Archive for the ‘William Blake’ Category

The Democracy of Incarnate Living   Leave a comment

“The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure” — William Blake, “The Proverbs of Hell”.

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“Where do you get your ideas from?” Every writer’s been asked this question, and every writer morosely ponders it anew, when inspiration flags and the blank page or screen stares back. When the awen is flowing, writing’s a pleasure. When it’s not (or as my guide might say, “It’s flowing differently”), often the real work begins: to listen, to bless the fallow times. To let go. Or as one of my teachers puts it, “Sit, sing, and wait”. No — not a prescription for doing nothing, but rather a particular kind of blessing. To bless ourselves is often the hardest work of all. It asks less than we’re willing to do, because doing isn’t the issue. At least not the kind of doing I usually do.

Often I get ideas from you, my readers. I look at the site statistics and find an old post from a year or two past is getting traction again. Why that topic? Why the interest now? I re-read it and listen for what might be speaking. What are you looking for? What’s shaking in your lives right now? Often, too, human memory being what it is, I don’t remember the post well (or at all), and so I can come upon it with something like fresh perception. Your interest helps me look and listen. And if it’s happening with you, it’s almost a sure thing it’s happening with me, too.

In the previous post, I wrote of honoring the mundane, respecting this world and its rhythms and changes. I go out later today to a new fire circle in my backyard to ask that it be consecrated. I initially wrote “to consecrate it”, and that could well be accurate, if I took on the sole responsibility of hallowing it. But even then, other energies and presences are involved. Because do I ever act alone? More and more, I’m learning at least my own answer to that question.

I ask for consecration, as well as performing it myself, in order to hear something of what goes on around and through me. As a capacitor and transformer of spirit, I find listening almost always clues me in that there’s more going on than I suspected. This is a suspicious universe, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. There’s so much to imagine might be happening, and imagination will pull back the curtain, open the window. I suspect the sacred all around and within me.

And then? Often, because vision’s my default sense, I expect, or suspect, I’ll see something. Instead, an air blows through the open space that carries me with it. Or a bird calls, or one of the sugar ants that have invaded our house this summer crawls across my arm. I start, and grumble at a meditation interrupted, until slowly it occurs to me this is a message. I’m part of a host of others, of selves, and we spiral together. Consecrate a circle or grove, and every square centimeter is stuffed with beings. Even counting only those with skins on.

In a post from a few years back that’s been drawing readers, I wrote,

So we return and begin (again) with the things of earth, these sacred objects and substances.  As sacraments, earth, air, fire and water can show us the holy, the numinous.  Their daily embodiments in food and drink, precious metals and gems and sex, pleasure and learning and science, music and literature and theater, sports and war and craft, are our earliest teachers.  They are part of the democracy of incarnate living, the access points to the divine that all of us meet and know in our own ways.

Not bad, but I’d add: “their daily embodiments” in embodiments. In all the Others that journey with me. These are the ones I’ll invite to join me as I open my inner grove, and as I light the first fire in the new fire circle later today.

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While digging up our yard for a new foundation last fall, our contractor unearthed a lot of stones. We asked him to pile them on the edge of the excavated area, suspecting we’d find places for them eventually, and wanting them nearby and handy, rather than neatly dropped along our property line — and further away to carry. Puzzled, he agreed. When his crew returned two months ago to reseed the area with grass, they added to the pile as they raked and smoothed the dirt. We could hear them talking and see them shaking their heads as they threw more onto the pile in what looked to them like the middle of our back yard.

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And now some serve for a fire circle, and others — the two or three large ones above — may work for seats or altar stones, if we can manage to shift them and set them firmly in place. To give you an idea of size, the large one to the right weighs a few hundred pounds (150 kilos or more).

