Nineteen Days of Brighid   2 comments

Imbolc, the February 1st or 2nd holiday, part of the seasonal cycle of the “Great Eight” Pagan festivals, has long been associated with Brighid. Goddess, saint, patron of poets, smiths and healers, Brighid is a potent presence for many Druids. Christian Druids can honor her in either or both traditions, and her legends and symbols — effective points of access to her — are many.

Among the traditions that have gathered around her is the significance of the number 19 — whether part of the ancient awareness of the moon’s Metonic cycle, or the Christian tradition for determining Easter, curiously associated with the full moon, or the 19 nuns at Kildare connected with Saint Brighid. Or the practice of 19 days of magic focused on devotion to the goddess-saint, which this post examines. As a Druid-Christian link, the number and practices associated with Imbolc and Brighid can join the others I’ve talked about in other posts here as yet another means to transcend argument or debate, and find blessing.

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Nineteen days with Imbolc in the center (on Feb. 1), the 10th day, begin January 23 and take us to February 10.

As this circle is cast, the enchantment of the apparent world fades … We stand together in the eye of the sun here and now …

So goes part of OBOD standard ritual. Why, you might be asking, if Druids say they wish to attune themselves to the natural world, do they practice ritual that sees the natural world as both enchanted and apparent?

Well, we still stand “in the eye of the sun”. Partly it’s “talking self” (see this and this post) that distracts us, that enchants us in the sense of holding us spellbound (and self-bound) rather than freeing us to grow. Circles concentrate energy and attention, contain them for the duration of the ritual, and can help charge us as instruments of the divine in order that we may “know, dare, will and keep silent”, as the old adage goes. So we circle alone and together to watch that particular enchantment fade, so that others can manifest more clearly. It’s a choice of enchantments. Do you like the current ones at work in the world? “She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes”. Sign me up!

Spending the interval from now till the beginning of the 19 days, a week from today, determining what service to offer, what magic to work, is time well spent.

I’ll be following up here with my experiences.

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Image: Brighid. My preference is for deity images that aren’t sentimental or “airbrush pretty”. Contemporary artists often portray sexy gods and goddesses, which is fine, but as an image for meditation I’d rather not use soft porn.

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Applied Druidry: Cleansing after a Rough Day   Leave a comment

“What does Druidry do for you?”

Here’s an edited compilation of responses to a recent online question in a forum I follow, with wonderful suggestions for cleansing and purifying after work. I’ve removed all identifying personal information.

Q:

I have a challenging job and need to leave it behind, along with all the emotions and difficulties people around me have to deal with. What kinds of practices do you all do to cleanse and purify yourself after work?

A:

I find that something I can touch, smell, hear in a way that relaxes me and centers me is a comfort. Ritual object, drinking goblet, sacred stone, etc.

A quick “light shower” exercise — visualizing/feeling light pouring down on the top of your head and washing off the energies of the day. Combine it with a physical shower for fuller effect.

Or the “snowball” exercise — another visualization — balling up everything you don’t want/need, packing it tightly as you would a snowball, and then tossing it into a golden river to be washed away. Sometimes I do a more intense version of this, raking, shoveling the stuff and bulldozing it into the river. Doing a version physically with a piece of paper (“write the crap away”), stone, etc., and then burying/burning it, letting the elemental energies take it and transmute it. Or some combo of these — these are among my quicker go-to strategies.

I find the entrance to my home is an important transitional portal. I keep things around the door that mean something to me. These may include crystals, Medicine Wheels, fresh and dried herbs and plants or flowers. I get a visual and spiritual boost from these items when they greet me each day returning to my sanctuary (home).

One Native custom is to leave a basket outside your door where guests and yourself ‘dump’ any negative or burdensome thought into the basket before entering. (It’s considered rude to enter a Native’s home and start spilling your problems on them.) Hope this helps in some way.

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I also have a small covered porch at my front door and I load it up with seasonal greenery, plants, statuary, crystals, sage, sweetgrass, cedar etc. — all the things that bring me peace.

There are a couple of areas I jokingly call “psychic car washes” on the drive home — mainly white pine groves — that I use to recenter myself. As I drive through, I imagine the energies of the trees enfolding me and pulling away any gunk collected during the day. Tunnels and places where there are high rock walls on either side of the road also work well for this.

