contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

POEM: TALIESIN

An unfamiliar (at least to me) image of Taliesin. One of ‘Six Celtic Sonnets’ by Thomas Samuel Jones, first published in 1930. Taken from the ‘Isles of Dream’, an anthology of work from the ‘Celtic Renaissance ‘.

On lonely shores where dreams are drifted sand

He follows to the end a star’s bright course,

A ghostly hunter without hound or horse,

The warrior-bard, last of the Druid band;

But still his wizard harp rings in his hand

Beside the Stream of Sorrow’s hidden source,

Still from a breaking heart his wild songs force

Their way into the god’s mysterious land.

Dauntless he sings, and sees the drear woods turn

To golden orchards by the river bed

Where healing waters of the rainbow run;

And past the valley near great peaks that burn

With beaconing fire the hero-bard is led

Up toward the Dragon City of the Sun.

Taliesin is one of Six Celtic Sonnets written by Thomas Samuel Jones and included in From the Isles of Dream: Visionary Stories and Poems of the Celtic Renaissance, selected by John Matthews and with a foreword by Robin Williamson (Floris Books, 1993).

Thomas Samuel Jones (1882-1932) came from Welsh and Irish stock and was born in Oneida County, New York State, near the Adirondack Mountains. Each of the six sonnets reflects a facet of Celtic tradition. They were originally published in 1930 as part of the collection Aknahton and Other Sonnets. For those of us who resonate with Druid and Celtic spirituality, they are part of our modern cultural ancestry.

BOOK REVIEW: THE NEW MONASTICISM

New_MonasticismHighly recommended. I knew I would be in business with this book as soon as I got wind of it, and it will take further contemplation and inward digestion before I fully understand my relationship with it. I believe that this is the kind of effect that what The New Monasticism: an Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living intends to create.

‘Monasticism’ is refreshingly used here “simply to denote a level of commitment to a spiritual life”. It is not about specific beliefs or a specific lifestyle. It asks us to free ourselves from our cultural conditioning and an unquestioning and un-questing life. Avoiding identification with material success, living in the midst of a contemporary society that does not support such a calling, we may enter a space of “radical profundity and divine transformative energy”. We seek simplicity not through renunciation but through ‘integration’.  We do need retreat space, so some people will indeed be called as specialists to hold the “containers of silence”. But most will pursue vocation in the world, in a life made up of contemplative practice, heartfelt conversation and sacred activism.

Authors Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko are situated within the Roman Catholic tradition, in an emancipatory strand which is reaching out to others and hoping to transcend itself. The term ‘interspirituality’ was coined by Brother Wayne Teasdale, an ordained Christian Sannyasin who  presided over an ashram in India. The authors see interspirituality as “humbly placing itself in partnership and collaborative discernment with our time-honoured religious traditions”.  In the last decade we have also seen the linking of Father Thomas Keating (who developed ‘centering prayer’ as a Christian answer to Buddhist-style meditation) with Ken Wilber’s Integral Life project, which is itself increasingly seeking alliance with like-minded Christian communities. Indeed a lot of the philosophy, psychology and social science in this book comes straight from Ken Wilber and the stance of the Integral movement. The authors come from a collectively confident and mature spiritual base, and there are advantages in that. The book is rich with specific suggestions about life and practice in the new monasticism, drawing for its core inspiration on an ‘Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life in the 21st. Century’ following a week long dialogue with Father Thomas Keating at his monastery in Colorado in 2012.

McEntee and Bucko are both “under 40” and feel a connection with the younger generation now coming into adulthood. Bucko works with young homeless men in New York City. They see a potentially emergent spiritual culture that is: “spiritual not religious”; this worldly and concerned with nature and the fate of the earth; has (post) modern commitments to personal ‘authenticity’; and finds the sacred in the secular. They believe that these values can be championed within a further development of their own tradition, transforming the tradition itself. For them the path is as much about the life and health of the earth as it is with an individual communion with the Divine: indeed, it is false to separate the two. Realisation is less a “gnostic quest for truths beyond the world” than “a reflection on certain processes taking place within the world”. Interspirituality wants to be the midwife of this, and in doing so become attractive to people, especially young people, who would not be drawn to more traditional approaches.

