Archive for the ‘Christianity’ 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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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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“Holy Zombie? Earth Guardian?”

“You be the judge!”

[Updated Thursday, 23 May 2020]

[Alert: image of mummy appears in this post]

One of J. M. Greer’s “notes in passing” in his latest book, The Mysteries of Merlin, which I reviewed here, concerns a cross-cultural phenomenon that with careless treatment sounds like the makings of a script for some breathless “Hidden Mysteries” documentary, or a really good-bad horror film. With attention, though, we can discern a remarkable and ancient conception of sacrifice for the communal good that spans the globe.

In the West are the legends of Merlin, still alive and enclosed in his Crystal Cave, and Christian Rosenkreuz [Wikipedia link | Alchemylab account], reputed founder of Rosicrucianism, entombed for 120 years in a seven-sided vault, and eventually disinterred, perfectly preserved, with a book of Rosicrucian occult secrets in his arms.

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Monks carrying food at Okunoin mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wikipedia/creative commons

A similar tradition emerges in Japan, with stories clustering around Kobo Daishi (774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tradition holds that he did not die but remains in meditation to this day, entombed in Mount Koya, awaiting the future Buddha. Monks in the Shingon tradition present food at his shrine twice a day.

Greer points to stories of “an archaic magical operation by which a sufficiently knowledgeable and strong-willed person can pass into another mode of existence at death and function for many centuries thereafter as the guardian spirit of a family, a community, or an occult school. Legends in many lands tell of great sages and heroes of the past who descended into stone tombs beneath the earth while still alive, and the stone-chambered mounds of northern and western Europe are routinely connected with such legends” (Greer, pg. 33).

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Megalithic tumulus mound, Saint-Nazaire, France. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077948

Legends such as that of the Seven Sleepers, a shared Christian and Muslim narrative, may also be connected here.

A successful outcome of such practices leads in Japan to people like Kobo Daishi, and to others who become sokushinbutsu, literally “living Buddhas” — the rite was performed as recently as 1903. Mummies of those who underwent the rite are preserved in Senninzawa (“Valley of the Swamp Wizards”), Yamagata Prefecture, and occupy locations of honor in temples otherwise reserved for figures of the Buddha. For a fascinating article on contemporary observances, with details of the living mummification regime, including a strict diet, pursued by those aspiring to this role, along with images of the mummified remains and the monks and temples caring for them, see The Buddhas of Mount Yudono.

Less successful outcomes of this operation, Greer suggests, account for at least some of Europe’s traditions of barrow-wights, vampires, and the orc-neas or “hell-corpses” of Anglo-Saxon legend (from which Tolkien lifted the name and image of the orc). In one sense, then, such beings are simply testimony to “good magic gone bad”.

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Odin — Georg Von Rosen, 1886. Public domain

One thread of this story of ritual death specific to Europe, Greer asserts, is the magical three-fold death of Indo-European tradition, linked to air, water and earth, which we see embodied in the Norse god Odin, who is ritually slain, depending on the source, by being hanged, drowned and stabbed.

Christianity runs with this idea of the power of a magical or holy death, making it the center of its faith in a single divine being whose death can save many. Central to all of these magical and ritual self-sacrifices is their voluntary nature — the “sacrifice goes consenting”; the gift of the self is given freely.

The biblical Book of Hebrews explains the continuity between Jewish traditions of animal sacrifice each year in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Christian conception of the holy and sacrificial death of a god in the form of Jesus: “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). Animal or human sacrifices must be renewed because their benefit wanes over time. The sacrificial death of a god, on the other hand, need happen only once.

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Additional resources:

Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. (Link to Amazon.) McFarland, 2010.

“Everything is Broken Up and Dances”

Google the title of this post, and chances are you’ll unearth three seemingly disparate connections. One is the title of a recent (2018) book by Edoardo Nesi. You might also find the Youtube trailer of a 2016 Israeli film by Nony Geffen with the same name. The third — the link between them, well down the list of URLs and capsule summaries — is the original, from lyrics by Jim Morrison of The Doors, where this line appears at the end of a stanza in “Ghost Song” off the 1978 album American Prayer.

In their own ways, both book and movie use the lyric line to evoke ghosts. Nesi’s book on economics is subtitled “The Crushing of the Middle Class”, while Geffen’s movie focuses on the story of a soldier suffering from PTSD after the third Lebanon war. In each case it’s the ghost of something lost, which makes living in this glittering, fragmented present of ours a hallucinatory journey. The Door’s album was issued after Morrison’s death, using recordings of his spoken word poetry, so that his ghost also looms over the work.

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not here yet — coming, coming …

The prayer of the album title is not just “American”, though some of its song references are. Like any prayer, it grapples with the worlds we live in, worlds of memory and dream and imagination, of the physical senses and of the possible worlds that time and human choice may unfold.

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A facile reading of “Ghost Song” might suggest we can dance along with the fragments — make the best of the situation. This is a strategy that may work for some of us — I silently add it to my spiritual toolkit — but the current troubles tug and gnaw at us in ways that dancing may not ease. The loss of jobs and “normal” life, the stress of disease and the threat of disease, put us right in the middle of the break-up and fragmentation.

No single remedy exists. But multiple remedies do, and humans are remarkably resilient creatures. Most of us already have ways for dealing with the present craziness, and we’re always on the lookout for new ones. Yes, the snake-oil sellers and spammers and scammers crawl out of the woodwork in times like this to snare the vulnerable and careless, but that doesn’t negate our search for new practices, solutions, promises. Like any green thing we send out runners and branches questing for new soil, for air and water and light.

For Christians this weekend is about hope, about resurrection. No surprise, the festival comes at the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Christians in the southern hemisphere might consider matching their festivals to the season — Easter in September, Christmas around the June solstice — in order to align with a natural order they know God established. Likewise with Pagans down under. Samhain in May, and Imbolc in August. While celebrating beginnings as the leaves fall, or endings as the world greens all around us, may teach wisdom and the ability to distinguish other worlds from this apparent one, it’s out of harmony with the dominant dynamic the season is inviting our bodies to join and participate in.

If we look at the rest of “Ghost Song”, the first word commands us: “Awake”. I could stop there, or rather start there, and need nothing else. Awake, and keep awaking. But I keep going.

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already past — what’s to come?

American Prayer” opens with vital questions: “Do you know the warm progress under the stars? Do you know we exist? Have you forgotten the keys to the Kingdom?” Read the rest of the lyrics and you see how Christian imagery pervades the song, how the song itself asks deeply Christian questions, which means questions for everyone, in spite and because of its obscenity and “politics”.

Without the profane there is no sacred. And often enough, though we don’t like to admit it, they trade places.

All right — but what can I do with this possibly useful fact?

