Archive for the ‘service’ Category

The Ground of Our Center, the Heart of Our Earth

Holding (and returning to) the highest moment I know as a flavor for the day. Hearing the awen in the songs of birds, the rush of wind in the branches, the rumble of trucks passing down the road. Opening the door to Spirit in this moment, to welcome the transformations I long for, and have worked to manifest.

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I don’t know about you, but I need to keep grounding and centering all day long. It’s a way to show myself love, when love can seem in short supply.

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The practice of “ground and center” often finds its way into ritual, as part of the “set-up” for the group, to help bring everyone together, to welcome everyone into the ritual space. It also features as part of many group exercises and workshops. A good group facilitator or group leader will include it up front, and often again at the close, to bring everyone fully back into the moment.

Often it takes the simplest form, a short reminder in words. “Let’s take a moment to ground and center”. The act of recalling the need for it becomes the practice of it — think it and you’re starting to do it.

Maybe there’s a little elaboration to guide you: “Feel your roots going into the earth, your branches rising into the air and sun.” But often we assume everyone knows what “ground and center” means, why we do it, what it’s for. Like all fundamentals and basics, it’s good to take it out and look at it from time to time. Probably our understanding of it has deepened and changed over the months and years.

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At BAM Gathering preparation campout, Oct. 2018.

Do it enough, and grounding and centering (“G & C”) begins to broaden and take on new forms. A word, a brief prayer, a gesture made with intention can all help (re-)establish attention on the heart. If a ritual or exercise has taken us out of physical awareness, coming fully back to the body is grounding and centering. Stamping the foot (lightly, if you’re in a group) can help. If you practice a ritual of gesture, the opposite gesture for opening ritual space may serve to close it, and “bring you back”. Recording an experience in your journal, eating and drinking, standing up and walking around the ritual space or the room you’re in, can all serve to ground and center.

Christian worship builds in such moments of “G & C” with prayers and affirmations, songs and recitations that “tell you where you are” in the movement through the ritual of worship. The Latin Mass ends with ite, missa est “Go — (the Congregation) is dismissed”. The Wikipedia entry for mosque, citing the Encyclopedia of Islam, notes that “Any act of worship that follows the Islamic rules of prayer can be said to create a mosque, whether or not it takes place in a special building”. The act of grounding and centering can establish our center if we’ve lost it. It returns us to our “native land”, our spiritual home.

The practice of grounding and centering can open up still more. Out of a daily spiritual practice, new doors open to ways of grounding and centering. The guidance can be so subtle I don’t perceive it as anything separate from myself. It becomes what’s now being called “self-care”. Recognizing I need a break from social media, taking a nap, getting outdoors to encounter the elements, walking in the rain, connecting with a friend — these nourish the heart and guide us to do what’s right for us to do. They’re essential ways to ground and center — in that particular moment. From these elements of practice, more hunches, nudges and intuitions may come. Go here, not there. Try this book, resource, doctor, treatment. Reconnect with this person, spend a little more time with that one. Greet the clerk at the store checkout with my full attention, without rush. Ask how to serve quietly (or noisily!) in this moment, then the next. Listening for such answers is itself grounding and centering.

In a kind of paradox that starts to become familiar to us along any spiritual path, grounding and centering can help us discover when we need to ground and center, when we’ve lost balance, thrown ourselves out of whack. They ease us back “in whack”.

With all the talk of out-of-body experiences, sometimes I need in-body contact with the elements. Touching the cool earth with the palms of my hands, taking three deep breaths and releasing carbon dioxide and tension both, drinking a few sips of water, lighting a candle or passing my hand smoothly through flame, can all ground me. With my physical body composed of the elements, each element assists in the centering I need. As above, so below — yes! But also as below, so above. Full-circuit spirituality.

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In some ways, grounding and centering is the only practice there is. Out of groundedness, out of centeredness, we think and feel, speak and act with integrity, with wholeness. Rather than lamenting what I did badly a moment ago, I can ground and center right now.

In this moment, how can I serve?

