Archive for the ‘Samhain’ Category

Winter Quests, Visions, Pilgrimages   2 comments

winter solstice 17

winter solstice, 2016

One of the great discoveries we keep (re)making is that in and around doing the work and not doing the work, this winter season is crammed full of vision and dream and inward turns. Any physical slump we may feel often comes courtesy of ancient programming to conserve energy, store fat, distill insights and experiences, lick our wounds and wait for the Light to strengthen again. The cold doesn’t help either, though it’s a marvelous tonic once we slough off the inertia and bundle up and head out to breathe air sharper than our athames and paring knives.

I write from my time and place, New England in winter. Translate to your own environment. You know it, are learning it with each day, ground under your feet, shapes of trees or endless grasses, desert or horizon or mountains in the distance, ocean blue-gray-green and immense beyond your sight.

Samhain may mark with a ritual day a time when the veil thins, but for me the whole season is paper-thin, a Japanese shoji screen between me and Otherworld, a spidersweb thickness away, the same soft, uncanny brush against the cheek of everything that “daylight brain” pushes away. But night brain rejoices, says yes! says come! says I know you! and speaks in exclamation points and question marks and all the punctuation you rarely see in our scientific waking life of categories and forms and lists and schedules and business hours.

I slip into daydream over breakfast, at work, while driving. Night threatens to take over. We turn to (more) caffeine, chocolate, anything to prop awake the animal self that seeks to settle into that intermittent twilight drowse. The season has already lifted the cover and left the door ajar. The challenge isn’t to do either of these things — they’ve already been done for us, courtesy of biology and the annual ritual of sun and planets and time — but to stay out of the rabbit hole, avoid the Cave, do the daylight things we’re called to do and not slide off into othering. Because night brain sends us thoughts and feelings unbidden, and it can be a rich time to set down in paint or on paper or in fiber or other craft something of the energies at work in this dark half of the year.

One way to see it and work with it: the mulch and compost and ferment already begun in us mean that the ancestors are putting forth their voices and desires. As their descendants, we carry on some of the work of their blood and sinew. At the same time, being wholly ourselves and not our ancestors, changes seethe and bubble upward from within, brew of the Cauldron. We quit a job, or a relationship, or others do these things for and with and against us out of their own ferment. We cast about for “what next?” and any answers may come not in daylight terms, necessarily, but in hunches and doubts and the same turns that dogs and chickens make before they lie down to rest and nest. Only we do this inwardly. Turn, turn, walk down the new-old bed we’ve made to lie in. And we try it on and test it for fit. Or walk away.

Often we expect any vision to come clear, to walk before our inner sight like TV characters do, crisp in their makeup and perfect hair and wardrobe, when often what comes is all shadowy and indistinct as faces around a ritual circle by firelight. A half-turn or blink and then it’s a single face we see in profile, up close. But what we think is I need to breathe or I gotta make a change. But we don’t or can’t talk easily about such things with anyone else, because it’s hard to explain the link between what vision gives us and what we feel. Just like in a dream, the inner journey brings me to a field of sunflowers and suddenly I know I have to change my life. The dream logic between the two is undeniable, even if it bypasses daytime reasoning. It’s not cause and effect, or before and after. No, it’s all one thing. And we seem to know it all at once, too. (But talking about it requires us to examine it piecemeal, like trying to push a whale through a sieve. It just doesn’t work. So we fall back on trying to explain that, too, and soon we’re twice removed from the original experience.)

So we make our pilgrimages through winter, pondering the pieces of dark world wisdom that arrive like that touch of coolness when we wake and find we’ve kicked off a blanket. Or in the dark, up to get a drink in the night, we step on a marble or raisin or kernel of popcorn and the surprise feels all out of proportion to the actual size of the thing that we set a tender foot on. Old photo or yearbook or holiday letter from the past, object unearthed when we were looking for something else. We sit with it and an hour passes in reverie. We chew and digest our lives and come to perceive something of their value and nourishment in such moments, unplanned, perpendicular to schedules and calendars.

Let me honor the dark, I whisper to myself.

Let me draw darkness around me like a blanket, feeling its folds.
Let me say its names as they come to me, strange sounds, rumbles and squawks in the throat, thing animals say to each other and us.

Let me caress the soft animal of my life.

