Archive for the ‘sacrament’ Tag

2: Druid and Christian — Elemental Sacraments   Leave a comment

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

In the previous post I wrote: “In sacrament rather than creed lies one potent meeting-place for Druid and Christian”. It’s this junction that I’ll continue to explore here.

What’s a sacrament? A means of perceiving the sacred. Though every culture has them, in the West our access points to the holy can feel few and far between, even more precious because of their rarity. Of course we’ve trimmed and peeled many of them away ourselves — some too soon, others well after their expiration dates.

 

fireworship-yi2

Fire worship among the Yi people in Kunming, China. Xinhua News.

Nonetheless, as a doorway, sacrament itself isn’t holy, except by association. It acquires a secondary patina of holiness that makes up part of the uplift we can experience when we turn its way, if it’s still working. For it can indeed be profaned, though the underlying sacred reality it points to is immune to human tampering. That reality wouldn’t be worth much, after all, if we could trample it in the mud.  (And we do our share of trampling. One of the more startling instances comes from Quebecois French, which intentionally repurposes Catholic vocabulary for profanity — including the word sacrament itself.)

water-heart

Hence, when “the barbarians are at the gates”, they (we) can destroy things of beauty, reverence and spiritual power, but the reality that gave them birth remains untouched. It will burst forth again in new forms and guises to open the eyes and the hearts of people yet unborn.

Will it? We certainly say and believe such things. Are they merely a kind of whistling in the dark?

One test lies in sacraments themselves. Many of them may receive scant acknowledgement in a given culture. Yet who among us who has deeply loved another person doubts that there is a sacrament made manifest? We can and do sentimentalize it, in part to avoid its sacramental power.

Other examples abound, instances that many cultures hedge about with rituals of word and action. A meal shared with others, a birth, a death, a “first” in a young life: first love, first kill, first sexual experience, first assumption of other adult roles and responsibilities. The fact that in so-called secular cultures we still institutionalize and legalize such things as drinking alcohol, driving cars, voting, joining the military, merely confirms a spiritual fact — awkwardly, perhaps, and blindly groping for its deeper truth, no doubt. That we confer grades of status by age attests to our discomfort with other criteria — ones that require wisdom, vision, insight. It’s easier to grant status mechanically, by the calendar, than to search a heart.

A sacrament, then, because it’s “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” as the 5th century St. Augustine perceived, acknowledges something that already exists. We don’t create it, though we allow it to take shape and form, to have an impact, because we make room for it in our lives. (There seems to be a Minimum Sacramental Quotient, an MSQ, in every life: we’re all born, eat, and die, even if we shy away from, and struggle to avoid, every other divine intrusion on our human busy-ness.) We can midwife the sacred, and catalyze and welcome it, then, or resist it, but only up to a point. Grace is gratia, gift — and ample reason for gratitude.

When Druids initiate a new Bard, something happens that allows a sacrament that outward manifestation. When a Christian experiences the presence of God in prayer or Communion, the connection with the sacred moves from inner potential to outer expression. We can sense it, often, with our physical bodies. Or in the words of one of the repeating songs from Beauty and the Beast, “There’s something there that wasn’t there before”. Lacking other means of access, many people experience sacraments, or at least a sacramental flavor, in the “profane” world of Hollywood and the entertainment “industry”. So let’s be more profane, not less: pro-fane, standing near a fane or shrine, rubbing shoulders with gods and spirits outside, if not in the fane, or making a fane of our bodies and lives.

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One common friction-point in midwifing a sacrament is means. “What’s your fane?” Deny another’s access-points to the sacred by discrediting their sacraments, and you attempt to own and control and box in what is not, in the end, wholly subject to human will. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “No salvation outside the Church”, just doesn’t work for many people any more. (Not to mention that sometimes what you’re looking for isn’t salvation but something else entirely.)

There’s a Pagan movement towards what has been critiqued as “inflation”, and a Christian one that has been likewise critiqued as “deflation”, of the human self. Pagans appear to deify, and Christians to abase, the self, Both meta-techniques strive to open the doors to the sacred by removing obstacles to sacraments. And making a proper container for what is holy can be a deal of work. Latter-day solutions like “spiritual-but-not-religious” attempt to bypass the need for containers altogether, but they offer their own problems, and containers tend to creep back in.

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Samhain. Hallowed Evening. Masses, rituals for the Dead-who-live. Calling out their names, those who have passed in the previous year. Hear them named around the evening fire.

“Look in the mirror, Ancestor. The veil is always thin.”

“What we have received, we pass on.”

