Archive for the ‘C S Lewis’ Tag

Working Your What, Part 2: Spirit-ware   Leave a comment

We hear about computer software and hardware, and the humorously-named wetware, that pink and sloshy stuff inside our skulls.

I propose the term spirit-ware for all the applications that run without physical forms. Just as you don’t need to believe in Apple or Linux or Google or Microsoft to use their applications and other products, you can get along fine without belief in spiritware and yet still try it out. In fact, we all do that every day. Belief is just one technique among many.

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Walpole-Westminster Bridge over the CT River, Bridgehunter.com/Library of Congress

Experience of the four elements can often provide a bridge for those seeking to understand both lowercase and uppercase spirit/Spirit. Ritual can help us focus in on how North feels different from East, bringing it home with earth and air as ritual experiences, and also with the enlarged awareness of presence that ritual can facilitate.

Or to give a local geographical and political example, does anyone believe that “Vermont” and “New Hampshire” are anything more than very powerful symbols and metaphors that we agree on for the sake of convenience? (When I cross the bridge at Westminster, VT and drive east to Walpole, NH, what’s much more “real” than any change of state boundaries, to me anyway, is my encounter with the Connecticut River that defines most of the eastern Vermont border and western New Hampshire border.)

Go back a few hundred years and pieces of what are now two New England states belonged to Canada, France, New York, and so on. Go back a few more centuries, and the whole region is Wabanahkik, the Dawn Land of the Abenaki people. “So which is it?” Any answer depends on time and place.

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Over on the Druidry and Christianity Facebook site, a member posted a question about “false gods” in connection with those who worship Brighid and similar figures. How do we know what they are?

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Waxing moon, two evenings ago

For better and worse, I tend towards a pragmatic approach towards Others, especially Others without their skins on.

I understand that such an approach may not work for everyone, particularly for those who’ve committed to a specific creed and worldview. The longer I live, though, the less I believe I know what “false god” even means any more. Yes, I know how such expressions get used, but often that seems like finger-pointing and competitiveness between different religious factions. There are so many kinds of beings, some with skin and some without. And from what I’ve seen, they’re a real mix of good, bad and in-between, so that my criterion tends to be Jesus’s wise standard: “by their fruits you shall know (i.e., distinguish) them”. Which is how I also tend to discriminate between a good and a bad used-car salesperson, plumber, restaurant, potential life-partner, etc.

I also don’t think I really “worship” anyone or anything. Some people do — it’s an important part of their spiritual and religious life. But what I do know is that some beings earn my respect and attention, and others don’t. I find I’m more interested in relationships than worship, and as with any worthwhile relationship, I need to listen, be available to do what’s needful, pay attention, show my gratitude, go with the flow, and live my commitment in my actions.

And I find that demands more from me than most of my beliefs do, which my life keeps revising on me anyway, often when I least expect it.

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The early Church made a distinction between three kinds of reverence/worship: the Greek terms doulia, hyperdoulia, and latria, or reverence, great reverence and worship (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latria). Latria is for God alone, while saints may receive lesser devotion. Well and good.

But I don’t know how to apply such labels realistically to what I do each day, no matter what it may look like on paper. If a dear friend helps me out when I’m down, spends time with me, listens, checks in to follow up on me, takes me out to dinner, etc., the ways I’d show my deep gratitude in response, at least to someone watching from the outside, would probably look an awful lot like latria, or worship/sacrifice. Yet I’m not “worshiping” my friend (or at least not any more than I worship any close friends) when I give a gift in return, or write them a poem or song in gratitude.

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sunset two nights ago, from our front yard

Is writing and singing a love song to someone else a form of worship, or simply expressing love? Does it have to be one or the other? We can attempt to define and prescribe which actions fall in which category, but the person’s intent seems far more important to me, and that’s often where doctrine has least to say, since its purpose, often, is to direct behavior, something visible and measurable, so that we may begin to achieve a glimpse of the result of holy intentions and actions. It can be an indirect way to catalyze a spiritual practice, but for some it’s a useful one.

One of the loveliest modern songs of devotion to Brighid is by Damh the Bard. It’s a favorite of mine and of many. Listening to it, I’m not concerned with doctrine but with the love he expresses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMxeYEhUxYw

Granted, Damh isn’t a Christian Druid. The distinction between human and god matters less in both song and the experience of many Pagans. You’ll note if you listen that Brighid is both “old woman” and “goddess”. (Maybe if we let go that distinction our care and treatment of the elderly might improve.)