Let me linger in the dark and its warm silences, welcome its cold shivers.
Let me weep when tears are tribute, salt and water to bless and purify.

Let me hold myself like a child in the womb,
rocking under the heart’s own rhythm, fetal and new.
Let me wake to darkness as to light,
and feel at home and welcome.

Let me honor the dark.

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3: Druid & Christian — Samhuinn & Sovereignty   Leave a comment

[Part 1|2|3|4|5]

In a 2013 post I wrote that when I remember the ancestors,

I make my very own Samhain-on-the-spot, the veil between the worlds thins, and I converse with the dead, with the Otherworld, with the generations stored in my DNA and blood and bone.  Perhaps you could call it racism in the best sense of the word — a celebration of all who have gone before me and who, by living, have delivered me to this moment of my own life, as I write these words.  It doesn’t last, but it also endures forever.

Samhuinn is remembering and honoring connection. One reason it looms so large in Pagan practice is simply that the essence of ritual is connection, and successful ritual means good relationships. On social media like Facebook, we think that we decide if we’re “in a relationship” or not. Westerners in particular like to imagine we’re free, among many other things free to choose. But many of our relationships that matter most aren’t matters of choice. Our existence itself, as a part of this universe of beings, is the first and greatest example. So the biggest “relationship” question often isn’t whether but how: how will I maintain good relationships — with myself, with other beings, with the planet?

In language many Pagans would find congenial, Catholic priest and eco-theologian Thomas Berry writes* (in The Great Work):

…we will recover our sense of wonder and our sense of the sacred only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves as a revelatory experience of that numinous presence whence all things came into being. Indeed, the universe is the primary sacred reality. We become sacred by our participation in this more sublime dimension of the world about us.

“Religious naturalist” Loyal Rue makes an immense and related claim,** deserving (as I try to approach such things) neither acceptance or rejection at first, but simple meditation and reflection:

The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), we will be doomed, but if we live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.

And we see a movement among some Christians towards a center that Druids and other Pagans also strive towards. Michael Dowd, former fundamentalist and author of Thank God for Evolution!, writes:

I am an unabashed evidential mystic—a sacred realist, a Christian naturalist. Reality is my God and evidence is my scripture. Big History is my creation story and ecology is my theology. Integrity is my salvation and doing whatever I can to foster a just and healthy future for the full community of life is my mission.

In Arthurian tradition, the Lady of the Lake gives Arthur his sword, affirming his right to kingship, and she receives it back again when, mortally injured after the battle of Camlann, he is borne away to Avalon to be healed.

We can see the Lady as a exemplar of Sovereignty, right relationship to the cosmos. As a representative of the inward reality that lies behind our outward world, she initiates and instructs the king — metaphorically, the archetypal “royal line” in all of us. Demonstrating again and again through her actions that leader and land are one, she shows that psychic wholeness and healing can never be isolated or merely individual. We are communal beings. Hermits and recluses often report dreams filled with people, a compensation for their outward communal “drought”. The famous Grail question points to this same reality: “Who(m) does the Grail serve?” Not just the one who finds it or achieves it! The cheap and shallow English labels “winner” and “loser” simply do not apply.

If we connect with our ancestors in the largest sense of the word, with our physical forebears and also with anyone who has helped us to reach who we presently are and may become, we may begin to see that even in spite of what may be our best efforts to live only for ourselves, we still end up contributing to the entire cosmos. Whether that contribution makes us worthy ancestors to those who will come after us is another matter, and our individual and communal charge.

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Interlude — a different preview of Edinburgh’s annual and marvelous Beltane Fire Society Samhuinn celebration. Samhuinn can provide us with a mirror to see ourselves as ancestors (don’t we all “see through a glass darkly”?).

Here’s the link to the Beltane Fire Society’s Samhuinn 2017.

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Right relationship — the first ritual goal I will strive to keep in mind as I finish drafting my personal Samhain rite.

This evening my wife and I will gather with another couple a few miles away.  We’ve shared several of the “Great Eight” festivals before, sometimes with a formal ritual, at others with that most ancient ritual of all, friendship, food and fire. One partner of the couple often faces a difficult time at Samhain, due to her psychic awareness and to past bad experiences with the day. So for us sometimes the kindest ritual is not to celebrate Samhuinn in any formal sense at all, but simply to be present and grounded ourselves, and to help be grounding for her.

