Archive for the ‘Eisteddfod’ Tag

“The Truth *Against* the World”?

Tuesday morning as my wife and I were returning with the rare indulgence of take-out breakfast from a local cafe we love, we saw a morning walker on the back roads wearing a fluorescent yellow vest with the black lettering “I own safety“. All I could think was, Wow! Really? Could I please borrow some from time to time?

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Steve writes in a couple of recent comments:

… set(s) the truth right side up again …

I have long thought one of the primary functions of the modern druid should be to keep truth on a firm foundation, both for oneself and one’s “tribe”. Truly a worthy task in a time when truth has often been a subjective commodity, sold to the highest bidder.

A worthy task indeed. Far too many people in this era seem confused about truth, even about whether it’s possible. I keep attempting to present on this blog an experimental knowledge anyone can test and duplicate for themselves, as one reliable way of getting to truth. That’s why I keep writing about practice, practice, practice in as many ways as I can. Practice helps keep me honest, and also gives me plenty of material.

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Words about truth can resemble what remains after a fire.

The Roman poet and satirist Horace (Horatius) is my bard today. Si quid novisti rectius istis, candidus imperti; si nil, his utere mecum. “If you can better these principles, tell me”, goes one translation. “If not, join me in following them” — Horace, Epistles, Bk 1, 6, 67-68. But that tame version takes the snarky edge off Horace: “If you have come to know any precept more correct than these, share it with me, brilliant one; if not, use these with me”. Or as we might say, “OK, genius, you got a better idea? No? Then let’s try this one”. (I let people like Horace be snarky for me, so I can pretend to claim higher ground.)

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Y gwir yn erbyn y byd, goes the Welsh tag: “The truth against the world”. This British blog attributes the words to Iolo Morganwg. Some claim them for much more ancient Druids, some for King Arthur, and some for Boudicca (Wikipedia | History.com), queen of the Celtic Iceni, who died in the year 61 fighting the Romans. (If the words do originate with her, they’d have first appeared in a much earlier form of Brythonic than the modern Welsh quoted above.) Amazon, no surprise, sells a black t-shirt emblazoned with them, accompanied by the awen /|\ symbol. (The Amazon page for the shirt airily notes, “Show your support for culture, history, tradition and peace”. Oh, where’s Horace when you need him?!)

The Gorsedd of the Bards has adopted the words as their motto, and there’s a bardic chair with them carved into its back for winners of the Welsh National Eisteddfod. (The words appear on the larger chair to the right, just below the /|\. The glare of the camera flash obscures part of the line.)

bardicchair

creative commons/Wicipedia (Welsh Wikipedia)

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely considering we’re human, we want our truth boxed and bubble-wrapped and tamely waiting for when we deign to grant it our attention. We want to own it, defend it, and — gods help us — buy and sell it, like anything else. Fortunately, truth isn’t like “anything else”. I know it in its purest form when I serve it rather than try to possess it. And maybe it’s not a moving target: I am.

Christian, Pagan, humanist, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and so on — if you pray, meditate, study, struggle, do ritual, and pay attention, you too know these things from experience.

Rather than a list of principles straight from the mouth of deity, or set of ultimate equations about reality scrounged up in a Silicon Valley lab, truth seems to be a function, which Google obligingly tells me is “an activity or purpose natural to or intended for a person or thing”. We can live from it, in other words. We can express it through our lives and actions to a greater or lesser degree, but we’ll always find it hard to put into “words now and forever”. Words don’t do that kind of thing well at all*, and neither, the accumulating evidence of human history shows, should we.

So I can sing and dance the truth better than I can profess it from the soapbox of this little blog in the early decades of the 21st century. (You need to know I sing and dance quite badly.) And if it’s true that a person can experience deep realization gazing into the heart of a flower, as I noted in the previous post, any “truth” in that moment isn’t coming through words. It’s a function of the prepared individual and the flower and the moment of attention. It’s “an activity or purpose natural to or intended for a person or thing”. And so to the degree that I stray or get distracted from “the activity or purpose natural to or intended for me”, I lose the ability to serve truth.

