Archive for the ‘William Blake’ Tag

The Democracy of Incarnate Living   Leave a comment

“The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure” — William Blake, “The Proverbs of Hell”.

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“Where do you get your ideas from?” Every writer’s been asked this question, and every writer morosely ponders it anew, when inspiration flags and the blank page or screen stares back. When the awen is flowing, writing’s a pleasure. When it’s not (or as my guide might say, “It’s flowing differently”), often the real work begins: to listen, to bless the fallow times. To let go. Or as one of my teachers puts it, “Sit, sing, and wait”. No — not a prescription for doing nothing, but rather a particular kind of blessing. To bless ourselves is often the hardest work of all. It asks less than we’re willing to do, because doing isn’t the issue. At least not the kind of doing I usually do.

Often I get ideas from you, my readers. I look at the site statistics and find an old post from a year or two past is getting traction again. Why that topic? Why the interest now? I re-read it and listen for what might be speaking. What are you looking for? What’s shaking in your lives right now? Often, too, human memory being what it is, I don’t remember the post well (or at all), and so I can come upon it with something like fresh perception. Your interest helps me look and listen. And if it’s happening with you, it’s almost a sure thing it’s happening with me, too.

In the previous post, I wrote of honoring the mundane, respecting this world and its rhythms and changes. I go out later today to a new fire circle in my backyard to ask that it be consecrated. I initially wrote “to consecrate it”, and that could well be accurate, if I took on the sole responsibility of hallowing it. But even then, other energies and presences are involved. Because do I ever act alone? More and more, I’m learning at least my own answer to that question.

I ask for consecration, as well as performing it myself, in order to hear something of what goes on around and through me. As a capacitor and transformer of spirit, I find listening almost always clues me in that there’s more going on than I suspected. This is a suspicious universe, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. There’s so much to imagine might be happening, and imagination will pull back the curtain, open the window. I suspect the sacred all around and within me.

And then? Often, because vision’s my default sense, I expect, or suspect, I’ll see something. Instead, an air blows through the open space that carries me with it. Or a bird calls, or one of the sugar ants that have invaded our house this summer crawls across my arm. I start, and grumble at a meditation interrupted, until slowly it occurs to me this is a message. I’m part of a host of others, of selves, and we spiral together. Consecrate a circle or grove, and every square centimeter is stuffed with beings. Even counting only those with skins on.

In a post from a few years back that’s been drawing readers, I wrote,

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, 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.

Not bad, but I’d add: “their daily embodiments” in embodiments. In all the Others that journey with me. These are the ones I’ll invite to join me as I open my inner grove, and as I light the first fire in the new fire circle later today.

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While digging up our yard for a new foundation last fall, our contractor unearthed a lot of stones. We asked him to pile them on the edge of the excavated area, suspecting we’d find places for them eventually, and wanting them nearby and handy, rather than neatly dropped along our property line — and further away to carry. Puzzled, he agreed. When his crew returned two months ago to reseed the area with grass, they added to the pile as they raked and smoothed the dirt. We could hear them talking and see them shaking their heads as they threw more onto the pile in what looked to them like the middle of our back yard.

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And now some serve for a fire circle, and others — the two or three large ones above — may work for seats or altar stones, if we can manage to shift them and set them firmly in place. To give you an idea of size, the large one to the right weighs a few hundred pounds (150 kilos or more).

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Thirty Days of Druidry 3: “The World Has To Be Dreamed”   Leave a comment

augofinn

Sometimes an evocative line can serve up a good day’s worth of Druid meditation. An article on schizophrenia in the current New Yorker offers this fabulous paragraph on the development of the brain, with its potent last line:

The human eye is born restless. Neural connections between the eyes and the brain are formed long before a child is born, establishing the wiring and the circuitry that allow her to begin visualizing the world the minute she emerges from the womb. Long before the eyelids open, during the early development of the visual system, waves of spontaneous activity ripple from the retina to the brain, like dancers running through their motions before a performance. These waves reconfigure the wiring of the brain—rehearsing its future circuits, strengthening and loosening the connections between neurons. (The neurobiologist Carla Shatz, who discovered these waves of spontaneous activity, wrote, “Cells that fire together, wire together.”) This fetal warmup act is crucial to the performance of the visual system: the world has to be dreamed before it is seen.