Druiding without (an) Order — 2

[Part 1 | Part 2]

path28In the previous post, I looked at thirteen facets of Doing Druidry that mostly revolve around inquiry and study. You can’t easily be a Druid without engaging in at least some form of one or more of them, because each of them connects you to the worlds where Druidry happens. (If that sounds restrictive or dogmatic or exclusive to you, just go back and look at the list! Got something to add that makes you a Druid? Tell us a little about your journey as you go for it!) The list doesn’t characterize only beginning Druidry, but serves as a rough outline for the kinds of studies that can occupy Druids their entire lives. However, that’s not the only thing happening in the life of a Druid.

In this second post on Doing Druidry without an Order, I want to look at five less tangible aspects of Druidry (and other traditions) that may have occurred to you as you read the previous post. These five are initiation, spiritual formation, community, proficiency and service. From the first glance it should be clear why they’re harder to talk about and describe in terms that people can identify. But that fact in itself makes it worthwhile to try. As you may come to see, these five aspects are closely linked things, almost versions of the same thing.

Initiation

Like other intensely personal experiences, initiation will always be a live issue for many of us. What it is, who can experience it, who can oversee, facilitate or “give” it, what happens when we undergo it, and what we become as a result,  can all provoke passionate discussion and disagreement. Most spiritual traditions have an equivalent of one or more initiations among their practices, and the most non-religious among us still experience “built-in” initiation in human events like birth, death, sex, grief and creative flow. Change characterizes each of them. You’re not the same afterwards. When and how you discover this, however, can range very widely.

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We could claim that one of the things that distinguishes modern Pagan practice from older traditions is the option of self and group initiation. As a comparison, Christians, for instance, can’t usually baptize themselves; to become a Muslim requires two witnesses to hear you recite the shahadah, and so forth.

Like other groups, OBOD succeeds tolerably well in having it both ways: the coursework for the grades of Bard, Ovate and Druid includes self-initiations that members can perform, and as a member of the Order you can request a group initiation with other members, and these two initiations aren’t “the same thing”. The rituals are different, the outcomes can be different, yet paradoxically they are in important ways “the same”.

You don’t need to do both a self and a  group initiation, but it makes little sense to continue unless you do one of them. (Doing both gives you a feel for their interconnections and value.) They’re part of doing Druidry. If you’re doing Druidry without an Order, you’ll come quite naturally to initiation in your own way. Your life will see to that. You can seek out initiation, of course, adapting published rituals to your purposes, or crafting something unique to your own experience. Or you can wait until an experience shapes itself into an initiation, which you may not recognize until after the fact.

For an earlier 3-part series on initiation, go here.

Spiritual Formation

This largely Christian term has no ready Pagan equivalent, though this aspect of practice certainly exists in all spiritual traditions. Christian spiritual formation means molding or conforming one’s life to Christ. In Pagan terms it means moving beyond, diving deeper, maturing in practice and wisdom. You begin to embody more of what your tradition values and holds up as an ideal, of what your deepest spiritual connection opens up to you, and open you up to. Pagans speak of Elders, those with earned authority and sacred connection, in ways similar to how Christians speak of saints, of holy individuals that spirit shines through.

One of the joys of a practicing group is the heightened chances of encountering and knowing such people, learning from their example and growing through associating with them. Being around them can constitute a form of initiation. As a number of the Wise have remarked, spirituality is “caught” rather than “taught”. We’re all in training.

Community

The most obvious difference between the experience of the Solitary and the Order member might seem to revolve around community. Christians acknowledge the priceless gift of others. In Hebrews 12:1, for instance, the sense of a supporting community, many without bodies, pervades the verse: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”. The interior worship spaces of Orthodox churches often have icons on almost every available surface, emphasizing this spiritual presence of a larger community than only those “with skin on”.

