Archive for the ‘OBOD’ Category

Toasts, Boasts and Oaths   Leave a comment

On Friday, Mystic River Grove, an OBOD group based in Massachusetts, celebrated a Summer Solstice ritual inspired by the Anglo-Saxon symbel or feast, and built around toasts, boasts and oaths. I couldn’t attend, but I want to reflect on these three components of celebration, apart from however Mystic River chose to celebrate beyond those three elements.

ASfeastWith a toast, boast and oath, you could certainly hold a fine solo rite. Toast your gods, land spirits, ancestors, teachers, living kin — whoever you’re called to honor. Then on to a boast, a celebration of excellence, a claim to honor for ourselves, for something we have achieved. Like gratitude, boasting’s a skill we neither teach or practice enough. My default boast is survival. I’m still here. But I can definitely claim more; this blog, my other writings, a good marriage, years of teaching young people, a circle of friends I admire and enjoy.

A solo rite still has witnesses: our own selves, hearing the words. Powers and beings of the world who attend because they were “in the neighborhood” so to speak, unless we explicitly ban them. And anyone we did invite to join us. But what’s the value of our community witnessing when we do these things? Why do these things publicly?

Toasts others make can remind us who we honor and who we might include next time. We learn of others’ gratitude. What I’m grateful for carries a story with it. It’s a window into a life, and speaking gratitude in a circle opens us to each other and our stories.

Boasts tell us something of the commitments and dedications of time and energy in others’ lives. If I’m proud of it, I’ve spent myself on it in some way, poured myself into it, and probably sacrificed in some way to accomplish it. Boasts also let us laugh — we can boast about silly things, or make fun of ourselves for how much even a small achievement may have cost us.

Oaths tell us what will matter in the coming days and months. What are others binding themselves to do? How does publicly announcing an intention, having others witness it, help energize us to accomplish it? An oath may include a spell of finding or binding, of opening the way, or shutting down obstacles, resistances, barriers, and so on. When I took part in Nanowrimo in past years, for instance, and wrote my 1600 words a day, announcing my progress online helped me keep going. You helped me persevere because you knew I’d set out to do it.

drinking horn

Depending on the size of the horn passed round the circle for each of the toasts, boasts and oaths, and the kind of drink you quaff each time, you may find your tongue loosened and the three acts easier to pull off!

Here the rhymer in me wants to add a fourth word, wrecking the lovely triad of toast, boast and oath, but creating in its place a new and balanced pair of rhymes: toast, boast, oath and growth. After all, a rite moves us to a new place and space, never the same as where we were before. As with yesterday and tomorrow, the difference from today may or may not seem like much, but just as the daylight lengthens and shortens each year, depending on which side of the solstice I’m on, so do the energies at play in my life. I can do things today not possible yesterday or tomorrow. And that’s worth a toast, a boast, an oath and the growth that comes with them.

Finally, if we’re going to be Anglo-Saxon about things, the Old English Maxims 1, lines 138-140, offer relevant insight here:

Ræd sceal mon secgan, rune writan, leoþ gesingan, lofes gearnian, dom areccan, dæges onettan.

Keeping to the spirit I feel lies behind these proverbial expressions, and unpacking their compactness and concision*, I take this to mean, roughly, “Let your speech be words of good counsel to others, write runes of wisdom, sing as epically as you can, deserve praise, test and expand your judgment, while holding nothing back each day”.

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*With even a little Old English, you can explore meanings and fashion your own translation with the help of the online Bosworth-Tollers Anglo-Saxon Dictionary here.

rǣd: advice, counsel, prudence, deliberation
sceal, 3rd singular of sculan: shall, ought, be obliged, must
mon, Wessex dialect form of man: person, human, mortal, man
secgan: say, speak, express
rune, plural of rūn: whisper (speech not intended to be overheard, confidence, counsel, consultation), mystery, secret, rune
wrītan: write, cut, draw, form letters (on wood, stone, parchment, etc.)
lēoþ: song, poem, ode, lay, verses
gesingan: sing
lofes, genitive of lof: praise, glory, hymn
gearnian: earn, merit
dōm: doom, judgment, judicial sentence, decree, ordinance, law
areccan: to put forth, relate, recount, speak out, express, explain, interpret, translate
dæges, genitive of dæg: day, daytime
onettan: hasten, anticipate, be active or diligent

Midsummer and Vervain   Leave a comment

I’m going all lore-y in this post, so if plants and herbal history aren’t really your thing, move along.

