Archive for the ‘Druidry’ Tag

“Connected and Blessed”   4 comments

“… if we could reduce Paganism down to its essentials”, write the Higginbothams in their 2002 book Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions, “we believe its two most central concepts are interconnectedness and blessedness” (pg. 2). I look at the two trees on the cover. Let the left one be connection, I say to myself, and the right one blessing.

llew-higginI quote this book because it’s on my mind. The Pagan group of some dozen members I’ve recently helped to form here in southern Vermont is discussing it as a way toward building some common ground. We’re Wiccan, Pagan, Druid, agnostic and more, veteran and newcomer, from our 20’s through our 50s.

If we seek connection and blessing, it helps to know where to look for them. It’s no surprise that “current events” offer scant help in seeing and experiencing either one. But then, if I’m looking to daily sensationalist media accounts of human mistakes and suffering for inspiration and guidance, what do I expect? The news that gets reported is commonly bad. Pain and suffering pull in eyeballs, and sell advertising. Most informational media, you can soon conclude, aren’t ultimately here for our benefit at all. To be “informed” commonly means nothing more than to know the bad news in the distance. You could easily be excused for wondering how there’s any world left, after just a week of “current events”. What won’t “go to hell in a handbasket”, if we give it half a chance?

But we also make our own news every day, closer and more important. The only two givens: I was born and I will die. Between those two mile-markers lies everything to make the worst and also the best life I can. Everything begs for our attention, the most precious thing we have. Where to put it?

After a day of rain and cold, morning sun. Outside these house walls, where my wife and I are sorting  through a few decades of packrat-dom — simplify, simplify! — the blossoming crab apple in the front yard draws an orchestra of bees.

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Connection and blessing. They come like a handshake — the offer’s there, but I need to extend my hand as well, if I want to complete it and bring it home. All the disasters in the world do not negate the possibility of connection and blessing. Like the frame for a picture, they only accentuate its value. The only reason I’m here at all is because of connection and blessing. Pass it on, says the crab apple, the sweet spring air, the buzz of bees. Do your best to pass it on.

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Image: Llewellyn Publications.

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

Speaking Trees: a Reading   2 comments

danas reading

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheer

At MAGUS ’17, Dana (on the left — check out her excellent blog The Druid’s Garden) generously offered readings for several of us, using her set of tree staves. You can see four of us (I’m on the right) sitting bundled in every layer we brought with us — the weather had turned cold.

I’d sat in on a couple previous readings (with permission!), and Dana’s infectious love of trees and tree lore made each reading memorable and full of wisdom. With her combination of hands-on experience and extensive reading in herbals and Native American lore, each of us learned anew how Druidry has much to teach. I say “how” because any time spent in Druid practice shows us we go just as far as we’re willing to put in time and energy.

If we’re new to divination we may bring to it our skepticism, or an uncritical acceptance of whatever we hear, or a cherished obtuseness to anything outside our blinkered perspectives. Having run through these and a range of other even less useful inner “sets” in the past, I tried simply to listen. Drawing for an awen spread of three staves — past influences, present circumstances and future tendencies — can help give a sense of dynamics that may be working through some part of our lives.

My notes here are a merging of Dana’s reading, my own study and insight from subsequent meditation and reflection.

Here are the three staves I drew: birch, white pine and cottonwood.

Birch (genus Betula) is a common hardwood, with species ranging worldwide throughout the northern hemisphere. The northeastern U.S has perhaps a dozen species. The bark, famous for canoes, also makes excellent kindling, I’ve discovered, even when it’s damp, because its oils will still burn. With medicinal, cosmetic and industrial uses, the birch is widely used. It’s also a pioneer tree, adaptable to varied conditions, among the first to appear in pastures, meadows and burnt areas. As such, birches frequently represent beginnings, initiations, growth, renewal, and so on. The associated ogham is beith. As part of my Ovate work, I’m identifying the trees on our 2 and a half acres, and there are nearby birches to get to know.

The past is a beginning. It’s not destiny, but simply a direction taken. I find the past a surprisingly fluid thing. (The birch is flexible). Because as I grow and change, I perceive my own past differently, coming to value some difficult experiences for what they taught me, and seeing whole decades in a different light than they appeared at the time.

To choose just one example, my first serious relationship, shortly before I met my wife, dragged me along an emotional roller-coaster, passionate and full of drama at the time. But it taught me patience, dispelled a fair amount of romantic nonsense, and showed me that kindness more than anything else should grow at the core of my relationships if I want them to last.

