Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Tag
I’m off to MAGUS, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering, in a few weeks. For those who can manage to attend, Gatherings can give a taste of true community. For Christians, ideally the power of baptism clothes everyone in unity: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:29). A deeper spiritual union does connect people who outwardly appear different, talk differently, live differently. It’s a measure of our struggle how often we lose sight of this profound truth.
Some two millennia on from Paul’s confident assertion of unity in Christ, issues rooted in social status, privilege, gender, class, ethnicity — all the things that keep rocking today’s headlines — haven’t gone away. Early Christians “held all things in common.” Druidry likewise points us towards our common wealth in each other, in all the millions of species we live with, and the planet we live on. We dimly remember this old understanding, if at all, in the names of things like the Commons, the Commonwealth in the names of states and nations, common ground, Holy Communion, community, even discredited Communism and other old words and ideas misunderstood, abused and abraded by ignorance and human weakness.
Druidry likewise celebrates the essential kinship of all things. “What we do to the land we quite literally do to ourselves”, as we keep discovering to our dismay and bitter relearning. Linked to places and ancestors, we inherit both specific and planetary pasts, and shape the future of our own bloodlines and also the biosphere we live in. “Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil … and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in the West, unless you know what you are about,” says the Master Summoner in Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
So often we plainly don’t know what we’re about. But the Web of Things does yield to power regardless, in hands wise and foolish. What have we summoned? Whether knowledge or ignorance launches an action, what goes around still comes around. Simple and difficult: until we value and claim our unity as more important than our differences, it’s the differences that will dog us and define who we are and what matters. Depending on your understanding of the purpose of life at this rung of the spiral, that’s cause for weeping, rage, incomprehension, humble acknowledgment, redoubling of efforts …
When we consider the nationalist fervour sweeping the West, surely we might benefit from wider practice of such awareness of unity. While the broad tolerance of difference that Biblical verse expresses can also appeal broadly to many Druids, side by side with it is a celebration of particularity. Sometimes Christians call this the “scandal of particularity”: the difficulty of accepting a single individual man — Jesus — as the savior for everyone. You know — what traditional Christianity teaches about his exclusivity: “no one comes to the Father except through me”. As in, “my way or the highway”.
There are many ways to work with assertions like these. We know all too well, on the evidence of centuries, what literalism offers and where it leads. Political religion — the system of creeds and salutes, conformities and genuflections to whoever holds the stick — exists in every culture. To pick just one blatant and current example, North Korea has made a religion and cult of the Kim family. Metaphorical understandings, because they grant freedom to each person, have always been suspect in some quarters. “Power-over” dies hard, keeps dying, never quite dies out.
Nonetheless, there are Druids who sit in pews and recite the creeds with no sense of hypocrisy or incongruity. That doesn’t mean that church attendance is anything like the only way to find even a fragile unity. It’s merely one option. Nor does that mean Druids who do sit in Church surreptitiously fingering their pentagrams and awens beneath street clothes have necessarily somehow immersed themselves in any of the myriad alternative understandings of Jesus as great moral teacher, example, political gadfly, Jewish mystic, cleverly-disguised New Age guru, just one of a series of divine avatars* and so on.
[*avatar: (Sanskrit) 1) an incarnation in human form of a god. 2) That icon of your net presence? A second meaning of the word, fast eclipsing the original.]
Options, options. How about Jesus as the inner consciousness in each of us that leads us on the next spiral beyond the apparent world? Or Jesus as a man working within the confines of a monotheism that his ongoing experience of the divine kept bursting at the seams? How many of us are, like him, the sort of people who, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40)? Do we even want to be? Why (or why not)? What would such close identification and intensity mean in this coolly detached age?
J. M. Greer in his The Gnostic Celtic Church which I’ve cited here previously offers one valid way among many to experience such kinship between Druid and Christian, noting that
a rich spiritual life supported by meaningful ceremonial and personal practice can readily co-exist with whatever form of outward life is necessary or appropriate to each priest or priestess … and the practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion (Greer, The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy, AODA, 2013).
