Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Tag

“Holy Zombie? Earth Guardian?”

“You be the judge!”

[Updated Thursday, 23 May 2020]

[Alert: image of mummy appears in this post]

One of J. M. Greer’s “notes in passing” in his latest book, The Mysteries of Merlin, which I reviewed here, concerns a cross-cultural phenomenon that with careless treatment sounds like the makings of a script for some breathless “Hidden Mysteries” documentary, or a really good-bad horror film. With attention, though, we can discern a remarkable and ancient conception of sacrifice for the communal good that spans the globe.

In the West are the legends of Merlin, still alive and enclosed in his Crystal Cave, and Christian Rosenkreuz [Wikipedia link | Alchemylab account], reputed founder of Rosicrucianism, entombed for 120 years in a seven-sided vault, and eventually disinterred, perfectly preserved, with a book of Rosicrucian occult secrets in his arms.

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Monks carrying food at Okunoin mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wikipedia/creative commons

A similar tradition emerges in Japan, with stories clustering around Kobo Daishi (774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tradition holds that he did not die but remains in meditation to this day, entombed in Mount Koya, awaiting the future Buddha. Monks in the Shingon tradition present food at his shrine twice a day.

Greer points to stories of “an archaic magical operation by which a sufficiently knowledgeable and strong-willed person can pass into another mode of existence at death and function for many centuries thereafter as the guardian spirit of a family, a community, or an occult school. Legends in many lands tell of great sages and heroes of the past who descended into stone tombs beneath the earth while still alive, and the stone-chambered mounds of northern and western Europe are routinely connected with such legends” (Greer, pg. 33).

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Megalithic tumulus mound, Saint-Nazaire, France. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077948

Legends such as that of the Seven Sleepers, a shared Christian and Muslim narrative, may also be connected here.

A successful outcome of such practices leads in Japan to people like Kobo Daishi, and to others who become sokushinbutsu, literally “living Buddhas” — the rite was performed as recently as 1903. Mummies of those who underwent the rite are preserved in Senninzawa (“Valley of the Swamp Wizards”), Yamagata Prefecture, and occupy locations of honor in temples otherwise reserved for figures of the Buddha. For a fascinating article on contemporary observances, with details of the living mummification regime, including a strict diet, pursued by those aspiring to this role, along with images of the mummified remains and the monks and temples caring for them, see The Buddhas of Mount Yudono.

Less successful outcomes of this operation, Greer suggests, account for at least some of Europe’s traditions of barrow-wights, vampires, and the orc-neas or “hell-corpses” of Anglo-Saxon legend (from which Tolkien lifted the name and image of the orc). In one sense, then, such beings are simply testimony to “good magic gone bad”.

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Odin — Georg Von Rosen, 1886. Public domain

One thread of this story of ritual death specific to Europe, Greer asserts, is the magical three-fold death of Indo-European tradition, linked to air, water and earth, which we see embodied in the Norse god Odin, who is ritually slain, depending on the source, by being hanged, drowned and stabbed.

Christianity runs with this idea of the power of a magical or holy death, making it the center of its faith in a single divine being whose death can save many. Central to all of these magical and ritual self-sacrifices is their voluntary nature — the “sacrifice goes consenting”; the gift of the self is given freely.

The biblical Book of Hebrews explains the continuity between Jewish traditions of animal sacrifice each year in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Christian conception of the holy and sacrificial death of a god in the form of Jesus: “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). Animal or human sacrifices must be renewed because their benefit wanes over time. The sacrificial death of a god, on the other hand, need happen only once.

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Additional resources:

Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. (Link to Amazon.) McFarland, 2010.

Sigil Vigil

Heartfelt thank-yous to you, my readers, for bringing page views to 90,000. I’m making a point of posting more regularly during these difficult times.

While this blog seems to be passing through a prolonged dry-spell with few comments, I draw encouragement from a steady international readership that averages about 50 visits a day. If what I write helps, encourages or just entertains you, please leave even a brief comment so I know I should keep doing what I’m doing. Your reaching out really matters and makes a difference!

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Watching for seals. No, not the sea-going mammals this time — the marks, glyphs, signs and symbols that we both make ourselves and also perceive in the natural world.

Tabloids regale us endlessly with pop-culture versions of this — for example, the face of Jesus burnt onto a piece of toast. Equivalent perceptions occur in other cultures with equivalent cultural icons (e.g., Buddha in the sky). Even normally restrained scientists have been known to join in: a 2019 article in Popular Mechanics gushes about the “real face” of Jesus, with this tagline “Advances in forensic science reveal the most famous face in history”. Feel the tug of that headline?

We ask “But is it real?” all the time, of a great number of things, many of which can’t (or shouldn’t) answer.

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MAGUS banner featuring the Gathering logo

Psychology explains these phenomena as instances of pareidolia — if you see the word “idol” within the word, that’s not a mistake. Pareidolia is, to borrow a rhyme, “seeing faces in unusual places”. You might find this article on the topic from LiveScience interesting. Our human tendency to detect patterns in seemingly random visual inputs is what makes the Rorschach inkplot test possible. It’s also part of a complex human survival skill with multiple consequences.

The ability to attend to a pattern, to give it a meaning, empowers signs and sigils, but of course also makes written language possible. The shapes of the 26 squiggles of the English alphabet have little to no inherent meaning (you might argue that the S is vaguely snake-like, and snakes hiss — hence, the s-sound), but humans can detect and assign meanings to a wide variety of phenomena.

An effective sigil or seal can be created as a doorway to memory, to specific states of awareness, to understandings that may not stay with us while we’re dusting the shelves, changing a diaper, emailing the boss, or cooking a meal. But we can shift consciousness at will with the aid of a seal or sigil and know and do things otherwise beyond our capacity. Our schoolteachers know the value of holding a student’s focus and attention — these make all the difference!

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doodles for Druidry and Christianity logo — cross and grail

Christians wear crosses, Jews the Star of David, and followers of other traditions their own meaningful symbols. We also doodle both new and repeated shapes and signs, and we can expand on this human tendency and engage with a whole symbolic language if we choose.

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Tolkien’s initials as logo

Books on sigil making and sigil magic — the conscious seeking, design and use of signs and shapes to change consciousness — can of course assist. But the ability already lies in each of us — a birthright.

Tolkien invented a sigil from the initials of his name (JRRT) that now appears on his books and has become a trademark of the Tolkien Estate. Companies and organizations know that a distinctive and readily recognizable logo is often a key component to visibility and reputation and success.

To point to just one immediate use of sigils anyone can put into practice today, in these times of distraction and seduction by social media, and by fear and anxiety, our corresponding ability to attend to what we choose, rather than an advertising campaign or a news outlet or political party, is a priceless human gift.

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publisher logos on book spines — Pagans know the Llewellyn moon!

Place a meaningful sigil where I can see it during my day, write, paint or carve it on objects I use regularly, or sit with it in meditation, and I have a ready tool for shaping consciousness, guiding it toward my own purposes and desires, and focusing the energies that come through it into channels and actions that help, uplift and empower me.

And Josephine McCarthy, to choose just one author whose books are on my shelves, knows the value of a sigil as a distinctive cover for a book.

