Archive for the ‘ritual’ Tag

Oh, Slip Away to the Wilderness!   1 comment

Slip away to the wilderness and pray.

I bless and consecrate you with water … with spirit, and with fire.

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How often we’re put off by language — or drawn in and inspired, and for mostly the same reasons. The first piece of wise Druid counsel above comes, in fact, from Luke 5:16, describing what Jesus often did. Seems like a piece of uncommon good sense these days for anyone to practice, a sacred intention to add to our hours.

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Another version* puts it like this: “Jesus often went away to other places to be alone so that he could pray”. Does that feel like anything most of us need to do regularly, to get off by ourselves so we can hear ourselves and our awen speak, and not merely listen to the strident echoes of the “24-hour news cycle”? Hear what life is constantly saying to the chakras and energy centers of our being**.

The second line above comes from Matthew 3:11-12, where John the Initiating Chief (Christians may know him as John the Baptist) names the powers he and Jesus invoke when blessing and hallowing others who seek out that particular ritual. Water, spirit, fire. What is baptism but blessing — literally, dipping in water and other holy substances or elements? A baptism in an initiation, and vice versa, symbolized by elements that have always been holy worldwide: water and fire, and spirit that animates them all. Call them elemental sacraments as I have, if that brings them into closer kinship and familiarity and comfort.

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peak-sky-water

One of my teachers observed that just as we can choose to go through initiations organized and conducted by others, we can initiate intentions and directions in our  own lives. An actual ritual can help to impress this on the mind and senses, reifying it, to use technical language — making it “thingly”, bringing it through “right down to the physical”.

So I find my own ways of slipping away into wilderness to pray, listen to the trees, sing the awen, and prepare.

And initiation? Many have long looked at the Biblical Book of Revelation as a guide to our inner spiritual architecture, with the seven churches it describes in detail as the varying focus and health of our seven inner energy centers, typified in various traditions as chakras or by other names, the spiritual eye among them, along with the halos on pictures of saints, the sacred heart, the gut instinct, and so on — yet another piece of the philosophia perennis, the Perennial Wisdom we cloak with our regional robes, names and forms, then “name and claim” as the Sole Truth of the cosmos (which we just so happen to be in exclusive possession of).

So you have a vision, and it’s natural to be told to get it down in words before it fades:

Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden candles is this: The seven stars are the messengers of the seven Gatherings, and the seven candles are the seven Gatherings. (Revelation 1:20).

Then you work to initiate your vision, with the Messengers (Instant or otherwise), and the Light sources you find at hand, LED, spiritual, human. A little paraphrase that I assert does no injustice to the original, and we’re on Druid territory. And why not vice versa? Rework a Druid ritual in Christian terms, and see what you may discover.

We can initiate or baptize our complete body, energies centers all working together, to (re)call it to its holy purpose as an Ancestor-in-the-Making, a Walker-between-the-Worlds, a Holy One. If the world around us, or some other world we’ve walked in lately, seems sacred or holy, or some other ideal summons us, we can “level ourselves up”, to use the language of gamers — shift energy and consciousness, so that we mirror and embody — incarnate — that holiness, rather than working against it.

So I choose the time of ritual with care, honoring the harmonics of the planets and stars, the tides of earth and our lives. Three days, or maybe seven, beforehand, I slip away to the wilderness and pray. As part of my ritual — perhaps the core of initiation, or perhaps other words come — I say, “I bless and consecrate you with water … with spirit, and with fire”.

And perhaps I close with some version of the blessings from recent posts, drinking what seems right to drink, making an offering from that drink to whoever it feels right to honor at the moment of the rite:

I now invoke the mystery of communion, that common unity that unites all beings throughout the worlds. All beings spring from the One; by One are they sustained, and in One do they find their rest. One the hidden glory rising through the realms of Abred; One the manifest glory rejoicing in the realms of Gwynfydd; One the unsearchable glory beyond all created being in Ceugant; and these three are resumed in One.

May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be with us always …

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*Easy-to-Read Version, 2006, Bible League International.

**Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 2:29).

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Some Notes for Druid-Christian Ritual Design   2 comments

In the previous post I looked at the beginnings of a Druid-Christian ritual, letting the two traditions talk to each other through their images, rather than drawing on theology or metaphysics. (Druids and Pagans generally do have theologies — many of us just haven’t explored them in great depth or gotten them down in writing yet. Practice usually is more interesting, anyway.)

Name a purpose, and we can draft a Druid-Christian rite for it. Want a wedding, or a blessing, or an initiation? Both traditions have rich materials to draw on. Among other references and resources, Isaac Bonewits discusses ritual design at length in his book Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work. Note Isaac’s focus on public: I use private Druid-Christian rituals that might not appeal to others, given our different histories and experiences with religions.

