Archive for the ‘memory’ Tag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Babin

coastal Louisiana, Gulf Coast Gathering — photo courtesy Julie Babin

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

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

Paradoxically (and what would many things amount to, without a touch of paradox?), old ways can come closer to Spirit than newer ones. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls”.** The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah says these words, looking back at ways already old in his time. Pagan and Christian can find more to share than either may often imagine — in silence, in ritual, in remembrance.

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

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

In the grove the Druid sits — Part II   2 comments

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

The day was fading into twilight, and I could feel the dew settle around us like a third party at this meeting.  “What is your name, master?” I asked him.  In a grassy spot near us I made a firepit, seeing and touching the rough gray stones, feeling their weight to make it real.  Then I gathered a bundle of sticks and lit a fire, because now there was an evening chill in the air.

“I’ve been given many names.  Some of them I even like,” he said in a wry tone, smiling at me.

Suddenly I knew his name.  “Wadin Tohangu,” I said.  “That’s an African name?”

He nodded.

“You’re an African Druid?  Is there even such a thing?!”

He chuckled at my surprise.  “I travel a lot. And you’re as much a Druid as I am.”

This wasn’t exactly the answer I expected.  And I wondered what he meant.

“Yes, you may call me Wadin Tohangu.  Call on me when you need help,” he said, “or if you wish to talk, as we are doing today.”  He spoke English clearly and very well, but the way he said his name, with the slightest accent, set off echoes in my head.  A familiar name.  I knew it somehow.  How?

“It’s a name you can use,” he said, as if in reply to my thoughts.  He put his hands out toward the heat of the fire.  “It’s as magical as you are.”

“Some days I don’t feel very magical,” I said, and paused.  Time always seemed to pass differently in the grove, both slowly, and faster than I expected.

“That’s one key, of course.  How you choose to feel,” Wadin answered.  “Which things are your choices and which are simply given to you would be helpful to contemplate.  We confuse those two quite often.  And which to be grateful for, we misunderstand even more!”

“How much can we be grateful for?” I asked.

“That’s a question to answer by experimenting,” he replied.  The pile of burning twigs and small branches shifted, settling.  “Gratitude is another key.”

“Choices and gratitude,” I said, half to myself.

The dog started barking again somewhere in the distance.  I swallowed a flash of annoyance.  This was important — I wanted to hear everything Wadin was saying.

“Yes,” he said.  “And a third point is attention, as we’ve seen.”

I looked at him.

“For you that dog is a most useful guide,” he said, laughing at my expression.  “Why not find out his name, too?”

The darkening sky behind him showed several stars.  He stood up.  “Each moment offers what we need, both for itself, and for moving on to the next one.  How else can time pass?”  As I watched the firelight flicker on his face, he said, “Remember these things.”

I looked around at the grove one more time, and when I turned back, Wadin was gone.  I stood up.  Then I moved to touch the altar and said goodbye to the trees.  The fire had died down to glowing embers. I stirred them with a stick, pushing them into the sand of the pit.

The dog was still barking.  So I followed the sound back to my room, where it was coming in through a screened open window.  I heard a car door slam at Jim’s place, and voices.  Then everything was still again, except for crickets chirping in the dark.  I turned on a light, and sat there quietly for  few minutes, thinking about the experience, and writing it down in my journal.

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Updated 23 April 2015

In the grove the Druid sits   Leave a comment

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

In the grove the Druid sits.  In my grove, the one I’ve constructed in an inner world, via imaginal energies.  With the tall slender trees of entrance standing on either side of the portal, a space between them wide enough for a single person to pass through.  And he is welcome here, though I don’t remember inviting him.  He is always welcome, a friend who will never presume.

Today he indulges me by wearing Druid robes — they make him familiar, with his dark brown skin, that homely, beautiful face  I would know anywhere — and I relax into our conversation.  I know him from somewhere else, too, someplace on the edge of awareness, a realm or time not quite pushing through to full consciousness.  He does what he needs to in order to reach those under his guidance, and to put them at ease so that he can work with them.  Awe or fear or worship is useless to him.  Attention?  That he can use.

His words issue from a place quiet and full of listening.  I’ve come to trust him instinctively, the way wild animals do in the hands of those who love them with touch and gentleness, a welcome of care and compassion for a fellow being in the worlds.  They know that touch, that presence, and their knowing has nothing of the talking human about it.  It’s a language older than words.

