Spirit animates all things, earth and water, air and fire. To live is to experience, in Christian terms, a continuous sacrament. The sacraments of Druidry are the elements. Spirit makes life sacred, and we know this to the degree we recognize and participate and commit to living fully and wholly.
The energies of the elements feature widely in both Druidry and Christianity. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, and water energies characterize the Bardic grade in many Druid traditions — inspiration and intuition, dream and emotion and astral awareness. The place of the Bard is the west, long associated with elemental water. Standing in the west, the bard also faces east — sunrise, beginnings, elemental air, perception and knowledge.
We’re always crossing and re-crossing elemental lines and boundaries. Neither earthy gnome nor watery undine, airy sylph nor fiery salamander, we’re all of these, linked to each.
We might see and call each person’s life a spiral of elemental baptisms. So we ritualize it as a sacrament and reminder. Each of us cradled in our mothers’ wombs, our earth bodies forming, the amniotic waters bathing us as we take on physical shape and substance. No breathing except what our mothers do for us. Then birth, and that first cry, a gasp of air in new lungs, the loss of that other body and its warmth, our first journeying into a world that offers us choices and ventures among all four elements.
What more earthy place to be born for a child of god — all of us children of the divine — than a stable? How fitting that in the traditional story, animals surround the holy newborn, with their hay and straw, along with the reek of dung and the puffs of animal breath. The Golden Tarot features the holy magician surrounded by beasts, implements and symbols of the elemental altar at his feet.
Yet even at birth, at such a private affair, surely a matter of just father, mother and child only, a star shines distantly to herald each birth. We saw his star in the east, say the Magi, the Mages, the Magicians, and we have come to honor him.
Follow your own star, counsel the wise ones of many traditions. You are my guiding star, say our love stories and tragedies. A star shines on the hour of our meeting, say Tolkien’s Elves. Nothing is random.
And disaster? That’s a dis-aster, an ill star that may shine and color our lives. But other stars also — always — are shining. We are never just one thing only. And the Ovate is the grade of the north, the mysteries of life and death, healing and divination, time and fate and return. We are earth at birth, but all of the elements in turn and together, too. Stand in the north, the place of earth, of incarnation and death, and take stock. Learn the herbs that heal and harm, chant the words and sing the charm.
The call of rivers and oceans, streams and pools and wells. Water baptisms, summer swimming holes, the daredevil dive from a height into water that some of us risk. Do we long to “make a big splash” as we enter our adolescence? Surely a time of water and emotion, of dream and imagination, as the world unfolds itself into our first inklings of adulthood, as hormones surge and wash through us, working their watery changes. And those stories of the Biblical flood, of Atlantis drowned, of Mu and Lemuria. We live our lives on a planet dominated by water, we carry in our veins a blood that mirrors the primeval ocean in its salts and minerals, our bodies made of water and earth, subject to the tug of a tidal moon.
Air that fills our lungs, that in-spires us, that makes up one of the rhythms of our whole lives, until we ex-pire, that last breath going out, just as with our first cry we took it in. Air that caresses sweetly or gusts violently, every element meeting us in all its guises, fierce and gentle. Jesus on the mountain, transfigured. Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by power, by simply existing, alive, a blend like each of us of the elements and spirit.
And there in his sight the diabolic or oppositional aspects of incarnate life pull at him. Cast yourself down, the voice taunts him: you won’t really die. Who among us hasn’t stood on a high place and imagines jumping, imagined not plummeting to death, but somehow floating, flying, a power beyond what human life gives? What will we do with this enormous power each of us has to heal or hurt, make or mar the people and places we live? Renounce it, ignore it, forsake it, abuse it, explore it, fulfill it?
Conception and taking on form, an earth baptism of the North.
Birth and first breath, an air baptism of the East.
Adolescence and its hormonal tides, a water baptism of the West.
Adult passion and dedication to a worthy cause, a fire baptism of the South.
Trace the traditional order and position of each element in that sequence — North to East to West to South — and you describe a zigzag, a Harry Potter lightning flash.
And to push further at the symbolism, to go all nerdy and allegorical for a moment, because we can, we’re all marked by a vol de mort, the will of death, a will shaping the particulars of this life that ends at death, whatever may or may not follow.
But until then!!
Other baptisms, of suffering and love, growth and pain and knowledge, each time the elements forming and reforming in our experience. Bones breaking, healing. Bodies ill and recovering, hearts broken and full to bursting, minds challenged and sharpened by training and testing, blunted on battlefields and in factories, regenerated in gardens and gatherings, shaped in schools and lives.
In each life humans spiral through these baptisms, each renewing the experience and memory of the previous one, but also extending it, transforming it. Never twice the same, and yet familiar, too.
Jesus changing water to wine, a water-fire baptism of surprise at a wedding, a symbol of wholeness along the spiral, elements blending and merging. Jesus transfigured, on the airy mountain. Jesus crucified, the pain of incarnation and death, all the elements again, body and blood, breath and fire of pain, of ending. It’s finished, he says. in one gospel. I’ve done what I came to do.