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Shansui, the Chinese word for landscape: “mountains (and) water”

Already tired from too much thinking? Use the image above. Enter the scene. Walk that beach. Feel the warm, wet sand between your toes. Feel the wind play through your hair. Listen to the awen of the waves, calling. Salt air, seagulls.

Looking for a calendar, a whole set of practices and observances? The Pagan festival year lines up quite well with classical Christianity, for reasons that have been thoroughly (endlessly) explored and documented. Who knows how many Pagans sit in pews with Christian relatives at Yule and Easter, knowing other names, and sensing both kindred and at times estranged presences and energies?

For foundations for daily practice, one need look no further than the example of J M Greer’s The Gnostic Celtic Church, where Greer notes:

… personal religious experience is the goal that is set before each aspirant and the sole basis on which questions of a religious nature can be answered.

Greer also asserts as a piece of (Universalist) belief:

… that communion with spiritual realities is open to every being without exception, and that all beings — again, without exception — will eventually enter into harmony with the Divine.

What do I want and need? Do I even know? How can I find out?

The world’s spiritual traditions offer hundreds of variations on practices to answer just such questions. It’s good to check in from time to time, asking such things, living with the questions till they bud and leaf into answers, or into more beautiful questions.

As Mary Oliver sings, “So many questions more beautiful than answers …”

We change, and our practices need to keep up. Singing the awen, or other sacred word, is one tested and proven practice most traditions put forth for those seeking a new path, or a new branching along a path we know already. I sing till things clarify. Often for me this may take weeks, or months even … “Patience”, says one of the Wise. “Is not this our greatest practice?”

(But I just want to get to patience NOW …)

smudging

Smudge the whole cosmos, if necessary

Greer outlines practices for those interested in exploring a “Gnostic, Universalist, and Pelagian” Druidry. The ceremonies, rituals and meditations include the Hermitage of the Heart, the Sphere of Protection, the Calling of the Elements, the Sphere of Light, a Solitary Grove Ceremony (all but the first deriving from Druid AODA practice), and a Communion Ceremony that ritualizes the “Doctrine of the One”:

I now invoke the mystery of communion, that common unity that unites all beings throughout the worlds. All beings spring from the One; by One are they sustained, and in One do they find their rest. One the hidden glory rising through the realms of Abred; One the manifest glory rejoicing in the realms of Gwynfydd; One the unsearchable glory beyond all created being in Ceugant; and these three are resumed in One. (Extend your hands over the altar in blessing. Say …)

If you tried out Greer’s prayer above, who or what did you bless? If you didn’t, why not try it now? Say the words aloud …

Looking for a short form? Abred (AH-bred), Gwynfydd (GWEEN-veeth), Ceugant (KAY-gant).

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I’ve looked before at these lovely Welsh names for the levels of being according to Celtic lore:

With the love of triads and threes that marks so much of Celtic art and story, it’s no surprise that the Celtic conception of our spiritual journeys should mirror this same triplicity. From the starting point of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, we move forth and back through three states of manifestation and consciousness, in a kind of dance that sees us revisiting old lessons until we’ve fully mastered the material, spiralling through different forms and perspectives.

Most of us hang out for a considerable time in this present world of Abred, this place of testing and proving. From here we proceed to Gwynfyd, a world of liberty and freedom beyond the pale shadows of these forces in our present world. Back and forth between Abred and Gwynfyd, with dips into Annwn here and there. And last comes Ceugant, an unbounded, infinite realm. By definition, no end point, but a new beginning. The horizon recedes.

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And lest someone coming to the beginnings of Druid-Christian practice from the Christian side wonders how to begin with all of this stuff, consider this.

Nicholas Whitehead opens his curious book Patterns in Magical Christianity like this:

Christianity is a magical religion. This is not so controversial a statement as some might think. For all religious traditions are potentially magical by the simple fact that they embody or employ symbols, myths and rites that are mediatory, that intend or enable the translation of spiritual energies between levels of reality (pg. 13).

The author outlines a set of characteristics of such magical symbols, noting they

  1. “are inherently appropriate”. He gives the example of a plant, with roots in earth, flower in the air, and “within its stem the life bearing sap rises and falls. Because of its intrinsic structure, the plant is a symbol for the ideal spiritual life … we live upon the earth, with our roots within the land. We are nurtured by the soil in which we live. Yet, without losing our connection to it, it is our destiny to rise above the land, to flower in the crowning glory of the light … Again note that we cannot make the plant into a symbol. It is simply is a magical symbol by virtue of its inherent structure and its role in the rhythmic life of the cosmos”.
  2. “always participate in a greater reality”.
  3. “enable the translation of energies between levels of reality”.
  4. “are trans-rational”.
  5. “are polyvalent”.
  6. “tend to assemble in groups” (pg. 16).

