Archive for the ‘meeting the gods’ Category

Working Your What, Part 2: Spirit-ware   Leave a comment

We hear about computer software and hardware, and the humorously-named wetware, that pink and sloshy stuff inside our skulls.

I propose the term spirit-ware for all the applications that run without physical forms. Just as you don’t need to believe in Apple or Linux or Google or Microsoft to use their applications and other products, you can get along fine without belief in spiritware and yet still try it out. In fact, we all do that every day. Belief is just one technique among many.

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Walpole-Westminster Bridge over the CT River, Bridgehunter.com/Library of Congress

Experience of the four elements can often provide a bridge for those seeking to understand both lowercase and uppercase spirit/Spirit. Ritual can help us focus in on how North feels different from East, bringing it home with earth and air as ritual experiences, and also with the enlarged awareness of presence that ritual can facilitate.

Or to give a local geographical and political example, does anyone believe that “Vermont” and “New Hampshire” are anything more than very powerful symbols and metaphors that we agree on for the sake of convenience? (When I cross the bridge at Westminster, VT and drive east to Walpole, NH, what’s much more “real” than any change of state boundaries, to me anyway, is my encounter with the Connecticut River that defines most of the eastern Vermont border and western New Hampshire border.)

Go back a few hundred years and pieces of what are now two New England states belonged to Canada, France, New York, and so on. Go back a few more centuries, and the whole region is Wabanahkik, the Dawn Land of the Abenaki people. “So which is it?” Any answer depends on time and place.

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Over on the Druidry and Christianity Facebook site, a member posted a question about “false gods” in connection with those who worship Brighid and similar figures. How do we know what they are?

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Waxing moon, two evenings ago

For better and worse, I tend towards a pragmatic approach towards Others, especially Others without their skins on.

I understand that such an approach may not work for everyone, particularly for those who’ve committed to a specific creed and worldview. The longer I live, though, the less I believe I know what “false god” even means any more. Yes, I know how such expressions get used, but often that seems like finger-pointing and competitiveness between different religious factions. There are so many kinds of beings, some with skin and some without. And from what I’ve seen, they’re a real mix of good, bad and in-between, so that my criterion tends to be Jesus’s wise standard: “by their fruits you shall know (i.e., distinguish) them”. Which is how I also tend to discriminate between a good and a bad used-car salesperson, plumber, restaurant, potential life-partner, etc.

I also don’t think I really “worship” anyone or anything. Some people do — it’s an important part of their spiritual and religious life. But what I do know is that some beings earn my respect and attention, and others don’t. I find I’m more interested in relationships than worship, and as with any worthwhile relationship, I need to listen, be available to do what’s needful, pay attention, show my gratitude, go with the flow, and live my commitment in my actions.

And I find that demands more from me than most of my beliefs do, which my life keeps revising on me anyway, often when I least expect it.

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The early Church made a distinction between three kinds of reverence/worship: the Greek terms doulia, hyperdoulia, and latria, or reverence, great reverence and worship (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latria). Latria is for God alone, while saints may receive lesser devotion. Well and good.

But I don’t know how to apply such labels realistically to what I do each day, no matter what it may look like on paper. If a dear friend helps me out when I’m down, spends time with me, listens, checks in to follow up on me, takes me out to dinner, etc., the ways I’d show my deep gratitude in response, at least to someone watching from the outside, would probably look an awful lot like latria, or worship/sacrifice. Yet I’m not “worshiping” my friend (or at least not any more than I worship any close friends) when I give a gift in return, or write them a poem or song in gratitude.

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sunset two nights ago, from our front yard

Is writing and singing a love song to someone else a form of worship, or simply expressing love? Does it have to be one or the other? We can attempt to define and prescribe which actions fall in which category, but the person’s intent seems far more important to me, and that’s often where doctrine has least to say, since its purpose, often, is to direct behavior, something visible and measurable, so that we may begin to achieve a glimpse of the result of holy intentions and actions. It can be an indirect way to catalyze a spiritual practice, but for some it’s a useful one.

One of the loveliest modern songs of devotion to Brighid is by Damh the Bard. It’s a favorite of mine and of many. Listening to it, I’m not concerned with doctrine but with the love he expresses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMxeYEhUxYw

Granted, Damh isn’t a Christian Druid. The distinction between human and god matters less in both song and the experience of many Pagans. You’ll note if you listen that Brighid is both “old woman” and “goddess”. (Maybe if we let go that distinction our care and treatment of the elderly might improve.)

