Archive for the ‘ritual’ Category
There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?
Deborah Lipp notes in her The Way of Four Spellbook (Llewellyn, 2006):
Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules (pg. 10).
Now Lipp’s observation both captures the nature of fire and also feeds our stereotypes about impulse, passion, strong feeling. How often we may long — or fear — to be out of control, fearless, spontaneous! Who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point? Why would the Australian-inspired Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain opt for its advertising slogan “No rules. Just right”? Because there is indeed a rightness to fire — it can only flame up where there’s something to burn, after all. And most of us have been storing combustible material for a long time. How else to explain our explosions, outbursts, flares of temper? Even our language about these things draws on fire for metaphor.
Following the theme from the last post, we can speak of a fire baptism. You’re wholly in it when that happens. The full experience, nothing held back.
John the Baptist, Jesus’s precursor, explains to those asking, “I indeed baptize you in water … but he that cometh after me is mightier than I … he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire”. We sense the power in fire, of all the elements closest in so many ways to Spirit. It can purify, transform, forge and anneal. Its extreme heat can also scorch, char, consume and destroy. Each element transforms its own way. “We didn’t start the fire”, sings Billy Joel. “It was always burning since the world’s been turning”. But he goes on: “We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”. And sometimes we even try to “fight fire with fire”. Yet we also long for fire to kindle cold hearts, to heat a flagging will, to spark the spirit deepest in us. We yearn to be fire.
“O! for a muse of fire”, cries Shakespeare’s Chorus in the first line of Henry V, “that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. We long to blaze, because we feel in fire something native and free. We are both it and other, too, as with all the elements. “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”, says Jose Luis Borges. The elements are natural sacraments, folds and garments for Spirit all around us. For fire, we light candles in so many traditions, for so many reasons, the flame cheering to the eye and heart.
I both am and am not fire. Self and other: the quest of our days, the distinction we cherish and also long to cast away. Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, shaman, through all these experiences and intuitions we still ask ourselves, each other and the world: “What makes a good burn?”
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Maybe the purest ritual Druids and Christians might share is one which seeks not to fill our ears with answers, but that gives us space and silence to listen to and ponder the questions. In some ways, the long, slow burn of Spirit in us is fire in its most potent form of all.
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Beltane approaches, that festival of fire. The Edinburgh-based Beltane Fire Society celebrates 30 years this year of a dramatic festival of thousands, from 8:00 pm to 1:30 am. Here’s the “Drums of Beltane” subpage of the Society’s website. As the page notes,
Beltane may be known as a fire festival, but it may as well be considered to be a drum festival too. Drums are the beating heart of Beltane that create the rhythm of the festival, drive the procession forward, and soundtrack the changing seasons. They have been an integral part of Beltane since our tradition was first re-imagined on Calton Hill in 1988.
Looking for a fix of Beltane energy to get you launched? Here’s a video of the Drum Club which will be among the groups performing this year for the event. Just the first five minutes will give you a fine taste of Beltane fire in sound form. We can spark from anything, but sound and rhythm are powerful keys.
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We commonly expect healing to arrive from the future — from a doctor’s prescription we’ll have in hand after an upcoming appointment, from an outpatient procedure in a clinic, from a series of therapy sessions or an interval of exercises.
We don’t expect healing to lie in the past, waiting for us to recognize it.
The historian-mythographer Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155), whose glorious Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) blends history and legend almost seamlessly, is one primary source for the Arthurian legend. In the Eighth Book of this magnum opus, also gives us an early glimpse of legends about Stonehenge, supplying a foundation, however wobbly, for the idea that the stones originated in Ireland — or even further afield.
If we follow Geoffrey, in fact, the impetus behind Stonehenge is the desire for a war memorial:
The sight of the place where the dead lay made the king [Aurelius Ambrosius], who was of a compassionate temper, shed tears, and at last enter upon thoughts, what kind of monument to erect upon it. For he thought something ought to be done to perpetuate the memory of that piece of ground, which was honoured with the bodies of so many noble patriots, that died for their country [in the fighting against Hengist]. — Historia, Bk. 8, 10.
Unable to find among his own builders and engineers the technical ability to construct what he envisions, the king seeks out Merlin and asks for his help:
Merlin made answer:
Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it. If I should pretend to utter them for ostentation or diversion, the spirit that instructs me would be silent, and would leave me when I should have occasion for it. … [But] if you are desirous to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killare, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand forever.
Merlin is, of course, just the person to manage this feat. The Giant’s Dance comes east to the plains of Salisbury, to “stand forever”. But wait — Merlin hasn’t finished. There’s more. The stones themselves are charmed, and of a provenance far from their apparently temporary Irish resting-place. Merlin declares:
They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue. — Historia, Bk. 8, 11.
