Archive for the ‘tradition’ Tag

Gods, Porn, Methods   Leave a comment

End of year thoughts.

The caption of the photo below has a mini-spoiler — skip as needed.

tradition-books

Yoda has good counsel about books in “Last of the Jedi”

“I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet”, writes author, Buddhist and atheist Stephen Batchelor, “but this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say” (Batchelor, Stephen. Living with the Devil. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2004). I gotta ask you: Doesn’t that deserve its own t-shirt?!

What are some of the things that God (or Hamlet) says to us? For the sake of foolishness or efficiency, let’s lump them together, prince and deity.

As late incarnations of the Fisher King, Hamlet, his father and his uncle all share a corruption also infecting their land itself: “something rotten in the state of Denmark”, indeed. Any sources of healing? A grail? There must be something.

Hmm. Fratricide, regicide, suicide — really no good options there. Hamlet at over 400 years old isn’t quite yet as immortal as a god, but it’s on its way, and even a god might well draw the line at three such wretched choices. There may be “special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, the prince reflects, recalling Scriptural assurances of a Divine Plan behind things, but you can tell when such lines have their own threads in our online fora, with people asking “What does it mean?” that the current beta version of the Divine Plan has sent all birds south for the winter of our play. No birds to save us here, no dove for any Ark, wren for inspiration, Eagle of the West to airlift us out of Mordor.

In a word, things suck. It’s gotten to the point where the Prince selfishly denies even his best friend Horatio the “felicity” or happiness of suicide: “Absent thee from felicity awhile/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story”. But, I ask Hamlet and God, are any of our stories worth that? Have things always sucked this much? Do we have any overarching story that can make sense of this world for us? (Three questions, Existential Triad #26.) In all its delicious suffering and gloom and razor wit, we could fairly call Hamlet (the play) a piece of Renaissance theater porn.

Is a spiritual search pornographic? Do we play out spiritual scripts to arouse ourselves in ways others (or we ourselves) deem destructive? (Is that a rhetorical question?!)

Horatio says, speaking of Hamlet — and speaking of all of us, too, because that’s what great cultural achievements do, after all — “he was likely, had he been put on/To have proved most royal”. Yes, along with the dead prince, we’re all “put on”, and all “likely”: life as a matter of the odds.

The “royal” part, though — we just can’t accept that yet, even in the face of stories trying their level best to show us, and teach us how. That identity — it implies too much, the gap yawning between what we are and what we could be, an open wound. So we reject it whenever possible, saving such inward knowing for our most unguarded moments with our favorite music, books, films, crafts, people, waking dreams. (Yes, these things rank nearly equal in my life.) Or “children’s movies” we watch with the kids, that may get it half-right, half of the time.

A 27 Dec. ’17 article (film spoiler alert!) in The Atlantic gets in on the Game.  (We’re all playing.) Writing in “Why The Last Jedi Is More ‘Spiritual’ Than ‘Religious'”, Chaim Saiman begins:

For at least two generations, the Star Wars saga has served as a kind of secularized American religion. Throughout the series, the Force is a stand-in for a divine power that draws on a number of mystical traditions, representing the balance of good and evil, the promise of an ultimate unity, and the notion that those learned in its ways can tap into the infinite.

As Saiman scrutinizes the distinctly contemporary sensibility pervading “Last of the Jedi’s” attitude towards tradition, he concludes “… even a fictional secular religion will likely reflect the spiritual economy of its time”. Our tendency to value experiences over learning, or feeling over wisdom (not that these pairs equate) means we often hold traditions suspect without ever having immersed ourselves in them to learn them from the inside. So we often run from one workshop or neo-tradition or guru to another, collecting them like trophies or merit badges. Unlike Rey, we don’t come with a Force chip apparently pre-installed and active as a standard factory setting. (“Oh yes we do!”, say the stories.) Sci-fi porn?

If there’s a shift in the philosophical and religious tone in “Jedi” from the 1977 original Episode IV “A New Hope”, Saiman asserts, it’s that traditions have failed, and we’re thrown back on ourselves. Self-help porn?

So what, in turn, does that mean for our “spiritual economy”?

The great critic and author Harold Bloom told his students, referring to literary criticism, that interpretation is another form of more or less “creative misreading”.

Let’s extend Bloom’s insight where he never intended it, a popular form of magic in itself. How often we misread our lives and each other, the influences they bear on us, and our own motives and desires! Particularly well-done misreadings fill our theaters and earphones, climb our playlists and Top Tens, shaping the zeitgeist ever since zeits became geisty.

Bloom was famous for telling his students “There is no method except yourself” as far as criticism is concerned, and that too feels more widely applicable to our lives.