One commenter at Druidry and Christianity observed:

But when it comes to pagan gods (let’s assume for the moment that there was a goddess Bridget and a Saint Bridget and that it’s possible not to conflate the two), I think it’s not so much a question of what constitutes “worship,” as it is a question of who/what pagan gods actually are. Are they spiritually beings set up against God? Are they under God? Are they unaligned? Is it even possible to have an unaligned spirit?

There are different kinds of answers to such questions, and which ones satisfy anyone asking the questions seem to depend in turn on the intention, expectation, experience, belief and individuality of those asking. Ultimately, one goes with what accords with one’s inmost sense of truth. No one else can supply that, but only influence how much we trust it.

Prayer may supply an answer individually, though we’ve always seen different and sometimes diametrically opposite answers to apparently the “same” prayer. In response to prayer guidance, some join one church that others condemn — also as a response to guidance received in prayer.

The experience of God’s sovereignty for others means that Biblical verses like Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” are sufficient answer. God’s creation is good, and his Word is fulfilled.

Medieval European angelology suggests a whole range of spiritual beings — evil, unaligned and good. Much Christian magic of that time involves cooperation with the good ones against the evil ones. Or sometimes evoking and extorting from the more dubious ones as much occult knowledge as you can, before banishing them back to their respective realms. You just had to make sure your magic circle was as secure as possible, so you wouldn’t get eaten. (For a contemporary fantasy take on various ways you can get eaten, among many other things, see Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, set among Yale University’s secret societies, featuring an anti-heroine named Alex, who’s able to see spirits — much to her dismay.)

Divination can help as well, though from a Christian perspective it can be just as suspect as the subject of potentially evil or non-aligned spiritual beings themselves.

Ultimately, I find, it seems to come down to a paraphrase of C. S. Lewis’s observation: “You can’t really study people [or gods]; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing …”

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Brighid of the Snows

The first stanza of Damh the Bard’s lovely song “Brighid” (below) places the goddess in the landscape of vision:

There’s a tree by the well in the wood,
That’s covered in garlands,
Clooties and ribbons that drift,
In the cool morning air.
That’s where I met an old woman,
Who came from a far land.
Holding a flame o’er the well,
And chanting a prayer.

Though here it’s the goddess who’s “chanting a prayer”, the bard has invoked her with song — his own prayer. And he’s gone to the “well in the wood” full of intention. Maybe not specifically to see the goddess, but knowing the tree and the well and the moment offer possibility waiting for human consciousness to activate. A gift of the gods, already given freely to us.

Here in Vermont a light snow falls as I write this, and I step away from the keyboard to take a picture.

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By February here, snow itself can signal spring to come. You can feel the longer light, and moments of snowy beauty remind you that wonder is never far away. The sap will be running soon in the maples, the sugar shacks smoking all day and night as the sugarmen boil down the sweet juice to syrup. Green will burst forth, improbable as that seems right now in a world of cold whiteness. So Brighid comes from a “far land” that is also always near to attention, intention and devotion.

Here across the Pond from the Celtic homeland, some North American Pagans can feel removed from the “gods of Europe”, bewailing their distance. This place, we can feel, isn’t “Their” land. Yet anyone who’s encountered a spiritual presence knows that place is a convenience of the gods, not a requirement — a set of clothes, not the being who wears them.

Yes, it would be splendid, we imagine, to visit that “tree by the well in the wood”, simply by stepping out the back door to a landscape steeped in stories and legends of the goddess. Yet we also know what familiarity breeds. Or as an African proverb has it, “Those who live nearest the church arrive late”.  The old saying that the gods like the offering of the salt of human sweat means effort is not wasted, devotion is repaid. Always, we have something we can offer them. And the gods give, but “not as the world gives”.

For you soon find that the gods are not merely passive reservoirs, to be drawn down whenever we happen to think of them and plug in for a re-charge, our rituals cannily crafted to work like the swipe of a credit card at a gas (petrol) pump. “Fill me up, Brighid!”

But wait, you say. Isn’t that just what we’re doing with ritual and song?

It’s really not a matter for argument, unless you need the exercise. Damh the Bard knows Brighid — you can hear it in the song. And out of love he’s traveled many times to the tree by the well in the wood. Brighid knows his name.