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The “truth against the world” often means conflict and struggle. The “world” in this case seems to signify a human form of inertia and resistance to time’s change. The desire to box and bag the perfection of a moment effectively kills it, leaving me with a dead thing, a mental photograph that doesn’t show the living being that’s its original. The “world” doesn‘t seem to mean the tree outside my office window, the woodchuck nibbling the tender clover in the back yard, the sunlight blessedly falling all around, the “Time of New Talk”, as Rudyard Kipling called the springtime returning to India in The Jungle Book.

So if I want to serve truth, to practice “an activity or purpose natural to or intended for me”, I find I’m working with a kind of electrical circuit, with resistances and poles and a definite direction of flow. The more I struggle to own truth, to box it and lord it over others as if I finally “have” it, the more I forfeit the “spark” of my electricity — the metaphor’s a useful one — the very thing that keeps me alive and vital and rooted in what is “natural to or intended for” me.

The word “world” has a whole set of specifically Christian associations I’d like to glance at here. Be of good cheer, says Jesus at one point in the Gospels. I have overcome the world. To me one big takeaway of that is a priceless unspoken corollary. I have overcome the world, and so can you. The Galilean says to me, I have overcome the resistance in myself to serving truth, rather than owning it. Do that, and you too will be able to say of your holy experience “I’m the way, the truth and the life. Nobody gets to the Source, or stays centered in it, except like that”.

And I hold this out not as an “opinion”, or worse as some kind of dogma, Druidic or otherwise, but as a potential truth to try out, to test, to practice till I know it from my own experience and can live it more fully. Or prove it inaccurate, say so, and look elsewhere. And maybe you will, too. You can be my Horace: “if you can better these principles, tell me”. Because as one current meme suggests, I can hold all kinds of opinions without evidence. But as soon as I present them as “truth” to others, untested in my own experience, I’m guilty of lying and fraud.

To repeat Greer’s words from the previous post, “at the human level, the individual Awen for the first time may become an object of conscious awareness. Achieving this awareness, and living in accord with it, is according to these Druid teachings the great challenge of human existence”. The world (not the world that the truth is “against”) seems to manifest this out of the same awen, but without human conscious awareness. It’s what we’ve labeled instinct, though that doesn’t account very well for plant energies that manifest leaves and branches and fruit and roots. That’s one reason why we find the natural world a restorative presence when we walk in it, savor it, apprentice ourselves to it. Notice that you don’t have to believe nature is restorative. You know this from your experience in it, and any belief — more accurately, trust — comes after.

And so I return to words that are “holy” to me, because I keep discovering ways they prove worth my ongoing time and exploration. They’re also holy because the principle behind them can be rediscovered by anyone who does what they describe:

Druidry means following a spiritual path rooted in the green Earth …  It means embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit. (Greer, John Michael.  Druidry — A Green Way of Wisdom, qtd. in Carr-Gomm, Philip. What Do Druids Believe? London:  Granta Books, 2006, p. 34.)

May your practice and path bring you into contact with what is deepest and most worthwhile within you.

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*Ursula LeGuin says it well: a writer attempts to “say in words what cannot be said in words”, as she puts it. And so a writer resorts to story, getting at the “truth” through imagination.

Prayer — “Grant” vs “Embody”

If you join rituals of many of the contemporary Druid orders, you’ll encounter the Druid Prayer frequently. (In OBOD rituals it’s simply standard practice.) Some Reconstructionist Druid groups may eschew it because it originates during the “Druid Revival” period beginning in the 1600s, rather than from what we can recover of historical Druidry, but for all that, the claim often used to introduce it, that it “unites all Druids”, is more than wishful thinking. Or it could be.

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back yard, facing east

Also called the Gorsedd Prayer (Welsh Gweddi’r Orsedd), it’s long been part of the Welsh National Eisteddfod as well. The “inspired literary scalliwag” Iolo Morganwg composed it, and you can find several versions of it, including the Welsh originals, here. It’s survived because of its power:

Grant, O God (or Goddess/Spirit/etc.), Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all existences;
And in the love of all existences,
the love of God (or Goddess/Spirit/etc.) and all goodness.

As a prayer of pure petition, it has value. The prayer makes no mention of reciprocity — the petitioner doesn’t promise to do anything in return for these very large gifts. In short, stripped of the politeness of the first word “grant”, the prayer says “Give.”