Vervain (Verbena spp) — “leafy branch” — known among herbalists since at least the time of dynastic Egypt, has associations with midsummer, most obviously because in the British climate where we get much of herbal lore in the English-speaking West, that’s approximately when it flowers. The 11th-century Old English Herbarium (Ann Van Arsdall, Routledge, 2010) describes gathering vervain, using the Latin name uermenaca, at Midsummer. (Any left over from the previous year was to be tossed into the Midsummer bonfire.) Fans of The Vampire Diaries know it for its colorful flowers and anti-vampiric powers. The TV series showed the variety Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), an American species, and dramatized the herb’s toxicity to vamps and its ability to protect a mortal from compulsion by vampires. Who says pop television has no wisdom to offer?!

The range of vervain’s nicknames also indicates something of how firmly fixed it is in herbal history: enchanter’s plant, holy herb, herb of the cross, herb of Saint Anne (yerba del Santa Ana), Juno’s tears, pigeon’s grass, pigeonweed, turkeygrass, herb of grace, etc.

bluevervain-700x525

Blue (or Swamp) Vervain (Verbena hastata)

I’ve been on an intermittent local quest to spot some growing wild. Many North American varieties of the plant are originally native to Europe and were brought by early colonists. In the sometimes quaint and often rewarding language of herbals and herbalists, vervain “has enough garden presence of a rustic kind to justify its inclusion, being in no way boorish or uncivil, and it is easy to start from seed and easy to grow” (Henry Beston*, Herbs and the Earth, David Godine, 2014).

Vervain varieties (over 250!) have been prized for numerous benefits, depending on dose and preparation, along with a few qualifications of sensitivity and toxicity at higher levels. It has tonic, diuretic, and anti-parasitic properties, and can stimulate both dopamine and serotonin, meaning it lifts you up and also slows you down. Leaves, roots and flowers, again depending on variety (harvest early in the season to avoid strong, even rank flavor!), make a soothing tea.

In herblore, vervain sprang, according to one story, from the tears of the goddess Isis as she wept at the death of Osiris. Greeks and Romans both used it as a sacred herb, sweeping it across their altars.  In Christian Europe the story runs that vervain was used to slow the flow of blood from Christ’s wounds (though logically this would merely have prolonged his agony), and so thereby the plant gained another of its nicknames — herb-on-the-cross.

Western medicine officially disdains to acknowledge much value to the plant. One site (drugs.com, sourced from Harvard Health Topics), notes “There is no clinical evidence to support specific dose recommendations for vervain. Traditional use for its astringent properties required 2 to 4 g daily in an infusion … Research reveals little or no information regarding adverse reactions with the use of this product” but adds that for pregnant and nursing women, “Documented adverse reactions. Avoid use”.

Nonetheless, many sites include recipes for nursing mothers, such as this one:

Combine 1 quart of water with 1 teaspoon of vitex berries, 1 teaspoon blessed thistle leaves, 1/2 teaspoon vervain leaves, 1/2 teaspoon nettle leaves, 1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon anise seeds; steep for 20 minutes; drink 1 to 3 cups a day.

I’m leaving out the source, perhaps to protect the guilty. But anyone who’s benefitted from herbal remedies, as I have, especially if nothing else has worked, can readily attest to their value from personal experience, in the face of official disdain and ignorance.

With all this history and attention, it’s little surprise that among the plants set forth for study in OBOD’s Ovate grade work, vervain occupies pride of place.

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Sources (besides personal experience): OrganicfactsDrugs.com; Mother Earth Living.

*Henry Beston (1888-1968) wrote, “Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness of that divine mystery man ceases to be man”.

MAGUS 2017: The Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S.   13 comments

The first of what richly promises to be an annual event, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) took place over this last weekend, Thursday to Sunday, at Four Quarters Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The initial inward glimpse of the Gathering came to one of the organizers almost a decade ago.  There’s yet another indication, if I need the reminder, of the possible time-gap between first seed and outward manifestation.

And our hosting venue, Four Quarters, an interfaith sanctuary launched in 1994, was the perfect place to hold a Beltane Gathering. As the Four Quarters home page observes, it’s

a membership-driven non-profit, a vibrant community of real people living real lives. And Four Quarters actually owns the Land, buildings and equipment that make our work possible, forever set aside from the vagaries of private ownership.