A fire can help burn away negative energy, and making a practice of imaginally gathering and tossing into the fire any negative energy, to be consumed and returned to its elements for the cosmos to rebuild into healthy and balanced forms, is appropriate work. Doing it physically and unobtrusively can also be part of maintaining the fire.

A blessed Samhuinn to you all.

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*Berry, Thomas. “The Wild and the Sacred,” in The Great Work. New York: Harmony/Bell Tower, 1999, pg. 49.

**Rue, Loyal. Religion Is Not About God. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005, pg. 135.

2: Druid and Christian — Elemental Sacraments   Leave a comment

[Part 1|2|3|4|5]

In the previous post I wrote: “In sacrament rather than creed lies one potent meeting-place for Druid and Christian”. It’s this junction that I’ll continue to explore here.

What’s a sacrament? A means of perceiving the sacred. Though every culture has them, in the West our access points to the holy can feel few and far between, even more precious because of their rarity. Of course we’ve trimmed and peeled many of them away ourselves — some too soon, others well after their expiration dates.

 

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Fire worship among the Yi people in Kunming, China. Xinhua News.

Nonetheless, as a doorway, sacrament itself isn’t holy, except by association. It acquires a secondary patina of holiness that makes up part of the uplift we can experience when we turn its way, if it’s still working. For it can indeed be profaned, though the underlying sacred reality it points to is immune to human tampering. That reality wouldn’t be worth much, after all, if we could trample it in the mud.  (And we do our share of trampling. One of the more startling instances comes from Quebecois French, which intentionally repurposes Catholic vocabulary for profanity — including the word sacrament itself.)

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Hence, when “the barbarians are at the gates”, they (we) can destroy things of beauty, reverence and spiritual power, but the reality that gave them birth remains untouched. It will burst forth again in new forms and guises to open the eyes and the hearts of people yet unborn.

Will it? We certainly say and believe such things. Are they merely a kind of whistling in the dark?

One test lies in sacraments themselves. Many of them may receive scant acknowledgement in a given culture. Yet who among us who has deeply loved another person doubts that there is a sacrament made manifest? We can and do sentimentalize it, in part to avoid its sacramental power.

Other examples abound, instances that many cultures hedge about with rituals of word and action. A meal shared with others, a birth, a death, a “first” in a young life: first love, first kill, first sexual experience, first assumption of other adult roles and responsibilities. The fact that in so-called secular cultures we still institutionalize and legalize such things as drinking alcohol, driving cars, voting, joining the military, merely confirms a spiritual fact — awkwardly, perhaps, and blindly groping for its deeper truth, no doubt. That we confer grades of status by age attests to our discomfort with other criteria — ones that require wisdom, vision, insight. It’s easier to grant status mechanically, by the calendar, than to search a heart.

A sacrament, then, because it’s “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” as the 5th century St. Augustine perceived, acknowledges something that already exists. We don’t create it, though we allow it to take shape and form, to have an impact, because we make room for it in our lives. (There seems to be a Minimum Sacramental Quotient, an MSQ, in every life: we’re all born, eat, and die, even if we shy away from, and struggle to avoid, every other divine intrusion on our human busy-ness.) We can midwife the sacred, and catalyze and welcome it, then, or resist it, but only up to a point. Grace is gratia, gift — and ample reason for gratitude.

When Druids initiate a new Bard, something happens that allows a sacrament that outward manifestation. When a Christian experiences the presence of God in prayer or Communion, the connection with the sacred moves from inner potential to outer expression. We can sense it, often, with our physical bodies. Or in the words of one of the repeating songs from Beauty and the Beast, “There’s something there that wasn’t there before”. Lacking other means of access, many people experience sacraments, or at least a sacramental flavor, in the “profane” world of Hollywood and the entertainment “industry”. So let’s be more profane, not less: pro-fane, standing near a fane or shrine, rubbing shoulders with gods and spirits outside, if not in the fane, or making a fane of our bodies and lives.

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One common friction-point in midwifing a sacrament is means. “What’s your fane?” Deny another’s access-points to the sacred by discrediting their sacraments, and you attempt to own and control and box in what is not, in the end, wholly subject to human will. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “No salvation outside the Church”, just doesn’t work for many people any more. (Not to mention that sometimes what you’re looking for isn’t salvation but something else entirely.)