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One of the headlines in yesterday’s Guardian reads “Sesame Street’s pandemic advice for parents: ‘Find rituals, be flexible, take a breath'”. I take this Triad and meditate on its seven words “for parents”, and for children, too. Right now that boundary shrinks. We’re all parents and children too, looking for comfort and reassurance (assuming we’re not honing our skills at denial) and for the first hints of “what next?” We “parent and child” each other right now in all kinds of ways.

Sometimes the only ritual I can manage is to take a breath. But that’s a good one, because without it I won’t make it to any of the others. Let me re-order the advice: “take a breath, be flexible, find rituals”. Bend, breathe, ritualize. Breathe, ritualize, bend.

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Bless, and the blessing spreads outward. We are blessing-bearers.

 

Sigil Vigil

Heartfelt thank-yous to you, my readers, for bringing page views to 90,000. I’m making a point of posting more regularly during these difficult times.

While this blog seems to be passing through a prolonged dry-spell with few comments, I draw encouragement from a steady international readership that averages about 50 visits a day. If what I write helps, encourages or just entertains you, please leave even a brief comment so I know I should keep doing what I’m doing. Your reaching out really matters and makes a difference!

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Watching for seals. No, not the sea-going mammals this time — the marks, glyphs, signs and symbols that we both make ourselves and also perceive in the natural world.

Tabloids regale us endlessly with pop-culture versions of this — for example, the face of Jesus burnt onto a piece of toast. Equivalent perceptions occur in other cultures with equivalent cultural icons (e.g., Buddha in the sky). Even normally restrained scientists have been known to join in: a 2019 article in Popular Mechanics gushes about the “real face” of Jesus, with this tagline “Advances in forensic science reveal the most famous face in history”. Feel the tug of that headline?

We ask “But is it real?” all the time, of a great number of things, many of which can’t (or shouldn’t) answer.

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MAGUS banner featuring the Gathering logo

Psychology explains these phenomena as instances of pareidolia — if you see the word “idol” within the word, that’s not a mistake. Pareidolia is, to borrow a rhyme, “seeing faces in unusual places”. You might find this article on the topic from LiveScience interesting. Our human tendency to detect patterns in seemingly random visual inputs is what makes the Rorschach inkplot test possible. It’s also part of a complex human survival skill with multiple consequences.

The ability to attend to a pattern, to give it a meaning, empowers signs and sigils, but of course also makes written language possible. The shapes of the 26 squiggles of the English alphabet have little to no inherent meaning (you might argue that the S is vaguely snake-like, and snakes hiss — hence, the s-sound), but humans can detect and assign meanings to a wide variety of phenomena.

An effective sigil or seal can be created as a doorway to memory, to specific states of awareness, to understandings that may not stay with us while we’re dusting the shelves, changing a diaper, emailing the boss, or cooking a meal. But we can shift consciousness at will with the aid of a seal or sigil and know and do things otherwise beyond our capacity. Our schoolteachers know the value of holding a student’s focus and attention — these make all the difference!

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doodles for Druidry and Christianity logo — cross and grail

Christians wear crosses, Jews the Star of David, and followers of other traditions their own meaningful symbols. We also doodle both new and repeated shapes and signs, and we can expand on this human tendency and engage with a whole symbolic language if we choose.

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Tolkien’s initials as logo

Books on sigil making and sigil magic — the conscious seeking, design and use of signs and shapes to change consciousness — can of course assist. But the ability already lies in each of us — a birthright.

Tolkien invented a sigil from the initials of his name (JRRT) that now appears on his books and has become a trademark of the Tolkien Estate. Companies and organizations know that a distinctive and readily recognizable logo is often a key component to visibility and reputation and success.

To point to just one immediate use of sigils anyone can put into practice today, in these times of distraction and seduction by social media, and by fear and anxiety, our corresponding ability to attend to what we choose, rather than an advertising campaign or a news outlet or political party, is a priceless human gift.

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publisher logos on book spines — Pagans know the Llewellyn moon!

Place a meaningful sigil where I can see it during my day, write, paint or carve it on objects I use regularly, or sit with it in meditation, and I have a ready tool for shaping consciousness, guiding it toward my own purposes and desires, and focusing the energies that come through it into channels and actions that help, uplift and empower me.

And Josephine McCarthy, to choose just one author whose books are on my shelves, knows the value of a sigil as a distinctive cover for a book.

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May signs point to good things for you!

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Images: Magic of the North Gate cover; Wikipedia for JRRT logo.

Creativity’s Messy–2: Druid & Christian

No surprise (though I’m often slow on the uptake), after the period of inner work I detailed in the recent “Listening to Inwardness” series, that creativity should be the theme of these posts. The awen, like water, seems to follow the paths of least resistance in our lives, so for me it manifests in language creation, and in returns to themes I’ve looked at already but need to spiral with. And in physical reminders, too, as this body ages, to exercise, to eat healthy, to stretch, to listen.

And that means a challenge I’m noting for myself, even as I record it here for you: creativity left unmanifest, ignored for too long, can out itself through my weaknesses, too, amplifying them, doing a full-on “mercury retrograde” to my daily life on the spot, when a hundred little things that might go wrong will absolutely find a way to do so, if they can. If that divine energy that is creative always has got nowhere else to go, I’ll have a right royal row with my wife, stub my toe on the woodstove base, get splinters in my palm while chopping wood, break a clean plate while emptying the dishrack — all in the same morning. Like electricity, creativity will ground itself along the most direct path to earth.

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Another instance of the messiness of creativity rests in our spiritual encounters and how we respond to their challenges and opportunities — to those places and moments where something rattles our cages, and with any grace induces us to sort out what’s habit and inertia and no longer helpful to our lives, and what remains valid on a new round of the spiral of our journey. Person, place or thing, it doesn’t matter: each asks us to bring the fire in us to bear on problem solving, on spiritual creativity at work in daily life — in a word, at finding joy. But ignore the lesson-opportunity-blessing, and just as with the smaller moments, so the bigger ones, as R. J. Stewart observes:

It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20-21)

Creativity is one of the most enjoyable ways to “unlock” that I’ve experienced. But it’s almost guaranteed to be messy!

I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog my own attempts to plumb some of the numinous encounters and intersections of Druidry and Christianity, a deep and rich vein to explore, as writers and teachers like John Philip Newell have done in several books.

Here’s Newell in his 2012 book A New Harmony* on the “sound of the beginning” — a pretty close description for the awen, at least as some Druids experience it:

New science speaks of being able to detect the sound of the beginning in the universe. It vibrates within the matter of everything that has being. New science is echoing the ancient wisdom of spiritual insight. In the twelfth century Hildegard of Bingen taught that the sound of God resonates ‘in every creature’. It is ‘the holy sound’, she says, ‘which echoes through the whole creation.’ If we are to listen for the One from whom we have come, it is not away from creation that we are to turn our ears, it is not away from the true depths of our being that we are to listen. It is rather to the very heart of all life that we are to turn our inner attention. For then we will hear that the deepest sound within us is the deepest sound within one another and within everything that has being. We will hear that the true harmony of our being belongs to the universe and that the true harmony of the universe belongs to us. … Everything arises from that sacred sound.