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icons at Varlaam Monastery — image courtesy Andrea Kirkby

Pagans may talk of raising power, while Christians acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit. Isaac Bonewits notes:

If the people in a group have bonds of genuine friendship or love between them, their ability to perform ritual will be greatly enhanced. The psychic and psychological barriers that most people keep between themselves will be fewer and more easily breached. This is why Wiccans place so much emphasis on “perfect love and perfect trust” — love and trust, even when imperfect, tend to strengthen each other and increase a group’s psychological and psychic unity (Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, pg. 105).

Of course, one of the discoveries Druids make is that they are never alone. Solitary, but not alone. A whole world of Others surrounds them, and if that is where community lies for that particular Druid, that is the call to answer.

Proficiency

We can become refined in the presence of others. Lifted out of our own concerns by the group energy, we can begin to “see larger” than when we arrived, and to take something of that enlarged perspective home with us like a fragrance or flavor to our hours and days. Elastic beings that we are, the company of other people “facing the same direction” can stretch us more than we can easily stretch ourselves, making us more flexible, adaptable, compassionate and empathetic. Think of the privilege of finding a good listener, someone who can still their own concerns and focus their attention on you and your world. How many of us know the love another can express in hearing and seeing us, even if they say little or nothing else? Our lives have been witnessed, our struggles acknowledged, we can walk from there a little lighter of heart.

By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus, and a good test of a group or Order in the simplest of terms is the kind of people they produce. Are they enjoyable to be around? Do they lift you up or drag you down? Are they kind to each other?

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Service

I desire to know in order to serve, runs the vow in more than one magical order of repute.

So I was struck when my teacher remarked one day that he serves in order to know. That’s how I grow and learn, he says. Offer yourself in “the unreserved dedication”, as some Orders call it, without qualification or expectation, and you will benefit. I get so tired of hearing about service, remarked one long-time member. Go apart for a while, counseled our teacher. You’ll be eager to return when you see how it’s a gift of love. You may just need to be on the receiving end for a time, for that to happen.

We may first begin to recognize the value of service when others serve us with love. If you’re like me, you may have a favorite restaurant (pre-virus, if necessary) where the food isn’t the main thing that draws you back. Yes, the meals are good. But it’s the ambience, the atmosphere, the attentiveness and welcome of the staff, the mood of other customers treated hospitably, that shapes your total experience. We go back for the service as much as anything, we say, when people ask.

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In every case, Solitaries find ways to fulfill these aspects. It may demand more flexibility and creativity, or it may take the Solitary in directions others do not understand. Service to the non-human world, for instance, can often pass unseen, unacknowledged for an entire lifetime, known only to the “bird and beast, bug and beech” the Solitary serves.

August Moon, and Serving

In New England the Sturgeon Moon, as some Native Americans call it,  arrives this coming Sunday, the 26th of August, but early enough in the morning that many will observe it the previous evening.

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Rowan in the front yard, its berries ripening

OBOD Druids are encouraged to do monthly Peace Meditations on the full moon. I never have, which is odd, considering how largely the moon figured in my teens and twenties. For years I observed its phases and influence, absorbed what I could find about its significance in diverse cultures, wrote poems and songs to it, connected to Goddess through it. But a peace meditation?

You could say I absorbed the wrong things from Christianity: “Think not that I am come to bring peace on earth: I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). This has proved one of the most accurate of Christian prophecies. Though it’s not so much a prophecy as a statement that this is a world of the flow of many energies. By its very nature, changes keep coming, and the shifts and rebalances can’t all be smooth, given the pockets and reservoirs of other energies that may resist or simply move on a different time-scale and energy flow.

Druids are called to be peacemakers, and the popular Peace Prayer stands ready as a worthwhile practice, daily for some. Here’s one version of the words:

The Peace Prayer

Deep within the still centre of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the Grove
May I share peace.
Gently (or powerfully) within the greater circle of humankind
May I radiate peace.

Find, share, radiate: all are valid practices I see as part of my own practice. Spiderwebs and hurricanes co-exist in this world. Both will manifest long after I’m gone and forgotten, but I can choose how I will align myself each day. I prefer, actually, to focus on love, which can exist even in tumult and turbulence, when peace has long fled. A home with children and pets and one or more working adults may not know much peace, but it can still overflow with love. A damaged landscape after the rebalancing that storms bring needs love more than peace.