To create forms that will answer to widely perceived inner need and aspiration will take devotion and dedication, but the seeds are many, and some have already germinated and flowered and borne fruit, in both likely and unlikely places.
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This series of themes points to possible directions, and offers a few leads here and there, but in most cases doesn’t offer anything like a full-grown practice — the thing waiting, a project ready for many hands. (I have my own version of such a project, half-complete, still very much a work in progress. I’ve taken it on as a study of awen and experiment, rather than an urgent spiritual quest. Right now I drink from other wells, myself.)
By way, then, of appendix or commentary or prophecy or something else to this theme, I quote below at some length from Kipling’s Jungle Book, now in public domain. Here Baloo, the wise old brown bear — not the manipulative Bill Murray-voiced version in the recent 2016 film — talks to Bagheera about teaching Mowgli the Master Word of the Jungle:
“A man’s cub is a man’s cub, and he must learn all the Law of the Jungle” [said Baloo].
“But think how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all thy long talk?”
“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”
“Softly! What dost thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is all bruised today by thy — softness. Ugh.”
“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance,” Baloo answered very earnestly. “I am now teaching him the Master Words of the Jungle that shall protect him with the birds and the Snake People, and all that hunt on four feet, except his own pack. He can now claim protection, if he will only remember the words, from all in the jungle. Is not that worth a little beating?”
“Well, look to it then that thou dost not kill the man-cub. He is no tree trunk to sharpen thy blunt claws upon. But what are those Master Words? I am more likely to give help than to ask it” — Bagheera stretched out one paw and admired the steel-blue, ripping-chisel talons at the end of it — “still I should like to know.”
“I will call Mowgli and he shall say them — if he will. Come, Little Brother!”
“My head is ringing like a bee tree,” said a sullen little voice over their heads, and Mowgli slid down a tree trunk very angry and indignant, adding as he reached the ground: “I come for Bagheera and not for thee, fat old Baloo!”
“That is all one to me,” said Baloo, though he was hurt and grieved. “Tell Bagheera, then, the Master Words of the Jungle that I have taught thee this day.”
“Master Words for which people?” said Mowgli, delighted to show off. “The jungle has many tongues. I know them all.”
“A little thou knowest, but not much. See, O Bagheera, they never thank their teacher. Not one small wolfling has ever come back to thank old Baloo for his teachings. Say the word for the Hunting-People, then — great scholar.”
“We be of one blood, ye and I,” said Mowgli …
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Images: face; Kim; Baloo.
There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?
Deborah Lipp notes in her The Way of Four Spellbook (Llewellyn, 2006):
Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules (pg. 10).
Now Lipp’s observation both captures the nature of fire and also feeds our stereotypes about impulse, passion, strong feeling. How often we may long — or fear — to be out of control, fearless, spontaneous! Who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point? Why would the Australian-inspired Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain opt for its advertising slogan “No rules. Just right”? Because there is indeed a rightness to fire — it can only flame up where there’s something to burn, after all. And most of us have been storing combustible material for a long time. How else to explain our explosions, outbursts, flares of temper? Even our language about these things draws on fire for metaphor.
Following the theme from the last post, we can speak of a fire baptism. You’re wholly in it when that happens. The full experience, nothing held back.
John the Baptist, Jesus’s precursor, explains to those asking, “I indeed baptize you in water … but he that cometh after me is mightier than I … he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire”. We sense the power in fire, of all the elements closest in so many ways to Spirit. It can purify, transform, forge and anneal. Its extreme heat can also scorch, char, consume and destroy. Each element transforms its own way. “We didn’t start the fire”, sings Billy Joel. “It was always burning since the world’s been turning”. But he goes on: “We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”. And sometimes we even try to “fight fire with fire”. Yet we also long for fire to kindle cold hearts, to heat a flagging will, to spark the spirit deepest in us. We yearn to be fire.
“O! for a muse of fire”, cries Shakespeare’s Chorus in the first line of Henry V, “that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. We long to blaze, because we feel in fire something native and free. We are both it and other, too, as with all the elements. “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”, says Jose Luis Borges. The elements are natural sacraments, folds and garments for Spirit all around us. For fire, we light candles in so many traditions, for so many reasons, the flame cheering to the eye and heart.
