Archive for the ‘Thoreau’ Category

Liminal Spaces and Paths

[Updated 18:31 EST 11 May 2020]

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a threshold has a psychic texture

Does anyone here have experience with liminal spaces? someone asked recently on one of the online Druid forums I frequent.

Potentially, we all do: at dawn and twilight — during ritual — waking and falling asleep — walking on a foggy or snowy day alone — in meditation, prayer, etc. And sometimes during illness, or extreme exhaustion, as well. Liminal, threshold — neither word particularly common, though our experience of them is. (We hear about the sub-liminal more than the liminal.) Cultures vary in how they help or discourage us from seeking and navigating liminal spaces. Or even talking about them.

One of the purposes of ritual is to help us enter them and begin to explore their potentials.

In many older cultures at least some kinds of limen or threshold are places to watch and to guard: you may hang a charm at the doorway to your home or work. Your culture helps establish who is or isn’t allowed to touch your skin — the threshold of your body — and when. Shrines and temples have liminal areas in the form of sacred precincts, which you try to avoid profaning — literally, standing near the fane or holy place at the wrong time, or in the wrong state, unprepared. And if you think you have no fanes in your life to profane, think again — we all run into restricted or no-access areas — playing fields, stages, “authorized personnel only” zones, member-only forums and groups, relationships that allow you to say and do things with, to and for each other that no one else can.

What about seeking out and crossing into a liminal space consciously?

In many traditions, fasting from sex, or certain foods, or all food and drink for a designated period, are all time-honored ways to prepare to cross a threshold. Almost anything that shifts our habits — our “everyday-ness” — and that we can pursue with single-mindedness, can serve as a means of preparation, because the single-mindedness is the larger goal. Focus helps manifest the liminal.

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Wikipedia calls the liminal the “boundary of perception”

Medieval knights-to-be kept nightlong vigil with their weapons in preparation for receiving knighthood. Holy days, as thresholds of sacred time, often acquire their own rites of preparation. Even in supposedly “secular” settings, we have ritualized requirements for behavior, dress, speech, etc., that accompany threshold events, especially changes of status. The job interview, wedding, graduation, birthday or retirement party, all signal the crossing of a threshold, each with its appropriate ritual accompaniment.

You can imagine a t-shirt with the words “Tame the Liminal!” except of course that’s the one thing we never do. The liminal says “possibility!” The liminal sweeps us to the brink of change. The poet Rilke gives us the experience of falling into the liminal “merely” by studying a famous statue in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, a figure that is missing its head:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rilke struggles in similes with how to express this consciousness: “eyes like ripening fruit … torso with brilliance like a lamp … skin like a wild beast’s fur … stone’s borders bursting like a star”. In other and theistic traditions, it’s said you can experience God-realization by looking into the heart of a flower. The point is the same. Or in fact the point is often different for each of us. What does remain the same is preparation. (The Hopi call one of their ritual tools natwanpi — “instrument of preparation”.) Take that step with intention, and anything can draw us into such awareness.

And so “our mission, should we choose to accept it”, is to interrogate the borders, our own most of all, to investigate just where our cultures draw their lines, and what lies across them. Not to rebel against those lines mindlessly, but to understand any limen is there for a purpose, and to determine how far that purpose applies to us — and when it might stop applying. So if I quote that famous Socratic proverb, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, I also need to cite the corollary of script-writer and brilliant teacher Robert McKee, “The unlived life is not worth examining”. Ouch!

Lighting the woodstove this morning after the past nights’ cold moved through New England (8″ of snow in northern Vermont!), I encounter the liminal in a way everyone can experience. A fire, a candle, brings us into contact with that most liminal of physical things. But any of the four elements can: a waterfall or lake or stream; clouds or the sound of wind in the trees. Earth, too — a mountain or valley or meadow, or an unusual large stone, a piece of quartz or shale held in the hand.

And I also jump-start my awen from Bards, as frequent readers here know well. Here’s my man Thoreau, who closes Walden with a series of four potent and linked meditations that can serve as Druidic natwanpi, as preparation for the liminal:

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

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Omen Days 4: Marmota Monax

[Updated 30-Dec 2019]

Omen Days [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5-6 | 7-9 | 10-11 | 12-13 ]

Groundhog, whistle-pig, moonack (derived from a Native American name), or French Canadian siffleux (“whistler”) — as I take more firewood from the stack, I’ve found our backyard woodchuck has again taken shelter for the winter in a burrow between our woodpile rows. It makes good animal sense: until I started taking the wood away for fires, the burrow mouth was protected, and tin sheets still partially shield both wood and burrow from snow and rain.

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woodchuck — marmota monax — Wikipedia

The woodchuck enjoys a regional claim-to-fame in the U.S. as “Punxsatawney Phil” and indeed has a brief cameo in the ’93 Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell comedy, Groundhog Day.

(We can detect in the February 2 Groundhog Day — no surprise — echoes of older celebrations like Imbolc. The harsher winters in North America merely postpone the coming of spring that the European holiday anticipates, until late March at the earliest, at least in New England. Animal divination!! The groundhog’s “prediction” of early spring or more winter depends, after all, on sunlight: if it’s sunny and he sees his shadow — only his “priests” know for sure — that means, paradoxically, six more weeks of winter.)

When our next-door neighbor dug a new in-ground septic tank over a year ago, things reached a tipping point that made “his” marmota monax leave home in search of a better life. The journey didn’t demand much — no long treks for the plucky immigrant who would ultimately set down roots in a strange new land. Instead, just a quick run under the property line fence, and voila! Our handy clover patch no doubt also played a savory role — we saw him — them? — off and on this past summer in the thick of it, grazing quite contentedly, bees humming all around in the clover flowers.

Last winter I discovered him burrowed in under the first row of the woodpile. By the time spring came, and I’d cleared away the logs and knew he was out, I drove a log firmly into the mouth of the burrow. (I absolutely refuse to use the smoke bombs that poison both animal and soil. Have-a-heart traps may be the next option.) Sure enough, un-dissuaded, he dug a new hole in June, this time right along the east-facing foundation of our house. When I stuffed a log into the mouth of that hole, he dug around it. I added another log. Then when I didn’t see him for a while, I thought my harassment campaign had paid off, and maybe he’d finally crossed the road, where there’s some prime woodchuck real estate that could be his for the taking. A neighboring farmer mows the open, level 5-acre meadow bordered by woods just once a summer, and otherwise it lies fallow, undisturbed.

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Hard to see, but dirt between the log rows comes from the enlarged burrow

But there’s the roof of his winter burrow, with its mouth one row deeper into the woodpile. Part of me rejoices at his resilience, even as I plan anew how to see him off, once warmer weather arrives. All this, of course, while another part of me ponders whether this is indeed the unsubtle arrival of a new animal guide, upping his campaign to grab the attention of this torpid and obtuse human.

In the guise of a woodchuck, a delightful link exists between Frost and Thoreau, those two quintessential New England bards. A wry Colby Quarterly article, “Two Woodchucks, or Frost and Thoreau and the Art of the Burrow” , exhibits good Druidic sensibility in exploring that link. Regardless of whether the article author actually follows through on his own insights, they remain for readers. To make a cellar for his cabin at Walden Pond, Thoreau enlarged a woodchuck’s burrow, trusting the beast had dug deep enough, beneath the frost line. Here the “Two Woodchucks” author cites Thoreau’s sense of the need to dig down both literally and metaphorically to find out the truth of things:

In order to find this reality, we must first “settle ourselves,” establish a sense of place, a living connection with the landscape. Then we must “work and wedge our feet downward,” in woodchuck fashion, “through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion [alluvium] which covers the globe”.