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Thirty Days of Druidry 3: “The World Has To Be Dreamed”   Leave a comment

augofinn

Sometimes an evocative line can serve up a good day’s worth of Druid meditation. An article on schizophrenia in the current New Yorker offers this fabulous paragraph on the development of the brain, with its potent last line:

The human eye is born restless. Neural connections between the eyes and the brain are formed long before a child is born, establishing the wiring and the circuitry that allow her to begin visualizing the world the minute she emerges from the womb. Long before the eyelids open, during the early development of the visual system, waves of spontaneous activity ripple from the retina to the brain, like dancers running through their motions before a performance. These waves reconfigure the wiring of the brain—rehearsing its future circuits, strengthening and loosening the connections between neurons. (The neurobiologist Carla Shatz, who discovered these waves of spontaneous activity, wrote, “Cells that fire together, wire together.”) This fetal warmup act is crucial to the performance of the visual system: the world has to be dreamed before it is seen.

I find myself wanting to draw out this image, to extend its reach, then try out those extensions to see whether and how they might be true. Dream a world and you can see it. Sing before you can hear anything, let alone the music of the spheres. Limn the deeds and character of a deity, and she begins to manifest at the invitation of this earliest devotion. Imagine with whatever awen drops into your awareness, and the transformation of that subtle primordial seed-stuff proceeds apace. We nurture energies and impulses, not merely passively experiencing them, and they weaken and die or grow and thrive in the womb of human consciousness. How many things are literally unthinkable until that first person somewhere thinks them? What can I give birth to today? (Schizophrenia, and creativity too, have physical correlates — according to research cited in the article they both issue from the processes mentioned of strengthening and loosening connections between neurons.)

Old Billy Blake, sometime-maybe Druid, maybe madman, says in the last lines of his poem “Auguries of Innocence“:

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see [with] not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

Praise be then to the Keepers — and Seekers — of such Double Vision. And I ask myself: Can we see the world whole in any other way? Hail, Day-dwellers, Night-dwellers, Walkers of Both Worlds!

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Image: “Infinity”

Of Orders and Freedoms, Part 1   1 comment

[Part 2]

Lorna Smithers’ comments about Druid Orders on the last post, “Facing a Critique,” have revolved fruitfully in my thoughts for the last couple of days.  I have to laugh at finding myself, if not defending groups and organizations, at least examining their virtues as evenhandedly as possible, given that I’m not much of a “joiner” either, though I’m a member of OBOD.

Smithers reflects:

It was my preconceptions about the middleclassness and conservatism of Druidry that made me steer well clear of it until a couple of years ago until Phil Ryder of The Druid Network gave a talk at my local pagan society, voicing that it isn’t all about robes, ceremony and tradition but forming relationships with the land and communities in which we live. Which identifies it more with radical ecology and grass roots movements than middle class conservatism.

Many people instinctively shy from joining groups for the reasons Smithers gives: they’re confining to the person who wants and needs to do more than follow convention and the group-think that too often can arise from, and mar, such organizations.  To many people, the energy and effort required to acclimate to a group don’t equal the advantages that come with belonging.  And there are definite advantages, which I’ll talk about later.

A 1906 Breton gorsez (gorsedd)

A 1906 Breton gorsez (gorsedd)

Druid groups are of course no more exempt from these weaknesses than any other human institution.  And for a number of secular Druid groups, some of the satisfactions of belonging are indeed the “robes, ceremony and tradition.”  The Welsh, Cornish and Breton gorseddau (the Welsh plural of gorsedd “gathering”) are specifically intended to promote poetry, music and scholarship, and the annual public gatherings are rich with ceremony and symbolism — and robes.

Smithers continues:

I’ve never been able to bring myself to join an Order such as OBOD and pay for their tuition because I don’t want my relationship with nature and the divine to be determined by anybody else’s structure, and I believe one’s local land and community, its spirits and deities are the greatest teachers.

If ever there was a succinct manifesto not just for the solitary Druid, but for all Druids, there it is:  “one’s local land and community, its spirits and deities are the greatest teachers.”

Yet we need some kind of structure, even if it’s free-form: a shape for our journeying, a cairn along the forest path.  Where to find it?  William Blake is credited with saying, “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.”  Sexist pronouns aside, his words ring true.  The challenge for the solitary is to be open and receptive enough to perceive what she is being taught, to catch the lessons of the spirits and deities and local land and community.  Orders can help in teaching techniques of openness.  And the community of the like-minded, of one’s fellows, or of a more formal Order is often the leaven that forms in us an opening to new experience.  We catch awen from others’ inspiration, we take flame from neighboring fires.