One commenter at Druidry and Christianity observed:

But when it comes to pagan gods (let’s assume for the moment that there was a goddess Bridget and a Saint Bridget and that it’s possible not to conflate the two), I think it’s not so much a question of what constitutes “worship,” as it is a question of who/what pagan gods actually are. Are they spiritually beings set up against God? Are they under God? Are they unaligned? Is it even possible to have an unaligned spirit?

There are different kinds of answers to such questions, and which ones satisfy anyone asking the questions seem to depend in turn on the intention, expectation, experience, belief and individuality of those asking. Ultimately, one goes with what accords with one’s inmost sense of truth. No one else can supply that, but only influence how much we trust it.

Prayer may supply an answer individually, though we’ve always seen different and sometimes diametrically opposite answers to apparently the “same” prayer. In response to prayer guidance, some join one church that others condemn — also as a response to guidance received in prayer.

The experience of God’s sovereignty for others means that Biblical verses like Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” are sufficient answer. God’s creation is good, and his Word is fulfilled.

Medieval European angelology suggests a whole range of spiritual beings — evil, unaligned and good. Much Christian magic of that time involves cooperation with the good ones against the evil ones. Or sometimes evoking and extorting from the more dubious ones as much occult knowledge as you can, before banishing them back to their respective realms. You just had to make sure your magic circle was as secure as possible, so you wouldn’t get eaten. (For a contemporary fantasy take on various ways you can get eaten, among many other things, see Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, set among Yale University’s secret societies, featuring an anti-heroine named Alex, who’s able to see spirits — much to her dismay.)

Divination can help as well, though from a Christian perspective it can be just as suspect as the subject of potentially evil or non-aligned spiritual beings themselves.

Ultimately, I find, it seems to come down to a paraphrase of C. S. Lewis’s observation: “You can’t really study people [or gods]; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing …”

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Deconspiracizing & Druidry

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through the branches, opening doors

Depending on where you lurk on the Net, you may have run across this passage:

Be sure the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control. Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is “out there” in the “broken system” rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.

Keep up the good work,
Uncle Screwtape

“Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis ~1942

One of my cousins posted this recently on Facebook.

Also depending on your alertness and your familiarity with Lewis and his works, you may or may not have additionally spotted the following caveat. “Screwtape’s ‘fixated on politics’ quote”, notes Joshua Dance, “is not by C.S. Lewis. You and I may like the idea, but proceed with caution.”

How perfect for my purpose here: to use a wrongly-attributed quotation in the process of desconspiracizing ourselves. What ideas do we like, and how cautious are we — can we be — should we be — with them as we proceed?

And does this piece of wisdom still retain any value, once we uncouple it from its famous but misidentified source?

If you think it does, I invite you to keep reading. (If not, here’s the new-as-of-June trailer for Voldemort — Origins Of The Heir, a fan-film.)

Human liking for conspiracy theories is by almost all accounts wonderfully unbiased in its spread. Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Communist, Anarchist — whatever colors I fly on my mast, I’m just as susceptible to a theory that fits my prejudices as the next person. No one’s immune. In my book that qualifies as a “problem with myself”. Fortunately, remedies exist. Maybe not cures, but remedies.

Here, after a completely unscientific search, are seven news links [ Paul RatnerThe Independent | The Telegraph | Time | The Guardian| Conspiracies.net6 True Conspiracy Theories ] to some of the most popular conspiracy theories out there in the English-speaking world. (Those of you with a foot in other linguistic and cultural communities have your own favorites that you know far better than I.)

And if you’d like just one of many available pages pointing out the logical fallacies underpinning conspiracy thinking, here’s an example that offers 13 fallacies.

My main goal in this post? I want to remind myself most of all, and any of you so inclined, to  continue the work needed to minimize the effect of conspiracy thinking. Secondarily, I want to refresh my understanding of ways of thinking and doing — like Druidry — that can “distract me from the distractions”.

Two things I’ve learned over decades to treasure and nourish in myself and my dear ones more than anything else: what I choose to attend to, and how I choose to attend to it. In other words, attention and attitude.

We know how valuable our attention is because advertisers and politicians work so hard to get it and hold on to it. Our attitude matters just as much: everyone wants to tell us how to feel, rather than letting us discover that on our own.

Once someone has my attention hooked, and my attitude in their pocket, they own me.