Or at least to mine. So here goes. Traditions exist, wisdom exists, we encounter them and decide out of all that we are what we will choose and value. In a pinch, we even creatively assign responsibility for our choices to any and everyone else, out of all sorts of motives, honing and refining our method.

Truth is never OSFA, “one size fits all”, though we recognize reflections everywhere, shards of what often feels like an original Mirror. Human traditions often grab hold of a single shard and — terrified they’ll lose even that one — erect it as the sole truth. Maybe this is our original and only idolatry.

So Hamlet instructs the actors for the play-within-the-play, stand-ins for all of us: “Hold the mirror up to nature (or, we might say, existence), to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. If there’s one thing true wisdom does, it’s to show us such forms and pressures. Not only the holes of a culture and civilization at any given moment, especially our own, but also the rebalancing factors and energies we can apply to survive and thrive in that civilization, and when it starts to falter, after.

In the end, the problem isn’t tradition or ritual, but dead tradition and rotting ritual. The soup of spirituality needs the pot of form, or we go about a life or five with vague intentions that ultimately give us little and fail us at need. “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s”, wrote William Blake.

Almost right.

St Augustine caravaggioFor once I’ll trust old Auggie, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), with the last words this time, with a few annotations. Words suitable to conclude this blog for 2017, and open the way for a new cycle in the new year.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not [only] in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy [unless you need to!], but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.

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Images: tradition; Caravaggio’s St. Augustine.

 

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Ancestry, Polytheism, Tradition   1 comment

Melas commented thoughtfully on the previous post, and I’d like to reflect on his words here. In trying to explore the questions he raises, ultimately I end up pushing hard against my own doubts and understandings and probable prejudices. By this I mean I’m mostly arguing with myself, not Melas. So here goes …

First, Melas’s initial observation:

The poem, though short, is moving, especially upon a reflection, as you have provided. Without considering the poet’s evident meaning or original intention, I’d venture upon a somewhat different interpretation than yours, that is, one based on my traditional views. Let us at least agree that ancestry bears some degree of importance in any tradition of polytheism; the difficult questions are, how much, and what if one is of mixed ethnic ancestry?

I’ll add to Melas’s two “difficult questions” here and make them four: Does ancestry in fact matter, how much, what if one is of mixed ancestry, and does polytheism affect the issue one way or another? (One or many gods, or none, we all have the same energies to work with. Or do we live in wholly different universes simply because we group and name and work with these energies differently?) To continue a theme from the previous post, if we consider a person of Greek descent whose ancestors for at least ten or more generations were most likely Orthodox Christians, is practicing Hellenismos, reconstructed Greek polytheism, a comfortable or straightforward way to find harmony with these most recent ancestors, to enlist their aid, or to maintain their tradition? Or consider the opposite: is the Orthodox Christian angering all those ancestors who preceded Christianity? Is it merely a numbers game?

When I welcome ancestors — the occasionally monotheist, sometimes pantheist, intermittently polytheist being that I am — I invite those sympathetic to me, one of their descendants, today. (Who else, after all, would want to come? Think of those family events you’ve tried to escape!) In this sense, ancestry is indeed everything. I’m here because of them, and with them rest both my gratitude and reverence. But I face choices and challenges both similar to and different from ones they faced. I have ancestors who were Christians, Pagans, atheists, agnostics, animists, polytheists and shamans. How do we sort out such identifications and allegiances?

Do the last thirty generations of so of Christian ancestors of varying degrees of devotion and wisdom trump hundreds of generations and more of pre-Christian ancestors? Will the polytheists among them fight the monotheists in the Otherworld, or at my ritual circle? Does more recent ancestry matter more than the more ancient strains? OBOD’s standard ritual includes a declaration of peace, without which no work can proceed. Those who work the rituals can attest to the power of that declaration, and to the tenor and energy of the rites that follow. What we do, and who we welcome, matter here and now. A feast is ultimately for those who actually attend (though even to be invited is pleasing, too). To paraphrase Jesus, many are called, but fewer are fed.

King’s poem in the previous post acknowledges his

people
back to the beginning of
life,
In the witness of the gods
and the ungods

Back to the beginning: bug and bird, beast and beech tree. I suspect, one of the words I prefer to use in place of believe, because it captures both my doubt and my intuition, that such matters as commitments and practices from one life may recede when we drop the body of that life. We work on what we need to learn. If we truly do experience all things as we move through each circle of existence and awareness, as some Druids teach, then so do our ancestors along their journeys. Some things we give up, even as we take on others. (Some will follow us through many lives.) Whether this time around I was baptized into the “right” church, or offered the traditional gifts to welcome my spirit guide on my vision quest, may matter little compared to our enduring work along the Spiral of all beings to learn and grow in strength and love. And from what I’ve seen, we’re all slow learners. The Spiral is large and long.

