Archive for the ‘ritual’ Category

“First and Last Things” — Druid & Christian Theme 9   2 comments

Now that I’ve reached the end of this series on some possible shared spaces between Druids and Christians, I’d like to pause and take stock.

How many of us have experienced anger, frustration or a kind of spiritual PTSD from our contacts with Christianity? How many have found one or more of these posts irritating or painful? Yet how many still feel drawn to something alive in Christianity or Christian practice?

From the wild stats this particular series has generated, I have to conclude it’s provoked a whole complex, difficult medley of thoughts and feelings. Consider, as I have, new readers from outside the circle of the most common visitors — North Americans and a few western Europeans, with the occasional Australian or New Zealander. This series, however, has drawn readers from Iraq, China, Turkey, India, Japan, Hungary, Singapore, Greece, Pakistan — and a readership from all of these nations showed up not just for single post but for most of this series.

And what should appear here as the 9th theme? Magic? Prayer? Initiation? Heresy — the right to choose — along with heterodox beliefs and practices? The Otherworld? Divine kingship? All promise rich materials as fitting ways to close. I’ll probably tackle at least a few of these in the coming weeks. If only because a series like this, like a devotional practice undertaken with love over time, almost always generates a momentum no finite thing can contain.

aceofcupsOr what about a shift of terminology? Would that help at all with any of these themes? If instead of “Baptisms of the Elements”, we called them “Elemental Sacraments”, would that easier name make a difference? Would it make it any easier to move beyond instinctive antipathies and past traumas?

Christian Druids and Druid Christians have already found ways to integrate their practice and ritual, celebrating spirit as it actually manifests, regardless of creeds. Some of the best links happen in community and fellowship. We experience something together beyond words, even as we struggle to embody it in language. But it’s that initial encounter, not the subsequent formulation in speech or writing, that constitutes the source of spiritual energy.

Saint Francis sings in part:

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.

Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us …

Here is insight and wisdom and reverence indeed, one that may find resonance for both Druids and Christians.

An “incarnational” Druidry, one that shares with Christians a deep gratitude for natural beauty and for the mystery of birds and beasts, for the holy gifts of choice and speech, thought and reason, for birth and dying and rebirth, and for the voice of the sacred in dream, vision, prayer and ritual, and for the transformational power that a spirit-filled person can manifest, whatever the tradition, will earn respect and a hearing in any quarter a Druid would want to find one.

Likewise, a humble Christianity, one which seeks first to model love of self and other, of spiritual freedom, of service and stewardship of the created world, of care for the body, and delight in our kinship with the natural world, one which reads with reverence the Book of Nature, will move and persuade and welcome Druids and other Pagans far more than any scriptural proofs or the tongue of condemnation, doctrine or preaching.

“Let our deeds and our shining faces be our testimony”.

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 Image: Ace of Cups.

Recall, Remembrance, Anamnesis — Druid & Christian Theme 8   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8|]

“It is the hour of recall” — OBOD ritual.

“Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:20).

anamnesis (Greek ἀνάμνησις; English an-am-NEE-sis) 1) the Platonic principle that people retain knowledge from past lives and that our present learning involves a recollection of that past knowledge. 2) the Christian principle of recalling the events of Christ’s sacrificial death in the words and actions of the liturgy, especially during Communion or the Eucharist*.

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One way into the Greek word that may serve as a link between Druid and Christian practice is the English borrowed word amnesia, literally “forgetting”. An-amnesis is its opposite: “unforgetting, recall, recollection, remembrance, memorial action”.  And I’m going on from there for a moment and, at least for the purposes of this post, forming the adjective anamnetic “having to do with ritual remembrance”.

Druidry and Christianity both acknowledge the importance of anamnesis. Anamnetic deeds depend for their effect on both ritual and memory — actions intended to evoke a sacred event or time. Perform the ritual and bring to mind the holy. Sacrifice is “making sacred”, and we only “know” the sacred because in some way we re-cognize it: we know it again. Anamnetic acts acknowledge that even the best memory fades, so they recharge it with symbolic words and deeds.

At the “hour of recall” in OBOD ritual, we’re reminded that the rite is both timeless and bound by time. Its effect comes in part through memory: “let memory hold what the eye and ear have gained”. We’re also reminded that the apparent world and the inner world may overlap, but they’re not the same. Ritual sets aside a space for the inner and the sacred, acknowledges it, increases the overlap, and then reverses all those actions in the farewell, in order to safely restore the participants to the profane, mundane, “real” world of everyday life. (Because trying to function here while still in ritual consciousness is dangerous. We’re “spacey” and attentive to other things, not traffic lights, the blender’s sharp blades, those three steps down, our co-worker’s question, the toddler who darts into the intersection just ahead.)

