Archive for the ‘ritual’ Tag

Seven Paths in Freedom: A Prayer-Rant   Leave a comment

Druidry, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s (Ross NicholsBook of Druidry,

is a way of working with the natural world, and is not a dogma or religion … Druidry honours, above all, the freedom of the individual to follow their own path through life, offering only guides and suggestions, schemes of understanding, methods of celebration and mythical ideas — which can be used or not as the practitioner sees fit (pg. 14).

You could just stop there, and run with that, because this post eventually descends into a rant. Or irascible prayer. OK, you were warned.

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clover overtaking weeds — no mowing needed! (but woodchucks love it)

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The word “honours” matters in the quote above. Not “grants” or “permits” freedom. Druidry recognizes something that’s already there. Druidry says Pay attention, so you can recognize these things, too.

Freedom, guides, suggestions, schemes, methods, celebrations, myths. These are the “seven paths in freedom” I want to look at in this post. Don’t worry, it’s not really a numbered list. A different Song is playing. The Song matters more than any list.

Freedom, that much abused and misunderstood word, is an actual thing we can experience and live from, not merely a “concept” or an “idea”, though it’s these things, too. It’s not only “in my head”. Freedom, like any song, comes first, then we have thoughts about it. It’s a gift, just like our lives. A melody at the heart of things. And like our lives, we can end our own freedom in so many ways. Turn off the music. (At least temporarily, though the Spiral remains, all the way down into our DNA.) If you need to be reminded how, just read the headlines. It’s practically multiple-choice at this point. Fifty ways to leave your lover, sings Paul Simon. Shedding your skin, walking on the other side, is a really good option at this point. We do it every night in dream. How about while awake?

A free person gives freedom to those nearby. Freedom spreads, like air, fragrance, sound, waves. We all know others who take from us when we’re around them, just like we know people who give, who make space, and work not to impose their limitations on us. Sometimes we read of the “torch of freedom” — and though cynicism is a popular defensive shield these days, that’s a live metaphor for the sense of kindling and expansion we feel in the presence of a free person. May we meet — and be — such people!

Don’t want to, or can’t, join a Druid Order? You’re a Druid from the day you accept your freedom, and act from it. An Order’s just a form, a guide, a suggestion, to try or not.

If we act from freedom, we discover everything is a guide, a suggestion. The old challenge, Everything is permitted, provided you can accept responsibility for what you do, is a rich seed for meditation. How far can I go toward testing it?! Not Is it true? but How is it true? When is it true? In what ways is it true? These tests, and their results, work much more creatively and productively, at least for me, than a simple “yes/no” Is it true? Because I’ve found pretty much everything is both not true, and true, depending. So that question’s off the list, until I can come back to it on a higher spiral, when it may turn out useful once again, after I manage to learn a few more things. Consciousness makes all the difference: it’s the “depending”.

Druidry offers some things to try out. (Now I’m imagining that as my quick seven-word answer to anybody who asks “So what is Druidry?”!)

Ground a practice in the things of my world: air, water, fire, earth. Not just ritual, though that too. Expand my rituals. Thinking, this morning, while I wash two-days-dried dirty dishes in warm water: air/thought, water (obvious!), fire/heat of the water, of my blood, of the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window; earth of my bones and flesh, of the food scraps on the plates and pots and silverware, of the sink and walls and world all around.

Brother Lawrence wrote a wonderful classic, Practicing the Presence of God. You almost don’t need to read it, the title says so much. If you do read through, be patient with it and yourself — you’ll need to do some digging to excavate the gold, given the change of cultural understandings.

It’s a practice, not a one-time deal. You get better.

Listen to other beings. The white ants that come every summer to our kitchen have more to teach me than the last book I read, whatever it was. Practice asking good questions. I’ve spent at least four decades on that one, and no sign of stopping yet. You know — magic in, magic out. Or the opposite.

“My God is bigger”, said a Christian to an author friend of mine. “Maybe that’s because your need is bigger”, said the friend.

An infinite abyss separates any two moments in time, in eternity, says one of the Wise. I practice resting there, feeling the lightness of spirit, of creative fire, of the awen as it flows. I set my hand on a blank journal page, a computer screen blog post, and enter that abyss. If like me you flash on vertigo for a moment, know too how weightless is fire, always rising up, climbing the spirals we all walk. If a child falls in a dream, the Senoi people of Malaysia encourage the child to fall, and not wake up to escape the dream. “They taught the children to fall, knowing they wouldn’t be hurt, and to climb, to travel, or fly to unknown places, to unknown cultures, to learn new things. If they woke up instead, they would be advised not to escape from such dreams the next time they occurred”, write Stewart and Garfield in their 1972 book Creative Dreaming. Easier on everybody than the wrenching costs of the rising suicide rates in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Schemes of understanding, patterns, webs, networks, interconnections, links, circuits. Our “marvels of modern technology” work (when they work) by building with earth — metal, glass, rare earth elements. Technology grounds these sometimes abstract, intellectual facets of elemental Air and manifests them, re-alizes them, makes them what Latin calls res — things. Ground and center, counsels beginning practice, again and again and again. I always need to earth what’s goin’ down.

Heirs though we are of two thousand years of Christianized thinking, somehow we’re still more Gnostic than Christian, eager to flee this world, constantly forgetting the god at the heart of Christianity who incarnated, became flesh, manifested, took on a body, got as earthy as anybody can, and died that way too. Eucharist, literally thanksgiving — this is my body, this is my blood. The Things of Earth are holy, divine.