Rather than a fixed past, I find it’s the future that’s fixed — at any single moment. But then the moment shifts, my awareness and choices enter in, and the future shifts as well. Taking a reading is like sounding the depth of coastal waters — it’s accurate for that interval, but you need to know if the tide’s coming in or going out. Twelve hours earlier or later, to say nothing of twelve days or twelve years, conditions will have changed. Birches aren’t especially long-lived, but they “open the way” for others.

White Pine (Pinus strobus), like the Birch, is a common tree in the northeast U.S. Other Pinus species flourish in Europe and Asia. A softer wood, a long-lived tree (the record in the U.S. is 500 years), the white pine is prized for woodworking, lumber, and medicinal properties. It’s the “peace tree” of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois, and it has also produced the tallest trees in the eastern U.S. (the famous sequoias take the prize in the west). Pine needles contain quintuple the vitamin C of lemons, and a needle tea is a healthful drink — a good medicine for me, because I’m prone to lung and skin problems. Algonquian tribes in the region knew other uses — the Adirondack Mountains in New York take their name from the Mohawk adirodaks, meaning “tree-eaters”, their term for the Algonquians.

As a guide to the present, white pine tells me, in Thoreau’s words, “be not simply good, be good for something”. And as a Druid, to me this means to be good at something, too. For a long time I’ve worked with words, making a living as teacher and writer. Druidry urges me to expand my knowledge and practice, and learn my neighbor trees better. It’s time to give back more, to support trees in distress, learn the landscape and do my part to help the biome as it adjusts to climate changes. (Both for its useful info and for its misleading title, spend a few minutes with “American trees have started migrating west and no one knows why“.)

As I delve more deeply into the Ovate grade, and improve my knowledge of healing, otherworld mysteries, and divination, white pine is a worthy signal tree and spiritual landmark. “If not this, then something better” has been my mantra during a protracted job search. Looking outside my accustomed region/specialty is both good job-search advice and good  physical-spiritual foraging advice, too. Go further afield.

Cottonwood (Populus species) is the third stave. Dana and I laughed at this one. At least the cottonwood she had in mind is not a native to the east, but a western tree, so this third stave seems to confirm and extend some of the energetics present in the white pine above. (Some species do inhabit the eastern U.S.)

Cottonwoods constitute a varied group of trees, including aspens and poplars. Populus trichocarpa is the first tree species to have its genome sequenced. It grows fast, and can reach nearly 60 feet (18 meters) in about a decade. Varieties of cottonwoods have flourished in unlikely places, and helped re-tree barren areas, notably the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Like the birch and white pine, it has food and medicinal uses.

As a tree speaking about the future, the cottonwood is a good reminder both to play to strengths and also to try out new areas, to adapt, to “do my own thing” while finding new niches where that “thing” can thrive. “Grow where you’re planted” isn’t bad counsel as a start — we all do that inevitably anyway, at birth. It’s flowering after that that’s the work of our days. “To go to seed” isn’t a bad thing, despite the connotations of “seedy”. How else to pass along who we are, what we’ve gained? To give back as we do, completing the cycle, walking the circle, answering the Druid call to service.

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Image courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers.

 

“First and Last Things” — Druid & Christian Theme 9   2 comments

Now that I’ve reached the end of this series on some possible shared spaces between Druids and Christians, I’d like to pause and take stock.

How many of us have experienced anger, frustration or a kind of spiritual PTSD from our contacts with Christianity? How many have found one or more of these posts irritating or painful? Yet how many still feel drawn to something alive in Christianity or Christian practice?

From the wild stats this particular series has generated, I have to conclude it’s provoked a whole complex, difficult medley of thoughts and feelings. Consider, as I have, new readers from outside the circle of the most common visitors — North Americans and a few western Europeans, with the occasional Australian or New Zealander. This series, however, has drawn readers from Iraq, China, Turkey, India, Japan, Hungary, Singapore, Greece, Pakistan — and a readership from all of these nations showed up not just for single post but for most of this series.

And what should appear here as the 9th theme? Magic? Prayer? Initiation? Heresy — the right to choose — along with heterodox beliefs and practices? The Otherworld? Divine kingship? All promise rich materials as fitting ways to close. I’ll probably tackle at least a few of these in the coming weeks. If only because a series like this, like a devotional practice undertaken with love over time, almost always generates a momentum no finite thing can contain.

aceofcupsOr what about a shift of terminology? Would that help at all with any of these themes? If instead of “Baptisms of the Elements”, we called them “Elemental Sacraments”, would that easier name make a difference? Would it make it any easier to move beyond instinctive antipathies and past traumas?

