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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 3   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6| Part 7]

winter sun

One of the vital perspectives that much modern Druidry can offer to Christian practice is an experimental approach. Rather than depending so heavily on creeds and affirmations of faith, we can approach statements in Christian and Jewish scripture as pointers toward practice, as statements of spiritual reality and awareness if certain prerequisites of practice, wisdom and experience are met, statements clothed in symbolism and perspectives than can sometimes translate to other terms and forms without diminution.

Here’s one such example: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps. 118:26). Whether as a statement of faith or a lyric in a praise-song, it often elicits a comforting familiarity. But why not take it for a spin? Because it offers at least three points for exploration, contemplation and practice, we could treat it as a Druid-Christian triad, and contemplation seed:

What does “blessed” mean?
What does it mean to “come in someone’s name”?
And what is the “name of the Lord”?

Coupled with this last question is a verse often directed at non-Christians, and prominent in mission-oriented publications and preaching: “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow” (Phil. 2:10). As a form of submission to a specific deity, a Christian islam, its initial meaning seems quite clear. All will acknowledge this particular form of deity, the Christian Son of God, in a future realization of his divine sovereignty. It’s a state yet to be fulfilled. Islam as an Arabic word for Muslims also conveys a sense of free will — it’s a voluntary submission. Of course, this is one form of understanding, and it need not be the only or even the most potent in effecting spiritual change.

Put these formulations in Druid terms and you might have recognition that the natural order has a discernible flow, a direction, an energy that humans resist and abuse only at an accumulating cost to themselves and to every other being around them. (Some have called this Lady Sovereignty.  It’s possible also to see in this a version the Shekhinah, the presence of God.) Blessedness in these terms is fruitfulness, harmony, awareness, creativity — all arising from recognition of and concord with the underlying flow inherent in nature, and an ability to navigate life changes successfully. If we come in the name of spirit, or bring with us and our decisions and actions such blessedness or harmonious accord with the flow of nature, it’s often quite apparent to others. A yogi may do this while performing the Salutation to the Sun. Or the Druid sitting under a tree to rest against its trunk and watch the sunrise, may acknowledge the presence of something far greater than the human self in these things. A human on a “path with heart” already carries an awareness of spiritual presence of which he or she is an integral part of the whole.

It’s then that we recognize, at least in our better moments, the authority of those who act from love and wisdom, not from selfishness or shortsighted opportunism. And the sages among us, whether Druid or Christian, both or neither, may not always be those publishing the books and presenting at major Gatherings or Conferences. It may be the white-haired gardener praying in the neighboring pew, face aglow with reverence for the goddess in Mary, or Mary in the goddess, fingernails still darkened with the good earth under them. It may be the quiet young Christian woman calling the quarters at the next Equinox ritual, honoring the four archangels, or the four gospel evangelists, or the four creatures of Celtic or some other tradition, welcoming the presence of spirit in so many varied guises and forms permeating every quarter of the compass.

In the experience of spiritual abundance and presence, then, Christian and Druid may find another meeting-place.

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The LOVERS

06-LoversThe next Tarot image in our series is the Lovers. (The Matthews’ Arthurian image is of the White Hart, with the lovers Enid and Geraint in the foreground.) So much history and cultural change and commentary surrounds the myth or wisdom story of Adam and Eve that “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/”, as William Carlos Williams says in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, “yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there”. The story may simply not “work” for many of us as it once did.

We can read the card in one way as depicting the non-physical spiritual force that expresses itself in female and male, in all living things, both green and fruiting, and flaming with energy, as in the fiery-leaved tree behind the male figure. To get caught by stereotypical associations, or to balk at “masculine” or “feminine” attributes, is to miss the polarities inherent in the natural world that allow for manifestation — multiple polarities we all carry within each of us. In one sense, then, nature has always been “gender-fluid”: we know of species that can change genders at need, or at different points in their life cycle.

What do I really love? Does that love build or tear down my life? How does love help me manifest? What polarities work through me with particular force or energy? What ones might I beneficially welcome and work with in my life? Where else can I love?

The CHARIOT

07-ChariotThe Chariot in the traditional deck (or Prydwen, Arthur’s ship of journeying in the Arthurian deck) closes out the first of the three rows of the Major Arcana (if we lay out the cards in 3 rows of 7, with the Fool or Seeker as the one who moves through each on the Journey). And again, in one traditional interpretation, this first row has to do with the maturing self, the personal, the exploration and development of capacities and potencies of the individual.

The notes for Prydwen from the Arthurian deck: “the Otherworldly journey which is undertaken by all seekers, so that the inner life becomes the basis for a sound outer life” (pg. 36).

One applicable Biblical verse here comes from Luke 6:45: “Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their hearts, and evil people brings evil things out of the evil stored up in their hearts. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of”. I don’t know about you, but this is a useful barometer for where my attention is. And with luck, you have a friend or partner who calls you on your crap. “What did you just say?!” That’s when I learn, if I don’t already know, that I’m (once again) out of balance and have some work to do.

What is happening in my inner worlds? What is my foundation? Where can I continue to work to shore up that foundation for both my inner and outer lives? What cycle has ended so that I can finally see and account for its shape and influence, and now return to polish what was rough-hewn? How is my storehouse? What am I harvesting from the old cycle as I begin a new one?

STRENGTH

08-Strength“The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights” (Habakkuk 3:19). Or to be gender-fluid about it: “I honor Lady Sovereignty who strengthens me here on this Land where the deer runs, showing me how to walk the heights with sure feet”.

On this new octave, the second row of 7, Strength shares the infinity symbol with the Magician. You could say she is the Magician — renewed, re-imagined.

Is this coercion or forcing of our elemental and instinctual selves by our “higher” selves? Is it conscious awareness of the vitality of both, thereby making it our own more fully and completely — a union, where formerly there were two? The Lady here has greens and flowers for a belt — she is not separate from nature. Is she shaping and directing that animal strength?