So far, so Druid. But in the same book, Newell then turns toward issues that often receive less insightful treatment in too much of Druidry. Spend time in Druid communities and you encounter firsthand what they struggle with, too: addiction, abuse, imbalance, illness, spiritual immaturity and blindness, ignorance, superstition, fear, anger. In other words, with the human weaknesses that beset every other human community.

Newell observes:

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey towards wholeness. We will not be well by denying the wrongs that we carry within us as nations and religions and communities. Nor will we be well by downplaying them or projecting them onto others. The path to wholeness will take us not around such awareness but through it, confronting the depths of our brokenness before being able to move forward towards healing. As Hildegard of Bingen says, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the ‘knowledge of good’ and the other is the ‘knowledge of evil’. If we lack one or the other we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of unitary vision. We will live in half-consciousness instead of whole-consciousness.

Both Druidry and Christianity still tend to be “one-winged”, and in opposite ways. (That’s partly why each could learn much from the other.) To grossly over-generalize, Druids celebrate the good, and glory in images of that old Garden and those ancient Trees, while underplaying the human evils that beset Druids and their communities as much as anyone, and forestall them from entering more fully. Christians may understand and even fixate more on the evils, and have much indeed to say about sin, but underplay and even distrust the gifts and capacities, lessons and potentials of a world that can catalyze the spiritual growth and maturity they often refuse.

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Part of this particular creativity lies in the practice of listening across traditions. John Beckett writes in a recent blogpost apropos of traditions, DNA, supposed bloodlines, and their dubious guidance for “choosing your religion”:

We dream of finding a heritage that’s mine, that provides connection and meaning.

Too many of us, though, fail to understand that mine means “where I belong” and not “what belongs to me.”

Rather than looking for roots in DNA, put down roots with the land where you are: observe it, touch it, eat it. Honor the spirits and other persons who share it with you.

Or to paraphrase a certain Galilean: Why do you seek the living among the dead?

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Awen a ganaf — o dwfyn ys dygaf, says Taliesin, in his poem Angar Kyfandawt. “(It’s) the awen that I sing — (it’s) from the deep that I bring it”. (Or in my flowering Celtic ritual language, Bod an awen a canu mi, o’n duven a tenna mi.) But the bard continues (rendering by K. Hughes, From the Cauldron Born):

It’s a river that flows; I know its might,
I know how it ebbs, and I know how it flows,
I know when it overflows, I know when it shrinks …

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*Newell, John Philip. A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul. Jossey-Bass, 2012. Republished as A New Ancient Harmony: A Celtic Vision for the Journey Into Wholeness. Material Media, 2019.

A Note on Magical and Musical Fire

In this post I’d like to touch briefly on a couple of magical and musical principles — the two things often overlap, if you’re paying attention. This is to some extent a Druid-Christian post, so some of you may want to spend time doing other things, if that flavor of Druidry — or Christianity — doesn’t work for you. (For instance, the video here drives my wife absolutely up the wall.)

Below is a 5-minute video of a catchy Christian worship song, “Everything Comes Alive”, from Toronto-based “Catch the Fire” [Wikipedia entry | official website], a non-denominational Charismatic movement. It’s part of an album compiled from a 2016 Revival. Recently it was posted to a Christian Druidry Facebook group, where it garnered likes, but — last I checked — no comments. I’d like to do some thinking out loud with and around it, to make some observations, and hope they will be useful to readers.

First, the video, featuring vocalist Alice Clarke, one of the movement’s worship leaders:

The song clocks in at 120 beats/minute — a tempo that’s splendid for inducing trance — and the Wikipedia entry on trance is particularly detailed and useful, whatever your orientation and interest, and deserves a careful reading, rather than me trying to paraphrase it here. And a look at the gathered worshipers shows many of them well on their way into trance as the song progresses, with its repeating choruses and singable lyrics and melody.

A subsection on general brain activity is revealing — rather than an either-or state, trance is a matter of degree and proportion among the four kinds of brainwaves:

There are four principal brainwave states that range from high-amplitude, low-frequency delta to low-amplitude, high-frequency beta. These states range from deep dreamless sleep to a state of high arousal. These four brainwave states are common throughout humans. All levels of brainwaves exist in everyone at all times, even though one is foregrounded depending on the activity level. When a person is in an aroused state and exhibiting a beta brainwave pattern, their brain also exhibits a component of alpha, theta and delta, even though only a trace may be present.

Music, not to belabor the point, is one of the most widespread and also acceptable ways of changing consciousness. It’s also among the safest. (How many of us “zone out” to a favorite song?!) Of interest is the attention that Catch The Fire pays to quality musicianship — whatever your musical tastes, the keyboardist is skilled, and Clarke has an appealing, ethereal voice. They clearly understand its value and power as a prime expression of spirituality. Or to put things in terms of the article on brain activity, “What am I foregrounding today — or right now?”

Though many Christians might take issue with calling their form of worship a magical act, it fits the definitions and standards quite nicely. Much of the difference between denominational Christianity and Druidry in their musical choices depends on past practices, local influences and expectation, much less on the effect of the music on consciousness. From meditative reflection to transitional interlude to invoking the Spirit, the awen, the Muse, the gods, the Presence, “music magics the moment”.

As I note on my page on Magic:

[E]ach day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness and back again.  We make these transitions naturally and usually effortlessly — so effortlessly we usually do not notice or comment on them. But they serve different purposes: what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation. And further, what we ordinarily do quite mechanically and often without awareness, we can learn to do consciously.

As we ponder how to effect the changes in our consciousness and lived experience that we desire (“that we need, that we can do, that needs to be done”), it pays to employ such readily available means as music. Within everyone’s reach is music in some form, either recorded, live from acknowledged performers, or made on the spot by ourselves. We can chant, play a recorder or whistle, find a percussion instrument among pails and cans, create a rattle from pebbles and resonant container of many shapes and sizes, and include such things in our spiritual practice, whether daily, or on special ritual occasions. (I have a small singing bowl I ring as I enter my backyard grove.)

Music draws beneficent energies to us, in our own consciousness, and from other beings around us.

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 4

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6| Part 7]

If the holy terrain between Druid and Christian calls to you, better your way than one belonging to another person that doesn’t fit you where you walk on your particular arm of the Spiral Journey. A week’s worth of your own meditations surpasses anything I can write here. These themes are suggestions, prompts, points of departure. They’re mine, and they may not be yours. Their use is as sparks, kindling, tinder, fuel, provocation. Your particular path may grow out of resistance or contradiction. Thus are (spiritual) muscles strengthened.

