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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6| Part 7]

In this next series of seven posts, I’ll be following a classic Tarot interpretation of the Fool as the querent or seeker who journeys through the aspects and archetypes of the Major Arcana. And I’ll be writing from some perspectives I hope will be useful to Druid-Christian travelers along the Green Ways of Spirit, and will in turn inspire comments and insights from you that can enrich us all. Take this as rough draft — I’m working it out as I go.

[Note: The tarot images used here, from the original Rider-Waite Tarot, are now in the public domain in the U.S.]

FOOL or SEEKER

0-FoolSo important is the animal accompanying the Fool from the outset that almost every deck includes some creature accompanying the human figure of the Fool.

Whether we see this as our animal inheritance, part of our make-up as a physical being with age-old drives and instincts, or as a guide or companion distinct from us, the dog (or three birds in the Arthurian tarot) is with us from the beginning.

Why a fool? Nearly every significant tradition on the planet counsels us against arrogance or hubris, and in no place is this caution more needful than on our own spiritual journeys. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise” (1 Cor 4:10). The classic Zen master seeks to help a student recover that “original face, the one you had before you were born”.

Echoing this insight is the old Victorian Bard William Blake, a holy fool himself, who also said, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”. Want an interesting exercise? Ask in meditation or dream to see the trees of the Fool.

WBlake

Are they the trees of Paradise? The Medieval Legend of the Rood or Cross follows the main story line of the Biblical narrative with a tree or trees continually reappearing in different guises, first in Eden, then as a seed from that original tree buried with Adam’s body at Golgotha, to become — depending on the versions — part of Noah’s Ark, a bridge that the Queen of Sheba crosses, and eventually the Cross that Christ dies on.

(Where is the seed planted in me to disrupt all my false and narrow assumptions? What tree lifts its branches in my life, sending me places I’d never go on my own?)

And similarly, too, in Tolkien’s Silmarillion: there he recounts stories of how the Light from the original Holy Trees in Valinor is captured in the Silmaril gems, those greatest achievements of the Elven Feanor, whose name means “Spirit of Fire”, and follows their dramatic history through the volume. Trees, Light, Fire: we have them with us as we travel, even as we have the solace and guidance of an animal companion by our sides.

C. S. Lewis in his final novel, Till We Have Faces, draws on the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. The title echoes a line in the novel:  “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Lewis explained this to a correspondent, writing that a human “must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask”. In one way, then, the Great Work is to be me, the original self, wearing the face I had before I was born, “because no one comes to Spirit except through me”.

Ask an ancestor to show you an original face.

We might also see the sequence of cards coming after the Fool as masks that the Fool tries on along the journey, learning from each role or incarnation or experience, but never wholly defined by any of them. Or, alternatively, as initiations each soul must experience on its journey. (Looking for just four? Try the Elemental Sacraments that appear in the life of Jesus and offer themselves as well in slightly different guises to Druid and Pagan generally. And if you’re like me, you remember you may experience each one multiple times along you spiral path. I prime the pump occasionally and try one out myself, if it hasn’t come along recently on its own.)

MAGICIAN

01-MagicianThe Magician, numbered 1 in most decks, is a prime number, expressive of unity, the fullness of Awen, of Spirit before creative activity begins on the physical plane. The serpent that forms his belt recalls the admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

As a lightning-rod for spirit, one hand raised to heaven or fire, one lowered to earth, garbed in fire and pure white, the lemniscate figure-8 of infinity above his head, he is a potent figure for many. And another mask.

In the Golden Tarot, the Magician is Christ, beast-Master, Lord of Animals, able to communicate with them in ways many humans have often lost and must work to regain. He knows as well the beast nature and the human nature, honoring and blessing them both. In our steps along the spiral, we sometimes cut ourselves off from what some have called our elder brothers and sisters.

Ask the spirit in all things to help you see how to participate in healing the breach.

In Hindu myth we enter the worlds with an adi karma, an initial nudge that lands us in physical bodies, and sets our feet on the spiral journey back home. “True voyage”, says U. K. LeGuin innocently, “is return”.

What is it about being human? The German poet Rilke exclaims in the first of his masterwork, the Duino Elegies:

Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world.

Some versions render it our interpreted world. We’re the ones, after all, who filter experience through memory, intention, language, culture, emotion, training, expectation — a whole set of potent magical transformations animals only partially know, filters which immeasurably enrich our lives but also deeply complicate them. The Magician is master of transformations, able to ride successive changes but not be overwhelmed by them.

I enter each card in imagination and look around. What can I see, smell, hear, imagine, receive in hints and glimpses?

How can I find a home in this world? How can I be a refuge on the road for others here like me?

The HIGH PRIESTESS

02-High PriestessIn the Matthews’ Arthurian Tarot, the figure is the Lady of the Lake. In both decks — the Rider-Waite pictured here, and in the Arthurian deck, in contrast to the Fire-red of the Magician, we see the Water-blue of the Priestess or Lady. Launched into the world of polarity, we encounter a different kind of initiation, and Initiator.