Perhaps we can see one theme run from the prophet’s words that open this section to Whitman’s words in “The Beasts” in his Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid
and self-contain’d.
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in
their possession.

In some ways Whitman describes Paradise, a recognition of inner sovereignty that needs no one kneeling to another. The “self” that contains the beasts is the sovereignty of the Land, the Whole that cradles each individual in its arms, if we opt for the language of personification. Here it is animals leading the way in showing tokens of this “self”, already in their “possession”.

Is this what the Strength figure is trying to discover, or does achieve? Does Strength learn that strength unaided is insufficient — a realization that is the beginning of wisdom? It is our inner strength that issues forth in animals, too — our shared link, not one to dominate the other.

So I can do no better than end this post with words from U. K. LeGuin’s great Earthsea trilogy. Her magician or mage Ged learns from his own experience with beasts:

… in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com — winter pictures.

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6| Part 7]

INTERLUDE

Druids have grappled with Christianity since it first arrived in Europe. While today we might take St. Augustine at his word (“that which is known as the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist”*), exploring it in new and creative ways (tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine!), most people throughout Christian history have understood the assertion as narrowly as possible. That is, Christ started a new religion focused on belief in the divine power of his sacrificial death and resurrection, which saves the believer. Pairing this with a transformation in awareness, the convert takes on a new life in Christ.

For many, however, Jesus Christ, or least the religion that bears his name, is problematic at best. (To choose just one among myriad issues to explore, note that neither Druids nor non-Druids use the name Taliesin, for instance, as a “swear-word”!) Many non-Christians today have suffered from unloving and aggressive evangelism, family harassment, workplace tension, physical threats and social ostracism, whether they practice a non-Christian spirituality or simply remain “outside” the Christian church.

I’m addressing this series of posts, then, primarily to a vast “excluded middle” — neither the “born-again” believer nor the scarred (and possible tarred and feathered) “heretic”, but the people awake to the “magical and generous” possibilities all around us, because you’ve already experienced them, and they answer a deep hunger in you like nothing else can.

Or as Krista comments:

Dean, I’m always especially interested when you write on this particular topic. Having been raised in the Christian Faith, and having had no quarrel with the Christianity of my youth, my own Druid practice always has something of a Christian flavor to it even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. But I don’t consider myself Pagan either. Always was a bit of a square peg. So throughout my Druid journey I’ve become very comfortable blending and assimilating and it works quite well in my private practice. It’s a bit more challenging in community practice, but I’m working on it and I adapt when it’s called for. I think it would do the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective. Thanks for taking it on!

One less-than-flattering label for this is syncretism. But religions and spiritualities, just like most human cultures, thrive by cross-pollination, as careful study of them across time will bear out. Similarly, in our genetics we’re mongrels, hybrids, blends, mixes. (Our sometimes uncomfortable surprise at recent DNA test-results illustrates one aspect of this.) Our current sensitivity to “cultural appropriation” is our heightened awareness of the violence behind forcible mis-appropriations. Or as John Beckett puts it bluntly in his The Path of Paganism, “Always credit your sources, never pretend to be something you’re not, and steal from the best”. It’s the lack of credit, the pretense, and the poor selection that make up most of our problems with shoddy cultural (mis)appropriation. The “weekend guru” offering workshops, intensives and retreats, and cashing in on an inferior grab of unacknowledged and imperfectly-mastered practices from another culture currently perceived as somehow more “authentic” or “powerful”, gives all borrowing and mixing a bad name.

[Lest you take issue with the possibly glib tone of John’s “triad of appropriation” above, let’s hear him at greater length from a recent post:

Are you being respectful to the traditions and cultures you’re drawing from, or are you grabbing whatever looks shiny to you? Are you working with them as whole systems, or as mix and match entrees on a spiritual buffet? And as a polytheist, my biggest concern: are you treating the Gods as holy powers and as persons with whom we can form relationships, or as objects to be used where and how you see fit?]

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Another under-explored overlap is Druid and Hindu practice | another link | a third link | which offers some very provocative insights into cultural similarity and preservation of ancient traditions over long periods of time, and at “opposite ends” of the Indo-European area of cultural and linguistic origins and influence. Everything from archetypal themes in stories, to names of gods, music and musical instruments, and spiritual practices, show common ground in the cultures of Celts and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

And so I write these posts partly in the spirit of “doing the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective”. And as always, I’m exploring my own practices and perspectives as I go — one of the chief benefits of blogging.

The EMPRESS

03-EmpressThe Empress of the traditional deck, with her 12-star crown and sceptre, and the astronomical symbol of Venus next to her chair or throne, is another goddess figure. As an aspect or representation of the energies along the journey of the Fool or Seeker, she grounds us in the earth. The wheat growing at her feet, the waterfall to her left, the forest behind her, all place her “in the world” of both fruitfulness and change. Whether as Mother Earth, or Mary, or another goddess, or a living but impersonal archetype, or the fertile and fruitful energies within us, the Empress is a potent force and presence.

As Caitlin and John Matthews describe Guinevere in their version** of this card, as “the Empress of Logres (the Inner Britain), she creates the conditions for growth, establishing peace and contentment. She spins a thread of inner concord which is woven into the fabric of the land and its people. She imparts sensitivity to nature and harmonious awareness of all life” (The Arthurian Tarot. Thorsons, 1995, pg. 28).

What is the “thread of concord” between you and the land where you live? Only you can answer that: it can become a practice first to find out, and then to honor it in ways that you work out between you and the land. A grounding exercise of weaving or braiding a thread to carry with you as a reminder may help incarnate this awareness. Ritual can serve our need here, as in so many places.

What are the “conditions for growth” for whatever you wish to bring into your life? How can you begin to work them into your day to day work and awareness, so that they can manifest what you need? How can you serve others who are doing the same? Asking the questions can help the chance manifest, if I’m paying attention. If not, then next time around.