I read as I draft this post that the woodchuck can nearly double its weight as it gorges each autumn to store up fat for hibernation. The average burrow, with between two and eight mouths, requires the removal of 500 lbs / 225 kilos of dirt. Sure enough, it often digs a separate winter burrow, much deeper than its summer quarters. Though at need the woodchuck can climb trees to escape predators, and typically retreats to its burrow rather than fight, when cornered, the sturdy beast has claws and sharp incisors to defend itself. Their range spans from Georgia to Minnesota and New England, north as far as Newfoundland, and west across the Canadian plains into Alaska. Study almost any creature, and you begin to see its adaptations to its specific life-path emerging as something quite remarkable.

Boar, pillbug, woodchuck — the teachings of animal encounters to guide this Druid, if he only listens, through his days.

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Gifts of Solstice, Part 3

[Part 1 | 2 | 3 ]

Much of what I write here is inward-facing. Writing’s a core component of my spiritual practice. For me it’s a vital means of discovery, of turning over an experience or perspective until — often enough to keep me going — it falls into place, takes on a new aspect once it gets put in words, gains a solidity or heft that lets me examine it more clearly, or links up with daily events, the weather, the experience of wearing skin, conversations, dreams, things Others are communicating as they go about their varied lives. Words through these short days and long nights, words that at least sometimes prove useful to you as well, a solstice gift.

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to the west, across the road from our living room window

Tonight my wife and I included among our celebrations of Solstice one event we’ve attended for several years running. A local church hosts ‘Into the Silence’, inviting a duo called Coracle to play Celtic-themed music and recorded natural soundscapes like whale-calls, birdsong, coyotes, or — like tonight — “owls with sleet falling”. The music alternates with periods of silence. There’s no introduction or closing, no announcements, in fact no human voices at all, beyond a few whispers, and some creaks from the wooden pews, velcro fasteners and zippers opening as participants settle in. The only illumination comes from a score of candles on the altar that a congregant lights at the beginning, and from a solitary Christmas tree trimmed with tiny white bulbs. In some ways it’s ideal “Druid Church”. The possibility of spiritual encounter feels larger without words.

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Now that my wife has finally recovered from a bout of food poisoning, she’s back in her weaving studio. This morning when I went out to start a fire there, the thermometer on the wall read 29 F / -2 C. Considering the last few nights have been below 0 F / -18 C, that’s heartening. It also turned out to be a sunny day, which helped the stove to get indoor temps up to a more comfortable range, so she could work for some hours on her warp.

The pleasure of kindling a fire in the house each day all winter, with a second one in the studio some days, sweeping ash, chopping wood, never diminishes for me. Yes, some mornings like this one, I’m shivering as I begin it, and sometimes the wood takes a while longer than usual to lift the stoves into the most efficient zone where they can burn hot and clean, but the work itself answers the effort.  (If you only let her, Brighid blesses it.) As Thoreau quips in Walden,

Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house, I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean-field. As my driver prophesied when I was plowing, they warmed me twice—once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.

Warmth, a direct connection between labor and result, recovery from illness, sunlight, outside air and snow both cold and dry enough that the coverlet of white powders off when I bang each log against the pile. Pleasures of solstice — gifts, all of them. And when we returned an hour ago from the solstice celebration of music and silence, a sky dotted with the distant fires of stars.

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“Holy, Wise, Obscene, and Joyous”

Today my adjectives arrive in a four-pack, all waiting, ready as a title. Actually, they sojourned toward me last night, but I was too tired to do more than note them and carry them into sleep. (What more to say with them?)

Not a bad way for a writer to compost.

Let’s start with holy, north, and earth. Each of us has a holy place — a home, city, spiritual retreat, dream, relationship, cause, purpose, goal — a place where we can store our treasures and sacred objects, a place that grounds us. (And if you don’t have one right now, you’re probably on quest to find one, among all the other things you’re doing.)

What’s your Jerusalem, your Mecca, your Well of Brighid? What’s your north star, your soul’s home, your rest and your dreaming?

Each of us is a holy place, a sacred discovery we may have great trouble with, not seeing spirit looking out of eyes looking into our own.

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Spinning, spinning. On to the east and late sunrise, courtesy of these long nights before the Winter Solstice. Wise, the east, realm of thought, of reflection. The hard-earned wisdom of every life, things we’ve learned, things we’ve always known, things we’re still discovering. It was among ferns that I first learned about eternity, sings Robert Bly, because deep-down, the echo, the rhyme, is just as important as the meaning. Ah, bards!

Obscene, the south? Work with me a moment. It’s the fire that gets us into trouble, as often as not. The untamed in us will have its way, in spite of our better judgment. “If I repent of anything”, Thoreau quips in Walden, “it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” (Can we also ask, what angel directed me, that I behaved so badly?)

Fire will have our way with us, in spite of other wills, all clamoring for us to do their bidding. Depending on how repressed (or connected) you are, obscene can be your modus operandi — when the going gets tough, you get bawdy. As if the universe finally is playing your song — backwards. Trickster emerges from his burrow, from her mountain pass — one glance and you see you’re twins. You wear each other’s skin. Chaos — because fighting fire with fire. In our native element …

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And West — joyous, the playfulness of water cascading, the tide unceasing, the crash of the surf calling us. Where will water float me to, this time? Pilot for my boat, old friend, let’s weigh anchor and be off again! River, stream, blood in my veins, in these earliest rhythms I know it again, eternal journey. I emerge out of it, I merge back into it.

It asks nothing, it asks my all: “Labour is blossoming or dancing”, sings W B Yeats, “where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Dancer, dance — holy, wise, obscene and joyous.

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I spin a quarter turn to the right, then start the cycle again. Holy is now the east, from where the day’s first light blesses us all. Wise is the south, that animal fire un-quenched in us, kindling life, kindling each other. Obscene is now the west: how wet and juicy everything is! — being born, eating, bleeding, loving, sweating, dying. We swim through lives. And joyous is the earth: to be here at all, snow and sun, leaf and love and loss, every place it’s happening, solid, rooted, here.

(Turn another quarter turn to start, then — when you’ve finished, another. How do the Four line up this time? Two meditations for you, to continue two more quarter turns, to look and listen, to explore.)

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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Genius

[Edited 20:30 12 Nov 2019]

So much of the genius of Druidry grounds itself in the here and now. Its metaphors concern growing things, the seasons, the changes and encounters and opportunities shaped by living in time and space. (The physical world is the ultimate spiritual metaphor.) Our communion is with life lived with other beings, including some without their skins on. But no one asks me to believe in them, or at least no more than I ask them to believe in me. Which can be lots, or not at all.

And so it is that the awen isn’t something to pray to (though I could), but to say and sing and listen to, in a group or alone. The crowded sapling I replanted last autumn doesn’t require my belief (though I’m free to believe my belief will help) but rather the space to grow, and regular watering until its root system re-establishes itself. The birds or beasts I share my life with need food and shelter and care. I may consider them dear companions, or manifestations of deity, but when they wake me asking for a meal, or to nudge me for a caress, no incense is required.

Some may choose to explore further, to part the veils that exist everywhere, that make physical things more and more transparent for Spirit, or that also can preserve a reassuring earthly solidity a little longer, if we need it. Face-to-face with a local part of the world I encounter just a few paces from here, a part I can paint and ponder, photograph and feel, I know enough of divinity to take another step, if I choose.

