Archive for the ‘Dante’ Tag

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 6   Leave a comment

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

I love these next three arcana — so over-the-top! People write and talk about fearing the appearance of the Tower, or the Devil, in a spread or reading. The Star not so much, though we still invest so much emotion in all three images. I ask myself: need I fear reality? What would that even mean?

The DEVIL

15-DevilDevil’s Tower, Devil’s Hole, Devil’s Triangle, the New Jersey Devils hockey team, Devil’s Food Cake (to be distinguished from Angel Food Cake), Devil’s Advocate, even DEVILS, the Deep Extragalactic VIsible Legacy Survey. Anyone looking for mixed messages? Should we even bother to try to untangle this complex of images and associations? We just keep piling more on more.

Untangle? Absolutely! Or not so much untangle as explore.

For me, one powerful key to the Devil is his connection with the Magician, a harmonic or further spiral, 17 (7×2) removed. The hand positions of the Devil mirror the Magician’s, the right in particular matching the Hebrew letter for sh, Jewish El Shaddai Almighty God, that resembles a “W” (= Hebrew letter shin ש), the handsign that accompanies the priestly blessing, made famous in an entirely different context by Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek, as a sign for “V” for his planet Vulcan.

live_long_and_prosperThe Devil is the Magician is Us. It’s an image of the power humans have at their disposal, bend it as we will — and do. We can live long and prosper, or pervert the same power. As we all have, and no doubt will continue to do, on our long spiral journey.

Courtesy of a Judeo-Christian cultural surround and philosophical filter, citizens of European-based cultures may think of “evil” either as something non-existent (if God is “dead”, then so must the Devil be), or as a force from outside a normal, ordinary, essentially good universe. Time spent in the natural world can disabuse us of either notion: there are simply energy flows, some constructive, others contrary, and human choices often do much to amplify both kinds. (No surprise, I take it personally when I suffer, and I agitate for relief from my own particular suffering.) But both forces remain roughly balanced on the physical plane — hence a return to equilibrium in the flow of Tao that is one principal focus of Taoist practice.

We still tend to give “good” too little credit and “evil” too much, but that’s perhaps a further legacy of Puritanism and of dualistic thinking. Such over-simplification haunts American politics all too deeply, as intelligent foreign observers have long noted: Thus, on the American Left, we just don’t call it “evil” any more, but attach some other and often political label to it, as if it can be legislated away with the “right” people in office, if we can only vote out the backward, benighted, ignorant, toxic, patriarchal, gun-and-Jesus-loving, gay-bashing, hypocritical Deplorables that hold back all that is Good and True, and Progress will finally become the eternal norm. On the American Right, evil is alive and well, and successfully marketed in flavors both religious and secular, along with generous doses of paranoia, and typically describes things that snowflake Liberals, America-hating socialists, Pagan Greens, atheists, man-hating feminists, hidden-agenda homosexuals and baby-killing Darwinian believers support and advocate.

Both sides dearly love to loathe their Other. Do we all project much?!

The Christian sense that this is a “fallen” world in need of redemption compares to a Druidic sense that working with natural systems themselves can teach us how to sidestep a great deal of unnecessary grief in the first place, and wise observation and study can ease much of the unavoidable remnant that comes from living in a world subject to physical laws, time, change, aging, illness, death and rebirth. After all, it’s not humans alone, but animals, trees, mountains, our planet and the cosmos itself wear down and are renewed. “Everything She touches changes,” goes one Goddess-chant.

In the Arthurian deck, the card numbered 15 is the Green Knight. Aptly named, he is the force, as Dylan Thomas names it (links to whole poem),

that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.

And “answers” or elaborations to this come oftenest — you guessed it — from other bards:

To live at all is miracle enough.
The doom of nations is another thing.
Here in my hammering blood-pulse is my proof.

Let every painter paint and poet sing
And all the sons of music ply their trade;
Machines are weaker than a beetle’s wing.

Swung out of sunlight into cosmic shade,
Come what come may the imagination’s heart
Is constellation high and can’t be weighed.

