Archive for the ‘fire’ Tag

Devotionals   Leave a comment

On a Druidry Facebook group I’m a member of, the question arises a few times each year: what makes Druidry distinctive? In other words, if you’re looking over your options, “Why this and not that?”

Sustained contact with the green world is first practice, never abandoned, never out of date.

In a comment on the last post here, bpott said she was told in meditation to “practice devotionals to the gods outdoors. Lighting a candle to Brighid and sitting with her, or pouring water in a bowl for the moon to infuse its energy and listening to Manannan are such devotionals. There is indeed much to be gained through these spiritual practices”.

But this isn’t something for you to take anyone’s word for. It’s not that kind of observation. Words are meant guide us to own experience and back out again, to reflect so we can experience deeper.

Or as J M Greer puts it,

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.

We regularly need reminders like these, because Talking Self sidetracks us.

“Talking Self” — you know, that chatty, sometimes neurotic self we use to read and post on Facebook, grumble at headlines we don’t like, and cheer for ones we do. It can often persuade us that it is all of who we are, because its medium is language and the thoughts and feelings language kindles in us. Name it, says Talking Self, trying to keep everything in its domain of names and words. (The Dao De Jing quietly reminds us “the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth”.)

Druidry says take yourself out of talking self and into Self — the being linked in its sinew and blood, bone and spirit, to all that is — rivers and streams, woods and meadows, valleys and hills, tundra and deserts, bird and beech, beast and bass and bug.

When you come back, you can turn Talking Self toward song or ritual, if you like — give it something to do that it does well — but in the service of something higher than reactive gossip and self-importance and anxiety.

And “going outdoors” doesn’t have to entail a frigid January plunge through a hole in the ice at the local lake. It may be as simple as smelling an evergreen twig you picked up yesterday on a walk, and now you hold it as you meditate, on the change of seasons, the incense of a living thing on your fingers and in your nose. Crafting a banner or a poem for the next time your Grove meets — at Imbolc in February. Baking and taking a gift to an elderly neighbor or the local soup kitchen. Grooming your dog or cat.

All these things re-engage the body and give Talking Self a break. Poor thing, it needs one. These practices help restore our connections. They gift us with balance. For these reasons they are, in a curious word more often associated with another tradition, incarnational. They literally put us into our bodies, even as they give Spirit shapes and forms we can experience.

Many forms of Spirit, many bodies to experience them: earth body and dream body and thought body and memory body. And others we haven’t begun to explore.

I lay the makings of a fire in our woodstove, crumpled newspaper and punky dry strips of willow from a fallen branch two years ago, and thin strips of a log split and split and split again. Wood’s our primary heat-source — we’re far too stingy to waste money on our electric backup, except in direst emergencies, and then the power may have gone out anyway. I can pause a moment before setting the match to the kindling and honor Brighid. The makings of a devotional. Not “believe in Her”, not “profess my faith She exists”, but honor Her. Often something quite different.

As someone once quipped, more important than me believing in Brighid is Brighid believing in me. What god would care to waste attention on a human who isn’t ever here? But if I’m here and as I honor Her I sense She’s here, what’s left to believe? It’s the honoring that’s important. The connection.

The Druid experience continually “abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit”. Continually, because my rigidity will creep back in, and fire and touch can warm and soften and free me from inflexible habits and open me to change and love.

I met Brighid most intimately through the task of firing up the woodstove when we settled in Vermont in 2008.  Fire became a daily reality each winter (and much of spring and autumn, too). The wonder of fire and the opportunity of honor to Brighid needn’t be separate from the gathering of kindling and the match. Our winter-fires may not be the reverential fire of Kildare — though they can be. Every morning.

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Today I’ll take out the ash to the compost pile, the midden, lovely old word. I let the freshly-removed ash sit out in the hod for a week, so I’m not dumping a pile of embers outdoors on a windy day. Old ash out, new ash to the hod, new fire to the stove ,whose walls are still warm to the touch. I set the kindling, whisper a sometimes wordless prayer to the goddess, and watch as flames grow and spread.