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May signs point to good things for you!

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Images: Magic of the North Gate cover; Wikipedia for JRRT logo.

From the Druid’s Prayer Outward

Ri, a’h Isprid, do iscod …

Grant, o Spirit, thy protection …

If I pray, or make a vow, in a constructed language like the one I used to translate the Druid’s Prayer two months ago, is the prayer worthy, or the vow valid?

One direct test: does the spiritual world take them seriously? How do I know? And what, in turn, can that tell me about intention, creativity, awen and gods I may not worry about “believing” in, but whom I’m happy to work with, if I ask and if they choose?

(O Bríd and Oghma, for the gift of speech already I thank you …)

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eastern counter-glow over our roof at sunset

“Sound”, says the Old Irish In Lebor Ogaim, The Book of Ogams or the Ogam Tract, “is the mother of Og(h)ma, and matter his father”. Sound becoming language, the tongue of human beings, mediated by a god. The awen you sing, from the deep you bring it. And I pray you will.

No, I’m not claiming for my nascent Celtic con-lang any sort of special divine or holy status. (At least not in advance.) All languages are holy, or could be. But yes, I am working magic, going with an intention, asking blessings on it, charging it with desire, putting in a sustained effort, sailing with the wind, trusting to its fulfillment in time, doing my part, perceiving it from the vantage point of already-manifested, working with the as-if principle, feeling it as much as thinking it — because feeling charges an intention till it begins to spark, and it kindles (mostly) along paths we’ve laid for it, following the principle of the path of least resistance.

“I look forward to seeing where this goes as you work through the details”, writes Steve.

So do I, whether he was referring to the language or the prayer behind it, or both, or something else. “Working through the details”, the concrete form or mold into which we invite the magic to pour, helps give it shape. But whether it fills that form, or another more open to its flow, isn’t wholly up to us. If you’ve been at all involved in the building of a house or barn, with concrete being poured, you’ve run across stories of the concrete forms blowing out, and the heavy wet stuff flowing everywhere you didn’t want it. Magic is alive, god/dess is afoot, as much when I stub a toe or mash a finger as when the magic shifts my life to wonder and growth. Force flowing into form.

More than a little humility can help keep us from acts of outright stupidity in the face of divine power manifesting. Insisting that magic go a certain way is like commanding the tide: the tide always wins. But not seeing it as a contest, but as a chance to sail on the seas of magic, lets me ride the waves, tack across the wind, or run with it, and reach harbor. A light hand on the tiller, a boat that isn’t an ego project, a “vanity vessel”, but a seaworthy ship.

Expecting the wind to drive my boat out onto the waves, steer it where I want to go, and deliver me without any further effort on my part beyond the “ask”, is folly beyond telling. To put it more crudely and memorably, in words a friend said to me recently, it’s just naive as f*ck.

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So what lies “outward from prayer”? (Between sacred and profane may lie the merest hair’s breadth. Live, pure, wise, fire and true are also among our four-letter words.)

Make the turn, just don’t insist on logic as the link.

The Great Triad of Jesus is familiar to many, but too often we forget the hard-earned admonition that immediately precedes it:

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

I know I squander the holy far too often, casting it aside like a paper wrapper around the candy of what I think I “really want”. After all that asking, seeking and knocking, I just let it slide from my fingers. So I take up the task again, asking, seeking, knocking — until I find that supple, elusive thing I need like blood and breath.

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I’m slowly reading two related books (like many “bookies”, I almost always have more than two going at any one time), to listen to them echo and ricochet off each other: Thomas Kunkel’s Enormous Prayers: A Journey into the [Catholic] Priesthood, and Rev. Lora O’Brien’s A Practical Guide to Pagan Priesthood. The first volume I’d salvaged free from the last day of a used-book sale where any remainders were given away to clear space. The second I recently bought used, though it appeared in 2019.

We still grant to “priest” and “priestess” an aura of magic and mystery — tarnished, yes, by years of unfolding Catholic scandal among others, while also reclaiming, often from non-Christian sources, new resonance and imagery and sacred fire. As one priest in Kunkel’s book exclaims, “… people are starving today for mystery, the power that grounds, suffuses and surpasses all things, that ever-present but elusive reality … as a result, our souls are withering from underuse and lack of nourishment.” And we know this because “people have a sickness that no psychologist or physician can cure …”

We need to move beyond prayer to find that use and that nourishment. Fortunately, many are beginning to wake again to themselves, and to reclaim that holy task, rather than yielding it to any other.

Priests and priestesses? Needed, yes. Needed very much at times. But not essential. The life we each hold (a trust, a sacred heirloom, a gift from the ancestors) is enough.

And may you know blessing as you too reclaim, and name, and flame.

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Kunkel, Thomas. Enormous Prayers: A Journey into the Priesthood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

O’Brien, Rev. Lora. A Practical Guide to Pagan Priesthood. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2019.

Healing from the Past

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.

 

Seed Meets Trickle

“A seed, a seed, at Imbolc a seed!”

“Ah, the seed has long lain there fallow, only at Imbolc do you at last feel it stirring beneath the snows.”

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mlvFranz

Marie-Louise von Franz

“One must start where there is still a flow of energy, even if it is just a thin flow, even if it seems silly” — Mary-Louise von Franz, Animus and Anima in Fairytales (Inner City Books, 2002).

Before and at and around Imbolc, the god Lugh draws me powerfully. Naturally, because time isn’t linear, and the workshop talk I’ve agreed to at Lughnasadh, a six-month conjunction with Imbolc and another fire festival, is now at work (was, before I agreed to it), by the god’s hand, or my own, or — more confusing and interesting — both at once. Snow on the ground, the land still in the grip of the Frost Giants (I like mixing myths, personally, at least by season), and here comes Lugh to prod me into action with his spear. Or if not action, exactly, some kind of attention.

The shape of the talk as it comes to me now in bits and starts will deal among other thiings with the matter of encountering a god, but also of any new course of action, of imagination, of inspiration. These wear different cloaks, but from what I can see, under them they’re the same, or at least siblings, equal parts trust and terror at times. Energy — which is what we are at heart, intelligent energy on the move.

So the seed, the nudge to change, to move, to grow — it comes and roots itself in us. And when the root-strength that cracks sidewalks and shoves boulders aside and generally plays havoc with human ideas of permanence and endurance finally gets to work, things move.

sowerAnd often enough the seed then dies in the ground. What nourishes it? We stomp on it, uncomfortable thing, reminding us that something outside us wants to work its will with us, here, too. Right in the middle of streaming Netflix and election madness and ISIS and the woeful state of things and our own personal misery and joy, the particular flavor and color of crazy that the current year puts on each morning, mourning. Just because.

But let trickle reach seed and GERMINATION! Watch out! Funny, the vegetation god from the House of Bread (which is “Bethlehem” translated, as John Michael Greer obligingly reminds us) puts it this way in a Gospel, which really is supposed to be good news after all. Or as a Bard thinks of it, a song for the queens and kings we could be:

And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them, Listen, a sower went out to sow: And it happened, as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside, and the birds of the air came and devoured it. And some fell on stony ground, where not much earth was; and immediately the seed sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun rose, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and yielded fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some a hundredfold. And he said to them, Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

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We can play a part here in germination. (Says who? Well, I can argue about it, or I can try it out for myself. Which is more fun?) Where is my fertile ground? What god/dess is planting there? Where’s that trickle? Ah, there.