Nor greed nor fear can tear our faith apart
When every heart-beat hammers out the proof
That life itself is miracle enough.

The Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton observed “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees”. This is a “gospel in 20 words” that Druids and Christians could share.

“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — ​what gospel is that?” — St. Oscar Romero. How do we reconcile this healthy sense of activism with Druidry’s deep love and desire for peace? Are they actually opposed, or do they — can they — spring from the same source?

“Speaking truth to power” has never been more necessary — it’s the Magician’s power, in hands we always need to question and challenge.

Matthews’ notes in the Hallowquest handbook accompanying one edition of the deck that the Green Knight “represents the challenger whom all seekers meet on their quest. He answers questions and gives advice, but he also sets riddles and puzzles. Those who think that they know everything he leads astray and torments. His greatest desire is to be bested by a worthy opponent” (pg. 52).

The TOWER

16-TowerTowers everywhere: in the Christian West, from Babel onward. And before that, too: ziggurats and pyramids and the earliest “towers” of all — mountains. Connections with Mary Magdalene, “Mary of the Tower(s)”. For the U.S., the association with the destruction of the Twin Towers of Sept. 11, 2001. We say “Never Forget” about too many things, as though holding on to painful memory is sufficient tribute, a kind of vicarious participation. It isn’t enough, if I’m to continue the journey the Fool — I — started.

Like the frequent occurrence of Mercury in Retrograde, once you start paying attention, sometimes we just seem to be traveling through continuous “tower time”. Maybe it’s a good practice to uncouple from the Tower. Stop climbing it, sighting it in our viewfinders, walk away for a time.

But then, too, falling from a height is an old primate dream. How many of us have experienced falling dreams, or a sense of vertigo shortly before falling asleep, a sensation strong enough to startle us awake again?

Let ourselves fall, and what do we discover? All the way down, and our perspective might change.

We might see in the Tower a challenge to the ego, to the self we manufacture as an interface between ourselves and experience. In many ways the self is the Tower. Edgar Allen Poe in “The City in the Sea” writes “from a proud tower in the town/Death looks gigantically down”. (For further information, consult your amygdala [link 1link 2 | link 3].)

Is there much more to say about the Tower? Of course!

The STAR

17-StarHow many of us long for, or follow, a guiding star? Do we star in the drama of our own lives? Lucky star, rising star, star-crossed, shoot/aim for the stars — we know no lack of idioms. Has life starred certain experiences, talents, people, memories, etc. for our life-long obsession or dedication? A dis-aster is an ill-starred event. How much of our experience of imagination, emotion, vision and dream involves our starry or astral bodies?

As with the previous two arcana, this arcanum resonates in so many ways. Meditation on each of the arcana returns deepening insight, and the Star is no exception.

For Christians, associations with the Star of Bethlehem and the lore of the Magi reverberate strongly, while Revelation 12 depicts “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”.

Tolkien plays on this ancient cultural resonance in The Lord of the Rings with Gandalf’s recitation of a piece of lore linking Numenor with Minas Tirith in Gondor:

Tall ships and tall kings
Three times three,
What brought they from the foundered land
Over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one white tree. (The Two Towers, Bk. 3/chapt. 11; “The Palantir”).

Again we see in the Card a nude figure with limbs — conscious links or connections — in more than one element. The eight eight-pointed stars connect with the seven heavens of Medieval lore, with the eighth, the region of fixed stars, above them. As a doubling of the elemental four, the Star is a higher octave of activity. Seven cards from the Hermit, it links to the cultivation of solitude and (spiritual) perception.

You might assume that reaching such an exalted state is the end of the journey. After all, Dante ends each of his three Books of the Divine Comedy — a book abounding in numerical and astrological symbolism — with reference to the stars. And the 33rd and final canto of Paradiso, the last of the three, closes like this:

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

but already my desire and will were moved,
like a wheel which equally/smoothly is moved/turned
(by) the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

But four more arcana remain for us to consider.