Archetypes, it should be said, aren’t something to “believe in”, and even less something to “worship” — though you certainly can if you choose to. (Let us know how it goes — you may discover something valuable to share.) Instead, and probably a better use of our energies and attention and time, they’re something to work with to see what they can help us do and understand about our lives.

The EMPEROR

04-EmperorThe Emperor in the traditional deck hews to traditional symbols and representations of patriarchal power: beard, crown, scepter, throne, armor, harsh and rather sterile landscape, rams’ horns adorning the throne’s arms and back. (It can be helpful for such reasons to consult other decks for different images and symbolism.) The fact that we’re experiencing the negative effects of imbalanced masculine energies in our lives simply tells us a piece of what needs healing and re-balancing. Scan most headlines and you realize many people haven’t a clue about how to begin to do this — itself a measure of how out of balance the energies have become for many. We’ve often jettisoned outmoded forms of spirituality, true — but neglected to replace them.

The Emperor’s number 4 is also represents the fullness of the human world, four-square in its founding on the four physical elements, before we shift our awareness to spiritual realities within and beyond them. The Pagan and Christian star alike points to the five-fold nature of all things, both physical and non-physical — a vital reminder of how the cosmos is constituted, which we overlook, and have overlooked, to our peril.

The spiritual, you might say, is what the physical *is* under its mask. Or to say it another way, the spiritual is always clear and apparent; it’s the physical that’s the mystery, the cloak, the concealer, the mist-filled branching off the path. We have simply forgotten to work our polarity magic, to walk a spiritual path of stewardship, to put it in Christian terms — we’ve thrown our planet out of balance over time, and now must spend at least as much time over the coming decades and centuries working to bring it back into balance and harmony.

The HIEROPHANT

05-HierophantThe figure in the traditional deck of the Hierophant, the “one who shows the holy”, may bring further associations of institutional authority and entrenched structures and imbalances.

Some decks re-order these first few cards, change their genders and assign them different symbolism, in an attempt to represent one or another version of a more balanced set of images. In the Matthews’ Arthurian deck the card depicts the bard Taliesin, the poet-as-way-shower-of-the-holy, especially of ways that stand outside formal structures and institutions. Today we find our bards and prophets among artists and performers, actors and politicians.

(Check out fansites and Facebook, Twitter and other social media, if you want to know how much the words and music and performances of artists matter to so many, if you don’t already have a deep appreciation for the power wielded by a multitude of visions and their visionaries. Again and again, people post how a performance or a lyric saved their lives, brought them down from suicide, changed their outlooks, gave them strength and courage and a vision to persevere through often impossible circumstances.)

Like the Hierophant, Taliesin is a guardian of tradition. We know all too well the dangers of distorted and abusive holders of traditional authority and power. Seemingly every other day, headlines trumpet the fall of another person — often a man — from a position of trust, authority and power. Such things have given tradition a bad name — except, again, in our modern reverence for everyone else’s traditions except our own. Traditional holders of wisdom, Native American or Tibetan or Mayan, still retain something of the original value that a tradition is meant to preserve.

For the other and often neglected face of tradition is that conserving function. We may conceive of tradition as “guarding from”, but more as “guarding for”. In his Elves, more than in any other expression in his fantasy works, Tolkien captures the sense both of preserving much wisdom and beauty through time, and of pervasive sadness at its seemingly inevitable loss. To cite just one example, even among the more hopeful, Gandalf addresses Aragorn in Book 6, Chapter 5 of The Lord of the Rings:

This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away.

Our contemporary sense of loss and disorientation at our crumbling institutions, corrupt as some of them have become, is also an opportunity to reconnect with legitimate traditions, many preserved inwardly by their keepers, where we can recover them through vision, gratitude, ritual, and readiness and humility to ask for guidance. Taliesin, in the Matthews’ rendering, is one such preserver or conservator. He “sits in a firelit hall. He tells the story of his initiatory transformations to two children who sit at his feet listening intently. The golden links of tradition pass from his hands to theirs” (The Arthurian Tarot, pg. 30).

And our efforts in this quest (“lest any man should boast” as Christian scripture says [Ephes 2:9] of “works”, which by themselves can never be the only component of a quest) are part of our purification, our testing, a step along the path, not the sole key to growth. We are each one being in a cosmos of other beings, each with intentions and purposes, some which can align with ours. The hand of tradition, the wisdom of the Ancestors, the spiritual reality of the worlds, reaches out to grasp ours when we show we are ready.

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*Augustine of Hippo. The Retractions, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Mary Inez Bogan. Vol. 60, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1968), 52. [Book 1, Chapter 12, article 3.]

**Here are the names of the cards in the Matthews’ Arthurian deck: (0) The Seeker, (1) Merlin, (2) Lady of the Lake, (3) Guinevere, (4) Arthur, (5) Taliesin, (6) The White Hart, (7) Prydwen, (8) Gawain, (9) The Grail Hermit, (10) The Round Table, (11) Sovereignty, (12) The Wounded King, (13) The Washer at the Ford, (14) The Cauldron, (15) The Green Knight, (16) The Spiral Tower, (17) The Star, (18) The Moon, (19) The Sun, (20) The Sleeping Lord, and (21) The Flowering of Logres.

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6| Part 7]

In this next series of seven posts, I’ll be following a classic Tarot interpretation of the Fool as the querent or seeker who journeys through the aspects and archetypes of the Major Arcana. And I’ll be writing from some perspectives I hope will be useful to Druid-Christian travelers along the Green Ways of Spirit, and will in turn inspire comments and insights from you that can enrich us all. Take this as rough draft — I’m working it out as I go.

[Note: The tarot images used here, from the original Rider-Waite Tarot, are now in the public domain in the U.S.]

FOOL or SEEKER

0-FoolSo important is the animal accompanying the Fool from the outset that almost every deck includes some creature accompanying the human figure of the Fool.