Pilgrim on earth, thy home is heaven. Stranger, thou art the guest of God(s).

And yes, William Carlos Williams, you turn out to be right on both counts: “It’s difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there”. You write about a fracking flower [short / long] and stake us through the heart. Bards, tell us how it is, how it can be. Now take out the comma. Bards tell us how it is, how it can be. I’m still practicing as I listen harder.

Or another take, if you like or need it: “Earth’s crammed with heaven” , says Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “And every common bush afire with God;/But only he who sees, takes off his shoes./The rest sit around and pluck blackberries,/And daub their natural faces unaware …” Another practice, taking off my shoes, and walking through the grass.

And that’s fine, too, says Druidry. The Spiral always waits. No one’s reached the end yet … There are always rest-points. We need ’em.

Methods, celebrations, myths. Five, six and seven, if you’re counting. J. M. Greer says one key is “embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit”.

Everything’s political? Nope — everything’s spiritual. Or mythical, if you prefer. Politics wants the power and energy, but without bothering about the spirit that powers them. (Zeus tried all that out long ago, and look where it got him!) Things of this world? Sure! But just know where they come from. Get the order right. That’s why we keep screwing ourselves over with men (and it’s still mostly men) of power. Give the women a chance to mess things up, too!

They can’t give us what we really want. But we keep handing politicians our freedom anyway, as if they knew better what to do with it than we do. Reclaiming, Starhawk calls her Witchcraft tradition. Get it back! Don’t give it away again!

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Fallen pine, cut into lengths: edging for more raised beds? Gateposts for my backyard grove?

Solstices.

Just as at the Winter Solstice we celebrate the shortest day and longest night, knowing that light will grow again, so at the Summer Solstice we celebrate the longest day and shortest night, knowing that daylight will now shorten. Here is a teaching of paradox: each peak, dark or light, contains the seeds of its own change. And as Taoist tradition teaches, “When Yang peaks, it shifts to Yin; when Yin peaks, it shifts to Yang.” — adapted from OBOD publications.

I begin again. A couple of deep breaths, to center myself. Then the awen, or another sacred word. Open the inner doorways.

Get out in the sun, advises the OBOD ritual booklet for Summer Solstice. Sit in a shadow. I love these two apparent contradictories, side by side! So perfect! Harvest your garlic. Sunburned, shaded, garlicked, I proceed.

Having neglected to grow either St. John’s Wort or Vervain for our Solstice rite next weekend, I’m on the lookout for them along the road, in fields nearby, or at a farmers’ market. We’re naming the local landscape and its creatures in our Solstice ritual script, listening between the words for their other names, ones they may not tell everyone. Indian Place Names of New England, in a hodgepodge of less-than-complete formatting for online viewing, gives one Native American name for our local Vermont region: Kawassentekwa “barren spot along the (Connecticut) River”! One more way to laugh, to stay humble, to see and work for possibility where, outwardly, things look bare.

Apparent world, crazy uncle at the door, we hug you and invite you in to join us at the Festival table. Meet the others here!

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Towards a Full Moon Ritual   Leave a comment

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Full Moon, May 18, 2019 @ MAGUS Gathering. Photo courtesy Marianne Gainey.

With last night’s May full moon, and searches from this blog for the words “full moon ritual”, it feels like time to talk a little more about ritual. Google “ritual design” and you’ll find many helpful sites. John Beckett’s helpful A Pagan Ritual Outline derives from his own long experience.

Ritual is at heart a form to focus awareness, like a melody focuses sound, like a kata or “form” focuses movement in the martial arts.

OBOD founder Ross Nichols observed that “Ritual is poetry in the world of acts”. That is, it’s distinguishable from other actions we do by its intent, its shape and form, and often by care for its appeal to the senses. Poetry and song rely on rhyme, rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, emotion, symmetry, repetition and variation (chorus and new verse). It’s no surprise that effective and memorable ritual draws on the same components. Theater also underlies ritual with gesture, movement, surprise, audience participation, intonation, staging, lighting, costume, etc.

The full moon, by its shape, suggests completion of a cycle, a high point or climax in a developing change, a major turn in a process (you can’t get fuller until you empty again). More imaginatively, it can also suggest an open eye, a womb, a mirror of the sun, and so on.  These and many other associations and symbolic patterns can feed into a moon ritual. (Take a moment and write down your associations for the sliver of new moon, and you’ll be on your way to a new moon ritual.)

It helps to work with an outline or script — not as something prescribed, or to be rigidly followed without thought, but from a sense of flow and sequence. Even “spontaneous” ritual, especially for solitaries, often flows from a sense of rightness at the moment. In neither case do you need something written down to read from or use as a guide. But if that helps, or makes a big difference in quality, why not use it? Think of a favorite song you know by heart. Is knowing it so well a weakness?

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Li Bai (Wikipedia/public domain)

A few lines of the famous poem by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai (701-762), rendered more or less as “Drinking Alone with the Moon”, offer us a ritual moment:

Among flowers sits the jug of wine.
I pour alone, no other friend nearby.
I lift the cup to invite the moon
and with my shadow we make three.

(That’s my plain rendering. You can read multiple and more poetic versions of the whole poem here. The Chinese words: hua1 jian1 yi1 hu2 jiu3/du2 zhuo2 wu1 xiangqin1/ju3 bei1 yao1 ming2 yue4/dui4 ying3 cheng2 san1 ren2.)