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taking out the ash

 

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new fire

My devotional has to take a particular, concrete form if it’s to exist at all for the body and senses to engage. Spiritual-but-not-religious knows this, instinctively keeps seeking but then abandoning forms, because it distrusts forms even as it senses their value. But it’s the dead form and the opinions-and-then-dogmas of Talking Self that are the obstacle to spiritual connection, not form itself.

Oh, Lord [goes one prayer] forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.
Thou art Everywhere, but I worship thee here:
Thou art without form, but I worship thee in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer thee these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

Except they’re not limitations at all: the way to do them in time and space is with temporal and spatial forms. I find little limitation in building a fire and honoring Brighid too. My devotional is a matter of intention, of choice. When I’m on another plane, I adopt its forms. (In dreams I fly, with dream-power my earth body doesn’t have.) But now, here (no need to apologize for limitations*), these forms.

Without a form, no transformation, whisper the Wise.

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*The words “limit” and “limitations” are dirty words, far more obscene these days than any other. Obsessed with freedom, we miss what limits are and signify for us.

A shape is a limitation. Personally, I like shapes and forms. If I had no particular shape or form, I wouldn’t be “free” — I’d be monstrous, “de-formed”.

J M Greer notes in his Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. 2012, pgs. 42-53:

A field mouse, for example, has teeth and a digestive system that are fine-tuned to get nutrients from seeds and other concentrated plant foods, and so that is what field mice eat. They do not eat crickets, even though crickets are very nourishing; they leave crickets to the garter snakes. They do not eat herbs, even though herbs are very abundant; they leave herbs to the rabbits. They limit themselves to one kind of food, and as a result their bodies and their behavior are exquisitely shaped to get and use that kind of food. Rather than jacks-of-all-trades, they are masters of one.

… the elegant lines of the blade [of grass] have evolved to make the most economical use of limited energy and resources, for example, and the curve at which it bends measures the limit of the blade’s strength in the presence of the wind. Remove the limits from the grass, and its beauty goes away. The same thing is true of all beauty, in nature as a whole and in the subset of nature we call human life: beauty is born when a flow of nature encounters firm limits, and the more perfect its acceptance of those limits, the greater the beauty will be.

… The same thing is true of all power, in nature as a whole and in that subset of nature we call human life: power is born when a flow of energy encounters firm limits, and the more narrow the outlet left open by those limits, the greater the power will be.

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Triad for Rekindling Sacred Fire   Leave a comment

NOTE

A version of this post appeared on pg. 32 of the summer/fall 2017 issue (large PDF) of Druid Magazine. I’m grateful to the editors, and to their liberal policies that actually recognize the ownership of authors!

In the Southern Hemisphere, Beltane has recently passed, and we can, if we choose, draw on the “opposite” energies here in the North in November, in a six-month harmonic with the South. (Isn’t it always Opposite Day anyway?) It’s Spring in Autumn, Christmas in July, your six-month birthday.

Because when don’t we need sacred fire?

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1–Finding Fire

Every Druid tradition I know of honors fire in some way. “It is the hour of recall”, go the closing lines of OBOD ritual. “As the fire dies down, let it be relit in our hearts”.

Here is the promise of elemental fire, never quenched, always ready to rekindle. But so often I find myself dry, cool, grounded, earthed—all excellent things after ritual, ideal for smooth re-entry into our lives, but hard to live from when we crave and need the flame again.

I’ve detected more than a fair portion of Earth in my makeup: a little reserved, suspicious of quick flares, with a tendency to solidity, inertia even. Does a spark still smolder in the heart of a person like that, waiting to be relit? Can I coax it to flame again? I hold the answers like twin children, one in each arm: of course, and not today. As I write this, I look out the window at fog and wet pavement. Where do I look for flame? In moments like these, it seems a more than reasonable question.

Yes, in the electrified West, we turn a key to start the car, we flip any number of switches all day along, expecting and usually seeing instantaneous lights, readouts, computers booting, phone screens lighting, and hums and rumbles of devices jumping into action. If, like me, you happen to heat with wood, you lay paper and kindling, strike a match, and flame obliges. Praise be to Brighid!

But for all that, I keep reminding myself, we do not command fire. In her The Way of Four Spellbook, Deborah Lipp notes:

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).

