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Jesus and Druidry, Part 3   2 comments

In this post you’ll find me wearing my hat of the linking, connecting and informing Druid, so salt to taste.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

“My Druid is Christ,” wrote Saint Columba (521-597), among other things the founder of the abbey on Iona. Ask yourself what to make of such a remark from this early Irish missionary, working in what is now Scotland. You can even be Bardic about it, and shape your meditation into a triad of insights. Out of one of my meditations emerged a triad that begins: “Three things we serve, who love both flaming Star and branching Tree …”

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And out of such echoes from a distant past comes the Romantic conception that Druidry and Christianity initially co-existed in amity. Evidence exists both to support and refute such a view. But whatever the reality of that period, which we may never know, we can certainly identify its spiritual gold and and continue to create with it in the present.

OBOD Chief 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Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.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.  That Christianity provided the vehicle for Druidry’s survival is ironic, since the Church quite clearly did not intend this to be the case (pg. 31).

As I poke around “ironic survival” further in this third (Part 1 | Part 2) reflection on Jesus and Druidry, I note one quite obvious thing many others have of course commented on. The Galilean master is at his most Druidic when he speaks with images of the natural cycle of things:

Truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

An extensive Druid-Christian liturgy could be written with just the nature images that pervade Christian and Jewish scripture. Already many such resources exist. The OBOD website provides “Resources for Exploring Christian Druidry“, which include music, ritual calendars, books, and links to organizations like Forest Church.

Life and death are ironic, paradoxical. As integral gestures and movements of the cosmos, they’re also a “human thing”: we long for and fear the change that comes in death as in all such transformations. Initiation prefigures it, and life delivers it without fail. We all live and change, die and change. Druidry offers itself as a prime example of what it teaches, living, dying, changing and living again.

And Druidry, or at least Orders like OBOD, aren’t above borrowing and adapting rich language, Christian or not, attentive to the powers of Three. Nuinn (the Druid name of Ross Nichols, OBOD’s founder) writes:

Druidry is the Western form of an ancient universal philosophy, culture or religion, dating from the days of early man when the three were one (pg. 19).

This careful attention to triads and unities means that their presence in other traditions makes them attractive to Druid ceremony and ritual. Some OBOD rites include versions of the following Trinitarian as well as Druidic language:

May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light.

Rev. Alistair Bate, author of the OBOD website article “Reflections on Druidic Christology“, comments from a sensitivity to the contact points of the two traditions:

A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be “May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us”. This, I believe, would not only be more truly in tune with the bardic experience, but would also resonate with the Om/Creation idea found in the Hindu tradition. As we envision Awen, the primordial sound, echoing out of the void, we connect with our own creative inspiration as part of that first creative Word, which is in Christian terms, at once Christ and his Spirit.

And with greater enthusiasm, perhaps, than comparative or historical theological accuracy, Bate concludes his article, summoning to his aid the words of probably the single most influential Christian thinker and writer:

In the 4th century St Augustine declared, “That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity”. That the religion of our most ancient ancestors is in essence very similar to that of our more recent ancestors is the conviction that keeps some of us simultaneously both Druid and Christian.

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A Footnote on Orders and Flavors of Druidry

Some readers, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s Book of Druidry,

might be pleased to learn of such a dialogue between Druidry and Christianity, particularly when it results in specific action being taken to initiate a new impulse within the Christian movement. Others might be disappointed, hoping Druidry was exclusively ‘pagan’. But Druidry is a way of working with the natural world, and is not a dogma or religion … Druidry honours, above all, the freedom of the individual to follow his own path through life, offering only guides and suggestions, schemes of understanding, methods of celebration and mythical ideas — which can be used or not as the practitioner sees fit (pg. 14).

It’s important to note that OBOD Druidry differs here from Druid Orders like ADF which are more explicitly religious. There are of course also members of OBOD who practice it as their religion. Carr-Gomm writes from the same universalist Druid strain that shows up repeatedly in OBOD and in its stance toward other traditions and religions. Visit the current ADF homepage and you read:

Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) is a Pagan church based on ancient Indo-European traditions expressed through public worship, study, and fellowship.

Explore further and you find specifics of ADF belief and activity that would exclude dual membership in ADF and a Christian church for all but the most liberal Christian. Among these are

the ADF Initiate Program, a course of training into the ways of magic, seership and trance for ADF, and with it a current of spiritual initiation

together with a cultivation of ancestral seership and contact, and an explicitly duotheistic ritual structure:

As a part of the work of growing our spiritual current the clergy of ADF have been exploring an otherworldly locale and inner Nemeton where we have been forming relationships with beings we call the ‘Ancient Wise’, those of the Sacred Dead who were poets, magicians and priests, and who would be willing to join with us to help us all walk the elder ways. This has been done through the good offices of the two deities who we honor in every sacrifice, the Warders of the Ways, the Earth Mother and the Keeper of Gates.

Compare this to the frequent shifting of language in the opening of OBOD’s “prayer which unites all Druids” but which ADF labels (accurately) a creation of the Druid Revival of the last 300 years, and thus from their perspective inauthentic. Listen closely at any OBOD gathering and you’ll hear these variations and others:

Grant, O Spirit(s)/God/Goddess/Holy Ones, thy protection …

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Image: Iona Abbey.

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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

East Coast Gathering 2012   7 comments

The OBOD East Coast Gathering offers a chance for Druids to walk among friends, attend workshops, and (re)connect with a beloved landscape in northeastern Pennsylvania.  Here’s the OBOD banner, the color easy to see, the three-rayed Awen symbol of the Order a little harder to make out.  (Photo by John Beckett)

The camp which hosts the Gathering offers both tent areas and basic cabins.

With more people attending this year than last, the ample space helped.

The area is splendid for large group rituals as well.

The rainstorm over the weekend brought with it cooler weather, which just made us all the more grateful for hot drinks and the varied meals our staff of Druid volunteers cooked for us.

(Dining room photo by John Beckett)

I didn’t arrive in time for the opening ritual.  But the Closing was held on the same grounds, with the same altars.  Here are shots of the two entry cairns seen looking south, along with the four directional altars and their banners: Stag of the South, Salmon of the West, Bear of the North and Hawk of the East.

One of the added pleasures this year was the attendance of more Druids from different orders, including ADF.  Here are members of Cedar Light Grove assembled around their grove banner (photo by John Beckett).

OBOD groves brought banners too.

And this year, the third Gathering and my second, yet another draw was the chance to meet and learn from both OBOD’s Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm, and AODA’s Archdruid John Michael Greer.

The first photo is of Philip giving a talk in Storyteller’s Grove a little north of camp.

The second shows John Michael during one of his morning talks in the Pavilion.

In the third, both join for a conversation and Q&A. (3 photos by John Beckett)

And of course no Druid gathering would feel complete without the ceremonial garb that makes the rituals visually distinctive and memorable.

Here are JM Greer and John Beckett:

Topping off each day were the evening fire-circles and drumming, music and song and ample home-brewed mead, cyser and sack from our resident firekeeper and brewer, Derek.  Then came the Hour of Recall, truly.  The Closing ritual, goodbye hugs, departures, promises to keep in touch, to plan events, to meet again.  Another remarkable East Coast Gathering comes to an end, with opened hearts and subtle changes to take away and live through for the coming year.  Till 2013!

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