I’ve had trouble for a few years now with a frequent sense of constriction just before waking. Traditional medicine points to things like sleep apnea, poor diet, sleep paralysis, and similar physical causes. But I’ve eliminated these things as primary, though some may be effects of a more underlying cause. If ever I doubted that I leave my body every night, here’s proof, when proof’s no longer needed: I’m definitely outside, and frequently reluctant to return. Often in near-to-waking dreams I’m entering a tunnel, climbing a narrowing stairway, pushing myself into a corner, sliding into a tight, confining and claustrophobic space. Ah, said a friend proficient at getting out of the body, when I shared some details of this experience, I know that feeling. I came to realize a part of me was too large to fit comfortably inside a human form. Sometimes you need to make inner adjustments with what you try to bring back with you. Hmm.

“I was more independent than any farmer in Concord,” remarks Henry David Thoreau, in the “Economy” chapter of Walden, “for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment. Beside being better off than they already, if my house had been burned or my crops had failed, I should have been nearly as well off as before”. Unlike Henry, I have a house, but my genius is as bent as any, and perhaps the curvature makes following it into a bone-house, if not back out again, more difficult than it need be. I hear the word shapeshift echo behind my hearing, like something spoken in the next room, though no one else is home — and I ponder new ways to explore this dream-waking challenge. What shape might better fit, if a human one proves too narrow? A new practice to explore.

Grounded in the here and now, I have a center from which to explore. Maybe that’s both aid and obstacle. Hermes Trismegistus, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, is said to have remarked, “God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” So I reflect that creation as deity sees it is happening wherever the center is, and finishes at the circumference. Whatever that means, it may mean that it begins where I sense a center. I needn’t go looking for it anywhere else.

Hermes Thrice-Greatest, in Latin Mercurius ter Maximus — MtM for someone like me in love with acronyms — is simply another doorway, a mask spirit wears, as we all are to each other, another chance to ponder all the ways and plays of spirit peeking out from everything. The more closely I explore this blessed physical world of metaphorical and very real earth, air, fire and water, the more carefully it explores me. Thoreau knows what I’m sensing; a few lines of his became one of my mantras, long ago:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars — Walden.

The Wikipedia entry for genius offers a useful etymology for extended meditation:

In ancient Rome, the genius (plural in Latin genii) was the guiding spirit or tutelary deity of a person, family (gens) or place (genius loci). The noun is related to the Latin verbs “gignere” (to beget, to give birth to) and “generare” (to beget, to generate, to procreate), and derives directly from the Indo-European stem thereof: “ǵenh” (to produce, to beget, to give birth). Because the achievements of exceptional individuals seemed to indicate the presence of a particularly powerful genius, by the time of [Caesar] Augustus, the word began to acquire its secondary meaning of “inspiration, talent”. The term genius acquired its modern sense in the eighteenth century, and is a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, as above, and ingenium [cf. ingenious], a related noun referring to our innate dispositions, talents, and inborn nature. Beginning to blend the concepts of the divine and the talented, the Encyclopédie [an 18th-century French encyclopedia]article on genius (génie) describes such a person as “he whose soul is more expansive and struck by the feelings of all others; interested by all that is in nature never to receive an idea unless it evokes a feeling; everything excites him and on which nothing is lost”.

Again and again I return to earth, to the physical, this first and last mystery, vessel for otherwise intangible spirit, which still looks at me even as I gaze at it. And I consider a genius of my locus, a spirit of place — an altar, if I see it so — the stone in our front yard, mantled with snow and lichen on this November day.

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May all that you meet talk to you, teach you, comfort you, challenge you, guide you, prepare you.

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Year 7 at A Druid Way

At the close of my seventh year with this blog, I’m devoting a post to taking stock.

First, thank-yous to everyone — nearly 10,000 of you this past year — who keep coming back to read, to ruminate, and to comment.  As I note on my About page, quoting Philip Carr-Gomm:

Just as the spiritual path can be characterised as the ongoing attempt to both remember yourself and forget yourself, so blogging can be seen as a challenge to both be more personal, more open, more sharing of the riches of a life and at the same time to take yourself less seriously, to let go of the concern about what other people might think about you, and to reveal rather than conceal your curiosity and amazement at the often crazy world you find yourself in.

As a spiritual practice, writing here keeps me turning over my experiences and perspectives — a good thing, I’ve found, for both consciousness and compost. This coming February 2019 I’ll join a panel of speakers with the rich topic of “Spiritual Lessons from Everyday Life”, and my time with this blog will definitely contribute. Human experiences have no “size” that I can determine, despite any labels we apply to them. Seemingly “small” ones deliver impacts that may not fully mature for years, while the splashier ones often fade quickly as dreams. You keep turning them over, turning them over, and good stuff emerges, which you know in retrospect mostly because it nourishes what will grow in the future. If I neglect this, soon all I have is a midden that smells, attracts pests, and I learn I’ve forfeited an opportunity for work that is real. Fortunately I can pick up the pitchfork and shovel at any moment and begin.

What other people bring to say, and how they respond to what I share here, seems to work much the same way. You learn it’s often not about you at all, whatever you thought. Each of us makes individual journeys so idiosyncratic and often difficult to get into words that what amazes me is we’re able to share anything at all. Or as I have occasion to exclaim to my wife, I’ve slowly learned that two things are simultaneously true, in the best traditions of paradox: that I’m nothing like other people, and that I’m exactly like other people — I’m an alien, or I’m your twin. This blog usually lands somewhere along that continuum.

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Three of the most popular posts this past year originate not from this year but from my 2017 “Druid and Christian Themes” series. This intersection of traditions still lights up for me, as it apparently does for a sizable proportion of readers. Otherwise, the only excuse I can offer for my choice of topics is also Thoreau’s: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” But beyond Transcendentalist Yankee Smart-assery, he makes a subtler point: go deep enough inside yourself and you will find things to say that resonate for others at least some of the time. The odds of this happening are about the same as for baseball, so an average of .300 is respectable indeed.

Looking a little further at the Druid-Christian intersection I recall how Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints (p. 31).

Since I find I’m citing Carr-Gomm a lot in this post, I’ll end with one more observation by him that I find still most topical today, the 30th of December 2018:

One of the most important tasks that face us today is one of reconciliation, whether that be between differing political or religious positions … the Christian community, far from taking fright at a perceived regression to a pagan past, can ally itself with [Druidry] which is complementary, and not antagonistic to Christian ideals and ethics …

St. Columba said “Christ is my Druid” and I believe that if we take Druidry to represent that ancient wisdom which lies deep within us, and that can connect us once again to the Earth and her wonders, we can understand how we can be Christian Druids, Buddhist Druids or Druids of whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development.

May we each find and recognize “whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development”. Blessings of the coming New Year to you all.

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Testing the True

real_fakeA lot of talk these days about truth or reality and fakeness, almost as if our era was the only one ever so burdened, so challenged, so troubled by discerning the difference. So I cheer when I find a key to help me along the way, one I can hold up to the light and turn in my hands and consider, one I can offer to you and see whether it serves your need, too.

Es ist alles wahr wodurch du besser wirst, runs a German proverb Thoreau quotes in his journal entry for October, 1837 — “Everything is true through which we become better.”

I love this as a test for truth. No abstraction here, but rather a laboratory prompt, a calibration on our internal alethiometers, to use the example of Philip Pullman’s delicate device for measuring truth.

alethiometerIn the first volume of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, Pullman describes the alethiometer like this:

It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with the finest and slenderest sable brush (Northern Lights, 1995).

(Do you have your own alethiometer already? You do? Is it in good working order? Or are you looking for one?)

And that in turn should tell me something. As much as it is anything else, truth is an image, a whole set of images, that I carry around. From childhood onward, from experience, from stories, movies and the examples of others, from my culture and the era I was born and grew up in, I gather up and walk with a museum of images. Does what I see and experience right now match those pictures? If not, can it be true? How can it be true?