The lovely and wild 150 acres of the sanctuary lie in the Allegheny foothills in southern PA, just miles from the Maryland border. Home to a stone circle, labyrinth, retreat center with bunkhouse and dining pavilion, a brewery, a drum and dance circle, sweat lodge, a handful of permanent residents, and the clean-flowing Siding Creek defining part of its periphery, Four Quarters strives to

honor the many world traditions that reflect an Earth Based Spirituality, and we work to support those traditions and welcome their people. We do not teach “One Way” of belief. We do not have “The Answer”. We do have good questions.

Here’s the Stone Circle seen from the north, a work in progress (with annual megalithic-style stone raisings open to anyone willing to join the rope-pulling and log-rolling stone lifting team). Note the nearly three-foot-long camp bell suspended from the tripod in the foreground — a deep voice audible throughout the property.

circle w bell

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A wide-angle shot can’t capture the majesty of the stones or the power of the circle. Here’s a closer view of some of the lovely rough surfaces, mottled with rust in places, asking for touch and communion.

stone closeup w flah

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The first time I walked the circle Thursday evening, I sensed a quiet hum of presence. The next time I came more at ease, eager to touch and listen to the land and the inner voices. By the time I reached the eighth stone, sudden tears filled my eyes. The circle holds indisputable power.

Here’s one of the altars near the center of the stone circle. The ancestors speak strongly here, if I give even half an ear.

ancestor altar in circle -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

How to convey the blend of the speaking land, the personal and the tribal at such Gatherings?! You come as someone new to Paganism, or to OBOD more specifically. Or you come knowing you’ll reunite with your people once more, across the miles. If we saw each other every day, we might begin to forget the human and spiritual wealth that surrounds us. In ritual, in conversations in the dining pavilion (below) or over coffee during breaks, we’re reminded that we’re never alone, no matter how solitary we may live the rest of the year. Inner connection exists over any distance.

dining pavillion -- W Flaherty.jpg

dining pavilion — photo courtesy Wandy Flaherty

Typically when I reflect on a Gathering a few days after, one or two things stand out sharply. But when I started naming them over breakfast this morning, I ended with a list of a score of items — nearly the entire weekend as I experienced it, a blend not to be parcelled out in soundbites or highlights.

From the place, with its cool air crackling with oxygen from the vigorous trees, to the faces and energy of the Tribe and its rituals, formal and informal, to the songs of spiritual presence that all places offer, everything stands out in memory.  Impossible to narrow down. This post is a small attempt to hint at that Everything — to urge you, if you want a taste of a particular kind of marvelous, to attend a Gathering if you can.

The way of the Solitary can indeed be a blessed one, but the Tribe also offers a great deal to reinvigorate even the most hermetic of Solitaries. A Gathering can paradoxically reaffirm the Solitary, because you meet other Solitaries. You witness the integrity of the individual path, as well as the gift of the Tribal way. Gatherings have changed me into an avid Tribe-seeker, at least a few times each year, so that when I retreat to my own smaller circle, the closing words of OBOD ritual echo true: “May our memories hold what the eye and ear have gained.”

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“Kindling the Flame” was our Gathering theme. We apparently also needed the blessing of Water, in the form of steady rain from late Thursday afternoon through the night, and intermittently all Friday, to help remind us that all the elements gather, whenever any one of them is invoked. “Thus is balance preserved”.

Thursday included an opening orientation by our special guest OBOD Druid Renu Aldritch, a workshop I delivered on “Kindling Our Sacred Fires”, the opening ritual, and preparation for Bardic initiations the next morning.

After breakfast Friday, we initiated 12 Bards. Like many others, I’ve come to see how priceless it is to support initiations and attend whenever I can, regardless of whether I have an assigned “role”. The rite washes over us all, renews the experience each of us had during our own initiation, helps us rededicate, and allows us to greet the newly initiated within ritual space.

Always there are small hiccups and endearing glitches during a ritual. I think without them we’d have to make sure we added them. And we come to expect them: they humanize a dramatic moment, when someone with a major or minor role misplaces a prop or drops a ritual spoken line, topples the incense or bowl of water, mispronounces a magical name, and so on. We laugh, disarmed, and then the next part of the ritual can reach deeper, because we’ve opened up that much more. Each initiation is unique: tears, laughter, the presence of Spirit, the call of bird or beast to punctuate a word or silence.