If you’ve (mostly) survived your adolescence, held down a job, learned to deal with roommates, siblings, coworkers, parents, teachers, traffic cops, jerks, (holy) Fools, the DMV, followed a dream, fell in love, lost a bet, failed at something, succeeded at something else, and arrived here, it’s pretty likely you’ve accumulated enough insight to learn something useful when looking at cards intended to evoke insight from your experiences! We can also never fully know how our words on such subjects may be exactly what another needs to hear.

The HERMIT

09-HermitHermits abound in world-wide lore and legend, running the gamut from hell-bound to holy. Depending on your temperament and the rebuffs that life generously doles out to all of us, you may find in the Hermit a kindred spirit, someone who chooses, as the French have it, reculer pour mieux sauter: “to draw back in order to make a better leap” back into the fray. Or eremitic withdrawal may become the theme for a lifetime, or a whole series of them. Plenty of secular examples come to mind as well, especially if you’re rich enough to build a life from your eccentricities, like billionaire Howard Hughes.

Modern examples include Thomas Merton, whose hermit tendencies can be summed up in the name of the monastic order he eventually joined: OCSO, the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, or Trappists. Not content with the already spartan nature of the Order, Merton withdrew further to a hermitage on the grounds of the monastery. His books and poems and increasing fame were one vital source of balance shaping his character into the wise monk, priest and author he slowly became.

J M Greer illustrates a Druid-focused model for practice just as potentially rigorous, especially for the solitary: the Gnostic Celtic Church. Greer highlights some of its distinctive features:

… the GCC does not train people for the standard American Protestant model of the clergy—a model that assigns to clergy the functions of providing weekly services to a congregation, “marrying and burying,” offering amateur counseling to parishioners, and pursuing political and social causes of one kind or another, and defines training for the ministry in terms of the same style of university education used by most other service professions.

This model evolved out of the distinctive social and theological requirements of American Protestant Christianity and has little relevance to other faiths, especially those that do not have the financial resources to support full-time ministers.  It has nonetheless been adopted uncritically by a great many alternative religious traditions here in America. It was in response to the very poor fit between that model and the needs of a contemporary alternative religious movement that AODA [Ancient Order of Druids in America] chose to pursue an older model better suited to its own tradition and needs.

Instead of growing from a single and largely American Protestant model, the GCC focuses on what it calls the Rule of Awen, because

there is certainly a need for men and women who are willing to embrace a new monasticism centered on a personal rule:  one in which the core principle of aligning the whole life with the spiritual dimensions of reality can express itself in forms relevant to the individual practitioner and the present age, in which a rich spiritual life supported by meaningful ceremonial and personal practice can readily coexist with whatever form of outward life is necessary or appropriate to each priest or priestess, and in which the practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion.

Greer always packs a lot in his sometimes academic prose: following Christ’s admonition, this means in short to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. We say we want freedom, but how many of us trust our own inner guidance sufficiently to discern what is “necessary or appropriate”, and avoid the “pathologies of political religion”?

As always, the simplest and purest way contains with it the hard-earned wisdom of lifetimes. Greer lays out the central challenge we all face:

… find and follow your own Awen. Taken as seriously as it should be — for there is no greater challenge for any human being than that of seeking his or her purpose of existence, and then placing the fulfillment of that purpose above other concerns as a guide to action and life — this is as demanding a rule as the strictest of traditional monastic vows. Following it requires attention to the highest and deepest dimensions of the inner life, and a willingness to ignore all the pressures of the ego and the world when those come into conflict, as they will, with the ripening personal knowledge of the path that Awen reveals.

How many of us have even begun to recognize and creatively respond to all the myriad “pressures of the ego and the world”? (After all, this is much of what I’ve long been practicing in my own way, as recorded in this blog, and you have ample evidence here of the challenges one person has faced.)

The Matthews’ Arthurian deck depicts the Grail Hermit: “Neither Druid nor priest, as hermit he mediates the functions of both”.

Where is the “third element” in each of my life experiences? As neither pole of a binary, how does it serve both and thereby a greater whole?

The WHEEL of FORTUNE

10-Wheel-of-FortuneThe Wheel or Spiral, the lungo drom or long road of yearning of the Romani, the Wheel of Becoming in Hinduism, “what goes around comes around” of folk wisdom, all point to the circular nature of life and the resonances that our actions establish.

Or as the Lakota holy man Black Elk puts it,

Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.

Worldwide, this circle or wheel is also quartered, divided into four fields or domains or regions. Yes, it’s impossible to square the circle , and the link will lead you into exquisite mathematical detail why this is so — but using this holy glyph or mandala as a teaching and learning device, as a tool in ritual, is another order of response to such an intersection of worlds. What is materially impossible is — often — spiritually essential. Or to put it another way, walking a spiritual path means squaring the circle every single day. (Or if you seek a spiritual practice based in mathematics, check out this origami link.)

For more insights that can lead to a unique personal practice with sacred geometry, and not incidentally provide further rich linkages between their profound influence in both Druidry and Christianity, check out Michael Schneider’s A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science.

JUSTICE

11-JusticeIn Matthews’ deck, the corresponding figure is Sovereignty: “our true self and the land are one”. The justice of this inner truth emerges in the great rebalancing that earth is currently experiencing, as the consequences of our past actions come home to us, and we begin to accept responsibility for them and to work off their effects. But we need not merely suffer them passively; we can work with them creatively for the purposes of transformation, which is what cause and effect are placed to afford to all who seek.

In the traditional deck, the figure is garbed and presented so that gender is not immediately clear. Latin justitia is a feminine noun, yet the figure of Justice as we have it here has a seated, balanced, imperial quality of the previous male figures in positions of traditional masculine power and authority.

As a further harmonic development of the Magician, Justice is a balanced expression of power: the upward right hand holds a sword, while the left grips a balance. The two pillars of manifestation again frame the seated figure, and a curtain conceals the region behind it.

What has been lost on the way to Justice? How is its expression still incomplete, indicating the need for further growth and unfoldment? What does rebalancing and attainment of a new equilibrium conceal or distract me from? What further currents of change and transformation remain that ask for my attention, and allow me to anticipate future expressions of Justice, of balance and recalibration and harmonizing?

The triple crown of Justice can be seen to reflect the magical current inherent in groups of three, and in the physical universe. The card commentary for this card in Matthews’ Arthurian deck includes this observation: “…the Goddess of Sovereignty gives three drinks from her cup, purveying the white milk of fostering, the red drink of lordship and the dark drink of forgetfulness. These she offers successively in her aspects as Foster-Mother, Consort and Renewer”.

“Mother, foster me to your service. Consort, empower us both through our union. Renewer, ease me as I strive to fulfill my vows to you”.