I take part in a ritual, and its effects follow in time and memory. Likewise in Christianity, depending on how the word “this” is understood, whether once during the annual Passover (the setting where he spoke the words), or at every meal, or something in between, Christ commands his followers to “do this … in remembrance of me” — in a word, to practice anamnesis. “Proclaim the Lord’s death till he come again”.

A sacred meal shared with others is among the best kinds of fellowship. It’s an anamnetic act common to many traditions and cultures as a sign of religious faith, because it also expresses friendly hospitality and generosity. These acts of giving and giving back are inherently sacred. We can choose to recognize this by ritualizing them, or by foregoing the opportunity they offer.

How much of human consciousness, after all, is memory? How do we sustain the transformative power of any event we choose to value, except through recalling it, naming it, celebrating it, re-enacting it in order to vivify it and make it real again in some way in the present? “What is remembered, lives”.

Thus we celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, historical events, and so on. We tell stories of the living and of the ancestors. We even make up fictions the rest of the time, in order to remind ourselves what life is like, in case we lose sight of its shape and nature. And when we enter the mythic realm, the question to ask is not “Is it true? Did it really happen?” but “What truth does it teach? What holy thing does it help us remember?” When we com-memorate something, we remember it together.

And what we value, we dramatize. Greek theater began as religious worship: “Until the Hellenistic period [roughly 320 to 30 BCE], all tragedies were unique pieces written in honour of Dionysus and played only once, so that today we primarily have the pieces that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when the repetition of old tragedies became fashionable …” notes the Wikipedia entry on the theater of ancient Greece. Until later times, the theater was a sacred precinct. Weapons were banned, and actors were masked because their human identities, at least during the performance, was subsumed under the characters, often gods or heroes, whom they portrayed.

Julie Babin

coastal Louisiana, Gulf Coast Gathering — photo courtesy Julie Babin

What might all this mean for possible Druid and Christian convergences? Ritual is grounded in theater, in a dramatic portrayal of the memorable. “Let us remember the holy” is one piece of common ground where both can stand. Accepting that no one “owns” the holy is another. Why this is should be obvious, though it’s sometimes ignored in claims of “my god(s) and your god(s)”.  But sacred energy continually bursts free of limiting containers, and seeks new forms that refresh and rekindle and feed the spirit. if anything, it’s very much the other way around: the holy owns us. Sometimes it simply breaks through and claims us. You and I have no say in the matter. Other times, we may.

Old or new, liturgies can move us, but they are no substitute for direct contact with the sacred. We need no idolatry of rite placed above spiritual reality. The word’s not the thing it names. Much as I love words, I love the silences of the Great Mystery more. “Be still, and know …” counsels Psalm 46. Because there is that ability within us all that’s able to do this — to be still and come in contact with the holy. It’s our human birthright, and has nothing to do with belief.

Paradoxically (and what would many things amount to, without a touch of paradox?), old ways can come closer to Spirit than newer ones. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls”.** The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah says these words, looking back at ways already old in his time. Pagan and Christian can find more to share than either may often imagine — in silence, in ritual, in remembrance.

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*Like anamnesis, eucharist derives from Greek — in this case, from eucharistia “thanksgiving, gratitude”. Modern Greek still uses a related word (changed a little in pronunciation) to say “thank you”: ευχαριστώ [ehf-khah-ree-STOH]

**Jeremiah 6:16. The prophet gives these words to God to say.

MAGUS 2017: The Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S.   12 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

Daily Practice — Druid & Christian Theme 7   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8|]

How do I keep the inward doors open? (How do I even begin to locate them and find their handles?) How do I pick up on subtle nudges? How do I hear the quiet inward speech of things — the “still small voice” as older versions of Christian scripture call it? We all get the big events — no need to go looking for them. They burst on the scene, kicking down the door a few times in a life, unmistakably loud and messy, whether good or bad, and usually a mix. But they break through, and everything shifts.

“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

With wind and earthquake and fire, how do we ever catch the whisper? And then, even if we manage to hear the “still small voice”, we may find that instead of resolution or insight or growth, we’re left with questions, like Elijah. Our own lives interrogate us. “What am I doing here? How did things end up like this?”

Most traditions urge a daily practice. As much of Christianity has become focused on belief rather than practice, it has lost much of what monastic practice has preserved. A site on Trappist monasticism notes:

The practice of lectio divina, (divine reading), is foundational to monastic life. So important is divine reading to the spiritual well-being of a monk that, traditionally, we devoted some of the best hours of the day to this practice. Lectio Divina is a discipline whose fruits are experienced over time. One needs to understand the practice and then commit to it with some regularity.

Practice matters. Not because it makes our lives “safe” or “easy”: no life is that I know of. If I think about it, most lives resemble the character throw in role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons. You toss the game dice for talents, strengths and weaknesses. You may for instance roll a high intelligence, but your physical body is weak. You can’t rely on it. If you’re allowed to roll again, your strength, your vitality, may be high this time, but you’re none too bright.  Or on the third throw, both intelligence and strength come up high, but your temper makes your life a train-wreck of impulse and blame.