Christian Druids and Druid Christians have already found ways to integrate their practice and ritual, celebrating spirit as it actually manifests, regardless of creeds. Some of the best links happen in community and fellowship. We experience something together beyond words, even as we struggle to embody it in language. But it’s that initial encounter, not the subsequent formulation in speech or writing, that constitutes the source of spiritual energy.

Saint Francis sings in part:

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.

Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us …

Here is insight and wisdom and reverence indeed, one that may find resonance for both Druids and Christians.

An “incarnational” Druidry, one that shares with Christians a deep gratitude for natural beauty and for the mystery of birds and beasts, for the holy gifts of choice and speech, thought and reason, for birth and dying and rebirth, and for the voice of the sacred in dream, vision, prayer and ritual, and for the transformational power that a spirit-filled person can manifest, whatever the tradition, will earn respect and a hearing in any quarter a Druid would want to find one.

Likewise, a humble Christianity, one which seeks first to model love of self and other, of spiritual freedom, of service and stewardship of the created world, of care for the body, and delight in our kinship with the natural world, one which reads with reverence the Book of Nature, will move and persuade and welcome Druids and other Pagans far more than any scriptural proofs or the tongue of condemnation, doctrine or preaching.

“Let our deeds and our shining faces be our testimony”.

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 Image: Ace of Cups.

Recall, Remembrance, Anamnesis — Druid & Christian Theme 8   Leave a comment

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

“It is the hour of recall” — OBOD ritual.

“Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:20).

anamnesis (Greek ἀνάμνησις; English an-am-NEE-sis) 1) the Platonic principle that people retain knowledge from past lives and that our present learning involves a recollection of that past knowledge. 2) the Christian principle of recalling the events of Christ’s sacrificial death in the words and actions of the liturgy, especially during Communion or the Eucharist*.

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One way into the Greek word that may serve as a link between Druid and Christian practice is the English borrowed word amnesia, literally “forgetting”. An-amnesis is its opposite: “unforgetting, recall, recollection, remembrance, memorial action”.  And I’m going on from there for a moment and, at least for the purposes of this post, forming the adjective anamnetic “having to do with ritual remembrance”.

Druidry and Christianity both acknowledge the importance of anamnesis. Anamnetic deeds depend for their effect on both ritual and memory — actions intended to evoke a sacred event or time. Perform the ritual and bring to mind the holy. Sacrifice is “making sacred”, and we only “know” the sacred because in some way we re-cognize it: we know it again. Anamnetic acts acknowledge that even the best memory fades, so they recharge it with symbolic words and deeds.

At the “hour of recall” in OBOD ritual, we’re reminded that the rite is both timeless and bound by time. Its effect comes in part through memory: “let memory hold what the eye and ear have gained”. We’re also reminded that the apparent world and the inner world may overlap, but they’re not the same. Ritual sets aside a space for the inner and the sacred, acknowledges it, increases the overlap, and then reverses all those actions in the farewell, in order to safely restore the participants to the profane, mundane, “real” world of everyday life. (Because trying to function here while still in ritual consciousness is dangerous. We’re “spacey” and attentive to other things, not traffic lights, the blender’s sharp blades, those three steps down, our co-worker’s question, the toddler who darts into the intersection just ahead.)

I take part in a ritual, and its effects follow in time and memory. Likewise in Christianity, depending on how the word “this” is understood, whether once during the annual Passover (the setting where he spoke the words), or at every meal, or something in between, Christ commands his followers to “do this … in remembrance of me” — in a word, to practice anamnesis. “Proclaim the Lord’s death till he come again”.

A sacred meal shared with others is among the best kinds of fellowship. It’s an anamnetic act common to many traditions and cultures as a sign of religious faith, because it also expresses friendly hospitality and generosity. These acts of giving and giving back are inherently sacred. We can choose to recognize this by ritualizing them, or by foregoing the opportunity they offer.

How much of human consciousness, after all, is memory? How do we sustain the transformative power of any event we choose to value, except through recalling it, naming it, celebrating it, re-enacting it in order to vivify it and make it real again in some way in the present? “What is remembered, lives”.

Thus we celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, historical events, and so on. We tell stories of the living and of the ancestors. We even make up fictions the rest of the time, in order to remind ourselves what life is like, in case we lose sight of its shape and nature. And when we enter the mythic realm, the question to ask is not “Is it true? Did it really happen?” but “What truth does it teach? What holy thing does it help us remember?” When we com-memorate something, we remember it together.

And what we value, we dramatize. Greek theater began as religious worship: “Until the Hellenistic period [roughly 320 to 30 BCE], all tragedies were unique pieces written in honour of Dionysus and played only once, so that today we primarily have the pieces that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when the repetition of old tragedies became fashionable …” notes the Wikipedia entry on the theater of ancient Greece. Until later times, the theater was a sacred precinct. Weapons were banned, and actors were masked because their human identities, at least during the performance, was subsumed under the characters, often gods or heroes, whom they portrayed.

