Archive for the ‘solitary spirituality’ Tag

Druiding without (an) Order — 2

[Part 1 | Part 2]

path28In the previous post, I looked at thirteen facets of Doing Druidry that mostly revolve around inquiry and study. You can’t easily be a Druid without engaging in at least some form of one or more of them, because each of them connects you to the worlds where Druidry happens. (If that sounds restrictive or dogmatic or exclusive to you, just go back and look at the list! Got something to add that makes you a Druid? Tell us a little about your journey as you go for it!) The list doesn’t characterize only beginning Druidry, but serves as a rough outline for the kinds of studies that can occupy Druids their entire lives. However, that’s not the only thing happening in the life of a Druid.

In this second post on Doing Druidry without an Order, I want to look at five less tangible aspects of Druidry (and other traditions) that may have occurred to you as you read the previous post. These five are initiation, spiritual formation, community, proficiency and service. From the first glance it should be clear why they’re harder to talk about and describe in terms that people can identify. But that fact in itself makes it worthwhile to try. As you may come to see, these five aspects are closely linked things, almost versions of the same thing.

Initiation

Like other intensely personal experiences, initiation will always be a live issue for many of us. What it is, who can experience it, who can oversee, facilitate or “give” it, what happens when we undergo it, and what we become as a result,  can all provoke passionate discussion and disagreement. Most spiritual traditions have an equivalent of one or more initiations among their practices, and the most non-religious among us still experience “built-in” initiation in human events like birth, death, sex, grief and creative flow. Change characterizes each of them. You’re not the same afterwards. When and how you discover this, however, can range very widely.

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We could claim that one of the things that distinguishes modern Pagan practice from older traditions is the option of self and group initiation. As a comparison, Christians, for instance, can’t usually baptize themselves; to become a Muslim requires two witnesses to hear you recite the shahadah, and so forth.

Like other groups, OBOD succeeds tolerably well in having it both ways: the coursework for the grades of Bard, Ovate and Druid includes self-initiations that members can perform, and as a member of the Order you can request a group initiation with other members, and these two initiations aren’t “the same thing”. The rituals are different, the outcomes can be different, yet paradoxically they are in important ways “the same”.

You don’t need to do both a self and a  group initiation, but it makes little sense to continue unless you do one of them. (Doing both gives you a feel for their interconnections and value.) They’re part of doing Druidry. If you’re doing Druidry without an Order, you’ll come quite naturally to initiation in your own way. Your life will see to that. You can seek out initiation, of course, adapting published rituals to your purposes, or crafting something unique to your own experience. Or you can wait until an experience shapes itself into an initiation, which you may not recognize until after the fact.

For an earlier 3-part series on initiation, go here.

Spiritual Formation

This largely Christian term has no ready Pagan equivalent, though this aspect of practice certainly exists in all spiritual traditions. Christian spiritual formation means molding or conforming one’s life to Christ. In Pagan terms it means moving beyond, diving deeper, maturing in practice and wisdom. You begin to embody more of what your tradition values and holds up as an ideal, of what your deepest spiritual connection opens up to you, and open you up to. Pagans speak of Elders, those with earned authority and sacred connection, in ways similar to how Christians speak of saints, of holy individuals that spirit shines through.

One of the joys of a practicing group is the heightened chances of encountering and knowing such people, learning from their example and growing through associating with them. Being around them can constitute a form of initiation. As a number of the Wise have remarked, spirituality is “caught” rather than “taught”. We’re all in training.

Community

The most obvious difference between the experience of the Solitary and the Order member might seem to revolve around community. Christians acknowledge the priceless gift of others. In Hebrews 12:1, for instance, the sense of a supporting community, many without bodies, pervades the verse: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”. The interior worship spaces of Orthodox churches often have icons on almost every available surface, emphasizing this spiritual presence of a larger community than only those “with skin on”.

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icons at Varlaam Monastery — image courtesy Andrea Kirkby

Pagans may talk of raising power, while Christians acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit. Isaac Bonewits notes:

If the people in a group have bonds of genuine friendship or love between them, their ability to perform ritual will be greatly enhanced. The psychic and psychological barriers that most people keep between themselves will be fewer and more easily breached. This is why Wiccans place so much emphasis on “perfect love and perfect trust” — love and trust, even when imperfect, tend to strengthen each other and increase a group’s psychological and psychic unity (Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, pg. 105).

