Reflections on two years of being a ‘Pagan’ writerContinue Reading...
Archives For Druidry
Before I left Seattle for my pilgrimage (and subsequent journeys, which I’m suspecting comprise even more of the pilgrimage than I’ve quite suspected), the one card which would show up repeatedly in my Tarot readings was The World.
There are all the usual meanings of the card–completion, fulfillment, travel, the end of a cycle, etc., but the card, more than anything, has made me think of these lines from T.S. Eliot:At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless, Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. I can only say, there we have been: but i cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Those words came to mind after a friend asked me to look over some (really good) writing he’d done regarding Polytheistic Monism, or what he calls Polyvalent Polytheism. To be clear, I’m not a monist, but not because I believe there’s no underlying unity beyond the apparent singular existences of each entity. Actually, I find it rather likely there is, but I find it doesn’t matter.
I mentioned to him my understanding of this, and I’ll reprint a bit of it here, less because it’s relevant to the matter of monism in general (and you should really consider reading his essays, as they’re quite good), but because they’re relevant to the way I understand my own existence.
In the Eternal, which is not just “outside time” but is what all time is as an unfolding, all experiences (or becomings) of a god then compose that god as a part of the whole. An underlying one-ness cannot be known except in moments of the eternal, but the moment the mystic or poet returns to the temporal the one-ness is technically not-true. That is, every Brigid and every worshiper of Brigid throughout all of time composes together what is meant by Brigid, despite each of those worshipers and Brigid Herself being distinct. The sum total cannot be known except in an unknowable and unattainable state of all-time, or the Eternal.
That “of what we’re all composed,” then, while true on the mystical level, is utterly useless when actually becoming part of the thing which composes everything. That is, we must live in time in order to fulfill eternity, because time can be said to be “unfolded” eternity. Those mystical moments typically give us a glimpse of something that more confirms our direction, like poking one’s head up over Rumi’s great ocean and seeing it’s all ocean. Like pulling oneself out of a sexual experience in order to analyze it, or taking a photo of a sublime moment, both which in essence end the thing being observed (like the photon question) by withdrawal. Being-both seems impossible for the human mind.
Put more simply, “Rhyd” is everything that I have been, am, and will be, as well as every other being’s experience of Rhyd throughout time. The “true” Rhyd at any point is only a fragmented glimpse of all which composes Rhyd which is utterly unknowable to me while I live. Ancestor worship relies heavily upon this notion, as well–the dead continue to be experienced and continue in an existence which is not-living yet still fully unfolding. My grandfather died, but is still becoming through my acknowledgment of him, as is true of every ancestor before him, and will be true of me upon my death.
That being said, I still suspect there’s a sacred, inviolate being called Rhyd (or, more precisely, the full name I was told in a dream), and it’s that Rhyd that I am always attempting to become. He’s probably the sum total of Rhyd which is knowable to me at this present (despite him being also future-Rhyd), and I can only experience him through glimpses in my becoming, particularly at mystic out-of-time moments, or what Eliot called “The Still Point.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about who I’ve become and whom I’m becoming lately. That last two gwersu in the Bardic grade of OBOD focus on this, but I’ve been thinking about this even before getting there (another way in which OBOD tends to be synchronous as all bloody-hell).
Besides the dark threads I’d mentioned in my previous post, there’s been so much fucking light it’s nearly unbearable. Brigid is considered the Mother of Bards, at least within some Druid traditions (and it’s not lost on me that Arianrhod is seen as the Initiatrix and Ceridwen is the Mother of Awen…that the three goddesses I worship are so intrinsically linked to the Bardic tradition, and I didn’t necessarily seek them out, fascinates me). And more than anything, the metaphor of re-forging works best to describe what the fuck has happened to me since this all started.
I remember trudging up Menez-Hom, the druid mountain in Bretagne with an expectant trepidation. I knew I would find something that I would return with, that even if I didn’t find answers to why I’d been led there in the first place, I’d at least have an idea of what sort of questions I should be asking.
What I hadn’t expected is that I’d lose something. I’d written in my travel journal the following, just remembered when I condensed them for A Sense of Place last week:
After the night on Menez Hom, a resounding inquiry voiced itself: “What are you going to do now, without your fear?”