We seek for future cures, while the Merlins of our spiritual history attempt to alert us to sources of healing all around us. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.
How many healings casually happen to me all the time? A scratch scabs over and even the mark fades with time. A cold passes and I recover, the hacking cough subsiding to a tickle and then to nothing. The purging of food poisoning wracks me and wrings me out, but my temperature control eventually leaves fevers and chills behind, I regain my appetite, and the memory of the nausea and dizziness and malaise slowly withdraws.
If we want the marvelous, the cause and occasion must match the healing outcome. The ordinary will not do: Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it.
What do we require? A wise guide and that guide’s counsel, certainly. But more: the conjunction of the potential and the place where it needs to be founded. The stones must be brought to a specific location for the desired result … if they can be placed here, as they are there …
It’s significant that the stones do not remain in Ireland. While giants placed them there for their own purposes, it takes human agency to bring them to their final location. Almost as if they had been waiting all along for human awareness to catch up to them, to finish their journey.
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I don’t need to disdain modern medicine to avail myself of ancient healing. We do need the latter. Modern medicine often does an excellent job alleviating symptoms, but leaves the deeper roots of the problem untouched, often because invisible, underground. The taproot of an illness or other problem may nourish itself in causes invisible to a materialist eye. I may continue to feed its source even as I claim to long for healing. Why else is it, in our modern and supposedly healthier age, that so many Americans — more than ever before — rely on prescriptions (link to Harvard University studies) against anxiety, depression, insomnia, and so on? The stats have made headlines, but no one wants to address the root cause, because it’s sunk in the rich darkness of our cultural blindspots.
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I add to my practice a henge-meditation. We needn’t bother ourselves to make any such claim as “Druids built Stonehenge” to make use of the spiritual dynamic it offers as a source of healing. Merlin sets the precedent: Stonehenge-as-symbol, in Geoffrey’s telling is older than its present home in southern England anyway. Not its origin but its power is what we need. Magic thrives when our intent makes the occasion a necessity: our focus is single and sharp not from force of will but from desire, emotion, need, want, hope, imagination, planning and preparation, ritual foundation, and love.
If I don’t move the stones here, their virtue can’t find me. Inner work is just as necessary as finding the right doctor, the proper regimen, the appropriate treatment.
Curious that the words of Jesus fit here so well: “The stone which the builders reject has become the cornerstone”. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.
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Image: Geoffrey of Monmouth; Merlin.
Highland Oak Nemeton, Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, LA, the magic of assembled Druids, and a sunny weekend of Gulf Coast weather in the 70s and 80s worked their cumulative spell on the 50 or so attendees of this year’s OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering. The spirits of the land witnessed Druids from OR, CT, VT, PA, FL, TX, LA, NE, VA, MI and other states make their way to the south-central U.S.
image courtesy Steve Cole
The workshops explored the Gathering theme “Opening The Seven Gifts” of Druidry. OBOD offers a lovely 2:30 video that presents the Seven Gifts more attractively than a bald recital could.
Our presenters kept the topics lively, sharing insights and fielding comments. Druidry needs no “outside experts” — the spiritual path generates its own.
Nonetheless, it’s always a draw to have a visiting speaker — and once again we welcomed the always-fabulous Kristoffer Hughes, one of Her Majesty’s Coroners, author, professional actor, OBOD Druid, and head of the Anglesey Druid Order in the U.K.
Kris spoke on “When the Last Leaf Falls: Death, an Awfully Big Adventure”, examining Western attitudes toward, and treatment of, the dead, and ways Druids can respond creatively and spiritually to the frequently dysfunctional nature of the Western “death industry” and its dehumanizing and ecologically destructive practices. He also urged us to bring each other in on, and discuss, our own plans for our deaths, disposal of remains, and the types of memorials we want.
Kris during his talk — photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
Dana dispelled stereotypes of magic during her evening talk around the fire our first night, the opening ritual fresh in our memories. The following morning Richard addressed the core of Druidry — getting back in touch with nature.
Richard and Dana
Lorraine helped many meet a new animal guide, Gabby drew us to consider healing, Jacob turned our thoughts to philosophy, and I explored the awen and the potentials for inspiration. Even if [below] my gesture at one point suggests a fish story — “the big one that got away”.
photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
We initiated three Bards and five Ovates, held opening and closing rituals, along with the Seasonal Alban Eilir (Spring Equinox) ritual, went on nature walks, and visited the Seven Sisters Live Oak in nearby Mandeville, LA.