This is lovely and poetic, evocative and wise, and, as a friend remarked when I quoted it to him, it’s also bullshit. The only place fire happens is geography, just like with every other element. Heart, fire pit, computer screen, creativity—we light and relight them constantly. It’s our extensive craft with the fire principle that’s made much of civilization possible. But mastery in the end means service, and our wizardry rings hollow whenever we forget this.

2–Serving Fire

“I am a servant of the Secret Fire,” declares Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien, 2004, p. 330). Not a bad magical declaration. So I turn to the Indo-European past and summon reconstructed ancient words* to say something like it: *Ambikwolos esmi yagnos ogneyes [Ahm-BEE-kwoh-lohs EHS-mee YAHG-nohs OHG-neh-yes], which roughly translates to “I am a servant of the sacred fire.”

So I ask how I already serve fire, because contrary to an adolescent tendency in us to see our lives as all-or-nothing, we have a starting place within us for anything that can manifest—or so some Wise Ones have told me. How else can we recognize a lack or hole or void except by feeling the outline of what’s missing, of what’s supposed to be there?

Now, when I need to reignite the fire of the sacred, and that includes writing about it, my daily practice, my own “hour of recall”, hopefully guides me to embers that still throw off heat. (If it doesn’t, I know I need to fine-tune what I do each day.) I keep re-learning that we never really extinguish sacred fire. We merely smoor it—that lovely old Scottish word—not “smother” or “suffocate” as some dictionary entries render it, but bank it, setting it to smolder till morning, when it can be breathed and fed to flame again. Peat excels at smoldering, but so do woods like hickory, and so do our human spirits.

While preparing a fire workshop for MAGUS Beltane, out of ruminations like these, I made a list of questions I found I kept asking myself, so I shared them with attendees. Here are seven from that list you might use in your journal, or for a series of meditations. And if one or two of them call you away from reading this, go with them for a while along your own green and shining path. Your responses are more valuable, after all, than “finishing the article”.

1) What does it take—literally and intentionally—in order to kindle you, and in order for you to kindle other things in your life?

2) What offering, if any, do you make to help you kindle? What else could you bring into your practice? What could you discard?

3) What is sacred to you? How do you find, invite, welcome, increase the sacred? What sacred ways are a part of your life right now that can help you kindle?

4) What ways, if any, do you tend to discount, push away, ignore, or feel “aren’t my way of connecting with the sacred”? What can you learn from your attitude towards them?

5) Where are you already kindled? What is burning, warm, or fiery in your life right now?

6) Where do you desire kindling? (Where do you need to bank a fire and cool off?!) Or to put it another way, what needs to catch fire in your life?

7) How has sacred fire already honored your practice and flames inwardly for you?

3–Building a Ritual Fire

In reconstructed Indo-European, one of the words for “altar” is *asa. If you want to expand your ritual declarations and charm-making, you can say *asam kwero [AH-sahm KWEH-roh] “I build an altar”. And if you’re consecrating a talisman or another person, you might add *Yagnobi ognibi tum wikyo! [YAHG-noh-bee OHG-nee-bee toom wee-KYOH!] “I hallow you with sacred fire!”

What to burn on that altar? Here your judgment, tempered and instructed by divination, practice, dream, and study, matters more than anything I might suggest. But if you’re seeking such a suggestion, here is one. Druid and Pagan traditions speak of Nine Sacred Trees suitable for kindling sacred fires (Steward of the Woods, 2015).

What about an altar? You may well have one already, whether backyard fire pit or space cleared on a bookshelf for images, a piece of quartz found on a walk, Tarot card for the day, incense of the season, and so on.

Evidence from several different traditions tells us that squares of sod or turf were a common form that a ritual altar could take. The Aeneid (Mandelbaum, 1961, p. 117) mentions a sod altar. Records from the Scots in the 1700s (Frazer, 1929) talk of building May Day fires on an altar of sod. And the Æcerbōt, the Anglo-Saxon “Land Remedy Spell”, amounts to a ritual for creating sacred space and restoring the land’s fertility (Jolly, 1996). To do so, it instructs the ritual performer to take one sod from each of the four directions of the land to build the ritual altar. Ceisiwr Serith (2015), an experienced ADF ritualist, author, and Indo-Europeanist, gives more supporting info in an article on his excellent website, “Proto-Indo-European Religion”.

