Archive for the ‘sacred encounter’ Category

Flame, Holy and Mundane   Leave a comment

Much of Paganism is defining spaces, places and the awareness we bring to them. At its heart it’s a kind of continual prayer: O let me wake into the holy in every moment.

This is sacred time, go the words of standard OBOD ritual. This is sacred space. We name it to remind ourselves, to evoke it through intention and attention, but also to recognize what’s already there. We can create sacred space because sacred space shapes us from birth. It’s our heritage, our birthright, unless we give it away.

So we call it back.

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With Imbolc a little over a week away, those who honor Brighid find themselves turning even more closely to her presence and influence. Year-round already and always, yes, for those who revere her, but also more keenly when her festival nears.

“We are entering the dark half of the year”, writes Teo Bishop in a post for the Autumn Equinox, “and now more than ever is the moment to engage with your daily practice”.

(When isn’t it the moment to engage? I don’t know about you, but my “dark half of the year” doesn’t politely wait for September. You’re no doubt tired of my repeating this theme of the need for a practice. Please understand: with a blog I have built-in reminders and prompts for my own practice. If I’m not practicing, the words don’t come easily. Blogging is one of my spiritual barometers. It’s also a prod in the behind. By posting fairly regularly, I also get to check in on my worlds, I’m reminded to listen to where I need to open up to the holy energies we all bathe in each day.)

“One of the most common responses I see to the idea of developing a daily practice”, Bishop continues, “is that there is no time. This assumes that a practice must be a long, complicated ritual, full of gestures and ritual phrases. It paints a practice as yet another way that the struggle of our day to day life is a weight on our shoulders.

But the daily practice can be framed another way.

Let it begin with something small. Light a candle, take one, deep breath, then extinguish the flame.

That’s all.

It won’t take but a second”.

In that second the Holy Flame expands to fill our consciousness — or it can, if we permit it. A simple practice that goes far to making a seemingly-mundane moment a sacred one.

ADF ritual puts out the sacred fire at one point, describing it this way:

Extinguished without
but burning within.
The living fire flames within us.

In Working the Tool-kit, I wrote:

Fire work, or apprenticing yourself to the element … can begin with a fire pit, or candle-lighting, if an outdoor fire isn’t practical for you. From such simple work with each of the Elements, a profound and beautiful practice can grow over time. This is also one of the freedoms in which a Druid can wholeheartedly participate in a Christian or Jewish service, in part through some of its seemingly “smallest” ritual gestures and events.

Or as mage and author Josephine McCarthy describes it,

My deepest personal experience of that is with the lighting and tuning of the candle flame. The intent to light a candle to prepare the space for a ritual act developed from that simple stance, to an act of bringing into physical manifestation an elemental expression that lights through all worlds and all times: it becomes the light of divinity within everything (J. McCarthy. Magical Knowledge, pg. 70).

As a focus for meditation, for out-of-body work, for reverence, for kindling the spirit in times of heaviness and despair, fire has no equal.

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Brighid so beautifully merges sacred and profane, because her triad of aspects, as goddess of smithcraft and the forge, of bardic inspiration and the awen, and of healing and the vital flame, all circle around holy fire. Lighting a candle can be purest prayer.

It’s very old, this focus on fire. (Focus itself is an old word for “hearth” or “altar”. We make an altar of what we focus on). We read in the Rig-Veda 1.26.8, “For when the gods have a good fire, they bring us what we wish for. Let us pray with a good fire”.

One way to understand this passage, of course, says simply that “if we build it, they will come”. On occasion that’s exactly right. Dedication is its own reward. Often, though, the arrival of gods lies in our building — the impulse to light the fire, the desire for kindling light and flame, is itself divine presence.

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Damh the Bard’s beautiful prayer-song to Brighid begins:

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

Devotion has put the clooties and ribbons there. Devotion allows the encounter with the old woman. Who is it that’s “holding a flame o’er the well”? The singer, yes. The old woman, too. And both at once. I increase my chances of holy encounter when I sing a prayer with a flame. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, says the Divine Son and Sun. First, we need to gather. When I’m aware of that Other, the flame kindles.