I both am and am not fire. Self and other: the quest of our days, the distinction we cherish and also long to cast away. Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, shaman, through all these experiences and intuitions we still ask ourselves, each other and the world: “What makes a good burn?”
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Maybe the purest ritual Druids and Christians might share is one which seeks not to fill our ears with answers, but that gives us space and silence to listen to and ponder the questions. In some ways, the long, slow burn of Spirit in us is fire in its most potent form of all.
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Beltane approaches, that festival of fire. The Edinburgh-based Beltane Fire Society celebrates 30 years this year of a dramatic festival of thousands, from 8:00 pm to 1:30 am. Here’s the “Drums of Beltane” subpage of the Society’s website. As the page notes,
Beltane may be known as a fire festival, but it may as well be considered to be a drum festival too. Drums are the beating heart of Beltane that create the rhythm of the festival, drive the procession forward, and soundtrack the changing seasons. They have been an integral part of Beltane since our tradition was first re-imagined on Calton Hill in 1988.
Looking for a fix of Beltane energy to get you launched? Here’s a video of the Drum Club which will be among the groups performing this year for the event. Just the first five minutes will give you a fine taste of Beltane fire in sound form. We can spark from anything, but sound and rhythm are powerful keys.
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[This post begins a series of explorations of nine themes that can serve as sources of ritual and common ground for Druids and Christians. I’m setting forth on such a series for two reasons. First, reader interest spiked, with visitors from over a dozen countries in the 24 hours after “Jesus and Druidry, Part 3” was posted. Second, I include myself among the interested.
The great majority of us have Christian friends, relatives or co-workers. Also, many of us know Biblical stories and images, and count them as part of our “wisdom-store”. Some of us have also experienced the more toxic forms of institutional religion but nonetheless have managed to hold on to a love for the Light in its Christian garb.]
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“Image is more transformational than doctrine”.
As I started to draft a list of Druid-Christian themes, that message came through sharply. How to make generous use of imagery in helping to energize the transformations Druidry — and Christianity — can provide? John Muir writes, “The power of imagination makes us infinite”. I’d amend that: the potential in the wise use of imagination can reveal our limitlessness. Not as snappy, but more accurate, for me.
First on my list of image-themes is “trees”. As a primary Druid focus, trees also link to Christianity. One obvious example appears in the book of Genesis with its two trees in Eden, the tree of knowledge* and the tree of life. If Druids are tree-knowers and seekers of tree-wisdom, these two trees have something to teach.
arbor scientiae — tree of knowledge
One year as I read Genesis with my high school students in freshman English, a student quipped that the real problem was one of sequence. Adam and Eve simply ate from the wrong tree first. “What are we supposed to take away from this? Go for immortality, then knowledge!” (The other order may leave you wise but dead.)
Wit can take you surprisingly far at times. Perhaps the serpent as well was mistaken in the advice he gave. Why no mention of the other tree? Was immortality in fact already an option at that point? After all, God never banned that second tree. Or did we need it, even then? Was that an early mystery? Isn’t life inherent in all we are and experience? We’ve all sensed the undying in us, even as the physical body faces all the many challenges that will one day wear it out, even as our beloved Druid trees must eventually fall.
We can also see in the two trees a kind of psychic split, perhaps — a split in us, in our consciousness. But together the two name a wholeness that Druidry and other traditions point us towards. The cycle of birth and death reveals an underlying energy or vitality — the thing that makes worlds possible, that greens (and reddens) them with life, with chlorophyll and hemoglobin. “From the One come Two; from the Two, Three; from the Three, the Ten Thousand Things”, says the Tao Te Ching.
A persistent Christian legend has it that the wood for the cross of the Crucifixion originates from the Tree of Knowledge, or in some variants of the story, from a tree that grew from seed that Adam’s third son Seth planted in his father’s corpse. A full circle of ritual story here, or better, a spiral: it’s a tree that stands at the center of the Christian drama. Literally, wood serving as the stage for the unfolding of the human experience of the loss of innocence that comes with maturation, and the return, for those willing to make the effort to learn and grow and change.