Whether we see this as our animal inheritance, part of our make-up as a physical being with age-old drives and instincts, or as a guide or companion distinct from us, the dog (or three birds in the Arthurian tarot) is with us from the beginning.

Why a fool? Nearly every significant tradition on the planet counsels us against arrogance or hubris, and in no place is this caution more needful than on our own spiritual journeys. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise” (1 Cor 4:10). The classic Zen master seeks to help a student recover that “original face, the one you had before you were born”.

Echoing this insight is the old Victorian Bard William Blake, a holy fool himself, who also said, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”. Want an interesting exercise? Ask in meditation or dream to see the trees of the Fool.

WBlake

Are they the trees of Paradise? The Medieval Legend of the Rood or Cross follows the main story line of the Biblical narrative with a tree or trees continually reappearing in different guises, first in Eden, then as a seed from that original tree buried with Adam’s body at Golgotha, to become — depending on the versions — part of Noah’s Ark, a bridge that the Queen of Sheba crosses, and eventually the Cross that Christ dies on.

(Where is the seed planted in me to disrupt all my false and narrow assumptions? What tree lifts its branches in my life, sending me places I’d never go on my own?)

And similarly, too, in Tolkien’s Silmarillion: there he recounts stories of how the Light from the original Holy Trees in Valinor is captured in the Silmaril gems, those greatest achievements of the Elven Feanor, whose name means “Spirit of Fire”, and follows their dramatic history through the volume. Trees, Light, Fire: we have them with us as we travel, even as we have the solace and guidance of an animal companion by our sides.

C. S. Lewis in his final novel, Till We Have Faces, draws on the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. The title echoes a line in the novel:  “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Lewis explained this to a correspondent, writing that a human “must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask”. In one way, then, the Great Work is to be me, the original self, wearing the face I had before I was born, “because no one comes to Spirit except through me”.

Ask an ancestor to show you an original face.

We might also see the sequence of cards coming after the Fool as masks that the Fool tries on along the journey, learning from each role or incarnation or experience, but never wholly defined by any of them. Or, alternatively, as initiations each soul must experience on its journey. (Looking for just four? Try the Elemental Sacraments that appear in the life of Jesus and offer themselves as well in slightly different guises to Druid and Pagan generally. And if you’re like me, you remember you may experience each one multiple times along you spiral path. I prime the pump occasionally and try one out myself, if it hasn’t come along recently on its own.)

MAGICIAN

01-MagicianThe Magician, numbered 1 in most decks, is a prime number, expressive of unity, the fullness of Awen, of Spirit before creative activity begins on the physical plane. The serpent that forms his belt recalls the admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

As a lightning-rod for spirit, one hand raised to heaven or fire, one lowered to earth, garbed in fire and pure white, the lemniscate figure-8 of infinity above his head, he is a potent figure for many. And another mask.

In the Golden Tarot, the Magician is Christ, beast-Master, Lord of Animals, able to communicate with them in ways many humans have often lost and must work to regain. He knows as well the beast nature and the human nature, honoring and blessing them both. In our steps along the spiral, we sometimes cut ourselves off from what some have called our elder brothers and sisters.

Ask the spirit in all things to help you see how to participate in healing the breach.

In Hindu myth we enter the worlds with an adi karma, an initial nudge that lands us in physical bodies, and sets our feet on the spiral journey back home. “True voyage”, says U. K. LeGuin innocently, “is return”.

What is it about being human? The German poet Rilke exclaims in the first of his masterwork, the Duino Elegies:

Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world.

Some versions render it our interpreted world. We’re the ones, after all, who filter experience through memory, intention, language, culture, emotion, training, expectation — a whole set of potent magical transformations animals only partially know, filters which immeasurably enrich our lives but also deeply complicate them. The Magician is master of transformations, able to ride successive changes but not be overwhelmed by them.

I enter each card in imagination and look around. What can I see, smell, hear, imagine, receive in hints and glimpses?

How can I find a home in this world? How can I be a refuge on the road for others here like me?

The HIGH PRIESTESS

02-High PriestessIn the Matthews’ Arthurian Tarot, the figure is the Lady of the Lake. In both decks — the Rider-Waite pictured here, and in the Arthurian deck, in contrast to the Fire-red of the Magician, we see the Water-blue of the Priestess or Lady. Launched into the world of polarity, we encounter a different kind of initiation, and Initiator.

While there is great wisdom in the occult maxim of Dion Fortune that “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess, and there is one initiator”, it’s also true that many people have experienced the Powers of the Worlds as distinct beings, and until we have experience of them ourselves we may wisely keep silent about them. We already know from childhood onward that what’s true on the physical plane may not work on other planes, and vice versa. Try out the effortless flight of the astral dream world on earth, and gravity has a way of asserting its own reality regardless of our wishes or beliefs.

With a crescent “moon at her feet”, and also featured in her headdress, the High Priestess is in some ways an embodiment of Isis, and of Mary as well. She has her own balance, seated between the Pillars of Force of much classical magic practice, and positioned in front of a garden of fruit trees. With both the equal-armed cross on her breast and the title “tora(h)” or book of laws in her lap, she is a complex of many meanings, all worth exploring. “May your word to me be fulfilled”, goes one version of Mary’s words to the angelic message and messenger at the Annunciation. The fulfillment of the word “tora” may be as “rota” or wheel: the Fool’s journey or spiral continues.

But the feminine is not passive, as the stereotype often runs. Possibilities are endlessly sent to us by spirit, by the cosmos rippling its energies through every one of its creatures. We can refuse them. And we often do.

What law governs this moment? What is still spinning in my life? What annunciations come to me each day? What words have I accepted and allowed to fulfill themselves? What and who have I turned away from the door?