Of course, one of the discoveries Druids make is that they are never alone. Solitary, but not alone. A whole world of Others surrounds them, and if that is where community lies for that particular Druid, that is the call to answer.

Proficiency

We can become refined in the presence of others. Lifted out of our own concerns by the group energy, we can begin to “see larger” than when we arrived, and to take something of that enlarged perspective home with us like a fragrance or flavor to our hours and days. Elastic beings that we are, the company of other people “facing the same direction” can stretch us more than we can easily stretch ourselves, making us more flexible, adaptable, compassionate and empathetic. Think of the privilege of finding a good listener, someone who can still their own concerns and focus their attention on you and your world. How many of us know the love another can express in hearing and seeing us, even if they say little or nothing else? Our lives have been witnessed, our struggles acknowledged, we can walk from there a little lighter of heart.

By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus, and a good test of a group or Order in the simplest of terms is the kind of people they produce. Are they enjoyable to be around? Do they lift you up or drag you down? Are they kind to each other?

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Service

I desire to know in order to serve, runs the vow in more than one magical order of repute.

So I was struck when my teacher remarked one day that he serves in order to know. That’s how I grow and learn, he says. Offer yourself in “the unreserved dedication”, as some Orders call it, without qualification or expectation, and you will benefit. I get so tired of hearing about service, remarked one long-time member. Go apart for a while, counseled our teacher. You’ll be eager to return when you see how it’s a gift of love. You may just need to be on the receiving end for a time, for that to happen.

We may first begin to recognize the value of service when others serve us with love. If you’re like me, you may have a favorite restaurant (pre-virus, if necessary) where the food isn’t the main thing that draws you back. Yes, the meals are good. But it’s the ambience, the atmosphere, the attentiveness and welcome of the staff, the mood of other customers treated hospitably, that shapes your total experience. We go back for the service as much as anything, we say, when people ask.

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In every case, Solitaries find ways to fulfill these aspects. It may demand more flexibility and creativity, or it may take the Solitary in directions others do not understand. Service to the non-human world, for instance, can often pass unseen, unacknowledged for an entire lifetime, known only to the “bird and beast, bug and beech” the Solitary serves.

13 Gift-Day-Flames for Solstice-Solitaries

… 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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“What Remains in the Journal, What to Communicate”

handbirdIn her comment on a post from August ’13, Lorna Smithers makes a distinction particularly vital for “Bardic types” that I want to take up here, especially in light of my last post:

The division between what remains in the journal and what to communicate is a question I confront continuously as a Bard, for unlike with a path that focuses solely on personal transformation through magic, Bards are expected to share their inspiration.

I find that some experiences are ok to share immediately, others need time to gestate for the meanings to evolve and take on a clearer form, and a select few may always stay secret.

I see good craftmanship to be the key [to] sharing experiences. In contrast to the vomit of ‘compulsive confession’, well-wrought craft lifts the raw material into the realms of art, creating works that affirm the awe and wonder of the magical world.

That Bardic instinct to share inspiration that may or may not have been shaped by art can get us in trouble.  The desire to bring into physical expression something that’s going on in your inner worlds can lead to what Lorna accurately calls vomit.  Sometimes, of course, awen really does drop a piece of loveliness in your lap.  It arrives fully-formed, and you run with it, dazed and delighted and puppy-like in your enthusiasm to share the wonder of it with all and sundry, but that (the gift of inspired loveliness, not the puppy-like response) usually only happens when you’ve done plenty of the hard slog of shaping already, alone or with only yourself and your gods for support of a vision no one else may even know anything about.

Sometimes the time and energy your pour into nurturing your creativity can make you defensive if you haven’t “produced” anything visible.  If you’re a writer, for instance, you’re not a “real” writer till you’ve “published.”  Few will care about the months, years or decades of work that may lie shelved in boxes or occupy megs of space on a computer.  The same holds true in comparable ways for anyone who’s devoted time and energy to a craft or art.