Sometimes simplest is best. The experience of the moon shining through the flowers onto the wine, the solitary drinker, the cup, and the whole evening all around participate in the ritual just as much as the few words the speaker says to welcome the moon. Yet the ritual wouldn’t be complete without the words, because they’re called for. How does the solitary drinker “know what to say”? What fits the moment. And being alone (and possibly already a little mellowed with wine) helps shape what fits the moment. The moon is both familiar and wholly new in the moment, as are the feelings and thoughts of the drinker. A poem becomes a ritual. A ritual becomes a poem.

“Bigger” rituals work the same way. And planning and preparation can be just as effective in providing a form for rituals where gods speak, fire falls from the heavens, and the Earth Mother whispers her deepest secrets to gathered mortals.

In a Druid triad of ritual, three things happen: you open the door to the ritual, the heart of the rite takes place, and then you close the door. In Li Bai’s poem of informal ritual, the wine, moon, cup, speaker, flowers and moment each play their parts to open the door. The moon is present, and the flowers and wine and place. The speaker feels the moment, says the words, drinks, and the moment passes. The poem-as-script (re-)establishes the moment, records it, and closes it when the poem ends. Or think poem-as-ritual-photo. It’s not actually the speaker performing the ritual, but it records some part of it.

Let’s expand on the Druid triad of ritual. Below are twelve components to consider as you develop a ritual:

1–INTENTION — why are you performing the ritual? The whole ritual follows from this. A clear intention, large or small, leads to effective and enjoyable ritual.

2–MATERIALS NEEDED — cycle back here to add to your list as you develop the ritual. “Keep it simple” is a good principle. Ritual stuff isn’t the main event. But lacking the one or two things you DO need in the middle of the ritual, once the script grows to include them, is a real downer. That ritual knife, candle, bell, bowl of water, smudge stick now needs to be there. Do you need ritual clothing, body marking, etc.? Make sure it gets on the list.

3–PARTICIPANTS and ROLES — how many does the ritual need? Again, cycle back to update your “cast of characters” as your ritual plans develop. In the event of missing participants, how can you double up on roles?

Is there something for guests to do who aren’t speaking or performing major ritual actions? Can there be? Do participants — or visitors — need to prepare in advance in some way? Learn a short chant by heart? A melody? A ritual gesture? Vigils, fasts, prayer, meditation, questing, etc. can help participants bring their full ritual selves to the rite from the beginning.

4–PLACE and TIME — flexibility is key, especially if weather, reservations, or schedules have other ideas for your ritual. Pre-planned alternative locations in case of rain, etc., announced in advance, keep crowd control, confusion and disappointment to a minimum. Is accessibility an issue for any participants or visitors?

5–RITUAL HOUSEKEEPING — “Please turn off your cell phones!” Run through any details guests need to know. “This is what we’ll be doing. Don’t break the circle, or cut yourself a door in it, or ask a ritual celebrant to do so for you. Restrooms are at the end of the hall, or 20 miles away; find a tree. That’s north, so this is west.”

6–FORMAL OPENING — some combination and sequence of purification, grounding, centering, welcoming, proclaiming ritual intent, honoring and inviting Others to be present. Bells, singing bowls, incense, water, fire, salt, chant, drums, etc. all can help. Casting a circle, establishing sacred space, erecting or acknowledging altars, redefining the status of participants, the place, objects nearby or some combination of these may be appropriate. Choose who does these things, and why, and how others can take part. Less talk is usually better. So is simplicity.

7–The MAIN RITE — what you’ve gathered to do. Re-enacting a myth; marking the changed status of a participant through initiation, etc.; celebrating the season, a date, festival, harvest, planting, boat-launch, new home, new family member, etc. Healing, defending, strengthening, commemorating, blessing, gifting. Where you do the stuff specific to your tradition, practice, gods, calendar, and so on.

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MAGUS 2019 Maypole!

8–FEAST, ritual meal, distribution of ritual objects, etc. — a piece of maypole ribbon, a slice of apple (showing the star), a drink, a stave of ritual significance, a card or picture, stone, sea-shell, etc.

9–READINGS, Music, Poetry, Blessings, Prayers — this important portion of a ritual can accompany the Feast, etc. to help sustain the ritual energy, hold focus, minimize side chatter, etc. It also gives everyone present a chance to contribute personal requests, blessings, songs, etc.

10–CLOSING — reverse what you did for the opening: thank Others you invited, uncast the circle, return ritual elements to their original places, desanctify what need desanctifying, take down the altar. Ring the bell, beat the drum formally, close the ritual. Re-establish the world before the ritual began. Again, simple is good.

11–ANNOUNCEMENTS — upcoming events, requests for help with clean-up, calendars, thanking visitors, etc.

12–CLEAN-UP — leave the ritual space as pristine — or more so — than when you arrived. Make this a ritual act of service and gratitude.

Conversation following the rite can be an opportunity for formal teaching, Q-and-A, casual discussion, ritual debriefing and a post-mortem “how did it go?”, planning for another event, a meal at a favorite restaurant (which can be announced on Meet-up, etc., as an outreach tool).

Were you expecting a script for a specific ritual here? No need — you know enough to develop one of your own better suited to you, your situation, your practice and your intention. And after a few run-throughs, you’ll be on your way to developing your own ritual design “best practices”.

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Looking for more detail? Check out Isaac Bonewits’ excellent Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work (Llewellyn, 2007), available used for just a couple of dollars.

Linking Our Times of Fire   1 comment

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photo courtesy Srinivas Ananda

Here’s a set of lively images from just a couple days ago of Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society’s 2019 celebration. Twice a year, at Beltane and Samhain, the Society stages an event featuring fire, drumming and dancers drawing upwards of 10,000 spectators.

