here’s another example among others from this one book.  On page 111, once again, Ellis wants Celtic to rule the roost.  “When we turn back to Medb we find that her very name means ‘an intoxicating liquor’, [sic] and is the origin of the English mead.”  And once again, the Irish medb and the English mead are cognate, or “born together,” from PIE *medhu.  The English word doesn’t derive from the Irish.  Both however do descend from the same parent — and that is PIE.  [The * indicates a linguistic reconstruction.]

One instance of such false derivation in a scholarly work is possibly a “mistake” or oversight.  Several instances become part of a consistent pattern of misuse of scholarship in the service of an agenda.  It makes me question and doubt his other claims (not a bad thing, says my inner rebel; find out for yourself); and he gives just enough evidence to convince someone who doesn’t know enough about historical development of the Indo-European languages generally, and Celtic and English specifically, to challenge his assertions.  It sounds right.  But it isn’t.  Boo — hiss!

Not the end of the world.  But shoddy.  Very shoddy.  OK, enough ranting.  <end rant>

Thank for indulging.  Back to your regularly scheduled program.

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Nano update:  hit the 20,000 mark — in fact, passed it last night, with 20177 words.  Somehow this feels more substantial in many ways than passing the 10K mark, which seemed such a milestone at the time — not merely twice as many words, but a kind of undeniable solidity or substance that can’t be denied or dismissed.  Got some new (potential) characters, too, knocking to be let in.  Will have to see whether this story needs an incubus to muddy the waters, or a preacher bent on saving Nick (Alza’s “chosen”), or a girlfriend (and second succubus?!) for Nick’s best friend Paul.  Anyway, onward …

Goddess and Human

As editor of a collection of essays, The Rebirth of Druidry, OBOD‘s Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm attempts to characterize something of the appeal of the spirit of Druidry in human terms.  I quote his article at length because in its effect it is all of a piece, and because it provides a suitable introduction to some things I want to say about the Goddess:

Druidry is the perfect lover. You fall in love with her so easily because she is so romantic.  She whispers to you of the magic and mystery of the turning stars and seasons.  She loves trees and Nature above all things, and you yearn for these too.  She tells you stories of Gods and Goddesses, the Otherworld and fairies, dragons and giants.  She promises secret lore — of sacred trees and animals, of herbs and plants.  She points deep into the past, and ahead towards a future which is lived in harmony with the natural world.   But just when you are convinced you will marry her, because she is so beautiful, so tantalizing, so romantic, she turns around and there she is, with rotten teeth and hideous face, cackling and shrieking at your naivety.  And she disappears, leaving you with just her tattered cloak, made up of a few strands:  some lines from the classical authors, whose accounts are probably inaccurate anyway, a few inferences drawn from linguistic and archaeological research, which could be wrong, with the rest of the cloth woven from material written from the eighteenth century onwards, replete with speculation, forgery and fantasy.

You feel a fool.  You don’t tell your friends about your lover.  You feel tricked and defrauded, and decide to follow something more authentic, more established, more substantial — like Buddhism, or Christianity, or Sufism, or Taoism — something serious.  But then you go out walking.  You follow the old trackways, you come to the old places.  You see the chalk gods and stone circles.  You pause and open yourself to the Land, and there She is again.  But this time she is even more enchanting because you can see that she is not just a beautiful woman, full of romance and seduction, you can see that she is also a wise woman, who will provoke as well as seduce you, who will make you think as well as make you feel.  And then you suddenly know why she has been the object of fascination for so many through the ages.  She is the Muse, the Goddess behind Druidry, the bestower of Awen, of inspiration.