The experience on that mountain, asleep under the full moon without a tent, the dreams and visions and whispers ripped me from my fear, and, to be honest, I sort of miss it in the way that one might miss an abusive lover or a gilded cage.
Tracking what else has been reforged looks to be a rather long task, one that I’ll probably be doing for quite some time. That being said, I’ve been wanting to talk about the strange wheel I found myself in during Beltaine.
This involves several apparently unrelated stories. Bear with me, if you would.
This journey began in the ashes of a life and a relationship, nigredo as the Alchemists would have it, the blackening, akin to St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. The life I built and knew and loved in Seattle had come to an end, as had a relationship that we both needed out of.
I’d had dreams of Brigid before that ending, and the one I mentioned previously had been quite profound, her calling me “outside.” After I started this, I’d had another dream. I was in an old wooden building, making food for people who desired each other. I was “in-between” their desire, neither the cause nor the obstacle, just merely there, in a sort of still point. I wasn’t Brigid, but I was somehow in Her place, doing some work for Her, and it ended well.
The Caffeinated Messiah
14 years ago, when I moved to Seattle, I stumbled on a coffee shop run by a Radical Faerie. Besides being absurdly cool (part goth, part hippy, full of Sunday-School kitsch and punk-drag), it’d also been one of the meeting places for radicals involved in direct-action against the WTO in Seattle. I found the place 3 days after I arrived, and I can trace pretty much every fantastic and meaningful thread of my life there from events which occurred in that coffeeshop.
I met my first long-term partner there. I gave him a quarter to put into the slot in the bathroom which turned off the lights, turned on a disco-ball and made “Disco Inferno” play on repeat for a minute. We were together for almost 10 years after that.
Another man I met there haunted me for a decade later, a beautiful, feral looking punk-twink whom I crushed over hardcore. He became a caretaker for a Rad Fae sanctuary and I never saw him again until a few weeks ago.
When my recent partner and I ended, a man had a vision during a Naraya ceremony. He was told that my former lover would be in pain and would need help. When he returned from the ceremony, he offered him a place in his home. One of my greatest fears upon the end of our relationship was that some addiction issues that my lover had faced would become more profound after the end of our relationship, and being taken in by that elder pretty much negated all of my fears and made it much easier for what we’d both hoped would come out of our end, a continuation of the close friendship on which our relationship had been built.
That elder, I should mention, is the same man who started that coffee shop. One other thing you should know–he traditionally cooks the largest meal during Beltaine celebrations at the Radical Faerie sanctuary, for 200+ people.
She and He and They and I
The figure dancing in the World is an androgyne, and this has a particular meaning to me beyond the general alchemical unity and oneness, though that’s part of it.
If you’ve met me, you’ll know that I have a rather low voice, a clumsy stagger, lots of body hair, and a general, oafish-male persona. No one guesses I sleep with men because I’ve none of the affectation of a stereo-typical gay male.
But even if you’ve met me, you may not know that I have never quite come to grips with being “male.” Or better put, being “only male.” I don’t talk about this much for several reasons, the largest being that my experience of being both male and female doesn’t compare to the experiences of many of my friends who have experienced gender disphoria and thus chosen to alter their physical body to match their gender. I don’t feel embodied in the “wrong” gender; rather, I feel embodied in only one of them, and have always found it jarring when people react so severely to my male presence without also noting my female-ness
This is what the “Mystical Marriage” is said to be about–the unity of both the male and the female in the same existence, symbolized (but only symbolized, not actualized) in the sexual union of male and female. Coming to an embrace of both my maleness and my femaleness wasn’t fully possible for me before Druidry, and not until this most recent Beltaine.
Brigid in The Barn
Back to the circle.
I’m sitting in a circle, actually, as someone is asking for a volunteer to make dinner for 200+ people the night before Beltaine. I’m raising my hand, and the person looks relieved.
“We know each other,” this person says. “You knew me by another name.”
It’s the feral punk-twink I’d crushed over a decade before, now a feral looking bear. But they’re different, but so am I.
“I was here last year, too, but we didn’t recognise each other, because I was a woman.”