I always intention where “it” goes when it leaves me — body of water or into Mother Earth as fertilizer — not leaving it for an empathic type to stumble upon it!

You could clap around your aura to break up any stagnant energy and loosen up anything you want to release. Then do a body shake to shake it off. You could do this before you step into the house or upon entering the front door after you take off your coat and boots.

Some wonderful ideas here! Reading through all this, I had the feeling it is also good to get into a give/take balance. How about after getting rid of the stuff you say a prayer / blessing over a water bottle and drink it? For recharging yourself as part of the rite.

I love the idea of water as healer/cleanser — I like to charge up water in the 3 nights of the full moon!

Set up a “coming home” shrine. Add stuff to it you find soothing, Feathers, seashells, beach rocks — stuff that speaks to you about relaxation. When you get home, light some joss, spend 3-4 minutes with it.

I have so many inspired ideas from this great sharing. Here’s a variation on the ancient Jewish custom. Put something meaningful to you on the door frame. Kiss it each time you enter or leave your home!

I picture a ball of white light at my sternum and expand it quickly to the edges of my field — clearing away and neutralizing the negative and the energy that is not mine. At the edges of my field it dissolves.

I also sweep across myself cutting and removing all that doesn’t serve me and isn’t mine.

After either of these I ask the universe to neutralize the energy and release it.

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Please share your own techniques in the comments.

Devotionals   Leave a comment

On a Druidry Facebook group I’m a member of, the question arises a few times each year: what makes Druidry distinctive? In other words, if you’re looking over your options, “Why this and not that?”

Sustained contact with the green world is first practice, never abandoned, never out of date.

In a comment on the last post here, bpott said she was told in meditation to “practice devotionals to the gods outdoors. Lighting a candle to Brighid and sitting with her, or pouring water in a bowl for the moon to infuse its energy and listening to Manannan are such devotionals. There is indeed much to be gained through these spiritual practices”.

But this isn’t something for you to take anyone’s word for. It’s not that kind of observation. Words are meant guide us to own experience and back out again, to reflect so we can experience deeper.

Or as J M Greer puts it,

Druidry means following a spiritual path rooted in the green Earth.  It means embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit.

We regularly need reminders like these, because Talking Self sidetracks us.

“Talking Self” — you know, that chatty, sometimes neurotic self we use to read and post on Facebook, grumble at headlines we don’t like, and cheer for ones we do. It can often persuade us that it is all of who we are, because its medium is language and the thoughts and feelings language kindles in us. Name it, says Talking Self, trying to keep everything in its domain of names and words. (The Dao De Jing quietly reminds us “the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth”.)

Druidry says take yourself out of talking self and into Self — the being linked in its sinew and blood, bone and spirit, to all that is — rivers and streams, woods and meadows, valleys and hills, tundra and deserts, bird and beech, beast and bass and bug.

When you come back, you can turn Talking Self toward song or ritual, if you like — give it something to do that it does well — but in the service of something higher than reactive gossip and self-importance and anxiety.

And “going outdoors” doesn’t have to entail a frigid January plunge through a hole in the ice at the local lake. It may be as simple as smelling an evergreen twig you picked up yesterday on a walk, and now you hold it as you meditate, on the change of seasons, the incense of a living thing on your fingers and in your nose. Crafting a banner or a poem for the next time your Grove meets — at Imbolc in February. Baking and taking a gift to an elderly neighbor or the local soup kitchen. Grooming your dog or cat.

All these things re-engage the body and give Talking Self a break. Poor thing, it needs one. These practices help restore our connections. They gift us with balance. For these reasons they are, in a curious word more often associated with another tradition, incarnational. They literally put us into our bodies, even as they give Spirit shapes and forms we can experience.

Many forms of Spirit, many bodies to experience them: earth body and dream body and thought body and memory body. And others we haven’t begun to explore.

I lay the makings of a fire in our woodstove, crumpled newspaper and punky dry strips of willow from a fallen branch two years ago, and thin strips of a log split and split and split again. Wood’s our primary heat-source — we’re far too stingy to waste money on our electric backup, except in direst emergencies, and then the power may have gone out anyway. I can pause a moment before setting the match to the kindling and honor Brighid. The makings of a devotional. Not “believe in Her”, not “profess my faith She exists”, but honor Her. Often something quite different.