In closing, I turn for words to the Rig-Veda 1.26.8: “For when the gods have a good fire, they bring us what we wish for. Let us pray with a good fire” (Three Cranes Grove, 2007; To Pray with a Good Fire).

Note on reconstructed Proto-Indo-European:

The * asterisk is a conventional notation for indicating a reconstructed form. You can never know enough about linguistic prehistory to do more than mangle reconstructed languages. Even graduate study like mine in historical linguistics inoculates precisely nobody from error. (Though a professional career demands pursuing the unattainable.) So in releasing perfectionist worries over Indo-European reconstructions and pronunciations, I cherish the advice of the great medievalist scholar, teacher, and author John Gardner. In advising readers when trying to speak Middle English aloud, he remarks,

“Read aloud or recite with authority, exactly as when speaking Hungarian – if you know no Hungarian – you speak with conviction and easy familiarity. (This, I’m told by Hungarians, is what Hungarians themselves do.) This easy authority, however fake, gets the tone of the language …” (1978, p. 315).

Tone, we might say, covers a multitude of sins.

If you’d like to learn more, two readable, popular, and authoritative books are by West and Mallory, included in the bibliography. Work through them and you won’t need me or anyone else. You’ll be writing your own reconstructed Indo-European phrases and rituals with “conviction and easy authority”.

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Gardner, John. (1978). The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Vintage Books.

Jolly, K. L. (1996). Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Lipp, D. (2006). The Way of Four Spellbook. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.

Mallory, J. P. & Adams, D. Q. (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Steward of the Woods. (2015). “Nine Sacred Woods: A Druid Walk in the Park”.

Ovid. (1929). Fasti (J. G. Frazer , Ed. and trans.). London: MacMillan and Co. (Original work published in 8 AD).

Serith, C. (2015). Proto-Indo-European Religion.

Three Cranes Grove. (2007). To Pray with a Good Fire.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1987). The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Vergil. (1961). The Aeneid ( A. Mandelbaum, Trans.). New York: Bantam Books.

West, M. L. (2007). Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“It takes night to see fire best”   2 comments

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Like so many truths, the title for this post is both a truism and a guide.

Want to perceive something? Set it in high contrast to something — often, anything — else. Human consciousness, biologists tell us, is built to detect patterns and contrasts. Among other things, consciousness is a sophisticated survival mechanism. What stands out from the background may be friend, food or foe. That’s one good reason why we won’t be color-blind any time soon, any more than we typically ignore hair or eye color, gender or height or clothing. These are all vital signals that convey information too useful to ignore.

Fire, full moon, night, autumn — as my wife said, after we’d sat for an hour talking and fire-gazing, “It’s very grounding.”

Why not “ground and center” with fire? Oh, I know the reasons: earth helps neutralize imbalances, reconnects us to our physicality when we may be lost in thought or feeling, and so on. Earth’s a great insulator. It helps deaden psychic forces, just like eating meat does after intense ritual or magic or a nightmare. Ground and center, that basic of Pagan practice, one that renews itself as we walk our paths.

But sometimes if I’m too grounded, neutralized and banked and bermed, I need fire. The centering’s still crucial — focus is part of our struggle in this age of so many distractions. In this case, it’s “spark and center”. (With water or air, then, it can be “bathe and center”, or “breathe and center”.)

Kindle me to action, don’t drug me to inertia. In our age of rampant anti-depressants and opioids, you might say we need new prescriptions if we’re to flourish and thrive as the gods invite us to do.

And by “kindle” I don’t mean “prod me to outrage”. That’s a “flash in the pan”. I’m going for a slow burn, the kind that makes good stews and soups, that’s perfect for barbecue so tender the meat falls off the bone, and the ashes keep warm for hours after the flames have died down.

That’s also the kind of kindling that keeps me warm through winter. In this counterspell to our times, I turn us counterclockwise, from West in the last post to South and Fire. As we edge toward Winter in the northern hemisphere, I evoke Summer in us. After all, my preparations of food preservation and stacking firewood and insulating and covering and closing all aim to shelter the sacred fire within.

It takes sacred fire to understand sacred fire, so I lit one last night. Like any dedicated practice, and like all good ritual, action and prayer embody each other.