“What do you bring from the Otherworld? And what can we offer you?”

“Assist me to erect the ancient altar at which in days past all worshipped, the great altar of all things” run the words of one Pagan rite.

Introibo ad altare Dei, intones the Catholic priest, using the words from Psalm 42:4. “I will go into the altar of God”.

“Look at the shape of the altar; it is your own consciousness”, says one of the Wise.

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Can we see here the faint outlines of a shared set of sacraments for Christian Druids and Druid Christians? What links followers of Grail, Cross and Star, who long to extend what each does best, sacramental elements, elemental sacraments in the broader sense of components, basic parts, building materials for the Door that is always open, the “Door without a Key”? Jesus says “I stand at the door and knock”, and Merlin waves and beckons from the other side. Earth and water, air and fire, blood and mistletoe, wine and breath, we bring you to our altars.

In our awkward groping ways, we all stumble on and into sacraments. For those looking to learn from these two neighboring traditions, ones with Trees at their centers, maybe one of the first sacraments to celebrate is humility with each other, humilis, an attitude and approach close to the earth, humus. “Earth my body, fire my spirit …”

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Images: Fire worship; “Living water“.

 

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1: Druid and Christian — “The Table Round”   Leave a comment

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

In this post I’m more cranky than usual, so I invite you to read with compassion rather than judgment — for your own sake, never mind mine.

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Where’s the real “Good News”, Jesus? Why is it so hard to find it in the churches with your name attached? Saints still appear, but more often in spite of Christendom than because of it. “Jerusalem, we have a problem”. (The problem, of course, is limited human consciousness, not the example of spiritual mentors and teachers, whom we keep deifying rather than actually following. Slow learners, all of us.)

“Be not simply good but good for something”, Henry David Thoreau exhorts his readers. Like what, Henry?

“A Christian must be esoteric!” exclaims Father Heinz Naab, in David Lindholm’s article, “Meeting a Modern Druid Christian in the Garden of Delights“. But what that esotericism means is left to the spiritual discretion of the seeker.

“The practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion”, notes John Michael Greer in his essay “The Gnostic Celtic Church“. In sacrament rather than creed lies one potent meeting-place for Druid and Christian.

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In Christian tradition, Jesus is about 33 when completes his mission, dying on a Roman cross and afterward appearing to his followers, still spiritually alive. His “actual” age matters less than its metaphorical value, just as dogma matters less than experience. In Christian and Jewish terms, he was the right age to enter the priesthood (see Numbers 4:3).

In terms of the tarot, that much disputed and profoundly useful tool, we can gain further perspective. With Caitlin and John Matthews’ version, the Hallowquest Arthurian deck, the numerological practice of adding the numbers of his age together gives us 6, the card of Taliesin (who assumes forms human and animal before he is devoured by Ceridwen and nine months later is born again as the future bard). A fruitful theme for meditation — I could, for instance, see Taliesin as an avatar of the divine incarnating in creation, a model for human transformation through spiritual practice.

Or we can add the 11 years’ difference between the 22nd and last card of a traditional deck and Jesus’ age, and taking a second passage through the deck, arrive at the 11th card, which in Matthews’ version is the Round Table.

Last-Supper

Da Vinci, “The Last Supper”. Wikipedia — public domain

So many of the paintings depicting the Last Supper present Jesus not at the head of the table, but at its center, fulfilling his words (John 15:15) and dissolving the distance between them: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you”.

And the medieval Round Table, which the 13th century French poet Robert de Boron‘s Merlin creates in conscious imitation of that Passover table of Jesus and his followers, also seats 12, with an empty seat left by Judas and only to be filled when a worthy knight achieves the Grail. (In later versions of the story, it’s Sir Galahad who earns the right to sit in the Siege Perilleux, the Perilous Seat.)

siege-perilous

Galahad taking the Perilous Seat. Painting by Evrard d’Espinques (15th  c). Wikipedia public domain. Words in red: “… assist galaad au siege …”

Jesus does not establish a hierarchy but abolishes it instead. He is immanu-el — god with us, present in humanity and in the natural world. And as a model for such fellowship — no one can claim a dominant seat at a round table — the object is a fitting symbol. Merging human and divine in his own person, Jesus offers a powerful exemplar. This is how creation is healed: we manifest our true identity instead of cowering behind our imagined powerlessness. For we are fearful of nearly everything — the future, the world, disease, death, and each other perhaps most of all. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

We see how distant we are from such manifestation if we attempt it through such avenues as “identity politics” today, for this spiritual achievement is precisely what politics of any sort can never deliver. Nor, in the end, is it intended to, though “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” fail without the spirit. (Humans as political animals have had long enough, after all: centuries, millennia! And nothing better within “Christian states” than non-Christian ones. Advantages of geography and resources, yes. But does anyone sane imagine America as a “fully Christian nation” (in the terms its Dominionist advocates propose) could provide such consciousness?)