He knows when to use words, too, and now he’s speaking about a past I’d forgotten.  I remember it as he speaks, things I didn’t know I knew, things I have not needed to remember until now, because until now they would find no place in me to live, or have any value or significance.  They would feel like they belonged to somebody else, foreign to me, alien, no more at home than a bird of the air caught in a small chamber, fluttering at the windows.  What is it that stands between me and freedom, this transparent flat barrier I never knew was there, blocking me, hard as thought?  But no, I have no wings, I’m not the bird.  But for a moment, there …

The Druid turns to me, a look deep as evening in his gaze.  “You are all you have ever been. Do you remember our first meeting, long ago?”

“It was a market,” I said.  “And I remember.  I was … I was drunk.”

“Sitting slumped against a wall.  When I walked by, though, you spoke to me.”

“What was it I said?  ‘Keep walking, don’t talk to me now.  I don’t have anything left in this life for you.’  Something like that.  I was embarrassed.  I didn’t even know you.”

“Yet you gave me some fruit from your stand …

“Yes, I remember.  A handful of marula.”

“Where were we?” he asked me softly.

“It was … West Africa.  Africa was my home then.”

“Yes. What else do you remember?”

But somewhere in the distance a dog is barking.  My focus falters, pulls me away from this place and back to my room in our Vermont house.  The neighbor’s dog, Jim’s — barking as he always does, every afternoon, impatient for Jim to get home, release him from the chain and walk him, feed him, let him back into the house.

Damn, I think.  It’s all gone, the vision’s gone.

But he’s still with me.

“Dogs bark on all the planes,” he’s saying.  “They’ll bark, and then for a time they’ll be silent again.  You can use them as a guide, or a distraction.  Is there a dog barking near this grove?”

I listen.  “No,” I say.

“Good.  You’re back.  Now, let’s continue …”

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Updated 23 April 2015

Drinking with the Ancestors   2 comments

Some teachings run you through their rituals.
Find your own way – individuals
know what works beyond the shown way:
try out drinking with the Ancestors.

Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
such rites are chummy: do more than meet ’em.
(Spend your weekends with a mummy?)
But I like drinking with my Ancestors.

Another round of pints and glasses
will have us falling on our asses.
Leave off ritual when they’re calling —
you’ll be drinking with your Ancestors.

By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice: if you lose focus
though you’re drinking with your Ancestors,

in the morning you’ll be uncertain
if you just dreamed or drew the curtain
on some world where it more than seemed
that you were drinking with your Ancestors.

Alcohol works its own magic,
and not all good – it’s downright tragic
if you’re just hung over from what could
have been you drinking with your Ancestors.

They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises).
Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re fussing
over where our lives might go
or put on a ghostly show.
We’re the upshot, on the down low.
We’re the payoff, crown and fruit
(we got their genetic trash, and loot),
we’re their future – “build to suit.”
So start drinking with your ancestors.

*            *             *

Ancestor “worship” is sometimes a misnomer, though not always — some cultures do in fact pray to, propitiate and appease the spirits of the ancestral dead in ways indistinguishable from worship.  But others acknowledge what is simply fact — an awful lot (the simple fact that we’re here means our ancestors for the most part aren’t literally “an awful lot”) of people stand in line behind us.  Their lives lead directly to our own.  With the advent of photography it’s become possible to see images beyond the three- or four-generation remove that usually binds us to our immediate forebears.  I’m lucky to have a Civil War photo of my great-great grandfather, taken when he was about my age, in his early fifties.  In the way of generations past, he looks older than that, face seamed and thinned and worn.

The faces of our ancestral dead are often rightfully spooky.  We carry their genetics, of course, and often enough a distant echo of their family traditions, rhythms, expectations, and stories in our own lives — a composite of “stuff,” of excellences and limitations, that can qualify as karma in its most literal sense:  both the action and the results of doing.  But more than that, in the peculiar way of images, the light frozen there on the photograph in patches of bright and dark is some of the purest magic we have.  My great-great-grandfather James looks out toward some indeterminate distance — and in the moment of the photo, time — and that moment is now oddly immortal.  Who knows if it was one of his better days?  He posed for a photo, and no doubt had other things on his mind at the time, as we all do.  We are rarely completely present for whatever we’re doing, instead always on to the next thing, or caught up in the past, wondering why that dog keeps barking somewhere in the background, wondering what’s for dinner, what tomorrow will bring, whether any of our hopes and ambitions and worries justify the energy we pour into them so recklessly.