So here’s one of my triads for action:

1) Love what I can see, touch and talk to most often — daily is ideal. This includes family, friends, trees, pets, the garden, ancestors, my community, and the people I meet. “I bless you in the name of what you love most deeply” is a silent prayer I can offer for everyone I meet. An even briefer version: “Bless this day and those I serve”. (I also find it’s very useful in stopping me from mechanical reactions for or against, from forming pointless opinions based on superficial details like age, weight, dress, gender, etc. — or for cutting me off in traffic, or tailing me much too closely. So I “repeat as needed”: “I bless you in the name of what you love most deeply”.)

2) Whatever time and energy I can give, work so that it will benefit others as much as myself. This blog is one of those things. My years in teaching, and in holding open discussions on spiritual topics in our local library, are a couple of others. A chance conversation in a shop or store that acknowledges another’s humanity and dignity can be a profound service to others. I don’t try to be selfless; I try to enlarge my sense of who is part of the Self. Because I’m  still learning, whenever necessary, I start small.

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backyard willow on wash-day

3) Thank everyone and everything that helped me do the first two things. Gratitude may be too simple for our complex and suspicious age, but, I notice, it never goes out of style. Again, it may be silent just as often as something to express. Yes, this can be a dangerous age to live and be generous in. But I find a wise kindness works well.

If I focus more on my attitude and attention, I can diminish the moments of “angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing”.

The more I experience the inherent joy in using my attitude and attention skilfully, the more I find myself energized to keep on practicing with them. These are some of the truest things Druidry has helped me discover.

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Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part Two

[Updated 2 Jan 2019]

[Related Post: Arthur]

[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four]

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First folio of the Sir Gawain manuscript*

In the previous post, in the tradition of cliff-hangers everywhere, we left Gawain in Camelot, no doubt in a daze. He’s just accepted and accomplished the first half of the challenge of the beheading game from the Green Knight.

The unseely green holiday visitor to the fabled court of Arthur has, in turn, taken Gawain’s best blow and withstood it. He both lost his head and retrieved it, apparently none the worse for wear. Clearly he’s magical, or divine (when did those two split, to our great loss?), though the poet makes no mention of this. No need, when the deed speaks for itself.

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“Lud’s Church,” Staffordshire, UK — one possible candidate for the “Green Chapel”

And in a year and a day — an interval both long enough and one that will spin by all too quickly — Gawain must present himself at the Green Chapel, somewhere vaguely to the north of Camelot, to fulfill the second half of the challenge game. This time it’s his neck that goes under the axe. “Come, or be called coward forever!” The Green Knight’s words still ring in his memory.

And the devil of it all is that Gawain’s clearly asked for this. Nobody else he can blame. He rose from among the gathered court to seize both challenge and axe from the hands of his uncle the king. Clearly both men thought the challenge would end then and there, with the foolish visitor’s head bouncing across the floor. But you never know for sure when magic will intervene, nor how it will shape what comes next.

So the Medieval poet’s got the “death” part of the title already in play. We all know we’ll die, somehow, someday. As for sex, so far we can find plenty in the lively and erotic holiday atmosphere of the court, lords and ladies celebrating together in a two-week-long revel, food and drink in abundance. A Christian holiday, indeed, but not one that excludes the secular delights of feasting and dancing, flirtation and dalliance. For Gawain, there’s added pleasure in his seat of honor beside the lovely Guinevere, Queen and chivalric ideal.

But wait, as the poet might have said, there’s more and better to come.

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A brief magical interlude here. Alert to what we can learn from the “wisdome of olde bookes,” we can consider a portion of what this story may have to teach us. From one point of view, Arthur has set up magical intentions and chosen the moment. After all, the time is right for them, with all the swirl of energies around the winter solstice and new year.

The king, the male half of the royal spiritual self, will not eat until all are served, opening his heart with generosity and fellow-feeling. All parts of our own kingdoms benefit from this. And he likewise won’t eat till either a marvel manifests or — another kind of marvel — some challenge or “game” presents itself. It’s surprising what we may chance to discover and experience, when we choose to look with such preparation. And the Queen? She is a chess-piece in the larger game, but also the most powerful figure, once the pawns and knights move out of her way.

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A year and a day lasts long enough to permit some really magnificent bouts of denial and procrastination. As a period of magical testing, it can sort the committed from the undisciplined, the patient from the reckless.

At Michaelmas, late September, the poet tells us that the moon itself signals to Gawain that his appointment draws near. Yet a month later, on All Saints, the Christian Samhain, Gawain lingers still at the court, reluctant to depart. Finally, after more feasting, and loads of unsolicited advice from other knights at court, Gawain presents himself to Arthur and asks for permission to go: “Now, liege lord of my lyfe, leave I you ask.”