Lazy-at-workArtists who should know better sometimes like to hint, or let it be inferred, that this business of “awen on command” is how they work all the time, both mystifying us “ordinary mortals” and also doing a disservice to their craft and the nature of inspiration.  Talent, oddly enough, responds well to practice, and no one works most of the time without effort.

The Anglo-Saxon bard was called a sceop, pronounced approximately “shop,” “one who shapes” inspiration into language and song.  And the word bard comes from an Indo-European root *gwer- that means “to praise”  or “to sing,” indicating two of the roles of the Celtic bard. The same root appears in Latin gratia, and English grace — a whole cluster of relationships — the gift and our response, our gratitude, and the quality in things blessed with awen, the loveliness and fluidity and rightness they often evince.

But if I opt to share something that’s not ready or right to share, I’ll usually regret it.  Let me enthuse or gab about a story or an inner experience before its proper time, and it may lose its luster.  It no longer thrills me enough to work with it, and I take what was a gift and cast it aside, its charm lost.  The spell is broken, and I am no longer spell-bound, or able to do anything with it.  Like the old fairy story of the goblin jewels, in the daylight of the blog, or the careless conversation with another, the one-time treasures that sparkled and shone under moonlight have turned to dead leaves.  One or two such painful experiences is usually enough to teach anyone the virtues of silence, restraint and self-discipline.

walkingAnother half (there are almost never just two halves, but three, four, five or more) of the whole, however, is that keeping the flow going, trusting the awen enough to go with what you get, and allowing the work to manifest, brings in more.  Jesus did know what he was talking about when he said (paraphrased to modernize the language), “To people that already have, more will be given, and from people that don’t, even what they have will be taken away.”  While this may sound at first like contemporary government policy and destructive legislation and current economics, it holds true on the inner planes, in the worlds of inspiration and imagination.

Lorna herself is an exemplar of this Bardic trust and inspiration.  As an Awenydd, one who receives and shapes the gift of awen, she demonstrates in poetry and photography on her blog and in performance the mutual bonds with the Otherworld and spirits of place that make up her path.

And so it was with considerable interest that I read her account “Personal Religion?”  well into writing this post, while I was checking that the URLs were right for the links to her blog.  She experiences a strong reaction on hearing about the OBOD Golden Anniversary celebrations, and launches into a series of probing personal questions without immediate answers which I urge you to read directly.  The challenges she faces are those of one attempting to be faithful to a call, and she follows a path with honor.  Her struggles illustrate the living nature of the Pagan path, with its many branches and trails.  Her practice flourishes precisely because she strives to be faithful to her own vision, which may not always grow and bloom under the “big tent” of orders like OBOD.

Making that struggle visible is valuable — posting it for others to read, ponder and benefit from.

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Images: handbirdhard at work; walking.

 

SBNR — Spiritual But Not Religious

We’ve read it, heard it, thought it, and many self-identify with it.  It leaps faith boundaries; there are respectable atheists who lay claim to it. Meme, cop-out, canary in the mine, badge of honor, ticket to bad-ass-dom or philosopher status, tired PC label.  High-mileage, time-to-change-the-tires, still-up-for-that-road-trip hippy van of the post-post-modern zeitgeist-fest that is for today what “finding yourself” was for a whole other lost generation not so long ago.  You ask, and … there it comes, wait for it … “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

Don’t misunderstand:  I’m not mocking the impulse, just the frequent obliviousness of people who think it’s original with them. According to a Gallup poll from over a decade ago, 33% of Americans apply the SBNR label to themselves.  I doubt that that percentage has dropped at all in the interim.  If anything, it’s probably risen.

ldanielThe phrase annoyed United Church of Christ pastor and author Lillian Daniel enough that she wrote a 2011 guest blog entry for The Huffington Post: “Spiritual But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  Responses to the post helped supply enough material that the original page grew into a book-length collection of essays —When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough.  [As a side note, only the first half of her book directly engages the topic of the title.]