The fruit of the tree of knowledge is, after all, desirable, because it holds the power “to make one wise”, as the serpent tells Eve. Life (the Hebrew meaning of Eve) tells us as much.
Why not then a Druidic-Christian “Mass of the Holy Trees”?
“Tree and leaf, breath and fruit, wisdom and life — all these come from you …”
Bring branches and leaves, images of both cross and spiral, Brighid’s cross serving well for a combination of these. A cross — the quartered world of directions and physical energies, the elements, the cycle of death and life. Spiral — an image of eternity, of rebirth and continuity, the cycle continuing.
But wait … there’s more.
The book of Revelation gives us the image of heaven or eternity in the holy city, foursquare (four again!) and whole. And through it runs
… a river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of the main street of the city. On either side of the river stood a tree of life, producing twelve kinds of fruit and yielding a fresh crop for each month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1-2).
“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”: the tree of knowledge has merged with the tree of life — or rather there is no difference between them. All the healing we have sought in knowledge now issues from a double(d) tree — one on “both sides” of the river. And it is fruitful in every month, a cornucopia, a message that each month has its life and healing energy, freely given, whatever the apparent season. In the middle of a city, a human and humanly-shaped place, grows life in its most potent imaginal form as Tree, the world-tree, a worldwide image and cluster of stories.
Here are powerful images to unite Christian and Druid observance and practice. A second Druid-Christian theme is up next.
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Images: tree of life; Brighid’s cross tattoo; tree of knowledge.
*Tree of Knowledge: the illustration comes from Ramon Llull’s Arbre de Ciencia or Tree of Knowledge. Llull, aka Raymond Lully (1232-1315), was a renowned medieval writer and thinker, who studied both Latin and Arabic science and mathematics.
I want to do some thinking out loud here. Nothing new, since I do it frequently. But it’s an experiment with a more specific kind of thinking I share less often here, because for many people, negative experiences with Christianity raise painful associations and memories that make even a mention of Jesus or the long, rich, varied and potentially very useful Christian tradition anathema to them. So if you’re still deeply allergic and over-sensitized to some of the more toxic forms of religion, well, here’s your red flag. But if you choose to go forward, simply treat the following as another kind of practice, like tai chi or dancing when no one’s watching, or waving at the moon.
Try it out for what it’s worth, without preconceptions. If you need a prod, here’s one: “I can’t dance” doesn’t cut it. Everybody moves, and everybody can move rhythmically. That’s all that’s needed. The rest is mere practice and polish.
As a Druid I feel almost a compulsion to follow wherever the light leads. I’ve rarely been disappointed, which is why I keep doing it.
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One legacy of my Christian upbringing is a fascination with “wisdom from the borders.” Unlike my more fundamentalist cousins, my mother was drawn to Christian Science with its focus on healing, and my World War II vet father was a member of the “God made the world, I farm a small piece of it, I’m grateful for its seasons and gifts, and that’s already enough for me” school of deism. From that initial gift of my parents’ openness to possibility, I learned and grew the most, before I took other paths, through insights from the periphery, or even outside the official “party line,” of Evangelical Christianity, or “EC.”
EC is, after all, just one sub-branch of one faith, but it’s a sub-branch that sometimes gets a bad name for its often unreflective adherence to dogma, especially in the face of good counter-evidence. Because of that, it also gets a lot of press from agnostic and atheist strands in contemporary thought and journalism. One of the regrettable but understandable consequences of the debate is that many people write off a whole religion because one or two particular flavors of it that they happen to know or have experienced just make them gag. It’s a “baby with the bathwater” thang.
One of the EC dogmas that bothered me the most, from about the age of 8 or 9 onward, and that has set many other people’s teeth on edge as well, is what’s more recently been called “damnationism” — the apparent and deeply problematic need to condemn whole swaths of humanity to eternal torment because they don’t happen to believe the right things required by one stream of orthodoxy, all so we can hang with the sheep and not with the goats for the rest of time. Finally, some writers are even starting to call that out for what it is: a blasphemous perversion of an original truth.**
Hell, MI, 48169 — an actual place, population approx. 260, located 15 miles NW of Ann Arbor.