Of course there’s a tremendous amount to unpack here — which is why it takes Whitehead a book to do so, along with a set of exercises he has developed in a workshop in order to put these precepts to the experimental test. Rather than debate them, which is a head trip I (mostly) don’t plan to take, they’re worth simply trying out, just as one would test the statement that water freezes at a certain temperature, rather than debating whether the claim is true. Of course adding salt, raising a wind over the surface, setting the container in a vacuum, and so on, all change the experimental parameters.

In the same way, my beliefs, intention, mindset when I experiment, past experiences, and spiritual awareness will all figure quite largely in any results I achieve. I’ve found I’m more interested in learning how certain things are valid or operational for me. That is, do they help me get somewhere worth reaching? Otherwise, an inner nudge or whisper usually alerts me: Move along — these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Later I can play the thought and reason game for what it’s worth. Sometimes a lot, sometimes quite little.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com

Greer, John Michael. The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy. Everett, WA: Starseed Publications (Kindle)/Lorian Press (paper), 2013.

Whitehead, Nicholas. Patterns in Magical Christianity. Sunchalice Books, 1996. (More recent editions exist, though I haven’t yet been able to find one.)

Drafting a Druid-Christian Rite   4 comments

Ritual, remarks British Druid and author Emma Restall Orr,

is the process of taking time out of the rush of life in order to remember what is sacred, that when we return to the road we do so with a soul once again open to inspiration and creativity. How we do it – and how long it takes – to be effective depends on how scattered by distraction and tangled in need we are. It can be as simple as pausing, breathing deeply, acknowledging the gift of life, the land beneath, the sky above. It can take weeks of preparation, days of fasting, hours of concentration, to fall into the moment of realization about how we can live awake and with honour, not just believing nature is sacred, but unconditionally treating her as such.

ritual bathing

ritual bathing

Judging by the continuing readership for a group of posts here on Druidry and Christianity, the vital possibilities of such a concord live still for you as much as they do for me. They branch and grow, and rich fruit hangs from their boughs.

Our instincts aren’t wrong. The two traditions are twinned in ways we may never untangle, but we can explore what they can contribute to each other right now. One way to do that — certainly not the only way* — is through ritual.

Already we hold hints and fragments in our hands. In the Christian Bible, Luke relates the experiences of a rich man, the chief tax collector Zacchaeus. “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way” (Lk. 19-3-4). Sometimes we need to shift perspective, to climb out of our lives to see them more clearly.

Later in the same chapter, (Lk. 19:37-40), the followers of Jesus are overcome with joy and are peacefully celebrating. But their exuberance apparently touches a nerve — it seems excessive and undignified to the Pharisees, among the Powers-That-Be of the day:

And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him [Jesus], “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Have we not all felt such joy, that the stuffy, fearful, joyless ones around us want to rebuke us for our happiness?!

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incense

[The rite begins. Parts not yet assigned.]

Let the Great Gates open. For we hear voices crying in the wilderness … (1)

Climb your own sycamore! What will you ever see until you do?!

The stones are crying out at our silence (2).

If our houses of prayer and celebration have become dens for thieves, then it is meet and fitting that we repair to the green places of old (3).

For the Wise have counselled us, “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” (4).

Our teachers are at hand: “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you, or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you” (5).

Let our prayers rise like incense (6), born of earth, moistened in its making, lit by fire, wafting through air.

“They have dressed the wounds of our people with scant care, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace at all” (7).

We will answer the call to peace, and serve. Let us give peace now to the quarters, and renew the Great Work again …

“May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light” (8).

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Some readers, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s Book of Druidry,

might be pleased to learn of such a dialogue between Druidry and Christianity, particularly when it results in specific action being taken to initiate a new impulse within the Christian movement. Others might be disappointed, hoping Druidry was exclusively ‘pagan’. But 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 his 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).

Rev. Alistair Bate, author of the OBOD website article “Reflections on Druidic Christology“, comments from a sensitivity to the contact points of the two traditions:

A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be “May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us”. This, I believe, would not only be more truly in tune with the bardic experience, but would also resonate with the Om/Creation idea found in the Hindu tradition. As we envision Awen, the primordial sound, echoing out of the void, we connect with our own creative inspiration as part of that first creative Word, which is in Christian terms, at once Christ and his Spirit.

And with greater enthusiasm, perhaps, than comparative or historical theological accuracy, Bate concludes his article, summoning to his aid the words of probably the single most influential Christian thinker and writer:

In the 4th century St Augustine declared, “That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity”. That the religion of our most ancient ancestors is in essence very similar to that of our more recent ancestors is the conviction that keeps some of us simultaneously both Druid and Christian.