As someone once quipped, more important than me believing in Brighid is Brighid believing in me. What god would care to waste attention on a human who isn’t ever here? But if I’m here and as I honor Her I sense She’s here, what’s left to believe? It’s the honoring that’s important. The connection.

The Druid experience continually “abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit”. Continually, because my rigidity will creep back in, and fire and touch can warm and soften and free me from inflexible habits and open me to change and love.

I met Brighid most intimately through the task of firing up the woodstove when we settled in Vermont in 2008.  Fire became a daily reality each winter (and much of spring and autumn, too). The wonder of fire and the opportunity of honor to Brighid needn’t be separate from the gathering of kindling and the match. Our winter-fires may not be the reverential fire of Kildare — though they can be. Every morning.

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Today I’ll take out the ash to the compost pile, the midden, lovely old word. I let the freshly-removed ash sit out in the hod for a week, so I’m not dumping a pile of embers outdoors on a windy day. Old ash out, new ash to the hod, new fire to the stove ,whose walls are still warm to the touch. I set the kindling, whisper a sometimes wordless prayer to the goddess, and watch as flames grow and spread.

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taking out the ash

 

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new fire

My devotional has to take a particular, concrete form if it’s to exist at all for the body and senses to engage. Spiritual-but-not-religious knows this, instinctively keeps seeking but then abandoning forms, because it distrusts forms even as it senses their value. But it’s the dead form and the opinions-and-then-dogmas of Talking Self that are the obstacle to spiritual connection, not form itself.

Oh, Lord [goes one prayer] forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.
Thou art Everywhere, but I worship thee here:
Thou art without form, but I worship thee in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer thee these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

Except they’re not limitations at all: the way to do them in time and space is with temporal and spatial forms. I find little limitation in building a fire and honoring Brighid too. My devotional is a matter of intention, of choice. When I’m on another plane, I adopt its forms. (In dreams I fly, with dream-power my earth body doesn’t have.) But now, here (no need to apologize for limitations*), these forms.

Without a form, no transformation, whisper the Wise.

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*The words “limit” and “limitations” are dirty words, far more obscene these days than any other. Obsessed with freedom, we miss what limits are and signify for us.

A shape is a limitation. Personally, I like shapes and forms. If I had no particular shape or form, I wouldn’t be “free” — I’d be monstrous, “de-formed”.

J M Greer notes in his Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. 2012, pgs. 42-53:

A field mouse, for example, has teeth and a digestive system that are fine-tuned to get nutrients from seeds and other concentrated plant foods, and so that is what field mice eat. They do not eat crickets, even though crickets are very nourishing; they leave crickets to the garter snakes. They do not eat herbs, even though herbs are very abundant; they leave herbs to the rabbits. They limit themselves to one kind of food, and as a result their bodies and their behavior are exquisitely shaped to get and use that kind of food. Rather than jacks-of-all-trades, they are masters of one.

… the elegant lines of the blade [of grass] have evolved to make the most economical use of limited energy and resources, for example, and the curve at which it bends measures the limit of the blade’s strength in the presence of the wind. Remove the limits from the grass, and its beauty goes away. The same thing is true of all beauty, in nature as a whole and in the subset of nature we call human life: beauty is born when a flow of nature encounters firm limits, and the more perfect its acceptance of those limits, the greater the beauty will be.

… The same thing is true of all power, in nature as a whole and in that subset of nature we call human life: power is born when a flow of energy encounters firm limits, and the more narrow the outlet left open by those limits, the greater the power will be.

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LPF — Listening, Prayer and Fasting   2 comments

In a post from last August I pondered “the wisdom of the Galilean Master, who counseled prayer and fasting. And to make it a Druidic triad, we’ll add listening, because listening is another face it wears. Listening, prayer and fasting. LPF.”

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front door view, 5 Jan 2018

And though it’s a Triad, each component works well by itself, if I’m not up for practicing all three as a package deal.