Everything is true through which we become better. Should I walk around asking, “Have you become better yet?” Well, no: unless I start first with myself. You know this is my principal strategy for avoiding insufferable arrogance, spiritual myopia and self-righteousness. Turn the edge on myself first, before urging the blade on others. A better question is “How did you do it? And can I generalize a principle, extract a technique from your answer, so that I can pull it off, too?”

What am I doing, what have I done, and has it helped? Have I become better? If so, can I do more of it? How Druidic! Rather than an eternal and external standard to which I must somehow conform but which is native, apparently, to nobody, instead I practice one dependent on my life and my experience. Yet we can recognize a shared quality in both our experiences, even though they’re different. What can that tell us? What are we perceiving? Part of an answer seems to lie in the relationship between honoring my own experience even as I honor another’s.

To give a specific example, echinacea consistently upsets my system, but my wife finds it a wonderful aid. My truth doesn’t trump hers, but neither does hers negate mine. One principle does for both: if it helps, if through it I become better, it’s true for me. As with freedom, so with truth: yours ends where mine begins, and vice versa. Force either on me and they cease being what they are, but become their own opposites. (We still endlessly practice this negative magic on ourselves and each other.)

I do ritual alone, or with others, and stand together in a circle with the Visible and the Invisible to welcome the sacred. My wife and I work at our marriage, and it has its good and better years, like anything planted and cultivated, watered and weeded. I fell out of touch with a college friend, and we’ve drifted apart. I remember others regularly, and our relationship still holds true.

I find truth in the quality of such relationships. Improving a relationship is one way I become better.

Oh, uniformity or conformity has its place. Build a house and you want dimensions as close as you can measure and cut them. We also speak of angles, materials and directions as true. True north. We’re dismayed, or gratified, when potentials and promises come true. In a ritual it’s helpful if we work together. The chant grows stronger when we say or sing the words in unison, like any chorus. Unity can be … fun.

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Alan Watts (1915-1973)

The principle remains, whatever the design of the structure you build, house or ritual, song or life. As Alan Watts quipped decades ago — I can’t locate the source offhand — most creatures on the planet are endless variations on a single design: tubes with various attachments. (We’re improvisations, like jazz, like the unrepeatable concert version your favorite band performs of its signature song.) What wonderful diversity elaborating and playing with that unitary principle!

But what’s diversity for? I remember my first years at the school where I taught, serving as international student adviser. “Students from 38 countries!” the school brochures and website crowed at the time. “OK,” I said at one faculty meeting, feeling out the parameters of my new position. “We’ve got diversity. Now what do we do with it?” I genuinely wanted to know. No one answered. But I wasn’t being rhetorical. Was “having” diversity enough? Was that the goal, now achieved, box checked, on to the next item on some larger list? Was the school, were we, with our vaunted diversity, somehow now better? If so, how?! Could we measure it? Could we be or do something, anything, better as a result?

“I desire”, says Thoreau in Walden,

that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.

If we respect ourselves in all our quirky uniqueness and individuality, how can we not respect everything else? Your difference affirms mine. The world and all its creatures, the Chinese wan wu, “Ten Thousand Things”, announce this principle every moment. How can we not glory in such diversity?!

Apparently, to judge by what’s happening in so many places, we often can’t. Is it because we don’t trust our own uniqueness? Do we fear ourselves as distinct and free beings, and therefore fear everyone else who is also a unique self, different from us?

Does your difference help me become better? No, it must be said, not if I run from it in fear, or if I feel I must attack you to protect myself, or deny you any way to live your difference, so that it leaves mine alone. Shortsightedly, I could even claim your difference makes me worse, not better, because I don’t like it, or because you remind me of my own freedom and uniqueness. Because all difference urges me to the responsibility to live from that knowledge. No, I don’t want to become better. Save me from any such transformations! I want to be, not become.

I find truth in the quality of relationship. I want to connect to others who help me become, just as I want to help them become more of who they are.

Selfishly, I readily admit, they’re more fun to be around when they’re becoming than when they’re locked in fear and desperately trying to remain who they are. And paradoxically, they become more of who they are when they keep changing and growing. And so, they tell me, do I.

Yes, the Great Self of the Cosmos first says Be! But then its continues, saying Become! I want to hear those Words and live them. Because what else is there? Serving something larger than the self, another paradox here, fulfills the self. All the many species around me live and flourish and die and return because they and I are what the cosmos does.

And ritual, song, art, creativity in solving problems, joy, relationships with other unique beings, are all ways to express and take part in and complete that doing.

eplurunYes, to be national for a moment, the motto on our U.S. currency proclaims E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one”. When you start with states that are nearly independent nations, unity can hold great allure.

In other contexts, too, of course, we seek that uni-verse, that “one-turning”, of one-ness. But if we seek a more whole truth, a “single turning” through which we might become better, we also recognize and acknowledge and begin to live from its other half, too — its complement, which we’ve often overlooked: Ex uno plures — “Out of One, many”. As the old song goes, echo of a cosmic melody, you can’t have one without the other.

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Images: real/fake; alethiometerAlan Watts;

Wildness, and Thoreau at 200

thoreauLong-time readers of this blog know my admiration for Henry David Thoreau (who rhymed his name with “borrow”). I’m well into a new biography* of him, and reminded by a New York Times book review that today is his 200th birthday.

*Walls, Laura Dassow. Thoreau: A Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. (Go for the Kindle edition; hardcover is $35!)

Partly from Thoreau (1817-1862) and his Transcendentalist circle, but also of course from vivid Medieval conceptions, Westerners get Nature-with-a-capital-N, that idealized if not deified Presence. In the same millennium-old perception, we get two Books of Wisdom as well. The Book of Scripture, the Bible, yes. But also the Book of Nature. (Ah, but which is volume one and which is sequel?)

From the Concord, Massachusetts man and his most famous book, we learn his credo: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world”. For there is a tameness that allows us to live together at all, that is much but not all of what we mean by “civilization”, and another (or perhaps the same) tameness that makes us lie down in front of the onrushing disasters of the day, provided they don’t touch us too directly and painfully.

Or at least not right away. (Boil me gradually, and I’m a happy frog or lobster.) A few posts ago, I wrote of making coffee in an analogy for doing ritual: any trade deal made or broken is fine with me — until it deprives me of a ready supply of overseas beans. Or let’s say I do step forward, full of fire and righteous indignation (is there any other kind?!) to protest a worthy Druid-y cause, putting my life on the line, what then? Isn’t my life always on the line? As one follower* of a certain wilderness prophet cautioned us long ago: “I may even give away all that I have to the poor, and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me”. More to the point, I’d say, will they help anyone else?

cernunnosThere’s also a wildness in “a certain forest god”, as John Beckett calls Cernunnos. As without, so within. There’s a wildness in each of us that politicians are eager to sedate and numb to stasis with material consumption and soundbites and spin. There’s a wildness like that of the Wild Hunt of European legend and myth, which modern Pagans, among others, have elaborated in provocative directions. The wildness of Nature isn’t Sunday-afternoon safe, and direct contact with it (if we survive) can strip away our pretences and excuses, can initiate us into powerful awareness and lasting change.

But like Tolkien’s Ents, we don’t like to be “roused”. I’ll fight tooth and claw for a comfortable cage, if one’s on offer, rather than for freedoms I claim I desire. For someone like Thoreau, Walls declares, “The dilemma that pressed upon him was how to live the American Revolution not as dead history but as living experience that could overturn, and keep overturning, hidebound convention and comfortable habits”. For we humans stand at the hinge, the pivot, the axis, in and of nature and yet able for a time to hold ourselves apart from it. Because where else is there?