One of my favorite writers within the universalist stream of Christianity, which doesn’t clutch a self-righteous need to condemn everyone else but Christians to hell, is Thomas Talbott. Universalism can be conveniently summed up in just two words: love wins.
Talbott’s insights do come cloaked in evangelical language, because that’s his particular upbringing. But he looks far beyond the surface, like I hope you will, and like most people learn to do when they realize either a pretty or ugly face is often the least interesting and important part of a person.
Here’s an excerpt I want to work with, from Talbott’s fine book* The Inescapable Love of God:
In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; this is part of what makes them bad, and also one reason why God is able to bring redemptive good out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves will in the end resolve the very ambiguity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how God works with us as created rational agents. He permits us to choose freely in the ambiguous contexts in which we first emerge as self-aware beings, and he then requires us to learn from experience the hard lessons we sometimes need to learn. So in that way, the consequences of our free choices, both the good ones and the bad ones, are a source of revelation; they reveal sooner or later — in the next life, if not in this one — both the horror of separation from God and the bliss of union with him. And that is why the end is foreordained: all paths finally lead to the same destination, the end is reconciliation, though some are longer, windier, and a lot more painful than others.
When I read sound insights from the Wise working in other traditions that may ring notes that jar a little, I like to try out alternate versions, to see how they work when clothed in other terminology. How much of the wisdom survives the change? How much of the difficulty is merely semantics? Here are Talbott’s words again, re-garbed in non-theist language:
In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; this is part of what makes them bad for us, and also one reason why our subsequent experiences are able to bring good out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves can eventually resolve the very ambiguity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how the patterns of the universe often respond to us as rational agents. They permit us to choose freely in the ambiguous contexts in which we first emerge as self-aware beings, and then let us learn from experience the hard lessons we sometimes need to learn in order to gain wisdom. So in that way, the consequences of our free choices, both the good ones and the bad ones, are a potential source of growth and discovery; they reveal both the suffering of separation from our own highest good and the bliss of heeding its shaping pattern.
That’s interesting to me. How much did I change? Well, “God” gets replaced with patterns that inhere in lived experience, and “redemption” becomes growth and increased insight. The universe becomes aware of itself in us and in other beings. Is that “true”? Well, let’s be Druidic about it and test it, for years if necessary, rather than bothering with any belief or disbelief about it before we even have a foundation of experience to reflect on. Whether the patterns of the universe tend towards love is an experiential question, and really not a matter that mere belief can adequately resolve either way. And for how many other questions like it is this also true?
These insights issue from what used to be called the “perennial tradition,” or the philosophia perennis, a well of wisdom common to the depths of all valid traditions, part of the heritage of humanity rather than the exclusive possession of any one culture or tradition. It’s also part of folk wisdom in the West that emerges in sayings like “what goes around comes around” and “what you do comes back to you.” The added insight here points to the value of “bad” experiences, just as useful — or misleading! — as the good ones. For ease and comfort can mislead us about the pain and suffering in the world, just as our own pain and suffering can blind us to the beauty and wonder and possibility around us. From all I’ve seen, life, fortunately, is bigger than either.
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One of the streams from the early days of the Druid revival and the writings of Iolo Morgannwg*** runs with a Welsh version of such wisdom, offering a vision of a cosmos in which all things move toward growth and increasing consciousness, over countless eons, through every imaginable form, and in every imaginable experience. In this conception, the universe is a flow of energies, and its current sweeps us/we ride it from Annwn (ah-noon) and Abred (ah-bred) to Gwynfyd (gwin-vid) and ultimately on to Ceugant (kye-gahnt), a kind of infinity. Eventually we all experience everything.
Unlike the Christian sense of redemption or heaven, you’ll note, these are simply points along the flow. Another way to see it: the mouth of the river as it enters the sea is not superior to its source in the springs on a distant hillside. All is flow. Things may slow down or speed up as they move along the river, adjusting to the current, to the shore, and to each other.