And so it begins. If I’ve learned anything to pass along, it’s the magic when seed and trickle meet. I can’t make seeds, but I can maintain a greenhouse for them. I can’t start the trickle, but I can pay attention when one comes — I’ve got ears to hear — and help it flow or block it. There. To work.

IMAGES: ML von Franz; sower.

 

 

 

 

“Deep Knowledge”

In this, the dark half of the year, we may face things that don’t have faces. One way we deal with this is by telling stories.

Royal One, born at midwinter, Yule King, in the deepest darkness, our need is great. In us is the royal child born; some faiths make that story their own and turn its wisdom to their own ends.  But no story is the final one, because each captures only an echo, and needs to be retold, for the echo to sound out again, and all too soon it also will fade, and need renewing in turn. But even an echo of home can be enough to lead us there at last.

William Sharp in 1894

William Sharp in 1894

Here is a gift of old wisdom, a story that seeks to link two traditions, Druidry and Christianity.  It comes from William Sharp (1855–1905), a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and a contemporary of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.  Here he is writing as Fiona Macleod in The Washer at the Ford. New York: Stone and Kimball, 1896. (Follow the title link to a free online Project Gutenburg text of Sharp’s book.) It’s a quaint and unusual volume, but in the excerpt below and elsewhere he accesses a current that makes us restless and stirs our blood and bones to seek what nothing else can satisfy. (Or if the story does nothing for you, simply move on. The awen that is your particular gift lies elsewhere.)

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Long, long ago a desert king, old and blind, but dowered with ancestral wisdom beyond all men that have lived, heard that the Son of God was born among men. He rose from his place, and on the eve of the third day he came to where Jesus sat among the gifts brought by the wise men of the East. The little lad sat in Mary’s lap, beneath a tree filled with quiet light; and while the folk of Bethlehem came and went He was only a child as other children are. But when the desert king drew near, the child’s eyes deepened with knowledge.

“What is it, my little son?” said Mary the Virgin.

“Sure, Mother dear,” said Jesus, who had never yet spoken a word, “it is Deep Knowledge that is coming to me.”

“And what will that be, O my Wonder and Glory?”

“That which will come in at the door before you speak to me again.”

Even as the child spoke, an old blind man entered, and bowed his head.

“Come near, O tired old man,” said Mary that had borne a son to Joseph, but whose womb knew him not.

With that the tears fell into the old man’s beard. “Sorrow of Sorrows,” he said, “but that will be the voice of the Queen of Heaven!”

But Jesus said to his mother: “Take up the tears, and throw them into the dark night.” And Mary did so: and lo! upon the wilderness, where no light was, and on the dark wave, where seamen toiled without hope, clusters of shining stars rayed downward in a white peace.

Thereupon the old king of the desert said:

“Heal me, O King of the Elements.”

And Jesus healed him. His sight was upon him again, and his gray ancientness was green youth once more.

“I have come with Deep Knowledge,” he said.

“Aye, sure, I am for knowing that,” said the King of the Elements, that was a little child.

“Well, if you will be knowing that, you can tell me who is at my right side?”

“It is my elder brother the Wind.”

“And what colour will the Wind be?”

“Now blue as Hope, now green as Compassion.”

“And who is on my left?”

“The Shadow of Life.”

“And what colour will the Shadow be?”

“That which is woven out of the bowels of the earth and out of the belly of the sea.”

“Truly, thou art the King of the Elements. I am bringing you a great gift, I am: I have come with Deep Knowledge.”

And with that the old blind man, whose eyes were now as stars, and whose youth was a green garland about him, chanted nine runes.

The first rune was the Rune of the Four Winds.

The second rune was the Rune of the Deep Seas.

The third rune was the Rune of the Lochs and Rivers and the Rains and the Dews and the many waters.

The fourth rune was the Rune of the Green Trees and of all things that grow.

The fifth rune was the Rune of Man and Bird and Beast, and of everything that lives and moves, in the air, on the earth, and in the sea: all that is seen of man, and all that is unseen of man.

The sixth rune was the Rune of Birth, from the spawn on the wave to the Passion of Woman.

The seventh rune was the Rune of Death, from the quenching of a gnat to the fading of the stars.

The eighth rune was the Rune of the Soul that dieth not, and the Spirit that is.

The ninth rune was the Rune of the Mud and the Dross and the Slime of Evil—that is the Garden of God, wherein He walks with sunlight streaming from the palms of his hands and with stars springing beneath his feet.

Then when he had done, the old man said: “I have brought you Deep Knowledge.” But at that Jesus the Child said:

“All this I heard on my way hither.”

The old desert king bowed his head. Then he took a blade of grass, and played upon it. It was a wild, strange air that he played.

“Iosa mac Dhe*, tell the woman what song that is,” cried the desert king.

“It is the secret speech of the Wind that is my Brother,” cried the child, clapping his hands for joy.

“And what will this be?” and with that the old man took a green leaf, and played a lovely whispering song.

“It is the secret speech of the leaves,” cried Jesus the little lad, laughing low.

And thereafter the desert king played upon a handful of dust, and upon a drop of water, and upon a flame of fire; and the Child laughed for the knowing and the joy. Then he gave the secret speech of the singing bird, and the barking fox, and the howling wolf, and the bleating sheep: of all and every created kind.

“O King of the Elements,” he said then, “for sure you knew much; but now I have made you to know the secret things of the green Earth that is Mother of you and of Mary too.”

But while Jesus pondered that one mystery, the old man was gone: and when he got to his people, they put him alive into a hollow of the earth and covered him up, because of his shining eyes, and the green youth that was about him as a garland.

And when Christ was nailed upon the Cross, Deep Knowledge went back into the green world, and passed into the grass and the sap in trees, and the flowing wind, and the dust that swirls and is gone.

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*Iosa mac Dhe: Jesus, son of God.

Image: William Sharp;

“Here, everything has a container”

artofdreamsemBack from a seminar this weekend on the art of spiritual dreaming, with a series of quirky, honest, challenging speakers and panelists.  “Intimate” was a word I heard more than once to “describe the vibe”: the distance between speaker and audience collapsed in a remarkable way, so that we were all participants. Or as one speaker remarked, talking about his experience with dreaming and comedy and comedic training with the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, “you show up, listen and tell the truth.” If the truth isn’t yet funny-sad at the same time, you keep showing up, listening, and telling and digging. You bring it with everything you are. ‘Cause otherwise, what’s the point? Except maybe chocolate.