Friday gave us Renu’s workshop, “Kindling the Spiritual Warrior”, a theme that bears ongoing attention. Dana’s workshop “Land Healing on the Inner and Outer Planes”, her ritual later that afternoon, “Ogam Tree Galdr in the Northern Tradition”, her generous personal readings using her own tree divination system, and her conversation fired many with renewed love and commitment to this path. That evening also brought initiation to three Ovates under moonlight and the background throb of drums from a drum workshop. We couldn’t have asked for a better ritual setting.

Downhill from the Labyrinth, prepping for the evening Ovate initiation in the open air: Renu, Dave, Ahote, me and Cat. (We opted later for a covered stage, in case the rain continued.)

planning for ovate init -- gail Nyoka

photo courtesy Gail Nyoka

Saturday gave us Wanda’s workshop, “Awakening Your Beltane Sensuality” with its creative chance to heighten one sense by muting the others. Now that the rain had ceased, we could hold our main Beltane rite in the stone circle.

Here’s an evocative pic from Saturday night, the Fire Circle alight, a few dancers visible, along with Brom, our Fire Master, tending the flames.

magus beltane

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

By Saturday night I’d mostly finished my other ritual responsibilities, including providing a glitch for the main Beltane ritual where I had a speaking part — I dropped a line. “When that ritual pause goes on a little too long and you look around, you’re probably what’s missing”, as someone quipped over the weekend.

I was looking forward to enjoying the Fire Circle without performing for the eisteddfod, the Bardic arts portion of most OBOD festivals that welcomes the evening fires and the awen-inspiration of a Gathering and offers it back again in song and poetry and story.

But as Bards know from experience, the awen sometimes has other ideas. Fire gave me an opening line a few hours earlier during dinner. And it kept gathering more lines to it, right up to the evening Fire Circle. Verses kept changing and I didn’t have pen and paper handy, so I kept playing with lines and rhymes and their order. “Fire says improvise” came the first line. I’d invoked fire, after all, during my workshop, in several different ways. What did I expect?! Here’s the poem:

Fire says improvise —
no surprise,
when such orange wonder
seeks out skin and eyes.

Fire can burn all to black
but before,
that hot roar lifts me
to soar beyond
anything I thought to think I lack.

Most times I’m no fool —
how does this jewel
get to be so hot and cool?

Old rule, it says.
Burn madly, gladly,
or — if you must — sadly:
one way only among those other two.
For I will heat you from your crown
to your open-toed shoe.

The fire, friend,
the fire is in you.

Just get up and say it, came the nudge. Doesn’t have to be polished. I delivered the lines, gazing at the flames the whole time, then stumbled back fire-blind to my seat on one of the Fire Circle benches. The version here is close to what I remember saying, probably edited a little. Fire didn’t want an editor. Just flame, large or small. The other Bards obliged, and this eisteddfod was among the most varied and interesting I’ve known.

One of the oldest pieces of spiritual counsel in the Indo-European tradition is this: “Pray with a good fire”.

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Below is an informal altar by Siding Creek, which curls around Four Quarters, another voice audible through much of the Sanctuary as a background whisper.

siding creek altar -- renu

photo courtesy Renu Aldritch

Four Quarters brews its own mead, a taste of the Land to take inside the body. Warmed by place, fire and fellowship, we return to our lives richer by each person who attended. Long live MAGUS!

Coffee Dragon -- Wanda Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A final view of the Circle through the eye of the Mother Stone:

throught he mother stone -- Wendy Rose Scheers

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

Jesus and Druidry, Part 3   2 comments

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

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Footnote on Orders and Flavors of Druidry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image: Iona Abbey.

“Imagine if you can’t remember”   3 comments

says Canadian poet Charlotte Hussey.

Now this proves very useful advice, I’ve found. All the materialist skepticism to the contrary, imagination springs from an inward compost and leaf-mold, yes, and also a vital, creative capacity we all possess as our human birthright. Even those of us who’ve tried to cast it away, if only because to nourish dream and hope can hurt much more than indulgence in flat despair. That means almost all of us. Maybe our singers and poets and wild-eyed prophets number among those who simply can’t forget any longer.*

And some of the Wise will tell you that imagination is the astral sight: we see by other means than merely light rays reaching the retina and dashing up neurons to the brain. Light everywhere has its place, but physical light does not account for those familiar or haunting landscapes we’ve never visited, companionable (or challenging) beings we have never met, and so on. Or indeed, landscapes and beings we have met before. Just not here.

charlottehusseyjpgAnd Hussey’s Ecobardic Manifesto asserts, among its other points, both the return of and our singular need for “the prophetic vocation to look into the inner truth of things and speak, on behalf of the community, what need[s] to be spoken.”