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I had the privilege this last Saturday to take part in an open discussion on the topic “Have You Had a Spiritual Experience?” Those who attended were mostly older than me. Graying or white hair framed almost every face as I looked around the circle of the dozen or so of us who attended. But when the question arose about how many of us kept to some kind of spiritual practice, every hand went up. I found this wonderfully inspiring.
The point that everyone wanted to tackle: what’s next? How do we work with spiritual truths, with the patterns of life we’ve all encountered, and continue to grow in wisdom and love?
Those questions also continue to drive me on my own path and underlie my explorations on this blog. Thank you to all who read this blog for joining me for a few minutes each week and for considering these things, too.
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*Talbott, Thomas. The Inescapable Love of God. 2nd ed. Cascade Books, 2014.
**Favager, David. Hell to Pay?: The Blasphemous Absurdity of Damnationism. Amazon Digital/Kindle, 2015.
***Iolo Morgannwg — from the foreword to the Sacred Text Archive to Morgannwg’s collection Barddas:
However, this is one of those visionary texts which is worth reading for its own merits, irrespective of whether it is ‘genuine’ or not. Taken at face value, the Barddas remains a fascinating text. It has resonances with the Upanishads, Kabbalah, and Freemasonry. The Bardic alphabet presented in the ‘Symbol’ section is completely invented, based on Runic and Ogham, and has utility as a magical alphabet. However it is about as genuine as the alphabets of J.R.R. Tolkien. The ‘Theology’ section appears to be based on Iolo’s peculiar Christian views (he described himself as a Unitarian Quaker). ‘Theology’ also contains a great number of Triads, some of which may be from authentic ancient Bardic lore. The ‘Wisdom’ section has a great deal of mythopoetic information, some of which is authentic, some not. The Barddas is great reading if you are at all interested in the ancient Druids, as long as you keep in mind the background of its creation.
IMAGES: goat and sheep; greetings from Hell, Michigan; marker — Iolo Morgannwg.
With this post, A Druid Way marks its 4th anniversary — I started this blog on October 7, 2011.
I’m also committing to at least a weekly post each Wednesday. A hearty thank-you to you, readers of A Druid Way, for your encouragement and support over the past months and years!
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[Related Post: Arthur]
[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two| Part Three]
This post and the next one pick up the theme of Arthurian myth and legend from the previous one. The “Matter of Britain” as it’s often called is an inexhaustible well of inspiration, of course. This time, however, I want to transition from King Arthur to his nephew Gawain and the Green Knight (and the Middle English poem by the same name), to the mysterious Lady that Gawain also encounters in between his meetings with her husband Bertilak, and more largely to the peculiar and delicious Medieval blend of Paganism and Christianity that surfaces in their story.
So what do we do until Arthur returns —
just cower and flinch in our fears and concerns?
Well, no. Or at least, not necessarily. In the Arthurian peace and flowering of Britain which underlies much of the initial formation of the legend, the focus shifts from Arthur to his court, and more particularly to his knights and ladies, who leave Camelot to set off on their own adventures. A pattern to consider: first, achievement; but then, further exploration and spiritual challenge. Or the opposite — after a few iterations, it amounts to the same thing.
Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d’Espinques.
After all, once Arthur wins through to his throne, marries, and begins to assemble his court, he himself can seem less interesting (at least until time whirls round again to the Battle of Camlann, his final and fatal engagement with his bastard son Mordred). So singers and storytellers started to look for adventure elsewhere, with knights inspired by Arthur’s example and by the fellowship of the Round Table. King and Queen on the throne, or knight on a noble/ hopeless/ mysterious/ romantic quest — it’s easy to see where the greatest dramatic potential lies.
The Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sets forth one version of the story in 600-year-old English. The language is intermittently still quite comprehensible to us moderns, if you make some allowances for spelling (I’ve done very minimal editing):
Astrid Berges Frisbey as an archetypical young Guinevere in the upcoming (2016) film Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.