I have Druid friends who practice a regular weekly media fast — priceless counsel in these days of overloud and unhinged media assaulting our sensibilities. It’s not a fluke, or an indulgence. It’s simple self-preservation. No matter your affiliations and allegiances, it fits — it serves your highest good: the noise has gotten louder, more obnoxious, intrusive, demanding. How, I ask, is my spiritual armor holding up?

I find one version of LPF particularly useful if I’m about to fire off that tweet or Facebook post I could easily regret in five minutes or less. Or the quick retort to a co-worker or partner that has an unwonted, and unwanted, edge to it.

“Sit, sing, and wait”, to put it in words that practitioners of my other spiritual path commonly use. (The “sitting” is focus; I can “sit” while walking my favorite three-mile loop on a nearby dirt road. Sometimes sitting is doing just one thing. I build a fire. All I do is build a fire. No need for anything else. A fire meditation-in-action.)

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Yes, go ahead and get down in words what I’m feeling. In itself that can be perfect response to anger, despair, whatever is dancing along my nerves and sinews. Print it out if it’s onscreen. Burn it. (Toss it in the woodstove.) Do the same if I’ve handwritten it in a journal or notebook. Let  flames alchemize it back to the elements. Let it go even as it goes.

But then, says wise counsel, chant, sing, turn on your favorite CD or meditation track, restore your perspective through practicing joy. Yes, my friends remind me, you really do need to practice joy. Firegazing. Humming an octave higher or lower as I vacuum than the tune of the motor.

And in the ensuing re-calibration, re-balancing, re-equilibration that’s going on, wait. As with sitting, I can wait by turning down the inner and outer noise as I do something focused. Carry wood into garage, the night’s supply.

Welcome a chance for silence.

Sit, sing, and wait.

We know so little of silence that waiting without the muzak of all five senses firing, even for a brief interval, can seem oddly intimidating.

“You mean do nothing?!”

No — I mean wait. Let the dust settle. Let the moment clarify. A job of work in itself. Sometimes thirty seconds can be enough. Sometimes I need the full hour of that three-mile loop of dirt road, hills and trees. Sometimes a contemplation asks for sitting in a chair, unplugged, listening, alert, attentive to what is coming. Not the noise I carry with me. The song outside, the deeper song within.

My other spiritual path sets a high premium on a weekly fast as well, whether physical or mental. Both can be difficult, but wonderfully revealing of just where I expend energy.

Because what I think my priorities are, and how I actually spend the day’s energy and attention, will always show a gap. My practice for that day, whatever else I’ve got going on, is noticing and then closing the gap. (I’m cleaning the house. No, actually, I’m sitting in front of a screen most of the morning. Or I’m letting go the past. No, actually, I’m just rehearsing it instead.)

Even a little practice is “more than before”, my go-to mantra for progress. And just the effort to practice is in itself progress. To use bowling imagery, the skill to take down a single pin is just as great — just as useful and valuable — as the skill to make a strike.

More than before.

But fasting can also be ongoing, a powerful technique against the demand for our attention, one of the most valuable attributes we possess. “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also” — so true. I need the reminder; everyone wants my attention. Advertisers and politicians depend on grabbing it and holding it long enough to get me to buy and vote. Rabble rousers just want the satisfaction of rousing my rabble — they want my attention any way they can get it, as psychic food. Getting and spending, I lay waste my powers. Wordsworth, old bard, you knew and wrote this 212 years ago.

Opt out, whisper the trees rustling outside my window. Druid, listen when the trees speak. Better than talking at them.

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clearing the solar panels

A blessed thaw has come, after the bitter last two weeks. The eaves are dripping, and the sheathe of ice and snow on the solar panels finally loosened its grip enough I can roof-rake it off, and the panels can begin to receive the sun fully again.

Stamp off your snow, counsel Wise Ones in my morning meditation.

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Storm and Story   Leave a comment

In a fit of New Year’s house-cleaning, I spent part of yesterday going through photos and papers my mother left to me. She passed sixteen years ago, but only now am I finally getting around to culling photo albums and memorabilia. Unlabeled pictures of ancestors I don’t recognize I’m discarding. (The clearest of them I’ll scan and post to ancestry.com — someone may perceive a link to their own story.) Together the images I’m discarding will make for a personal springtime ritual of memory, which feels now like it should be annual: to the unknown ancestors.