Instead we have a model, a guide and a set of images from a blend of Druid and Christian sources that point toward a profound spiritual practice common to both traditions. But if we would follow it, we also need to hear the scale of things where it happens most readily: “where two or three are gathered together in the name of divinity in creation …” Let what we incarnate today be a sacrament that we share with others we meet.

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Images: Last Supper; Siege Perilleux/Perilous Seat, by Evrard d’Espinques (fl. 1440-1494), Wikipedia public domain.

Elemental Baptisms — Druid & Christian Theme 2   Leave a comment

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Spirit animates all things, earth and water, air and fire. To live is to experience, in Christian terms, a continuous sacrament. The sacraments of Druidry are the elements. Spirit makes life sacred, and we know this to the degree we recognize and participate and commit to living fully and wholly.

-- by Fi BowmanThe energies of the elements feature widely in both Druidry and Christianity. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, and water energies characterize the Bardic grade in many Druid traditions — inspiration and intuition, dream and emotion and astral awareness. The place of the Bard is the west, long associated with elemental water. Standing in the west, the bard also faces east — sunrise, beginnings, elemental air, perception and knowledge.

We’re always crossing and re-crossing elemental lines and boundaries. Neither earthy gnome nor watery undine, airy sylph nor fiery salamander, we’re all of these, linked to each.

We might see and call each person’s life a spiral of elemental baptisms. So we ritualize it as a sacrament and reminder. Each of us cradled in our mothers’ wombs, our earth bodies forming, the amniotic waters bathing us as we take on physical shape and substance. No breathing except what our mothers do for us. Then birth, and that first cry, a gasp of air in new lungs, the loss of that other body and its warmth, our first journeying into a world that offers us choices and ventures among all four elements.

jesus--magicianWhat more earthy place to be born for a child of god — all of us children of the divine — than a stable? How fitting that in the traditional story, animals surround the holy newborn, with their hay and straw, along with the reek of dung and the puffs of animal breath. The Golden Tarot features the holy magician surrounded by beasts, implements and symbols of the elemental altar at his feet.

Yet even at birth, at such a private affair, surely a matter of just father, mother and child only, a star shines distantly to herald each birth. We saw his star in the east, say the Magi, the Mages, the Magicians, and we have come to honor him.

Follow your own star, counsel the wise ones of many traditions. You are my guiding star, say our love stories and tragedies. A star shines on the hour of our meeting, say Tolkien’s Elves. Nothing is random.

And disaster? That’s a dis-aster, an ill star that may shine and color our lives. But other stars also — always — are shining. We are never just one thing only. And the Ovate is the grade of the north, the mysteries of life and death, healing and divination, time and fate and return. We are earth at birth, but all of the elements in turn and together, too. Stand in the north, the place of earth, of incarnation and death, and take stock. Learn the herbs that heal and harm, chant the words and sing the charm.

The call of rivers and oceans, streams and pools and wells. Water baptisms, summer swimming holes, the daredevil dive from a height into water that some of us risk. Do we long to “make a big splash” as we enter our adolescence? Surely a time of water and emotion, of dream and imagination, as the world unfolds itself into our first inklings of adulthood, as hormones surge and wash through us, working their watery changes. And those stories of the Biblical flood, of Atlantis drowned, of Mu and Lemuria. We live our lives on a planet dominated by water, we carry in our veins a blood that mirrors the primeval ocean in its salts and minerals, our bodies made of water and earth, subject to the tug of a tidal moon.

Air that fills our lungs, that in-spires us, that makes up one of the rhythms of our whole lives, until we ex-pire, that last breath going out, just as with our first cry we took it in. Air that caresses sweetly or gusts violently, every element meeting us in all its guises, fierce and gentle. Jesus on the mountain, transfigured. Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by power, by simply existing, alive, a blend like each of us of the elements and spirit.

And there in his sight the diabolic or oppositional aspects of incarnate life pull at him. Cast yourself down, the voice taunts him: you won’t really die. Who among us hasn’t stood on a high place and imagines jumping, imagined not plummeting to death, but somehow floating, flying, a power beyond what human life gives? What will we do with this enormous power each of us has to heal or hurt, make or mar the people and places we live? Renounce it, ignore it, forsake it, abuse it, explore it, fulfill it?