In my experience, a good half of spirituality is “caught” not “taught.”  Or the teaching simply says listen!  In the presence of others, human and non-human, we find what we seek when we inhabit fully our ears and eyes and tongues and noses and skins.  What we need, to quote Moses at his most Druidic, is right here: “It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”*  To obey is to listen and then to heed what we have heard, to follow what we know in our hearts, what we recognize is present to guide and heal and inspire us.

Emma Restall Orr

Emma Restall Orr

Emma Restall Orr, for a decade the joint chief of the British Druid Order (BDO), has pondered deeply some of the challenges of identity, authority, hierarchy and freedom in and outside formal “orders.”  Her several short articles in the excellent BDO booklet Druidry: Rekindling the Sacred Fire deserve repeated reading.  Here in “So What is the BDO?” she pinpoints the issues:

In keeping with so much of modern Druidry, the BDO exists as a paradox.  And like modern Druidry, it is rather difficult to describe.  A good place to begin might be to declare that the BDO exists largely as a concept:  a means by which things get done, an organized non-organization.  Druidry is sometimes easier to define through what it is not, and so is the BDO.  It is not a source of teaching for an ancient faith or culture reconstructed.  It is not aiming to proclaim a definitive Druidry, be it 3000 years old, 200 or 10.  We have a mailing list of subscribers who receive our journal and various other leaves of information, then there are others who belong to our groves but do not subscribe, and many more who attend our affiliated gorseddau [gatherings].  Essentially these are the members and friends of the British Druid Order.  Yet the ‘membership’ exists only in this personal way.  It is horrifying the number of people, Druid chiefs to media men, who ask what is the membership of the BDO in order to judge its influence and validity.  For us, the very existence of a ‘membership’ brings up connotations of an organization to which some people belong and others don’t. And once we find ourselves with an organization with this list of people attached, each one of them investing their energy and their loyalty, those who run the organization begin to find themselves taking responsibility for — and, the gods forbid, speaking on behalf of — that membership, who in turn on some level look to the organizers, and before you know it people are defining positions, and the great confusion of hierarchy and politics ensues.  The whole problem of who does represent the membership quickly arises and next comes the democracy or dictatorship debate … Such political considerations are not part of the spiritual tradition that the BDO encourages or practices (65).**

The anti-authoritarian tone of Orr’s words finds a sympathetic reception on both sides of the Atlantic; if anything, Orders like ADF are every bit as structured as OBOD, and many people prefer to remain solitary or at least unaffiliated.  John Michael Greer, a member of both orders, and head of a third, AODA, is uniquely positioned to comment about structures and hierarchies.  In an article on the ADF website, he notes:

Each type of organization has its advantages and disadvantages. The minimalist approach followed by OBOD has resulted in a streamlined and efficient structure that needs to devote very little time to organizational matters, and has played a large part in helping OBOD go from the edge of extinction to become the largest Druid order in the world in only ten years. On the other hand, its success depends almost entirely on the personal qualities of the Chosen Chief, and members who are dissatisfied with OBOD policies have very few options other than voting with their feet. By contrast, ADF has achieved impressive organizational continuity and has extensive checks and balances in place to prevent malfeasance; this has been paid for by a need for so much involvement in organizational issues that many other matters have had to be neglected for years running.

What this means for actual practice, and what Druids can do whom the land calls and who divine that Orders are not for them, are among the things I’ll tackle in Part 2.

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Images: Breton gorsez; Emma Restall Orr

*Deut. 30:12-14; New  International Version.