I learn their story. They’d become a woman not long after I’d last seen them as a male, and because of, medical complications, they then had to stop the hormones and become, in essence, male-embodied again. And they’d been fearful about the dinner that night, because the person who normally would have made it was away. And also, they’d always had a crush on me, they said.
So, it’s Walpurgisnacht, and I’m in “the Barn,” which is the old wooden building where all the dinners are prepared and eaten at the sanctuary. I’m “topping” (that is, directing) the 200 person dinner that night, and just before I begin, I pray to Brigid, dedicating the making of that dinner to Her as an act of devotion
It goes very, very well, but that’s not the point. I’m making dinner as a devotee of Brigid for people gathered because of desire (it’s a queer pagan gathering–almost everyone’s slathered in desire). I’m in an old wooden building doing so, and I suddenly see what the fuck it is I’ve just done, what I’ve just fulfilled, and I’m laughing.
And I keep laughing. The person who normally makes that meal each year? The Elder I mentioned. And he’s not making dinner because he’s initiating a man before a fire elsewhere. That man he’s initiating? My former lover.
At this point, every apparently loose and unmeaning thread in my life weaves itself into one great tapestry. The next morning, the spirit of a nearby stream appears to me, both male and female, and that night, in the back of that same barn, I’m wrestling naked with that man who was a woman who then became both, and I’m a man and a woman and both, and we’re surrounded by men who became women who were in essence both, keeping a silent, beautiful watch.
This was a Still Point.
The World, The Fool, The World
Stories don’t end, of course. Some stories become fulfilled, just as some journeys are fulfilled. The World means both fulfillment and ending, both wholeness and the crossroads. The next card is The Fool, a new journey.
During this last Beltaine, despite being amongst so many beautiful people, my heart and mind kept longing elsewhere, outside the sanctuary towards a man who’s quickly gonna get embarrassed by how much I want to write about him.
This first journey started in the ashes of a life and a relationship, and here I am at the beginning again, deeply in love with a man and likely about to return to the city I left.
There’s an underlying unity to all of this, yes, a constant return. But we’re never the same who return, or the same who leave. Every bit of this story writes itself into the past and the future, and every bit of my life is a relentless act of becoming, each singular act a re-weaving of all that was and is and will be, each fulfillment a dance at the still point of the turning world.
A rather dark period, but not an unhappy one. You know what it’s like, certainly–those strange moments of tumult which you must pass through and, in the midst of them, forget that you know there is an end.
Things seem always to weave together. I’ve been thinking heavily upon the dead and death, and thought it strange as it’s almost Beltaine until I recalled that this is not new to me, not during this time. In fact, just before my initiation into Druidry at Beltaine last year, I stared at the stars and wanted them to swallow me up, take me in like an abyss below except I was looking in the wrong direction.
The lines from the initiation strike me now, particularly. It asks “would you be fully born into all the sorrows and pain of this existence?” and then, “would you be fully born into its joys?”
Both questions, at that particular gate of the year, were awfully hard to answer.
At each of the gates, the rituals I do (a mix of AODA and OBOD work) involve “scrying” or meditating down the paths through that gate. Following Greer’s Druid Magic Handbook, I’ve enchanted a grove-stone for several of them, starting Lugnasadh. I’ve three so far (Samhain, Imbolc) and am tempted to say will do the same for Beltaine “if I survive,” but that’s melodrama.
The Festival of Persephone’s return, too, and the Christian Easter all near the same time, and it’s strange after the light of Imbolc to encounter this new darkness.
Darkness, yes. A kind friend has begun teaching me Welsh; my first course was yesterday and after it I found myself practicing outside, enjoying the sounds, finding a word repeating on my lips that we hadn’t practiced, one that took me aback:
Ceridwen’s hideous son, for whom she travels to the Fferllyt to learn the recipe for wisdom, later stolen by the boy Gwion who becomes Taliesin. Afagddu and older variants all refer to “utter darkness”, and there’s another version of his name which means big (or sometimes “black”) crow, Morfran. “Fran” or “vran” is probably from brân, and I know another Brân (utterly tied to the underworld) and this fact is not lost on me. The same? Aspects of the same? Related, probably, but beyond this I cannot say. Robert Graves (his faults acknowledged) tied Ceridwen and Brân together as lovers, and though I reject this, there’s the Cauldron thread that weaves through them both. The Cauldron of Awen and the Cauldron of Annwn. Wisdom and Death.