Past posts on this blog may help provide inspiration for your own observances and practice.

• Two recent posts on Beltane 2019 — my own local Druid group’s ritual and a reflection on Beltane north and Samhain south.

• What is it with fire and Beltane? Well, the name Beltane itself, according to some etymologies, means the “Fires of Bel”.

• In my “30 Days of Druidry” series, I take up Beltane again — the ancient Celtic fire festivals of Beltane and Samhain still live in many forms today. A local example — a group of Morris dancers (article, pix and short amateur video) braved a chilly May 1st morning yesterday on nearby Putney Mountain, VT, to “bring in the May”.

• In 2015 I wrote this series of posts on “touching the sacred” — something we can often do most easily through fire and fire festivals. No surprise that cultures around the world have for millennia recognized fire as a sacred metaphor and vehicle. Let me take you there, says fire (and also Led Zeppelin’s vocalist Robert Plant, especially in “Kashmir”. Lack direct access to transformative fire? A shaman like Plant can help!).

• “The Fires of May, Green Dragons and Talking Peas” assembles the words of bards and a set of images to suggest to ear and eye what it is we seek and thrive from when we find it.

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wooden totem at Four Quarters Sanctuary, PA

• Want to experience a taste of a larger Beltane Gathering? Here are posts from 2018 and 2017 on the first two years of the Mid-Atlantic Gathering.

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Northern Vermont Beltane 2019   Leave a comment

Beltane yesterday, with our Vermont OBOD Seed Group, the Well of Segais, was a windy, sunny welcome to spring in the north half of the state. With many dirt roads washing out after all the recent heavy rains, members scrambled to reach hardtop roads, scouted for accessible ritual locations, and found this marvelous, recently-constructed stone circle in a municipal park overlooking Route 2.

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A short walk over this preserved covered bridge, and across a boggy meadow, took us up a hill to the circle.

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Between the initial location-scouting and our arrival yesterday, someone had found and placed a striking large quartz rock on the central stone. With some careful shifting on our part, it settled into place upright, serving as a stable windbreak. With five of us, we had just enough members to fill the ritual roles  — and to reach out hands to form a ritual circle around the central stone!

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Just as Imbolc for Vermonters often marks the start of “sugaring” — maple syrup season (or at least a midwinter thaw) — so Beltane celebrates the first leaves appearing on the trees, the first brave daffodils often pushing through the last of the snow, and the onset of “mud-” and then “stick-” season, two short but memorable intervals sandwiched between the long Vermont winter and the often wet spring.

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Calendula –Wikipedia Creative Commons

A group member brought calendula seeds as a ritual gift for all to plant. An “all-arounder”, the calendula is a member of the marigold family, bringing color, medicine, edible blooms, dye, tea, and other uses. Technically an annual, the plant can reseed itself and become effectively a perennial, if you don’t deadhead the flowers and if you allow it to mature into its seed-bearing form.

Looking to welcome the moon along with Beltane? Wait till May 4, and you can work with the New Moon, as Mystic River Grove in Massachusetts will do this year.

“Within me the powers of Sun and Moon. With my right hand (or wand) I father the Child, with my left (or chalice) I mother it. Within me lives the alchemy of this union. Let the magical child of my creative nature blossom and thrive in the inner and outer worlds” (adapted from OBOD ritual).

Beltane blessings to all!

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 4   Leave a comment

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

If the holy terrain between Druid and Christian calls to you, better your way than one belonging to another person that doesn’t fit you where you walk on your particular arm of the Spiral Journey. A week’s worth of your own meditations surpasses anything I can write here. These themes are suggestions, prompts, points of departure. They’re mine, and they may not be yours. Their use is as sparks, kindling, tinder, fuel, provocation. Your particular path may grow out of resistance or contradiction. Thus are (spiritual) muscles strengthened.

If you’ve (mostly) survived your adolescence, held down a job, learned to deal with roommates, siblings, coworkers, parents, teachers, traffic cops, jerks, (holy) Fools, the DMV, followed a dream, fell in love, lost a bet, failed at something, succeeded at something else, and arrived here, it’s pretty likely you’ve accumulated enough insight to learn something useful when looking at cards intended to evoke insight from your experiences! We can also never fully know how our words on such subjects may be exactly what another needs to hear.

The HERMIT

09-HermitHermits abound in world-wide lore and legend, running the gamut from hell-bound to holy. Depending on your temperament and the rebuffs that life generously doles out to all of us, you may find in the Hermit a kindred spirit, someone who chooses, as the French have it, reculer pour mieux sauter: “to draw back in order to make a better leap” back into the fray. Or eremitic withdrawal may become the theme for a lifetime, or a whole series of them. Plenty of secular examples come to mind as well, especially if you’re rich enough to build a life from your eccentricities, like billionaire Howard Hughes.

Modern examples include Thomas Merton, whose hermit tendencies can be summed up in the name of the monastic order he eventually joined: OCSO, the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, or Trappists. Not content with the already spartan nature of the Order, Merton withdrew further to a hermitage on the grounds of the monastery. His books and poems and increasing fame were one vital source of balance shaping his character into the wise monk, priest and author he slowly became.

J M Greer illustrates a Druid-focused model for practice just as potentially rigorous, especially for the solitary: the Gnostic Celtic Church. Greer highlights some of its distinctive features:

… the GCC does not train people for the standard American Protestant model of the clergy—a model that assigns to clergy the functions of providing weekly services to a congregation, “marrying and burying,” offering amateur counseling to parishioners, and pursuing political and social causes of one kind or another, and defines training for the ministry in terms of the same style of university education used by most other service professions.