Julie Babin

coastal Louisiana, Gulf Coast Gathering — photo courtesy Julie Babin

What might all this mean for possible Druid and Christian convergences? Ritual is grounded in theater, in a dramatic portrayal of the memorable. “Let us remember the holy” is one piece of common ground where both can stand. Accepting that no one “owns” the holy is another. Why this is should be obvious, though it’s sometimes ignored in claims of “my god(s) and your god(s)”.  But sacred energy continually bursts free of limiting containers, and seeks new forms that refresh and rekindle and feed the spirit. if anything, it’s very much the other way around: the holy owns us. Sometimes it simply breaks through and claims us. You and I have no say in the matter. Other times, we may.

Old or new, liturgies can move us, but they are no substitute for direct contact with the sacred. We need no idolatry of rite placed above spiritual reality. The word’s not the thing it names. Much as I love words, I love the silences of the Great Mystery more. “Be still, and know …” counsels Psalm 46. Because there is that ability within us all that’s able to do this — to be still and come in contact with the holy. It’s our human birthright, and has nothing to do with belief.

Paradoxically (and what would many things amount to, without a touch of paradox?), old ways can come closer to Spirit than newer ones. “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”.** The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah says these words, looking back at ways already old in his time. Pagan and Christian can find more to share than either may often imagine — in silence, in ritual, in remembrance.

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*Like anamnesis, eucharist derives from Greek — in this case, from eucharistia “thanksgiving, gratitude”. Modern Greek still uses a related word (changed a little in pronunciation) to say “thank you”: ευχαριστώ [ehf-khah-ree-STOH]

**Jeremiah 6:16. The prophet gives these words to God to say.

MAGUS 2017: The Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S.   12 comments

The first of what richly promises to be an annual event, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) took place over this last weekend, Thursday to Sunday, at Four Quarters Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The initial inward glimpse of the Gathering came to one of the organizers almost a decade ago.  There’s yet another indication, if I need the reminder, of the possible time-gap between first seed and outward manifestation.

And our hosting venue, Four Quarters, an interfaith sanctuary launched in 1994, was the perfect place to hold a Beltane Gathering. As the Four Quarters home page observes, it’s

a membership-driven non-profit, a vibrant community of real people living real lives. And Four Quarters actually owns the Land, buildings and equipment that make our work possible, forever set aside from the vagaries of private ownership.

The lovely and wild 150 acres of the sanctuary lie in the Allegheny foothills in southern PA, just miles from the Maryland border. Home to a stone circle, labyrinth, retreat center with bunkhouse and dining pavilion, a brewery, a drum and dance circle, sweat lodge, a handful of permanent residents, and the clean-flowing Siding Creek defining part of its periphery, Four Quarters strives to

honor the many world traditions that reflect an Earth Based Spirituality, and we work to support those traditions and welcome their people. We do not teach “One Way” of belief. We do not have “The Answer”. We do have good questions.

Here’s the Stone Circle seen from the north, a work in progress (with annual megalithic-style stone raisings open to anyone willing to join the rope-pulling and log-rolling stone lifting team). Note the nearly three-foot-long camp bell suspended from the tripod in the foreground — a deep voice audible throughout the property.

circle w bell

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A wide-angle shot can’t capture the majesty of the stones or the power of the circle. Here’s a closer view of some of the lovely rough surfaces, mottled with rust in places, asking for touch and communion.

stone closeup w flah

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The first time I walked the circle Thursday evening, I sensed a quiet hum of presence. The next time I came more at ease, eager to touch and listen to the land and the inner voices. By the time I reached the eighth stone, sudden tears filled my eyes. The circle holds indisputable power.

Here’s one of the altars near the center of the stone circle. The ancestors speak strongly here, if I give even half an ear.

ancestor altar in circle -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

How to convey the blend of the speaking land, the personal and the tribal at such Gatherings?! You come as someone new to Paganism, or to OBOD more specifically. Or you come knowing you’ll reunite with your people once more, across the miles. If we saw each other every day, we might begin to forget the human and spiritual wealth that surrounds us. In ritual, in conversations in the dining pavilion (below) or over coffee during breaks, we’re reminded that we’re never alone, no matter how solitary we may live the rest of the year. Inner connection exists over any distance.

dining pavillion -- W Flaherty.jpg

dining pavilion — photo courtesy Wandy Flaherty

Typically when I reflect on a Gathering a few days after, one or two things stand out sharply. But when I started naming them over breakfast this morning, I ended with a list of a score of items — nearly the entire weekend as I experienced it, a blend not to be parcelled out in soundbites or highlights.