Obviously the imagery here from a male author conveys part of how a man may first encounter the “Goddess behind Druidry”; it may not appeal to women, who find their own powerful ways of connecting with Her.  In mythic terms, however, this account very much reflects the changeability of the Goddess — what has inaccurately been called her fickleness, and which has caused many accustomed to meeting deity in a single, invariant form to confuse variety with unreliability or untrustworthiness.  Westerners in particular have largely been cut off from experience with aspectual deity, which the Goddess so clearly manifests.  Rather than manifesting a loving and compassionate presence, “[t]he deity may appear in wrathful or challenging forms, but these should not be considered hostile.  She is the kernel of truth at the heart of everything, and if she appears in challenging forms to you, look more deeply, considering why this may be so,” suggests Caitlin Matthews in her slim but potent book, The Elements of the Goddess.  “Many of those who venerate the Goddess are unhappy with her supposedly dark aspects because they associate ‘dark’ with ‘evil.’  In order to save her child about to do something dangerous or silly, a mother will get angry, shout or scream, but this doesn’t mean to say she loves her child any less.”

My first encounter with the Goddess came unbidden, unsought, when I was 25.  (You need to know: I’m not especially sensitive  or psychic.  Friends who are say anyone who wants to reach me has to raise quite a ruckus to get my attention. If you’d asked me then I’d say — still would probably, even today — that half of what people experience in such situations is imagination.  But now by “imagination” I mean something considerably larger and more potent than I did then.  More about that later.) It was a frosty autumn day, and I was wandering the fields and scattered woods of a farm my father had recently bought in western New York, south of Rochester.  I paused in a swampy grove of trees, with several fallen and decaying trunks to sit on.  A mood or atmosphere of autumn pervaded the place, almost palpable.  The air lay perfectly still.  The musty-sweet smell of dried dead leaves filled the air, along with a tang of rot and manure from a nearby field, and a hint of woodsmoke.  Over the hills from a distance came the faint roar of some town maintenance vehicle — they were always patching roads in the area.  But distant sounds simply deepened the stillness by contrast.  As this meditative silence spread and enveloped me, I became aware of a presence that filled the grove and towered over me, fifty, sixty feet tall.  Immense.  One face of the Goddess. Conscious encounter.  Her.

She didn’t knock me on my ass, though that might have been useful too, given how dense I can be.  But though I describe it here in mild enough terms, the experience was unforgettable, not for any one detail, but for its undeniable — and familiar — quality.  This was someone I knew.  Not someone or something alien, or to be feared, or a matter of belief, any more than I need to believe in the tree-trunk I sat on.  It was like finding a limb which, when you found it, you knew had always been a part of you all along.  You just hadn’t been aware of it.  As if it had been asleep, but for its waking you finally twitched a muscle in it, and in feeling it respond you felt it.

So what’s the big deal, you say?  “He met the Goddess, in some ways it was an anticlimax though also somehow memorable, he got over it, it was years ago.  So?”

A year later I was in the throes of my first love affair (can anyone say “late bloomer”?), a tumultuous relationship in which I did get knocked on my ass.  Among all the other things this Goddess encounter was, it was preparation, or warning.  I needed greater emotional experience, insight, maturity.  I was about to get it.

In between the divine and human realms is an archetypal one — a place, often, of dream and vision, and the idealized images of Others for men and women which “haunt our imagination and often make our love-lives incredibly tortuous until we realize that these daimons will never become physical realities.  They are messengers between the divine realms and the human levels of our experience” (Matthews, 13).  This was part of what I needed to learn firsthand. No book knowledge this time.  It was an initiation of its own.

So this fall at OBOD’s East Coast Gathering, in a meditation involving an encounter with the Goddess in her guise as Cerridwen, I felt a surge of panic — again.  “Cerridwen is bad. She tricked Gwion Bach in the old Welsh tale.” But it was old programming.  Incomplete knowledge.  Fear of that “fickleness”  I mentioned earlier.  “The old, outworn, dualistic concept of the Goddess as cruel and capricious must be viewed for what it is:  a reflection of our shadow-side, a terrible polarization of social responsibility with which women have been burdened as a sex” (Matthews, 24).   But now I had more tools to begin to deal with it.  At Samhain I did specific work with the Goddess.  I needed to.  Is it any wonder I also spent 15 years working in a freshman girls dorm as a house parent?  Training up close and personal.  “The Goddess stands at the heart of life, death and further existence and she will assume the forms which are most appropriate in her dealings with our world” (Matthews, 24).  Or as a teacher in the other path I follow related, when he talked about his own experiences with inner and outer realities, “They had to get me to stop bowing every time they appeared, so they could actually work with me and get some work out of me.”