There’s a Pagan movement towards what has been critiqued as “inflation”, and a Christian one that has been likewise critiqued as “deflation”, of the human self. Pagans appear to deify, and Christians to abase, the self, Both meta-techniques strive to open the doors to the sacred by removing obstacles to sacraments. And making a proper container for what is holy can be a deal of work. Latter-day solutions like “spiritual-but-not-religious” attempt to bypass the need for containers altogether, but they offer their own problems, and containers tend to creep back in.

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Samhain. Hallowed Evening. Masses, rituals for the Dead-who-live. Calling out their names, those who have passed in the previous year. Hear them named around the evening fire.

“Look in the mirror, Ancestor. The veil is always thin.”

“What we have received, we pass on.”

“What do you bring from the Otherworld? And what can we offer you?”

“Assist me to erect the ancient altar at which in days past all worshipped, the great altar of all things” run the words of one Pagan rite.

Introibo ad altare Dei, intones the Catholic priest, using the words from Psalm 42:4. “I will go into the altar of God”.

“Look at the shape of the altar; it is your own consciousness”, says one of the Wise.

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Can we see here the faint outlines of a shared set of sacraments for Christian Druids and Druid Christians? What links followers of Grail, Cross and Star, who long to extend what each does best, sacramental elements, elemental sacraments in the broader sense of components, basic parts, building materials for the Door that is always open, the “Door without a Key”? Jesus says “I stand at the door and knock”, and Merlin waves and beckons from the other side. Earth and water, air and fire, blood and mistletoe, wine and breath, we bring you to our altars.

In our awkward groping ways, we all stumble on and into sacraments. For those looking to learn from these two neighboring traditions, ones with Trees at their centers, maybe one of the first sacraments to celebrate is humility with each other, humilis, an attitude and approach close to the earth, humus. “Earth my body, fire my spirit …”

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Images: Fire worship; “Living water“.

 

Samhuinn Fire Festival 2015   Leave a comment

And because everything comes in pairs in this world of duality, here’s a second Samhuinn post, this time a 2 1/2 minute clip of the Beltane Fire Society’s Samhuinn Fire Festival from last year. You should be able to view it on Facebook without difficulty — it’s a Facebook rather than Youtube video.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fbeltanefiresociety%2Fvideos%2F1383835834967608%2F&show_text=0&width=560

Nettles for Samhain   Leave a comment

‘Let there be mirth and reverence’, runs the Charge of the Goddess. I can do no better at this moment than repost this lovely song by Loam from East Coast Gathering: ‘Meet Me With Some Nettles in the Wood’. (Note that the settings require you to watch the video on the Youtube site — just one more click.)

(It’s a measure of my twistedness that when I first heard the song I was convinced that title and refrain were ‘beat’ me with some nettles, rather than ‘meet’ me. Sigh.)

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Becoming an Ancestor   1 comment

From the OBOD “Inspiration for Life” for 26 October: “Our greatest responsibility is to become good ancestors” — Jonas Salk (1914-1995). Search for information on Salk and you’ll find, beyond his discovery of the life-saving polio vaccine, that the original quotation has  “be” for “become,” but “become” fits. It gives us room to grow into the role.

Growth? I don’t know about you, but most days I need all the help I can get. We can be as literal as you like. My father had a mild case of polio in the 1930s when he was a young man, and it stunted the growth of his legs. He would have been as tall as I am at 6’2″. When we sat, we were the same height, but standing, he was six inches shorter than me. He made up for reduced stature by work and persistence (if you’re uncharitable you might have called it cussed stubbornness). Sometimes we can feel like we’re cast against type in our own lives. What now?

If I approach the day, the season, this life, as roles, I can often feel my way into possibility. We’ve all slipped in backstage. From there we tried out for this role — like almost all the others we’re offered — just by being born. Set aside for a moment the question of whether any of us asked to be here.  If we do indeed get recycled from one part of this universe into another, perhaps our own ancestors called us, and our parents made bodies for us and brought us back to the longest-running show of them all. Have kids, and we’re doing the same for them. No kids this time around? You won’t escape that easy.

Live in this world more than a handful of years and you’ll meet others you instantly warm up or cool off to. Mere chance? Unlikely. Instead, one big noisy, contentious family reunion. You never liked Great-Uncle Louis, only now (s)he’s your one-year old niece Lucy who just spit up on your new silk shirt.