And as many others have long noted, the Galilean master is at his most Druidic when he speaks with images of the natural cycle of things:

Truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

An extensive Druid-Christian liturgy could be written with just the nature images that pervade Christian and Jewish scripture.

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IMAGES: Pexels.com

*Other practices one could initiate, as Emma Orr notes above, might be “as simple as pausing, breathing deeply, acknowledging the gift of life, the land beneath, the sky above”. Or correspondingly complex, and “take weeks of preparation, days of fasting, hours of concentration, to fall into the moment of realization about how we can live awake and with honour …” We decide what it is we need, rather than any authority over us. And often the best decisions arise from experimentation, and from an openness to trying something new.

1. Matt 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23.

2.  Luke 19:40.

3. Mark 11:17.

4. Jeremiah 6:16.

5. Job 12:8.

6. Psalm 141:2.

7. Jeremiah 8:11.

8. Closing of OBOD ritual.

Ritual Rummaging   Leave a comment

John Beckett (6 January 2019) writes:

A ritual is a series of interrelated actions designed to accomplish a spiritual goal. It may be a celebration, but it’s more than a party. It may honor certain spiritual persons, but it’s more than singing praises. It may work magic, but it’s more than a spell.

Couple this succinct overview of ritual with OBOD founder Ross Nichols’ “Ritual is poetry in the world of acts” and you’ve got a fair bit to go on, if you want to do some rummaging about in ritual spaces and energies.

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Ross Nichols leading a procession of the Cornish Gorseth in the 1970s. Wikipedia Creative commons.

For starters, form matters. What makes a lively seasonal festival ritual more than a party? After all, some parties also have a form. If it’s a birthday, maybe there’s a welcome period for everyone to assemble, settle in and get something to drink. Then food — a buffet or even a formal sit-down meal — followed by presents, and then games, or dancing, or some other group activity. Or maybe the whole evening is food, mingling and music, with presents dropped off on a designated table. There may be formal start and ending times, or apart from one announced activity — often, the food — there’s no set beginning or close. “Show up when you can”. Still, people often know what “birthday party” typically means. There’s some kind of loose format in most people’s expectations, unless the invitation says otherwise.

If a ritual has assigned roles, it can begin when all the participants have assembled. Beckett talks about how ritual ideally doesn’t have an “audience”. While it’s a performance, no one should be so detached as to be merely a spectator. At our most recent Vermont OBOD seed group celebration of Winter Solstice, we held a ritual “post-mortem” discussion as some dishes for our potluck dinner were warming in the oven. With just enough members attending that foggy evening to carry out the ritual-as-written, it’s true each of us “had a part”. But more importantly, as one member observed afterward, it’s what we do with and for other participants during the ritual that makes the difference. “I support them”, she said. While one person is assigned to speak the words that “call North”, for instance, everyone else can do so, too. Add your intention. Feel the direction. Visualize, sense it on your skin. Imagine the participant serving as North to be garbed appropriately for the direction, crowned and armed with symbols of earth. In fact, if we expect North or any of the other directions to manifest and be a palpable presence, just such group energy and support are essential. Otherwise, what are we doing calling the directions?

I’ve queried the opening words of the standard OBOD ritual format before, in previous posts. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, welcome to this Rite of …” Lovely, but what IS “the power of star and stone”? And if I don’t know, then how do I know I want to call on it, invoke it, welcome the assembled group with and by it? Is it the same as “the power of the land within and without”? Do either of these have anything to add to our rite?

Or let’s say I chose to forego seeking and supplying a merely intellectual equation: “power of land = X”. I let the words move me wherever and however they’re meant to, trusting the ritual and relying on our group’s reverent and “heart-ful” performing of it to answer such questions in due time, if at all. Let the intention and the energy of the assembled members carry me over any rough spots, and all will be well. OK, but then how do I support the herald who proclaims these opening words, if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing? If we all imagine different things on hearing the words, we generate a diffuse generic energy (or nothing much at all) that may not come anywhere near to what the “power of star and stone” could do, if we knew what we were about.

Mean clearly, and you can carry people with you.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

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Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of the play.

Listen to an informed performance of Romeo and Juliet and when Juliet says these words, it’s the third “Romeo” that she stresses: “O, why do you have to be Romeo? Any other name would be fine. But no: you turn out to belong to my family’s enemies!” If you don’t know what you’re saying, you can’t mean what you need to mean. The words won’t mean what they could. Understand what Juliet says, and her next lines make perfect sense:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy …

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Dionysus in ’69. Photo by Brett Brookshire.

