Archive for the ‘animism’ Tag

Druid & Christian: Whole, Healthy, Holy

Beside various books, conferences, retreats and training programs on the subject, the ongoing Druidry and Christianity conversation has a number of other outlets, among them Forest Church and some Facebook groups. On one of the latter which I co-admin with a Christian-Druid friend, we’re polling members for the topic of our next Zoom meeting. The current favorite is “Blending Earth Spirituality and Christianity”.


We can find many paths inward to such meeting-places, but we might begin with Shawn Sanford Beck’s observation (in his 2015 Christian Animism) that “To say that a Christian can, and should, cultivate a relationship with the spirits of nature, the spirits of the land, is something new. What was natural and somewhat unconscious up until the end of the medieval period now requires consciousness and intentionality”.

That time-line is significant. If such relationship seems foreign or alien to Christianity today, it’s perhaps more a measure of our often severe disconnect from the natural world rather than any heretical bias or heterodox belief. One has only to read the Biblical Psalms with their ecstatic delight in the natural world to begin to recapture what was once a human birthright. “Earth’s crammed with heaven”, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning exclaims in Aurora Leigh, “And every common bush afire with God,/But only he who sees takes off his shoes …” The difficult and awkward questions arise: Do I even want to see any more? And if I did, would I instinctively know to take off my shoes?

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Note that Beck’s and Browning’s exclamations aren’t set forth as any kind of doctrine, but as celebrations of something self-evident. Spend time in nature, these guides say to us, and you will know these things, too. And so Beck notes further that if we read saints’ lives and consider their remarkable interactions with birds, snakes, and other beasts, “The ability of the saints to cultivate such interesting relationships with animals was seen to be a sign of their growing sanctity.” What is holy is whole and healthy — the Old English forebears of these words form a network of related terms*.

*hál: hale, healthy, whole, sound, without fraud (links here and following are to entries in Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary online). (Note common Old English greeting wes hál be well, be healthy, hail!)
hálig: holy; a saint (in the forms se hálga/ seo hálge).
hálig-dæg: holy day; holiday.
hálgian: hallow, sanctify, make holy, consecrate.
hǽlþ: health; wholeness, healing, cure.
hǽlan: heal, make whole, cure, save.
hǽlend: a healer, savior; Jesus.

We begin to re-approach such “Garden relationships” with a world of non-human others, you might say, using the metaphor from Genesis, when we re-attune to the world all around us. God brings the animals to Adam “to see what he would call them” (Gen. 2:9). Have we forgotten who and what we named, and how we once could distinguish and recognize each one? Do we have “eyes to see and ears to hear”, as Jesus asked?

These senses matter, because “this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:15). The healing and wholeness we desire are conditional — they depend on us. They can’t reach me, on offer as they still are, until I open to them.

So a major first step is to put myself into connection. Of course, that step and that action are not merely one-sided, from me. Bugs, birds, plants and beasts also keep trying to connect, though we often ignore them. Druid and blogger Dana Driscoll has a marvelously wise post on encountering the teachings of Poison Ivy.

In the same post, Dana addresses what the wholeness-that-is-healing consists of:

Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace — nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods and destruction. I think its important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable. Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves — we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature — without connecting with the many pieces of nature, we are in danger of misunderstanding her, of not seeing the whole, and not having a whole relationship with her.

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Omens, Signs, Friends Visiting

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I practice two distinct spiritual paths. One of the teachings on the other path concerns waking dreams. “A waking dream is something that happens in the outer, everyday life that has spiritual significance”, writes one of my guides on that path. And the crucial point, for me, is that I can perceive that significance. Or miss it. Or call it coincidence, or something else.

In her post “The Reality of Omens“, Druid Life blogger and author Nimue Brown writes,

When looking for omens in the world around us, it is necessary to consider how reality works in the first place. One of the things I have rejected outright is that other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me. I have something of an animist outlook, and I do not think the universe is *that* into me.

Brown’s caveat rings true — we can safely pare the human ego down, without fear it will crumble and disappear. Unlike the average toddler, most adults handle reasonably well the discovery that they’re not actually the center of universe.