Matthews continues, in ways particularly useful for a male bard like me.  “Men experience the Goddess through their creative side.  She makes manifest their ideas by animating their dormant creativity.  There is a strong sense of ebb and flow about these energies which give men an experience of the cyclical nature of the feminine menstrual cycle.   This kind of relationship is rarely recognized for what it is, yet all men can discover and welcome this experience.  Although the effect of a Goddess upon a man is less immediately physical than in a woman, it is nonetheless potent” (15).

There is much misunderstanding of gender and sexuality, and what constitutes the self and its connection to the world, perhaps nowhere more so than in the West, with its addiction to pornography, its fear of homosexuality, its violence against women, and its frequent indifference to children.  I’ll let Matthews have her last word here.  “Every human being is a child of the Goddess … The way of the Goddess is one of natural law and natural wisdom … It is primarily the people of the West who are orphans of the Goddess.  The social and political reasons for this desolation have been documented in many books … Both women and men need to find their Mother, relating to her and her creation in fresh and balanced ways, for every one of us needs to drink of her wisdom and realign ourselves with her natural laws.”  This is not a matter of belief but of incarnation — our own — to live fully, gratefully and passionately in this world, until we leave it.

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Nano update time.  Is it any wonder, in light of this post, that I’m writing about a succubus?!  And sympathetically — as a main character?!  Must be some sort of assignment from the Goddess.  Further training.  God knows if it’s publishable.  (Goddess may know, but if she does, she ain’t tellin’.)  Reached 17,804 words:  over 1/3 of the way there.  Need to hit 20,000 today to be fully caught up, including today’s work.  Should be able to do it.  Major scene yesterday, in which Alza connected with the man she needs for her magical work, showed him her nature in a brief feed and reversal of energies to restore him, bypassing the mental level altogether, where the idea of a succubus would have completely flipped him, and left him with a medallion magically linked to her — ongoing physical contact to reinforce the dynamic.  The resulting reactions when he deals mentally and emotionally with what he already knows will be interesting to capture, but the heavy lifting for that scene is done.

I’d been including more fire imagery in description and action, since Alza’s succubus nature seemed increasingly to resemble that of a fire demon.  And then, as a break yesterday, doing some research on demons and succubi in other cultures, I happened on this quotation from the Qur’an:  “And the jinn, We created aforetime from the smokeless flame of fire” (Al-Hijr, 15:27).  And in an email yesterday from the university where I’m taking a seminar, advertising a weekend workshop for men:  “FRIDAY, 11/11/11 – SUNDAY, 11/13/11 – ON THE EDGE OF FIRE:  A MEN’S SPIRITUALITY RETREAT.” Right between the eyes — the kind of serendipity and synchronicity and happy accident one hopes for in writing.  So I’m on some kind of track.  I’m just still discovering what it is.  And that’s much of the deep pleasure of this verbal marathon.

Essential

“We are many sets of eyes staring out at each other from the same living body” — Freeman House, Totem Salmon

We are many sets of eyes, staring out
at each other from the same living body.
We are ears listening to each other
across valleys of skin.
Heat of the other’s blood
warming the air we breathe,
air that filled the other’s lungs
not long before, and will again,
ruffling our hair, rippling this field
of frost-gray grass.

We touch earth that touches each other,
life-print curling at our fingertips and lips,
world (a piece of it) digesting in our bellies,
swept along in blood and spit,
spice of it in our marrow,
essential you in everything
I eat and love and do,
essential me in you.

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So there’s a poem provoked (I say “provoked” rather than “inspired” because that’s the sensation — I encounter a piece of language not my own that becomes the grain around which oyster tries to form a pearl.  It won’t let go until I respond, and try to shape the sensation into something in words.)

