Archive for the ‘symbolism’ Tag

Listening to Inwardness–4   Leave a comment

[Part One | Part TwoPart Three | Part Four]

IMG_3378When I began this series of posts on the 21st of November, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that the practice it recounts would run for seven days, ending today, the 27th. But one of the benefits of my year-long work with Wayne London, MD*, in his exploration of the spiritual potential of the labyrinth, has been a deepening understanding of symbolism and ritual.

Often we tend to think of symbols as arbitrary, confusing them with signs like +, %, !, etc. But symbols run deeper, and often cross cultures (though they may change in some of their associations). Even more confusing are objective things, like the sun, that can also function as symbols. So while we can begin to list what the sun “means” — light, growth, warmth, illumination, a god, Jesus, the center of a solar system, and so on, that doesn’t exhaust its symbolic power. Experience the sun vividly, like at sunrise or sunset, watch it pierce the clouds and clear the sky, see it in a dream, and you begin to know its symbolic power in other ways.

The opposite tendency, of course, is to assume that a symbol, because it lies deeper than a sign, and often operates at more subtle levels, is therefore universally “true” or always appropriate, apt or fitting. Encounter the imagery and symbolism of a radically different culture, though, and you can see how symbols depend on lived experience. Water for a desert people can mean something much different from what it does for an ocean-side tribe whose lives revolve around fish and boats, storms and tides. Rain as a symbol in a song or a dream carries a different power.

One of the ways that Dr. London has worked with the seven-path labyrinth is to link it to the Hindu system of chakras (and also to the human sleep cycle). In this case, the number seven has a particular symbolic power, as it does in both Christianity and Druidry, of course, as well as in numerous other cultures — obviously including Hindu culture.

schneiderIn part, this symbolism of seven comes from a quartering of the moon’s cycle of 28 days, so that like many cross-cultural symbols, it augments its force by linkages to an objective reality. The largely planet-wide acceptance of a seven-day week points to a kind of symbolic “fit” with human experience.

Did the original builders of labyrinths perceive something of this symbolic fit or aptness? Is that why the seven-path labyrinth is by far the most common form of this pattern on the planet? (Investigate the 11-path Chartres labyrinth!) Who knows! But what remains to us is a set of associations that organize themselves around seven in a multitude of ways. Examine the evidence in such popularizations as Michael Schneider’s A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art and Science (Harper Collins, 2014), and you begin to see how number symbolism is a particularly deep-lying symbolic sequence in our human experience and perceptions of the physical (and non-physical) world. Fear not, if you’re not mathematically inclined — Schneider’s book relies on images and diagrams, art and hands-on exercises, to bring home his several points.

Like any map, a symbol cannot include everything that it represents. It’s a selection, a set of choices and decisions about priorities. No map can “contain the universe”, nor can any symbol recall to consciousness the entirety of what it symbolizes. This is less a “limitation” of the symbol than it is a given parameter of consciousness in a world of space and time. To insist it be otherwise — to demand that one truth represent the cosmos — is like insisting that the ocean wash over everything. While that might sound at first like an ideal, in practical terms it means we all would drown.

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In his work, Dr. London therefore begins where the seven-path labyrinth begins, at path 3. If we follow the path sequence, as the labyrinth itself suggests — 3-2-1-4-7-6-5 (see previous post for the path numbering) — we find that the extremes of 2-1 and 7-6 are always bounded by returns to the center. (We reach the center of the labyrinth not by path 7 which is “the closest”, but by path 5). To make this clearer, Dr. London notes, we can rewrite the labyrinth path sequence like this: 3-(2-1)-4-(7-6)-5. Our departure, like our arrival, emerges at or near a center: 3, 4, or 5. This fits at least with my sense of a return to the world of lived experience.

Rather than a linear journey ascending the chakras to the full flowering of realization at the 7th chakra as an endpoint, then, Dr. London’s work with the labyrinth suggests a different and more spiraling journey.

Walking the labyrinth, then, is a ritual vision quest (is there any other kind?), following a sequence we cannot miss. This isn’t a maze, but a labyrinth, with a pathway in, and also out. We begin with enough consciousness to enter at path 3 — the manipura chakra, the solar plexus, the gut instinct, the self-assertion to choose to “perform the ritual” — to begin a quest, though we may not know where it will take us. What hero or heroine does, when they set out? Setting out on path 3, as Dr. London observes, “we leave the world of time and space”.

Without that choice, we do not walk with enough awareness to benefit directly from the quest. We are merely swept along by circumstance. (Here, Dr. London’s work on the connection of the sleep cycle to the labyrinth enters the picture in a fascinating way — if we’re not conscious enough to do spiritual work with intention, the sleep cycle nevertheless reconnects us to the cosmos and divinity at a minimal “survival-maintenance level” each night. We are never wholly abandoned to the limitations of life lived in time and space. In theistic terms, the presence of God always reaches out to us. In non-theistic terms, our connection to the cosmos endures — nothing can sever it. “Sleep on it” remains good advice. Again, “we leave the world of time and space” as we enter the realm of sleep).

If we’ve gotten this far — again, we’re starting at the middle, as with Dante’s opening lines to the Inferno, “in the middle of the journey of our life” — we’ve already been walking these paths, knowing they are not entire ends in themselves, but important elements along the way. We simply cannot walk a whole path without them.

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As a symbol, and as a map of the spiritual quest, I find Dr. London’s work useful in my own life, as a spiritual yardstick along the way. We’re still editing a forthcoming publication enlarging substantially on these ideas, tentatively titled “Spiritual and Healing Aspects of the Classic Seven-Path Labyrinth”. His work on what he calls the Grid at the second link below is also ongoing.