Still, we strive to contrive and survive, little Sarumans every one of us. “Once out of nature”, writes W B Yeats in his almost infamous poem “Sailing to Byzantium”,

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling …

Artifice, civilization, nature, justice? Just let me live forever, something in me cries. Just that, and I’ll sacrifice everything else to achieve it. You too can sail to Byzantium — for a price.

“Send lawyers, guns, and money”, says Warren Zevon in a song with the same title. “I’m the innocent bystander. Somehow I got stuck between the rock and a hard place. And I’m down on my luck …” Solutions present themselves. Not all deserve us. Few have anything to do with luck. And innocence or guilt completely misses the point of now. We’re all in it.

But wait …

“Once out of nature”? Are we now in that impossible place? Is that the legacy of the much-bandied about “Anthropocene“, our mythical present day, that time when human action carries geological force? “Health”, said Thoreau, “is a sound relation to nature”. “Physician”, says the Galilean master, quoting wisdom already proverbial in his time, “heal thyself”.

Oh Yeats, let me take bodily form from every living thing, let me know form, let me inhabit nature fully, and I will understand better, I will heal, and I will be healed.

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*1 Corinthians 13:3.

Images: ThoreauCernunnos/Gundestrup Cauldron.

“Doing the True”

Truth’s subject to leakage at any time. Mostly, though, when that happens — when truth does manage, against the odds, to seep in — we strive vigorously to plug the hole any time more than a little discomfort spills out into our lives.

Praise then such discomforts, for what they can, even occasionally, reveal to us.

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A burst of activity from Canadian viewers has been showing up on the page stats — one of a few places more wintry than here. A shout-out to Canadians trying to feel spring in February. It’s there — just under the snow, and behind the patience that, with this most recent bout of storms, is wearing thin for all but the most ardent lovers of winter.

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“The world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be improved,” says the Tao Te Ching, ch. 29. Of all the books based on wise and penetrating observation of the world and its dynamics, for me the “TTC” holds a singular position. So I’ve pondered this verse ever since I encountered it as a teen-ager.

To speak to this assertion (which, if you follow the above link, can be read many ways), and unpack and qualify it for myself and my readers, here are two of John Michael Greer’s responses to comments on his recent Feb. 1, 2017 blogpost “Perched on the Wheel of Time“:

The notion that one person can transform the world is very deeply rooted in our culture, and it’s not entirely untrue; like most damaging beliefs, it’s a half-truth. Each of us can change the world, but how we can change it is determined by our cultural and historical context — and of course it’s also true that in a world in which everyone can change the world, no one person gets to change everything! It can be a real struggle, though, to break through the binary between “you can change everything” and “no one can change anything,” and grasp the many ways in which we all, to use a New Age term, help co-create the future.

It can be a valuable Druid practice to break through binaries, finding at least a third position between two poles. And discovering and walking the line revealed by repeated blundering into a damaging belief/half-truth — there’s another name for life, for the modest wisdom a person can accrue over several decades. How much can I co-create? Where are my energies best spent in trying? Can I co-operate with even one other person around me  — like a friend or partner, for starters — to maximize our co-creative acts?

And if this world can’t be “improved”? Well, certainly local conditions improve and deteriorate all the time, shaped in considerable part by the actions of individuals. Any overall equilibrium, though? I must ruefully admit that does seem to remain the same. But that’s not a reason to disengage. Greer expands on his perspective in a later comment on the same post, which I find persuasive as well:

…the Druid teachings I follow hold that this world, the world of human beings experiencing greed and hunger and a distinct lack of the brotherhood of man, is a necessary stage or mode of consciousness through which every soul must pass in due time. When we outgrow it, we move to a different stage or mode of consciousness, and the world stays the way it is so that it can provide the same experience to those who need it. Thus there’s only so much change you can make in the world — though there’s some, and making such changes are an important part of grappling with this mode of being. The changes that matter are those you make to yourself.

If a succinct statement of my bias is possible, Greer captures it in his last sentence here. “The changes that matter (most) to me are those I make to myself.”

First, because in the grand scheme of things I find change difficult. I’m assuming you do, too.

Second, because the changes I actually pull off, ones I make to myself, usually affect my immediate environment, where they’re more visible than they would be elsewhere. That means I get more feedback from them on what I’ve done, and whether it’s what I actually wanted. You know: life as laboratory.

Third, because I continue to learn the hard way that my understanding is often so imperfect in so many domains that I’d rather improve it and share what I’ve learned than botch my immediate environment out of ignorance or stupidity — and more likely, both. Humility is a really useful tool in my kit. Almost always I’ve ignored it at my peril.

And as for matters of scale, I’ve also met wise individuals in my life. Not many, but a few, human and non-human. But very, very few wise local governments, and even fewer wise nations. And that gives me guidance for where my energies are best spent — at least for me, in this cycle.

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So when anyone — whether Jesus or Donald Trump — offers up a version of “I alone can save you”, I need a lot of proof and demonstration before I’m willing to divert my energies to them from working in my own life.

Whitman sings in Song of Myself 32:

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.

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It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau/OBOD’s weekly “Inspiration for Life”.

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Images: snow on moss in Westminster, VT.

Changing It Up For Real

Rather than emigrating to Canada or some other country when the candidate you don’t want wins anyway, consider a more radical change. Why not remain in your native land, but opt out of as many systems, expectations, structures, economies, etc. as possible that exist for others’ benefit but perhaps not yours?

Harder, you say? Less practical? I’m far less interested in the malcontent who talks of relocating to Canada and much more engaged by anyone who actually makes a change with less talk and more action.

Consider Yury …

What would it actually require to do what he’s done?

Of course, in the scant two plus minutes of the video, we don’t get anything like a clear picture of Yury’s resources and choices. We do get a romanticized picture of independence and self-reliance. What else has Yury opted to do without, in order to make his change?

Like Thoreau’s accounting of his expenses early on in Walden, let’s suss out a rough estimate of what a comparable transformation would require while remaining in the States. Readers who live in other countries know better than I how to translate expenses and possibilities to their own circumstances.

We learn Yury opted out of a professional life as a lawyer five years back. Presumably unlike many law students in the States, he doesn’t have massive loans to repay. Probably he was even able to save a modest amount in order to launch himself into his new life.

Sixty miles outside of Moscow, he’s obviously rural. How much land does he own? Does he raise most of his own food? How near is the nearest town? Can he walk to a general store or market for things he can’t grow? Solar panels on the roof power lights and a computer, but not much else. He apparently cooks and heats with wood. We’re told a generator tides him over for the few months each year when the sun isn’t enough.

How does he wash clothes? Is he still covered by a state health care system, or has he opted out of that too, living as most of humanity has until the last few generations? No car? Public transport nearby — even a bus — would definitely help.

sodroof

I’m going to use Maine as a starting point, because land taxes are quite high in Vermont where I live. In New Hampshire, there’s no income tax, but various other taxes take a larger bite. Live in a scenic NH area with appealing vistas and you pay a “view tax”. Maine has fewer services, but someone like Yury isn’t looking for such things anyway.

So here’s my accounting:

1 — Property: .5 to 5 acres of land (I used Maine Listings): $3-10,000.

With careful shopping, the land may come with a well and/or septic in place. Composting toilets and rain collection systems can provide other options. A few miles from a town of a few thousand people will generally give you reasonable access to supplies, at least during the summer months, when hiking or biking with backpacks is relatively easy. A friendly neighbor you trade with — occasional transport to and from town in exchange for vegetables, firewood, yard work, etc. — can also make such an arrangement more doable.

Rental or leasing would allow for less expensive options for property and for the next item — taxes.