Weaving this stuff together is tiresome when your heart is sore from trying to love, but there’s something there below it all that makes me realize that it’s precisely that soreness, that bodily ache which tethers the Other into the self. Where I feel the dead is also where I feel that cautious desire–the same gate opened within the soul in order to love another (and likely risk loss) is the channel through which I feel the existence of the underworld in this one.
Those threads woven back in, then, are all of meaning. I forget what it was like not to see correspondences, but it’s silly of me to think on this too often, for “as above, so below” is another description of love.
Also, more words. My new A Sense of Place post is up. It’s about the Episcopal chapel and the Holy Week which made me Pagan:
The world was in darkness, and I felt it. I felt myself the darkness. The darkness of being gay, alone, scared, admitting everything I’d believed beforehand was only borrowed meaning. I do not know if I was more alone or more terrified. But this is a futile question.
Be always well. I will too.
I’m about to finish my first year studying Druidry through OBOD. One of the Gwersu (lessons) has a caveat in it, suggesting that so much stuff has been gone through, so many transformations and ritual workings, that it might be wise to consider a bit of a break, or at least a contemplation on what has changed.
While not every profound alteration of my soul and life has been related necessarily to my Druidry courses, looking back, I note that, uh, yeah. There’s been a lot. Unlike ADF, one can study with OBOD without being a polytheist; if anything, at least the Bardic grade is more aimed towards training the soul and mind with rituals and practices which make one more able to handle (that is, make sense of or even survive) interactions with the gods, a path one can take through the forests of the gods (though maybe not meet any in those woods) with guides who help you avoid getting lost but don’t actually interpret your experiences and interactions for you.
One of the more profound things for me, why I’m utterly glad I’ve been studying Druidry as opposed to, say, one of the many witch-traditions is its strong emphasis on both justice and peace. If one’s seeking power over the elements, spirits, gods, or people, OBOD’s a futile waste of money and time. From what I understand of ADF and AODA, they are similar–what you are taught is for something other than your own self-enlightenment.
This exists certainly in other traditions, and I do not bring this up necessarily as an indictment against any tradition or another, but rather to bring up something that I think needs to be considered in Paganism generally–the question of power.
Powers or Gifts?
I’ve noted two major differences within Pagan traditions regarding magic and working with the gods and spirits. One, evident in both Druidry and many of the gods-worshiping traditions, is that magic and power are gifts bestowed from the Other onto the worshiper in order to work on behalf of the Other. Gods might grant particular insights and tools (including divination, enchantment, visions, etc) to a person so that the recipient might become more useful in doing the gods’ work. Similar with animal and land spirits, ancestors, guides, guardians: each gift, blessing, or act of aid comes with a sense that something ought to be returned, not necessarily as an act of exchange but as a gift in return. When a human helps me out, I want to help them out in return when the time comes. People who give me gifts inspire me to give them gifts in return. Capitalism and certain strands of evolutionary psychology (both derived from the same Protestant view of the world) has unfortunately made it difficult for us to understand gift economies and mutual aid without thinking about obligation or strategy (if I give a person this, they’ll give me that), but we shouldn’t allow cynical readings of human relations to change the beneficent character of human relations in such cases.
There are times, of course, when I feel obligated to someone who has done something incredible for me, as if I am “in their debt.” I feel this way with the gods often, but I’ve noted that this isn’t always the most helpful way of approaching worship and offerings, in the same way that being over-extravagant with gratitude to someone can actually cheapen the thing they’ve done for you. But still, if it helps, one can look upon such relations as “indebtedness”, as it’s still pretty close to the notion of mutual aid of this first strand of thinking.
The other strand is that of “commanding” the powers of nature and the spirits. I’m inclined to call this Crowley-ism, but it’s older than him, though he’s an easy example to call forward of this tendency. By “commanding,” we should not merely think though of the ceremonial magician who binds spirits, but also of anyone who is looking at spirituality as a way of becoming powerful in their life, gaining control of things around them (spirits, elements, people) and, if they believe in the existence of gods at all, looking at them as “channels” for certain powers that they can wield towards their own will and desires.