This model evolved out of the distinctive social and theological requirements of American Protestant Christianity and has little relevance to other faiths, especially those that do not have the financial resources to support full-time ministers.  It has nonetheless been adopted uncritically by a great many alternative religious traditions here in America. It was in response to the very poor fit between that model and the needs of a contemporary alternative religious movement that AODA [Ancient Order of Druids in America] chose to pursue an older model better suited to its own tradition and needs.

Instead of growing from a single and largely American Protestant model, the GCC focuses on what it calls the Rule of Awen, because

there is certainly a need for men and women who are willing to embrace a new monasticism centered on a personal rule:  one in which the core principle of aligning the whole life with the spiritual dimensions of reality can express itself in forms relevant to the individual practitioner and the present age, in which a rich spiritual life supported by meaningful ceremonial and personal practice can readily coexist with whatever form of outward life is necessary or appropriate to each priest or priestess, and in which the practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion.

Greer always packs a lot in his sometimes academic prose: following Christ’s admonition, this means in short to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. We say we want freedom, but how many of us trust our own inner guidance sufficiently to discern what is “necessary or appropriate”, and avoid the “pathologies of political religion”?

As always, the simplest and purest way contains with it the hard-earned wisdom of lifetimes. Greer lays out the central challenge we all face:

… find and follow your own Awen. Taken as seriously as it should be — for there is no greater challenge for any human being than that of seeking his or her purpose of existence, and then placing the fulfillment of that purpose above other concerns as a guide to action and life — this is as demanding a rule as the strictest of traditional monastic vows. Following it requires attention to the highest and deepest dimensions of the inner life, and a willingness to ignore all the pressures of the ego and the world when those come into conflict, as they will, with the ripening personal knowledge of the path that Awen reveals.

How many of us have even begun to recognize and creatively respond to all the myriad “pressures of the ego and the world”? (After all, this is much of what I’ve long been practicing in my own way, as recorded in this blog, and you have ample evidence here of the challenges one person has faced.)

The Matthews’ Arthurian deck depicts the Grail Hermit: “Neither Druid nor priest, as hermit he mediates the functions of both”.

Where is the “third element” in each of my life experiences? As neither pole of a binary, how does it serve both and thereby a greater whole?

The WHEEL of FORTUNE

10-Wheel-of-FortuneThe Wheel or Spiral, the lungo drom or long road of yearning of the Romani, the Wheel of Becoming in Hinduism, “what goes around comes around” of folk wisdom, all point to the circular nature of life and the resonances that our actions establish.

Or as the Lakota holy man Black Elk puts it,

Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.

Worldwide, this circle or wheel is also quartered, divided into four fields or domains or regions. Yes, it’s impossible to square the circle , and the link will lead you into exquisite mathematical detail why this is so — but using this holy glyph or mandala as a teaching and learning device, as a tool in ritual, is another order of response to such an intersection of worlds. What is materially impossible is — often — spiritually essential. Or to put it another way, walking a spiritual path means squaring the circle every single day. (Or if you seek a spiritual practice based in mathematics, check out this origami link.)

For more insights that can lead to a unique personal practice with sacred geometry, and not incidentally provide further rich linkages between their profound influence in both Druidry and Christianity, check out Michael Schneider’s A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science.

JUSTICE

11-JusticeIn Matthews’ deck, the corresponding figure is Sovereignty: “our true self and the land are one”. The justice of this inner truth emerges in the great rebalancing that earth is currently experiencing, as the consequences of our past actions come home to us, and we begin to accept responsibility for them and to work off their effects. But we need not merely suffer them passively; we can work with them creatively for the purposes of transformation, which is what cause and effect are placed to afford to all who seek.

In the traditional deck, the figure is garbed and presented so that gender is not immediately clear. Latin justitia is a feminine noun, yet the figure of Justice as we have it here has a seated, balanced, imperial quality of the previous male figures in positions of traditional masculine power and authority.

As a further harmonic development of the Magician, Justice is a balanced expression of power: the upward right hand holds a sword, while the left grips a balance. The two pillars of manifestation again frame the seated figure, and a curtain conceals the region behind it.

What has been lost on the way to Justice? How is its expression still incomplete, indicating the need for further growth and unfoldment? What does rebalancing and attainment of a new equilibrium conceal or distract me from? What further currents of change and transformation remain that ask for my attention, and allow me to anticipate future expressions of Justice, of balance and recalibration and harmonizing?

The triple crown of Justice can be seen to reflect the magical current inherent in groups of three, and in the physical universe. The card commentary for this card in Matthews’ Arthurian deck includes this observation: “…the Goddess of Sovereignty gives three drinks from her cup, purveying the white milk of fostering, the red drink of lordship and the dark drink of forgetfulness. These she offers successively in her aspects as Foster-Mother, Consort and Renewer”.

“Mother, foster me to your service. Consort, empower us both through our union. Renewer, ease me as I strive to fulfill my vows to you”.

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 3   Leave a comment

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

winter sun

One of the vital perspectives that much modern Druidry can offer to Christian practice is an experimental approach. Rather than depending so heavily on creeds and affirmations of faith, we can approach statements in Christian and Jewish scripture as pointers toward practice, as statements of spiritual reality and awareness if certain prerequisites of practice, wisdom and experience are met, statements clothed in symbolism and perspectives than can sometimes translate to other terms and forms without diminution.