Poet and rocker Malcolm Guite writes in his poem “Annunciation”:

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy …

We’re invited more often than we know to say yes to things that terrify us. We’ve imbibed our fears along with the advertisers’ marketing jingles that we know through repetition even if we despise the product. If repetition can accomplish so much, let me turn it to my purposes, rather than somebody else’s. As author Peter Beagle famously declares, “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”.

Or to turn to another great Bard, the late Leonard Cohen, who sings in “Anthem”, with great Druid counsel:

The birds, they sang
At the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.

Yeah, the wars
They will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold and bought again
The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

No, the dove is never free, not till spiral’s end, but the Light keeps getting in. The dove keeps descending, bringing the blessings of spirit, keeps setting out from the Ark to find land after flood, keeps returning with a leaf in its beak, keeps on keeping on. (Male, female, polarity. Though it’s heresy in some quarters to say it, we’re all much more than a “gender” or “orientation”. A stereotype is a simply firm or fixed reference point in a world of changes, not something to attempt mistakenly to incarnate personally — impossible, anyway!)

How am I the High Priestess? How am I still the Magician? What has the Fool discovered so far of balance and polarity?

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Rippling from Centers Outward   1 comment

Each of us is a center from which good things ripple outwards to others. We matter more than we know, more than it can sometimes feel like we do. Any time spent in a true practice confirms this again and again.

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Here’s a recent and unusual “comment” that ended up in the spam folder, even though it didn’t contain the typical hyperlinks that earn it instant spam status. (Track it to the originating URL, which I made sure not to include, and you land on a Russian-language small-equipment site. Go figure.) What caught my attention and rescued it from immediate deletion is its marketing build-up. Replace a few key phrases of this comment, and you could be talking about launching a physical exercise regimen, making prudent financial investments, improving your sex life, or learning a foreign language. It’s “Druidry” only in the very loosest sense. Here it is, punctuation unchanged:

Have you ever felt that you just don,t have the time to practise the Druidry that you want to? Wouldn‚t you like to be out in the woods meditating for hours, getting in tune with spirit and nature but the reality is a nine to five job in a town or city. You come home in the evening stressed and worn out and after you have spent some quality time with your partner, played with the kids and had some dinner, you just want to roll into bed. Then the whole sorry business starts again. I guess that like us you also thought of getting up half an hour early to have time for meditation or to greet the sun. You probably also have heard the alarm go off for that early start, reached out to turn it off and woken up exactly half an hour later at your normal getting up time. What if it didn‚t have to be like this? This is where Awen and the Art of Urban Druidry (with apologies to Robert M. Pirsig) comes in. Even in the most built up of cities there is life bursting out everywhere. The first stage on this path is to see it.

The comment treats spiritual practice as an addendum, something I can add to my diet like a supplement or vitamin, rather than where I live my life from. While “spirituality-as-supplement” is one perfectly valid way among others to begin, if a practice or spirituality doesn’t slowly and rightfully begin to pervade all I do, it’s not worth much — it’s not going to have the transformative effects I’m practicing it for in the first place. (More surprisingly, after such marketing language, the comment doesn’t follow through and offer its solution to the problem it identifies — “yours today for five easy payments of just $99/month!” And where’s the book? That title seems targeted for a quick spiritual pick-me-up.)

Very few Druids I know can regularly be found “out in the woods meditating for hours, getting in tune with spirit and nature”. This may occasionally happen at Gatherings — if we’re not seduced even then by the busy-ness of the Gathering schedule (here’s the wonderful but over-full, often double-booked, Feb 2019 Pantheacon schedule), or we forgo them altogether because if they’re any distance away, it takes fossil fuels to get there — or on long weekends, or vacations, or focused retreats.

A few solitaries may indeed carve out a daily block for deep meditation, by radically stripping away much else in their lives, sometimes including a partner. But it’s not a course specifically to recommend, or strive for, in the ordinary way of things. Plenty of Druids do little or no meditation — they’re fully engaged with other practices — you find the Druidry that works for you. Nor is some variety of meditation necessarily on the menu to set before newcomers. If I need to meditate for hours as my starting point, my chances of success, of sustaining such a rigorous practice, run from slim to none. (St. Paul counsels the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”, but that’s hardly a beginning practice for the new believer.) I gotta start where I am today, not from another place I have to go, just in order to begin.

The word “compromise” suffers these days — it’s practically equivalent in some circles to selling out, to treason, to soul-less complicity with the “Military-Industrial Complex” that president Eisenhower named over 50 years ago. Looking at all the many compromises every single one of us makes each day, I want to be mindful of my own first, before accusing anybody else. (Though you might not think so, to look at my comment on the opinion piece in the following paragraph!) I’ve taken the old song lyric as a matrix for vows and goals: “Let there be ____ on earth, and let it begin with me”. If Spirit can make headway with this 60-year old married Euro-American Druid-Eckist, using any part of my life as a center for change that might even deserve to ripple outward from there and influence others, then and only then do I have something to say to those others. If not, I’d best hold silence on such matters, listening to my trees when I can actually hear what they’re trying to tell me. Otherwise it’s all just another ego project that does little good for anybody.

IMG_2084

looking west out our living room window

To get at this principle from the opposite direction, I’m now going to pick unfairly on a recent opinion piece in our local paper The Commons, titled “We have a choice: action or complicity“. (You can easily insert your own favorite divisive issue or polarizing problem or current controversy as the “choice”, without even reading the article). Such a self-righteous tone can feel really gratifying when we’re confident we’re perched on the “correct” side of the issue, and want to chastise all our weaker, conflicted, unprincipled neighbors who aren’t as woke and fired-up as we are about “Burning Issue-of-the-Day #327”. But attempts to ignite action through guilt, rather than offering a doable set of appealing steps that can start as soon as I set down the paper, haven’t exactly proven themselves as prime ways to effect change. And labeling the disengaged as “accessories after the fact”, as this opinion piece does those readers who sit out the controversy du jour and remain uninvolved in one particular struggle, probably will do little more than stir resentment at “damn liberals”. I’m a damn liberal myself in several ways, and even I grumble about damn liberals after reading the article.