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Here in a modern conception, the Green Knight is clearly a giant. Note Gawain’s shield adorned with pentacle/pentagram.

And the poet moves on to describe Gawain’s apparel and weaponry in splendid detail, focusing for some 30 lines on a careful exposition of the meaning of the pentangle on Gawain’s shield, though he concedes it “must tarry him in his telling.”

This passage alone, in a poem plainly dating from the 1400s, should at least temper the silly hubbub that arises every year around Halloween from certain quarters about Satanists and their evil pentagrams or pentacles. But of course, it won’t.

Here, centuries before Anton LaVey with his Church of Satan was even a twinkle in his ancestors’ eyes, the pentagram is clearly a Christian symbol. Thus, among other things, the five points of this “pure pentaungel” signify here “the fyve woundes that Cryst caught on the cross, as the Creed telles.” As a holy symbol of power, it’s been around for much longer than Christianity, of course, and will be long after Christianity is a legend and other faiths overtake it. And it will continue to acquire and shed secondary associations that may help or hinder any seeker from recognizing the pentagram as nothing less, and nothing more, than a symbol of spiritual reality beyond human opinion and (mis)perception.

Off Gawain goes on his faithful steed Gringolet, through the land of Logres — a Welsh word for England, and famous over centuries in legend and stories both old and more recent, such as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia and Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone.

After some eight weeks of winter travel north — no modern M5 and M6 motorways for him to gallop along — Gawain arrives, weary and weather-stained, by chance as it seems on Christmas Eve, at a noble castle whose inhabitants welcome him warmly.

Three persons hold his particular regard — the castle’s lord Bertilak, an obvious focus, but also two noble women, one ancient, who notably sits at the table in the seat of highest honor, and the young and lovely lady of the lord — so fair in “her face, her flesh, her complexion, her quality, her bearing, her body, more glorious than Guinevere, or so Gawain thought” (Armitage translation, pg. 85).

After Mass they “feast and dance” for three days, and on the 27th of December, St. John’s Day, other guests depart, and Gawain, explaining his purpose to Bertilak in detail, announces he must also set out on the final leg of his journey to find the mysterious Green Chapel, and fulfill his pledge with the strange knight.

But there’s no need, exclaims the lord, laughing. “Ye schal be in your bed at thyne ease” till “the first of the yere.” As for the “grene chapayle … it is not two miles hence.”

Now let’s attend to the time till then, Bertilak continues. You promised to obey my will here, and you may linger in bed till morning Mass, then pass the day with my lovely wife, while I’m off hunting away from the castle. But let’s agree to a game of exchange. Whatever I win while I’m out, I’ll give you on my return, and just so, you must give me whatever you receive.

Agreed! says Gawain, always — we’re beginning to understand — up for a game or challenge, however much he may come to regret it later.

And so they each raise a glass together to drink on it to seal their pact.

Now at his ease after weary weeks of travel, Gawain has already taken much comfort in the lovely lady, enjoying her conversation, and sitting head to head sharing confidences. It’s innocent up to this point. Courtly love shows here at its best — no “foulness,” the poem emphasizes, attaches itself either to their words or manner. Reputations and honor have held them both to clear boundaries. But they do grow increasingly intimate and relaxed under the influence of youth, proximity, holiday revels, and the easy hand with which Bertilak holds his realm.

From the original manuscript: the Lady and Gawain

From the original manuscript: the Lady and Gawain

Bertilak leaves with the hunt early next morning, and Gawain, still abed, hears “a lyttel din at his door.” So he “heaves up his hed out of the clothes. A corner of the curtain he caught up a lyttel, and waits warily thitherward what it be might. It was the lady, loveliest to beholde, that drew the door after her dernly [secretly] and stille.” Less innocent now … and definitely more interesting!

The story will continue in Part Three.

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Images: the Sir Gawain manuscript, formally named MS Cotton Nero A X, located at the British Museum; Lud’s Church, Gradbach, Staffordshire, UK — one of the possible sites of the poem’s “Green Chapel”; Gawain, shield and Knight; The Lady and Gawain, from MS Cotton Nero A X

*For the curious, the first line of the mauscript in the top image above  reads: “Sithen [since] the s(i)ege and the assau(l)t was sesed [ceased] at Troye …” The anonymous poet opens by giving his poem a Classical backstory.

Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007.

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