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 2

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6| Part 7]

INTERLUDE

Druids have grappled with Christianity since it first arrived in Europe. While today we might take St. Augustine at his word (“that which is known as the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist”*), exploring it in new and creative ways (tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine!), most people throughout Christian history have understood the assertion as narrowly as possible. That is, Christ started a new religion focused on belief in the divine power of his sacrificial death and resurrection, which saves the believer. Pairing this with a transformation in awareness, the convert takes on a new life in Christ.

For many, however, Jesus Christ, or least the religion that bears his name, is problematic at best. (To choose just one among myriad issues to explore, note that neither Druids nor non-Druids use the name Taliesin, for instance, as a “swear-word”!) Many non-Christians today have suffered from unloving and aggressive evangelism, family harassment, workplace tension, physical threats and social ostracism, whether they practice a non-Christian spirituality or simply remain “outside” the Christian church.

I’m addressing this series of posts, then, primarily to a vast “excluded middle” — neither the “born-again” believer nor the scarred (and possible tarred and feathered) “heretic”, but the people awake to the “magical and generous” possibilities all around us, because you’ve already experienced them, and they answer a deep hunger in you like nothing else can.

Or as Krista comments:

Dean, I’m always especially interested when you write on this particular topic. Having been raised in the Christian Faith, and having had no quarrel with the Christianity of my youth, my own Druid practice always has something of a Christian flavor to it even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. But I don’t consider myself Pagan either. Always was a bit of a square peg. So throughout my Druid journey I’ve become very comfortable blending and assimilating and it works quite well in my private practice. It’s a bit more challenging in community practice, but I’m working on it and I adapt when it’s called for. I think it would do the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective. Thanks for taking it on!

One less-than-flattering label for this is syncretism. But religions and spiritualities, just like most human cultures, thrive by cross-pollination, as careful study of them across time will bear out. Similarly, in our genetics we’re mongrels, hybrids, blends, mixes. (Our sometimes uncomfortable surprise at recent DNA test-results illustrates one aspect of this.) Our current sensitivity to “cultural appropriation” is our heightened awareness of the violence behind forcible mis-appropriations. Or as John Beckett puts it bluntly in his The Path of Paganism, “Always credit your sources, never pretend to be something you’re not, and steal from the best”. It’s the lack of credit, the pretense, and the poor selection that make up most of our problems with shoddy cultural (mis)appropriation. The “weekend guru” offering workshops, intensives and retreats, and cashing in on an inferior grab of unacknowledged and imperfectly-mastered practices from another culture currently perceived as somehow more “authentic” or “powerful”, gives all borrowing and mixing a bad name.

[Lest you take issue with the possibly glib tone of John’s “triad of appropriation” above, let’s hear him at greater length from a recent post:

Are you being respectful to the traditions and cultures you’re drawing from, or are you grabbing whatever looks shiny to you? Are you working with them as whole systems, or as mix and match entrees on a spiritual buffet? And as a polytheist, my biggest concern: are you treating the Gods as holy powers and as persons with whom we can form relationships, or as objects to be used where and how you see fit?]

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Another under-explored overlap is Druid and Hindu practice | another link | a third link | which offers some very provocative insights into cultural similarity and preservation of ancient traditions over long periods of time, and at “opposite ends” of the Indo-European area of cultural and linguistic origins and influence. Everything from archetypal themes in stories, to names of gods, music and musical instruments, and spiritual practices, show common ground in the cultures of Celts and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

And so I write these posts partly in the spirit of “doing the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective”. And as always, I’m exploring my own practices and perspectives as I go — one of the chief benefits of blogging.

The EMPRESS

03-EmpressThe Empress of the traditional deck, with her 12-star crown and sceptre, and the astronomical symbol of Venus next to her chair or throne, is another goddess figure. As an aspect or representation of the energies along the journey of the Fool or Seeker, she grounds us in the earth. The wheat growing at her feet, the waterfall to her left, the forest behind her, all place her “in the world” of both fruitfulness and change. Whether as Mother Earth, or Mary, or another goddess, or a living but impersonal archetype, or the fertile and fruitful energies within us, the Empress is a potent force and presence.

As Caitlin and John Matthews describe Guinevere in their version** of this card, as “the Empress of Logres (the Inner Britain), she creates the conditions for growth, establishing peace and contentment. She spins a thread of inner concord which is woven into the fabric of the land and its people. She imparts sensitivity to nature and harmonious awareness of all life” (The Arthurian Tarot. Thorsons, 1995, pg. 28).

What is the “thread of concord” between you and the land where you live? Only you can answer that: it can become a practice first to find out, and then to honor it in ways that you work out between you and the land. A grounding exercise of weaving or braiding a thread to carry with you as a reminder may help incarnate this awareness. Ritual can serve our need here, as in so many places.

What are the “conditions for growth” for whatever you wish to bring into your life? How can you begin to work them into your day to day work and awareness, so that they can manifest what you need? How can you serve others who are doing the same? Asking the questions can help the chance manifest, if I’m paying attention. If not, then next time around.

Archetypes, it should be said, aren’t something to “believe in”, and even less something to “worship” — though you certainly can if you choose to. (Let us know how it goes — you may discover something valuable to share.) Instead, and probably a better use of our energies and attention and time, they’re something to work with to see what they can help us do and understand about our lives.

The EMPEROR

04-EmperorThe Emperor in the traditional deck hews to traditional symbols and representations of patriarchal power: beard, crown, scepter, throne, armor, harsh and rather sterile landscape, rams’ horns adorning the throne’s arms and back. (It can be helpful for such reasons to consult other decks for different images and symbolism.) The fact that we’re experiencing the negative effects of imbalanced masculine energies in our lives simply tells us a piece of what needs healing and re-balancing. Scan most headlines and you realize many people haven’t a clue about how to begin to do this — itself a measure of how out of balance the energies have become for many. We’ve often jettisoned outmoded forms of spirituality, true — but neglected to replace them.

The Emperor’s number 4 is also represents the fullness of the human world, four-square in its founding on the four physical elements, before we shift our awareness to spiritual realities within and beyond them. The Pagan and Christian star alike points to the five-fold nature of all things, both physical and non-physical — a vital reminder of how the cosmos is constituted, which we overlook, and have overlooked, to our peril.

The spiritual, you might say, is what the physical *is* under its mask. Or to say it another way, the spiritual is always clear and apparent; it’s the physical that’s the mystery, the cloak, the concealer, the mist-filled branching off the path. We have simply forgotten to work our polarity magic, to walk a spiritual path of stewardship, to put it in Christian terms — we’ve thrown our planet out of balance over time, and now must spend at least as much time over the coming decades and centuries working to bring it back into balance and harmony.

The HIEROPHANT

05-HierophantThe figure in the traditional deck of the Hierophant, the “one who shows the holy”, may bring further associations of institutional authority and entrenched structures and imbalances.