Damh continues:

She told me she’d been a prisoner trapped in a mountain,
Taken by the Queen of Winter at Summer’s End,
But in her prison she heard a spell the people were chanting,
Three days of Summer, and snowdrops are flowering again.
She spoke of the Cell of the Oak where a fire is still burning,
Nineteen Priestesses tend the eternal flame,
Oh but of you, my Lady, we are still learning,
Brighid, Brigantia, the Goddess of Many Names.

Part of our human magic is to participate with the divine in making holy — sanctifying, hallowing the time and space. We can never reduce it to rote: “Oh but of you, my Lady, we are still learning”. The gods “switch us on” when we devote ourselves to their holy fire. But we do the same for them. Rarely will they force open a door we keep resolutely shut.

Where is the fire still burning?

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Seven Flames for Meditation

1) What does it take—literally and intentionally—in order to kindle you, and in order for you to kindle other things in your life?

2) What offering, if any, do you make to help you kindle? What else could you bring into your practice? What could you discard?

3) What is sacred to you? How do you find, invite, welcome, increase the sacred? What sacred ways are a part of your life right now that can help you kindle?

4) What ways, if any, do you tend to discount, push away, ignore, or feel “aren’t my way of connecting with the sacred”? What can you learn from your attitude towards them?

5) Where are you already kindled? What is burning, warm, or fiery in your life right now?

6) Where do you desire kindling? (Where do you need to bank a fire and cool off?!) Or to put it another way, what needs to catch fire in your life?

7) How has sacred fire already honored your practice and now flames inwardly for you?

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Image: Pexels.com

Samhain/Samhuinn 2019   Leave a comment

Ah, here we are, two weeks out from Samhain, Summer’s End, Samhuinn, All Hallows Eve. (And for those in our sibling hemisphere, Beltane approaches.)

And here for your delectation is an excellent 8-minute clip of Scotland’s Beltane Fire Society’s 2017 celebration of Samhuinn:

With it you can experience a taste of the whole event, different each year: celebration, and mystery.

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Hallowe’en, we often forget, is a hallowed evening, a sacred time, however we may treat it today. (The sacred doesn’t just vanish when we ignore it. It jabs us in our most tender spots instead, until we wake up again and pay attention. Exhibit A: Almost every headline you can find today.)

I wrote in 2017 (around the summer solstice) that

the sacred is a celebration. Cultures throughout human history set aside days and places to witness and commemorate seedtime and harvest, greatest light and deepest dark. The solstices and equinoxes are human events as much as astronomical ones, and predate any written scripture by thousands of years. We likewise mark births and deaths, and we make vows and promises to uphold our marriages, friendships, communities and nations.

Moses (ever tried a desert solstice celebration?!) gets to say it in Deuteronomy 30, that what we seek

isn’t too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It’s not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who’ll ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who’ll cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may do it?” No, the word is very near you; it’s in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

Oh, hear talk of “obeying” and perhaps you resist. I know I often do. Too many times we’ve been ruinously misled by over-trust and heedless obedience. (Republican or Democrat, or whatever the party platform, it hasn’t let up yet.)

As author Peter Beagle describes it, “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers—thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams” (“Introduction”, The Tolkien Reader). What we can rightly “obey” shares an affinity with dream. It’s what resounds in us most deeply, if we turn off the jangle of the other voices. Rightly, if not always safely. The sacred is no more “safe” than love is. Both can lead very far from where we thought our lives would go. But the “wrong” voices? What is mass culture but a form of consciously-accepted schizophrenia, if we end up listening to every voice except the first one, the original?

For any authority the sacred wields is not a “command” so much as the first law of our being. To “disobey” it, or attempt to deny or ignore the sacred, is like trying to live outside our own skins. A human without the sacred is exactly that — something eviscerated, no longer alive. We use the sacred itself when we deny it — we employ energies on loan to us even as we refuse them or cast them aside. What else will we do with them?

May our doing, our discovery, our celebration, take us ever deeper to the sacred heart of things.

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Touching the Sacred, Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

In Part 1 I wrote about the approaching Festival of Beltane and our longing to touch or encounter the Sacred. It keeps calling to us, and will not be ignored.

Here I’ll talk about how we fulfill the call inside us to touch the Sacred.

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Zora Neale Hurston, from her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

One way to understand this call is as a sacred vow that our lives require each of us to fulfill. Being born means we agreed to it. Don’t remember making the vow? Each of us promised to make good on it. “Will you do what only you can do, because only you live your life? Will you listen to what there is for you to hear? Will you keep growing? Will you remember to celebrate all that can be celebrated?”