But the statement I heard during the seminar that has stuck with me is the line that provided the title for this post: “Here, in these worlds of duality, everything has a container.” Or to put it another way, “soup needs a pot.” My wife and I riffed on this on the drive home. Relationships, stress,  jobs, life: we’re just having “container issues.” The center around which the storms rage witnesses it all. Uncontained, it doesn’t get slimed or cracked, burnt or broken, stolen, ripped off, bungled, overpaid or underappreciated. Container issues, these. How to shift attention off the containers, even for a moment, is a source of great freedom and possibility. Don’t, say some. Can’t, say others. Shouldn’t, say still others. We listen, and we don’t, can’t — until we discover a “why not?” lying at the bottom of the bag, like a stale fortune cookie, or a light-switch felt for, in a strange house or hotel room, in the dark. And we do.  And so it begins.

Hence the “art” part in the “Art of Spiritual Dreaming.” As an art, it needs practice. Really improves with trying out and adapting and personalizing, missing and picking up and proceeding in fits and starts, in the best human tradition.

The first stages of practice can be squeaky, atonal cries, like the noises from that violin you or your nine-year-old has just picked up and attempted to drag a bow across. Or grunts and groans, as when you move into that yoga posture, and you suddenly can count every damn one of the 206 bones, plus assorted tendons and ligaments, in the human body. Your body, thank you very much. Sometimes the art consists in not crying. Or doing so, with all the tears and sobs the situation calls for. If you’re a puddle, you’re sometimes half-way to “soup without the pot.” Then you climb back in. Repotted.

Your art may be different. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” said a certain wise teacher not so many millennia ago. How your art comes to you is your life, what you’re doing today and tomorrow. And after that, maybe.  But when this art we’re all practicing becomes dogma, the artist — who’s the point of it, after all — gets lost in the bans, inquisitions, burnings, purges, pogroms, reformations, downsizings and re-organizations. (Looked at one way, it’s all church/work.) Let me out, says the Artist. I need to breathe. And when we confuse cop-out with drop-out, we’ve confused what Tolkien called the “the flight of the deserter” with “escape of the prisoner.” One is weakness, though sometimes we need to acknowledge weakness, too, just like with crying.  (Show up and tell the truth.) The other, the escape, is a necessity. The bush may survive in the prison yard, but it blossoms in open air. You and I dream every night (proven, documented, everyone single one of us, every night — remembering is just another art to practice) to escape the container into more open air.

We talked in the seminar about techniques.  They’re not hidden, not anymore. Half a hundred schools and temples and ashrams, synagogues and retreats and workshops teach them, sometimes try to claim them, copyright them even, if they’re reeeeely insecure, or greedy and want your $ or other equivalent metal and paper tokens.

Silence. Chant, kirtan, song. Prayer, mantra, favorite refrigerator-magnet team-building-button go-to verbal icon for centering. Icon, image, idol, focus, mandala. Posture, breathing, zazen, yoga, tai chi, krav maga, judo, karate. Ritual, rite, gesture, mudra. Dream, metaphor, lucidity, shift, imaging, visualization. All of these can rattle the container, making us aware of it if we mistake container for real deal, for the truth of what’s going on right now. Pursued with sufficient discipline and zeal, they begin to open doors. Too many! you may say. I’ve just begun with this one, and you’re dumping a truck-load on me.

All you need is to master just one technique, says the Teacher. Just one, and that will be enough.

Enough for what? Suspicious that someone’s selling you something? For me that enough leads to pure experience. Opinions just not needed till after, if at all. Tolkien describes his sense of new/familiar in one of many instances in The Return of the King, in the chapter “The Houses of Healing”:

… as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.

And if this metaphor, which is simply another technique, happens to work for you, you catch another glimpse that can be strengthened by one of the techniques here. Or if you’ve swallowed long years or lives of dogma and you practice denial as one of your (powerful) techniques for self-defense against liars and their lies, or simply if your spiritual taste is nourished by other food, it may not work, and you need to look elsewhere, and maybe else-how. And like so many things that may have started for you way back in high school, “you’ll know it when you find it.”

All of this is simply a larger over-technique. And because it’s shaped in words in this post, it may trip you up as much as help you. So with that caveat I pass it along for what it’s worth. Sometimes even an echo is enough to keep us going down the hall and out the gate and along the next path.

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nanowidge-mon11-17If you’ve been following my nano-progress in the last few posts, you’ll see by the numbers here (showing up and practicing my telling the truth) that I’m lagging in the numbers game. Words, word-count, Nanowrimo, this novel, writing — all containers.  Necessary, but not the final story. I’ve got plenty to write, but it’s coming slower than usual, because it feels good to get it right.

Like the story’s already out there, Emily’s sitting here in the living room, curled up near the fire on a snowy, rainy, yucky Vermont day. She’s cradling a mug of tea in one hand, reading or sketching or listening to music, waiting for the next segment I’m just finishing up, and I’m trying to tell it accurately so she’ll recognize it. Or I’m transcribing from a dream what she told me in detail, in Dirnive, which she granted me a pass to enter last night, and I have to punch “replay” and re-enter that dream to check the experience one more time against what I’ve got so far.

It’s coming through like a dream, not linear — that’s for later, with editing — and with textures and colors and sounds that will loom up suddenly and ask for space and time I hadn’t anticipated. A scene with her parents and brother, casually shopping in an antiques store. A class at St. Swithins that seems to link to Emily’s absence for about two weeks’ earth time, but nearly a year on Dirnive. To conceive and give birth to a child there. Because if she doesn’t, given the difference in time passage between the two worlds, her love will age and die quite literally before she herself is out of her teens. Which makes her parents grandparents — her mother would adore a grandchild, only not so soon — but grandparents of a baby they will never see. Because Emily can come and go between worlds — her worlds — but no one else can. I think. Emily doesn’t want to risk it, yet. She says. See what a novel can do to you?!

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Image: Art of Spiritual Dreaming — John Pritchard

Boku no Shinto: My Shinto, Part 1

[Related posts: Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3 || Shinto — Way of the Gods || Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2 || Boku no Shinto — My Shinto 1 | 2 ]

Following the magical principle of polarity to wing myself toward what I really want to write about, in the title for this post I’ve done something quite un-Nihonteki, un-Japanese — un-Shinto, in fact.  Japan’s native spirituality focuses on harmony between human and spiritual realms, a harmony which finds a powerful objective expression in the natural world.  “Seek Spirit?  Look around!”  Yet I used boku, I wrote “I” — as if “I” could possess Shinto, as if it were a thing among other things that a person could own or control or claim.  The i returns to its proper size in balanced relationship.  An outsized I is part of the challenge the West currently faces, as well as each of us individually.  Be yourself, we’re told.  What the hell does that mean, anyway? Still too much.  (Too much is not enough, says the lower-case zen master/fool in my ear.)

Sometimes I just need to back into it, the destination that feels nearby, though I can’t see it.  “Returning is the motion of the Tao” (chapter 40). Because if I try it head-on, all the old defenses go up like a bad reflex. An old i holds on even as a new one moves in.  They spar a little.  But what are wood and water doing while I stare at an i?

treesoncliffsm

“who are you, little i” asks e. e. cummings in a poem of that title, “(five or six years old)/peering from some high/ window; at the gold/of november sunset” — let’s make it May instead: we can, and e. e. won’t mind.  Will cheer us on, I suspect — “(and feeling: that if day/has to become night/this is a beautiful way)”

Participate in our own becoming.  A call, if we choose to hear and heed it.  Make it day when it’s night (for our next trick, do it without using electricity).  Or vice versa, turning off the glare of the spotlight on the self which isn’t the whole story.