But do we even want to hear “what needs to be spoken”? And if we opt to listen, how do we distinguish this needful message in the midst of the clamor and noise of all the other increasingly hysterical voices around us?

Small steps. I keep returning to this most helpful strategy. Our own practice of silence is a beginning (and advanced) step that helps with discernment of an inner truth we each know for ourselves, if we listen. If we can’t discern it, we can imagine it. Finding a still point beyond the mind chatter. Walk along a quiet sidewalk with trees, find a park, a quiet corner of your apartment or condo or neighborhood. Stillness as practice.

Focus or mantra or prayer. For Christians, scripture like “Be still and know that I am God” makes a powerful start. Pagans have an equivalent range of seed-verses and prayer-songs.

Sometimes the name of deity, or a suitable word like awen or om or amen.

Song or chant in a language you don’t know, to take you out of your talking head (and anybody else’s, too).

Symbol or mandala or image, for those who prefer the non-verbal. Cross, triskele, star, Platonic form, face of a beloved.

Counting your breaths.

Worship kinetically: pick up colorful leaves, play in the mud, lie on your back and watch the clouds. The skills we practiced effortlessly as children have not abandoned us, though we may have “put away childish things” as we raced off to concern ourselves with “matters of importance” and the wide word of adult stress and doubt and angst.

Substances used reverently, like various smudges and smoking herbs, fermented drinks, and so on, have featured in worship and ritual and self-care for millennia.

More important than what I do is doing it often enough that it becomes for me a spiritual practice.

dweI cannot remember the paternal grandfather I was named for: he died 14 years before I was born. All I have of him are three yellowing photos and a handful of stories. But I imagine him when I honor my ancestors of blood and spirit, and he’s more alive to me as a result. A link, however tenuous, that I (and he, from his side) can strengthen at will.

One of the OBOD Bardic practices is the inner sacred grove. So what kind of place will I make as a spiritual sanctuary for myself and any inner guide whose counsel I seek? I resort to this place to leave a symbol, a dream recalled I want to ponder, or to begin a poem, resolve a problem, express my gratitude, build an altar, light an inner flame, begin and end a ritual, recall during moments of challenge and joy. What I imagine can become as real as anything I build with lumber and mortar, nails and plaster and insulation. (And the grass there doesn’t need weekly mowing. Though the trees, oak and birch, rowan and ash among them, are growing well.)

Imagine, and I remember.

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IMAGES: Charlotte Hussey; D W Easton, circa 1925, on his mail route in Niagara Falls, NY.

*”I think we’re living in a culture that’s so demanding: You never feel like you’re good enough. It wears people down. People are exhausted at the end of the day. They go home and have a drink as a way to cope with all of this—a lot of people have to self-medicate because it would be hard for them to look in the mirror otherwise. The whole concept of being conscious—that’s hard work. A lot of people just don’t want to sign up for it.” “Alcohol as an Escape from Perfection.” Atlantic, 10/13, accessed 10/4/16.

Thirty Days of Druidry 23: “Pray Like a Fire”   1 comment

Beltane’s nearly upon us, and Alison Lilly’s most recent blogpost “Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer” catches the energy behind this fire festival. For it is after all the day of the Fires of the Celtic solar god Bel, as even a traditional source like the BBC calmly informs us on their website. Some seasons you’ve just had enough of the world, and most of all yourself as a tame fire, to paraphrase Alison. Do check out her blog. She evokes and invokes Beltane in a personal and poetic meditation.

You too may long to spark, flare, burn and roar. Heap the kindling of my life and ignite, you whisper — or shout. Beltane is here for you.

Part of the Bardic training of Druid groups like OBOD and others, and much of the initial work in the outer grades of the magical Order of the Golden Dawn focuses on exploring and balancing the elemental energies flowing in and around us. We don’t — normally — want to burn up or out. But a healthy conflagration may burn off the wintry torpor that clings to our mood and outlook. Beltane is tonic, purgative, exhiliration, ignition.