Melas comments:

To the first [how much does ancestry matter?], I would say as much as possible, since a connection by blood is an inner force and connection (literally and figuratively) that can’t be replaced easily or dispensed with as unessential. I am not wholly Greek in ancestry, but my ancestors are partly from neighboring nations, and therefore choosing for me is easier than someone half-Greek and half-Chinese. In such a case, it would be best to take a side, I mean join one tradition without scorning the other, since large distance is inconvenient and causes confusion in the mind and heart.

When the choosing is clear, the choice can align the chooser quite effectively within a tradition that can be a solace and a guide, a source of strength and identity. Today many are still born with such a clear ancestral heritage. In such a case, it may indeed “be best to take a side, I mean join one tradition without scorning the other”. Perhaps Americans feel more keenly the “confusion in the mind and heart” that Melas talks about, with our often mixed ancestries. Confusion may result, whether the distance is physical, cultural, linguistic, genetic, spiritual, psychological, etc.

But should I then be a Christian, because everyone in my immediate family was, and because though I’m deliciously mongrel in many ways, most of my more recent Swiss German, English, Welsh, French, and Scottish ancestors were Christian as well? (I have transcripts of letters from one ancestor eight generations back, admonishing her children to strengthen their faith in trying times.) Should I be Catholic, or Protestant, or provoke ire on all sides and practice a blend of Christianity and Druidry?

Candomble pic

Candomble ritual, Brazil

And I call to mind people known to me personally, who don’t count among their keys to identity a genetic match in this particular life to a particular tradition that nonetheless calls deeply to them. Is there no place for an Asian or African in an often Euro-centric tradition like Druidry? Most traditions of Druidry I know welcome all who come with good will and an open heart, regardless of DNA. And that feels right to me, and to many others. Does that weaken the tradition, or strengthen it? Or indeed not affect it either way?

What are we to make of those whose inner experiences orient them toward traditions outside their apparent genetic heritage? What of the Euro-American adopted into a Native American tribe? The person of mixed ancestry who practices two or more traditions, a syncretism that seems more the rule than the exception, if we look at human history? Many homes in America find ways to honor a colorful braid of ancestral strands, Latino and Jewish and Thai, Catholic and Native American and Nigerian, etc. Haitians practice Vodoun, and Candomble and Santeria flourish in many places in the Americas — syncretistic forms all of them.

santeria

Santeria initiate

What of other new traditions, and restored ones, among people who already have a clear cultural and genetic identity? Native Americans have established the Native American Church, a distinctive set of beliefs and practices blending Christianity and shamanism, with sacramental use of peyote. As a Wise One once quipped, “There is little nature likes so much as to destroy old forms and then create new ones like them”. Do the ancestors of Native tribes ignore their descendants because of this innovation? I suspect — that word, again — that the ancestors either haven’t figured out yet, or worry about it a great deal less than we do.

Melas closes:

This point of the essential connection between ancestors and polytheism is too often overlooked nowadays, and I think it is dangerous. If we don’t stick firmly and mainly to a certain tradition and people (again, without scorning others), we expose ourselves to the uneasiness (sometimes misery) of uncertainty, and further we render traditions unlasting, empty and jumbled by removing distinctions from them.

Does the distinctiveness of a tradition depend on ancestry, or on honoring the ancestors? I see these as different things. I may know next to nothing of my ancestry, or through misinformation and deliberate ancestral deception I may believe things that are inaccurate, but the existence of my ancestors is still indisputable. And what of ancestors of spirit, those who have taught and trained and nourished me though we have no kinship by blood? They matter equally to me and to many others. Are such calls outside our blood the calls of those ancestors?

In the end, I’d argue that the distinctiveness or value of a tradition is simply this: does it meet the needs of those who practice it? Does it nourish the heart and spirit? Does it answer our innermost cry? If it does, it thrives and flourishes: we thrive and flourish in it. If it doesn’t, then like all things in this world, it changes or dies. It may be distinct, but dead. We contain, but also surpass, all that we do. That’s time-bound, however wonderful it is. And we live in more than one world at once, acting in each. But each of us is also still a seed, a potential, waiting in the earth, even as along time’s spiral we fruit and die, sprout again and blossom. The world shows us that much every year.

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Images: Candomble; Santeria.

Regenerating the Old Ways   Leave a comment

boe-coverYears ago “in my other life”, while I was studying Old English, I found myself returning repeatedly to a dialog about 40 pages into our class text.