In fact, most of us do have plenty of causes we’re committed to; it’s just that most of these causes are local, where we keep being admonished to act — they begin right here and now in our own lives: make rent, pay the mortgage, raise the kids, care for aging parents, save something for retirement, humor the crazy neighbor, pay off college tuition, care for our changing bodies, comfort a friend, invest time and passion into a love relationship, steady ourselves up for the next challenge, open ourselves to laughter and light wherever we can, and make of this world a home.

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“What if it didn’t have to be like this?” asks the original comment.

Well, it doesn’t “have to be” like this, and it isn’t like this in the lives of Druids I know. Every one of them has found valid and authentic steps to begin to rein in consumption, live greener, hear the call of the awen, and honor the voices of the beings around them. From radically downsizing both living space and possessions, and “simplify-simplify-simplifying” (B in northern Vermont), to joining Native protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline, training with a Native teacher and working in a nursery (M in New Hampshire), to training and mentoring in permaculture and raising much of their own food (R in Pennsylvania), to super-insulating their house, driving an electric car, working full-time to grow low-cost public housing (W in southern Vermont), to living in cooperative housing, hand-crafting, and raising a child as a single parent (M in Massachusetts), Druids are living their Druidry woven in the fabric of what they do every day, not as an “add-on” squeezed into an already-full schedule.

So here I’ll repeat the words I opened with: Each of us, regardless of the labels slapped on to who we are or what we do, is a center from which good things already ripple outwards to others. We matter more than we know, more than it can sometimes feel like we do.

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Seven Signposts Along Our Journeys   4 comments

philosophia_perennisDenise comments:

Wonderful series; I hope you’ll continue. I’m another square peg – endlessly resisting all attempts to assimilate, no matter where I wander. Somehow, I keep finding myself coming back to Christianity but not “that” Christianity, I say to myself – not the rigidly human-focused, hierarchical, be-a-good-girl version of my childhood. No, not that one but the magical, connected, generously giving version that was part of my childhood too – the one that did not exclude anyone or anything… I recognize glimpses of it in your writing and think Yes! That’s it! That’s it! What exactly is it though? I don’t really know yet but it’s worth the journey to find out.

From this and other recent comments, we can begin to suss out the kind of practice, experience and reconnection many of us are seeking. I’ll be drawing from Denise’s comment above a number of signposts, because in it she hits on a series of crucial aspects of a spiritual quest, Druid or otherwise. And because I’m a Druid blogger, I’m choosing and focusing on Seven Signposts we can identify there. I’ll launch each signpost with an excerpt from the comment:

“another square peg — resisting all attempts to assimilate”

We’re social beings, even the most formidably anti-social and hermit-like among us, predisposed to find a niche when we’re with others of our kind, like other intelligent and social mammals. So not feeling at home in our world can be a sometimes painful indicator that a spiritual journey is under way. Something’s shaken loose and ejected us from easy comfort with our situations and our social circles. It matches an inner resistance to the conventional niches on offer in our lives, if they don’t nourish and feed us as they should, as they used to, but no longer can.

glass-in-sun

So we shy away from sham spiritual landing pads, not trusting the footing they offer us. “I yearn to find where and how I fit, but I’ll be damned if I have to sell out to do so”, we seem to keep whispering to ourselves. A certain integrity deep inside us, one we instinctively hear and trust, warns us off the varied boxes, chains, handcuffs and cages we see around us, even as we can see the comfort they appear to bring to others. That makes it doubly hard to explain why we won’t join them in an adjoining cell. “If it works for them …” But it keeps on not working for us.

And in turn, this sense of not fitting in can often lead to …

“wander(ing)”

“Not all who wander are lost”, Tolkien reminds us, writing of the royal-heir-in-waiting Aragorn, but also of course of each of us — heirs like many mythic figures of more than meets our physical eyes. Lineage, heritage, ancestral bequest — it’s there. Or in 90s speak, “Exiled much?”

But the arms of our immense spiral journey can circle so widely, so far over the horizon, that we may have little sense of anything like a spiral at all, only of our wandering, our meandering, generally off the kind of track so many others around us seem to be following. (Though that, too, can be an illusion, given how good we are at “keeping up appearances” for each other.) At times, those same others may envy what they see in us as freedom, while not seeing the cost we keep paying. And we may envy the stable, settled, found-my-niche folks who envy us in turn, and for the same reason: dissatisfaction with The Way Things Are Now.

“keep finding myself coming back”

So we still face one of several paradoxes we’ve gotten to know far too well. Paired somewhat oddly with the previous meander, our wandering in out-of-the-way spaces and places intermittently offers that delicious sense of return. We can also feel like we’re circling around an inner shrine or ideal, even as we’re often barely half-aware it’s there. And if I notice a movement of return, it can often slip past, like one more part of my larger wanderings, which may not be comforting. Am I making any headway at all, or just circling the same dead-end? Is this zeroing in on something valid, or endlessly backtracking to something I’ve already tried and rejected?

And what is it that we’re coming back to? Often we can identify it as …

“magical, connected, generous”

We know these qualities because — somehow, somewhere — we’ve stood in the heart of such worlds, lands that feel more like home than home, places of wonder, communion, and flow. Or maybe we can pinpoint exactly when we experienced such realms, when we entered and when we left. In either case, yearning for them has at times consumed us, or still burns in the background as a steady low flame, a kind of pilot light of the spirit, alight through years or decades or — we may have a sense — through lifetimes.