Because drama is a component of ritual, films and plays have something to teach us about owning the words and actions of ritual in deep and creative ways. Ancient Greek drama was sacred to Dionysus. In Athens, no weapons were allowed in the theater precinct during the Dionysia Festival of tragedies and comedies. The ritual of theater was an act of worship, a sacred thing dedicated to the god.

Serious about addressing ritual glitches, the crew of MAGUS ’17 asked participants to memorize their parts. Come ready to speak with intention, since you won’t need a piece of paper in front of you. Improvise, once you know the energy of the traditional words. Call North, and let us hear and feel North. I was North, a small but important part. I did call North, with original words and images I’d been composing orally — I felt their power myself — then flubbed a short line North says a page or two later that I couldn’t remember and couldn’t for the life of me find, for an ungodly amount of time, as I pawed through the printed ritual in my hand. Ritual flow broken, I finally found my place and shamefacedly read off my line.

Fortunately, Druids are forgiving folks. It both did and didn’t matter. Ritual isn’t made or marred by a single person. Smiles and laughter heal many a weak line reading, dropped candle, overenthusiastic blessing with water. It took time before I could laugh, because I was so annoyed at myself — all the more reason I needed to.

Contrast this with my Ovate self-initiation: my wife away for the weekend, all lights in the house extinguished except for a single small candle. I sit on the floor in a dim and flickering circle of light, words of the open and closing ritual at hand, but foremost in my awareness a dedication I speak as the words come to me, along with a palpable sense of witnesses around me as I proceed. The ritual pacing my pace, the words my words, the experience my own and that of those who, I sense, share it with me. Powerful, personal, memorable, unscripted at its peak, and especially potent for that reason.

The two poles of ritual? Both valid, necessary — and each distinct.

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Images: Ross Nichols; Juliet; Dionysus in 69.

13 Gift-Day-Flames for Solstice-Solitaries   2 comments

… that you can give to yourself and others. Many of these are simple, elemental — as they can and may be, needing nothing beyond what we have already. If not one flame coming as a gift, then welcome another. Try one a day for all 13, or choose one or more according to a rhythm that makes sense to you. If a nudge should come to try something else, ah, nurture it for what it can be. Flame sparks flame, light reflects light.

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recent mid-December dawn over our roof

Silence. What needs stillness? Find even a brief moment where you can give yourself quiet, if not silence. What flows from that interval? The flame of silence flares when we tend it, and dies back down to embers when we turn up our internal and external volumes. There’s healing in stillness, often because we can finally hear what we’ve been missing, as well as what we can give that we overlooked. Stillness brings a kind of space and light all its own.

Sound. What needs a voice? Music, the human voice, instruments, a happy dog barking, a cat purring, a child’s laughter. These too are gifts to cherish and celebrate. What do I have that I can say, what can I contribute to the conversation? What can I start (or continue) saying that I haven’t said before? What other voices can I listen to and help be heard?

Light. What needs illumination? The Festival of the Returning Sun that is Solstice means the days will begin to grow longer again after this Saturday. We may notice the lengthening more in mid-January, at least in the Northeastern U.S., with the cold, clear days that bespeak deep winter. What’s lighting up for me now? What can I help light up for others?

Ritual. What needs to be celebrated and made more conscious in my life? The smallest things may be asking and answering. Lighting a candle, or a fire. Bathing in a tub for a change, instead of showering (go all out with candles — or bathe in the light of a single flame). Sharing a meal. Watching a video together. Singing a favorite song. Wandering somewhere, off the clock, without a destination.

Kindling. What needs to catch fire? Think kindling as both the action and the materials for it. Go wide — be metaphorical, too. In addition to paper and twigs, think art of all kinds. Sketchbooks, fine paper and pens, glorious fabrics, seed catalogs. Parts, supplies, cleared spaces for projects. Plans, hopes, dreams.

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Mistletoe in silver birch. Photo courtesy Chris Miksic.

Prayer. What needs asking and acknowledgement? Wordless is fine. Asking is a good part of prayer, and there are many other prayers. Gratitude is powerful prayer. Linked with silence, it can become a dedicated daily practice. Or try out words. “Let my prayer rise like incense” says Psalm 141: “… the lifting up of my hands like evening sacrifice”. Find a verse or lyric, song or poem and let it be your prayer. Listen for the prompts everywhere: other people’s words, advertising jingles, casual remarks, a headline, a child’s question, the wordless eyes of animals, the “slow gestures of trees”, as UK LeGuin called them.

Service. What and who do I serve already? Can I build on that? Where are new forms of service looking for me? Who is serving me already that I can acknowledge? I start small, and the list grows. Dropping off a meal to a shut-in. Shoveling a driveway. Serving myself, saying “no” when I need time and space.