Here’s one such example: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps. 118:26). Whether as a statement of faith or a lyric in a praise-song, it often elicits a comforting familiarity. But why not take it for a spin? Because it offers at least three points for exploration, contemplation and practice, we could treat it as a Druid-Christian triad, and contemplation seed:

What does “blessed” mean?
What does it mean to “come in someone’s name”?
And what is the “name of the Lord”?

Coupled with this last question is a verse often directed at non-Christians, and prominent in mission-oriented publications and preaching: “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow” (Phil. 2:10). As a form of submission to a specific deity, a Christian islam, its initial meaning seems quite clear. All will acknowledge this particular form of deity, the Christian Son of God, in a future realization of his divine sovereignty. It’s a state yet to be fulfilled. Islam as an Arabic word for Muslims also conveys a sense of free will — it’s a voluntary submission. Of course, this is one form of understanding, and it need not be the only or even the most potent in effecting spiritual change.

Put these formulations in Druid terms and you might have recognition that the natural order has a discernible flow, a direction, an energy that humans resist and abuse only at an accumulating cost to themselves and to every other being around them. (Some have called this Lady Sovereignty.  It’s possible also to see in this a version the Shekhinah, the presence of God.) Blessedness in these terms is fruitfulness, harmony, awareness, creativity — all arising from recognition of and concord with the underlying flow inherent in nature, and an ability to navigate life changes successfully. If we come in the name of spirit, or bring with us and our decisions and actions such blessedness or harmonious accord with the flow of nature, it’s often quite apparent to others. A yogi may do this while performing the Salutation to the Sun. Or the Druid sitting under a tree to rest against its trunk and watch the sunrise, may acknowledge the presence of something far greater than the human self in these things. A human on a “path with heart” already carries an awareness of spiritual presence of which he or she is an integral part of the whole.

It’s then that we recognize, at least in our better moments, the authority of those who act from love and wisdom, not from selfishness or shortsighted opportunism. And the sages among us, whether Druid or Christian, both or neither, may not always be those publishing the books and presenting at major Gatherings or Conferences. It may be the white-haired gardener praying in the neighboring pew, face aglow with reverence for the goddess in Mary, or Mary in the goddess, fingernails still darkened with the good earth under them. It may be the quiet young Christian woman calling the quarters at the next Equinox ritual, honoring the four archangels, or the four gospel evangelists, or the four creatures of Celtic or some other tradition, welcoming the presence of spirit in so many varied guises and forms permeating every quarter of the compass.

In the experience of spiritual abundance and presence, then, Christian and Druid may find another meeting-place.

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The LOVERS

06-LoversThe next Tarot image in our series is the Lovers. (The Matthews’ Arthurian image is of the White Hart, with the lovers Enid and Geraint in the foreground.) So much history and cultural change and commentary surrounds the myth or wisdom story of Adam and Eve that “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/”, as William Carlos Williams says in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, “yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there”. The story may simply not “work” for many of us as it once did.

We can read the card in one way as depicting the non-physical spiritual force that expresses itself in female and male, in all living things, both green and fruiting, and flaming with energy, as in the fiery-leaved tree behind the male figure. To get caught by stereotypical associations, or to balk at “masculine” or “feminine” attributes, is to miss the polarities inherent in the natural world that allow for manifestation — multiple polarities we all carry within each of us. In one sense, then, nature has always been “gender-fluid”: we know of species that can change genders at need, or at different points in their life cycle.

What do I really love? Does that love build or tear down my life? How does love help me manifest? What polarities work through me with particular force or energy? What ones might I beneficially welcome and work with in my life? Where else can I love?

The CHARIOT

07-ChariotThe Chariot in the traditional deck (or Prydwen, Arthur’s ship of journeying in the Arthurian deck) closes out the first of the three rows of the Major Arcana (if we lay out the cards in 3 rows of 7, with the Fool or Seeker as the one who moves through each on the Journey). And again, in one traditional interpretation, this first row has to do with the maturing self, the personal, the exploration and development of capacities and potencies of the individual.

The notes for Prydwen from the Arthurian deck: “the Otherworldly journey which is undertaken by all seekers, so that the inner life becomes the basis for a sound outer life” (pg. 36).

One applicable Biblical verse here comes from Luke 6:45: “Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their hearts, and evil people brings evil things out of the evil stored up in their hearts. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of”. I don’t know about you, but this is a useful barometer for where my attention is. And with luck, you have a friend or partner who calls you on your crap. “What did you just say?!” That’s when I learn, if I don’t already know, that I’m (once again) out of balance and have some work to do.

What is happening in my inner worlds? What is my foundation? Where can I continue to work to shore up that foundation for both my inner and outer lives? What cycle has ended so that I can finally see and account for its shape and influence, and now return to polish what was rough-hewn? How is my storehouse? What am I harvesting from the old cycle as I begin a new one?

STRENGTH

08-Strength“The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights” (Habakkuk 3:19). Or to be gender-fluid about it: “I honor Lady Sovereignty who strengthens me here on this Land where the deer runs, showing me how to walk the heights with sure feet”.

On this new octave, the second row of 7, Strength shares the infinity symbol with the Magician. You could say she is the Magician — renewed, re-imagined.

Is this coercion or forcing of our elemental and instinctual selves by our “higher” selves? Is it conscious awareness of the vitality of both, thereby making it our own more fully and completely — a union, where formerly there were two? The Lady here has greens and flowers for a belt — she is not separate from nature. Is she shaping and directing that animal strength?

Perhaps we can see one theme run from the prophet’s words that open this section to Whitman’s words in “The Beasts” in his Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid
and self-contain’d.
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in
their possession.