A daily practice helps build spiritual stamina. It’s something like what our grandparents and great-grandparents used to call “inner resources”, though they may rarely have shown us how to develop ’em. (Merely “following the rules” doesn’t usually help.) But they knew enough to recognize people who had them. (In RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, you can improve even weak qualities of your character over time, through experience. Funny thing!)

One of my teachers says that even if we could know the future, we’d have a hard time accepting just the good things to come in our lives. (That they might not always resemble “good things” from our present standpoint rarely occurs to us.) We build stamina over time, so that the big lifting is more manageable, and the daily lifting can become a small pleasure in itself.

A daily practice helps us hear that whisper, catch the still small voice. And that in turn can help us ride the worst of the big bad events, and make the most of the big good events (and little ones, too). And that can lead to all kinds of wonderful things. But the practice itself doesn’t deliver them. It catalyzes. It doesn’t guarantee.

One Druid I know makes it a point, whatever the weather, to visit a small outdoor shrine in his backyard each morning, before he heads off to work. He says a short prayer, or holds a meditation, makes an offering, etc. His practice builds over time, with things added or discarded. If, under pressure of a tight schedule or occasional family craziness, he misses his practice one morning, he feels the lack. But that in itself has deep value — it’s one way to recognize the value of a practice. It’s a good habit. The gods know we all cherish enough bad ones.

So working with the habit-forming tendencies we all have, we put them to work here and there. We start small. A daily practice can be a form of magic, of empowering ourselves to live more fully. Because really, what else is there? If we’re so sunk in difficulty that every day is a struggle just to survive, we’ve got nothing extra to share with anyone or anything. Our work is simply to endure. And sometimes that has to be enough. But beyond survival, one goal can be to spend our surplus as we choose, consciously, with intention. The goal is to find ways to get to a surplus in the first place, so we have something to spend, something to give back, to build on, to build up.

As Philip Carr-Gomm has written, “In a world sorely lacking in meaningful ritual, it can feel like a balm to the soul to engage in actions that are not obviously utilitarian, that are designed to help us enter into a deeper sense of engagement with life –- to give expression to our belief in a world of Spirit that infuses this physical world with energies that bring healing and inspiration.” If such ideas seem foreign or strange, that’s a measure of how far we’ve wandered from ways of living proven over millennia to help us make the most of our few decades here.

The Christian “Lord’s Prayer” is brief, and usefully so. Or if you’re a Catholic, the Rosary is comparably short. Most traditions offer short usable rites like prayers or visualizations. Along with similar prayers, OBOD Druids and others may practice a Light Body exercise.

Repetitions done mindfully can be remarkable in their effects over time, hard to describe until you try them out. Like any exercise, they build strength and stamina. We can propose to ourselves any number of fine practices, elaborate rituals, intense mystical exercises. But the small one we actually follow through on every day for a month will be the one that begins to convince us of its value, and of the value of a practice.

The key is to find what works, and what I can stick with. I keep a record. Did this for a week. Liked it. Kept it up for a year. Discarded it. Felt the lack. Picked it up again and added it back in to the mix a year later. Forgotten I’d made that experiment till I re-read my journal from that time.

Finding what works for me, ultimately, is a practice all its own, one of the most “practical practices” I can try.

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I’ll close with a Youtube clip of “Pirililou”, which as its description states, is

an old Gaelic Chant sung at the Western ocean’s edge to the soul of the departed, in the first days after death, to assist the soul travelling from this world to the next ones. It is said to imitate the call of a shore bird … a bird dedicated to Bridhe and St Brigit, who assist the birth of souls in this world as well as the next.

As a meditation before sleep (that practice journey we all make nightly), this kind of meditation can lead to deep insight. Have we, after all, been fully born into this world, never mind any other one? Playing (singing, composing) a short devotional song that moves you deeply, and listening (performing) with intention, can make for the beginning of a profound practice.

Fire — Druid & Christian Theme 3   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8|]

There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?

fire-ring

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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Image: fire.

Healing from the Past   Leave a comment

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.

geoffreyThe 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.

merlinUnable 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.

 

Gulf Coast Gathering 2017   2 comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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John Beckett captured an image of the atmospheric Spanish moss parasitic on so many trees south of the Mason-Dixon line.

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photo courtesy John Beckett

Storytellers and musicians, notably Jacob Pewitt and Brian Van Unen, made the slowly cooling evenings magical around the fire.

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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?!

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Always, always, it’s the faces, the reunions, the collapse of miles between us, and the conversations that make each Gathering so memorable.

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Don’t know anyone before you arrive? You will before you leave!

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Kathleen and Kezia — photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo

 

 

 

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