The symbolism of the four physical elements of earth, water, air and fire persists in the cultural and magical imagination of the West because they express important truths about human life. They serve as a powerful shorthand for a whole cluster of ideas, images, experiences and memories, and their presence in ritual and story, song and myth will endure as long as we inhabit the same worlds where they manifest.

Their existence as physical entities endows them with the further potential to serve as sacraments. As always, though we keep forgetting, reverence and engagement are our choice, an opportunity like any other that we may welcome or reject. Here, too, fire can kindle us to possibility and change.

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Fire Temple, Chennai, India

Further afield from Celtic-flavored European Druidry, fire is also central to the religious practice of Zoroastrians, the people popularly known as Parsis. Their Fire Temples offer just one more illustration of why reducing fire to an explanation like “rapid oxidation in an oxygen-rich environment like earth’s atmosphere” says nothing about our actual experience of fire, its light and warmth and flickering presence, and its long association in human consciousness with spiritual reality, energy and life. Anyone who’s experienced a good bonfire knows this to some degree. It’s our human art to extend these experiences and celebrate their effect as spiritual opportunities for transformation and joy.

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Zoroastrian Sadeh Festival

Fire calls to ancestral human memory. Cultural practices and beliefs that center on it only endow it with additional significance and power. Druids may say as part of ritual “Let us pray with a good fire,” an invocation traceable to the worship of the Hindu Agni and a hymn in the Rig Veda (Bk. 1, 26). And Wendy Doniger in her translation* notes that “When Agni becomes the priest, his robes are both the flames and prayers.” Thousands of years of human experience with fire has not dulled its power.

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Whether you’re part of an OBOD Beltane gathering that follows the traditional ritual, or some other group and ceremony, or you’re a solitary celebrating alone in your own way, may you too share that shiver of anticipation and delight as the day and the rite opens for you at the birth of summer. May you and the Sun both grow in strength. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, we welcome you to this rite of Beltane …”

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IMAGES: Fire Temple in Chennai, India; Sadeh Festival;

*Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda: An Anthology. One Hundred Eight Hymns, Selected, Translated and Annotated. Penguin Books, 1981, pg. 100.

 

East Coast Gathering 2015   5 comments

This last weekend marks the 5th East Coast Gathering I’ve attended, the 6th since its launch in 2010, and another gift of Spirit and mortal effort.

You can read my accounts of three of the previous years: 2012 | 2013 | 2014. A special thank-you to John Beckett, several of whose professional photographs illustrate this post. You can visit John’s own articulate and insightful blog “Under the Ancient Oaks: Musings of a Pagan Druid and Unitarian Universalist” over at Patheos here.

Camp Netimus -- photo courtesy Krista Carter

Camp Netimus — site of the ECG. Photo courtesy Krista Carter

 

Registration for the weekend filled within 20 hours of opening this last spring. Gatherings like this answer an obvious need in the Druid and Pagan community, and more are in the works in other locations. It’s on us to help make them happen. A dedicated team can bring the same joy, support, inspiration and community to other regions.

Yes, we’re all solitaries some or much of the time, but every solitary benefits from celebrating and learning in the company of others. That chance conversation, ritual insight, day- or night-dream, word or phrase that lights up just for you, the hugs you give and receive, the opportunities to serve the community through offering a workshop, cooking, cleaning, organizing, driving — these make Gatherings like this such richly rewarding experiences. The dark and light halves of each year are real, and we need all the help and laughter we can find to thread our way through the labyrinth of time.

 

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I arrived Thursday afternoon early enough to check in and unpack before the opening ritual. My cabin mates had already hoisted a banner, which also made the building easier to distinguish from the others in the dark, when the “9” on the door was no longer readily visible.

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Cabin banner. Photo by A Druid Way

 

Equinox marks the shifting energies of days and nights, rebalancing the world. A lovely moon bore witness, waxing each evening through wonderfully clear skies, lighting the path to evening events like the Ovate initiation ritual and illuminating the short uphill walk from the cafeteria to the nightly fire circle.

The crescent moon. Photo courtesy John Beckett

Crescent moon in a twilit sky. Photo courtesy John Beckett

 

The theme this year was ritual, and the whole weekend focused our attention on its magical possibilities through a dozen workshops, demonstrations and ceremonies. You can get a sense of the range of approaches from the list of workshops here. We also welcomed returning U. K. guests Damh the Bard, Cerri Lee, and Kristoffer Hughes.