2 — Annual taxes: $100-1000

This depends of course on many variables — property size, township, distance from town, structures in place and added, etc. If you’re supporting yourself with any sort of service or product — eggs, firewood, craft items, seasonal labor — the figure rises.

3 — House/other structure(s): $1000-10,000+

Yury’s underground house is straw, clay and wood, with some sort of insulating and waterproofing membrane. Building aboveground lets more light in, alleviates many waterproofing issues, but increases heating needs. Earth-berming is a powerful compromise — imagine a house with only south-facing windows — all other sides are bermed. A sod roof of a foot or more of earth is cheap and effective insulation.

Earthwood Building School run by Rob and Jaki Roy in West Chazy in northern New York has links and images to give you a range of ideas. (Rob, here’s some free advertising!) What you’re willing to do for yourself, and your minimum requirements, your “without-which-not” list, can shift the price quite dramatically up or down. Sweat equity also makes an immense difference here. Do you need perfect, or serviceable?

Add to this a chicken coop, wood storage, gardening equipment, perennial plantings as needed, etc.

earthshelter

4 — Annual living expenses: $2000-10,000+

Ivan McBeth, whom I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, lived with his wife Fearn for many years until his passing last year on about $8000 a year on their 40-acre property in northern Vermont. Much of his income derived from running Druidry workshops and building megalithic structures on site for clients.

Again, it might be possible to pare the lower end of that $2000 still further, especially with barter. Everyone has their necessities.

5 — “Future Fund”: ?

If you plan at all for the future, old age, emergencies, or a desire to change your life once again after a 1, 5 or 20 year experiment, a modest nest egg of any amount can help smooth the way.

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deltadepartOr you decide instead to relocate to another country.  More expensive, very likely. Learning another language, living in a different climate, with different lifestyles, social norms, history, national trajectory and attitudes towards foreigners, and Americans in particular, will all play their part in your experience.

So does any of this whet your appetite, or discourage you?

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Images: earth shelters; airplane.

Ice and Fire

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[Out our front window. Standing in place and turning 180 degrees, adjusting the camera for contrast, the window of our stove.]

The Atlantic online recently posted an article titled “Awesomeness is Everything” asserting that the experience of awe makes people kinder, tunes them in spiritually, and generally adjusts our overly-human world by clueing it in to larger ones all around it.

As vastness expands our worldview, it shrinks our ego. Awe makes spiritual and religious people feel a greater sense of oneness with others. And this oneness can make us nicer: Researchers found that inducing awe—say, by having people stand in a grove of tall trees—increased generosity, in part by stoking “feelings of a small self.” Awe also shapes our sense of time. One series of studies found that awe made time feel more plentiful, which increased life satisfaction, willingness to donate time to charity,and preferences for experiences over material products.

In winter, my physical world contracts significantly. True, a car could take me to other places, but unless I have the time and resources to drive south for most of a day, the climate will stay much the same. Ice and fire predominate, returning this human life more closely to proper proportions.

Posted 20 December 2016 by adruidway in awe, Druidry, fire, ice, Thoreau, wood and water

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Jedediah Purdy’s “New Nature”

jedediah_purdy

Jedediah Purdy

In “The New Nature” (Boston Review, Jan 11, 2016), author Jedediah Purdy opens provocatively when he asserts that the current age “adds nature to the list of things we can no longer regard as natural.” His essay’s not easy going, but it definitely rewards close reading — and re-reading. Purdy’s ultimate argument is that with the profound impact of our human presence on the planet, “nature is now a political question.”

How he pushes beyond this seeming truism is significant. Those of us alive today “confront the absence of political institutions, movements, or even widely shared sentiments of solidarity and shared challenges that operate on the scale of the problems concerning resource use and distribution we now face.”

ostrichesOf course, the challenges that humans have faced throughout our history frequently outpace our existing institutions, wisdom and capacity to take effective action. That’s one workable definition of “crisis,” after all. And the compulsions and sufferings of a crisis often catalyze the formation of just those institutions, wisdoms and capacities. (They also fail to do this painfully often, as we’ve learned to our cost.)

But Purdy’s contention goes beyond apparent truism or the obvious. Our current ecological predicament takes its shape as part of the third of three “revolutions of denaturalization.” The first of these is the realization that any political order is a human choice. The “divine right of kings” is out; flawed human agency is in. Whatever is “natural” about “the way things are” is what we’ve made and accepted. It decidedly does not inhere in the universe. It is not the will of any deity. (The caliph of Daesh/ISIL has no more claim to legitimacy than a local mayor. Humans put both of them in power. Humans can take them out.)

The second revolution, not surprisingly, concerns economics. Like politics, the “natural order of things” in a given economy is anything but natural. People aren’t destined by some cosmic law to be laborers, leaders, warriors, wealth-bearers, priests, etc. Humans choose how to feed and house themselves, what things have value, and who can gain access to them. Though nowadays we define prosperity in narrow terms, as one of my favorite political writers C. Douglas Lummis points out, “How and when a people prospers depends on what they hope, and prosperity becomes a strictly economic term only when we abandon all hopes but the economic one.”* Hope for more than a paycheck means a life based on more than money.

The third revolution hinges on nature. Purdy notes, “Both politics and the economy remain subject to persistent re-naturalization campaigns, whether from religious fundamentalists in politics or from market fundamentalists in economics. But in both politics and economics, the balance of intellectual forces has shifted to artificiality.” So too is “nature” subject to deification and renaturalization, and here the implications for modern Paganism and Druidry hit home.

Given the modern reflex abhorrence in many “organic” quarters towards anything “artificial,” it may take you a moment, as it did me, to move past such associations and hear what Purdy is actually claiming. To put it another way, keep doing what we’re doing, and we’ll keep getting what we’re getting. No god or demon (or magical elemental, set of “market forces” or cosmos) orders things this way — we do. Gaia, the clear implication is, won’t come to our (or Her) aid.

A religious re-naturalization of nature is therefore insufficient, whether it’s the RDNA (Reformed Druids of North America) gospel of “Nature is good” or Pope Francis’s emphasis on a divinely-ordered world of which we ought to be more compassionate stewards. Insofar as such a renaturalization or resacralization is part of any Druid program or agenda, it’s insufficient and perhaps even an obstacle. Only a political response, Purdy maintains, can begin to be adequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene Epoch– the human era we’re now in.

inwild-thorThus, Purdy points out, “Even wilderness, once the very definition of naturalness, is now a statutory category in U.S. public-lands law.” The Sierra Club still markets this (outdated, in Purdy’s perspective) view as one of its touchstones: “In wilderness is the salvation of the world.” (By way of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, paraphrasing Thoreau’s Walden; Thoreau actually wrote preservation.)

We often uncritically hold to a romantic (and Romantic) notion of the natural world as pure or unspoiled, a realm or order which is, at least in a few surviving locations, uncontaminated by human agency. But, Purdy continues, “as a practical matter, ‘nature’ no longer exists independent of human activity. From now on, the world we inhabit will be one that we have helped to make, and in ever-intensifying ways.”

Purdy is not anti-nature by any means, as a cursory reading of his essay might at first suggest. He’s not a foe to demonize or take down on Twitter, if you’re a radical Pagan/environmentalist. But the challenges he depicts are real. As a Druid I need to pay attention when he writes things like this:

To invoke nature’s self-evident meaning for human projects is to engage in a kind of politics that tries, like certain openly religious arguments, to lift itself above politics, to deny its political character while using that denial as a form of persuasion. It is akin in its paradox to partisan mobilization in favor of constitutional originalism, which legitimates solutions to political problems by recourse to extra-political criteria—in the present case, what nature was created to be, or self-evidently is.