I find myself wanting to draw out this image, to extend its reach, then try out those extensions to see whether and how they might be true. Dream a world and you can see it. Sing before you can hear anything, let alone the music of the spheres. Limn the deeds and character of a deity, and she begins to manifest at the invitation of this earliest devotion. Imagine with whatever awen drops into your awareness, and the transformation of that subtle primordial seed-stuff proceeds apace. We nurture energies and impulses, not merely passively experiencing them, and they weaken and die or grow and thrive in the womb of human consciousness. How many things are literally unthinkable until that first person somewhere thinks them? What can I give birth to today? (Schizophrenia, and creativity too, have physical correlates — according to research cited in the article they both issue from the processes mentioned of strengthening and loosening connections between neurons.)

Old Billy Blake, sometime-maybe Druid, maybe madman, says in the last lines of his poem “Auguries of Innocence“:

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see [with] not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

Praise be then to the Keepers — and Seekers — of such Double Vision. And I ask myself: Can we see the world whole in any other way? Hail, Day-dwellers, Night-dwellers, Walkers of Both Worlds!

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Image: “Infinity”

Earth Religion and What We’ll Miss   Leave a comment

blueberry-pie-cut-2-smIn I Remember Nothing*, one of the last things screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote before her death in June 2012, the final short chapter is titled “What I Will Miss.”  It’s simply a list, tinged with an anticipatory nostalgia that became clear in retrospect after her passing — and testimony to a life in which the most memorable things aren’t really things (unless you count people as mere objects — if you do, go away) so much as experiences.  Here’s the entire list:

My kids
Nick [her husband of twenty years, Nicolas Pileggi]
Spring
Fall
Waffles
The concept of waffles
Bacon
A walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
Fireworks
Laughs
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Butter
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Paris
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Pie

The wonder and beauty of this list is that however different your list is, you get the love here.   Yes, Ephron’s financial success means that among her items are Paris and Istanbul and more dining out than many of us can afford.  But there’s no disagreeing about what should or shouldn’t be on Ephron’s list, because we each have our own list.  Her list doesn’t negate mine.  It celebrates her life while it leaves room for everyone else’s — it positively invites me, in fact, to celebrate mine, just by being a list, a tally, a memoir of pleasure.

Earth religion calls us to celebrate and cherish the things of this world because this is where and when we live.  The brute acid irony of the present age, filled as it is with increasing numbers of people who say this life is the only one we get, is that it is also an age of the greatest ongoing and criminal destruction of the planet.  If we will miss the things on our lists, and the quality of our fondness, if not the exact identity of our items, closely resembles that of everyone else alive now, it should make the same kind of deep visceral sense that a warm breeze on the skin or a cool drink in the throat does to help each other increase our fondness and spread the capacity for delight, and to preserve their sources, instead of denying joy to others while simultaneously pissing in the common well.  If we were even one tenth the materialists we think we are, we’d worship the material, revere the physical, treating it lovingly and respectfully, rather than bitch-slapping it like an abusive spouse.

Now it’s true that if my wife and I indulged more often in even some of the things on our own lists, we’d be what her grandmother used to say of others with a sniff: “fat and happy.”  And the sum of earth religion doesn’t mean merely to stuff ourselves silly with everything Dr. Oz says is bad for us,  or vacuum up experiences like we’re snorting coke.  But not enjoying the world is along the lines of holding your breath to get what you want.  After you wake with a touch of headache, you may be no closer to getting what you want, and you’ll have missed out on pie, or butter, or bacon, or time spent with friends, or whatever your pleasure of the moment was, while you went ahead and had your tantrum.  And you’ll have denied pleasure and joy to others, one of the cheapest and deepest forms of joy out there.

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When I consider what if anything may survive my death (yes, even here the possessive creeps in, as though I own my death, one among the many other objects to bequeath to my heirs and assigns), it’s very likely that a love of these things won’t be among them.  While I adore blueberries, and that love connects me to a weekend when I was five and I stayed with my grandmother who fed them to me while my parents attended the World’s Fair in New York City, it’s not an essential piece of me.  Even my love of silence, which we might reasonably expect to run deeper, is in part a reaction to the noise of nearly two decades of working with adolescents in groups.  So what IS essential?