The “enoughness” of Daniel’s title refers to the importance of community, without which she feels a private spirituality can slide too easily into laziness and self-indulgence.  Of course that can happen.  Who holds people accountable for slipping into bad habits, if they seek to find their own truth, in their own way?  [Turns out there ARE some “forces at large” who can keep us in line; for that, keep reading.] How do we avoid a kind of heedless religion of gratitude, if you live in the West and are comfortably middle- or upper-class?  After all, that life can be pretty good much of the time: no starvation, war, oppression, plague and so on.  How do we escape a superficial enjoyment of nature as the whole of our easy religion? (In particular, Daniel inveighs against the “Aren’t sunsets glorious?” crowd who think that their love of beauty is both original and that it “covers all sins.”)

Yes, there’s a Puritanical streak present in Daniel’s irritation (Puritanism defined by H. L. Mencken as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time”).  A fair portion of the SBNR’s may well come across as hedonist agnostics without a care (though I’ve yet to actually meet one), while the good people in congregations like Daniel’s engage each other in all their human imperfection, and are called to be better for it.  But given the litany of ills the world faces, which any reflective person can see are attributable at least in part to the ongoing gluttony of first-world nations in their consumption of the planet’s resources, irritation is a perfectly reasonable response.  Given the imperial overreach of those same nations in their attempt to bully and harangue the world so that their gullets remain as stuffed as possible, irritation might even be a good starting point for making an actual change — though Daniel goes nowhere near so far.

But there’s more of substance going on here, which Daniel is understandably reluctant to examine, since it cuts to the heart of her religion.  Part of an “actual change” has already been going on for decades.

jspongWe can grasp one corner of the change in the words of now retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong.  Spong notes in his Q & A for 11-7-2013 that those he terms the “non-religious” often are still spiritual:

Lots of people who do go to church are “non-religious.” Lots of people who say they don’t believe in God are profoundly spiritual and searching people.

What I seek to describe with the phrase “the non-religious” are those for whom the traditional religious images have lost their meaning. There is no God above the sky, keeping record books, ready to answer your prayers and come to your aid. There is no tribal deity lurking over your nation or any other nation as a protective presence. There is no God who will free the Jews from Egyptian slavery; put an end to the Inquisition or stop the Holocaust. If these goals are to be accomplished, human beings with expanded consciousness will have to be the ones to accomplish them. This means that the category we call “religious” is too narrow and limited to work for us in the 21st century.

The question I seek to answer is that when we move beyond the religious symbols of the past, as I believe our whole culture has already done, do we move beyond the meaning those outdated symbols once captured for us, or is the meaning still there looking for a way to be newly understood and newly symbolized? The word “God” is a human symbol. I believe though that the word God stands for a reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define. To worship God in our generation means not that we must move beyond God, but it does mean that we will have to move beyond all previous human definitions of God. So to be “non-religious” is just a way of saying that the religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning. That does not mean the search for God is over; it means the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged.

Some of what’s unintentionally ironic in Spong’s words here, intended to push against “Churchianity” and provoke mainstream Christians in its Pagan-like tolerance, is that many Christians would agree with him, and many Pagans and Druids in particular wouldn’t.  For the polytheists among the latter, gods and goddesses are indeed real.  Where Pagans and Druids do share common ground with Spong is in their conviction that there is a spiritual “reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define.”  But while it may be that some specifically Christian “religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning,” Pagan symbols feel new again.  Paganism is growing because “the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged”; that’s what makes Neo-Paganism: so much is new.  Talk to a Druid who’s encountered Cernunnos or Morrigan, who serves either as priestess or priest.  Talk to a Wiccan who draws down the Moon.

Finally, if the posts on blogs like those on my sidebar of links are any indication, Pagans and Druids who may be solitaries and practice alone (as often out of necessity as out of choice) face their fair share of profound challenges in their spiritual practice that foster growth and unfolding, deeper awareness, and an enriched capacity to love. After all, Christian saints over nearly two millennia who retreated to hermitages and isolation from human others in order to deepen their spirituality also frequently found what they sought. It betrays a misunderstanding of spirituality to think we can’t practice alone.  Fools and sages are pretty evenly distributed across the planet and throughout spiritual traditions.  The sage I seek may live, not on the other side of the planet, but next door in the trailer, the one with the Chevy up on cement blocks in the front yard.  The fool is often standing in front of me when I look in the mirror.

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Daniel, Lillian.  When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.

Images: Lillian Daniel; John Shelby Spong.

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