After all, “five or six years old” is about right: didn’t that crazy Galilean say we need to become like little children again?  Is that “being yourself”?

Like is important: we can all imagine it, approach it, approximate it.  Journey towards it.  Try out “yes” till it drops the ” ” — that little chicken scratch that distracts us from so much.  Or become the chicken that makes the scratch.  That’s a power we’re granted, too. Shape-shift at will and need.  One thing becomes another, in the Mother, in the Mother.  Thanks, Mom.  Can faking it make it real?  Well, the pressure’s off if all I need to do is fake it.

(e. e., you saw it, said it elsewhere:  “i thank You God for most this amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes”).  And if “You God” doesn’t work for you, insert your own addressee of choice.

Need a spell to make it happen?  “Power of choice I grant thee, I grant thee, I grant thee.” O.K., proceed.

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Entrance, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Washington state

Site stats show that my previous posts on Shinto are among the most popular here at A Druid Way.  The reason for that can’t be too far to find.  We crave like a food-hunger a spiritual reality that does not depend on belief (or at least not on belief alone), but is present to us whenever we’re present to it — and even when we’re not.  We may hunger for a Way or Ways, just like we yearn for dark chocolate or hot sauce or beef or fresh limes in guacamole (insert your favorite food hunger here), a harmony that we can begin to fall back into at any moment, wherever we are, just by shifting our attention, and restore a sense of balance and integrity. And not just a sense of them, but its reality — a poise for living that shows in our words and deeds.  We’ve all known this harmony, witnessed it in others, however briefly, which is why we can feel so disheartened when we lack it, when we’ve lost it, fallen out of it.  We know it’s possible because it’s there, in living memory, however far we stand from it right now, in this grubby, muddy present moment.

We’ve even got a Shinto shrine in the U.S., the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Washington State, if we need the reminder.  Which is what a shrine, among other things, persistently tries to be.  It’s here, all around us, what we seek.  And a few among us imported Shinto as a recognition of that consciousness, as a support for us when we lose our way.  From it we can jump-start our own (there’s a possessive pronoun again) American Shinto, if we desire it, if we give it space to manifest.  The kami know and dwell in America, too.

Though it’s not a perfect instrument, a song, a painting, a poem can remind us, point us in directions that can restore and heal. “The Spirit,” says Mary Oliver in her simply-titled “Poem,”

                        likes to dress up like this:
                          ten fingers,
                            ten toes,

                      shoulders, and all the rest
                        at night
                          in the black branches,
                            in the morning

                      in the blue branches
                        of the world.
                          It could float, of course,
                            but would rather

                      plumb rough matter.
                        Airy and shapeless thing,
                          it needs
                            the metaphor of the body,

                      lime and appetite,
                        the oceanic fluids;
                          it needs the body's world,
                            instinct

                      and imagination
                        and the dark hug of time,
                          sweetness
                            and tangibility,

                      to be understood,
                        to be more than pure light
                          that burns
                            where no one is--

                      so it enters us--
                        in the morning
                          shines from brute comfort
                            like a stitch of lightning;

                      and at night
                        lights up the deep and wondrous
                          drownings of the body
                            like a star.

(And so I ask myself, what isn’t Spirit?!  Is that being yourself?)

Tsubaki Grand Shrine -- harmony

Tsubaki Grand Shrine — harmony

“The Japanese,” says a BBC Religions page,

see shrines as both restful places filled with a sense of the sacred, and as the source of their spiritual vitality – they regard them as their spiritual home, and often attend the same shrine regularly throughout their lives. Shrines need not be buildings – rocks, trees, and mountains can all act as shrines, if they are special to kami.

Physical world as spiritual home: what a change that would make in us if we carried that knowing with us all day long.

A large shrine can contain several smaller sub-shrines. Shinto shrines can cover several thousand acres, or a few square feet. They are often located in the landscape in such a way as to emphasise their connection to the natural world, and can include sacred groves of trees, and streams.

How many of us find the kami in a garden, a window pot we lovingly water, a bird feeder stocked through winter, or whatever season in your area that otherwise challenges the small feathered lives around us?

Tsubaki Grand Shrine ritual

Tsubaki Grand Shrine ritual

Various symbolic structures, such as torii gates and shimenawa ropes, are used to separate the shrine from the rest of the world.

Separation as a reminder — not that one exists like some line in the sand, but one we need, in order to notice what’s right in front of our noses.

And so I remember to bow at the willow at the bottom of the hill where our house sits.  I talk to the crocuses.  Sometimes I forget.  Then I remember again.  Muslim mystics chant the dhikr, literally the “Remembrance” of that one Name ringing just behind our day-to-day awareness.  Or many names, each waiting to be cherished, each a kami, each a potential doorway to what we seek.  In a world of seven billion persons, a grand synthesis, a God for everyone, may not be feasible at this point in our consciousness.  But we can reverence that lopsided pine down at the corner, honor the robins and starlings on our lawn, respect our own bodies on this earth, and begin, again, to find our ways.  Isn’t that much of the promise of spring (and of so many of our human stories) — starting over?  The growing shout of green, the rising sap, birdsong and peepers calling into the night, what we call spring fever in our veins and nerves and sinews, obeying an old law we’ve almost forgotten.

In answer to a query about the viability of some form of American Shinto, about “What is Shinto to the West,” a Westerner observes,

Well, Shinto in the West is automatically different from Shinto in Japan. For some reason, Japanese immigrants and their descendents don’t seem to keep practicing Shinto very much, perhaps because of the difficulty in practicing a shrine-centered, community-oriented faith in a place with nearly no shrines (I can count the ones I know of on one hand!) and a very small and scattered community.

So, most of the North American practitioners I know of are of European ancestry, trying to practice Shinto alone and without shrines, and learning what they know from books. Many have some sort of cultural connection to Japan – either they’ve studied it academically like you, or else they have married a Japanese person, or they lived part of their life there, or have learned a bit about Japanese spirituality through the martial arts community. We have to adapt the religion to our new environment, e.g. finding replacements for unavailable supplies, translating prayers from Old Japanese into English, and trying to answer hard questions like, should we honour the spirits of Japan or try to identify the spirits of our own environment?

Druids have built their own shrines, and begun to listen to the spirits here on the North American continent, which differ from European or Asian ones.  Just the act of listening opens many doors.  What we often lack is the support of a community in our practice.  Many have the strength of self-discipline to sustain a solitary practice, but others need the interaction, inspiration and community spirit that can help through the arid periods where nothing seems to be happening and we’re stopped dead in the water.

For that reason alone many Americans stick with Christianity or Judaism, because it offers that support, even if they also seek out other founts of spiritual nourishment in places their Abrahamic fellow-religionists might balk at.  It’s the reason behind “spiritual but not religious,” which ultimately is often hard to pull off in practical terms, because spirit seeks a form, a practice, if only to come true to us, to enter our physical lives in manifest ways, as Oliver’s poem above reminds us. We do this and not that because it works.  Any claims about earlier or better or more spiritual or, Goddess help us all, divinely inspired and uniquely true forever and always, come along after.