A leap and a turn:  stay with me.  Much is made of finding one’s True Will in magic, the Hermetic equivalent of salvation or realization or enlightenment people seek elsewhere.  As Frater Acher remarks in his introduction to Josephine McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate, “Isn’t peeling away layer after layer of ego-driven wishes and desires to finally find and fulfill my True Will what drove mages for at least … well, at least since Crowley succeeded in establishing the highly ambiguous term “True Will” as the most successful fig leaf since the philosophy of hedonism to turn your life into a self-centered journey of narcissism?”**  We can take a clue from Blake (as long-time readers know, one of my go-to figures among the Wise) who said “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  This life matters.  It’s not a rehearsal, though it is practice, in the sense that musicians and artists practice to keep growing and to continually refine their art.  Infinity in the palms of our hands, eternity in our hours:  we’ve all had a taste, a hint, the briefest glimpse, though it slips away again into yesterday and tomorrow.  Here and now is where and when we always begin again.

In his poem “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur echoes St. Augustine, who with Christian diffidence in his love of the physical, exclaims of his awareness of the divine, “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all.” (Book X, paragraph 27), trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin.  Augustine struggles to reconcile the paradox of the physical as both distraction and divine presence — incarnation.  Here is Wilbur’s poem in response, in conversation, a fine coda for this entry:

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Image:  blueberry pie.

*Ephron, Nora.  I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2010, pp. 134-5.

**McCarthy, Josephine.  Magic of the North Gate.  Oxford, UK: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013, pp. 7-8.

Updated 5 October 2013; corrected works to productions in Blake quotation “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  Same idea, faulty memory for exact wording.

A Ghost-Druid Dialog   Leave a comment

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

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

That kind of seeing and holding requires a special focus, a clear attention, I think, as I hurry to lunch, distinctly UN-focused, a dozen thoughts jangling, after two very different conversations with students during conference period.  My freshman advisee Walt has asked about the intricacies of some scheduling for sophomore year, while Ann, a junior and a former student, has come to talk about polishing a remarkable piece of journal writing from her freshman year for possible publication.

At the dining hall table where I often sit, Mr. Madden, Mr. Ritter and Mr. Delahunt are chuckling about an old piece of school gossip concerning the previous administration.  Ms. Valenti  joins us, and the conversation soon shifts to the deer that appear early almost every morning in the yards of the faculty residences on the campus periphery, where Ms. Valenti and Mr. Madden live in senior faculty houses.  Ms. Valenti describes the ten- or eleven-point buck she saw standing motionless in her driveway earlier in the week.  Mr. Delahunt mentions that he’s learned a small herd of deer beds down each night in a wooded gully between the new science building and the peripheral faculty housing. I cheer silently for these animal lives thriving, often just beyond our knowledge, in this apparently suburban part of the world.

At first I think all of this is mere distraction, but Blake reminds me yet again there’s a whole world here, eternity and infinity too, if I only see and touch them.  We all gobble our food, and I hurry back to my first afternoon class with my seniors.  So many grains of sand: underfoot, on the stairwell carpets of the English building, in my second-floor office when I reach down to pick up a fallen paperclip from the floor.  Each one a world, if I had time to see it.  Next year I will have time, because this is my last here.  Voluntary poverty, or insanity, or more than a little of both.

Class goes fast with my fifth period Brit Lit seniors.  Many of them read from the satires they’ve written in imitation of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  We don’t work on Blake, but here is eternity, too.  For a few moments we’re all paying attention, laughing at a satire of college admissions, or the sleep deprivation so many students face, not thinking about anyone or anything else — about the test next period, the sick friend, the college rejection letter, deadlines, schedules, midterm tomorrow, the weather, or whether a visionary dead white male Romantic poet may or may not have anything useful to say to us.

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Mr. Blake, we survived the 2012 fake apocalypse, I feel like crowing.  His ghost seems to nod, looking out the window at the light fog that huddles over the nearest quad.  Maybe that’s the best we can do, right now, our version of eternity: bad apocalypse.

Unwilling to share their satires, the sixth period seniors struggle with Blake.  We work through a couple of the easier poems, and soon I can tell it’s “drag” time.  I drag them through a few more, trying to open up the sometimes seeming-simplistic usually-complex lines.  Blake’s ghost sighs heavily.  An uphill climb for everyone, even though I’m working harder than usual to exhume the poet from two centuries of cultural and historic static that seems to buzz between the words on the page and the lives of my students.  I give them a creative writing exercise, and one soft-spoken girl produces a lovely poem inspired by the lines at the top of this post.  Her lines offer almost all sensory detail, a lovely lyric, with none of the teen angst that normally trails after much adolescent poetry like a homeless dog.  I give thanks for such things.