Or that annoying nephew Luke who always manages to bring back your car with a few more dings and scratches whenever he borrows it. You’d say no but you still owe his mother a few grand from that tight period some years back.

After all, karma’s one of the most efficient ways of polishing rough edges. Get back what you give out. Until you decide to play it differently. A different take. An original interpretation. A dramatic break-through. A sensitive and well-rounded performance that elicits sympathy for a potentially unlovable character.

What roles will I play in this ancestor ritual that is my life? Can I live large enough that I qualify as a “good ancestor”? Do my choices make the future lighter, wiser, more loving? (The signs tell me I’ll get to find out in person. Back in a century or three to check in and live my own consequence.)

Some days I get a foretaste. I wake, sliding slowly out of bed feeling I’m already halfway to ancestor status. You know, when your body’s now the best barometer for tomorrow morning’s weather. Low pressure and my lower back aches. Rain coming and my shoulder throbs. At such times it’s slender consolation that half a millennium hence my thighbone may decorate some family altar, or that my brother’s great-great-great-times-10 granddaughters will drink toasts from my lovingly preserved skull.

No, Salk probably meant something more. While not all of us will fall fighting to defend our land for our descendants, in every age too many of us do.

But just as many of our battles are inward, and many outwardly calm or seemingly easy faces conceal, it may be, most grievous private wars. It’s fitting, then — humbling, sobering and just — that we may well return to see what becomes of our own deeds.

For me there’s no better perspective. I find myself asked to forgive less than glorious forebears. “Judge not, lest you be judged” can cut painfully close. Knowing my own struggles and weaknesses, I’ll toast them with a generous measure of compassion — not because they may “deserve” it, but because they need it, and so do I — even as I honor the great among them, this weekend on Samhain.

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Great Hallows   Leave a comment

Someone called Samhain that in passing — “Great Hallows” — and it’s fitting.

bryn_celli_ddu-exter

No, you don’t have to enter. But entrances await you, in sleep and waking, in the thought and feeling of a moment, in the earth around you, to leave the daylight world. The season itself recalls you: the cooling earth, that nip in the air, scent of dead leaves and woodsmoke, bursts of color around the next turn that linger in the eye.

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Not kings or nobles but shepherds know the hallowed times, like this turn of days towards the greater dark. In The Winter’s Tale the Shepherd says to the Clown (always a liminal, transitional figure in Shakespeare) “You met with dying things, I with things newborn.” That’s what I meet each Samhain season, both death and life. This is a Great Hallow, a tide of exchange between worlds. Not the tide of equinox, of balance, but what comes after the rebalancing.

Hallow: a word almost lost, a thing changing shape and name, a Samhain sign in itself.

Passage. That’s what Samhain offers, means of passage between the two realms. A holy occasion. Like so many holy things, misunderstood, feared, slandered. But most unfortunate of all? Ignored.

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So I look at this image for just a moment, that gulp of time that’s all I need to jump-start wonder all over again. And I summon this liminal place within me, where all places also lie: Bryn Celli Ddu, the “Mound in the Dark Grove,” stand in for each of us and our own mythic image of the Place of Spiritual Exchange. (Here the Dead journey among us, looking for the same thing.)

We — all of us — have hallowed something all year long. Time to recognize it on All Hallows’ Eve.

What is dead, and what lives, in my life? How do they nourish and reflect and illumine each other? What Samhain question is my life asking me today and all this month?

Here at “summer’s end,” which is a good approximation of what Samhain* means, I listen. A full time job, that — all these voices now, as one cycle nears completion and the second takes its birth. Then the greater stillness of Winter, and its own energies and lessons.

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Image: exterior–Trish Steel; southern Vermont sumac; Bryn Celli Ddu interior — Wolfgang Sauber.

(I love how ddu “dark” [approx. “thoo”] in Welsh has that shape and spelling after a feminine noun like celli “hill,” that double dd, following the rules of sound and spelling change that run counter to English habit. Words as wands of transformation for the tongue.)

*irish Samhain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinne, both from Proto Celtic *samonios. The Coligny calendar names a “three-night festival” trinoxtion samonii, in Gaulish, a older and now extinct relative of Irish and Scottish Gaelic: Gaulish samon “summer, Samhain.”

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