Nano update: I’m catching up at 13,527 words and counting, but still a little more behind than I’d like. We’ll see what 2 and 1/2 cups of coffee this morning helps me accomplish. I don’t usually drink it, since I’m hypersensitive to caffeine and it keeps me up most of the night following the day I drink it, but I was cold this morning, and the smell! … well, anyway, I’m caffeinated and writing.

Found an interesting passage in a medieval author yesterday, Walter de Mapis.  (If you’re gonna procrastinate, I say, why not procrastinate tangentially? I researched historical refs to succubi.) So now I know something about rumors surrounding Pope Silvester.  The pontiff flourished around the year 1000, and his legacy includes the story of a certain succubus, who was said to give him advice, and who was reputed to be his lover.  Supposedly he repented on his deathbed.  Traitor.  I’m expecting my succubus main character Alza will have something to say about that.  Who knows — maybe she was there. Maybe she was the succubus …

Just discovered she has a mantra or prayer or verbal talisman she recites frequently.  Maria, one of her worshippers (from her “cult” phase), overheard her this morning talking quietly to herself, and asked about it.  Here are the words Alza said (part of the charm is to speak about oneself in third person):

Alzakh ne utayal gashem muk dafa.
May Alzakh grow in this surrounding fire,
may Fire know her for its own,
may Fire fill her in all she does,
burning away what blocks her,
burning toward what is native to her,
what is or will become or has been Fire,
time the Fire that moves all things into being.

Always fun to get a piece of the original in Harhanu.  You need to know:  among my other odd hobbies is conlanging.  So I hear bits of languages, like I imagine musicians and songwriters hear snatches of songs and musical phrases.  Here are the italicized words phonetically, as I heard them from Alza’s mouth:  ahl-zahkh NEH oo-tah-YAHL gah-SHEM mook dah-FAH.  [Literally, Alza this surrounding fire-in grow-imperative.]

Alza’s name in Harhanu is actually Alzakh, with the kh the raspy sound in loch and Bach — a voiceless velar fricative, to be all linguistic-y and precise about it.  Alza’s name got truncated over the years, to match what people thought they heard, or thought it should be. Much as men around Alza imagine the woman they want, which she can then use to seduce them.  Most men are, frankly, pretty seducible, she learns.  So that part’s easy.

You want Druidry? Find it here, or go bother somebody else. (Now maybe you have some idea why I don’t overdo the caffeine. It makes me all cranky-creative and snarky and stuff.)

Living in Real Worlds

“Don’t get me wrong, I like your reality; it’s way more interesting than mine. It’s just that mine seems to be the one everyone else is in.” Courtesy of ivebecomemyparents.com

When I was in my teens, conversations with my mother about the future usually ended with her saying, “You have to live in the real world.”  This usually amused me, and sometimes annoyed me.  How little I knew at the time that her statement was loaded, that stuff was hanging off it and dripping into the reality overflow collection vat at the bottom of the psychic stairs.

1) She never once claimed that she lived in a real world.  But I had to.  Why was this?  The question isn’t as naive as it sounds.  And how could she tell I wasn’t already in the — or a — real world?  “It takes one to know one,” as we used to say. What was the give-away, I wonder?

2) Where did the compulsion to live in a real world come from?  Only from parents?  “You have to live there.”  Funny — if I hadn’t been living there, then I’d already disproved such a claim.  I didn’t have to live there, which was clear because I’d been living someplace else.  But she wanted me too.  Probably “for my own good,” which is along the lines of “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” (To their credit, my parents never said that to me.)

3) What is a real world?  How do you tell the difference between a real and an unreal world?  Is there more than one world, as this statement implies?  Sure seems like it. Then what’s the other world like?  How did she know?  And how did she decide or discover that this one is more real?  Simple majority vote?  “We live in this world, you — a single person — live in that one.  We win.”

4) Is it a whole world?  (Sometimes life seems like jumping from one to another of a subset of all possible worlds.)  There could be and probably are worlds far better, worse, uglier, stranger and more comfortable than this one.  Then again, maybe not.