Blake, old sage, tyger-burner, Jerusalem-singer, painter and poet of the 19th century as strange and full of possibility as our 21st … what else do you have to tell me?  I listen as I write, content for a moment to hear the voice of silence in and around the clicks and taps of the keyboard.  “Hear the voice of the Bard, who past, present and future sees …”  With the view out my window circumscribed to the present only, I can tell I have my work cut out for me.  Blake’s ghost nods encouragingly.  Time to begin again.

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image:  “Beatrice addresses Dante”; William Blake

Updated 23 April 2015

The Fur Teacher   2 comments

This will be a sentimental “cute doggie” story only in passing.  Not because I’m averse to sentimentality (I’m often a “softie” as my wife reminds me), or because emotion is somehow automatically suspect (it’s not), but because sentimentality on its own can be a distraction when there’s some other and more valuable discovery I can usually make.  Such a discovery may underlie the sentiment it raises like a flag waving, a blush at sudden emotional vulnerability.  But the discovery itself often reaches much deeper than sentiment can take us. Let sentiment always claim first dibs on my attention and I may never make the discovery that so often seems to slip past right under my nose. It’s like, well … licking off the dressing and throwing out the salad.  OK, imperfect metaphor, but you get the idea.

Sentiment deserves its proper place.  That’s a lesson on its own, I’ve found — figuring out what that place is in all the various experiences of our lives — and worth its own post.  But this is a story about animals as our teachers, a theme in Druidry (and elsewhere, of course) that never grows old, at least for me.  And it’s a story about one particular furred teacher, in this case a dog.  Often animals are some of our earliest and best teachers.

Some time ago, while my wife Sarah was slowly recovering from cancer surgery, the after-effects of follow-up radiation, and the side-effects of long-term use of an anti-seizure med, she fulfilled a two-decade dream of getting another Newfoundland.  For those of you who don’t know them, the Newf is the more mischievous cousin of the St. Bernard, with whom it is sometimes confused. Both are the giants of the dog world.  And both drool pretty much continually.

Sarah’s first Newf, her beloved and mellow Maggie, saw her through a rough time in her teens.  But her second Newf, Spree, was entirely different in temperament.  Strong-willed and stubborn, unlike Maggie in the latter’s eagerness to please, and formidably intelligent, where Maggie could be somewhat dim, Spree simply demanded much more from both of us.  Leash-training, house-breaking, socialization — all were more involved than either of us had experienced with previous dogs.  Spree’s first mission seemed to be to wrench Sarah out of a lingering mild post-op depression — by canine force, if necessary. “I am now your black-furred, drooling world,” she insisted. Lesson One:  “There’s more to pay attention to.  Watch (me)!”  A second Lesson followed closely on that one:  “You can still trust this physical body (to take care of me, for a start.)  There are years of use left in it.  Now move that fanny!”

Maggie had suffered from severe hip-displasia, a weakness in many large and large-boned breeds like Newfs that can leave them effectively crippled.  Sarah was determined by any means in her power to avoid this with Spree, if she could.  She researched bloodlines and ancestries, kennels and breeding practices.  Finally she made her choice from a recently-born litter in Ohio, eight hundred miles from our home.  On top of that, Sarah was prepared to cook from scratch all of Spree’s food for her first two years, while her bones grew and she matured.  Spree did in fact end up with good bones, as a couple of tests demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction, and she never suffered from displasia, but she had a number of food allergies that plagued her the rest of her life. The next Lesson didn’t seem to be only “Guess what?  First problem down.  Next?”  It was more like “In the decade or so I am with you, I will stretch you and teach you to love more.  And you’ll be starting with me.  Ready?”

During all but the first of the eleven years Spree was with us, we lived in a dorm apartment at the boarding school where we worked.  Most of the freshman girls in our dorm adored her — certainly she was a great conversation starter for any visitors.  We put up a dog gate to protect the dog-phobic minority, an obstacle Spree despised.