In these times, the sacred shines all the more brightly by contrast.

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After-ritual Inquiry   Leave a comment

map30-7-17“So how did the ritual go?”

Site statistics for the last post drew readers from surprisingly varied lands: Vietnam, South Africa, Argentina, Ukraine and Latvia among them. I highlight these simply because their national languages aren’t English (with the exception of S. Africa). Not only are readers there interested in Druidry, but they’re seeking out English-language media that talk about it.

“Show us applied Druidry and we’ll pay attention”, you’re saying.

Here’s a follow-up, an excerpt from my “post-mortem” journal entry after the ritual. Because “feels” don’t really tell the whole story, as you’ll see. How I think a ritual progressed, and the whole picture with every factor included, can be two different things.

First off is the ritual set. You know: state of mind, weather, time of day, preparation. Alert. Noticing many animal presences, especially ants, flies, aphids, grasshoppers. Slightly edgy, the way I often feel when stuff’s going on I know I don’t otherwise notice. (Material for later meditation there.) Weather sunny and clear, 73 F (23 C). Approximately 2:00 pm. Preparation minimalist, with a few objects I was led to choose in meditation earlier that day. (Barely visible, behind and below the cup to the left/north sits a black Cherokee owl cup, containing objects from my first OBOD initiation, along with a symbol of the wild boar, one of my animal guides. (Yes, in one sense this wasn’t “minimalist” at all; I’d pulled out all the stops for this rite.)

Below is an image with the fire lit, a little more than halfway through the rite. I began with a standard OBOD ritual opening: “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without …”

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In the picture I’m facing East. Directly in front of me is the blue bowl of water for West. To the right, South, the dragon candle-holder, with a green candle.

“Green for South?” I hear the purists gasp. Yup. Why? As one of my friends might say (and spell) it, that’s the color of “the green fyre” of nature. I’d been nudged to use green at our Midsummer ritual. More than the sun, how the Land flourishes under the sun at the solstice says “summer” to me. Your climate and tools differ? Excellent! We’re both learning to listen to what’s in our faces and under our feet and in our hearts.

On the far side of the circle in the East is a deer-bone whistle from Serpent Mound. Its high pitch matched the cry of birds overhead, the wind in the trees. Finally, to the left and North is my Ovate anchor stone and one of several offerings, a cup of milk and a slice of bread (already offered by the time of this picture), white for the northern snow, for Lugh Lord of Light, and for Thecu Stormbringer*, for fertility and harvest both, how we are all nourished from the time we are born, “the fat of the land”. What is it that fire burns, after all?

Dry wood lay ready, kindling and newspaper, too. I’d just said these words “I ask your aid in consecrating this fire circle and the greater circle, that has its center here, its circumference everywhere.”

Out with the book of matches. One after another. Nothing. The fire wouldn’t light.

So back into the house for wooden matches. “Disaster! Bad omens abound! No fire means no passion, no energy for your work. AND you broke your ritual circle!”

Well, no. Remember the part above about the “greater circle”? I was still in it. I pondered the nudge to include this line as I wrote it earlier in the day. And if such “ritual breakage” distresses you in your own rites, you know what to do: cut yourself a ritual doorway, The circle won’t blow away during the few minutes you’re gone.

Sometimes a break in the ritual points to a specific focus for the ritualist to attend to. I took the need to get better matches as a ritual message: when I tend any fire — energy — passion — heat — will — decision — I need to pay particular attention to beginnings, to my tools, to an extra step that might be necessary to assist with manifestation. Fire spoke: any ritual worth its salt links self-as-home together with the ritual action. Fire comes from within as much as from without. Much more useful and to the point than irrational fear of bad ritual mojo.

“I kindle this fire in honor of all the elements,  earth and form and north the altar, air and breath and east the means, water and cauldron and west the capacity.”

At length, after a meditation I’m still reflecting on, the closing, again adapted from OBOD ritual: “As the outer fire dies down, may it remain a pure flame within. This circle is closed in the apparent world. May its inspiration continue within us all, a gift”.

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*In the next post, an update on my work with Thecu of the Nine Paths of Storm.

The Democracy of Incarnate Living   Leave a comment

“The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure” — William Blake, “The Proverbs of Hell”.