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a known ancestor — my great-great-grandmother Ann

Among my mother’s effects was a sealed envelope, with a notation in fading Victorian script: “Worth County Eagle of Feb. 10, 1881”. Worth County is rural northern Iowa, where my mother was born and grew up.

The paper is just one quarter its usual size, and the Feb. 10th issue opens with an apology, explaining that the recent three-day blizzard has delayed their paper shipment, and so the present issue is small, a single sheet, folded in half to make four pages.

The railroads are all blockaded. Possibly the BCR & N [railroad] may get trains to Albert Lea [nearby in Minnesota] by Saturday night, if they have no bad luck. The Minneapolis & St. Louis [line] is in very bad shape. Six engines are dead at Hartland and the road is full of snow. They cannot clear the road this week.

But the most poignant column of the issue, appearing on the third page, is more personal:

Last Friday afternoon, Joe Fleming, of Kensett, came to Northwood, on horseback, for a coffin, for the only child of Chas. Christenson. It was late on his arrival, and he did not think it expedient to venture out again, so near dark, and remained over night. Our readers all know what a day Saturday was, and it was unsafe for one to be out on the road, so Joe waited until Sunday morning. By then it was impossible for him to get his horse out of the barn, on account of the deep snow. But he made up his mind that the trip must be made, and so had the coffin fastened securely to his back and started on foot, during that severe snow storm. He arrived at home safely.

What we do simply to survive is worthy of story. Let’s not diminish the lives we lead today. One-hundred thirty-seven years ago a child died, a human grief, and that death sparked the human determination that became this particular story. What is remembered lives. But we chose what we remember. Storms occasion such stories, markers of our lives. Everyone has one or more to tell.

May you be warm and safe and cherish your stories, however hard-won. By living them you’ve earned them. Such memories number among things that need to be born.

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Surfaces and Depths   Leave a comment

[Note: The first section was drafted when the temperatures were 10-20 degrees warmer than the arctic front the northern U.S. is experiencing now.]

Winter offers subtle lessons about surfaces and depths. Test the skim of ice on the pond, and see how thick it is. Will it bear the weight of the roof-shovel I just used to clear last night’s snowfall off the solar panels? It looks so solid already, though daytime temps have risen well above freezing every day for the past several weeks. Has the overnight cold pierced deeply enough that I can step out onto the surface? Not yet, not yet. This weekend, though, with two days of forecast highs of 19 F (-7 C) and lows of -2 F (-19 C) might just do the trick. Then we Vermonters can begin to walk on water, too.

We count on surfaces, when they’re strong enough, to make the depths irrelevant. Easier, quicker, reckless. Wise fools, all of us.

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Got a New Year’s resolution or two? Has willpower helped you keep them in the past?

The tools of magic, observes author, magician and Archdruid emeritus of AODA (Ancient Order of Druids in America) J. M. Greer,

are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough (J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88).

Many moderns looking for changes opt for therapy instead. It can be a “safer” alternative. One advantage the latter can provide, if we want to call it that, is its generally less abrupt change. Magic can, after all, raise a ruckus. A cursory study of the history of magical orders bears this out — they blow themselves up with impressive regularity, because almost always one or more members haven’t successfully integrated the changes their own practice brings about. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is almost the textbook case, exhibit A. The parties involved in the Order’s implosion “should have known better”, certainly — incidentally proving that knowledge, one of our most popular current gods, isn’t enough. The problem isn’t that magic is powerless, but the opposite: it’s altogether dynamic, beyond the expectations of dabbler and seasoned practitioner alike.

For one thing, that means the charges, oaths, warnings, exhortations and gateways hedging many traditional magical texts, charms, rituals and practices, while sometimes glammed up and all showy and theatrical to make the point even more obvious (as well as sell books and movie tickets), do indeed conceal real teeth and spiritual gravity.

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woodpile yesterday afternoon — surfaces and depths, partly visible

Cause and effect aren’t fake news. The physics of this world starts to establish itself quite viscerally in all our psyches around the time we first burn a finger on a stove, fall on ice, or mash a finger with a hammer. We merely lie to ourselves when we think we can “get away” with things less physical, as if analogous laws don’t also come into play. What has a beginning has an end. Apply force and a reaction follows, and so on. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a most painful illustration of just such laws.