It’s true that at 124 pounds she did outweigh many of the girls.  (More than once, out and about on campus with her, we heard pedestrians near us exclaim, “Oh my God, is that a bear?!”)  And on evenings when I was on dorm duty, Spree had her many fans among the girls who just had to pet that soft lush black fur before they could settle down to study hours.  And during breaks they’d come back to visit — Spree of course, not me.  One of the lessons here, which she seemed to express with a contented doggy gaze at me as she received the girls’ caresses which she took as her due, was “Remember the wisdom of the body.  It is after all your life in this world.  We all need touch to thrive.  (I volunteer to demonstrate.  Pet me.)  Remember good food.  (Feed me.)  Remember exercise.  (Walk me.)”

The last few months of her life, Spree dealt with bone cancer that started in her neck and shoulder and spread, weakening bone and aching more and more.  We always knew Spree had a very high tolerance for pain. A score of incidents throughout her life had shown us that. Injuries that would set other dogs crying or yelping she would bear in silence, and keep on running, playing, eating — whatever was more interesting than pain.  We learned to slow her down for her own good many times, to minimize further damage, to check just what had happened, to bandage and treat and clean her.  In her final weeks, however, even on medication, her suffering continued to increase. It was winter, and she would ask to go outside several times a day to lie in the snow, her great coat keeping the rest of her warm enough, as she chilled and eased the hurt, rolling slowly in the snow, then lying on her back and side for half an hour or more at a time.  The three shallow back steps to our small yard were eventually agony for her to climb either up or down, but she refused the sling we’d borrowed to help her.  She cried out only once, in her last days, when it simply hurt too much.  A Lesson:  “I stayed longer than my kind usually can. [The average Newf life-span is roughly 8 years.]  Make the most of what you’re given.  You two are obviously slow learners on that score.  Why else do you think I hung around this long?”

Spree in her final springtime, age 11

The last hour of her life, at the vet’s office, was  on a snowy winter day (she loved the snow). Dazed from a liberal dose of morphine, but as a result now blissfully free of pain, she enthusiastically greeted the three of us, Sarah and me and a fellow Newfie owner, who came to say goodbye as she was euthanized. Several difficult lessons.  “There will be pains and pain.  Guaranteed.  You can still do much.  There will be hurt, but there’s no need to grant it more power over you than it must have.”

Spree greeted the vet who came to administer the euthanasia with her typical curiosity and people-love.  A wagging tail, a nose pressed into the person’s thigh.  The last seconds before she passed, she lay full-length and at ease.  The vet had earlier inserted a catheter in her left paw to make both morphine and euthanasia easier to give, fuss-free.  Spree nosed the syringe that held the dose as the vet pushed the plunger.  “What is this?”  Always she had explored her world first through her exquisite sense of smell.  Near-sighted as she was her whole life, smell was her go-to sense.  It is of course the chief sense for most dogs, but so much more so, almost obsessively so, in her case.  Each shopping trip we brought into the house required a comprehensive smell-check, each item sniffed and investigated completely, regardless of whether it was (to a Newf) fit for food.  In part, the Lessons here seemed to be “Sniff out whatever comes into your orbit.  Find out its nature, whether it directly concerns you or not.  And enjoy the physical senses.  They also do not last, but each will tell you much about this life.”  And yet another lesson:  “Dying may suck, true.  Death, however, does not deserve our fear.  Pain does not last forever.  Be curious about everything.  Friends, isn’t that a better way?”

Animals teach wordlessly, and therefore often more effectively, through their nature as other spiritual beings who share the planet with us.  Here I have interpreted into language some of that teaching as best I could, without excessive anthropomorphizing.  I send gratitude for this fur-teacher in our lives.  And I thank old wisdom-teacher William Blake for writing, “Everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”

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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.

Jesus the Druid, Part 2: Animal Models   Leave a comment

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  (Matthew 10:16)

A regular menagerie of a sentence!  Sheep, wolves, serpents and doves. If inanimate things like stones can testify to divinity (see previous post) and proclaim truth in the face of human delusion, then certainly birds and beasts can do the job, too.

Here Jesus is admonishing his followers, as he commissions them to spread his teaching, that the world is full of wolves.  His disciples won’t appear on the scene with an army at their beck and call.  They don’t carry letters of introduction, or a case of free product samples to tempt the potential client.  No email blast or flurry of tweets precedes their arrival.  No, if they’re to succeed, they’ll need specific attributes which he characterizes as the wisdom of serpents and the harmlessness of doves.  And note that you can’t transpose those qualities; who would welcome a person “wise as a dove” or “harmless as a serpent”?!  Bad advertizing.  It’s a recipe for disaster. But more importantly, would serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness actually work?  Hold that thought.