But if the Granter gives, the effects of the gift do provide a kind of return. If we’re protected, strengthened, granted understanding, knowledge, love of justice, of all existences and of God, you could argue that large transformative effects will doubtless follow, and constitute their own return. We certainly won’t be the same, act the same, or — most likely — pray the same. If we can’t get there any other way, sincere and heartfelt petition can do the trick.

As with so many elements of our group practice, we too rarely talk about them; first we’re busy preparing and then doing them, and feasting and socializing after. The sense of having “held up our end” can be palpable after ritual: the atmosphere tingles with a sense of scales recalibrated yet again. Witnesses, petitioners, performers, vessels and channels for holy energies to enter the world through our own imperfect and holy lives, we’ve reconnected, remembered, listened.

But because I know how I can end up mouthing the words, even as their familiarity is a comfort and a part of the ritual energy flow, I keep returning to the practice of embodying rather than merely asking. I need something to stop me, shake me, take me out of myself, and yes, out of the ritual moment, while holding me to a higher standard than I came with. It’s a kind of second prayer, or personal ritual. It may take me 10 or 20 minutes to fulfill it, because I need to slow down to do it, whether I say the words aloud or bring them to awareness in some other way, feeling them in my bones, touching the earth, cupping a ritual flame, gazing at the horizon, repeating them till they sink in, carrying their vibration till a door opens inwardly, any and every one of these ritual gestures. “Do till it’s true”. I want to realize “as above, so below” however I can. All I know is that for me the energies of this different manner or form of prayer also differ — and I need that difference.

So here’s one version of the words, a small part of what feels to me more of an “embodying” prayer:

Holy Ones,
in your protection I stand here,
strengthened, understanding your ways,
knowing and loving your honor as the source of mine.
The justice I do today and every day
mirrors my love for the good things
you give, just as the love I receive
is justice, the sword of truth you raise
in my life, handle toward me.
Wherever I am, may I remember
and live these things always.

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Of Headlines and Images: “Purely Cultural” or “Very Pagan”?

It’s worth resurrecting a decade-old headline — and the accompanying picture! — to reflect on the power of headlines and images.   In 2002, when then incoming Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was inducted into the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards during the Eisteddfod, an annual festival of Welsh culture, it kicked up some predictable controversy (or kun-TRAH-ver-see, as the Brits say it).  It also produced a fine picture that says at least as much — though what it does say is also debatable.  Here’s the whole article:

Incoming Archbishop of Canterbury becomes a druid
Monday 5 August 2002

An ancient early morning ceremony yesterday saw the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury stepping into a circle of Pembrokeshire stones and into a controversy.  Rowan Williams donned a long white robe, stood inside the sacred circle in a mist shrouded field in Wales, and became a druid.

The Archbishop of Wales was one of 50 people to be inducted into the Gorsedd of Bards during the service at the National Eisteddfod, a celebration of Welsh culture this week at St David’s, Pembrokeshire.

The Gorsedd comprises Welsh-speaking poets, writers, musicians, artists and others who have made a distinguished contribution to Welsh language and culture. But the ceremony was seen by some as too close to paganism for comfort.

The Rev Angus Macleay, of the evangelical group Reform, said: “Even if to Welsh speakers it is recognised as purely a cultural thing, the appearance of it looks very pagan. You have folks calling themselves druids, dressed in white and going into a stone circle, reciting prayers which don’t mention Jesus Christ.”

Dr Williams, who takes up his post in November, hit back at suggestions that the honour was linked to paganism. It was “one of the greatest honours which Wales can bestow on her citizens”, he said. “Some people have reached the wrong conclusion about the ceremony. If people had actually looked at the words of the hymns and text used they would have seen a very Christian service.”

The Archbishop is stepping down this year, having presided over a  decade’s worth of theological contentiousness about marrying and ordaining homosexuals that is splitting his church.  Other kerfluffles (I use the word advisedly:  in a century historians will no doubt smile and shake their heads at what is controversial now) include his positions on Sharia law, the hijab, Freemasonry, and creationism.  He is taking on what should be (almost anything would be!) a less dramatic and public role: Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University.  Think Professor Minerva McGonagall as head of house of Gryffindor at Hogwarts, though Gryffindor was one of four dorms or “houses,” rather than an entire college.  Still …

I suspect Williams enjoyed his secular Druid experience more than some of his official duties as Archbishop.  I hope he reflects on it from time to time, as Druidry grows richer and more widely known.

[Updated 7/19/12]

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