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OBOD ritual proclaims, “Let us begin by giving peace to the quarters, for without peace can no work be”. I don’t know what kind of work you do, but if I required peace before I  started, I’d get nothing done. Don’t get me wrong: I value OBOD ritual, much of the language engages me, helping in the work of magic, but there I must turn aside and let the moment flow past. So I give love to the quarters instead, something they seem to use more readily.

A fragment of a prayer that has stayed with me — maybe someone can identify its source — I encountered decades ago, though I’ve never been able to track it to its lair. But I’ve remembered it fairly accurately, and I’ve recited it often: “I drink at your well. I honor your gods. I bring an undefended heart to our meeting-place”. This triad of actions faces outward in a way I know I can practice myself. For me it establishes a distinct vibration I value.

It also points toward a way I can hear and answer the call to serve.

“Serving is different from helping”, writes Rachel Naomi Remen. I cite her words in full below, because the following text has become so important to me, as a meditation seed and guide and source of wisdom.

In recent years the question how can I help? has become meaningful to many people. But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider. Perhaps the real question is not how can I help? but how can I serve?

Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength. If I’m attentive to what’s going on inside of me when I’m helping, I find that I’m always helping someone who’s not as strong as I am, who is needier than I am. People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness. When I help I am very aware of my own strength. But we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals.

Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing, is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude. These are very different things.

Serving is also different from fixing. When I fix a person I perceive them as broken, and their brokenness requires me to act. When I fix I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them. When I serve I see and trust that wholeness. It is what I am responding to and collaborating with.

There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing. Fixing is a form of judgment. All judgment creates distance, a disconnection, an experience of difference. In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch … We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.

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Deconspiracizing & Druidry

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through the branches, opening doors

Depending on where you lurk on the Net, you may have run across this passage:

Be sure the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control. Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is “out there” in the “broken system” rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.

Keep up the good work,
Uncle Screwtape

“Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis ~1942

One of my cousins posted this recently on Facebook.

Also depending on your alertness and your familiarity with Lewis and his works, you may or may not have additionally spotted the following caveat. “Screwtape’s ‘fixated on politics’ quote”, notes Joshua Dance, “is not by C.S. Lewis. You and I may like the idea, but proceed with caution.”

How perfect for my purpose here: to use a wrongly-attributed quotation in the process of desconspiracizing ourselves. What ideas do we like, and how cautious are we — can we be — should we be — with them as we proceed?

And does this piece of wisdom still retain any value, once we uncouple it from its famous but misidentified source?

If you think it does, I invite you to keep reading. (If not, here’s the new-as-of-June trailer for Voldemort — Origins Of The Heir, a fan-film.)

Human liking for conspiracy theories is by almost all accounts wonderfully unbiased in its spread. Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Communist, Anarchist — whatever colors I fly on my mast, I’m just as susceptible to a theory that fits my prejudices as the next person. No one’s immune. In my book that qualifies as a “problem with myself”. Fortunately, remedies exist. Maybe not cures, but remedies.

Here, after a completely unscientific search, are seven news links [ Paul RatnerThe Independent | The Telegraph | Time | The Guardian| Conspiracies.net6 True Conspiracy Theories ] to some of the most popular conspiracy theories out there in the English-speaking world. (Those of you with a foot in other linguistic and cultural communities have your own favorites that you know far better than I.)

And if you’d like just one of many available pages pointing out the logical fallacies underpinning conspiracy thinking, here’s an example that offers 13 fallacies.

My main goal in this post? I want to remind myself most of all, and any of you so inclined, to  continue the work needed to minimize the effect of conspiracy thinking. Secondarily, I want to refresh my understanding of ways of thinking and doing — like Druidry — that can “distract me from the distractions”.

Two things I’ve learned over decades to treasure and nourish in myself and my dear ones more than anything else: what I choose to attend to, and how I choose to attend to it. In other words, attention and attitude.