Our lives ask us such questions, and we answer with how we live. We honor the call, the sacred vow, when we’re fully alive. We catch intermittent glimpses of this in our lives. This joy is for you, it says.

Often we don’t trust it. A girl I was serious about before I met and married my wife was convinced we shouldn’t trust it. Every happiness has to be paid for with sorrow, she said.

Or we see it, this joy, in the lives of others. A light seems to shine around them, and in their presence you feel better, more balanced, more you. They seem to practice the sacred like a dance or song. That can be a powerful way to live. Life as practice. Not as a thing to be perfected. Life’s bigger than perfection, it seems to say. More ornery, stubborn, lovely and changeable.

But it’s something we can also study, perform, explore, try out, test, demonstrate, play with, give away and take back. Sometimes with each breath. Sometimes over nearly a century. Perfection’s a dead thing. Not alive, slippery, mysterious and intoxicating. Try out what lies on the other side of perfection. Not just play the hand I’m dealt, but take or drop a card. Reshuffle. Paint my own deck. And sometimes, change the game.

Right, says the skeptic. You just believe that if you want to. But ignore such hints and outright shoves, and likewise we can often feel both restless and spiritually dead, a truly wretched combination, when we’ve done less than our lives ask of us.

We all know this intimately, too, in one form or another. It prods young (and older) people to find themselves, it burns in those who are spiritual hungry to go on inner and outer quests that may take years or their entire lives, it launches many a mid-life crisis, a dark night or decade of the soul. It slaps you upside the head, and will not stop. It passes go, it drives up onto the sidewalk, it drops you off on the wrong side of town. Or it slows down, even stops, parks in a driveway, kills the engine, offers you the wheel — then tosses the keys into the bushes.

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And the call troubles some people enough that they retreat into things in order to try to hush the call, to drown it out because they despair of ever being able to answer it. And the things — possessions, pleasures, addictions — being finite, can’t replace the call either. They just rub it raw. Who needs the sacred if it’s such torture?! No thanks, I say. These aren’t the droids I’m looking for.

Fortunately the sacred doesn’t just sit around waiting for us to find it like the fabled pot of gold at the rainbow’s end, like the toy in the bottom of the cereal box. It bounces and squirms and growls and seeks us out, constantly breaking through into our awareness. Hence the difficulty of avoiding the call, and the frequency with which we encounter it.

These Festivals like Beltane, or even newer observances, like Earth Day today — they don’t come out of nowhere. Sure they do, says your friendly neighborhood internet troll. OK: who ya gonna believe?

Where do we find the sacred — or where does it find us?

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“Human Beauty”/Jano Stovka

We may touch the sacred when we experience beauty. And beauty not only meets us in familiar ways that marketers box and package and try to monetize, but also in less conventional ones, if we pay attention. And sometimes even when we don’t.

Experience beauty and we’re lifted out of ourselves, stopped in our tracks, slapped, arrested, pierced with Cupid’s arrow — the language we’ve used throughout history in poems and songs to describe the experience can sound violent, because we may not expect beauty, or recognize it when we face it, or want it when we do recognize it.

Or we do all of those things, and our hunger for it just grows and builds. Or it makes us weep or laugh, or act in other ways that don’t fit or which leave us uncomfortable. Wait, say our lives. You thought this was going to be easy or simple?!

Encounters with the sacred can come in isolation, too, of course — away from others. We may turn our backs on people who disappoint us or who are simply so loud in our lives that we need silence, or at least other sounds. Wind, crickets, birdsong, water. We set out by ourselves, convinced this is IT. This is the way.

Walk alone and some cultures, at some times, will understand and recognize and support you. They’ll assist the solitary walk in unique ways that other cultures may not be doing at that moment. Time, space, acceptance, easing the transition in or out.

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Stairs at Oominesanji, Kii Mountains, Japan

No single culture does it all — culture’s a human thing as much as anything else is. But the natural world is a powerful ally — what we’re born from, where these bodies end up after a few decades. The in-between, where we convince ourselves we’re not a part but apart: the natural world offers remedies for that illness that we recognize every time we let it.

In Part 3 I’ll look at some more ways we touch the sacred.

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Images: years that ask; addictionOominesanji Stairs; human beauty/Jano Stovka

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