The New Monasticism is a valuable contribution to the re-visioning of spirituality and concomitant life practices. Given its provenance, it is not surprising that the reaching out to other traditions is quite selective. Beyond Christianity, the traditions being engaged with are neo-Vedanta, Tibetan Buddhism and to a lesser extent Zen, modern Sufism and to some degree the Hasidic movement in Judaism and Martin Buber. ‘Indigenous religions’ are mentioned in two inclusivity lists, without definition or description. Shamanism is mentioned as a particular model of spiritual service. There is nothing specific from the Western Way outside Christianity.  Within Christianity, much is drawn from the contemplative strand in Orthodoxy, including an understanding of theosis (or divinisation) and the role of Sophia as guide. This is accompanied by an intent to “claim the wisdom dimension of all traditions and let the wisdom guide you” – a view which they attribute to Matthew Fox. Ethics is seen as “the call to active co-operation with the sophianic transfiguration of the world”. Quaker processes also get a mention because of their democratic and dialogical way of bringing people into Presence with each other. Since I am personally positioned in modern Druidry, Paganism and Earth Spirituality I have to express some disappointment here. However I don’t feel deliberately excluded. It’s just that these authors have their attention focused elsewhere.

I do have a worry, all the same, an area where I think that Earth and Goddess traditions could do with being heard. This is when McEntee and Bucko talk about ‘axial ages’, a view of spiritual/religious history once again taken from Ken Wilber. It depends on an evolutionary view of human culture as an aspect of a Divine awakening. In this view, the first axial age, from 800 BCE – 200 CE was a time of radical transformation marked by the appearance of great teachers who catalysed major literatures: Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Mahavir (of the Jains), Zoroaster, the Jewish prophets and Greek philosophy, as well as Jesus and the gospels. These people could stand apart from the tribe, question the worldview they had been given, and think for themselves. They could also wake up from the trance of complete immersion in nature and objectify it – seen here as a positive step, albeit one with a shadow side. They represented the coming of reflexive subjectivity and the technology (writing) that made it sustainable. Admittedly, the narrative goes, this tended to take world denying, sex denying, misogynist and more generally oppressive forms. But overall it is read as a cultural gain. Now we are seen to be in a second axial age where the perceived challenge is to transcend the limitations of the first whilst preserving the gains, and thus renew our overall movement onward. “We need both our individuality … and an understanding of our intrinsic belonging within a vast Kosmos”. I’ve been aware of Wilber’s position on this since he wrote Up from Eden in the mid 1980’s. It has always read to me as a one-eyed narrative, the mirror image of the primitive matriarchy still espoused by many Pagans.  One of its effects has been to offer a language of canny and limited concession by hitherto dominant traditions as they respond to an unstoppable shift in culture. Here is where the Earth traditions could have a role in the dialogue, to support a view of individuality and inter-connectedness, indeed, but which is less masculinist in language (I’m thinking about how the book suggests “dialogical sophiology” as the way of meeting with the divine feminine), more open, and more widely informed than this.

I am glad to be living in a time of spiritual ferment. It breathes life and hope in an otherwise darkening time. I acknowledge and celebrate the achievement of The New Monasticism and am already involved in exploring contemplative life in Druidry. I notice that I, and others who I have been linked with, have in some ways come to similar conclusions about life and practice, if not entirely of view. This book, although from a very different background, has stimulated and encouraged me. I hope it has this role for many other readers.

BOOK REVIEW: PAGAN DREAMING

jhp551bfc27c579fHighly recommended. Pagan Dreaming: The Magic of Altered Consciousness, to give it its full title, is an informed and thought provoking introduction to dreams and dream work. Although tailored specifically to a Pagan-oriented audience, it will be of interest to many other people as well.

Author Nimue Brown follows her familiar path of avoiding hackneyed or formulaic approaches to the subject. Instead, she draws on a rich variety of sources including her own experience of dreaming and working with dreams to ask fruitfully open questions and invite dreamers to explore this territory for themselves. She says of herself: “I am not a scientist or psychologist. I have not trained as a counsellor or psychoanalyst. … I am simply a Druid who has always worked with dreams, and I am sharing what I have. There is no dogma here, just ideas”. Whilst being clear that she is not writing as a therapist, she does indicate that dream work can have triggering (and therefore potentially therapeutic) effects, so that people doing it may want professional support in some circumstances.

The book discusses the physical, emotional and meaning-making aspects of dreams, emphasising how dreams work differently for different people – suggesting that standard schema for interpretation are of very limited use. Everyone has their own dream language and needs first to listen in to this. Only then are they in a position to interpret their own dream symbolism and develop their own dream work. The author includes a chapter on ‘Exploring a Dream Diary’ where she shares extensively from her own, and shows how to assess and draw conclusions from the material presented by the recorded dreams. She includes “daydreaming … along the edges of sleep” within the overall umbrella of dream work, and identifies this as a significant and creative state for her.