Change. What can I help be born? What is seeking to emerge? How can I help shape it? What can I let go of in my life, so that a new thing can find birth? What can I welcome that’s arriving?

Contact. What needs touching? Is it me? What can I invite to touch me? If I don’t have human presences, are there animals who enjoy touching and be touched? What can I bring into connection that’s separate right now? What parts of my life deserve to meet each other, and would flourish if they did?

Reading. What deserves my attention? It may be an actual book, of course, a collection of poems on my altar, or a beloved book from childhood that I can make a ritual of re-reading myself, or sharing with others. (And dogs and cats can make good listeners for this, too.) It may be things I’ve been noticing in my life. What am I reading in my life, in others’ lives, in the world, in my dreams, that wishes to offer guidance?

Memory. What can I recall? What deserves forgetting, letting go? What can I bless, regardless of where it’s going? What scrapbooks, physical or inward, do I turn over, or revisit? What does memory offer that I can enrich my life with today? Sorting the mix we all have, setting aside some images (burning them?), while keeping others, blessing all, a second time. And a third. What can I add to my store of memory? What memories deserve sharing with others? What memories do others have that also touch on my life? What memories can I honor that have little or nothing to do with me? What memories does this elm have, that hickory? Let me honor them.

Nourishment. What needs feeding? Is it for me to feed them, or for someone else? How have I been fed? What forms of nourishment can I bring into my life? What am I bringing in already? What forms can I share with others? What prayer of gratitude can I say, acknowledging those gone, those still here, for feeding things in me that might never have survived without their help?

Freedom. What needs to run free? What do I hold on to that would make both of us happier if I let go? What can I welcome that comes to me freely, unbidden, unlooked-for? What symbols of freedom speak to me that I can bring into my attention, my spaces, as reminders and for my growth?

As Mary Oliver exclaims in one of her poems, “so many questions more beautiful than answers”.

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Applied Magic   1 comment

[Part One | Part Two]

If you’ve ever planned for the future, you’ve practiced a form of magic. Wait a minute, you say. That’s not magic.

Sure it is. You have an intention or goal, and you imagine it, seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting it in ways that seem so ordinary and commonplace we mostly pay no attention to the marvel of what we’re doing. Only when we find ourselves saying “But it didn’t turn out like I thought it would!” do we encounter a mismatch between the picture we painted and carried around with us, and the reality as it finally manifested. Obviously we held a pattern, image, blueprint, plan, etc. in our awareness. It took a few side-roads on the way to appearing here, where we can see and interact with it. No matter. More than before. Do it differently. Revise, modify, experiment.

I may be a visual person, or an auditory or a kinesthetic one, or some other kind of perceiver and manifester, by predilection and experience, that doesn’t have a ready label. Further, the event I manifested may or may not match what I expected or hoped, but it did manifest — as it never would have, if I hadn’t set it in motion in the first place. “As above, so below” — in this case, the above was my plan, and the below was the physical form it took. Schools that could teach us how to get better at this ability instead teach almost everything else but that. Often that’s because the teachers themselves have had the ability taught right out of ’em.

Plenty of folks would like to deny us recognition and use of this basic ability altogether, because it’s the key to freedoms and joys of many kinds, and so it cuts into their power plays. Our politicians insist that only they can fix what’s ailing the town, province or planet, our partners insist they’re essential to our happiness (or we are, to theirs). Priests, pastors and imams would prefer we not discover how independent of them we actually can be, so the ability gets labeled evil, sinful, diabolical, dangerous, forbidden, and any other convenient and manipulative name, even though every one of us alive uses it daily in its simplest forms. But the more advanced levels in particular, the ones that grant larger abilities to change and grow, are naturally more dangerous to the stable order of things, and to those who ardently desire to profit from “the way things are”.

That’s one reason fear is such a popular tool for control, and so widespread today. Keep people ignorant and afraid, keep them from using or even knowing the potentials of their own ability, keep them dependent on a big mommy or daddy for a pitiful, reduced version of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and you’re halfway home to power — of a sort.

Cover up the push into ignorance and dependency with a skillful blend of threats and promises, of magicking up a useful opponent to take the fall, the blame, the consequences of the fear you’ve sown in people’s hearts and minds — and there are so many opponents ready to hand — to distract people from what you’re doing to them, and you’re home free.

If you can attack the very freedom you’re taking away as the cause of the troubles the people face, you’ve graduated to “excellent dictator” status. Congratulations! You’ve mastered one form of debased magic, depriving other people of their birthright. No need to argue whether it’s successful — just look at today’s headlines.