It feels like we do live in several worlds, all of them real on their own terms.  Like we shift worlds all day long, moving from one to another with such ease we forget, we don’t notice, we assume reality is unitive and discrete, rather than a series of interpenetrating planes and grades and places.  Waking.  Fully awake.  Deeply focused.  Spacing in front of a video.  Lost in music.  Making love.  Eating.  Daydreaming.  Sleeping.  Dreaming. Tell me those are all identical states of consciousness, identical worlds!  I’ve had flying dreams, felt the wind rushing by around me.  Last I looked, trying to fly in this world lands you six feet under, or heavily medicated.

Judy Cannato in her book Radical Amazement observes that it’s always time for transformation.  To delay just makes the need for change more imperative and harder to ignore (though we’re pretty good at that).  Our widespread sense of dis-ease and general “stuckness” and malaise and dis-spiritedness arise from discernible causes and have discernible solutions:

Our attitudes and behaviors are rooted in a way of thinking that is no longer reflective of the real.  So much of the time we are stuck in the dualistic, hierarchical, either-or thinking that has created the very problems that threaten us.  We are not mechanisms with separate parts, but interconnected holons that are mutually dependent.  Yet far too often we cling to the individualism and dysfunctional systems that have “parented” us, molding obedient offspring carrying on the “family” tradition in a way that continues to devastate all life, others’ as well as our own.  Shifting to a new paradigm takes commitment and hard work.  It requires gut-wrenching honesty and the willingness to give up fear-filled control.  We al know what a difficult undertaking this is, but we are capable of the challenge and perhaps more ready than we think. (14)

For me one key here is that this is inner work as much as anything else.  I can start it, and I can start working on myself.  In fact, that’s the only place any of us will find a lasting and satisfying solution.  “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is not wishful thinking or unrealistic.  It’s in the copy of Life: An Owner’s Manual that was tied to my umbilical cord when I dropped in, a little over five decades ago.  Have you checked your copy recently?

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Nanorimo update!  Speaking of real and unreal:  I’ve cleared 11,000 words — over one fifth of the way there!  With 2800 words today, I’m catching up, but today’s goal is 13336, so I need to get another thousand down by day’s end to be in the ballpark and be able to catch up in another day or so.  I now find myself writing some semi-detached scenes — backstory for my FMC — Nano-speak, I learned, for “female main character.”

Her name is Alza, and she’s a Harhanu — a succubus.  Why a succubus?  I’m finding out as I write, and I’ll let you know if I arrive at a definitive answer.  Right now, though, it seems to have something to do with desire and empathy and our capacity for both deluding ourselves into disaster and enchanting ourselves into freedom and discovery. Oh, and she’s 947 years old.  But she can be really hot when she chooses.  Like when she’s hungry.  Her most recent feed was from a German tourist named Konstant.  He’s one of two humans who know her real nature.  Their relationship is reciprocal.  Sort of.  Do I believe in succubi?  I do when I’m writing Alza’s voice, when she’s draining a victim, when she searches like we all do for meaning and purpose.  In some ways she’s the most human of my characters.  Which may be a problem I’ll need to work on.

That number (of people who know her) is about to change.  She’s made an entirely accidental (hah! so she thinks!) connection with a younger man (everyone is younger when you’re 947) named Nick who she’s discovering is crucial to her plans for living. And dying. Both of which she’s seriously considering.  She’s also seduced a priest or two in her long life, and once allowed a cult to form around her.  Now she’s more interested in laughing at Cosmo and Playboy and figuring out why one human should so dominate her thoughts when she’s used to doing the dominating.  Or at least getting what she wants.  Which is what men think they’re getting from her.  OK, some of this is pretty self-indulgent.  It’s also indicative of the space you get into when you’ve been writing all day!

So how does this connect with Druidry?  Who knows?!  I started writing on Nov. 1 with the small cluster of ideas that came to me, about three days before Nanowrimo began.  You go with what you get.  Years ago I started a historical novel set in Pre-Roman Etruria.  But that’s not what came calling this time, saying “write me!”  Hence, my current work.

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