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“Where do you get your ideas from?” Every writer’s been asked this question, and every writer morosely ponders it anew, when inspiration flags and the blank page or screen stares back. When the awen is flowing, writing’s a pleasure. When it’s not (or as my guide might say, “It’s flowing differently”), often the real work begins: to listen, to bless the fallow times. To let go. Or as one of my teachers puts it, “Sit, sing, and wait”. No — not a prescription for doing nothing, but rather a particular kind of blessing. To bless ourselves is often the hardest work of all. It asks less than we’re willing to do, because doing isn’t the issue. At least not the kind of doing I usually do.

Often I get ideas from you, my readers. I look at the site statistics and find an old post from a year or two past is getting traction again. Why that topic? Why the interest now? I re-read it and listen for what might be speaking. What are you looking for? What’s shaking in your lives right now? Often, too, human memory being what it is, I don’t remember the post well (or at all), and so I can come upon it with something like fresh perception. Your interest helps me look and listen. And if it’s happening with you, it’s almost a sure thing it’s happening with me, too.

In the previous post, I wrote of honoring the mundane, respecting this world and its rhythms and changes. I go out later today to a new fire circle in my backyard to ask that it be consecrated. I initially wrote “to consecrate it”, and that could well be accurate, if I took on the sole responsibility of hallowing it. But even then, other energies and presences are involved. Because do I ever act alone? More and more, I’m learning at least my own answer to that question.

I ask for consecration, as well as performing it myself, in order to hear something of what goes on around and through me. As a capacitor and transformer of spirit, I find listening almost always clues me in that there’s more going on than I suspected. This is a suspicious universe, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. There’s so much to imagine might be happening, and imagination will pull back the curtain, open the window. I suspect the sacred all around and within me.

And then? Often, because vision’s my default sense, I expect, or suspect, I’ll see something. Instead, an air blows through the open space that carries me with it. Or a bird calls, or one of the sugar ants that have invaded our house this summer crawls across my arm. I start, and grumble at a meditation interrupted, until slowly it occurs to me this is a message. I’m part of a host of others, of selves, and we spiral together. Consecrate a circle or grove, and every square centimeter is stuffed with beings. Even counting only those with skins on.

In a post from a few years back that’s been drawing readers, I wrote,

So we return and begin (again) with the things of earth, these sacred objects and substances.  As sacraments, earth, air, fire and water can show us the holy, the numinous.  Their daily embodiments in food and drink, precious metals and gems and sex, pleasure and learning and science, music and literature and theater, sports and war and craft, are our earliest teachers.  They are part of the democracy of incarnate living, the access points to the divine that all of us meet and know in our own ways.

Not bad, but I’d add: “their daily embodiments” in embodiments. In all the Others that journey with me. These are the ones I’ll invite to join me as I open my inner grove, and as I light the first fire in the new fire circle later today.

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While digging up our yard for a new foundation last fall, our contractor unearthed a lot of stones. We asked him to pile them on the edge of the excavated area, suspecting we’d find places for them eventually, and wanting them nearby and handy, rather than neatly dropped along our property line — and further away to carry. Puzzled, he agreed. When his crew returned two months ago to reseed the area with grass, they added to the pile as they raked and smoothed the dirt. We could hear them talking and see them shaking their heads as they threw more onto the pile in what looked to them like the middle of our back yard.

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And now some serve for a fire circle, and others — the two or three large ones above — may work for seats or altar stones, if we can manage to shift them and set them firmly in place. To give you an idea of size, the large one to the right weighs a few hundred pounds (150 kilos or more).

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Fire — Druid & Christian Theme 3   Leave a comment

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

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

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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.

Regenerating the Old Ways   Leave a comment

boe-coverYears ago “in my other life”, while I was studying Old English, I found myself returning repeatedly to a dialog about 40 pages into our class text.

We were learning from Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader, one of those standard hardcover textbooks you really can’t afford to buy new without a trust fund, the kind of book that generations of students dutifully underlined and annotated and highlighted and struggled through in one or another of its many editions and revisions. (My used copy has at least two previous owners, and the annotations and exclamation points to show for it.) Open to the copyright page and you see the first edition appeared in 1891, 125 years ago. The book itself is now part of a tradition.