We know how valuable our attention is because advertisers and politicians work so hard to get it and hold on to it. Our attitude matters just as much: everyone wants to tell us how to feel, rather than letting us discover that on our own.

Once someone has my attention hooked, and my attitude in their pocket, they own me.

So here’s one of my triads for action:

1) Love what I can see, touch and talk to most often — daily is ideal. This includes family, friends, trees, pets, the garden, ancestors, my community, and the people I meet. “I bless you in the name of what you love most deeply” is a silent prayer I can offer for everyone I meet. An even briefer version: “Bless this day and those I serve”. (I also find it’s very useful in stopping me from mechanical reactions for or against, from forming pointless opinions based on superficial details like age, weight, dress, gender, etc. — or for cutting me off in traffic, or tailing me much too closely. So I “repeat as needed”: “I bless you in the name of what you love most deeply”.)

2) Whatever time and energy I can give, work so that it will benefit others as much as myself. This blog is one of those things. My years in teaching, and in holding open discussions on spiritual topics in our local library, are a couple of others. A chance conversation in a shop or store that acknowledges another’s humanity and dignity can be a profound service to others. I don’t try to be selfless; I try to enlarge my sense of who is part of the Self. Because I’m  still learning, whenever necessary, I start small.

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backyard willow on wash-day

3) Thank everyone and everything that helped me do the first two things. Gratitude may be too simple for our complex and suspicious age, but, I notice, it never goes out of style. Again, it may be silent just as often as something to express. Yes, this can be a dangerous age to live and be generous in. But I find a wise kindness works well.

If I focus more on my attitude and attention, I can diminish the moments of “angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing”.

The more I experience the inherent joy in using my attitude and attention skilfully, the more I find myself energized to keep on practicing with them. These are some of the truest things Druidry has helped me discover.

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Speaking Trees: a Reading

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photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheer

At MAGUS ’17, Dana (on the left — check out her excellent blog The Druid’s Garden) generously offered readings for several of us, using her set of tree staves. You can see four of us (I’m on the right) sitting bundled in every layer we brought with us — the weather had turned cold.

I’d sat in on a couple previous readings (with permission!), and Dana’s infectious love of trees and tree lore made each reading memorable and full of wisdom. With her combination of hands-on experience and extensive reading in herbals and Native American lore, each of us learned anew how Druidry has much to teach. I say “how” because any time spent in Druid practice shows us we go just as far as we’re willing to put in time and energy.

If we’re new to divination we may bring to it our skepticism, or an uncritical acceptance of whatever we hear, or a cherished obtuseness to anything outside our blinkered perspectives. Having run through these and a range of other even less useful inner “sets” in the past, I tried simply to listen. Drawing for an awen spread of three staves — past influences, present circumstances and future tendencies — can help give a sense of dynamics that may be working through some part of our lives.

My notes here are a merging of Dana’s reading, my own study and insight from subsequent meditation and reflection.

Here are the three staves I drew: birch, white pine and cottonwood.

Birch (genus Betula) is a common hardwood, with species ranging worldwide throughout the northern hemisphere. The northeastern U.S has perhaps a dozen species. The bark, famous for canoes, also makes excellent kindling, I’ve discovered, even when it’s damp, because its oils will still burn. With medicinal, cosmetic and industrial uses, the birch is widely used. It’s also a pioneer tree, adaptable to varied conditions, among the first to appear in pastures, meadows and burnt areas. As such, birches frequently represent beginnings, initiations, growth, renewal, and so on. The associated ogham is beith. As part of my Ovate work, I’m identifying the trees on our 2 and a half acres, and there are nearby birches to get to know.

The past is a beginning. It’s not destiny, but simply a direction taken. I find the past a surprisingly fluid thing. (The birch is flexible). Because as I grow and change, I perceive my own past differently, coming to value some difficult experiences for what they taught me, and seeing whole decades in a different light than they appeared at the time.

To choose just one example, my first serious relationship, shortly before I met my wife, dragged me along an emotional roller-coaster, passionate and full of drama at the time. But it taught me patience, dispelled a fair amount of romantic nonsense, and showed me that kindness more than anything else should grow at the core of my relationships if I want them to last.