It’s a perfectly exact measure of my immaturity whenever I think such rules don’t apply to me.

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My application to conduct a workshop at the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) was  recently declined. A minor detail, except for the fine irony that my workshop proposal centered on the magical use of symbols to empower ritual — point, line, triangle/awen, square, pentagram and even the MAGUS symbol itself, a unicursal hexagon.

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“One of the essential lessons every magician must learn”, Greer notes (with what feels like the edge of a small smile creeping into his words), “is that magic sometimes fails”. Do your best, but this time the yeast just doesn’t rise. Make plans to get together with friends, and a flat tire or dead car battery sidetracks them. We know these things intimately in daily life, yet somehow expect magic always to smooth the way with its effortless power. Side by side with this image, of course, lies the contrasting image of the magician as master of willpower, all clenched muscles and scowls and fiery will burning through obstacles at any cost. Will is on many people’s minds right now, with all those New Year’s resolutions still radiant and full of promise.

Surface will is the kind we invoke to tip the ball into the basket or the net if we’re spectators cheering for our team. We try to “push” with our thoughts. Will-at-depth feels much different. We’ve all “been in the zone”, felt ourselves a part of a larger flow, when whatever we’re doing wholly absorbs our attention, time collapses as hours feel like minutes, and consciousness shifts to what we could aptly call “magic time”. Hold an intention clearly, without conflict, and action lines up to follow it. I don’t so much “will” something to happen as I open a way for energy to flow as effectively as possible, without distraction or second guessing. When actions flow from the center of who we are, they come smoothly, what the Dao De Jing call wu-wei or “no strain”, almost as if there is no barrier — we and the action are simply parts of the same thing in motion.

(“Almost as if there is no barrier” is my consciousness before and after being “in the zone”. It can’t account for what happens, because it’s the rational consciousness, not the magical creative one that actually makes things happen.)

Or as R. J. Stewart clarifies, “magical arts are not employed to ‘get whatever you want’, but to unlock whatever you are not, thus revealing or releasing whatever you may be” (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20).

May you find, if you will, surprising and heartening depths beneath your surfaces.

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Gods, Porn, Methods   Leave a comment

End of year thoughts.

The caption of the photo below has a mini-spoiler — skip as needed.

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Yoda has good counsel about books in “Last of the Jedi”

“I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet”, writes author, Buddhist and atheist Stephen Batchelor, “but this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say” (Batchelor, Stephen. Living with the Devil. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2004). I gotta ask you: Doesn’t that deserve its own t-shirt?!

What are some of the things that God (or Hamlet) says to us? For the sake of foolishness or efficiency, let’s lump them together, prince and deity.

As late incarnations of the Fisher King, Hamlet, his father and his uncle all share a corruption also infecting their land itself: “something rotten in the state of Denmark”, indeed. Any sources of healing? A grail? There must be something.

Hmm. Fratricide, regicide, suicide — really no good options there. Hamlet at over 400 years old isn’t quite yet as immortal as a god, but it’s on its way, and even a god might well draw the line at three such wretched choices. There may be “special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, the prince reflects, recalling Scriptural assurances of a Divine Plan behind things, but you can tell when such lines have their own threads in our online fora, with people asking “What does it mean?” that the current beta version of the Divine Plan has sent all birds south for the winter of our play. No birds to save us here, no dove for any Ark, wren for inspiration, Eagle of the West to airlift us out of Mordor.

In a word, things suck. It’s gotten to the point where the Prince selfishly denies even his best friend Horatio the “felicity” or happiness of suicide: “Absent thee from felicity awhile/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story”. But, I ask Hamlet and God, are any of our stories worth that? Have things always sucked this much? Do we have any overarching story that can make sense of this world for us? (Three questions, Existential Triad #26.) In all its delicious suffering and gloom and razor wit, we could fairly call Hamlet (the play) a piece of Renaissance theater porn.

Is a spiritual search pornographic? Do we play out spiritual scripts to arouse ourselves in ways others (or we ourselves) deem destructive? (Is that a rhetorical question?!)

