Archive for the ‘earth spirituality’ Tag

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.

Review of John Beckett’s The Path of Paganism   Leave a comment

Beckett, John. The Path of Paganism: An Experienced-based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn, 2017.

[Note: John is a fellow OBOD Druid. We’ve met at several Gatherings, I’ve gratefully used and credited his excellent photos in several previous posts here. We’ve talked on occasion, but I don’t know him well, except as a reader of his excellent blog [link below]. I participated in his moving Cernunnos rite a few years ago.

Usually I only review books I feel I can discuss insightfully and enthusiastically; The Path of Paganism certainly qualifies. I’m adding this personal note as brief background and for completeness.]

pathofpaganismJohn Beckett knows intimately the Pagan call to service. More importantly, he heeds it. On his Patheos blog and in this book, he serves both newcomers and experienced Pagans alike with insights and examples from his own experience at every turn. Rather than adding to the seemingly ever-growing list of “Paganism 101” books for beginners, replete with tables of correspondences, ready-made (and therefore usually too-generic) rituals, how-to’s and endless reading lists, John offers something far more useful.

Here is a book that can guide the reader into a personal exploration of what the path of Paganism can mean and where it may lead. While he sometimes suggests a range of possible answers, he’s more interested in helping us find questions worth asking. He may give us his answer, but it remains his. He never runs afoul of our sovereignty by claiming it’s THE answer. His examples, drawn from his experience, are meant to charge us up to find our own.

Rather than advocating for a particular Pagan ethics, for instance (Recycle! Eat organic! Protest X policy! Boycott Y or Z Company!), he says instead, “Go for a walk … When we establish our connections to the natural world, it begins to affect us. We start to feel the intrinsic value of nature, and we start thinking about what reverent care might look like” (pg. 58). He trusts the integrity of readers to decide for themselves.

Thus in a section on ritual, he writes: “A member of your Pagan group has asked you for an initiation. After some conversation you’re convinced the desire is genuine … You’re not part of an organization that has an established initiation ritual … Now what do you do? As with any new endeavor, begin by educating yourself. Fortunately, even though the details of most initiations are shrouded in secrecy, there’s a lot of information available on the internet – more than enough to give you a good idea of what to do and how to do it” (281). This is solid advice whether you want to self-initiate or initiate others.

As a ‘hard polytheist” or believer in the reality of distinct spiritual entities, John doesn’t shy away from hard questions. In a chapter titled “The Gods,” he notes, “If you’re on the cusp of being ready to hear, you may not know what to listen for. You may be inclined to interpet a religious experience in a nonreligious manner” (pg. 74) Rather than attempting to persuade or convert anyone to belief, however, John offers some useful tests to help anyone understand their experience. “If a god is calling you, odds are good they want you to do something: make an offering, tell a story, do something to help their work, or do something to make yourself ready to do something bigger at some point in the future. Be prepared to respond with action” (pg. 75). This is advice I can use right now: put into practice my current understanding, testing it for its validity.

John opens his book by observing, “No matter how you came to this point right here right now, wanting to learning more about Paganism, you aren’t starting from scratch” (pg. 1). As John makes his intention clear, this book can help activate things you already know. With supportive and enthusiastic reviews from Damh the Bard, Kristoffer Hughes of the Anglesey Druid Order, Kirk Thomas of ADF, and author and blogger Jason Mankey, this book will leave you highlighting parts of the text to try out and check back in with months and years down the road.

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Image: The Path of Paganism.

The Kinship of All — Druid & Christian Theme 4   Leave a comment

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

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   Leave a comment

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

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.

Jesus and Druidry, Part 3   2 comments

In this post you’ll find me wearing my hat of the linking, connecting and informing Druid, so salt to taste.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

“My Druid is Christ,” wrote Saint Columba (521-597), among other things the founder of the abbey on Iona. Ask yourself what to make of such a remark from this early Irish missionary, working in what is now Scotland. You can even be Bardic about it, and shape your meditation into a triad of insights. Out of one of my meditations emerged a triad that begins: “Three things we serve, who love both flaming Star and branching Tree …”

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And out of such echoes from a distant past comes the Romantic conception that Druidry and Christianity initially co-existed in amity. Evidence exists both to support and refute such a view. But whatever the reality of that period, which we may never know, we can certainly identify its spiritual gold and and continue to create with it in the present.

OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints.  That Christianity provided the vehicle for Druidry’s survival is ironic, since the Church quite clearly did not intend this to be the case (pg. 31).

As I poke around “ironic survival” further in this third (Part 1 | Part 2) reflection on Jesus and Druidry, I note one quite obvious thing many others have of course commented on. 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. Already many such resources exist. The OBOD website provides “Resources for Exploring Christian Druidry“, which include music, ritual calendars, books, and links to organizations like Forest Church.

Life and death are ironic, paradoxical. As integral gestures and movements of the cosmos, they’re also a “human thing”: we long for and fear the change that comes in death as in all such transformations. Initiation prefigures it, and life delivers it without fail. We all live and change, die and change. Druidry offers itself as a prime example of what it teaches, living, dying, changing and living again.

And Druidry, or at least Orders like OBOD, aren’t above borrowing and adapting rich language, Christian or not, attentive to the powers of Three. Nuinn (the Druid name of Ross Nichols, OBOD’s founder) writes:

Druidry is the Western form of an ancient universal philosophy, culture or religion, dating from the days of early man when the three were one (pg. 19).

This careful attention to triads and unities means that their presence in other traditions makes them attractive to Druid ceremony and ritual. Some OBOD rites include versions of the following Trinitarian as well as Druidic language:

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.

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.

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A Footnote on Orders and Flavors of Druidry

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).