A persistent tradition in the UK at least eight centuries old has Jesus spending some of the “lost” years — between his appearance in the temple at 12 and the start of his public ministry around age 30 — in Britain, studying with Druids.  William Blake, associated with revival Druidry during his lifetime in the 19th century, penned the famous hymn “Jerusalem” (this version hails from the last night of the ’09 Proms, a popular annual summer music series in the U.K.).  The lyrics were put to music about a century later, and the piece has become a perennial favorite, a kind of unofficial British national anthem:

And did those feet in ancient times
walk upon England’s mountains green?
and was the holy lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

These lines of the opening stanza seem innocuous enough, if fanciful.   A Middle-Easterner would surely have it rough during a British winter — it isn’t always “green.”  The tradition continues from there, claiming that after Christ’s death, Joseph of Arimathea (who provided a tomb for the body) either sent part of the Grail to England, or made the journey himself and founded a church in Glastonbury, or planted there a thorn tree long venerated as holy.* Whatever the truth of these events, it makes for a striking symbol and image.

But Blake continues, and this is when his poem turns odd:

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

As a proto-Druid, Blake gets his ecological digs in here:  the “dark Satanic mills” of the early industrial revolution are already at work spewing smoke and ash over London.  While most Druids today have no intention of attempting to “build Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land,” the song brings divinity one step closer.  Who complains if some versions of our ancient history bring with them a delicious shiver of magic or imaginative religious reconstruction?  But is the way to achieve divinity on our shores through “mental fight” and metaphorical battle?  The sudden shift to the quadruple imperative of “Bring … bring … bring … bring” summons up images of a bronze-age charioteer.  But what of the “arrows of desire”?  Here the image is of Eros, Cupid, the piercing quality of sudden strong feeling.  Is it the poet speaking as “I” in the last stanzas?  Or as someone else?  Is it Blake’s idea of Jesus?

You may not remember, but I asked you a few paragraphs back to hold the thought of serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness.  Some of the “wisdom” accrues from the belief that serpents are uncanny beasts, for they are able to shed their skin and achieve a kind of rebirth or immortality.  And the serpent in the Garden that haunts the Western pysche tempted Eve not to the Tree of Life (Eve!  EVE!! The other tree!  Eat from the OTHER tree!!) but the Tree of Knowledge.  As I tease my students, “Major mistake.  Become immortal first, and then get the knowledge of good and evil.”  The harmlessness of doves is less problematic.  Though city dwellers may have their foremost associations with pigeons as flocking beggars in parks, or as producers of statue-staining and public-building-defacing birdshit.

But consider again.  If you know something — I mean really know something of life-changing power — you need to come across as seriously harmless.  Otherwise people have this nasty tendency to string you up, burn you at the stake, remove the supreme discomfort of your ideas and presence at all costs.  Your wisdom puts you in mortal danger.  So reassure people first, and work your changes quietly, harmlessly.  A major piece of strategy!  Some devious or disgusting trick you’d expect to discover about that other political party — the one you don‘t belong to and affect to despise as the epitome of all things vile and loathsome.  Is that why this year’s political reality-show contestants (I mean presidential candidates) come across as less than competent?  (Repeat after me:  “All candidates vile and and loathsome, all con-men big or small, all morons foul and putrid, Democrats/Republicans have them all!”**)

So  animals embody a divinely-commissioned strategy for survival.  The wisdom of the serpent, long despised, is not dead, but sleeps in each of us, waiting the touch of the divine longing to rouse and waken it in the service of life.  The son of God (we are all children of the divine) summons it forth from us.  It lives, tree of knowledge and tree of life united, identical, twining its way around our hearts, which know — when our heads deny it — which way to go, what we need, where to find answers others say are “forbidden” or “not for mortals to know.”  On the contrary — they’re specifically intended for mortals to realize.

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*The Glastonbury thorn has lately made headlines.  It (there are actually several in the area, believed to spring from a single parent) was hacked down two years ago this month (with some historical precedent, if you read the article) and then recovered enough by March of 2011 to put forth a new shoot.  Another demonstration, as if we needed it, that old things do not just disappear because we hack at them or find them out of place or inconvenient.  They have a habit of return, of springing back to life.  Another habit from the natural world for us to imitate …

**This uncharacteristically acerbic side-note is not part of the actual blog.

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