Rather than a fixed past, I find it’s the future that’s fixed — at any single moment. But then the moment shifts, my awareness and choices enter in, and the future shifts as well. Taking a reading is like sounding the depth of coastal waters — it’s accurate for that interval, but you need to know if the tide’s coming in or going out. Twelve hours earlier or later, to say nothing of twelve days or twelve years, conditions will have changed. Birches aren’t especially long-lived, but they “open the way” for others.

White Pine (Pinus strobus), like the Birch, is a common tree in the northeast U.S. Other Pinus species flourish in Europe and Asia. A softer wood, a long-lived tree (the record in the U.S. is 500 years), the white pine is prized for woodworking, lumber, and medicinal properties. It’s the “peace tree” of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois, and it has also produced the tallest trees in the eastern U.S. (the famous sequoias take the prize in the west). Pine needles contain quintuple the vitamin C of lemons, and a needle tea is a healthful drink — a good medicine for me, because I’m prone to lung and skin problems. Algonquian tribes in the region knew other uses — the Adirondack Mountains in New York take their name from the Mohawk adirodaks, meaning “tree-eaters”, their term for the Algonquians.

As a guide to the present, white pine tells me, in Thoreau’s words, “be not simply good, be good for something”. And as a Druid, to me this means to be good at something, too. For a long time I’ve worked with words, making a living as teacher and writer. Druidry urges me to expand my knowledge and practice, and learn my neighbor trees better. It’s time to give back more, to support trees in distress, learn the landscape and do my part to help the biome as it adjusts to climate changes. (Both for its useful info and for its misleading title, spend a few minutes with “American trees have started migrating west and no one knows why“.)

As I delve more deeply into the Ovate grade, and improve my knowledge of healing, otherworld mysteries, and divination, white pine is a worthy signal tree and spiritual landmark. “If not this, then something better” has been my mantra during a protracted job search. Looking outside my accustomed region/specialty is both good job-search advice and good  physical-spiritual foraging advice, too. Go further afield.

Cottonwood (Populus species) is the third stave. Dana and I laughed at this one. At least the cottonwood she had in mind is not a native to the east, but a western tree, so this third stave seems to confirm and extend some of the energetics present in the white pine above. (Some species do inhabit the eastern U.S.)

Cottonwoods constitute a varied group of trees, including aspens and poplars. Populus trichocarpa is the first tree species to have its genome sequenced. It grows fast, and can reach nearly 60 feet (18 meters) in about a decade. Varieties of cottonwoods have flourished in unlikely places, and helped re-tree barren areas, notably the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Like the birch and white pine, it has food and medicinal uses.

As a tree speaking about the future, the cottonwood is a good reminder both to play to strengths and also to try out new areas, to adapt, to “do my own thing” while finding new niches where that “thing” can thrive. “Grow where you’re planted” isn’t bad counsel as a start — we all do that inevitably anyway, at birth. It’s flowering after that that’s the work of our days. “To go to seed” isn’t a bad thing, despite the connotations of “seedy”. How else to pass along who we are, what we’ve gained? To give back as we do, completing the cycle, walking the circle, answering the Druid call to service.

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Image courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers.

 

Initiation: To Serve in Order to Know

[Updated 28 May 2020]

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

During the year and a day of your training, you’ve studied, practiced, visualized, rehearsed, memorized, subjected yourself to physical and psychological tests and disciplines and — perhaps in spite of your own better judgment of your readiness — you’ve finally been chosen as a candidate for initiation.

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The day of the ceremony arrives. You may be dressed in a particular ritual way, or you may have bathed and simply be wearing new clothes. Perhaps a single jewel or ring you now wear gives you something you find yourself toying with as you wait. Probably you’ve been given specific instructions to help prepare you and assist you in entering the desired state of consciousness. Or the absence of such instructions has the same effect.