Conception and taking on form, an earth baptism of the North.

Birth and first breath, an air baptism of the East.

Adolescence and its hormonal tides, a water baptism of the West.

Adult passion and dedication to a worthy cause, a fire baptism of the South.

harry-potter-scarTrace the traditional order and position of each element in that sequence — North to East to West to South — and you describe a zigzag, a Harry Potter lightning flash.

And to push further at the symbolism, to go all nerdy and allegorical for a moment, because we can, we’re all marked by a vol de mort, the will of death, a will shaping the particulars of this life that ends at death, whatever may or may not follow.

But until then!!

Other baptisms, of suffering and love, growth and pain and knowledge, each time the elements forming and reforming in our experience. Bones breaking, healing. Bodies ill and recovering, hearts broken and full to bursting, minds challenged and sharpened by training and testing, blunted on battlefields and in factories, regenerated in gardens and gatherings, shaped in schools and lives.

In each life humans spiral through these baptisms, each renewing the experience and memory of the previous one, but also extending it, transforming it. Never twice the same, and yet familiar, too.

Jesus changing water to wine, a water-fire baptism of surprise at a wedding, a symbol of wholeness along the spiral, elements blending and merging. Jesus transfigured, on the airy mountain. Jesus crucified, the pain of incarnation and death, all the elements again, body and blood, breath and fire of pain, of ending. It’s finished, he says. in one gospel. I’ve done what I came to do.

Don’t each of us? To live at all, whether short or long, is to experience the whole gamut, every baptism multiple times. Death, yes. The tomb where they lay Jesus, and roll the stone door shut. Elemental baptism of earth again. Spiral, spiral.

For that’s not all. Because resurrection. Spring. Rebirth. In the northern hemisphere, look out your window. No need to believe any of these things. Walk out the door and experience them for yourself. Make a ritual out of it. Figure out after what it “means” to you. Live it.

To go pop-culture on you: I’ll be back, says the Terminator, mirror of the Creator. The great Ender, who promises a death before life even gets fairly launched. Prevent the future. But No fate — he doesn’t “win.” Instead, life changes him — our perception changes him. He becomes, death becomes, potentially at least, an ally, if a difficult one.

Death is the mother of beauty, says crazy old bard Wallace Stevens. (All bards, to make a verse or song or story, must be a little crazy from time to time. It’s good for them, good for us.) What?! I shout, outraged. Death is the mother of beauty, he repeats, quietly. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.

The gift of incarnation is to draw out from each element the fullness of what it offers. A ritual of elemental baptisms can help us recognize the opportunity of each as it spirals by, and ride the energies of the elements. Give me a rich, full life. I long to drink it all, the bitter, yes, inevitable. But also the sweet, the fair, the lovely, the shining, the joy.

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Images: elementals; Golden Tarot Jesus as Magicianscar.

Song of the Water Druid   Leave a comment

waterfallA water meditation, to be read slowly to oneself, in the same way water flows and falls.

“The highest good is like water,” whispers chapter eight of the Tao Te Ching.  Jump in a pool or lake on a summer day, or take a hot shower after working up a sweat, and who would disagree?  Whisky, brandy and other distilled spirits have variously been called aqua vitae, “water of life.” And “whiskey-bey” or uisce beatha, the Gaelic for whisky, is literally “water of life.” St. Patrick reportedly used the term aqua vitae both for alcohol and the waters of baptism.  Jesus baptized with water (and — with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost — with fire:  with both masculine and feminine elements).  The Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the deep in the Biblical account of creation in Genesis, as if water were there all along, part of the primal substance God found on hand, in the dark, and used to create everything else.  Water the divine unconscious, adapting to whatever form it finds.  All things turn toward water.

“The highest good is like water.” Water itself says this, if I listen.  Splash of the ocean’s tide, fall of water in a cascade or fountain.  “Earth my body, water my blood,” goes the Pagan chant.  It’s in us, of us — we’re of it.  The human body is mostly water, we hear from many quarters.  Hydrate!!  We answer to what we’re made from, the amniotic fluids that bathe and nourish the growing fetus.  The womb shelters a pool, a miniature sea.  The Great Mother, Stella Maris, Star of the Sea.