From the place, with its cool air crackling with oxygen from the vigorous trees, to the faces and energy of the Tribe and its rituals, formal and informal, to the songs of spiritual presence that all places offer, everything stands out in memory.  Impossible to narrow down. This post is a small attempt to hint at that Everything — to urge you, if you want a taste of a particular kind of marvelous, to attend a Gathering if you can.

The way of the Solitary can indeed be a blessed one, but the Tribe also offers a great deal to reinvigorate even the most hermetic of Solitaries. A Gathering can paradoxically reaffirm the Solitary, because you meet other Solitaries. You witness the integrity of the individual path, as well as the gift of the Tribal way. Gatherings have changed me into an avid Tribe-seeker, at least a few times each year, so that when I retreat to my own smaller circle, the closing words of OBOD ritual echo true: “May our memories hold what the eye and ear have gained.”

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“Kindling the Flame” was our Gathering theme. We apparently also needed the blessing of Water, in the form of steady rain from late Thursday afternoon through the night, and intermittently all Friday, to help remind us that all the elements gather, whenever any one of them is invoked. “Thus is balance preserved”.

Thursday included an opening orientation by our special guest OBOD Druid Renu Aldritch, a workshop I delivered on “Kindling Our Sacred Fires”, the opening ritual, and preparation for Bardic initiations the next morning.

After breakfast Friday, we initiated 12 Bards. Like many others, I’ve come to see how priceless it is to support initiations and attend whenever I can, regardless of whether I have an assigned “role”. The rite washes over us all, renews the experience each of us had during our own initiation, helps us rededicate, and allows us to greet the newly initiated within ritual space.

Always there are small hiccups and endearing glitches during a ritual. I think without them we’d have to make sure we added them. And we come to expect them: they humanize a dramatic moment, when someone with a major or minor role misplaces a prop or drops a ritual spoken line, topples the incense or bowl of water, mispronounces a magical name, and so on. We laugh, disarmed, and then the next part of the ritual can reach deeper, because we’ve opened up that much more. Each initiation is unique: tears, laughter, the presence of Spirit, the call of bird or beast to punctuate a word or silence.

Friday gave us Renu’s workshop, “Kindling the Spiritual Warrior”, a theme that bears ongoing attention. Dana’s workshop “Land Healing on the Inner and Outer Planes”, her ritual later that afternoon, “Ogam Tree Galdr in the Northern Tradition”, her generous personal readings using her own tree divination system, and her conversation fired many with renewed love and commitment to this path. That evening also brought initiation to three Ovates under moonlight and the background throb of drums from a drum workshop. We couldn’t have asked for a better ritual setting.

Downhill from the Labyrinth, prepping for the evening Ovate initiation in the open air: Renu, Dave, Ahote, me and Cat. (We opted later for a covered stage, in case the rain continued.)

planning for ovate init -- gail Nyoka

photo courtesy Gail Nyoka

Saturday gave us Wanda’s workshop, “Awakening Your Beltane Sensuality” with its creative chance to heighten one sense by muting the others. Now that the rain had ceased, we could hold our main Beltane rite in the stone circle.

Here’s an evocative pic from Saturday night, the Fire Circle alight, a few dancers visible, along with Brom, our Fire Master, tending the flames.

magus beltane

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

By Saturday night I’d mostly finished my other ritual responsibilities, including providing a glitch for the main Beltane ritual where I had a speaking part — I dropped a line. “When that ritual pause goes on a little too long and you look around, you’re probably what’s missing”, as someone quipped over the weekend.

I was looking forward to enjoying the Fire Circle without performing for the eisteddfod, the Bardic arts portion of most OBOD festivals that welcomes the evening fires and the awen-inspiration of a Gathering and offers it back again in song and poetry and story.

But as Bards know from experience, the awen sometimes has other ideas. Fire gave me an opening line a few hours earlier during dinner. And it kept gathering more lines to it, right up to the evening Fire Circle. Verses kept changing and I didn’t have pen and paper handy, so I kept playing with lines and rhymes and their order. “Fire says improvise” came the first line. I’d invoked fire, after all, during my workshop, in several different ways. What did I expect?! Here’s the poem:

Fire says improvise —
no surprise,
when such orange wonder
seeks out skin and eyes.

Fire can burn all to black
but before,
that hot roar lifts me
to soar beyond
anything I thought to think I lack.

Most times I’m no fool —
how does this jewel
get to be so hot and cool?

Old rule, it says.
Burn madly, gladly,
or — if you must — sadly:
one way only among those other two.
For I will heat you from your crown
to your open-toed shoe.