Some decks re-order these first few cards, change their genders and assign them different symbolism, in an attempt to represent one or another version of a more balanced set of images. In the Matthews’ Arthurian deck the card depicts the bard Taliesin, the poet-as-way-shower-of-the-holy, especially of ways that stand outside formal structures and institutions. Today we find our bards and prophets among artists and performers, actors and politicians.

(Check out fansites and Facebook, Twitter and other social media, if you want to know how much the words and music and performances of artists matter to so many, if you don’t already have a deep appreciation for the power wielded by a multitude of visions and their visionaries. Again and again, people post how a performance or a lyric saved their lives, brought them down from suicide, changed their outlooks, gave them strength and courage and a vision to persevere through often impossible circumstances.)

Like the Hierophant, Taliesin is a guardian of tradition. We know all too well the dangers of distorted and abusive holders of traditional authority and power. Seemingly every other day, headlines trumpet the fall of another person — often a man — from a position of trust, authority and power. Such things have given tradition a bad name — except, again, in our modern reverence for everyone else’s traditions except our own. Traditional holders of wisdom, Native American or Tibetan or Mayan, still retain something of the original value that a tradition is meant to preserve.

For the other and often neglected face of tradition is that conserving function. We may conceive of tradition as “guarding from”, but more as “guarding for”. In his Elves, more than in any other expression in his fantasy works, Tolkien captures the sense both of preserving much wisdom and beauty through time, and of pervasive sadness at its seemingly inevitable loss. To cite just one example, even among the more hopeful, Gandalf addresses Aragorn in Book 6, Chapter 5 of The Lord of the Rings:

This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away.

Our contemporary sense of loss and disorientation at our crumbling institutions, corrupt as some of them have become, is also an opportunity to reconnect with legitimate traditions, many preserved inwardly by their keepers, where we can recover them through vision, gratitude, ritual, and readiness and humility to ask for guidance. Taliesin, in the Matthews’ rendering, is one such preserver or conservator. He “sits in a firelit hall. He tells the story of his initiatory transformations to two children who sit at his feet listening intently. The golden links of tradition pass from his hands to theirs” (The Arthurian Tarot, pg. 30).

And our efforts in this quest (“lest any man should boast” as Christian scripture says [Ephes 2:9] of “works”, which by themselves can never be the only component of a quest) are part of our purification, our testing, a step along the path, not the sole key to growth. We are each one being in a cosmos of other beings, each with intentions and purposes, some which can align with ours. The hand of tradition, the wisdom of the Ancestors, the spiritual reality of the worlds, reaches out to grasp ours when we show we are ready.

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*Augustine of Hippo. The Retractions, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Mary Inez Bogan. Vol. 60, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1968), 52. [Book 1, Chapter 12, article 3.]

**Here are the names of the cards in the Matthews’ Arthurian deck: (0) The Seeker, (1) Merlin, (2) Lady of the Lake, (3) Guinevere, (4) Arthur, (5) Taliesin, (6) The White Hart, (7) Prydwen, (8) Gawain, (9) The Grail Hermit, (10) The Round Table, (11) Sovereignty, (12) The Wounded King, (13) The Washer at the Ford, (14) The Cauldron, (15) The Green Knight, (16) The Spiral Tower, (17) The Star, (18) The Moon, (19) The Sun, (20) The Sleeping Lord, and (21) The Flowering of Logres.

Listening to Each Other — Recent Comments

A series of recent comments here has been helpful to me, even as I try to gauge how to approach these posts, and how far and where to take them.

I had breakfast with a Druid friend this morning, a short while before he’ll be off for an extended cross-country skiing trip, far from regular tourist routes, hiking in and out, and camping and staying in trail-side shelters. I value him in part because he’s a good listener, and as a consistent character trait, he seeks to find balance in his own reactions to his daily inner and outer life, even as he shares them with others. It makes for some priceless insights, if I shut up to catch them.

Such reflection is a gift, something to cherish and encourage in others. I try to listen here in the same spirit, when you comment in posts about what’s going on in your worlds and experiences. Often of course I don’t not know enough of your circumstances to comment usefully, but I keep listening partly for that very reason. Who knows the whole story, even of our own lives? (The late ABC commentator Paul Harvey called his popular broadcast The Rest of the Story. We keep paying attention, if we’re wise, because the story hasn’t ended yet by any means, and we’re all part of it, telling our piece as we live it. And if you suspect reincarnation is an accurate aspect of the story, its chapters can grow quite lengthy indeed.) Listening, patience, gratitude: a triad cutting across all traditions, proven countless times over and over in its profound power.

tree2-17-19

Krista writes:

Dean, I’m always especially interested when you write on this particular topic. Having been raised in the Christian Faith, and having had no quarrel with the Christianity of my youth, my own Druid practice always has something of a Christian flavor to it even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. But I don’t consider myself Pagan either. Always was a bit of a square peg. So throughout my Druid journey I’ve become very comfortable blending and assimilating and it works quite well in my private practice. It’s a bit more challenging in community practice, but I’m working on it and I adapt when it’s called for. I think it would do the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective. Thanks for taking it on!

How many of us hear even a part of our own experiences in what Krista shares here? Neither Christian or Pagan. It’s a perspective and an experience I suspect is more common than we recognize. “Square-pegged-ness” could probably define a number of us, and in fact much contemporary spiritual practice across traditions echoes this sense of having to find and tread our own paths. Because what price “purity” of belief or practice strictly within the confines of one tradition or school, church or community, if spiritually we’re suffocating or starving there? It can take a deal of work just to recognize such a priority, and honor such a spiritual imperative.

The influx of the divine that swirled and took shape in and around Christianity still has valid things to teach us, even as individual churches and whole communions and major denominations struggle to find their way.  The existence today of over 20,000 Protestant denominations, to say nothing of other Christian traditions, testifies to the difficulty of satisfying the questing individual soul with system and conformity, doctrine and creed.

Group practice and community often mean more to many people than words of affirmation recited at a particular portion of the weekly service, though they may describe much of value, too. But the flame that burns at the heart of what is called Christianity does not appear to keep itself neatly smouldering within any bounds set by humans, any more than it does in other spiritualities. If it did, how much would it really be worth? Instead, it kindles and warms anyone who brushes up against it for any length of time. Inconveniently so, dynamically so, wonderfully and provocatively and endlessly “inspiritingly” so.

What other perspectives or flavors of Druidry do we often overlook, besides the Christian one(s)?

Until we can begin to answer that question adequately, I’m borrowing, for the space of a quotation anyway, some monotheistic but non-Christian flavor from Tolkien’s Silmarillion, hearing in it an echo of Druidic awen, and a further gift of the elemental fire that kindles us all:

Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

And disabledhikernh writes:

Thank you for this post. I am hard pressed to find other Druid Christians, so I have felt kind of isolated as such. Now I don’t 🙂

Isolation, that challenge to solitaries — and how many of us are solitary, even if we enjoy a local community of others, before and after we gather with them? The anvil of solitude can forge us spiritually in ways nothing else can, though the costs can be correspondingly high.