“This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse” and “was cummen with knyghtes into the halle.” And there Guinevere rules beside him as queen, a Guinevere as yet untouched by the scandal of any affair with Lancelot, “full gay, graythed [arrayed] in the midst” of the noble gathering. And a more lovely lady, “sooth [truly] might no man say.” Here then are the archetypes, before they decline into stereotypes. Here are the originals, magical king and beautiful queen. Part of their appeal is to our own psyches, to the beauty and power we instinctively know both genders possess — or could possess, if only …
The story setting is the three-part holiday of Christmas — New Year’s — Epiphany, the ancient tradition — and ultimate source of the song — of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Midwinter, birth of the Son, rebirth of the sun, the new year at hand. The Court’s right in the middle of its fortnight of feasting. Shortly, it’s New Year’s Day. And as such gatherings and festivals and holidays so often do, this revel has already begun to spin off its own local customs. After all, when does your family open presents on a gift-giving holiday? And what rituals have you perhaps built around it? Or if not you, a relative or friend?
Not surprisingly, in Camelot it’s Arthur himself who starts it, ritualizing the festivities. “The kyng wold not ete til al were served.” It’s a gesture wholly in keeping with the holiday season of generosity and joy. And the king extends the ceremonial atmosphere still further, also refusing to eat before he hears a story: “he wold never ete upon such a dere [dear, special] day ere him devysed were of sum adventurus thyng an uncouthe tale …” Or until someone challenges one of his knights “to joyne with him in joustyng, in jeopardy to lay … life for life …”
And things Medieval and magical being what they are, if you’re Arthur — if you recognize and live from the throne of your spiritual sovereignty — sometimes the “uncouthe tales,” marvelous stories previously unknown — come to you.
The Green Knight, William O’Connor, 1996
Right in the midst, then, of all the noble knights and fair ladies, heaping platters and heavily laden tables, sprightly servants and bold banners, talk and revelry, the Green Knight suddenly barges in on horseback. For a moment he just sits his mount, framed by the main door, towering over everyone. The perfect Medieval photo op.
Huge and red-eyed and green is he indeed: “for wonder of his hue men had.” Likewise “his strayt cote” and “his hood bothe” and on his legs “hose of that same grene.” A marvel! The hair on his head, “the barres of his belt and other blythe stones,” even the steed he rides, “a grene hors grete and thikke” — everything’s green! In one hand he holds a branch of holly; in the other, an enormous axe.
Then he spurs into the great hall. “Where’s the governor of this gang?” he demands, haughtily. “To knightes he cast his eye.” For an instant — no surprise — silence greets him. “Each mon had marvel what it might mean” that man and horse both shone “grene as the grass, and grener it seemed.”
Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s
Green can be unseely — Northern dialect for “unlucky, unholy.” Corpses and cheeses rot to green, metals like bronze corrode, swamps give off their ghostly phosphorence, moss and weed, creeping vines and algae, all overtake things each in their green fashion. Even the Devil himself gets rendered in green in more than one Medieval painting.
With modern commerce and ecology, green is almost wholly a good thing — not so in Medieval times. It represented a mixed bag of lust and youth (we can still be green with envy, too; and an untried youth is still sometimes called a “greenhorn”), nature and fertility, and early versions of the Green Man beloved of Pagans. Another post on this blog, about Beltane, also treats of greenness in some detail.
[Most clearly, perhaps, we see and hear and feel this enchanting but deeply ambiguous green in Dylan Thomas‘s wonderfully Bardic poem “Fern Hill” : “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green” and later “I was green and carefree” and later still “And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman” and “it was air/And playing, lovely and watery/And fire green as grass” and then nearly done “And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows/In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs/Before the children green and golden/Follow him out of grace” and last of all “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” A poem that doesn’t merely describe but evokes … Follow the link to the poem and read it aloud.]
To return to the Medieval poem: Arthur answers the arrogant Knight with courtesy — the Medieval cortaysye — bidding him join the feast and tell his errand later. It’s an age-old gesture of hospitality, one that dates back to Homer, the traditional and trusting host’s welcome to a stranger. Eat and drink first, and only then speak your will, or recount your story.