The fire, friend,
the fire is in you.

Just get up and say it, came the nudge. Doesn’t have to be polished. I delivered the lines, gazing at the flames the whole time, then stumbled back fire-blind to my seat on one of the Fire Circle benches. The version here is close to what I remember saying, probably edited a little. Fire didn’t want an editor. Just flame, large or small. The other Bards obliged, and this eisteddfod was among the most varied and interesting I’ve known.

One of the oldest pieces of spiritual counsel in the Indo-European tradition is this: “Pray with a good fire”.

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Below is an informal altar by Siding Creek, which curls around Four Quarters, another voice audible through much of the Sanctuary as a background whisper.

siding creek altar -- renu

photo courtesy Renu Aldritch

Four Quarters brews its own mead, a taste of the Land to take inside the body. Warmed by place, fire and fellowship, we return to our lives richer by each person who attended. Long live MAGUS!

Coffee Dragon -- Wanda Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A final view of the Circle through the eye of the Mother Stone:

throught he mother stone -- Wendy Rose Scheers

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

Daily Practice — Druid & Christian Theme 7   Leave a comment

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

How do I keep the inward doors open? (How do I even begin to locate them and find their handles?) How do I pick up on subtle nudges? How do I hear the quiet inward speech of things — the “still small voice” as older versions of Christian scripture call it? We all get the big events — no need to go looking for them. They burst on the scene, kicking down the door a few times in a life, unmistakably loud and messy, whether good or bad, and usually a mix. But they break through, and everything shifts.

“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

With wind and earthquake and fire, how do we ever catch the whisper? And then, even if we manage to hear the “still small voice”, we may find that instead of resolution or insight or growth, we’re left with questions, like Elijah. Our own lives interrogate us. “What am I doing here? How did things end up like this?”

Most traditions urge a daily practice. As much of Christianity has become focused on belief rather than practice, it has lost much of what monastic practice has preserved. A site on Trappist monasticism notes:

The practice of lectio divina, (divine reading), is foundational to monastic life. So important is divine reading to the spiritual well-being of a monk that, traditionally, we devoted some of the best hours of the day to this practice. Lectio Divina is a discipline whose fruits are experienced over time. One needs to understand the practice and then commit to it with some regularity.

Practice matters. Not because it makes our lives “safe” or “easy”: no life is that I know of. If I think about it, most lives resemble the character throw in role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons. You toss the game dice for talents, strengths and weaknesses. You may for instance roll a high intelligence, but your physical body is weak. You can’t rely on it. If you’re allowed to roll again, your strength, your vitality, may be high this time, but you’re none too bright.  Or on the third throw, both intelligence and strength come up high, but your temper makes your life a train-wreck of impulse and blame.

A daily practice helps build spiritual stamina. It’s something like what our grandparents and great-grandparents used to call “inner resources”, though they may rarely have shown us how to develop ’em. (Merely “following the rules” doesn’t usually help.) But they knew enough to recognize people who had them. (In RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, you can improve even weak qualities of your character over time, through experience. Funny thing!)

One of my teachers says that even if we could know the future, we’d have a hard time accepting just the good things to come in our lives. (That they might not always resemble “good things” from our present standpoint rarely occurs to us.) We build stamina over time, so that the big lifting is more manageable, and the daily lifting can become a small pleasure in itself.

A daily practice helps us hear that whisper, catch the still small voice. And that in turn can help us ride the worst of the big bad events, and make the most of the big good events (and little ones, too). And that can lead to all kinds of wonderful things. But the practice itself doesn’t deliver them. It catalyzes. It doesn’t guarantee.

One Druid I know makes it a point, whatever the weather, to visit a small outdoor shrine in his backyard each morning, before he heads off to work. He says a short prayer, or holds a meditation, makes an offering, etc. His practice builds over time, with things added or discarded. If, under pressure of a tight schedule or occasional family craziness, he misses his practice one morning, he feels the lack. But that in itself has deep value — it’s one way to recognize the value of a practice. It’s a good habit. The gods know we all cherish enough bad ones.

So working with the habit-forming tendencies we all have, we put them to work here and there. We start small. A daily practice can be a form of magic, of empowering ourselves to live more fully. Because really, what else is there? If we’re so sunk in difficulty that every day is a struggle just to survive, we’ve got nothing extra to share with anyone or anything. Our work is simply to endure. And sometimes that has to be enough. But beyond survival, one goal can be to spend our surplus as we choose, consciously, with intention. The goal is to find ways to get to a surplus in the first place, so we have something to spend, something to give back, to build on, to build up.