**The British Druid Order.  Druidry: Rekindling the Sacred Fire. Peterborough: Express Printing, 2002.

Updated/edited 20 October 2013

Earth Religion and What We’ll Miss   Leave a comment

blueberry-pie-cut-2-smIn I Remember Nothing*, one of the last things screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote before her death in June 2012, the final short chapter is titled “What I Will Miss.”  It’s simply a list, tinged with an anticipatory nostalgia that became clear in retrospect after her passing — and testimony to a life in which the most memorable things aren’t really things (unless you count people as mere objects — if you do, go away) so much as experiences.  Here’s the entire list:

My kids
Nick [her husband of twenty years, Nicolas Pileggi]
Spring
Fall
Waffles
The concept of waffles
Bacon
A walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
Fireworks
Laughs
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Butter
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Paris
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Pie

The wonder and beauty of this list is that however different your list is, you get the love here.   Yes, Ephron’s financial success means that among her items are Paris and Istanbul and more dining out than many of us can afford.  But there’s no disagreeing about what should or shouldn’t be on Ephron’s list, because we each have our own list.  Her list doesn’t negate mine.  It celebrates her life while it leaves room for everyone else’s — it positively invites me, in fact, to celebrate mine, just by being a list, a tally, a memoir of pleasure.

Earth religion calls us to celebrate and cherish the things of this world because this is where and when we live.  The brute acid irony of the present age, filled as it is with increasing numbers of people who say this life is the only one we get, is that it is also an age of the greatest ongoing and criminal destruction of the planet.  If we will miss the things on our lists, and the quality of our fondness, if not the exact identity of our items, closely resembles that of everyone else alive now, it should make the same kind of deep visceral sense that a warm breeze on the skin or a cool drink in the throat does to help each other increase our fondness and spread the capacity for delight, and to preserve their sources, instead of denying joy to others while simultaneously pissing in the common well.  If we were even one tenth the materialists we think we are, we’d worship the material, revere the physical, treating it lovingly and respectfully, rather than bitch-slapping it like an abusive spouse.

Now it’s true that if my wife and I indulged more often in even some of the things on our own lists, we’d be what her grandmother used to say of others with a sniff: “fat and happy.”  And the sum of earth religion doesn’t mean merely to stuff ourselves silly with everything Dr. Oz says is bad for us,  or vacuum up experiences like we’re snorting coke.  But not enjoying the world is along the lines of holding your breath to get what you want.  After you wake with a touch of headache, you may be no closer to getting what you want, and you’ll have missed out on pie, or butter, or bacon, or time spent with friends, or whatever your pleasure of the moment was, while you went ahead and had your tantrum.  And you’ll have denied pleasure and joy to others, one of the cheapest and deepest forms of joy out there.

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When I consider what if anything may survive my death (yes, even here the possessive creeps in, as though I own my death, one among the many other objects to bequeath to my heirs and assigns), it’s very likely that a love of these things won’t be among them.  While I adore blueberries, and that love connects me to a weekend when I was five and I stayed with my grandmother who fed them to me while my parents attended the World’s Fair in New York City, it’s not an essential piece of me.  Even my love of silence, which we might reasonably expect to run deeper, is in part a reaction to the noise of nearly two decades of working with adolescents in groups.  So what IS essential?

A leap and a turn:  stay with me.  Much is made of finding one’s True Will in magic, the Hermetic equivalent of salvation or realization or enlightenment people seek elsewhere.  As Frater Acher remarks in his introduction to Josephine McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate, “Isn’t peeling away layer after layer of ego-driven wishes and desires to finally find and fulfill my True Will what drove mages for at least … well, at least since Crowley succeeded in establishing the highly ambiguous term “True Will” as the most successful fig leaf since the philosophy of hedonism to turn your life into a self-centered journey of narcissism?”**  We can take a clue from Blake (as long-time readers know, one of my go-to figures among the Wise) who said “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  This life matters.  It’s not a rehearsal, though it is practice, in the sense that musicians and artists practice to keep growing and to continually refine their art.  Infinity in the palms of our hands, eternity in our hours:  we’ve all had a taste, a hint, the briefest glimpse, though it slips away again into yesterday and tomorrow.  Here and now is where and when we always begin again.

In his poem “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur echoes St. Augustine, who with Christian diffidence in his love of the physical, exclaims of his awareness of the divine, “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all.” (Book X, paragraph 27), trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin.  Augustine struggles to reconcile the paradox of the physical as both distraction and divine presence — incarnation.  Here is Wilbur’s poem in response, in conversation, a fine coda for this entry:

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Image:  blueberry pie.