This, then, is one intention to cherish: may we serve them so that the gods know our names. Not to hold it up before others like a badge of pride, but as a spiritual resource to treasure and spend at worthy need. Or as Gandhi said, “If no one will walk with you, walk alone” knowing in truth you aren’t alone.

Ten years ago I didn’t honor Brighid. I didn’t “believe” in her, though I’d heard her name, thanks to all those who kept it alive in our world. Now I honor her, but I still don’t trouble myself about “belief”.

Instead, I take the hint and look. “I saw her reflection in the mirrored well”, Damh sings.

And I looked deep in her face,
The old woman gone, a maiden now knelt in her place,
And from my pocket I pulled a ribbon,
And in honour of her maidenhood,
I tied it there to the tree by the well in the wood.

Spiritual fire kindles in us at such moments.

A blessed Imbolc to you.

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Thirty Days of Druidry 16: Gods in the Mist

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Lorna comments on Day 11:

As someone who has been pretty lost traveling off the map and will be lost again, I feel it’s a personal obligation to leave signposts, even if they’re only helpful to a small few people.

As an outsider to the major druid orders I do get a wee bit angry by those in the know only sharing to those who are paid up or part of a clique when perhaps their words could have helped us lost ones.

But perhaps if I’d had their guidance I wouldn’t have found my god in the mist…

As often happens, I’m indebted to a reader for an idea, and sometimes — like this time — a title, too. Thanks, Lorna.

I must say at the outset that I don’t know Lorna’s experience. And, partly, our ignorance of others’ experiences is what this post starts to address. I’m merely thinking with the words and impressions her comment gives me.

The courage to travel off what maps there are comes hard-won. Sometimes we may get dropped there seemingly by chance. Other times we manage to end up there all by our ourselves, out of sheer defiance of the boundary-keepers, or at the bidding of a deity, or through a kind of blessed carelessness that makes us miss the signs that might have saved us a wrong turn off the trail and the adventure before us. The familiar falls away, and like those medieval maps casually warn, the terrain (physical is spiritual, and vice versa) fairly shouts that “here be dragons.” No one returns unchanged, though it can cost a deal of trouble to convey to another person a glimpse of what happened or what the change consists of. We may not yet know ourselves.

Lorna notes she takes it as a personal obligation to leave signposts. Her sense that she’ll be “lost again” may have something to do with it. In a truly trackless realm, one starts to understand how even a little guidance can hearten a traveler more than stumbling on a cache of food, or a chance companion welcoming you to sit by a cheery fire. No, it’s not madness or a curse or some private doom that closes in on you, its breath on your skin, its claws at your neck, though it can feel like it. But traveling where no other has set foot can teach and toughen you, though it may never allow you to take your ease on such journeys.

I wonder, too, whether someone who’s walked off the path more than once has all that much to learn from “those in the know only sharing to those who are paid up or part of a clique when perhaps their words could have helped us lost ones.” Is that sharing over-rated? Does it amount to more than what we ourselves gain by going our own way? We return with the authority of our own experiences, along with perhaps a few more cuts and gashes and scars to show for our boldness. The greater wisdom may well lie with the sojourner in the wilderness, rather than with the elder at the evening circle, the author of a classic holding forth at a reading, the Chief Druid disclosing supposedly advanced teachings in a members-only workshop. Can the most valuable teachings be shared in words?

I suspect each of us encounters such tracklessness in our own ways, and some of the most welcome aid we can offer is the simple encouragement of knowing we’re not alone in being alone. Compassionate travelers signpost as they can. But I’ll quickly concede I may never have been as lost and found as others who journey there, survive and return to recount their hardships and discoveries. In the end, perhaps we can’t know such things secondhand, only experience them firsthand. Or to speak personally, perhaps I forfeit knowing as long as I keep to the well-lit trail, the easier ascent, the way clear-cut and signposted by hardy forerunners. But for just such a reason, I can strive to honor all fellow travelers. Then, when I do turn aside from the way where the grass lies flattened from many feet passing, when I enter the cave alone, swim the cold swift river, find foot- and hand-holds on the sheer face of the mountain, I may meet without intermediary what calls to me most deeply. Initiation tracks us when we think we’re tracking something else.

As Lorna concludes, “perhaps if I’d had their guidance I wouldn’t have found my god in the mist.”

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