As Philip Carr-Gomm has written, “In a world sorely lacking in meaningful ritual, it can feel like a balm to the soul to engage in actions that are not obviously utilitarian, that are designed to help us enter into a deeper sense of engagement with life –- to give expression to our belief in a world of Spirit that infuses this physical world with energies that bring healing and inspiration.” If such ideas seem foreign or strange, that’s a measure of how far we’ve wandered from ways of living proven over millennia to help us make the most of our few decades here.

The Christian “Lord’s Prayer” is brief, and usefully so. Or if you’re a Catholic, the Rosary is comparably short. Most traditions offer short usable rites like prayers or visualizations. Along with similar prayers, OBOD Druids and others may practice a Light Body exercise.

Repetitions done mindfully can be remarkable in their effects over time, hard to describe until you try them out. Like any exercise, they build strength and stamina. We can propose to ourselves any number of fine practices, elaborate rituals, intense mystical exercises. But the small one we actually follow through on every day for a month will be the one that begins to convince us of its value, and of the value of a practice.

The key is to find what works, and what I can stick with. I keep a record. Did this for a week. Liked it. Kept it up for a year. Discarded it. Felt the lack. Picked it up again and added it back in to the mix a year later. Forgotten I’d made that experiment till I re-read my journal from that time.

Finding what works for me, ultimately, is a practice all its own, one of the most “practical practices” I can try.

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I’ll close with a Youtube clip of “Pirililou”, which as its description states, is

an old Gaelic Chant sung at the Western ocean’s edge to the soul of the departed, in the first days after death, to assist the soul travelling from this world to the next ones. It is said to imitate the call of a shore bird … a bird dedicated to Bridhe and St Brigit, who assist the birth of souls in this world as well as the next.

As a meditation before sleep (that practice journey we all make nightly), this kind of meditation can lead to deep insight. Have we, after all, been fully born into this world, never mind any other one? Playing (singing, composing) a short devotional song that moves you deeply, and listening (performing) with intention, can make for the beginning of a profound practice.

Festivals & Holidays — Druid & Christian Theme 6   Leave a comment

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

Happy Beltane! Go here for an enthusiastic if skewed view of the holiday, and here for The Edinburgh Reporter‘s take on this year’s celebration in Scotland’s capital tomorrow evening. As the Chair of the Beltane Fire Society says in the article:

Beltane is an event that cannot be described, it has to be felt, and that’s what makes it so special. We really want to reach out and welcome in the wider community this year, so come and share the beginnings of Summer with us.

Thornborough_Henge

Thornborough Henges, Yorkshire, England — site of modern Beltane festivals

[Here for more on the Thornborough 2017 Beltane.]

If you’ve been following this series on some of the shared imaginal territory between Druidry and Christianity, and you find your hopes both raised and disappointed, this preamble is for you. Of all the themes, festival and holidays are probably the most self-explanatory. Instead of worrying too much about what I’m writing here, go find a good Beltane celebration. You’ll know more afterwards than anything I cover here.

But if you’re kind enough to have stayed and you’re still reading, let’s take a look at the nature of this theme. Now I have something of a handle on the weaknesses in my own understanding and writing ability. Let’s lay that aside for a moment. You and I both bring to this discussion — as we do to everything else — our personal histories of living in societies where Christianity still dominates the scene. After all, for centuries it’s ruled the roost. It’s been the default setting: our laws, values, art, music, vocabulary and ways of thinking all still draw so deeply from Christianity that we can suppose that if we’ve “left the church” we’re “free” of it, and shaped no more by its perspectives and doctrines and worldview. [Yes, you may belong to the growing minority who grew up in a non-Christian household. Still, it’s pretty likely you celebrate Christmas in some way, and get some kind of Easter vacation without even asking.]

We assume, that is, if we no longer subscribe to a handful of Christian doctrines for spiritual guidance and practice, that we’re somehow “post-Christian”.  You hear that everywhere. Yet we can acknowledge how much Classical civilization continues to mold the West — we never imagine we’re “post-Roman” or “post-Greek”. To offer the most trivial example, one of our generic insults is “Go to hell!” — a distinctly Christian destination, one that’s unlike to freeze over any time soon. (We can check back in after another 500 years — maybe by then a more clearly post-Christian West will have taken shape. One of the best ways to test this is to live for a time in a non-Christian part of the world. Much of Asia will do, but so will the Middle East, Africa, and parts of South America. Get back to me after that, if you take issue with what I claim about persistent Christian influence in the West. I had to live outside the U.S. for three years to see something of this.)