In some ways Whitman describes Paradise, a recognition of inner sovereignty that needs no one kneeling to another. The “self” that contains the beasts is the sovereignty of the Land, the Whole that cradles each individual in its arms, if we opt for the language of personification. Here it is animals leading the way in showing tokens of this “self”, already in their “possession”.

Is this what the Strength figure is trying to discover, or does achieve? Does Strength learn that strength unaided is insufficient — a realization that is the beginning of wisdom? It is our inner strength that issues forth in animals, too — our shared link, not one to dominate the other.

So I can do no better than end this post with words from U. K. LeGuin’s great Earthsea trilogy. Her magician or mage Ged learns from his own experience with beasts:

… in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com — winter pictures.

Walking the Major Arcana, Part 2   Leave a comment

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

INTERLUDE

Druids have grappled with Christianity since it first arrived in Europe. While today we might take St. Augustine at his word (“that which is known as the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist”*), exploring it in new and creative ways (tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine!), most people throughout Christian history have understood the assertion as narrowly as possible. That is, Christ started a new religion focused on belief in the divine power of his sacrificial death and resurrection, which saves the believer. Pairing this with a transformation in awareness, the convert takes on a new life in Christ.

For many, however, Jesus Christ, or least the religion that bears his name, is problematic at best. (To choose just one among myriad issues to explore, note that neither Druids nor non-Druids use the name Taliesin, for instance, as a “swear-word”!) Many non-Christians today have suffered from unloving and aggressive evangelism, family harassment, workplace tension, physical threats and social ostracism, whether they practice a non-Christian spirituality or simply remain “outside” the Christian church.

I’m addressing this series of posts, then, primarily to a vast “excluded middle” — neither the “born-again” believer nor the scarred (and possible tarred and feathered) “heretic”, but the people awake to the “magical and generous” possibilities all around us, because you’ve already experienced them, and they answer a deep hunger in you like nothing else can.

Or as Krista comments:

Dean, I’m always especially interested when you write on this particular topic. Having been raised in the Christian Faith, and having had no quarrel with the Christianity of my youth, my own Druid practice always has something of a Christian flavor to it even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. But I don’t consider myself Pagan either. Always was a bit of a square peg. So throughout my Druid journey I’ve become very comfortable blending and assimilating and it works quite well in my private practice. It’s a bit more challenging in community practice, but I’m working on it and I adapt when it’s called for. I think it would do the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective. Thanks for taking it on!

One less-than-flattering label for this is syncretism. But religions and spiritualities, just like most human cultures, thrive by cross-pollination, as careful study of them across time will bear out. Similarly, in our genetics we’re mongrels, hybrids, blends, mixes. (Our sometimes uncomfortable surprise at recent DNA test-results illustrates one aspect of this.) Our current sensitivity to “cultural appropriation” is our heightened awareness of the violence behind forcible mis-appropriations. Or as John Beckett puts it bluntly in his The Path of Paganism, “Always credit your sources, never pretend to be something you’re not, and steal from the best”. It’s the lack of credit, the pretense, and the poor selection that make up most of our problems with shoddy cultural (mis)appropriation. The “weekend guru” offering workshops, intensives and retreats, and cashing in on an inferior grab of unacknowledged and imperfectly-mastered practices from another culture currently perceived as somehow more “authentic” or “powerful”, gives all borrowing and mixing a bad name.

[Lest you take issue with the possibly glib tone of John’s “triad of appropriation” above, let’s hear him at greater length from a recent post:

Are you being respectful to the traditions and cultures you’re drawing from, or are you grabbing whatever looks shiny to you? Are you working with them as whole systems, or as mix and match entrees on a spiritual buffet? And as a polytheist, my biggest concern: are you treating the Gods as holy powers and as persons with whom we can form relationships, or as objects to be used where and how you see fit?]

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Another under-explored overlap is Druid and Hindu practice | another link | a third link | which offers some very provocative insights into cultural similarity and preservation of ancient traditions over long periods of time, and at “opposite ends” of the Indo-European area of cultural and linguistic origins and influence. Everything from archetypal themes in stories, to names of gods, music and musical instruments, and spiritual practices, show common ground in the cultures of Celts and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

And so I write these posts partly in the spirit of “doing the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective”. And as always, I’m exploring my own practices and perspectives as I go — one of the chief benefits of blogging.

The EMPRESS

03-EmpressThe Empress of the traditional deck, with her 12-star crown and sceptre, and the astronomical symbol of Venus next to her chair or throne, is another goddess figure. As an aspect or representation of the energies along the journey of the Fool or Seeker, she grounds us in the earth. The wheat growing at her feet, the waterfall to her left, the forest behind her, all place her “in the world” of both fruitfulness and change. Whether as Mother Earth, or Mary, or another goddess, or a living but impersonal archetype, or the fertile and fruitful energies within us, the Empress is a potent force and presence.

As Caitlin and John Matthews describe Guinevere in their version** of this card, as “the Empress of Logres (the Inner Britain), she creates the conditions for growth, establishing peace and contentment. She spins a thread of inner concord which is woven into the fabric of the land and its people. She imparts sensitivity to nature and harmonious awareness of all life” (The Arthurian Tarot. Thorsons, 1995, pg. 28).

What is the “thread of concord” between you and the land where you live? Only you can answer that: it can become a practice first to find out, and then to honor it in ways that you work out between you and the land. A grounding exercise of weaving or braiding a thread to carry with you as a reminder may help incarnate this awareness. Ritual can serve our need here, as in so many places.