Below is our Welsh Druid guest communing with the tree, estimated to be over 1500 years old, and below that is a more distant shot to suggest something of its size.
John Beckett captured an image of the atmospheric Spanish moss parasitic on so many trees south of the Mason-Dixon line.
photo courtesy John Beckett
Storytellers and musicians, notably Jacob Pewitt and Brian Van Unen, made the slowly cooling evenings magical around the fire.
Jacob and Brian — photo courtesy John Beckett
What better way to leave behind the 18″ of snow in Vermont from the recent March nor’easter?!
Always, always, it’s the faces, the reunions, the collapse of miles between us, and the conversations that make each Gathering so memorable.
Don’t know anyone before you arrive? You will before you leave!
Kathleen and Kezia — photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
Sovereignty, Lady of an inner realm which flows ceaselessly into this one, you birth, nourish and sustain us. May my deeds serve not my own will alone, but your larger shaping for the good of all. In my words here, in my deeds, thoughts, feelings and dreams, let that light and song and fire illumine where it can, whom it may.
If conditions here no longer allow for the manifold inner purposes and directions to manifest outwardly, physical life may well withdraw from one world, moving to another. Yet in spite of the uncertainty and dark despair that may arise in our hearts from time to time, this lovely, difficult, damaged world is far from exhausting its spiritual purposes.
As a sacred laboratory for experiences for many beings, and for spirit to inhabit all lives, possibilities and forms to know itself again, the world unfolds still, rich with potential. Both established forms yet with us and new ones coming into being offer choice, beauty, misery, destruction and growth. From the small to the great, from the inner to the outer, from seed and leaf to flower and fruit, through decay and transformation and renewal, it has ever been so.
True it is, that all realms touch, intermingle and answer each other. Events here send their ripples and taproots elsewhere for good and bad, and a shift there brings about a corresponding change here. The walls of the world echo. The great wonder is not that we have no influence on life, but that our influence often exceeds our knowledge. Day to day is not always the place to look for vision, though what we see elsewhere in vision and dream returns us here to labor anew.
Because that’s what makes a uni-verse, a one-turning. We are part of the work and movement of a marvelous many-faceted whole. It’s a measure of our priorities and the fading of the ancient heritage we have received and often abandoned in our pursuit of other things that many of us no longer know this in our bones, that we have to re-learn it through often bitter experience before we can begin again to make use of it to shape something better. But our cells know better, and our dis-ease may yet call us back to here and now, our suffering may still wake us to rebellion and questioning and discovery, our losses may perhaps stir us to compassion rather than endless lament and blame and surrender.
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The seed of ritual, planted. The promise of spring, uttered. The shaping of hands to make each thing happen, foretold and prefigured at the birth of each woman and man into this world, from the great family ranged behind and all around us, that family of blood and friendship and teaching in the other worlds. Ancestors, hear us.
Slowly we apprehend what is essential and what is not, the long journey fashioned and felt and followed as we abide in multitudes of forms.
For us, the essential thing is that there is everywhere a conception of the end and the beginning of a temporal period, based on the observation of biocosmic rhythms and forming part of a larger system — the system of periodic purifications (cf. purges, fasting, confession of sins, etc.) and of periodic regeneration of life. This need for a periodic regeneration seems to us of considerable significance in itself. Yet the examples that we shall presently adduce will show us something even more important, namely, that a periodic regeneration of time presupposes, in more or less explicit form — and especially in the historical civilizations — a new Creation, that is, a repetition of the cosmogonic act. And this conception of a periodic creation, i.e., of the cyclical regeneration of time, poses the problem of the abolition of “history,” the problem which is our prime concern in this essay. — Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History.
Lady, we gather in your grove, where your blessing yields all seasons at once. You abolish time in each moment, directing us forward and back, to ends and beginning, seed and leaf and fruit and fallow time. You regenerate us constantly, your dark and bright moons, this daily sun, stars overhead — who cannot see it?
Often, we cannot. Teach us again, three by three by three.
“The Goddess of Sovereignty gives three drinks from her cup, purveying the white milk of fostering, the red milk of lordship and the dark drink of forgetfulness. These she offers successively in her aspects as Foster-Mother, Consort and Renewer” — Caitlin and John Matthews, The Arthurian Tarot, pg. 43.
Clothed in rags, we walk the streets of the cities and wastelands, forests and plains and mountains of Time.
Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned … — J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”.
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“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,”
(some wishes are horses – watch out where they stride!)
but my words are wingéd – they fly to your side
to wish you a happy New Year ’17.
It’s not for myself that I say it – I mean
may you flourish and grow, whatever the weather:
as long as we’re in this, we’re in it together.