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IMAGE: live long and prosper;

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Becoming an Ancestor, Part 2   2 comments

So this topic, it appears, is not done with me yet.

spong‘The task of religion’, writes retired Bishop John Shelby Spong,

is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see. It is to seek a humanity that is not governed by the need for security, but is expressed in the ability to give ourselves away. It is to live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended.

I admire Spong because so often he points toward values Pagans have long espoused and appreciated in other spiritual paths. (Whether Spong is in fact still Christian in any widely understood sense is for others to determine who concern themselves with such labels.)

Lorna Smithers comments on Part One:

A question this raises for me is what makes one a ‘good’ ancestor as opposed to a ‘bad’ one. Is being ‘good’ not a Christian concept? What would it mean a Druid/Pagan context? Something that springs to mind is Emma Restall-Orr’s phrase and book title ‘Living With Honour’.

Spot on. I’ve been a fan of Restall-Orr’s work since I first ran across it. For me, and I suspect many other Druids and Pagans generally, a ‘good’ person is indeed one who aspires to a life of honor.

I’ll return to Restall-Orr near the end, as a springboard, because that’s what I do with her writings generally. But here I want to look at what Spong offers as an outline for just such a life, to see what I can glean from this passage, from the thought of a ‘friendly outsider’ to Druid and Pagan thinking, and where I can go with those insights. Sit with me a little?

1–‘deepen the personal within us’: We’ve met and known people who keep growing throughout their lives, and one measure of this growth is that over time they become ever more deeply themselves. You can’t reduce this to a pat formula or recipe, though it is a quality we recognize in others when we see it. Those who listen to their depths gain a source of direction and clarity that strengthens their identity as a human being. We can detect it when it spills over into their daily actions and their treatment of others.

Call it spirit, conscience, listening to your guides or gods, Thoreau’s oft-cited ‘different drummer’, there’s integrity to such a life. Here’s the Thoreau’s passage from Walden — adjust for gender as needed:

‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality’.

Indeed, ‘vain reality’ strikes altogether too close to home for much we can find around us. We know from personal experience that it’s easy enough to get shipwrecked there. ‘Step to the music we hear’, then, is another way to put it. No OSFA — ‘one size fits all’. Such individuals stand out as all the more admirable because we have fewer models nowadays for such a life. Or perhaps they’re always in short supply.

A few words on the How of it: I’ve found these practices helpful in my own experience, and felt the lack of them the more keenly the longer I let them slide: daily contemplation, time spent in the natural world, listening and silence, a craft or skill practiced purely out of love, community service, doing one thing each day without thought of ‘what’s in it for me’, dream study, ritual observance, humor. Joining the Tortoise Order of Druidry — (very) slow and (reasonably) steady.

2–’embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see’: OK, I’ll bite. What is the ‘power of life’? Most Druids and Pagans would assent to this advice. I know I do, but I want to interrogate it as well. My crap-detector just went on high alert. Does merely being born qualify — does it present us with the ‘power of life’? Or what distinguishes this ’embrace’ from me just being a complete asshat and take-take-taking? Quite clearly, it’s the expansion of consciousness that enables a more penetrating vision. For if I go deeply within, I can begin to see more deeply around me. I touch what is most universal in what is most personal. If I’m not doing that, I’m not embracing the power of life. But what does that look like from outside? Vitality paired with vision.

What do the Wise among us perceive? What they’ve always perceived: the wellsprings of life lie in cause and effect, pattern, equilibrium, spiral, departure and eternal return — a movement and an order to things that contemporary life has largely abandoned, and yet which contemporary discoveries have also begun to confirm about a very old worldview indeed.

A few words on the How of it: By keeping up practices like the ones I mentioned above, I find I can more easily distinguish ‘me at my better’ and ‘me at my less than better’. Then my four-part strategy (one for each of the Quarters!): noticing the difference, assessing its cause, accepting responsibility and asking for help go very far towards maximizing what contributes to growth and widening of consciousness and compassion.