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But as a fellow semi-animist, I’d not separate “spirit” from what you and I and other things are doing every day. “Spirit” isn’t a thing that stands apart from what it inhabits — it’s not a bearded Jehovah lounging in the heavens, lording it over the rest of the cosmos, twitching the puppet-strings to get his way with us. Spirit permeates things — it’s what peeks out when you look in the eyes of a dog or bird or bug, or into the heart of a flower. It’s what gives waves their curl, or cumulus clouds their cotton-like billow, or your jogging neighbor the will to keep at her four-mile routine, in spite of December sleet. Spirit makes things thing-ly — how else can I detect its presence? Ever seen it hanging out all by itself? Pay attention and I can notice now more, now less. But never apart from the things it’s been doing all along, like you and me and the grass growing tall in the back lawn where I haven’t mowed it at all this year.

The skies cloud over, the temperature drops and a wind kicks up. Is it an “omen”? No — but these things do carry meaning to anyone paying attention. It’s probably going to rain soon. That particular kind of omen we call a “no-brainer” (though humans still manage daily to ignore even obvious omens). As part of the universe where a local storm is brewing, I can pick up on other things spirit is doing, or I can ignore them. The universe “isn’t that into me”, but it is in fact *in* me, and in you too, and we’re both in it.

So I prefer to see “omens” and “signs” as friends visiting. Spirit is simply flowing. One of its flows is you, another is me, a third is the car pulling into the driveway with S. at the wheel, “just stopping by” on her way home after shopping. If I gain insight or wisdom or a nudge to do something, or a burst of gratitude from that visit, then I’m paying attention in some way, and I’m being me, with my own unique responses to what spirit’s always doing all around and in me.

Rather than worrying overmuch about whether it was a sign or an omen or simply another wave in the ocean of spirit manifesting everywhere and everything, why not measure its effects? Is my life deeper, richer? Are the lives of others made richer and deeper? Is that enough, without checking the box labeled “omen” or “not omen”?

But what of the autonomy Brown names as part of her animist understanding of the uni-verse, the “one-turning”?

The idea that “other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me”, she notes.

But she and the many other beings in her life can be and are many things at once. And so are you and I. Like spirit in us and all around, I am many things at once. I am not “purely” anything, but delightfully mongrel. I’m an incarnate human, and also a Vermonter, a husband, a blogger, an aging white male, a person alive in the 21st century, an American, the son of two parents who both lost fathers while still in their single-digit years. I am a manifestation of spirit, a homeowner, a Druid, a teacher, a conlanger, a portal of Mystery, and so on. (Maybe the problem isn’t labels by themselves, but that we never use nearly enough of them. Scatter them like seed. Each is — not a limit — a possibility.) Each of these features opens access points for spirit to reach other beings, while leaving me with the same freedom as other “autonomous beings”. Spirit does “overlap” and “interconnection” really well.

My individuality and freedom are what spirit uses to connect with all other free and individual things. Spirit as the whole, the universe, seems to “love” individuals — that’s why there are many of us, rather than just two or three. Spirit as “one thing” interconnects and links all things, all these other “one things”.

So when a crow flies overhead while I’m checking the squashes in the garden, the crow is a crow and a friend visiting and a reminder, if I’m listening, of animal intelligence and and and.  Its appearance and my awareness meet, for whatever comes from that meeting. Omen, sign, friend visiting, reminder of crow wisdom to fly over things before I decide to land on them, spirit guide — because spirit is always sparking the beings it pervades — to eat, fight, flee, love, mate, birth young, flower, fruit, grow old, die, return, become, become.

And the crow also discovers and learns something. Here’s a human that does not aim a gun at me as I fly over. Here is a water supply, a pond I can drink from. Here are trees to roost in, good cawing branches to talk to the rest of the flock, food sources to peck at in the scraps and compostables that get put out almost daily. And a hundred other crow things I don’t know about, without shapeshifting to Crow, or crow to me.

Brown goes on to make a key observation about our attention:

I can however read something into my behaviour at this point. I was in the right place at the right time, and I think that tells me something about my relationship with the flow. I take exciting nature encounters as good omens not because I think nature is bringing me a special message, but because it means I was in just the right place, at exactly the right time, looking the right way and paying attention. That in turn means I am in tune, and would seem to bode well for anything else I’m doing.

I simply take “encounter” as “message”. Humans are meaning-makers — it’s what we do. Any omen is an amen, an awen, a chance, a doorway. Will I walk through it? Or will I see how spirit walks through it — to me and to everyone and everything else? And as these things happen, can I catch the Song that is always singing, just at the borders of hearing?

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Article in today’s New York Times: “What does it mean to be human?” touches on some of these matters.

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