Don’t each of us? To live at all, whether short or long, is to experience the whole gamut, every baptism multiple times. Death, yes. The tomb where they lay Jesus, and roll the stone door shut. Elemental baptism of earth again. Spiral, spiral.
For that’s not all. Because resurrection. Spring. Rebirth. In the northern hemisphere, look out your window. No need to believe any of these things. Walk out the door and experience them for yourself. Make a ritual out of it. Figure out after what it “means” to you. Live it.
To go pop-culture on you: I’ll be back, says the Terminator, mirror of the Creator. The great Ender, who promises a death before life even gets fairly launched. Prevent the future. But No fate — he doesn’t “win.” Instead, life changes him — our perception changes him. He becomes, death becomes, potentially at least, an ally, if a difficult one.
Death is the mother of beauty, says crazy old bard Wallace Stevens. (All bards, to make a verse or song or story, must be a little crazy from time to time. It’s good for them, good for us.) What?! I shout, outraged. Death is the mother of beauty, he repeats, quietly. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.
The gift of incarnation is to draw out from each element the fullness of what it offers. A ritual of elemental baptisms can help us recognize the opportunity of each as it spirals by, and ride the energies of the elements. Give me a rich, full life. I long to drink it all, the bitter, yes, inevitable. But also the sweet, the fair, the lovely, the shining, the joy.
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Images: elementals; Golden Tarot Jesus as Magician; scar.
[Part 2 | Part 3]
Ritual Language and the Case of Latin
Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes. The most visible example in the West is Latin. The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin. For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites. If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages. Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.
Language as Sacrament
The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness. The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning. The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience. What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words. Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.
And depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.
Issues with Ritual Language
One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible. Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language? Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer? Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship? Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.
“The King’s English”
For English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611. What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use. A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.
Druid and Pagan Practice
When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably. Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided. Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general. Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants? If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity. It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?
Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page. The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas. To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy. That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time. Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you. Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.” As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give. And finally, people can and will make mistakes. In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.
(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels
Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way. In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language. While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists. He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity. This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters. (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)
About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.” Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation. Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'” An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be. That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.” But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience. In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.
As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft. After all, boxes are for things, not people. Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”
Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity. When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite. The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.
A Human Undersong
Where to go from here? Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience. “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm. “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song. It’s universal.” As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.
Paradoxes of Particularity
Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience. (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**) And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality. We quite literally say who and what we are. The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture. And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.
In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.
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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.
*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.
**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context. If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring. Wonder is at the heart of it. Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:
A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!
Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true? If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.
I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)
Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!
If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.
Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014
A water meditation, to be read slowly to oneself, in the same way water flows and falls.
“The highest good is like water,” whispers chapter eight of the Tao Te Ching. Jump in a pool or lake on a summer day, or take a hot shower after working up a sweat, and who would disagree? Whisky, brandy and other distilled spirits have variously been called aqua vitae, “water of life.” And “whiskey-bey” or uisce beatha, the Gaelic for whisky, is literally “water of life.” St. Patrick reportedly used the term aqua vitae both for alcohol and the waters of baptism. Jesus baptized with water (and — with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost — with fire: with both masculine and feminine elements). The Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the deep in the Biblical account of creation in Genesis, as if water were there all along, part of the primal substance God found on hand, in the dark, and used to create everything else. Water the divine unconscious, adapting to whatever form it finds. All things turn toward water.
“The highest good is like water.” Water itself says this, if I listen. Splash of the ocean’s tide, fall of water in a cascade or fountain. “Earth my body, water my blood,” goes the Pagan chant. It’s in us, of us — we’re of it. The human body is mostly water, we hear from many quarters. Hydrate!! We answer to what we’re made from, the amniotic fluids that bathe and nourish the growing fetus. The womb shelters a pool, a miniature sea. The Great Mother, Stella Maris, Star of the Sea.
Medieval magicians called water a “creature,” a created being, and the personification of water in the figure of the undine puts a face to the endlessly changing aspect that water wears. To be a water druid is first to listen to water. I never learned to swim till I reached my twenties, and a recurring dream throughout my childhood of falling into water and drowning left me with fear of heights over water. (Heights by themselves, though, are no problem for me.) There was my path through and to water. I listened, though part of the act was listening to fear. But that got my attention like nothing else could, so I count it useful. I strive to listen wider.
“Water benefits all beings without contending with them, and flows to the lowest places men disdain. In this manner it approaches the Way.” Tao, the way that water flows. “dao ke dao fei chang dao”: the way that can be followed as a way isn’t the way the way goes, to “English” it rather clumsily. Water flows, following its nature without thinking about it.
I don’t need to look any further for a sacrament, a way to make things sacred. Drinking, bathing, being born is worshiping, Attention, intention, makes the offering. The words of the old Anglican wedding vow “With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship” get it right. If we want to worship, we can begin with the body, with the waters ringing our planet and flowing in our blood. We don’t need to disdain the body because it’s “only” flesh, but celebrate it. To be alive is a holy act. The elements help us remember this, signify it, and make it so. Thus sings the Water Druid.
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Images: waterfall; Mei Yang Selvage‘s remarkable painting of the character “tao” or dao, with the final elonngated bottom stroke forming the boat the man poles.