I’m disinclined to call out any particular tradition, because none of them are monolithic. There are ceremonialists who approach the (other)world humbly, and probably Druids who crave power (though, really, Druidry’s a shit place to look for that sort of thing, and I’m glad of it). And I think each of these strands exists in each tradition to some degree, though I’ve noted some traditions take extra care to weave in a morality against such things, while others either remain ambivalent or rely on personal pressure to keep power-hungry people from rising too high within the teachings, which didn’t help The Golden Dawn in Crowley’s case.
And speaking of Crowley, there’s something awfully big I should mention here.
Sex Is Also About Power
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a sex scandal in Paganism currently. It isn’t the first, nor will it be the last. It’s awfully tragic and repulsive, and I’m far from comfortable with all the reactions about it. But I’m not going to address that matter specifically, because there’s a root problem that we may be forgetting in these debates.
You’ve no doubt heard about all the abuse within a certain massive, ancient european get-up with funny hats and a pope. And you’ve probably also heard maybe about a sports-team coach that made little boys bleed in the shower for years without getting turned in by fellow coaches. And, of course, there’s all the stories in other institutions, schools and churches (I dislike the man and his politics greatly, but Dan Savage’s Youth Pastor Watch will help catch you up if you need more stories of this sort of thing) of sexual abuse of children and subordinates.
What’s common to all of this? In every case, the offender is in a position of power over others, whether it be as a spiritual leader or physical superior (work, school, etc.), and has “authority,” either real or perceived.
That is, what makes every single one of these instances so horrifying to us and so damaging to the victim is the power the abuser has, not only over the victim (be it a child or a spiritual seeker) but also over others. Their perceived authority within each context is precisely what disarms the victim the ability to get redress for the wrongs done to them. In the case of a child, the adult is stronger and more physically powerful (even worse if it’s a parent or relative), in the case of a worker, the manager has the ability to take away the victim’s livelihood, and in the case of a spiritual leader, the victim’s spiritual enlightenment or standing in a tradition or community is at stake, not just their physical and sexual boundaries.
There are other power relationships that come into play beside those between victim and abuser. If the abuser is part of a institution that relies upon him or her heavily, then there’s more impetus for others who learn about the abuse to cover up the situation or ignore the crime. This occurs in families very often, as well as the aforementioned sports coach (whose colleagues knew about the abuse for years but didn’t want the team to suffer).
In religion, it is no different. In fact, the fate of an entire tradition can rely very heavily on just a few people at the top, and such power relations are made worse when the founders or leaders guard their secrets and influence jealously. Benevolent dictators certainly exist in many scenarios, but they are rare.
Against Self-Centered* Spirituality
I’ve friends who have told me horror stories of teachers who possessed amazing powers and skills and all but enslaved some of their followers. Thus far these stories are more common within “New Age” -inspired traditions than within Paganism, at least to my knowledge, but the stories that have been coming out from this latest scandal are showing that Paganism is far from immune.
There’s no denying, at least to my mind, that it is possible for someone to become very powerful by approaching the spirits and even gods from a position of will-to-power. I don’t know why this is so, though I’ve got a sense that, at least with some entities, humans are not any more easily understood to the otherworld as we are to each other. I don’t believe in anything approximating a omniscient Divine, which makes such questions as “why would the gods allow such a thing to happen” not even an issue at all. This, more than anything, has been one of the more difficult moral transitions for me to comprehend into polytheism, having had only monotheism’s everywhere-at-once god as a reference point. It’s much easier to understand such questions now with a better understanding of the myriad of gods and their power.
There’s also no denying that one can become just as powerful otherwise, particularly when one isn’t even wanting it. I’ve the worst trouble accepting gifts from friends, particularly money (even when I’m painfully aware I need it), and yet they’ve given it to me anyway, because it’s a gift. Just before I went on Pilgrimage last year, I was inundated with gifts from people: money, books, blessings, and very useful magical items, things I didn’t “deserve” (you don’t deserve gifts, otherwise they’re not gifts) but things dear people gave to me because they thought I’d need it, and my gratitude to them is still profound.