Still haughty, the Green Knight declares his nature means he has no intention of lingering. I come, he declares, because of the fame of Arthur’s realm: castle and court are called “the worthyest of the worldes kynde.” The axe I carry, he announces, is no threat. Look to the holly sprig. Be sure “bi the braunch I bere here that I pas in peace.” If I wished for war, I’ld have come fully armed. “But if thou be bold as all folk tellen, thou wil grant me goodly the game that I ask bi ryght.” A Christmas challenge: “I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen.”
Besides, if he were spoiling for a bout, he’d win easily, he boasts. All he sees on the benches around the hall are “berdless children.” But if anyone’s got the guts, “leap lightly to me and latch this weapon. I schall give him of my gifte this axe, to hondele as he likes. I quit-clayme it for ever — keep it as his own. And I shall stond him a stroke” and promise “the doom to deal him an other … and yet give him a respite, a twelve-month and a day.” And again we’re into magical territory, the “year and a day” of testing and challenge, mystery — and mastery — and cyclic completion.
The Knight taunts the company further, and when no one rises to accept the challenge, Arthur himself reaches for the axe. But his nephew Gawain intercedes and claims the right, pointing out that with warriors in the Court to uphold its honor and reputation, the king needn’t lower himself to accept such a challenge. Gawain reasons further with him: besides, as your nephew, if I die, the loss is less.
To make short work of the next few stanzas, Gawain readies the axe, the knight stands with neck bared to receive the keen edge, and Gawain gives him a fierce blow that lops off that green head. Through fat and flesh, the blade bites the floor. Blood spatters those nearest, and they kick at the head as it rolls past the benches.
The Knight, however, strides forward undaunted, retrieves his head, and turns back to his horse. “The brydel he cachches, steps into stirrup and strydes aloft, and his hede by the here in his hondes holdes.” And he speaks one last time: “On New Year’s morn, Gawain, come to the Green Chapel, I charge thee, to receive such a dint as thou hast dealt and now deserve …” And then, as British poet Simon Armitage* renders it in his fluent and lively translation, “So come, or be called a coward forever” (pg. 51)!
Knight, horse and now chapel — green and Christian mixed. The whole game’s unseely! The Knight departs, more food, drink and dancing displace everyone’s fears — except Gawain’s.
Thus the original anonymous Middle English poet closes this first of his four sections (here again is Armitage’s translation*): “But mind your mood, Gawain, keep blacker thoughts at bay, or lose this lethal game you’ve promised you will play” (pg. 53).
More to come in Part Two.
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Images: manuscript illustration of the Round Table by Evrard d’Espinques; Astrid Berges Frisbey as Guinevere; Green Knight by William O’Connor; Green Man at Wikipedia; cover of Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
*Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007. (There are other good translations — notably one by J. R. R. Tolkien. But I like this one, partly because my high school seniors liked it when we read it in our British Lit. class, and also because it provides the Middle English text on the facing page, for linguistic nerds like me who enjoy fine language for its own sake. You can find it used and in paperback. Or get thee hence to thy local library.)
Updated 11 October 2015.
[Part 2 | Part 3]
Ritual Language and the Case of Latin
Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes. The most visible example in the West is Latin. The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin. For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites. If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages. Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.
Language as Sacrament
The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness. The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning. The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience. What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words. Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.
And depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.
Issues with Ritual Language
One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible. Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language? Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer? Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship? Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.
“The King’s English”
For English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611. What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use. A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.
Druid and Pagan Practice
When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably. Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided. Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general. Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants? If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity. It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?
Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page. The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas. To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy. That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time. Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you. Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.” As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give. And finally, people can and will make mistakes. In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.
(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels
Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way. In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language. While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists. He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity. This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters. (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)
About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.” Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation. Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'” An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be. That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.” But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience. In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.
As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft. After all, boxes are for things, not people. Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”
Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity. When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite. The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.
A Human Undersong
Where to go from here? Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience. “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm. “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song. It’s universal.” As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.
Paradoxes of Particularity
Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience. (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**) And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality. We quite literally say who and what we are. The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture. And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.
In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.
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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.
*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.
**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context. If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring. Wonder is at the heart of it. Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:
A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!
Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true? If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.
I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)
Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!
If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.
Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014