Such arguments succeed by enabling their advocates to make the impossible claim that only their opponents’ positions are political, while their own reflect a profound comprehension of the world either as it is or was intended to be.

Is nature (or Nature) “self-evidently” anything? If so, what? Do Druids and Pagans generally have any special insight to share that can respond to views like Purdy’s with any kind of authority or credibility? Can we demonstrate a “profound comprehension of the world” in terms that matter and more importantly will shape policy? For environmentalists (and for Pagans, though Purdy doesn’t name them), “inspiration and epiphany in wild nature became both a shared activity and a marker of identity. They worked to preserve landscapes where these defining experiences were possible.”

Install-DemBut throughout human history, Purdy notes, various and successively changing ideals of nature have underpinned diverse economic and political arrangements that always consistently disenfranchise a designated fraction of humans. Whether slaves, minorities, women, aboriginal peoples, immigrants, certain racial or ethnic groups, someone always gets the short end of the stick from these idealizations of “nature.” To hold the natural world to anything but a democratic politics, Purdy says, is to exclude, to perpetuate injustice, and to oppress.

However, Purdy goes on, if we abandon an idealized nature,

if we embrace not just the Anthropocene condition but also the insight—if we accept that there is no boundary between nature and human action and that nature therefore cannot provide a boundary around contestation—we may have the basis of a democratic future. It will be democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.

Whether a thoroughly politicized nature can aid us in creating a just future is an experiential question. We’ll prove or disprove it by political action rather than by theologizing about nature. (Yet every time we’ve attempted to discount a religious or theological view, it has returned in surprising force. Should we abandon theology for activism?)

In attempting to outline what a future democratic politics of nature might look like, Purdy offers the Food Movement as a kind of Exhibit A. Though the movement can be reduced to or parodied as privileged (mostly white) humans indulging in artisanal cheeses and wines at prices no one outside the 10% can afford, it marks the beginnings of much more, and

includes a number of elements that might be generalized to help shape the politics of the Anthropocene. First, it recognizes that the aesthetically and culturally significant aspects of environmental politics are not restricted to romantic nature but are also implicated in economic and policy areas long regarded as purely utilitarian. For example, a beautiful landscape worth preserving so that people can encounter it need not be pristine: it could be an agricultural landscape—preserved under easements or helped along by a network of farmers markets and farm-to-table organizations—whose cultural contribution is that people can work on it.

One problem with past policy is a fragmentation that separates and de-couples landscape from economy. The land is not merely a neutral resource. “The most credible food politics would combine an aesthetic attention to landscape with a concern for power and justice in the work of food production … [and] “ask what kinds of landscapes agriculture should make and what kinds of human lives should be possible there, so that the food movement’s interest in landscape and work is not restricted to showpiece enclaves for the wealthy.”

This blog and many of its concerns come under critique when Purdy remarks

It is too easy to say that, in the Anthropocene, we have to get used to change—a bromide that comes most readily to those with some control over the changes they confront—when the real problem is precisely how to build politics that can make the next set of changes more nearly a product of democratic intent than they currently seem destined to be.

addpostI write from a decided position of privilege. So, of course, does Purdy. He and I both belong to that tiny minority on the planet “with some control over the changes they confront.” And if you’re literate and have time to read blogs and access to the technology where they appear, so do you. Though some days it may not feel like it, we have the luxury to question why and imagine how and even manifest what next.

Here on this blog I contemplate and explore a minority practice and belief, and try to make sense of my experience and the historical period I find myself in. To blog at all is to write from time left after making a living. How many of us have that? Besides, if everyone talks, who listens? Blogs ideally create dialog. But often a blogger like me can be guilty of doing more talking and less listening. (It’s ideally a balance rather than a binary opposition.)

Purdy notes in that last excerpt that he spies a definite trend or direction. He hopes “the next set of changes [will be] more nearly a product of democratic intent than they currently seem destined to be.” And he ends with a curious bow that seems to evoke much he has taken pains to empty of force.

Even that thought, however, is a reminder that this is only a fighting chance, part of a fighting future. The politics of the Anthropocene will be either democratic or horrible. That alternative is no guarantee that a democratic Anthropocene would be decorous, pleasant, or admirable, but only that it would be a shared effort to shape our more-than-human future with human hands.

Is there no alternative between democratic or horrible? Isn’t our own era an example of both? And what is that “more-than-human” future he says that we will shape with our own less than godlike human hands?!

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IMAGES: Purdy; ostriches; “in wilderness” quotationinstalling democracy; add new post.

*Lummis, C Douglas. Radical Democracy. Cornell University Press, 1997.

[I happened on Lummis years ago and have been grateful ever since. A professor of cultural studies at Tsuda University in Japan, Lummis, who has spent much of life overseas, ably critiques Western trends and politics from the vantage point of an inside-outsider. Most of his work has been published in Japan, and often in Japanese — and hence he’s not as widely known in the West as he deserves.]

 

Boku no Shinto: My Shinto, Part 2

[Related posts: Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3 || Shinto — Way of the Gods || Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2 || Boku no Shinto — My Shinto 1 | 2 ]

PYogananda

Paramahamsa Yogananda

“Its technique will be your guru.” With these words (ch. 11 of his famous Autobiography, online here), a young Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and a principal exponent of Kriya Yoga in the West, counsels a peer he has just initiated into the tradition he follows himself. With these words he also points toward a kind of spiritual path that Westerners, rightly wary of super-sized personalities and god-realized con-men, can approach and walk.  A flexible and potent technique can be a trustworthy, profound and endlessly patient guide.

Technique as guru:  as a practitioner of OBOD Druidry and Eckankar, I know firsthand that a technique responds to practice and devotion as much as any teacher.  Religious and spiritual practice will always be as much art as science, because they welcome (and can profoundly benefit from) our subjectivity, even as they also point to their scientific aspect — definite and repeatable results we can achieve from dedication and regular practice.  My emotions, my commitment, my ambition and drive, my struggles and dreams can all contribute to my practice — leaven it and enrich it and make it “mine.”

my double -- b/c we were both angry at each other

“other” as double: both of us angry at each other

My anger at the driver who cut me off in traffic last week, on my way back from dropping my wife off to stay with her cousin, can help me uncover other unexplored pools of anger I can work to identify, learn from, and transform.  Anger by itself need not be bad, only unconscious anger, anger I act from unthinkingly, little different from a live wire I brush against in the dark, unintentionally — or attach to a light fixture and illuminate another step along the way.  Without the experience of anger, I might well miss the wire altogether, and forfeit a chance at illumination.

I can, if I listen, come to see that my whole life is laboratory — not only what I close the door on at 4:00 or 5:00 pm each weekday and return home from.  The individualistic-narcissistic-tending “MY spirituality” gets whittled down to more beneficial size through ongoing spiritual practice. And paradoxically reveals a personalized curriculum tailored to me, right now and here.  Anger?  Yup — that’s on my curriculum, though it may not be on yours.  And my life is ideally set up to help me work with precisely that curriculum point, just as yours is for your distinct points.  Yes — we share a “common core,” too.

compost is transition

compost: just another point along a transition

A practice like Druidry that places me in the natural world immediately begins to slim down ego in concrete ways and immediately accessible ways:  merely walk out the door, and at once it’s clear I’m not the center, nor even the “most important” thing in the universe.  I constantly meet the “spirit other”: animals, birds, trees, and beings without skin on — or bark, or fur, or scales.  I am a paragraph in a chapter, not the whole story. And that’s a good thing, because the world is guru, too. Hard limits of some kind are the only way a world can work (try seriously to imagine one without them), but if I engage them wisely, they build spiritual strength rather than frustration, nihilism and despair.  This physical body is eventual compost, like everything else: but not yet.  And this interval is all.  (Whether it is also “only” is an experiential question, one which only experience can accurately answer, not some dogma to be believed or rejected.)