We were learning from Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader, one of those standard hardcover textbooks you really can’t afford to buy new without a trust fund, the kind of book that generations of students dutifully underlined and annotated and highlighted and struggled through in one or another of its many editions and revisions. (My used copy has at least two previous owners, and the annotations and exclamation points to show for it.) Open to the copyright page and you see the first edition appeared in 1891, 125 years ago. The book itself is now part of a tradition.

Much of the text consists of tables of declensions and conjugations to memorize, alternating with Old English readings, both heavily footnoted. Fortunately, our teacher knew from experience that as long as you sought only to read, you could dispense with a good deal of that memorization. Learn a few core patterns and a high percentage of the time you could understand the grammar of the rest of what you read, recognizing a great deal by analogy and context.

But what about speaking? For “dead” languages — and what language is really dead if we still study it? — conversational examples are generally pretty thin on the ground. Language learning techniques have improved over the decades, especially for living languages. But many of those same strategies work just as well for tongues whose last speakers lived with horsecarts and cobblestones, hearthfires, oil lamps and emperors. So while you won’t necessarily be chatting right away (at least until you devise the needed vocabulary) about rap and drones and global warming, you can still access the living spirit of a language through conversation. So what amounted to a conversational fragment, really, still set my imagination turning.

Here’s that dialog in my translation, somewhat condensed. The tone of the original is just as heavy-handed and more than a little pedantic.

Teacher: Today we’re going to speak the language of the West Saxons. Are you ready? Tell me, students, what is that language?

Female Student: It’s the speech of our ancestors.

Teacher: That’s right. Our ancestors spoke it a thousand years ago.

Male Student: A thousand years ago? Those ancestors have been dead a thousand years? [Did he just wake up in class, halfway through the term?!]

Teacher: That’s right. Their bodies are dead.

Male Student: They don’t speak any longer. So then their language is just as dead as they are. What need is there for us to learn it?

You have to admit that this literal and clueless male student (in Old English, leorningcniht — in bad translation, “learning knight”) has a point. And if you’re thinking that Druidry, like any other human creation that once flourished and underwent a sea change over time, once faced a similar challenge, you’re not wrong. (History repeats itself to get our attention.)

If you’re wakeful enough this time of year, in spite of the tendency to drowsy half-hibernation that besets many of us in northern climes (or southern ones six months out from now), you may also be thinking that the problem is circular. I mean: As long as we see and treat something as dead, it has no life. We can always find someone or more than one asking plaintively, “What need is there for X?” But perceive it and use it as a living thing, and it revives in the doing. Our attention brings to it a very real and living fire.

That Old English dialog concludes in the next chapter:

Teacher: Well, young man, tell me now: everything that’s new, is it all good?

Male Student: No, sir. It’s not.

Teacher: And it’s also the same: not everything which is old is bad.

Male Student: Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.

Teacher: Miss, what do you say about this?

Female Student: I say that though we can’t hear their voices, nevertheless we can read their words.

Teacher: (Summarizes the deeds of the West Saxons). Now we are their heirs. If we don’t want to be foolish, let’s learn the speech of the West Saxons.

Now we are their heirs.

The ancient Hebrew people in exile in Babylon faced a similar problem: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” When the landmarks of your practice, whether cultural, geographical, psychic or some combination of all of these, are no longer present to support and sustain you along your path, the disorientation can be profound. What can you do?

“Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.” But it’s a choice to insist on being so literal.

sakuramcOne of the weaknesses of modern practice, observes R J Stewart in his magisterial Living Magical Arts,

“is the literary emphasis on superficial technique; the right words, the correct authority, the proper way to extinguish a candle; such details are given quite spurious weight without recourse to the traditions in which they may have originated. Much of this nonsense is cut through cleanly by a simple magical law: seek to understand the tradition, and the techniques will regenerate within your imagination” (pg. 69).

In the case of a living tradition, the solution is self-evident: study the tradition. But what about traditions that have no living point of contact?

I take comfort from Stewart here: seek to understand the tradition. The effort itself can help lead us to sacred sites and other contact points, links, resources, people, spirits (and in the case of “dead” languages, texts and practices and those first faltering attempts to spell out our life in a new tongue).

Our attention is a living and revivifying fire. “The techniques will regenerate within your imagination.”

A gift of Yule. (And since I’ve been doing Old English: Glæd Ġeol! Glad Yule!)

The next post will examine how well this works in practice — for me, anyway — the only person I can understand from the vantage point of inside knowledge.

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IMAGES: Bright’s grammar; magic circle.

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