Medieval magicians called water a “creature,” a created being, and the personification of water in the figure of the undine puts a face to the endlessly changing aspect that water wears.  To be a water druid is first to listen to water.  I never learned to swim till I reached my twenties, and a recurring dream throughout my childhood of falling into water and drowning left me with fear of heights over water.  (Heights by themselves, though, are no problem for me.)  There was my path through and to water.  I listened, though part of the act was listening to fear.  But that got my attention like nothing else could, so I count it useful.  I strive to listen wider.

meiyangselvagedao“Water benefits all beings without contending with them, and flows to the lowest places men disdain.  In this manner it approaches the Way.”  Tao, the way that water flows.  “dao ke dao fei chang dao”: the way that can be followed as a way isn’t the way the way goes, to “English” it rather clumsily.  Water flows, following its nature without thinking about it.

I don’t need to look any further for a sacrament, a way to make things sacred.  Drinking, bathing, being born is worshiping,  Attention, intention, makes the offering.  The words of the old Anglican wedding vow “With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship” get it right.  If we want to worship, we can begin with the body, with the waters ringing our planet and flowing in our blood.  We don’t need to disdain the body because it’s “only” flesh, but celebrate it.  To be alive is a holy act.  The elements help us remember this, signify it, and make it so.  Thus sings the Water Druid.

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Images: waterfall; Mei Yang Selvage‘s remarkable painting of the character “tao” or dao, with the final elonngated bottom stroke forming the boat the man poles.

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 4: “Things of Earth”   Leave a comment

Historical novelist Mary Stewart writes vividly of 500 C.E. Britain in her “Merlin Trilogy,” which begins with The Crystal Cave and the childhood and youth of Merlin the enchanter, who will become Arthur’s chief adviser.  Here (1970 edition, pp. 174-5)  are Merlin and his father Ambrosius discussing the Druids.  At this time, in Stewart’s conception, laws are already in place banning Druid gatherings and practices.  Merlin has recently discovered that the tutor his father has arranged for him is a Druid.

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I looked up, then nodded.  “You know about him.”  It was a conclusion, not a question.

“I know he is a priest of the old religion. Yes.”

“You don’t mind this?”

“I cannot yet afford to throw aside valuable tools because I don’t like their design,” he said.  “He is useful, so I use him.  You will do the same, if you are wise.”

“He wants to take me to the next meeting.”

He raised his brows but said nothing.

“Will you forbid this?” I asked.

“No.  Will you go?”

“Yes.”  I said slowly, and very seriously, searching for the words:  “My lord, when you are looking for … what I am looking for, you have to look in strange places.  Men can never look at the sun, except downwards, at his reflection in things of earth.  If he is reflected in a dirty puddle, he is still the sun.  There is nowhere I will not look, to find him.”

Of course, anyone who followed this noble-sounding principle to even reasonable lengths would have a very interesting and possibly very exhausting time of it.  As I mentioned in my post about Open Source religion, when virtually every human practice with any numinous quality about it can be  and has been pressed into service as a vehicle for religious encounter and a means to experience a god or God, then sacred sex won’t even top the list of things a person might do “to find him.”

Yet Merlin (and Stewart) have a point.  Spiritual inquiry and practice require a kind of courage, if they are to remain fresh and not decline into dead forms and mere gestures of religion. It is these things that the media quite rightly criticize.  When I’m in the grip of a quest, I only hope I can continue to be brave enough to follow out conclusions and — if need be — “look in strange places.”  It looks like courage to an observer, but I find that ultimately it’s a kind of honesty with oneself.  I want to keep looking.  Anything less feels suffocating and aggressively pointless, like painting garbage or eating styrofoam.  Any self-disgust we feel almost always arises from living a lie, which poisons our hours and toils and pleasures.

“Things of earth” cannot ultimately satisfy the inner hunger we feel, but they are valuable pointers, sacraments in the full sense, vehicles of the sacred.  To return to everyone’s favorite numinous topic, pursue sex of any variety, sacred or otherwise, and you’ll prove again for yourself one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell:  “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  Of course, along the way, as a witty recent post on Yahoo Answers has it, it may often happen that “The road of excess leads to the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet of Gluttony, which leads to the Bordello of Lust, which then leads to the Courthouse of Divorce, the Turnpike of Bankruptcy, the Freeway of Despair, and finally, the Road to Perdition.”  Blake did after all call these the Proverbs of Hell.

We just don’t discuss what comes after Hell.  Blake says it’s wisdom.  Hard-earned, yes.  And there are easier ways, which is one good thing that the Wise are here for.  Rather than following any prescription (or Prescriber) blindly, I hope to ask why, and when, and under what conditions the strictures or recommendations apply.

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

Drink deep, fellow traveler, and let us trade tales over the fire.  And when you depart, here’s an elemental chant by Libana, well-known in Pagan circles, to accompany you on your going.

 


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Images:  The Crystal Cave; The Proverbs of Hell.

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