In a word, we’ve all got baggage. Nothing surprising in that. But if by chance we still long to salvage something from Christian practice that moves us still — if we refuse to throw out an imaginal and spiritual baby, however troubling its family tree, along with an often foul historic bathwater — and we’re walking a non-Christian path, the many links and themes like these past few posts have explored can call to us quite strongly. Parts of the Mass may move you, or you love the lights and cheer of Christmas, or the palm fronds and joy of Easter, or the quiet of candlelight services where words don’t fill your head and your heart has space to expand into the richness of silence.

We can use that fact of emotional and spiritual connection, use it for insight and growth and exploration.

How? Bear with me. I’m suggesting a few ways in what follows.

palm and maypole

One of the delights of following a couple of blogs mining the same spiritual or religious vein is the interconnections they can weave over time. Obvious reasons for such common ground are shared experiences, comparable reading lists, current events, and so on. But sometimes you just end up in shared spaces, looking around and talking about what you’re experiencing, as if it’s in the air and water. (Which it is.)

I reviewed John Beckett’s new book in the last post, and John launches the interconnection this time, in his recent April 25th post “Why I Had To Make a Clean Break With Christianity“. If you follow his blog, you know that John has grappled with the lingering after-effects of membership in a fundamentalist church, and its mind-warping power on his worldview. He revisits that experience occasionally for hard-won, balanced insights anyone can use.

If you’re uncertain about the possibility of an rapprochement between Druidry or Paganism and Christianity, in other words, John’s got something to say you may find well worth your while.

There have always been, he notes, Christian groups with a wide range of practices:

Christianity was never a wholly new thing in any of its forms. It has mythical roots in Judaism, intellectual roots in Greek philosophy, and folklore roots in every land in which it was established. Some pagan beliefs and practices survived, but they were Christianized. They had to be –- in medieval and early modern Europe it was impossible to be anything other than a Christian (or possibly a Jew, in some places, at some times, for a while…).

These survivals and continuations include magic –- a lot of magic.

As a Pagan and Druid, John knows magic because he practices it, and from that practice he knows from the inside how pervasive magical practice actually is. If you’re human,  in other words, you’ve both done magic yourself and had others practice it on you. The less conscious, and therefore weaker, the more random in its effects. But most Westerners have confronted one extremely common form of debased magic in advertising — the manipulation of emotion, desire, image, sound and verbal conjuring for a specific purpose: to sell you stuff. And though most of the more radical Protestant denominations have worked assiduously to purge their churches from any perceived taint of Catholic magic, it manages to creep back in unseen.

Magic doesn’t care what you believe – magic cares what you do. Work this magic properly and you’ll get results.

But I can’t do this magic. I had to make a clean break with Christianity and I can’t go back, not even to work magic with the aid of powerful spirits.

Wait, you’re saying. The title and theme of this post is Festivals and Holidays. What’s that got to do with magic, anyway? You’re always going on about magic. Enough already!

Well, “ritual is poetry in the world of acts“, wrote OBOD founder Ross Nichols. And poetry works with image and emotion. You see where this is going? Poetry is magical art, verbal magic. And rituals and festivals, if they’re potent and memorable, are stuffed with poetry and theater. There’s a reason that a wedding at a justice of the peace can be much less satisfying than a church or temple wedding, regardless of what you believe. (Because what you do is another matter.)

We long for ritual, even as we’ve managed to banish a bunch of it from our lives. So we pour it into wedding planners and other secular makeshifts that can deplete our bank accounts without delivering the goods. (“But do you really feel married to this man?” my mother-in-law asked my wife after our non-church wedding. Note: we had two weddings, secular and spiritual to cover all the bases. Neither one “churched”.)

So. Most of the “Great Eight” holidays of the Pagan Wheel of the Year have their Christian counterparts. We needn’t rehash old arguments about who “stole” whose holiday. If Druids, and Pagans generally, would like to find common ground with Christians, shared celebrations of holy days are one place to look.

Interestingly, of all the Eight, Beltane has perhaps the weakest Christian link. Yes, May 1st is the feast day of two apostles, James and Philip, in the Catholic church. In northern and central Europe Walpurgisnacht on April 30th, the eve of the festival of the eighth-century saint Walpurga, on May 1, came to be associated with witches. Beltane on the other hand was almost exclusively a Celtic holiday until it was claimed by neo-Pagans in the middle of the last century. Six months out from the start of winter at Samhain (“summer’s end”, the Celtic sam– cognate with the sum– of English “summer”), Beltane also fits the rhythms of the year-long cycle of seasonal celebrations, heralding the beginning of summer, of energy and fertility and well-being.

Whatever you do, wherever you are, try to find a way to celebrate the season.

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Images: Thornborough Henge; palm and maypole.

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