While there is great wisdom in the occult maxim of Dion Fortune that “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess, and there is one initiator”, it’s also true that many people have experienced the Powers of the Worlds as distinct beings, and until we have experience of them ourselves we may wisely keep silent about them. We already know from childhood onward that what’s true on the physical plane may not work on other planes, and vice versa. Try out the effortless flight of the astral dream world on earth, and gravity has a way of asserting its own reality regardless of our wishes or beliefs.

With a crescent “moon at her feet”, and also featured in her headdress, the High Priestess is in some ways an embodiment of Isis, and of Mary as well. She has her own balance, seated between the Pillars of Force of much classical magic practice, and positioned in front of a garden of fruit trees. With both the equal-armed cross on her breast and the title “tora(h)” or book of laws in her lap, she is a complex of many meanings, all worth exploring. “May your word to me be fulfilled”, goes one version of Mary’s words to the angelic message and messenger at the Annunciation. The fulfillment of the word “tora” may be as “rota” or wheel: the Fool’s journey or spiral continues.

But the feminine is not passive, as the stereotype often runs. Possibilities are endlessly sent to us by spirit, by the cosmos rippling its energies through every one of its creatures. We can refuse them. And we often do.

What law governs this moment? What is still spinning in my life? What annunciations come to me each day? What words have I accepted and allowed to fulfill themselves? What and who have I turned away from the door?

Poet and rocker Malcolm Guite writes in his poem “Annunciation”:

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy …

We’re invited more often than we know to say yes to things that terrify us. We’ve imbibed our fears along with the advertisers’ marketing jingles that we know through repetition even if we despise the product. If repetition can accomplish so much, let me turn it to my purposes, rather than somebody else’s. As author Peter Beagle famously declares, “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams”.

Or to turn to another great Bard, the late Leonard Cohen, who sings in “Anthem”, with great Druid counsel:

The birds, they sang
At the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.

Yeah, the wars
They will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold and bought again
The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

No, the dove is never free, not till spiral’s end, but the Light keeps getting in. The dove keeps descending, bringing the blessings of spirit, keeps setting out from the Ark to find land after flood, keeps returning with a leaf in its beak, keeps on keeping on. (Male, female, polarity. Though it’s heresy in some quarters to say it, we’re all much more than a “gender” or “orientation”. A stereotype is a simply firm or fixed reference point in a world of changes, not something to attempt mistakenly to incarnate personally — impossible, anyway!)

How am I the High Priestess? How am I still the Magician? What has the Fool discovered so far of balance and polarity?

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Guide of the West   Leave a comment

Julie Babin

Coastal Louisiana. Photo courtesy Julie Babin

 

Who knows when odd reading can lead to insight — and material for a blogpost?

Take, for instance, this delicious (to me, anyway) fragment:

“Emotions alert us to specific issues, and they do so without any subterfuge. If we are aware enough … our emotions will be able to contribute the energy we need to move into and out of any situation imaginable, because they contribute the specific energy and information we need to heal ourselves” (Karla McLaren. Emotional Genius: Discovering he Deepest Language of Soul. Laughing Tree Press, 2001).

This kind of statement makes me sit up and pay attention. Partly because any large claim switches on my crap detector, but also because I immediately want to try it out. You know, set up an experiment to test the claim.

In this case, like most of us, I’ve got a running start on just such a test. We can all name stories, movies, songs that grab us and move us. Even — if they reach deep enough, if we’re open and vulnerable to their magic — on the fifth, tenth or thirtieth read, viewing, hearing. Among your top contenders you may count a childhood favorite. The quality of these repeated experiences, at least for me, leaves no doubt: gods are alive, magic is afoot. Magic is alive, gods are afoot. (Leonard Cohen nails it again.)

In fact, so completely may the magic live for you that you guard it zealously and jealously. You watch who you choose to tell about it, because you’ve learned the hard way how another’s misunderstanding or mockery can sting, and even, if it’s carefully targeted, ruin a beloved experience for you.

The number and quality of claims McLaren makes are quite remarkable. Here they are again in list form. Emotions:

— alert us to specific issues.

— don’t lie or mislead — they offer no subterfuge.

— contribute the energy we need to move into and out of any situation imaginable.

— contribute the specific energy and information we need to heal ourselves.

Or, to put it elementally and alchemically, emotions identify what we need to know (Air), clear the way for the will to act (Fire), empower the imagination (Water), and help us heal (Earth).

McLaren also wisely includes a kicker, escape clause, out, safety switch: If we are aware enough … Of course. Isn’t that always the issue at the heart of things?

Stay with me here. (As the Rocky Horror narrator exclaims, “It’s just a jump to the left!”) Working with adolescents in a boarding school for sixteen years let me reflect on my own emotional growth or lack of it, even as I served as an adviser to hundred of students over the years. Because I advised freshman and senior girls, I frequently saw emotion more openly expressed than I might have with boys. How often I’d witness some variation of “I’m so upset/amazed/impressed/in love! Oh my god, I can’t believe X. I was A and now I’m B. I’m so upset/amazed/impressed/in love!”