Cerri Lee, Damh the Bard and Kris Hughes. Photo courtesy John Beckett

Cerri Lee, Damh the Bard and Kris Hughes. Photo courtesy John Beckett

 

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Damh’s workshop on “The Bardic Voice” underscored the centrality of the Bard in Druidry. Like many Druid groups, OBOD orders its teaching in the sequence of Bard, Ovate and Druid. But they do not form a linear progress or erect a hierarchy of achievement. They spiral. In an Ovate breakout group a day later, several people mentioned how they often return to the Bardic coursework, its insights deepening through their Ovate practice. And likewise with the work of the Druid grade.

Damh is a fine teacher, an animated storyteller and ritualist of deep experience. With his wife Cerri he leads Anderida Grove. [For an audio inspiration, listen to his hour-long recording for inner journeying here.]

Damh in teaching mode. Photo courtesy John Beckett

Damh in teaching mode. Photo courtesy John Beckett

 

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Reminders of ritual possibility filled the weekend. Below is a picture of a labyrinth, another gift of the weekend, lovingly constructed by Cat Hughes and friends.

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Labyrinth by day — entrance. Photo by A Druid Way.

 

Volunteers switched on each light every evening, then turned them off again when everyone else had gone to bed.

Labyrinth by night. Photo courtesy Damh the Bard.

Labyrinth by night. Photo courtesy Damh the Bard.

 

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Kris’s workshop, “Laudanum, Literature and Liturgy — the Ritual Legacy of Iolo Morganwg,” featured the ritual — in Welsh — that Morganwg first performed on the Summer Solstice on Primrose Hill (London) in 1792, launching the Druid Revival and establishing the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards. Morganwg is also the author of the Druid’s Prayer, still used in many modern Druid groups including OBOD, and a major influence on generations of Druids from his time to the present. Kris’s Celtic eloquence in praise of Morganwg and his passion for Druidry took him off script and left many of us with tears in our eyes.

Kris during his workshop on Iolo Morganwg. Photo courtesy of Dana Wiyninger.

Kris during his workshop on Iolo Morganwg. Photo courtesy of Dana Wiyninger.

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Bill Streeter from the Delaware Valley Raptor Center, the charity designated for this year’s Gathering donation, brought six birds and made a fine presentation on raptors, their abilities, the dangers (mostly human) facing them, and the challenges of rehabilitating injured birds.

Bill Streeter of the DVRC with a golden eagle. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Bill Streeter of the DVRC with a golden eagle. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

These magnificent birds have often suffered neurological injuries that worsen over time. Though both the eagle above and the owl below look normal, both are blind in one or both eyes, or suffer other injuries like crippled wings, and thus could not survive in the wild. But the birds help save the lives of their kin through their appearances in info sessions like this one.

Great Horned Owl. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Great Horned Owl. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

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The Alban Elfed ritual celebrating the Equinox includes gifts from children, guests and each of the three grades of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Here are Chris and I holding bowls of acorns, part of the Ovates’ ritual gift, just before the ritual procession into the Circle.

Chris and I just before Alban Elfed ritual. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Chris (r) and I (l) just before Alban Elfed ritual. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

The evening eisteddfod (music and poetry circle) one night featured a splendid duet from Kris and Damh — see the image below.

Kris and Damh singing at the fire circle.

Kris and Damh singing at the fire circle. Photo courtesy Hex Nottingham.

Below is another pic of the fire circle one night. Our enthusiastic and skilful fire-makers Derek and Brom love large, carefully-constructed bonfires.

Fire. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Evening bonfire. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Once again Dana set up her meditation tent on the campground for all to visit and enjoy.

Approaching the tent. Photo courtesy Dana Wiyninger

Approaching the tent. Photo courtesy Dana Wiyninger

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Altar in Dana’s meditation tent on the camping field. Photo courtesy Hex Nottingham.

A small group made a side excursion to nearby Raymondskill Falls. Here’s a view of one of the waterfalls.

Raymondskill Falls. Photo courtesy of Gabby Batz Roberts.

Raymondskill Falls. Photo courtesy Gabby Batz Roberts.

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And for those of us who can’t wait an entire year, the Gulf Coast Gathering will celebrate its second year in March 2016. Blessings of the Equinox to all!

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