It’s important to note that OBOD Druidry differs here from Druid Orders like ADF which are more explicitly religious. There are of course also members of OBOD who practice it as their religion. Carr-Gomm writes from the same universalist Druid strain that shows up repeatedly in OBOD and in its stance toward other traditions and religions. Visit the current ADF homepage and you read:

Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) is a Pagan church based on ancient Indo-European traditions expressed through public worship, study, and fellowship.

Explore further and you find specifics of ADF belief and activity that would exclude dual membership in ADF and a Christian church for all but the most liberal Christian. Among these are

the ADF Initiate Program, a course of training into the ways of magic, seership and trance for ADF, and with it a current of spiritual initiation

together with a cultivation of ancestral seership and contact, and an explicitly duotheistic ritual structure:

As a part of the work of growing our spiritual current the clergy of ADF have been exploring an otherworldly locale and inner Nemeton where we have been forming relationships with beings we call the ‘Ancient Wise’, those of the Sacred Dead who were poets, magicians and priests, and who would be willing to join with us to help us all walk the elder ways. This has been done through the good offices of the two deities who we honor in every sacrifice, the Warders of the Ways, the Earth Mother and the Keeper of Gates.

Compare this to the frequent shifting of language in the opening of OBOD’s “prayer which unites all Druids” but which ADF labels (accurately) a creation of the Druid Revival of the last 300 years, and thus from their perspective inauthentic. Listen closely at any OBOD gathering and you’ll hear these variations and others:

Grant, O Spirit(s)/God/Goddess/Holy Ones, thy protection …

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Image: Iona Abbey.

Healing from the Past   Leave a comment

We commonly expect healing to arrive from the future — from a doctor’s prescription we’ll have in hand after an upcoming appointment, from an outpatient procedure in a clinic, from a series of therapy sessions or an interval of exercises.

We don’t expect healing to lie in the past, waiting for us to recognize it.

geoffreyThe historian-mythographer Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155), whose glorious Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) blends history and legend almost seamlessly, is one primary source for the Arthurian legend. In the Eighth Book of this magnum opus, also gives us an early glimpse of legends about Stonehenge, supplying a foundation, however wobbly, for the idea that the stones originated in Ireland — or even further afield.

If we follow Geoffrey, in fact, the impetus behind Stonehenge is the desire for a war memorial:

The sight of the place where the dead lay made the king [Aurelius Ambrosius], who was of a compassionate temper, shed tears, and at last enter upon thoughts, what kind of monument to erect upon it. For he thought something ought to be done to perpetuate the memory of that piece of ground, which was honoured with the bodies of so many noble patriots, that died for their country [in the fighting against Hengist]. — Historia, Bk. 8, 10.

merlinUnable to find among his own builders and engineers the technical ability to construct what he envisions, the king seeks out Merlin and asks for his help:

Merlin made answer:

Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it. If I should pretend to utter them for ostentation or diversion, the spirit that instructs me would be silent, and would leave me when I should have occasion for it. … [But] if you are desirous to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killare, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand forever.

Merlin is, of course, just the person to manage this feat. The Giant’s Dance comes east to the plains of Salisbury, to “stand forever”. But wait — Merlin hasn’t finished. There’s more. The stones themselves are charmed, and of a provenance far from their apparently temporary Irish resting-place. Merlin declares:

They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue. — Historia, Bk. 8, 11.

We seek for future cures, while the Merlins of our spiritual history attempt to alert us to sources of healing all around us. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.

How many healings casually happen to me all the time? A scratch scabs over and even the mark fades with time. A cold passes and I recover, the hacking cough subsiding to a tickle and then to nothing. The purging of food poisoning wracks me and wrings me out, but my temperature control eventually leaves fevers and chills behind, I regain my appetite, and the memory of the nausea and dizziness and malaise slowly withdraws.

If we want the marvelous, the cause and occasion must match the healing outcome. The ordinary will not do: Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it.

What do we require? A wise guide and that guide’s counsel, certainly. But more: the conjunction of the potential and the place where it needs to be founded. The stones must be brought to a specific location for the desired result … if they can be placed here, as they are there …

It’s significant that the stones do not remain in Ireland. While giants placed them there for their own purposes, it takes human agency to bring them to their final location. Almost as if they had been waiting all along for human awareness to catch up to them, to finish their journey.

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I don’t need to disdain modern medicine to avail myself of ancient healing. We do need the latter. Modern medicine often does an excellent job alleviating symptoms, but leaves the deeper roots of the problem untouched, often because invisible, underground. The taproot of an illness or other problem may nourish itself in causes invisible to a materialist eye. I may continue to feed its source even as I claim to long for healing. Why else is it, in our modern and supposedly healthier age, that so many Americans — more than ever before — rely on prescriptions (link to Harvard University studies) against anxiety, depression, insomnia, and so on? The stats have made headlines, but no one wants to address the root cause, because it’s sunk in the rich darkness of our cultural blindspots.

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I add to my practice a henge-meditation. We needn’t bother ourselves to make any such claim as “Druids built Stonehenge” to make use of the spiritual dynamic it offers as a source of healing. Merlin sets the precedent: Stonehenge-as-symbol, in Geoffrey’s telling is older than its present home in southern England anyway. Not its origin but its power is what we need. Magic thrives when our intent makes the occasion a necessity: our focus is single and sharp not from force of will but from desire, emotion, need, want, hope, imagination, planning and preparation, ritual foundation, and love.

If I don’t move the stones here, their virtue can’t find me. Inner work is just as necessary as finding the right doctor, the proper regimen, the appropriate treatment.

Curious that the words of Jesus fit here so well: “The stone which the builders reject has become the cornerstone”. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.

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Image: Geoffrey of Monmouth; Merlin.

 

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