Part 2 here.

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Mary Oliver. Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1986.

Images: trees on cliff; Tsubaki Grand Shrine images (homepage auto-sequence), accessed 9 May 2014.

DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1

[Part 2 | Part 3]

Ritual Language and the Case of Latin

Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes.  The most visible example in the West is Latin.  The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin.  For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites.  If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages.  Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.

tridmass

Language as Sacrament

The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.  The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning.  The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience.  What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words.  Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.

chantcoverAnd depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.

Issues with Ritual Language

One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible.  Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language?  Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer?  Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship?  Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.

“The King’s English”

kjvcoverFor English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611.  What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use.  A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.

Druid and Pagan Practice

When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably.  Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided.  Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general.  Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants?  If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity.  It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?

druidrite

Ritual Primers

Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page.  The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas.  To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy.  That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time.  Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you.  Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.”  As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give.  And finally, people can and will make mistakes.  In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.

(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels

Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way.  In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language.  While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists.  He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity.  This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters.  (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)

About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.”  Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation.  Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'”  An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be.  That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.”  But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience.  In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.

As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft.  After all, boxes are for things, not people.  Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”

Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity.  When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite.  The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.

A Human Undersong

Where to go from here?  Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience.  “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm.  “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song.  It’s universal.”  As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.

Paradoxes of Particularity

Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience.  (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the  sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**)  And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality.  We quite literally say who and what we are.  The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture.  And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.

In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.

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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.

*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.

**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context.  If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring.  Wonder is at the heart of it.  Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:

A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!

Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true?  If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.

I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)

Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!

If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.

Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014

Jesus and Druidry, Part 1

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

Midwinter greetings to you all!  It’s sunny and bitter cold here in southern VT.  The mourning doves and chickadees mobbing our feeder have fluffed themselves against the chill — the original down jackets — the indoor thermometer says 62, and my main task today, besides writing this post, is keeping our house warm and fussing over the woodstove like a brood hen sitting a nest of chicks.  Hope you’re bundled and warm — or if you live on the summer side of the globe, you’re making the most of the sun and heat while it lasts.

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gbshawThe long and complex associations between a dominant religion like Christianity and minority faiths and practices within the dominant religious culture, like Druidry, won’t be my primary focus in this post. I’m more interested in personalities and practices anyway. It’s from spiritual innovators that any transformation of consciousness spreads, and that includes people like Jesus. Or as George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) quipped in his play Man and Superman, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  I’m asserting that in the best sense of the word, we can count Jesus among the “unreasonable” men and women we depend on for progress.

Mostly reasonable people like me don’t make waves.  Cop out?  Maybe.  If I chose to stand in the front lines of protests against practices like fracking, wrote blogs and letters decrying the bought votes and cronyism of specific members of Congress, targeted public figures with letter campaigns, founded and led a visible magical or spiritual group or movement, made headlines and provided a ready source of colorful sound-bites, I’d win my quarter-hour of fame, and probably an FBI or NSA file with my name on it.* Maybe it would make a difference.  Maybe not.  Material for an upcoming post.

Back to the main topic of Jesus and Druidry.  As 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 (p. 31).

rookOne somewhat obscure but intriguing survival is the Scots poet Sir Richard Holland’s Buke of the Howlat(e) (Book of the Owlet), dating from the 1450s. OK, . Holland’s satirical poem is peopled with birds standing in for humans, and it stars an unhappy owl which has traveled to the Pope (a peacock) to petition for an improved appearance.

lainghowlatIn the process of considering the owl’s request, the Pope orders a banquet, and among the entertainments during the feast is a “Ruke” (a rook or raven) in the stanza below, which represents the traditional satirical and mocking bard (named in the poem as Irish, but actually Scots Gaelic), deploying the power of verse to entertain, assert his rights, and reprimand the powerful.  Thus, some two centuries before the start of the Druid Revival, Holland’s poem preserves memory of the old bardic tradition.  Bear with my adaptation here of stanza 62 of Holland’s long poem.  Here, the Rook gives a recitation in mock Gaelic, mixed with the Scots dialect** of the poem, demanding food and drink:

So comes the Rook with a cry, and a rough verse:
A bard out of Ireland with beannachaidh Dhe [God’s blessings (on the house)]
Said, “An cluinn thu guth, a dhuine dhroch, olaidh mise deoch.
Can’t you hear a word, evil man? I can take a drink.
Reach her+ a piece of the roast, or she+ shall tear thee.
[+the speaker’s soul — a feminine noun in Gaelic]
Mise mac Muire/Macmuire (plus indecipherable words)
I am the son of Mary/I am Macmuire.
Set her [it] down.  Give her drink.  What the devil ails you?
O’ Diarmaid, O’ Donnell, O’ Dougherty Black,
There are Ireland’s kings of the Irishry,
O’ Conallan (?), O’ Conachar, O’ Gregor Mac Craine.
The seanachaid [storyteller], the clarsach [harp],
The ben shean [old woman], the balach [young lad],
The crechaire [plunderer], the corach [champion],
She+ knows them every one.”
[+again, the soul of the speaker]

If you can for a moment overlook the explicit Protestant mockery of the Papacy (the Pope as a Peacock, after all), here, then, is an early Renaissance indication that the Bardic tradition was still recalled and recognized widely enough to work in a poem.  Holland’s poem is itself a satire, and in it, the bard demands food and drink as his right as a professional, shows off his knowledge of famous names, and generally makes himself at home, both satirizing and being satirized in Holland’s depiction of bardic arrogance.  (For in the following stanza, he’s kicked offstage by two court fools, who then spend another stanza quarreling between themselves.)

Thus, when the first Druid Revivalists began in the 1600s to search for the relics and survivals and outlying remains of Druidry to pair up with what they knew  Classical authors had said about the Druids, things like Holland’s poem were among the shards and fragments they worked with.  I’ve written (herehere and here) about the tales from the Mabinogion which, as Carr-Gomm points out above, preserve much Druid lore, passed down in story form and preserved by Christian monastics long after the oral teachings (and teachers) apparently passed from the scene. OK, .

More about Revival Druidry, the Revivalists, and Druidic survivals, coming soon.

[Part 2 here.]

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*It’s likely such a file already exists anyway: I lived and worked for a year in the People’s Republic of China, I had to be fingerprinted and cleared by the Dept. of State for a month-long teaching job in South Korea (a requirement of my S. Korea employer, not the U.S.) a couple of summers ago, and I practice not just one but two minority religions.  If you’re reading this, O Agents of Paranoia, give yourselves a coffee break — nothing much continues to happen here.

**Below is Holland’s original stanza 62 from his Buke of the Howlate.  With the help of a dated commentary on Google Books, and the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, I’ve worked on a rough translation/adaptation.  If you know the poem (or know Scots), corrections are welcome!