*Ephron, Nora.  I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2010, pp. 134-5.

**McCarthy, Josephine.  Magic of the North Gate.  Oxford, UK: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013, pp. 7-8.

Updated 5 October 2013; corrected works to productions in Blake quotation “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  Same idea, faulty memory for exact wording.

A Ghost-Druid Dialog   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

That kind of seeing and holding requires a special focus, a clear attention, I think, as I hurry to lunch, distinctly UN-focused, a dozen thoughts jangling, after two very different conversations with students during conference period.  My freshman advisee Walt has asked about the intricacies of some scheduling for sophomore year, while Ann, a junior and a former student, has come to talk about polishing a remarkable piece of journal writing from her freshman year for possible publication.

At the dining hall table where I often sit, Mr. Madden, Mr. Ritter and Mr. Delahunt are chuckling about an old piece of school gossip concerning the previous administration.  Ms. Valenti  joins us, and the conversation soon shifts to the deer that appear early almost every morning in the yards of the faculty residences on the campus periphery, where Ms. Valenti and Mr. Madden live in senior faculty houses.  Ms. Valenti describes the ten- or eleven-point buck she saw standing motionless in her driveway earlier in the week.  Mr. Delahunt mentions that he’s learned a small herd of deer beds down each night in a wooded gully between the new science building and the peripheral faculty housing. I cheer silently for these animal lives thriving, often just beyond our knowledge, in this apparently suburban part of the world.

At first I think all of this is mere distraction, but Blake reminds me yet again there’s a whole world here, eternity and infinity too, if I only see and touch them.  We all gobble our food, and I hurry back to my first afternoon class with my seniors.  So many grains of sand: underfoot, on the stairwell carpets of the English building, in my second-floor office when I reach down to pick up a fallen paperclip from the floor.  Each one a world, if I had time to see it.  Next year I will have time, because this is my last here.  Voluntary poverty, or insanity, or more than a little of both.

Class goes fast with my fifth period Brit Lit seniors.  Many of them read from the satires they’ve written in imitation of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  We don’t work on Blake, but here is eternity, too.  For a few moments we’re all paying attention, laughing at a satire of college admissions, or the sleep deprivation so many students face, not thinking about anyone or anything else — about the test next period, the sick friend, the college rejection letter, deadlines, schedules, midterm tomorrow, the weather, or whether a visionary dead white male Romantic poet may or may not have anything useful to say to us.

blake

Mr. Blake, we survived the 2012 fake apocalypse, I feel like crowing.  His ghost seems to nod, looking out the window at the light fog that huddles over the nearest quad.  Maybe that’s the best we can do, right now, our version of eternity: bad apocalypse.

Unwilling to share their satires, the sixth period seniors struggle with Blake.  We work through a couple of the easier poems, and soon I can tell it’s “drag” time.  I drag them through a few more, trying to open up the sometimes seeming-simplistic usually-complex lines.  Blake’s ghost sighs heavily.  An uphill climb for everyone, even though I’m working harder than usual to exhume the poet from two centuries of cultural and historic static that seems to buzz between the words on the page and the lives of my students.  I give them a creative writing exercise, and one soft-spoken girl produces a lovely poem inspired by the lines at the top of this post.  Her lines offer almost all sensory detail, a lovely lyric, with none of the teen angst that normally trails after much adolescent poetry like a homeless dog.  I give thanks for such things.

Blake, old sage, tyger-burner, Jerusalem-singer, painter and poet of the 19th century as strange and full of possibility as our 21st … what else do you have to tell me?  I listen as I write, content for a moment to hear the voice of silence in and around the clicks and taps of the keyboard.  “Hear the voice of the Bard, who past, present and future sees …”  With the view out my window circumscribed to the present only, I can tell I have my work cut out for me.  Blake’s ghost nods encouragingly.  Time to begin again.

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image:  “Beatrice addresses Dante”; William Blake

Updated 23 April 2015

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