Much of the text consists of tables of declensions and conjugations to memorize, alternating with Old English readings, both heavily footnoted. Fortunately, our teacher knew from experience that as long as you sought only to read, you could dispense with a good deal of that memorization. Learn a few core patterns and a high percentage of the time you could understand the grammar of the rest of what you read, recognizing a great deal by analogy and context.

But what about speaking? For “dead” languages — and what language is really dead if we still study it? — conversational examples are generally pretty thin on the ground. Language learning techniques have improved over the decades, especially for living languages. But many of those same strategies work just as well for tongues whose last speakers lived with horsecarts and cobblestones, hearthfires, oil lamps and emperors. So while you won’t necessarily be chatting right away (at least until you devise the needed vocabulary) about rap and drones and global warming, you can still access the living spirit of a language through conversation. So what amounted to a conversational fragment, really, still set my imagination turning.

Here’s that dialog in my translation, somewhat condensed. The tone of the original is just as heavy-handed and more than a little pedantic.

Teacher: Today we’re going to speak the language of the West Saxons. Are you ready? Tell me, students, what is that language?

Female Student: It’s the speech of our ancestors.

Teacher: That’s right. Our ancestors spoke it a thousand years ago.

Male Student: A thousand years ago? Those ancestors have been dead a thousand years? [Did he just wake up in class, halfway through the term?!]

Teacher: That’s right. Their bodies are dead.

Male Student: They don’t speak any longer. So then their language is just as dead as they are. What need is there for us to learn it?

You have to admit that this literal and clueless male student (in Old English, leorningcniht — in bad translation, “learning knight”) has a point. And if you’re thinking that Druidry, like any other human creation that once flourished and underwent a sea change over time, once faced a similar challenge, you’re not wrong. (History repeats itself to get our attention.)

If you’re wakeful enough this time of year, in spite of the tendency to drowsy half-hibernation that besets many of us in northern climes (or southern ones six months out from now), you may also be thinking that the problem is circular. I mean: As long as we see and treat something as dead, it has no life. We can always find someone or more than one asking plaintively, “What need is there for X?” But perceive it and use it as a living thing, and it revives in the doing. Our attention brings to it a very real and living fire.

That Old English dialog concludes in the next chapter:

Teacher: Well, young man, tell me now: everything that’s new, is it all good?

Male Student: No, sir. It’s not.

Teacher: And it’s also the same: not everything which is old is bad.

Male Student: Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.

Teacher: Miss, what do you say about this?

Female Student: I say that though we can’t hear their voices, nevertheless we can read their words.

Teacher: (Summarizes the deeds of the West Saxons). Now we are their heirs. If we don’t want to be foolish, let’s learn the speech of the West Saxons.

Now we are their heirs.

The ancient Hebrew people in exile in Babylon faced a similar problem: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” When the landmarks of your practice, whether cultural, geographical, psychic or some combination of all of these, are no longer present to support and sustain you along your path, the disorientation can be profound. What can you do?

“Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.” But it’s a choice to insist on being so literal.

sakuramcOne of the weaknesses of modern practice, observes R J Stewart in his magisterial Living Magical Arts,

“is the literary emphasis on superficial technique; the right words, the correct authority, the proper way to extinguish a candle; such details are given quite spurious weight without recourse to the traditions in which they may have originated. Much of this nonsense is cut through cleanly by a simple magical law: seek to understand the tradition, and the techniques will regenerate within your imagination” (pg. 69).

In the case of a living tradition, the solution is self-evident: study the tradition. But what about traditions that have no living point of contact?

I take comfort from Stewart here: seek to understand the tradition. The effort itself can help lead us to sacred sites and other contact points, links, resources, people, spirits (and in the case of “dead” languages, texts and practices and those first faltering attempts to spell out our life in a new tongue).

Our attention is a living and revivifying fire. “The techniques will regenerate within your imagination.”

A gift of Yule. (And since I’ve been doing Old English: Glæd Ġeol! Glad Yule!)

The next post will examine how well this works in practice — for me, anyway — the only person I can understand from the vantage point of inside knowledge.

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IMAGES: Bright’s grammar; magic circle.

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