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Mantle of Brighid about me,
Memory of Brighid within me,
Protection of Brighid around me
keeping me from harm,
from ignorance, from heartlessness,
this day and night,
from dawn till dark,
from dark till dawn.
— John O’Donohue (adapted), The Four Elements, Transworld Ireland, 2010, pg. 109. (Also available in Random House editions.)
I find in this poem a prayer most fitting for these darkening days till Yule and sun-return (never mind the ritual season). I add to it these visualizations as I say the opening triad of actions:
I see and feel the soft, warm cloak of Brighid furl and drop around me. I touch the weave of the cloth. I see the mantle extend outward, expanding the presence of Brighid all around me. “Beneath your mantle you gather us.”
I feel the memory of Brighid arrive as I whisper her name, her presence in thought and feeling, in the hearth-fire, in human warmth and affection, in animal caresses, in the sun’s brightness, hidden behind clouds or yellow in the December sky. Her mantle means we help manifest her, bring her here. “Remind us how to kindle the hearth.”
I feel the awen of the divine kindling in and around me whenever I put off despair and choose better. I sense the awen in others, upholding me even as I uphold them. I name them now, sitting or standing before any fire or flame or light, which I declare Brighid’s fire and flame and light.
O’Donohue writes: “One of the reasons for the modern poverty of spirit is amnesia. Even though there is a great harvest of healing energy within memory, people seem to make so little use of it. Rather than living from this harvest within them, they seem in the demented rush of modern life to live more out of their poverty” (pg. 113).
I hold my hands up before me and say more of this prayer-poem:
To keep it bright,
to preserve the flame,
your hands are ours,
our hands in yours
to kindle the light
both day and night.
And then I close, repeating the opening triad once or twice more as it feels right.
Mantle of Brighid about me,
Memory of Brighid within me,
Protection of Brighid around me.
And I see Brighid’s cross, feel it foursquare, if I receive no other intimation of the goddess. I sein my thoughts, feelings, and actions of the day with it, sometimes continuously through the hours if I need it, to preserve, preserve, preserve the flame.
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Image: Brighid’s cross. Pic w quote below:
To begin this post I invoke with the words of a great Bard, the late Leonard Cohen, who sings in his song “Anthem” : “Ring your bells that still can ring./Forget your perfect offering./There’s a crack, a crack in everything./That’s how the light gets in.”
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Doing my small part to ring some bells and locate some nearby cracks to work with, it’s been in my thought more and more to explore Wantastiquet. But it took word of another’s recent climb to the peak to prod me into visiting this local treasure. As a Nigerian acquaintance said to me recently, quoting an African proverb, “Those who live nearest the church arrive late.”
Just over the Connecticut river east into New Hampshire, Wantastiquet Mountain rises to approx. 1350 feet. It’s a moderate 1.5 mile hike to the summit — about an hour’s walk along numerous switchbacks for this 57-year old. From downtown Brattleboro it’s a little over half a mile to the foot of the mountain, so plenty of hikers and their dogs were out enjoying the afternoon. The sunny weather hovered in the mid 50s, oak leaves carpeted the trail all the way to the top, and as mountain treks often do for me, the climb had the feel of pilgrimage. There is a berg-geist, a mountain spirit, if I silence the mind chatter and attend. The rumble of weekend traffic from nearby interstate 91 which the river valley amplifies begins to fade around 500 feet up.
The site is a perfect shanshui — landscape, literally “mountain-water” — one of my favorite Chinese words from a year in the mid-80s spent teaching English in the People’s Republic of China. The Connecticut river valley defines the state line between New Hampshire and Vermont for 150 miles, and seen from the west, the peak appears to ascend right out of the river. Here’s a view from perhaps 70 feet up on the trail, looking back toward Vermont.
Evergreens march along either side of the path, but the few remaining leaves on oak branches above them account for the trail’s leaf cover.
The pines and oaks busy themselves both splitting the rock and holding it in place.
Gathered near the marker at the summit were several resting hikers who left shortly after I arrived.
In the distance, the peaks of Ascutney (45 miles north) and Hogback (13 miles due west) loom through the haze.
I’d gathered a handful of acorns along the way, thinking to plant them as I establish my grove at home. But as I neared the top, an impromptu ritual (my favorite kind) threaded into my attention and I made an offering instead. Finding a clearing a few hundred yards away, I bowed to each direction.
I gather, I give away.
To the North:
you are holy —
may it grow there.
To the West:
you are holy —
may it grow there
To the South:
you are holy —
may it grow there.
To the East:
you are holy —
may it grow there.
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Images: Wantastiquet map.
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.
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.
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.