Here at the midpoint, the fourth out of seven signposts, we stand where we’re going, we’ve arrived again where we’ve never been before, and other paradoxical ways of attempting to get into words the sense of …

“recogniz(ing) glimpses”

The haunting, beguiling, infuriating sense of recognition stalks us, not letting go. It’s both in us and outside, out front and behind, a kind of spiritual transfusion, a re-kindling, the light of a star for us “in dark places, when all other lights go out”, as Galadriel says to Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring. These archetypal, primal spiritual presences stand behind the varied forms of religions and cultures, never wholly removed from us, however dim our sight at the moment. They endure because we do, reaching us in ways we can perceive and understand, connect with, honor and revere, work with, pass on, adapt to our circumstances — but ideally not make a dogma out of, despite our best efforts to nail them down, clasp them in our hands, own them outright, box and sell them, fight and die for them. (Maybe instead I could live for them?!)

“No one comes to Spirit except through me”, to cite a “difficult” text of just one tradition, need not be a claim to religious exclusivity and spiritual imperialism: it can be a simple statement of spiritual reality. “If I want to get closer, I need to find the original, authentic me within”. Or if I ignore this counsel, I’ll come round the long way, better supplied the next time I meet up with a moment of spiritual reconnection with the acuity to sort wheat from chaff, gold from dross. A few more notches on my belt, scars on my face, tools for my need.

“There are two paths you can go by”, sing Led Zeppelin. “In the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on”. Yup, I’m in it for the long run. And a multitude of paths: we’re each on trails of our own, criss-crossing others, at times walking the main track, at others turning aside at a fork, a fallen tree across the way, a washed-out bridge over a chasm, a fiery guardian brandishing a cruel-looking scimitar.

“what exactly is it?”

“I’ll know it when I see it”. “It takes one to know one”. The melody we carry in our hearts will burst forth in the right circumstances, harmonizing with the First Song, the awen echoing in all things, the Word, the Bani, the Shabda, the Kalaam-i-Haqq, the Hu, the Voice of the Silence, and a thousand other names. In one sense the spiral we’re on never ends — we circle, always closer. In another sense, we’re the endpoint, we’re the spiral itself, and the spiritual quest can feel like chasing our own tails till we’re dizzy with it.

stained-glass-spiral

I take it as one measure of my place on the spiral whether my sense of “what exactly it is” happens to line up with others’ senses of it. If our sensibilities align, I know the gift of a way-station along my journey, and fellowship here. I may be able to work and grow with others, and find solace and companionship with them. If our senses don’t happen to line up just now, I walk solitary for a time. Familiar with both arms of the spiral, I try to honor where I am at the moment, and make the most of it. No judgment, no better-or-worse-than. Strive to honor the integrity of your own walk, counsel my guides and teachers.

“worth the journey”

In spite of everything, or because of it, we also carry an intimate sense that nothing else matters but this … whatever-it-is. Worth the journey, equal to and surpassing the pain, deserving our deepest dedication.

If, like me, you’ve “stepped away” on occasion, well, that too is a path, and will end up teaching more than the solitary person who walks it. We teach each other, most of all when no other teachers seem to paying attention to us, or we’re late to class, or we’ve lost the assignment, mislaid the text, dropped out, failed, skipped town, run off with a comely classmate to parts unknown. All our oldest tales tell of something similar. We’re in good company along the road.

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We keep listening because we keep hearing hints. We keep looking because of what we’ve already seen. We walk across the darkened chamber because we have a sense of where at least some of the furniture looms, where a door behind this cabinet opens onto a realm of light.

The wisdom and practices of Christianity and Druidry together amplify each other, and for those who find resonance and insight in that happy confluence, a few more posts on the subject are in order.

And then it will be Spring Equinox — Autumn Down Under — and this old world will continue to knock in our bones and drum in our blood, while the spirit in us burns bright or dull, according to the myriad paths we traverse.

May Friend and Flame, Word and Melody light and cheer you as you go.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com

Building from the Center Outwards   2 comments

You hear a lot about “top-down” and “bottom-up” initiatives. Start from the grass-roots. Or identify good leaders and let the growth come from their inspired guidance through hard times. But I’d claim that most of our best ventures build and grow from the center outwards. We’re all involved in this kind of initiative, and as a result we instinctively know what to do, even if we tell ourselves — or others have convinced us — otherwise. So the center is a good place to start.

Whether it’s an embryo, a crystal, a sapling, a story idea, a garden, a relationship, a ritual, a company or a nation, there’s a core, a center from which energy, ideas, blood all flow. This center — and this is an important key — also replicates itself everywhere, establishing new centers of activity and growth. Some — many — are within us. A tree sends out roots, plants send out runners, healing occurs and spreads from re-energized tissues and bones, and human nudges and hunches and gut feelings point us toward inner and outward changes. All living things seed themselves, passing on their dynamic potential to another generation, on multiple levels.

Druid attention to the ancestors, if it’s prudent, never seeks to excuse poor choices, bad parenting, or painful and difficult legacies passed down through generations. Each living thing is awash in a sea of tendencies that pair up with inherent directions and characteristics in its environment. I won’t ever have the body or metabolism of a long-distance runner, but that’s not really the issue: I can keep the body I do have as fit as possible, starting from the center of where I already live each day. The small daily changes I make are ones I’m more likely to stick with, even as the small changes my body makes as it ages prompt me, if I’m paying attention, to make adjustments for strength, endurance, energy and so on. Then when larger shifts and changes occur, I can better adapt to them. The same holds true for my inner bodies, emotion and thought and vision, memory and intuition.

Partly this comes out of practice with the small changes first, and partly out of stores and reserves put in place by going with the flow rather than fighting every single direction that living in a physical realm urges on us all. Electric cars coast downhill and save energy for the next climb. Hibernating species store up resources against the hard times. So, if I’m paying attention, can I, both physically and spiritually, prepare myself for each turn of the spiral. The “how” becomes part of my practice, if I let it, and the next challenge I face becomes my chance at re-calibration. Quite simply, is it working? Even to ask that question at all opens many doors.