If such low and often negative magic can accomplish so much, what of more positive varieties?

0-FoolExperiment with learning more about your animal familiar — an ancient and worldwide practice. Animal guardians and teachers abound in myth, legend and folktale for good reason. Many of us know instinctively why we keep pets, and every year we learn more about the health benefits and remarkable abilities domesticated animals bring into our lives. The tarot Fool sets out on the long journey toward wisdom already accompanied by an animal. Who are your companions and what can they teach you?

Formal study and practice of traditional magic may not be for you, temperamentally or practically. But if you decorate your living space with harmonious colors, bringing in plants and pictures that uplift you and establish an oasis of harmony and balance, you’ve magicked your dwelling to aid you in daily life. Or look at your musical tastes and contemplate the harmonics of sound that feed and nourish you. Investigate the effects and use of song, chant, rhythm, pitch, etc. Drums, bells, musical instruments of many kinds can assist you in sound magic. Again, many religious and spiritual traditions speak to the power of the word, voice, sound of creation, music of the spheres, names of gods and angels, etc. Long human wisdom testifies to the potency of sound magic.

Dream work can help put us in touch with levels of experience and consciousness beyond the daily news awareness that can seem like all there is. Plenty of resources exist for studying dreams, recording them, analyzing them, and learning from what they have to teach us. And inspire us. Work on anything that asks you for creativity, and if you focus long enough, the work will follow you into dream. Write, and your characters will begin to talk to you. Paint seriously, and you’ll eventually see patterns, colors, worlds of beauty inwardly nearly impossible to render with earth tones and hues. Garden, and you may be led to plantings and pairings you hadn’t anticipated, or to resources to help you and your plants flourish. Many gardeners know how restorative the work can be. And so with many professions and occupations. It’s hard in fact to think of one that lies outside the purview of dream power and exploration.

Rachel-Pollack

Rachel Pollack

The Tarot is a course of magical (and life) instruction all by itself. Find a good overview or book of practical exercises. Two texts I can recommend from long work with them are 78 Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack and 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card by Mary Greer. They pair well together, these masterworks by acknowledged masters of the Tarot, complementing each other’s perspectives. When I just checked a few minutes ago, both were available used for $8 or less. Rachel Pollack’s pocket admonition: “To learn to play seriously is one of the great secrets of spiritual exploration”.

Another excellent and quite painless way to acquire a set of vantage points for a magical understanding is to immerse yourself in fantasy and mythology, while practicing visualizations and ritual work with the archetypes present in the latter in particular. Fantasy propels us into alternate realities through the written word, already a magical act. Add the further dimensions that film affords, combining sound and color and embodiment by (usually) skilled actors, and you expand the experience into one quite close to ritual. It’s no surprise that the magical and visionary arts have enjoyed a resurgence in the last century, when we have such preliminary training on hand in these popular forms.

To sum up, then, magic is our birthright, something we practice already, and can explore and refine, like any talent. We shift states of consciousness every day, and what we can’t do in one state, we can often do easily in another. The methods and techniques for shifting, because they bring us to face locks on consciousness, as the previous post indicated, allow us to begin to circumvent, break down or dissolve these impediments.

Then we begin to discover that there are many worlds, and at the same time we discover how to gain access to them, since we intermittently inhabit them already, in moments of heightened experience, in grief, joy, love, exaltation, intense focus and creativity. Each of us is and has a doorway, eventually multiple ones, that we can activate to explore and grow and delight in. And it is there that we meet and shape and begin to fulfill our destinies.

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Expanding — and Focusing — Our Magic   Leave a comment

[Part One | Part Two]

In a recent comment, Steve writes:

A broader definition of magic sounds interesting, especially when compared with some of the ideas about it I have encountered over the years.

Do you have a working definition you could share or is this something you have developed in your blog?

I do have a working definition of magic, and I’ve also written about it in various forms fairly frequently, though not always under that label. But it’s good to regularly take out opinions and understandings, dust them off, rattle them, note what shakes free, scrape off the rust, and buff and polish the rest. So with the spur that Steve’s comment provides, that’s what I’ll do in this post.

Yevgeny-zamyatin

Yevgeny Zamyatin / Wikipedia / public domain

Our definitions come, mostly, after experiences. Before that, we don’t have much to attach them to, and if anyone who’s reading this is anything like me, your definitions at that point may not match things that you later DO experience. So then we get mired in the mismatch, rather than referring back to the original experience. Or — even better than looking backward — experiencing more, other, wilder. So I open up once again a page where I can re-read irascible old revolutionary Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), whose essay “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters” reminds me: “Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud”.

“Privilege”? Tired of a too-steady diet of cud, I aim to forage more widely.