“My Shinto,” my Way of the Spiritual Order of Things — let’s call it WOTSOOT — begins with the circumstances of my life today.  Here I am, a 55 year-old white male, a teacher, a cancer survivor, married, nearsighted, in fair health.   The initial details of your personal WOTSOOT naturally vary less or more from mine.  They’re also often quite superficial — party chitchat, gossip in my cul-de-sac. Because I am also a point and vector of conscious energy situated in widening networks of energy exchange.  I breathe, and chlorophyll all around me gets inputs it needs.  Bacteria on my skin and in my gut flourish, and help me flourish too, if I stay alert to their balance. I sweat and crap and piss, and nutrients move where other beings can begin to use them.  I consume some of these other beings — not too many, if the system is to remain in equilibrium — just as some them will consume me.  New networks arise, as older ones shift or die.  And part of my practice is: all praise* to the WOTSOOT!

Such processes of the physical realm are both fairly well understood and all too rarely incorporated into larger networks that spiritual teachings of all kinds tell us glow and ripple and transform and pervade the universe.  Scientific insight begins to catch up here and there with spiritual wisdom.  Not dogma, not theology, not creeds — that’s merely paparazzi spirituality — but insights into living networks — the shin-to, the “spirit-way.”  As I write and you eventually read this, we use an electronic network we’ve crafted that simulates in surprising ways organically occurring ones, and we can acknowledge the remarkable power and potential of such interactive patterns of energy and information flow as analogs to the ones we are born into.
calhobresolution

One valuable key to working with the WOTSOOT that I keep reminding myself of is “small steps. ” This works both as a starting point and a successful process, too. Any attempt at change, on any level, meets what we experience as resistance, because of inertia and equilibrium implicit in networks. (Otherwise, without inertia or resistance, they’d never have a chance to grow and develop at all, shifting and falling apart at the least push or pull from outside.  They wouldn’t become “things,” which are semi-lasting whorls and eddies in the flow of WOTSOOT.)

We all have heard that “If it works, don’t fix it,” which is fine, except that a corresponding inherent tendency toward change means that even as it’s working, it’s also changing, or accumulating energy toward change.  Often the changes are small, and if we model ourselves on this larger pattern, our small changes will accord with the flow around us.  (Small ongoing changes help us avoid really disabling larger ones, that can manage to accumulate a staggering wallop of energy if we don’t make those smaller changes.)

“Change your life,” counsels your friendly neighborhood deity of choice.  Okay: but do it in manageable chunks, unless a cataclysm conveniently presents itself to you, ready-made. I have a profoundly messy office right now: too much for a single day of cleaning, without a herculean effort.  Sometimes I can muster one.  But one box today, one shelf tomorrow? That I can manage most days.  Thus both my spiritual paths exhort me to daily practice. (With two paths, as long as I get in at one least set of practices, I’m usually ahead of the game.   I double my options — and find overlaps and interweave and insight from such doubled options — the paths are no longer nearly so separate, but feed each other and me.)

gmplogo

our local VT electrical utility

In concrete terms of just one network, in one person’s life? — Let’s choose the physical for convenience, since we’ve established and can understand a set of fairly common labels like physical measures.  My wife and I have reduced our “garbage” to an average of 8 pounds a week — mostly non-biodegradable packaging and other non-compostables at this point — and I’m working to bring it down from there.  (Why? Throw it “away”?  Nothing goes “away” — it always ends up somewhere, and the nastier it is, the deeper it usually sinks its fangs in my butt when it returns.  Part of my practice, then, is shrinking my “away” — out of pure self-interest, mind you!)  Everything else we’re able to compost or recycle, thanks to recycling options in our region of southern Vermont. We continue to tweak our car and woodstove emissions by wise use, insulation, consolidation of trips, carpooling, etc.  Infrastructure shifts will eventually impact these, as mass transit improves and efficiencies increase, or whole modes (like petroleum-sourced energy) eventually fall out of use.  Only this February 2014, out of the past 24 months, did we use more electricity than our solar panels generated, so we’re in the black there.  But a chunk of that comes from liberal surplus buy-back subsidies from GMP, our local electrical utility company.

Cap'n Henry T.

Cap’n Henry T.

All told, apart from property taxes, our annual shelter costs run roughly $600 — for firewood.  I mention all this as evidence for one person’s start at working with one network among many — by no means an endpoint, nor a claim for any kind of praise or desire for virtue** or self-satisfaction.  It’s part of practice, a point along a continuum, remembering my practice is both a “what to live for,” and also a “how to live” at all.  And again I repeat: your practice, because you are you, necessarily differs.  As H. D. Thoreau observes, “I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”

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Images:  Paramahansa Yoganandathat “other” drivercompostCalvin and Hobbes resolution;  Green Mountain Power;  Thoreau.

*I don’t know about you, but I can feel gratitude without needing a target, a recipient or respondent:  a magnificent cloudy sky or bright flash of plumage or swirling blizzard evokes awe and gratitude I love to express.  Do I need to say I’m grateful to Anyone?  Can’t I simply be grateful for? Of course! Gratitude feels good.  Why deny myself such pleasure?  There’s a motivation if you need it: practice gratitude out of selfishness, because it makes you feel good, if for no other reason!  Or if I choose to thank a spirit or Spirit, that in no way detracts from my gratitude.  A target for it is another kind of pleasure I choose not to deny myself.

**Except for virtue in the older sense of “strength” or “power.”  This kind of “original virtue” is literally “manliness” — what a vir “man” ideally accomplishes that makes him worthy to be called vir — to de-gender it, “what humans do at their best.”  And what’s “best”?  That which accords with the Way, the Tao or pattern of the universe.

Updated: 7 July 2014

DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1

[Part 2 | Part 3]

Ritual Language and the Case of Latin

Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes.  The most visible example in the West is Latin.  The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin.  For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites.  If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages.  Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.

tridmass

Language as Sacrament

The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.  The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning.  The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience.  What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words.  Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.

chantcoverAnd depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.

Issues with Ritual Language

One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible.  Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language?  Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer?  Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship?  Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.

“The King’s English”

kjvcoverFor English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611.  What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use.  A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.

Druid and Pagan Practice

When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably.  Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided.  Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general.  Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants?  If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity.  It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?

druidrite

Ritual Primers

Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page.  The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas.  To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy.  That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time.  Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you.  Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.”  As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give.  And finally, people can and will make mistakes.  In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.

(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels

Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way.  In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language.  While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists.  He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity.  This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters.  (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)

About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.”  Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation.  Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'”  An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be.  That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.”  But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience.  In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.

As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft.  After all, boxes are for things, not people.  Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”

Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity.  When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite.  The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.

A Human Undersong

Where to go from here?  Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience.  “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm.  “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song.  It’s universal.”  As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.

Paradoxes of Particularity

Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience.  (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the  sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**)  And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality.  We quite literally say who and what we are.  The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture.  And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.

In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.

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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.

*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.

**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context.  If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring.  Wonder is at the heart of it.  Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:

A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!

Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true?  If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.

I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)

Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!

If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.

Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014

Imbolc 2013

windowAll I know is cold, and Imbolc kindles the heart.

All I know is sun too far, and Imbolc reminds me of inner fire still burning.

All I know is winter darkness, and Imbolc pours gold light over it.

Praise for eternal return.

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Image source: unknown.  If you know, please drop me a note and I’ll gladly give credit.

Posted 2 February 2013 by adruidway in Druidry, holiday, Imbolc, theology, Thoreau

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