(One of my spiritual practices, for what it’s worth, found in other interesting places, too: If this experience is happening for me rather than only to me, what can I take from it? Where can I travel with it? What doors does it open, and not just close? What beauties glow behind the doors? What deities flare and bloom there? How far, I whisper to myself, half in fear, half in wonder, how far can I really go?)

Steve has been sharing something of his journey in previous comments, and writes:

This series of posts is proving to be a thoughtful and thought provoking treatment of what is a “delicate” subject in many circles. When I first encountered some of your earlier posts on the intersection of druidry and christianity I admit to taking a very cautious approach, almost an attitude of “this is too good to be true”. With time to read and think about what you are saying it seems more likely that you are speaking from hard won, first hand experience. Thank you for doing this.

“Delicate” is apt. Steve’s caution here sounds at least as hard-won — and needful — as any experience of mine, and vice-versa. My caution in how definitively I assert something, how deep I dig, how far I push, what I ask that I can’t answer, is ongoing. Rather than encounter walls, or provoke readers unnecessarily with observations I can’t back up from experience, I want to explore respectfully — mostly so I miss as little as possible of value as I go.

One of the most startling overlaps or intersections of traditions for me happened during an initiation. I still don’t know altogether what it “means”, though it was over five years ago now. In a clear inner encounter, all the more unexpected because I hadn’t opened a Bible in many years, I saw how

out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and his face was like the sun shining in its strength (Revelation 1:20).

Rather than “meaning” anything at first, the experience shaped me within its own context, just like other profound experiences, whether of pain or joy, grief or wonder, which we analyze only later, and put labels on, as we “process” them, seeking to incorporate or reject them, expanding or contracting them to “fit” what we can accept at the time. At the time, this experience confirmed for me the energy and love behind the initiation, flagging it as powerfully memorable.

bosco-verticale

Milan’s bosco verticale — vertical forest, completed in 2018*.

(After a car accident over three decades ago now, I surveyed the overturned and totaled car I’d been driving, walked gingerly over a puddle of broken glass to retrieve my wallet, flung from the dash out the window by the impact, massaged a sore neck that was my only physical outcome of the event, and marveled in gratitude that no one had been hurt. Anything the accident “meant” came only later: Insurance claims. My sometimes-psychic brother, agitated all morning before my phone call home to explain what happened and ask to be picked up. The eventual replacement of the car. The job interview I was returning from, the mantra I’d been chanting, my mindset, the weather, the other driver, and so on.)

Part of the gift of the initiation experience is that I was largely able to let go of what it “meant” at first and focus on accepting its effects on my awareness. What it “meant” and “means” has continued to unfold, though not necessarily along “orthodox” lines. And that no doubt drives some of what I write here. Images and metaphors as divine “transparencies” or hierophanies, ways to connect to the limitless, ways it “shines through”, are part of our spiritual furniture, and part of my bias or individuality or inner architecture. They may or may not be yours, but you have yours.

May you find and explore them richly.

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IMAGE: urban trees — public domain; Bosco Verticale — Milan, Italy’s “vertical forest”.

*For more info and pictures of the Vertical Forest, see this article.

Oh, Slip Away to the Wilderness!

Slip away to the wilderness and pray.

I bless and consecrate you with water … with spirit, and with fire.

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How often we’re put off by language — or drawn in and inspired, and for mostly the same reasons. The first piece of wise Druid counsel above comes, in fact, from Luke 5:16, describing what Jesus often did. Seems like a piece of uncommon good sense these days for anyone to practice, a sacred intention to add to our hours.

forest2

Another version* puts it like this: “Jesus often went away to other places to be alone so that he could pray”. Does that feel like anything most of us need to do regularly, to get off by ourselves so we can hear ourselves and our awen speak, and not merely listen to the strident echoes of the “24-hour news cycle”? Hear what life is constantly saying to the chakras and energy centers of our being**.

The second line above comes from Matthew 3:11-12, where John the Initiating Chief (Christians may know him as John the Baptist) names the powers he and Jesus invoke when blessing and hallowing others who seek out that particular ritual. Water, spirit, fire. What is baptism but blessing — literally, dipping in water and other holy substances or elements? A baptism in an initiation, and vice versa, symbolized by elements that have always been holy worldwide: water and fire, and spirit that animates them all. Call them elemental sacraments as I have, if that brings them into closer kinship and familiarity and comfort.

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peak-sky-water

One of my teachers observed that just as we can choose to go through initiations organized and conducted by others, we can initiate intentions and directions in our  own lives. An actual ritual can help to impress this on the mind and senses, reifying it, to use technical language — making it “thingly”, bringing it through “right down to the physical”.

So I find my own ways of slipping away into wilderness to pray, listen to the trees, sing the awen, and prepare.

And initiation? Many have long looked at the Biblical Book of Revelation as a guide to our inner spiritual architecture, with the seven churches it describes in detail as the varying focus and health of our seven inner energy centers, typified in various traditions as chakras or by other names, the spiritual eye among them, along with the halos on pictures of saints, the sacred heart, the gut instinct, and so on — yet another piece of the philosophia perennis, the Perennial Wisdom we cloak with our regional robes, names and forms, then “name and claim” as the Sole Truth of the cosmos (which we just so happen to be in exclusive possession of).

So you have a vision, and it’s natural to be told to get it down in words before it fades:

Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden candles is this: The seven stars are the messengers of the seven Gatherings, and the seven candles are the seven Gatherings. (Revelation 1:20).

Then you work to initiate your vision, with the Messengers (Instant or otherwise), and the Light sources you find at hand, LED, spiritual, human. A little paraphrase that I assert does no injustice to the original, and we’re on Druid territory. And why not vice versa? Rework a Druid ritual in Christian terms, and see what you may discover.

We can initiate or baptize our complete body, energies centers all working together, to (re)call it to its holy purpose as an Ancestor-in-the-Making, a Walker-between-the-Worlds, a Holy One. If the world around us, or some other world we’ve walked in lately, seems sacred or holy, or some other ideal summons us, we can “level ourselves up”, to use the language of gamers — shift energy and consciousness, so that we mirror and embody — incarnate — that holiness, rather than working against it.

So I choose the time of ritual with care, honoring the harmonics of the planets and stars, the tides of earth and our lives. Three days, or maybe seven, beforehand, I slip away to the wilderness and pray. As part of my ritual — perhaps the core of initiation, or perhaps other words come — I say, “I bless and consecrate you with water … with spirit, and with fire”.

And perhaps I close with some version of the blessings from recent posts, drinking what seems right to drink, making an offering from that drink to whoever it feels right to honor at the moment of the rite:

I now invoke the mystery of communion, that common unity that unites all beings throughout the worlds. All beings spring from the One; by One are they sustained, and in One do they find their rest. One the hidden glory rising through the realms of Abred; One the manifest glory rejoicing in the realms of Gwynfydd; One the unsearchable glory beyond all created being in Ceugant; and these three are resumed in One.