Sae come the Ruke with a rerd, and a rane roch,
A bard owt of Irland with ‘Banachadee!’,
Said, ‘Gluntow guk dynyd dach hala mischy doch,
Raike here a rug of the rost, or so sall ryive the.
Mich macmory ach mach mometir moch loch,
Set here doune! Gif here drink! Quhat Dele alis the?
O Deremyne, O Donnall, O Dochardy droch
Thir ar his Irland kingis of the Irischerye,
O Knewlyn, O Conochor, O Gregre Makgrane,
The Schenachy, the Clarschach,
The Ben schene, the Ballach,
The Crekery, the Corach,
Scho kennis thaim ilk ane.

Carr-Gomm, Philip.  Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century.  London: Rider, 2002.

Diebler, Arthur.  Holland’s Buke of the Houlate, published from the Bannatyne Ms, with Studies in the Plot, Age and Structure of the Poem.  Chemnitz, 1897.  Google Books edition, pp. 23-24.

Dictionary of the Scots Language.

Images: G B Shaw; rook; Laing edition of Buke of the Howlat cover.

Versions of Your Life, and “Being Erica”

Since my wife and I are too cheap to spend money on cable, we get most of our programming through the internet.  Vermont sometimes gets tagged in people’s minds as one of the hinterlands of the U.S., though in fact it’s scheduled to have ultra high-speed internet by 2013, billed as “fastest in the nation,” and VTel (Vermont Telephone) installers are actually ahead of schedule in some areas.

One result of our cable-free existence and frequent obliviousness to whatever is “trending now” is that we often discover programs toward the end of their initial run, or well after they’ve already gone to syndication or archive status.  Hulu is one of our friends, so if you’ve already watched the Canadian series “Being Erica” and you’ve moved on to newer fare, this post may not be for you.  It may be a case of BTDT (been there, done that).  So my electronic alter ego here with his Druidry and opinions and evident desire to pry where it’s sometimes uncomfortable (but interesting!) to pry isn’t offended if you log off and go do your laundry, or at least surf onward toward something more engaging.

==PILOT EPISODE SPOILER ALERT==

If you’re still here, the show’s pilot episode does a good job of making the series premise clear.  32-year old Erica feels she’s over-educated (a Master’s degree) and under-fulfilled (single, and with a low-level telemarketing job).  The pilot brings her to a low point — she wakes up in a hospital bed after an allergic reaction, and receives a brief visit from a Dr. Tom, who leaves her with a business card that reads “the only therapy you’ll ever need.”  As Erica and the audience simultaneously discover, he’s able to send his patients back through time to deal with events in their pasts that they regret.  Not to “fix” them in some facile way, but to learn more fully what they have yet to teach.

Vancouver Actor Erin Karpluk, who plays Erica, reveals a wonderful vulnerability and resilience, and she develops a daughter-father chemistry with Dr. Tom, played by veteran Michael Riley.  There’s also a “Canadian” flavor to the series, by which I mean something mostly vaguely felt, but nevertheless detectable at certain moments: many episodes are less politically correct, more real, better scripted and more risk-taking than the typical formulaic and “safer” equivalent might end up being in the States.  There’s been abortive planning to make both U.K. and U.S. versions.

So you know I just have to make a connection about now.  Ah, and here it is, right on schedule.  In my experience, the past is not some fixed thing, written into concrete forever, like one false step into a bog that draws you down and suffocates you.  Instead, it depends for its whole existence on you, in your present, here and now, in these circumstances and with this awareness, to understand and explore it.  Change your understanding of the past, and your past itself can change in almost any sense you care to claim.  Not what the “facts” are, which is almost always the least important thing*, after all (peace to all those police procedural shows and their fans!), but how they matter and still shape you today.  Just as history gets revised through time, as we gain new understandings and perspectives, so too do our own experiences, choices and destinies appear new or different to us as we change.  That bully in grade school turns out to have helped us develop a thicker skin, or empathy — or an unacknowledged contempt for “trailer trash,” or a keen taste for revenge that dogs our heels to this day.  Pick your blessing or poison.

The future is what is fixed, the track we’re still following, and reconfirming right now with our current habits, choices and focus — fixed, and set in stone — until we “change” our pasts by knowing and owning them more fully.  Seen from this perspective, “fate” is undigested, rejected past that’s come back to haunt you.  Healing comes not from literally changing “what happened” — possible only through repression or selective recall — but from squeezing out of each experience every last drop of wisdom and growth we can get from it. Yes:  easier said than done.  Much easier, often.

But if we find our pasts too painful to deal with, we’ll not only carry them around with us anyway, regardless, but miss out on their lessons as well.  As therapist Rollo May said, “Either way, it hurts.”  The point is not avoidance of pain, but growth.  My past comes at me whispering (or shouting, depending), “Do something with your pain, Dude.”  Revisiting and re-imaging the past may sound all New-Agey and Hallmarky, but if it’s one way among many to heal, why mock it or discount it, unless you love your pain more than anything else you have?  “Yes, it may be pain, but it’s mine, my darling, my precious.  Go dredge your own.”  Gollum much?!

This present moment is the pivot, the hinge, the point of transformation, if I’m ever going to act on those New Year’s resolutions that now seem so distant.  How many of them have I achieved?  (In a December post, I confess to not making any, at least not big ones, partly for this reason.)  Baby steps.  What’s the smallest change I can make?  That’s often the best starting point, because unlike the large resolution, I really can do the small stuff, and stick with it.  And then build on it.  Treat it all as experiment.  Document it — write it down. (Oscar Wilde says one should keep a journal so that one always has something sensational to read.)  My life as lab for change.  Talk about a show.

Part of the appeal of “Erica,” of course, is watching somebody else go through this.  Yet this isn’t merely a voyeuristic thrill so much as it is a provocation to reflect.  A significant part of the interest of the series for me is that even Erica’s therapist Dr. Tom, while often truly guru-wise with her issues, isn’t God, or some perfected being.  (We often really can see and understand others’ problems more clearly than our own.  The challenge is not to abuse this insight, but make the most of it in the best way for our own specific circumstances.)  He still has his struggles too — deep ones, as we come to discover, ones that come play a role in Erica’s therapy, to the dismay and growth of both of them.

And my response was “How right!”  A perfect being would be a bit of a pain, and might have forgotten (or never known) what it’s like, this human gig.  Jesus is never more useful and accessible than when he suffers humanly: when his friend Lazarus dies and he weeps, when he gets angry and physical at the money-changers for profaning the Temple, when the fig tree has no fruit because it’s not the season, and Jesus curses it anyway, when his friends ditch him to save themselves.  This human thing, he gets it.

Incidentally, I’ve never understood the Christian obsession with sin.  We’re all guilty and imperfect.  Check.  We’ve messed up.  Check.  But the point is that our pasts are our teachers.  They help us grow.  Our “sin” is what tempers and forges and perfects us in the end.  Yes, it’s a long end.  We’re all slow learners, those “special ed” kids, every one of us.  A sequence of lives to learn and experience and grow and love in makes sense for this reason alone.  For God or any Cosmic Cop to damn us to hell for “sin” cuts off the whole reason we’re here, from this perspective.  It’s like flunking everyone out of first grade because we haven’t mastered algebra yet.  We’re not ready.  Give us time.  Life’s tough enough to break every heart, several times if necessary — and to remake it bigger.  OK, here endeth the lesson.