3–‘seek a humanity that is not governed by the need for security, but is expressed in the ability to give ourselves away’. Right, then — in place of fear or self-preservation, generosity and boldness. A kind of ebullience in the face of difficulty. We know it’s often those with little who will share most readily what they have. Every culture I know of cherishes hospitality among its values, and takes pride in the welcome of guests. But what does it mean to ‘give ourselves away’?

I’ll hazard a guess that it’s what Hinduism and Buddhism call dharma, which often gets awkwardly under-translated as ‘duty’ or ‘righteousness’ — better, perhaps, is living in accord with that ‘deep reach into the personal’ and that ’embrace of living’ which Spong’s already mentioned.

The U.S. Army makes it into the macho-meme catchphrase ‘Be all you can be’, but it’s not merely military testosterone lockstep cloaked as self-fulfillment. Scholar of Hinduism J. A. B Van Buitenen characterizes it as ‘neither act nor result, but the natural laws that guide the act and create the result to prevent chaos in the world. It is the innate characteristic that makes the being what it is … the pursuit and execution of one’s nature and true calling … it is the dharma of the bee to make honey, of cow to give milk, of sun to radiate sunshine, of river to flow.’

We can refuse our dharma. For humans, it is, after all, a choice. What moves a person seeking honor to follow such a dharma or cosmic principle of inner and outer harmony?

A few words on the How of it: here’s a quotation I used to carry around in my wallet. ‘One who counts his talents and volunteers from a position of strength does not know what service and the sacred are all about’. That may sound judgmental to you, but it helped remind me I never have to be perfect to serve. No one is. Just willing.

4–‘live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended’: the fourth value, as I understand Spong here, is a passionate courage that grows out of the previous three values. Look deeply into the self, and I will witness our common bond, the power of life that links all things, that joins me to other people and beings. From this I will long to give back, because that is what this life energy does constantly — to share what I have, knowing death brings no ending to this surge of cosmic energy flowing everywhere around me. To serve life in ways consistent with the previous three principles.

(Wait a bit longer for my fourth entry of ‘words on the How of it’.)

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Doreen Valiente’s ‘Charge of the Goddess’ offers eight virtues that have appeared in statements of values among Wiccans and Witches: ‘And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you’. You can find a helpful discussion of these at Witchvox here. And Asatru has its ‘Nine Noble Virtues’, which you can explore at Sacred Texts here.

restall-orrHere are the words of Emma Restall Orr, whom Lorna mentioned earlier: ‘As a spiritual tradition based on reverence for and connection with the powers of nature, more than anything else Druidry teaches us to honour life … Druid ethics are built upon the release of ignorance and the respectful creation of deep and sacred relationships’ — Emma Restall Orr, Druidry and Ethical Choice. ‘Release of ignorance, creation of sacred relationship’ captures it beautifully. These twin principles follow each other in a potent circle, one leading to the other.

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A final personal note. I’ve started working with a teacher placement agency to find a position, and one of the supporting documents we’re strongly encouraged to include in our online files for schools to access is a ‘personal statement’ — something beyond the letters of reference, school transcripts and mostly colorless standard application details.

A personal statement is a reflection of your philosophy of education, your belief system in terms of pedagogy, and/or your ideas about teaching and/or administration.  It is a way for your voice to shine through  your file and reach out to potential schools … In sum, the personal statement is a way for you to add personality and depth to your candidacy and to convey how your background and accomplishments have prepared you for your next professional opportunity.

A few words on the How of it: My statement became ‘Eleven Strands of Philosophy’. The last ‘strand’ quotes and comments on the final lines from Dante’s Paradiso, because they succinctly capture at this point in my life where I hope to arrive, like Dante’s pilgrim self, having traversed three worlds and returned to this middle earth we love: ‘… by now my desire and will were turned,/Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,/By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’.

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Images: John Spong; Emma Restall-Orr.

Note: this post is punctuated (but not spelled) following British or ‘logical’ conventions because they really do make more sense than American ones.

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