Horatio says, speaking of Hamlet — and speaking of all of us, too, because that’s what great cultural achievements do, after all — “he was likely, had he been put on/To have proved most royal”. Yes, along with the dead prince, we’re all “put on”, and all “likely”: life as a matter of the odds.

The “royal” part, though — we just can’t accept that yet, even in the face of stories trying their level best to show us, and teach us how. That identity — it implies too much, the gap yawning between what we are and what we could be, an open wound. So we reject it whenever possible, saving such inward knowing for our most unguarded moments with our favorite music, books, films, crafts, people, waking dreams. (Yes, these things rank nearly equal in my life.) Or “children’s movies” we watch with the kids, that may get it half-right, half of the time.

A 27 Dec. ’17 article (film spoiler alert!) in The Atlantic gets in on the Game.  (We’re all playing.) Writing in “Why The Last Jedi Is More ‘Spiritual’ Than ‘Religious'”, Chaim Saiman begins:

For at least two generations, the Star Wars saga has served as a kind of secularized American religion. Throughout the series, the Force is a stand-in for a divine power that draws on a number of mystical traditions, representing the balance of good and evil, the promise of an ultimate unity, and the notion that those learned in its ways can tap into the infinite.

As Saiman scrutinizes the distinctly contemporary sensibility pervading “Last of the Jedi’s” attitude towards tradition, he concludes “… even a fictional secular religion will likely reflect the spiritual economy of its time”. Our tendency to value experiences over learning, or feeling over wisdom (not that these pairs equate) means we often hold traditions suspect without ever having immersed ourselves in them to learn them from the inside. So we often run from one workshop or neo-tradition or guru to another, collecting them like trophies or merit badges. Unlike Rey, we don’t come with a Force chip apparently pre-installed and active as a standard factory setting. (“Oh yes we do!”, say the stories.) Sci-fi porn?

If there’s a shift in the philosophical and religious tone in “Jedi” from the 1977 original Episode IV “A New Hope”, Saiman asserts, it’s that traditions have failed, and we’re thrown back on ourselves. Self-help porn?

So what, in turn, does that mean for our “spiritual economy”?

The great critic and author Harold Bloom told his students, referring to literary criticism, that interpretation is another form of more or less “creative misreading”.

Let’s extend Bloom’s insight where he never intended it, a popular form of magic in itself. How often we misread our lives and each other, the influences they bear on us, and our own motives and desires! Particularly well-done misreadings fill our theaters and earphones, climb our playlists and Top Tens, shaping the zeitgeist ever since zeits became geisty.

Bloom was famous for telling his students “There is no method except yourself” as far as criticism is concerned, and that too feels more widely applicable to our lives.

Or at least to mine. So here goes. Traditions exist, wisdom exists, we encounter them and decide out of all that we are what we will choose and value. In a pinch, we even creatively assign responsibility for our choices to any and everyone else, out of all sorts of motives, honing and refining our method.

Truth is never OSFA, “one size fits all”, though we recognize reflections everywhere, shards of what often feels like an original Mirror. Human traditions often grab hold of a single shard and — terrified they’ll lose even that one — erect it as the sole truth. Maybe this is our original and only idolatry.

So Hamlet instructs the actors for the play-within-the-play, stand-ins for all of us: “Hold the mirror up to nature (or, we might say, existence), to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. If there’s one thing true wisdom does, it’s to show us such forms and pressures. Not only the holes of a culture and civilization at any given moment, especially our own, but also the rebalancing factors and energies we can apply to survive and thrive in that civilization, and when it starts to falter, after.

In the end, the problem isn’t tradition or ritual, but dead tradition and rotting ritual. The soup of spirituality needs the pot of form, or we go about a life or five with vague intentions that ultimately give us little and fail us at need. “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s”, wrote William Blake.

Almost right.

St Augustine caravaggioFor once I’ll trust old Auggie, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), with the last words this time, with a few annotations. Words suitable to conclude this blog for 2017, and open the way for a new cycle in the new year.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not [only] in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy [unless you need to!], but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.

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Images: tradition; Caravaggio’s St. Augustine.

 

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