The lesson here is emotion can be so strong that at first we have no distance from it, no perspective or comparison. We recycle it, loop with it, rehearse it. “All or nothing” is the adolescent’s stereotypical default setting, partly because so many experiences are firsts and really don’t offer any basis for comparison: first love, first significant failure, first challenging success, first death of a close friend or family member, first major social embarrassment, first large moral choice, and so on. Emotions don’t lie, but when the tide sweeps in and then out again, how do you make your way through the wreckage to picking yourself up and drying out and moving forward?

With some progress towards maturity comes that invaluable ability to detach, step back, gain perspective on one’s own situation and experience. (We might say that IS maturity.) Only then can emotion alert us to specific issues. (If you look at the media and the world right now, we see repeated spikes of emotion with far too little detachment, reflection, proportion, perspective. Keep a person, a community or a nation in the first stage of emotion and they’ll never reach the second stage, let alone any of others. That way mature judgment dies.)

While cooler heads may lament the manipulation of whole groups by the technique of constantly lighting new fires, all while stoking the flames of old ones, there’s a useful lesson in the power of emotion. To lift a line from “Storybook Love”, the theme song to The Princess Bride, “it’s as real as the feelings I feel”.*

And it is. Emotion is real. The gifts of emotion, however, come in what we find after strong feeling. Feel the feeling, yes, I’ve learned. (Can’t do much if I’m repressing it. Genii still in a bottle, that trick.) Then work with it — from outside. Return whenever I need to fine-tune my understanding by checking in with the authenticity of the feeling. Just don’t invite it to take up residence and watch as it tracks in dirt and hangs its laundry over my windows.

Anger. Fear. Lust. Self-pity. Doubt. Feel any of these lately? These are among my top five most potent negative emotions. They’re also five of my teachers. I’ve learned more from anger and fear than I could tell you in any reasonable-sized book.

Awe. Curiosity. Amazement. Gratitude. Love. Another five, among the most potent positive emotions. Also fabulous teachers. Alchemized versions of the preceding negatives, shaped by the spiritual work we’re each called to do in our lives.

Emotion, our elemental Guide of the West, serves us best when we respect its proper domain. Its role is not to usurp our sovereignty by taking the throne.

In the next post I’ll take up ritual and its close alliance with emotion. Through rite and ritual, powered by where emotion can guide me, I can begin to (1) find out what I need to know (Air), (2) clear the way for the will to act (Fire), (3) empower my imagination (Water), and (4) help myself heal (Earth).

That is, I can begin to take McLaren at her word, and try out the claims she makes.

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*”it’s as real as the feelings I feel”

When’s a Sign a Sign?   Leave a comment

Yes, there are signs and signs. And whole bunches of debate, at intervals, over what “really” constitutes one.

Here’s my in-progress rule of thumb: if it helps me see more deeply, love more richly, create more vibrantly, wonder more amazedly, then it deserves the name “sign.” Coincidence doesn’t enter into it — in fact, it’s irrelevant. (Most days, though, I won’t go as far as Carl Jung and say “Superstition and accident manifest the will of God.”)

What matters with a sign for me, then, is not its origin but its effect. If I don’t invite such causal ripples, funny thing, they tend not to manifest for me. Tune myself away from the universe and it doesn’t vibrate for me like it did. I cut myself off from that original song that’s always singing just beyond my hearing. That’s a form of spiritual death.

If a potential sign doesn’t manage to do any of these positive things, however woo-woo* it appears, I’ve got better things to do than wade in superstition. By which I mean a vague sense of woo, yes, but without anything concrete and transformative that rises out of my encounter or experience. Those are just dime-a-dozen woos.

And if it’s your sign? Go with it! What does it say to you?

But I tend to discount signs others witness and want to “give” to me. To each our own. There’s a reason you and not I witnessed what you witnessed. And vice versa. That neither validates nor invalidates the sign. It simply personalizes it. If, following Leonard Cohen, the “cracks in the world let the light in,” the person or persona lets the sound of awen through. Latin persona: the theatrical mask (and later, a character or role) that lets a voice come out that did not speak before.

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you …

sings Leonard Cohen in “If It Be Your Will.”

But he continues:

If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell …

As long, then, as the rivers fill and the hills rejoice, I take it that there is a choice — and it’s our choice.

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On to my “sign of the day” — two giant red oak leaves I spotted during my climb up Wantastiquet Mountain, detailed in the previous post.

img_1528

The larger of the two leaves comes in around 10 in./25 cm. Are they “signs”?!

I find meaning in them. They make me marvel. They come at a needed time. More about that in a minute. They resonate in my thoughts. They also objectively stand out in some way — in this case, a measurable physical dimension. Together, those qualities are enough for me for them to earn the name “sign.”

As a primary tree of Druids, the oak already comes laden with symbolic meanings. (Some plausible etymologies, after all, define druid as “oak or tree knower.”) And now, for me, more: to stand up in a way that expresses my best. To be more visible in my walk (especially since I found the leaves on a mountain walk, and after asking for sign). Not to shy away from living the values that matter to me. To leave a legacy that inspires, even as I have been inspired. Simply, to give my best.

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*woo-woo: a deeply scientific term, used here, of course, with ultimate precision. Urban Dictionary obligingly defines it as “any belief not founded on good evidence.”

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