What are the “conditions for growth” for whatever you wish to bring into your life? How can you begin to work them into your day to day work and awareness, so that they can manifest what you need? How can you serve others who are doing the same? Asking the questions can help the chance manifest, if I’m paying attention. If not, then next time around.

Archetypes, it should be said, aren’t something to “believe in”, and even less something to “worship” — though you certainly can if you choose to. (Let us know how it goes — you may discover something valuable to share.) Instead, and probably a better use of our energies and attention and time, they’re something to work with to see what they can help us do and understand about our lives.

The EMPEROR

04-EmperorThe Emperor in the traditional deck hews to traditional symbols and representations of patriarchal power: beard, crown, scepter, throne, armor, harsh and rather sterile landscape, rams’ horns adorning the throne’s arms and back. (It can be helpful for such reasons to consult other decks for different images and symbolism.) The fact that we’re experiencing the negative effects of imbalanced masculine energies in our lives simply tells us a piece of what needs healing and re-balancing. Scan most headlines and you realize many people haven’t a clue about how to begin to do this — itself a measure of how out of balance the energies have become for many. We’ve often jettisoned outmoded forms of spirituality, true — but neglected to replace them.

The Emperor’s number 4 is also represents the fullness of the human world, four-square in its founding on the four physical elements, before we shift our awareness to spiritual realities within and beyond them. The Pagan and Christian star alike points to the five-fold nature of all things, both physical and non-physical — a vital reminder of how the cosmos is constituted, which we overlook, and have overlooked, to our peril.

The spiritual, you might say, is what the physical *is* under its mask. Or to say it another way, the spiritual is always clear and apparent; it’s the physical that’s the mystery, the cloak, the concealer, the mist-filled branching off the path. We have simply forgotten to work our polarity magic, to walk a spiritual path of stewardship, to put it in Christian terms — we’ve thrown our planet out of balance over time, and now must spend at least as much time over the coming decades and centuries working to bring it back into balance and harmony.

The HIEROPHANT

05-HierophantThe figure in the traditional deck of the Hierophant, the “one who shows the holy”, may bring further associations of institutional authority and entrenched structures and imbalances.

Some decks re-order these first few cards, change their genders and assign them different symbolism, in an attempt to represent one or another version of a more balanced set of images. In the Matthews’ Arthurian deck the card depicts the bard Taliesin, the poet-as-way-shower-of-the-holy, especially of ways that stand outside formal structures and institutions. Today we find our bards and prophets among artists and performers, actors and politicians.

(Check out fansites and Facebook, Twitter and other social media, if you want to know how much the words and music and performances of artists matter to so many, if you don’t already have a deep appreciation for the power wielded by a multitude of visions and their visionaries. Again and again, people post how a performance or a lyric saved their lives, brought them down from suicide, changed their outlooks, gave them strength and courage and a vision to persevere through often impossible circumstances.)

Like the Hierophant, Taliesin is a guardian of tradition. We know all too well the dangers of distorted and abusive holders of traditional authority and power. Seemingly every other day, headlines trumpet the fall of another person — often a man — from a position of trust, authority and power. Such things have given tradition a bad name — except, again, in our modern reverence for everyone else’s traditions except our own. Traditional holders of wisdom, Native American or Tibetan or Mayan, still retain something of the original value that a tradition is meant to preserve.

For the other and often neglected face of tradition is that conserving function. We may conceive of tradition as “guarding from”, but more as “guarding for”. In his Elves, more than in any other expression in his fantasy works, Tolkien captures the sense both of preserving much wisdom and beauty through time, and of pervasive sadness at its seemingly inevitable loss. To cite just one example, even among the more hopeful, Gandalf addresses Aragorn in Book 6, Chapter 5 of The Lord of the Rings:

This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away.

Our contemporary sense of loss and disorientation at our crumbling institutions, corrupt as some of them have become, is also an opportunity to reconnect with legitimate traditions, many preserved inwardly by their keepers, where we can recover them through vision, gratitude, ritual, and readiness and humility to ask for guidance. Taliesin, in the Matthews’ rendering, is one such preserver or conservator. He “sits in a firelit hall. He tells the story of his initiatory transformations to two children who sit at his feet listening intently. The golden links of tradition pass from his hands to theirs” (The Arthurian Tarot, pg. 30).

And our efforts in this quest (“lest any man should boast” as Christian scripture says [Ephes 2:9] of “works”, which by themselves can never be the only component of a quest) are part of our purification, our testing, a step along the path, not the sole key to growth. We are each one being in a cosmos of other beings, each with intentions and purposes, some which can align with ours. The hand of tradition, the wisdom of the Ancestors, the spiritual reality of the worlds, reaches out to grasp ours when we show we are ready.

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*Augustine of Hippo. The Retractions, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Mary Inez Bogan. Vol. 60, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1968), 52. [Book 1, Chapter 12, article 3.]

**Here are the names of the cards in the Matthews’ Arthurian deck: (0) The Seeker, (1) Merlin, (2) Lady of the Lake, (3) Guinevere, (4) Arthur, (5) Taliesin, (6) The White Hart, (7) Prydwen, (8) Gawain, (9) The Grail Hermit, (10) The Round Table, (11) Sovereignty, (12) The Wounded King, (13) The Washer at the Ford, (14) The Cauldron, (15) The Green Knight, (16) The Spiral Tower, (17) The Star, (18) The Moon, (19) The Sun, (20) The Sleeping Lord, and (21) The Flowering of Logres.

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