And I sit here gazing at that photo, or summoning his image from what is now visual memory of the photo, as if I met him, which in some way I now have.  Time stamps our lives onto our faces and here is his face.  No Botox for him.  Every line and crease is his from simply living.  And around him in my imagination I can pose him with his spouse and children (among them my great-grandfather William) and parents, and so on, back as far — almost unimaginably far — as we are human.  Fifty thousand years?  Two hundred thousand?  A million?  Yes, by the time that strain reaches me it’s a ridiculously thin trickle.  But then, if we look back far enough for the connection, it’s the same trickle, so we’re told, that flows in the veins of millions of others around us.  If we can trust the work of evolutionary biologists and geneticists, a very large number of people alive on the planet today descend from a relative handful of ultimate ancestors.  Which seems at first glance to fly in the face of our instinct and of simple mathematics, for that spreading tree of ancestors which, by the time it reaches my great-great-grandfather’s generation, includes thirty people  directly responsible for my existence (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and sixteen great-great grandparents).  Someone called evolution the “ultimate game of survivor.” And now I break off one line, stalling forever this one particular evolutionary parade, because my wife and I have no children.

The poem of mine that opened this entry, “Drinking with the Ancestors,” suggests we can indeed meet and take counsel with members of this immense throng through the exercise of inhibition-lowering and imagination-freeing imbibing of alcohol.  Of course there are also visualization exercises and still other techniques that are suitably alcohol-free — more decorous and tame.  Depending on who you want to talk to among your clan, you can have an experience as real as most face-to-face talks with people who have skin on.  The difference between us in-carnate and ex-carnate folks is indeed the carne.  No sudden dispensation of wisdom automatically accrues to us just because we croak.  A living idiot becomes a dead idiot.  Likewise a wise soul is wise, in or out of flesh.

It seems fitting to end with an experience of the ancestors.  Not mine, this time — I keep such things close, because often when we experience them, they are for us alone, and retain their significance and power only if we do not diminish them by laying them out for others who may know nothing of our circumstances and experiences.  Wisdom is not a majority vote.  Even my wife and I may not share certain inner discoveries.  We’ve both learned the hard way that some experiences are for ourselves alone.  But it’s a judgment call.  Some things I share.

So in my place I give you Mary Stewart’s Merlin, in her novel The Hollow Hills*, recounting his quest for Excalibur, and an ancestor dream-vision that slides into waking.  The flavor of it captures one way such an ancestral encounter can go, the opposite end of the easy beery camaraderie that can issue from making the libations that welcome ancestral spirits to a festival or party, as in my poem.  Note the transition to daytime consciousness, the thin edge of difference between dream and waking.

I said “Father?  Sir?” but, as sometimes happens in dreams, I could make no sound.  But he looked up. There were no eyes under the peak of the helmet.  The hands that held the sword were the hands of a skeleton …  He held the sword out to me.  A voice that was not my father’s said, “Take it.”  It was not a ghost’s voice, or the voice of bidding that comes with vision.  I have heard these, and there is no blood in them; it is as if the wind breathed through an empty horn.  This was a man’s voice, deep and abrupt and accustomed to command, with a rough edge to it, such as comes from anger, or sometimes from drunkenness; or sometimes, as now, from fatigue.

I tried to move, but I could not, any more than I could speak.    I have never feared a spirit, but I feared this man.  From the blank of shadow below the helmet came the voice again, grim, and with a faint amusement, that crept along my skin like the brush of a wolf’s pelt felt in the dark.  My breath stopped and my skin shivered.  He said, and I now clearly heard the weariness in the voice:  “You need not fear me.  Nor should you fear the sword.  I am not your father, but you are my seed.  Take it, Merlinus Ambrosius.  You will find no rest until you do.”

I approached him.  The fire had dwindled, and it was almost dark.  I put my hands out for the sword and he reached to lay it across them … As the sword left his grip it fell, through his hands and through mine, and between us to the ground.  I knelt, groping in the darkness, but my hand met nothing.  I could feel his breath above me, warm as a living man’s, and his cloak brushed my cheek.  I heard him say:  “Find it.  There is no one else who can find it.”  Then my eyes were open and it was full noon, and the strawberry mare was nuzzling at me where I lay, with her mane brushing my face (226-7).

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*Stewart, Mary.  The Hollow Hills.  New York:  Fawcett Crest Books, 1974.

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