You’re nervous, too, and the other members of the group who are participating in your initiation don’t do anything to dispel that nervousness. In fact, they may be sympathetic and kind to you, and their very kindness will only increase the mystery. What am I getting myself into? you ask yourself. This and other questions are good ones to ask — though they may have no answers.

In many occult and magical orders, potential new initiates face a challenge when they enter the ritual space where their initiation will take place. “What do you seek?” goes one variant of the verbal part of the challenge. Depending on what you’ve been taught or are expecting, the rumors you’ve heard, or the nature of the particular group you’re with, the question can catch you off guard. It’s meant to.

In an intro to an online magical training document by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, J. H. Brennan relates his own experiences, and doubtless those of many other people, here (see pg. 4) . He comments wryly that, not surprisingly, why we seek is often a bigger determining factor in our experience than what.

We all do things for the best possible motives, of course; and nowhere more so than in the esoteric arts. It is relatively easy to discover that the only really acceptable excuse for magical study is embodied in the statement I desire to know in order to serve. That was the answer I was prompted to give to the ritual question during my own initiation. I dutifully gave it; and it was a lie.

What actually attracted me to magic was not service but power.

“I desire to know in order to serve” has its motivations all lined up for inspection. It’s a “good doggy” answer.  It’s noble-sounding, and as the “really only acceptable excuse,” it’s comforting to give it and feel good about having such an answer to give. Because in this logical and scientific age of ours, don’t you need an excuse for something as wacky and bizarre as the study of magick — especially spelt with a -k — that doesn’t make you sound like a raving loony?!

So let’s reverse it. “I desire to serve in order to know.”

One of my teachers said this yesterday.  It rang true to me because he demonstrates service in what he does, in how he listens to the people he meets, and in how he stills his own agendas and instead of what he thinks, he strives to hear what’s needed. He does these things with humility. And just as important, he models this for others, not as something he turns on to impress others and then drops once he’s “offstage,” but as something he’s continually practicing until it accompanies him, his words and his actions like a fragrance.  And that makes you want to do the same.

A few months ago I encountered a goddess in contemplation. I heard her name, an epithet — Stormbringer — and a little more. The only way I can find out more about her is to serve her. Slowly I gain a clearer vision of who she is and why she is manifesting to me, now.

I can enlarge my understanding of service. I serve when I grow — a larger vision spreads its fermentation through human consciousness, because my actions emerge from what I hold in my heart and thoughts.

We serve when, rather than getting bogged down in irritation, anger and fear, we assume a playful approach to problems. Then the lightness of spiritual insight and creativity can lead us to solutions we might not have found on our own. And our playfulness, when it’s respectful of others, can help lighten their loads, too, and smile, if possible, or laugh. We serve in small things, done without thought for anything except the doing, and the doing well.

(OK. Got it. Dang — give you a soapbox and you just don’t let up, do you?)

I serve when I open myself to receive love from others , and find I must “enlarge my spirit to receive the gift,” as Ursula LeGuin describes it in her fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea.

giftinhandI serve when I ask to understand the causes underlying an issue or problem in my life, not just to remove the problem so I can get on with my agenda. (Often enough, my agenda is the problem. The apparent problem is a gift, to show me something I need to learn. Otherwise it wouldn’t keep coming back again. And again. Funny how much easier it is to see in other people’s lives.)

Difficult gift, what do you have to teach me? Can I enlarge my heart for you, too? Right now, when you come knocking again, when it’s really not convenient at all? Can I let my impatience dissolve and make my listening a gift to you?

We serve when we recognize ourselves in others, when we recognize others in ourselves, and see the Great Mystery, as the Lakota Sioux call it, the Wakan Tanka, in the eyes of those we meet every day.

We serve when we practice gratitude. A powerful practice I’ve proved to myself: keeping a gratitude journal, with daily entries. Just reading it over can jump start me out of depression and back into engaging my life. Gratitude grows and spreads to others its divine infection.

And so, in serving, what do I know that I didn’t before? Has knowing become less important, and service more?

Now, about power

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Images: guide and initiate; gift in hand.

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