Out of our sometimes violent human history and its consequent long conditioning, we may fall back on military metaphors, which don’t always yield the optimal mindset. You have to pick your battles, we say. No general wins on every front. More helpful is a range of metaphors, a rich gathering of stories to tell and learn from.

woodland path

If it seems that spiritual laws swallow up individuality in statements about general tendencies, groups and patterns larger than one human life, it’s important to remember that it was humans who first noticed these principles, studied them, plumbed their potentials. And humans have always chosen either to disregard them or to work consciously with them. Intention is powerful. Animals largely follow an instinctive path. Humans have wider choices. Conscious and creative cooperation with the spiritual principles of existence is a powerful key to our individual human fulfillment.  Through such means, we can manifest what has not yet been seen or experienced or even imagined, in forms of power and beauty and usefulness, for others as well as for ourselves.

As we become ancestors ourselves to our descendants of blood and spirit, passing along this “connective tissue” of life-giving thoughts and actions to succeeding generations, that’s one deep way to repay the gifts we’ve been given. It will then be their task to choose what works best for them, to honor and build on what they’ve received, and add their own stamp and color and flavor to the lives they live.

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Image: Pexels.com.

 

Grail 5: Some Assembly Required   Leave a comment

[Don’t Go Away Just Yet, Grail] [Grail 1 | Grail 2 | Grail 3 | Grail 4 | Grail 5]
[Related: Arthur myghtern a ve hag a vyth — “Arthur king who was and will be”]

ONE

To recap: I rely on sacred sound, on awen, as my first and go-to practice. (Let’s call it East for now, since I need air to sing it.) Without the daily retuning it affords me, I find “all bets are off”. It clears the way, keeps me facing my own best interest more of the time, inspires me, keeps the creative stream flowing, helps me with compassion for others going their ways. In short, I like myself better when a sacred melody is my heartsong. Life flows more smoothly.

Some personal assembly is required for the “spiritual components” I’ve mentioned in this series. I can’t force a flower to open. What I do needs to flow from me gratefully, gracefully, as if I let myself out of a cage I didn’t know barred me from wider, richer experience. I may stand at the door a little dazed at first, but then the world outside the bars invites me. Spirituality offers a series of recipes. I don’t need to make and live on bread alone, or just green curries, but practice means I’ll improve on what I’ve started already. For what it’s worth, consider: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing well”. (When you fully understand that, you can explain it to me!)

Or to paraphrase what I remind myself: The awen is already flowing in your life. Find out where!

If you want a poem version of the reminder, try Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”. Yup, awen coming thru: “your imagination calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things”.

TWO

grail_king_pelles_daughter

Elaine of Corbenic*, King Pelles’ daughter, bearing the Sancgraal/Frederick Sandys, 1861

The Elements, part of my “family of things”. Water, and West. Grail — Cauldron — Feminine Principle — Goddess — Virgin Mary — Yang and Yin together again. Octave, door, spiral key. Working with the Grail bears similarities to a form, like a kata in martial arts. Alone, it may not seem like much. As part of a path, a spiritual choreography, it opens out into unexpected country.

How I assemble, and what parts I choose, that becomes my practice.

I have a lovely blue-green vase given to me by a former student. It sits on a shelf, and needs dusting from time to time, especially after the winter season with ash from the woodstove. I also eat from a commonplace bowl that’s gotten chipped from wear, and lives part of its life submerged in soapy water along with all the other dishes I’m washing. Both are forms of the Grail. One sees daily use. The other looks pretty. Sometimes I feel a Grail in my heart, a divine space of possibility. The Grail is my heart, is everybody’s heart — our hearts together form the Grail.

sangreal-elaine

Another image of Elaine, by Arthur Rackham, 1917.

Seen from one side (the Grail has no sides), I’m on a Grail Quest. Seen from the other side, the Grail is the first thing I started out with, or that started out with me, as I tagged along childlike. It gave me away to the world (a way to all the worlds), knowing I’d always come back.

[*Elaine of Corbenic, the Grail Maiden of Arthurian legend, is the mother of Galahad with Lancelot.]

THREE

Earth, north. I sit gingerly at the keyboard, easing my back where I pulled a muscle yesterday on our icy driveway, carrying in an armful of firewood and nearly falling, catching myself with a wrench. Boar snorts at my shoulder, saying you know what to do. I reach to touch his bristles, reminding myself to relax, to shift, rock, ease the muscles from sitting too long in one posture. I stand up to look out the window at blue twilight on the snow, and stretch.

Grounding what I experience is key to bringing its use fully into my worlds. I practice this, writing, embodying shapes I’ve seen in vision, drawing (badly) the sword from yesterday. Though sword is east, it’s also undeniably a physical object — north, steel, mined from earth. Holding it, even in imagination, I ground the experience further. Holding a piece of metal or wood in my hand as a ritual equivalent, feeling its solidity and inertia, I ground further. Grail-in-all-things, goddess-in-all-things.

FOUR

Fire, south. Sun each day, moon each month, two great spirals for practice, a daily sun salutation, surya namaskar. A monthly moon meditation. Knight connects a version of this rhythm to polarity working with the Grail, too. Two ritual-contemplation questions arising in meditation today: “What is the sun of the moon? What is the moon of the sun?” I don’t need to understand everything before it becomes part of me. In fact, with much that I value deeply, like my wife, my marriage, understanding happens only after it has become part of me, and I of it, not before.

FIVE

First star tonight in the eastern sky tonight, Grail-star. Quintessence. Yes, earth my body, water my blood, air my breath, fire my spirit — so the old Pagan song instructs me. But spirit-greater-than-fire is here — spirit the essence of all four, and more, pouring inexhaustibly from the Grail across the cosmos.

With my forefinger I trace a pentagram in the twilight sky in the Seven Directions, another form I use: four quarters, zenith above, nadir below and center.

For the good of all beings, for the good of the whole, for the good of each one, may it be so.

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IMAGES: Elaine by Sandys; Elaine by Rackham.

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