==Final Season Spoiler Alert==

Except not quite.  The fourth and final season — Hulu doesn’t carry it — of “Being Erica” comes out this month on DVD, and Amazon.ca just sent email confirmation that it’s shipped.  My wife and I are looking forward to watching Erica become a therapist:  “Dr. Erica” in her own right.  Isn’t that part of our journey, too?  Out of our experience we grow, and then we can help others along the way, specifically because of who we are, and what we’ve learned.  Our imperfection and individuality are our great gifts, which we grow into ever more fully.  That’s an eternity to look for, if you’re in the market for one.

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*Even facts prove slippery, as any attorney, judge and gathering of eyewitnesses knows.   But sometimes it’s precisely a fact that makes all the difference.  Then it’s usually a fact that confirms or disproves a perspective, and so it throws us back to the centrality of perspectives and understandings once again.

Image:  Being Erica.

Jesus the Druid, Part 2: Animal Models

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  (Matthew 10:16)

A regular menagerie of a sentence!  Sheep, wolves, serpents and doves. If inanimate things like stones can testify to divinity (see previous post) and proclaim truth in the face of human delusion, then certainly birds and beasts can do the job, too.

Here Jesus is admonishing his followers, as he commissions them to spread his teaching, that the world is full of wolves.  His disciples won’t appear on the scene with an army at their beck and call.  They don’t carry letters of introduction, or a case of free product samples to tempt the potential client.  No email blast or flurry of tweets precedes their arrival.  No, if they’re to succeed, they’ll need specific attributes which he characterizes as the wisdom of serpents and the harmlessness of doves.  And note that you can’t transpose those qualities; who would welcome a person “wise as a dove” or “harmless as a serpent”?!  Bad advertizing.  It’s a recipe for disaster. But more importantly, would serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness actually work?  Hold that thought.

A persistent tradition in the UK at least eight centuries old has Jesus spending some of the “lost” years — between his appearance in the temple at 12 and the start of his public ministry around age 30 — in Britain, studying with Druids.  William Blake, associated with revival Druidry during his lifetime in the 19th century, penned the famous hymn “Jerusalem” (this version hails from the last night of the ’09 Proms, a popular annual summer music series in the U.K.).  The lyrics were put to music about a century later, and the piece has become a perennial favorite, a kind of unofficial British national anthem:

And did those feet in ancient times
walk upon England’s mountains green?
and was the holy lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

These lines of the opening stanza seem innocuous enough, if fanciful.   A Middle-Easterner would surely have it rough during a British winter — it isn’t always “green.”  The tradition continues from there, claiming that after Christ’s death, Joseph of Arimathea (who provided a tomb for the body) either sent part of the Grail to England, or made the journey himself and founded a church in Glastonbury, or planted there a thorn tree long venerated as holy.* Whatever the truth of these events, it makes for a striking symbol and image.

But Blake continues, and this is when his poem turns odd:

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

As a proto-Druid, Blake gets his ecological digs in here:  the “dark Satanic mills” of the early industrial revolution are already at work spewing smoke and ash over London.  While most Druids today have no intention of attempting to “build Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land,” the song brings divinity one step closer.  Who complains if some versions of our ancient history bring with them a delicious shiver of magic or imaginative religious reconstruction?  But is the way to achieve divinity on our shores through “mental fight” and metaphorical battle?  The sudden shift to the quadruple imperative of “Bring … bring … bring … bring” summons up images of a bronze-age charioteer.  But what of the “arrows of desire”?  Here the image is of Eros, Cupid, the piercing quality of sudden strong feeling.  Is it the poet speaking as “I” in the last stanzas?  Or as someone else?  Is it Blake’s idea of Jesus?

You may not remember, but I asked you a few paragraphs back to hold the thought of serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness.  Some of the “wisdom” accrues from the belief that serpents are uncanny beasts, for they are able to shed their skin and achieve a kind of rebirth or immortality.  And the serpent in the Garden that haunts the Western pysche tempted Eve not to the Tree of Life (Eve!  EVE!! The other tree!  Eat from the OTHER tree!!) but the Tree of Knowledge.  As I tease my students, “Major mistake.  Become immortal first, and then get the knowledge of good and evil.”  The harmlessness of doves is less problematic.  Though city dwellers may have their foremost associations with pigeons as flocking beggars in parks, or as producers of statue-staining and public-building-defacing birdshit.

But consider again.  If you know something — I mean really know something of life-changing power — you need to come across as seriously harmless.  Otherwise people have this nasty tendency to string you up, burn you at the stake, remove the supreme discomfort of your ideas and presence at all costs.  Your wisdom puts you in mortal danger.  So reassure people first, and work your changes quietly, harmlessly.  A major piece of strategy!  Some devious or disgusting trick you’d expect to discover about that other political party — the one you don‘t belong to and affect to despise as the epitome of all things vile and loathsome.  Is that why this year’s political reality-show contestants (I mean presidential candidates) come across as less than competent?  (Repeat after me:  “All candidates vile and and loathsome, all con-men big or small, all morons foul and putrid, Democrats/Republicans have them all!”**)

So  animals embody a divinely-commissioned strategy for survival.  The wisdom of the serpent, long despised, is not dead, but sleeps in each of us, waiting the touch of the divine longing to rouse and waken it in the service of life.  The son of God (we are all children of the divine) summons it forth from us.  It lives, tree of knowledge and tree of life united, identical, twining its way around our hearts, which know — when our heads deny it — which way to go, what we need, where to find answers others say are “forbidden” or “not for mortals to know.”  On the contrary — they’re specifically intended for mortals to realize.

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*The Glastonbury thorn has lately made headlines.  It (there are actually several in the area, believed to spring from a single parent) was hacked down two years ago this month (with some historical precedent, if you read the article) and then recovered enough by March of 2011 to put forth a new shoot.  Another demonstration, as if we needed it, that old things do not just disappear because we hack at them or find them out of place or inconvenient.  They have a habit of return, of springing back to life.  Another habit from the natural world for us to imitate …

**This uncharacteristically acerbic side-note is not part of the actual blog.

Jesus the Druid, Part 1: “The stone witness”

“And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”   (Luke 19:39-40)

What shall we do till the stones start to speak,
or whom can we turn to and trust in these days?
Can we hear even echoes of truths that we seek,
catch mere flickers of fire to illumine our ways?

The stones broadcast secrets we now scarcely hear —
the earth bears true witness, though leaders stay mute,
to remind us of love that is stronger than fear.
Goal and path rise within us — there’s no other route.

The animals know much — in each neighboring eye
is the ghost of the knowledge hard-won from their days:
make the most of each moment, for this body will die —
tomorrow’s new compost, though it shouldn’t amaze

us when walls turn to doors: we walk through them to find
the doors of our hearts were more narrow by far.
Trust the paint-box you’re given, though your dear ones are blind,
though your culture berates you, fear sets up a bar.

We must watch as we journey, be mindful of stones
that mumble or shout, rousing sleepers to wake.
Learn to feel the right path in the set of our bones,
trust the deep self to know the next step to take.

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