So I’ll begin by asserting we all practice magic, and work outward from there, using this as a core assumption and seeing how it holds up. We do much of our magic half-consciously, so that we often don’t perceive the patterns, causes and effects of what we set in motion as clearly as we might. After all, like most of us, I insist on who I am: in my case, straight, white, male, employed, married, healthy, intelligent, rational. But when even one of these breaks down, as every one of them has for at least some of us over a lifetime, my world trembles violently, even if it doesn’t collapse outright, and I scurry and latch on to explanations for what’s going on.

Isn’t such an interval about the least likely time for any of us to notice the patterns, causes and effects of what we’ve set in motion? And even if and when we do, we tend to account for them only with naturalistic explanations (Pagans may add supernatural but not necessarily more accurate ones), including blaming other people, fatigue, stress, illness, the government, conspiracies, the Man, our reptilian overlords, a loveless marriage, plain bad luck, and so on, forgetting how much even of our conscious experience at the very moment of our explaining has been programmed by education, habit, expectation, culture, practice, a “reasonable explanation”, and a simple, overriding human desire not … to … be … weird.

magic

But … magic?!

At the heart of this often-inaccurate accounting is a precept that disturbs and offends Westerners in particular, taught as we are that we are free and independent beings, with wills and choices subject to our conscious attention. We are not so free after all, but if we can’t even examine this assertion in the first place, what are we to do? If we all practice magic, as I claim, we all need to, because as musician and mage R. J. Stewart observes:

With each phase of culture in history, the locks upon our consciousness have changed their form or expression, but in essence remain the same. Certain locks are contrived from willed patterns of suppression, control, propaganda, sexual stereotyping, religious dogma; these combine with and reinforce the old familiar locks restraining individual awareness; laziness, greed, self-interest, and, most pernicious of all, willful ignorance. This last negative quality is the most difficult of all to transform into a positive; if we truly will ourselves to be ignorant, and most of us do in ways ranging from the most trivial to the most appallingly irresponsible and culpable, then the transformation comes only through bitter experience. It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20-21).

“[D]enied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness”: we might think such a “locked-up” person simply needs re-education, or better training, maybe positive reinforcement, a decent opportunity. (I note here that it’s almost always some other person who’s the problem, or needs the help — never me. After all, I’m awake and in charge of my life.) This is also where we get much of the American program of self-improvement, “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”, as it used to be called. Those who can afford it try therapy, or weekend retreats and workshops. Those who can’t may rely on pharmaceuticals or liquor or increasingly available weed. As the evidence mounts, as the growing dysfunction, suffering, addiction, unhappiness and all-around misery attest, something’s not working.

So why magic, of all things? Surely any number of other options would be preferable to something so half-baked, superstitious, irrational, etc., etc. — the list of slanders, some of them justified by pernicious snake-oil salesmen, is long.

J. M. Greer, ecologist, blogger, conservationist and mage, puts it this way:

[t]he tools of magic are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough (J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88).

To put it another way, in what is not a particularly poetic magical Druid triad: Magic stems from an experiential fact, an experimental goal, and an endlessly adaptable technique.

The fact is that each day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness and back again.  We make these transitions naturally and usually effortlessly. They serve different purposes, and what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation. What we do mechanically and often without awareness, we can learn to do consciously.

The goal of magic is transformation – to enter focused states of awareness at will and through them to achieve insight and change. Often, for me anyway, this is nothing more mysterious than moving out of a negative, depressed or angry headspace at will into a more free, imaginative one, where I can problem-solve much more effectively, and also be much more pleasant to be around. Or so my wife tells me.

“The major premise of magic,” says R. J. Stewart, “is that there are many worlds, and that the transformations which occur within the magician enable him or her to gain access to these worlds” (R. J. Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 7).

The technique — a cluster, really, of practices and techniques — is the training and work of the imagination.  This work typically involves the use of one or more of the following: ritual, meditation, chant, visualization, concentration, props, images and group dynamics to catalyze transformations in awareness. “… [O]ur imagination is our powerhouse …” says Stewart. “… certain images tap into the deeper levels of imaginative force within us; when these are combined with archetypal patterns they may have a permanent transformative effect”.

Ouroboros-benzene.svgEven mundanely, golfers visualize a hole in one, carpenters see the finished design long before it emerges from the blueprint, chemists rely as much on inspiration as any artist for discoveries like that of August Kekule, who dreamt of the structure of the benzene ring via the archetypical image of a snake swallowing its tail.

Furnish the imagination with the food it needs, and it can be a powerful tool and guide. Abandon it to others who do not know us, nor have our best interests at heart, and we cast away our birthright.

PART TWO — Applications — coming soon.

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