I’ve had the same thing happen from the gods and spirits and other gods-worshipers, insights, uncanny turns of fortune, synchronous events and strange and beautiful people, blessings, rituals, etc.., and in every case, I’ve had the sense that it wasn’t because I deserved it, but instead a sense that I’m supposed to use what was suddenly at hand, as if the gods said, “here–I think you’ll need this.”
Need it for what, though? That’s sort of the crux of all of this, and the question I hope more people might ask when approaching the matter of power, particularly spiritual power. If a god gives you something, it’s probably gonna be useful for something, like a mother arming her son for a war to defend her land. Maybe the gods don’t always even always know they’ve given it. In the case of Arianrhod and her child, she was tricked, and maybe Gwydion and Crowley have the same sorts of students.
As I see it, one can either use power for others or for oneself. Pushing for a gods-centric Paganism may be rather damn useful to help avoid these problems, particularly if it comes with a focus on justice and peace like Druidry, or a clear code of ethics that states all gifts given should be to benefit the gods and the earth, rather than the person to whom they’re given.
That’s one path, and maybe I’m an idealist. At the very least, though, I think Paganism should have a really, really intense look at power and spirituality. Too much power concentrated in a leader means ill (that’s not just my anarchism talking), and so does the pursuit of power. And in both cases, the devastation to communities and particularly the victims of the powerful can be staggering and faith-crushing.
*Edit: The original language I used here was “Self-Centric Spirituality. Please see my clarification here.
My latest Sense of Place post is up, the fourth (and final) in a fiction series exploring what Paganism might become, what we might build.
I had decided to write fiction for the theme because I’ve always been struck by something Ursula K. Le Guin had said in a reading I attended almost 12 years ago. I was a young, dream-struck punk in Seattle, soaked in hopes and a bit of terror as the Iraq war began, as the anti-Capitalist tendencies of the streets seemed to finally ebb in the face of so much despair and fear at government surveillance, post- 9/11 crack-downs on (racial and political) minorities, and the crushing sense that the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements were utterly futile against such monolithic complacency and insecurity began to stifle that hope.
She’d been speaking of the “usefulness” of fantasy, at a time when so much of the narrative of serious thought had been on theory and the criticism of fiction was (and still is) derisive of anything speculative. And I’d asked a question and we’d spoke a bit, and she said something along the lines of “how can we know what we want to build if we can’t imagine it?”
I sometimes wonder if the imaginative powers of the human soul should be seen as an active, physical faculty which must be exercised lest it atrophy, must be fed well lest it become gluttonous upon empty, masturbatory fictions. I know for myself, years of playing fantasy games fed an urge but never fully satisfied, filled but never sated. Certain visions of the future make me nauseous rather than hungry, particularly the exuberant dreams of ubiquitous computers (I reserve the right to break a pair of Google Glass if someone insists upon wearing them around me) and newer and greater technologies that will further separate us not just from Nature, but from each other. The joy with which some people speak of such “progress” doesn’t just make me ill, it greatly disappoints me.
That exuberance isn’t imagination. Very few of the technological futurists, the trans-humanists and all the rest ever really imagine anything different, they only imagine more of the same, and more of the same for a small amount of people.
Take alternative energy. Dreams of new and more sustainable energy sources– so we can stop relying on oil and coal–always start from the very un-imaginative premise that we should keep doing precisely what we’re doing, just in a nicer, cleaner way. Rather than the end of automobiles and pavement, the “fantasy” is that we can have more of them without destroying the earth, as opposed to finding some other way to build society. We’re like addicts looking for less harmful heroin.
The internet and cellular communications that we have are really faster methods of doing what we already did before, and still for a small amount of economically privileged people. Consider: according the most recent estimate, 250 million iPhones have been sold since they were first created, but there are 7 billion + people on the earth. This “revolutionary” thing people have been on about hasn’t changed the world, but has only made a small amount of (mostly white) people stare at rectangles in their hands for too long.
And if the imagination is a faculty which we humans (possibly and unfortunately alone, I suspect, amongst the natural world) possess, one would hope we’d be able to come up with something better with it than virtual reality glasses and teeth-whitening strips for people hoping to escape a pale and vapid life and undo the affects of too much corn-syrup.
It’s for this reason that the rallying cry of the altermondialists (known as “anti-globalisation” folks in America) was “AnOther World is Possible.” I think we need more dreams.