May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be with us always …

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*Easy-to-Read Version, 2006, Bible League International.

**Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 2:29).

Drafting a Druid-Christian Rite

Ritual, remarks British Druid and author Emma Restall Orr,

is the process of taking time out of the rush of life in order to remember what is sacred, that when we return to the road we do so with a soul once again open to inspiration and creativity. How we do it – and how long it takes – to be effective depends on how scattered by distraction and tangled in need we are. It can be as simple as pausing, breathing deeply, acknowledging the gift of life, the land beneath, the sky above. It can take weeks of preparation, days of fasting, hours of concentration, to fall into the moment of realization about how we can live awake and with honour, not just believing nature is sacred, but unconditionally treating her as such.

ritual bathing

ritual bathing

Judging by the continuing readership for a group of posts here on Druidry and Christianity, the vital possibilities of such a concord live still for you as much as they do for me. They branch and grow, and rich fruit hangs from their boughs.

Our instincts aren’t wrong. The two traditions are twinned in ways we may never untangle, but we can explore what they can contribute to each other right now. One way to do that — certainly not the only way* — is through ritual.

Already we hold hints and fragments in our hands. In the Christian Bible, Luke relates the experiences of a rich man, the chief tax collector Zacchaeus. “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way” (Lk. 19-3-4). Sometimes we need to shift perspective, to climb out of our lives to see them more clearly.

Later in the same chapter, (Lk. 19:37-40), the followers of Jesus are overcome with joy and are peacefully celebrating. But their exuberance apparently touches a nerve — it seems excessive and undignified to the Pharisees, among the Powers-That-Be of the day:

And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him [Jesus], “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Have we not all felt such joy, that the stuffy, fearful, joyless ones around us want to rebuke us for our happiness?!

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incense

[The rite begins. Parts not yet assigned.]

Let the Great Gates open. For we hear voices crying in the wilderness … (1)

Climb your own sycamore! What will you ever see until you do?!

The stones are crying out at our silence (2).

If our houses of prayer and celebration have become dens for thieves, then it is meet and fitting that we repair to the green places of old (3).

For the Wise have counselled us, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (4).

Our teachers are at hand: “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you, or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you” (5).

Let our prayers rise like incense (6), born of earth, moistened in its making, lit by fire, wafting through air.

“They have dressed the wounds of our people with scant care, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace at all” (7).

We will answer the call to peace, and serve. Let us give peace now to the quarters, and renew the Great Work again …

“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” (8).

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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).

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.

And as many others have long noted, 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.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com

*Other practices one could initiate, as Emma Orr notes above, might be “as simple as pausing, breathing deeply, acknowledging the gift of life, the land beneath, the sky above”. Or correspondingly complex, and “take weeks of preparation, days of fasting, hours of concentration, to fall into the moment of realization about how we can live awake and with honour …” We decide what it is we need, rather than any authority over us. And often the best decisions arise from experimentation, and from an openness to trying something new.

1. Matt 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23.

2.  Luke 19:40.

3. Mark 11:17.

4. Jeremiah 6:16.

5. Job 12:8.

6. Psalm 141:2.

7. Jeremiah 8:11.

8. Closing of OBOD ritual.

4: Druid and Christian — The Holy

[Part 1|2|3|4|5]

“You can’t just draw a circle, step inside, and say it’s sacred. You just can’t!” said an acquaintance this last weekend.

In fact, you can.

“I can call spirits from the vasty deep”, says Glendower in Henry IV, Part 1 (Act III, sc. i).
“Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?” responds Hotspur.

It’s a valid question.

We say “it’s sacred” the same way we say we love. It’s wishful thinking, or it’s meant to seduce, or it spills over from a heart already overflowing. Or a hundred other things. And we can usually tell the difference, being the fine-tuned crap detectors that millennia of gossip sessions rubbing shoulders with the neighbors have made us.  If not, give it time. And as Zora Neale Hurston quipped (about love), “Everybody can do enough to satisfy themselves, though it may not impress the neighbors as being very much” (Dust Tracks on a Road, pg. 203). The same holds true for ritual.

Access to the sacred is the big-ticket item, and if you’re at all insecure about your own access, you’re more likely to try tearing down the competition.

But rather than argue from a position of dogma, if I really want to know rather than simply score cheap points, I need to join the circle numerous times, attend mass the same number of times and then — maybe — I might be able to compare notes. Adjust as needed to fit the two practices I’m intent on assessing. And most important of all, deserving of seeming to be tacked on at the end here, because I’m saving the best for last: I need to bring equivalent reverent attention and curiosity to each rite. Otherwise, why bother?

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So we begin our rite together, Druid and Christian, Christian and Druid:

Now ask the beasts, and let them teach you,
and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.
Speak to the earth, and let it teach you,
and let the fish of the sea declare to you. [Job 12:7-8]

We call to the great bear in the starry heavens, power of the north …
We call to the hawk of dawn soaring in the clear pure air, power of the East …
We call to the great stag in the heat of the chase, power of the south…
We call to the salmon dwelling in the sacred pool, power of the west …
[OBOD ritual, adapted]

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More than anyone else in recent decades, Isaac Bonewits looked at ways to improve liturgy. Yes, we can connect with spirit, with the holy, in any number of ways, and on our own. But when we do so publicly, communally, we usually do it in ritual. How can our rituals be good? And then, how can they be better?

You can find four excerpts from his book Rites of Worship on his website. In
Dramatic Tension, Humor, Play and Pacing in Liturgy“, he examines links between theater and ritual, noting

Pacing is something that anyone familiar with the theater will tell you is absolutely crucial to the success of a performance … The only way to learn pacing is to experiment a lot with modular design and to rehearse the people in your group to find their skills and limits. A five-minute guided meditation may be too long for some groups, too short for others. Taking thirty seconds to bless each person in turn is fine if you only have a small group, but can be a disaster with a large one. A chant that naturally builds to a peak in three minutes should not be dragged out for ten. Many problems with pacing are solvable by artistic means, especially musical …

We may think one rite’s sacred and another isn’t, in other words, when what’s really going on is the holiness is leaking out of a rite through inattention to theater. It was, after all, a burning bush and not a burning blade of grass that God used to catch Moses’ attention.

For private rites, I ponder Jesus’s counsel:

When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing … on the street corners, so people can see them. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray …

Private circle, inner room: we set apart sacred space in order to perform a (second) sacred act, just as much as we perform a sacred act in order to set apart sacred space.

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The Kinship of All — Druid & Christian Theme 4

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

face-unityI’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”.

kim and missilesThere 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.)

baloo-mowgli

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; KimBaloo.

Fire — Druid & Christian Theme 3

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?

fire-ring

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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Image: fire.

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