Image: Chartres Labyrinth

Link to 2015 iBrattleboro article on Wayne London, MD. Additional links may have expired in the interim.

Grail and Cross — Druid & Christian Theme 5   Leave a comment

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

symbol pageAs with so many geometrical figures, both solid and planar, the Grail and Cross, cup and intersection, are figures that belong to no single group or culture.

Of course cross and star, cup and sword, wand and flame, etc., may be adopted by one or more groups as symbols with meanings specific to the group, but that doesn’t mean the cross is exclusively “Christian”, any more than trees “belong” to Druids alone. The most powerful symbols expand beyond the confines of association with any one group. If they didn’t, we might question their worth.

To choose just one example, the five-pointed star is Pagan, Christian, and more besides. Most of all, it’s an anciently human-devised shape, made to represent a host of ideas and perceptions. Many of the most enduring symbols are mandalas, sacred forms, that often show a high degree of symmetry, or other visual and pleasing harmony. Contrary to what you may have heard, sacred geometry is alive and well, and lives still in our eyes and hearts.

Among the Sumerians, millennia before Christ, the star or pentagram was a logogram meaning “corner, angle, nook, small room”. In Medieval Europe, the star could represent a series of Christian fives: the five wounds of Christ, the five chivalric virtues of a knight, and so on. (The medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight develops this theme at some length.) And as one form of endless knot, the unicursal star or pentagram stood as a symbolic defense against evil. How many nations feature stars on their flags and among their other national symbols? That’s quite a range of meanings and interpretations — and possible uses!

All this said, both Grail and Cross are now firmly entrenched in the Western world as specific symbols, straddling Pagan and Christian understandings of emotion and physicality, manifestation and transformation, magic and divinity. Still, modern instances can reinforce (and subtly reinterpret) older usages. Note this comment about the fictional “Grail Cross” at symboldictionary.net:

This emblem, best known as the “grail cross,” is not a genuine religious or historical symbol, but I receive so many questions relating to the symbol that it is included here. This emblem appears in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” as the emblem of “Brotherhood of the Cruciform* Sword,” the fictional secret society who serve as Guardians of the Holy Grail in the movie.

With its myth- and symbol-making power, modern media is rife with magical purposes — the subject of a separate post, if not a book or entire library. Want a “new” symbol to become charged with meaning and significance? Get it into a film that generates pop-culture buzz and fandom!

gchaltertopAnd because in much of the West we don’t know any more what to do with either sacred or profane, the two go together like a horse and carriage, or jam and toast, hooking up like the hormonally crazed. So here, for your reflection and pondering on the doubled hallowing and polarizing powers of human consciousness, is the “Grail Cross Halter Top“. So many symbols bare their midriffs at some point, turn commercial, and even have a go at sexual reinterpretation. (Here’s the Katy Perry version. Note the addendum on the right-hand image: “steal her style”.) Hence the need for “new” symbols, which are often the oldest ones returning once again to present consciousness at need.

For what the original symbols point to is precisely what their commercial cousins claim to but cannot offer: transformation, youth, beauty, power, energy, fertility. Who doesn’t seek the Grail?

Grail and Cross are one more way for Druids and Christians to find points of communion and exchange, without sacrificing their distinct identities. And such communion can be literal: bread of the earth, wine or grape juice as the blood of sacrifice, the ritual words either Druid or Christian, depending on the purpose, those attending, the group and the rite. What does your imagined shared Druid and Christian ritual look like?

I’ve written here before about the Forest Church movement, and there are creative imaginings, poems and songs that explore this common territory. You can read one instance here, about Jesus and Merlin:

What if
Jesus and Merlin were to meet
At twilight
In the garden, in the grove,
One looking forward to the Skull of Golgotha,
One looking back on the Sacred Head of Bran? …

What could they give to one another
These prophets circling in their Time-long orbits?

You might try out the poem’s answers to these questions on your sense of possibilities. And if they don’t work for you, write yours.

After all, there are as many meeting-points as people. If the holy terrain between Druid and Christian calls to you, better your way than one belonging to another that doesn’t fit you on your arm of the spiral journey. A week’s worth of your own meditations surpasses anything I can write here. These themes are suggestions, prompts, points of departure. They’re mine, and they may not be yours. Their use is as sparks, kindling, tinder, fuel, provocation.

One such locus for both traditions is healing, as OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm has written,

laby-grOne of the most important tasks that face us today is one of reconciliation, whether that be between differing political or religious positions … the Christian community, far from taking fright at a perceived regression to a pagan past, can ally itself with [Druidry] which is complementary, and not antagonistic to Christian ideals and ethics …

St. Columba said “Christ is my Druid” and I believe that if we take Druidry to represent that ancient wisdom which lies deep within us, and that can connect us once again to the Earth and her wonders, we can understand how we can be Christian Druids, Buddhist Druids or Druids of whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development.

As you will know, Christianity in these islands built upon the foundations laid already by the Druids –- their seasonal observances were developed as festival days, their sites were built upon with churches, and the Druids welcomed Christianity for they with their powers of seership and connection to the Source knew of Christ’s coming, and allowed their practices to develop into what became known, at least in Scotland, as the Culdee church.

This segues into the next theme in this series: festivals and holidays.

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Images: symbols; Grail Cross Halter Top; grand-mother and -daughter at labyrinth.

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