After a chapter on ‘Dreams and Magic’ (though “not the kind of magic that leads to definite outcomes”) the book concludes with ‘Into the Wilderness’, which explores the idea of “re-wilding your sleep” – physically, mentally, spiritually and socially. She moves on to speculation about where dreams come from – products of our own minds? The universe whispering to us as we sleep? The gods of dreaming as they carry us into other-worlds? Ancestral memories? She ends by saying: “none of these explanations is any less miraculous than any of the others”. That sense of an open and affirmatively questioning stance towards the ‘miraculous’ is for me the defining feature of this book: a refreshing treatment of a fascinating topic.

OLD MIDSUMMER’S DAY

485px-Andrea_Solari_Salomè_riceve_la_testa_di_Giovanni_Battista24 June is a special day for me. When I was quite small, someone told me that it was Old Midsummer’s Day without telling me when the new one was. So it was Midsummer’s Day for me. ‘Old’ just gave it depth and perspective in my imagination. I was told in the presence of oak trees too, in a sun-ripened afternoon , sultry like high summer. Old.

A year or two later I found out that it was St. John the Baptist’s Day too. I had two vivid images of him at the time. The slightly less vivid one was of him baptising Jesus, the anointed one who was to follow him. The slightly more vivid one was a version of Andrea Solari’s depiction above (1507): John beheaded as requested by Salome, at the command of King Herod. It is a strange story in some ways, for Salome means ‘peace’ in Semitic languages and she’s not depicted in an obviously peaceful light.

In any event, the church awarded John the Baptist 24 June as his day, placed at the opposite end of the year to Christmas, days which are in each case placed at a time when the sun has just started moving again. The old story about the conflict of a winter and summer king alternating in their mirror image enjoyment of dominance and death is now somewhat discredited as a universal theme. But it is clearly a strong part of our cultural inheritance, just like our experience of the changing seasons themselves.

Old Midsummer’s Day is a time when the sundered halves of the western way come together, with a common theme handled in different ways and with different understandings.  That, and the fact that the day has been present in my imagination since I was very young, give this day a special kind of magic. I was glad to mark it today with my partner Elaine, in a completely informal way.

POEM: CAER SIDI

Poetry from the ‘Celtic Renaissance’ – one of ‘Six Celtic Sonnets’  written by Thomas Samuel Jones and first published in 1930. Taken from ‘The Isles of Dream’, an anthology by John Matthews.

 

Alone, unarmed, the Dragon King must go

To seek the Cauldron by a magic shore,

For gleaming harness wrought of wizard ore

Is powerless against an unknown foe;

The lonely Caer, walled with the flaming Bow,

Lifts dark enchanted horns where wild seas roar,

And in the moon’s white path a mystic door

Moves to strange music only Merlins know.

Within, vast shapes and awful shadows start,

While deathless gods who hold the way-worn stairs,

Do ghostly battle with a hero’s soul;

But at his eagle cry their thronged shields part,

And from the cloven fire the Chieftain bears

High in his mighty grasp the star-rimmed Bowl.

Caer Sidi is one of Six Celtic Sonnets written by Thomas Samuel Jones and included in From the Isles of Dream: Visionary Stories and Poems of the Celtic Renaissance, selected by John Matthews and with a foreword by Robin Williamson (Floris Books, 1993).

Thomas Samuel Jones (1882-1932) came from Welsh and Irish stock and was born in Oneida County, New York State, near the Adirondack Mountains. Each of the six sonnets reflects a facet of Celtic tradition. They were originally published in 1930 as part of the collection Aknahton and Other Sonnets. For those of us who resonate with Druid and Celtic spirituality, they are part of our modern cultural ancestry.

ETHICS AND THE ENDLESS KNOT

Exploring ethics through contemplative trance and active imagination

In Clear and Present Thinking (1) a book about logic, Brendan Myers includes a Chapter on Moral Reasoning. In this chapter he talks about Virtue Theory as one “where the weight of moral concern is on the character and identity of the person who acts and chooses, as well as the habits he or she develops and discharges through her actions and their consequences”.

Some days after reading this, I found myself in my inner sacred space, a heart space, the garden of the Goddess. I was not doing any formal practice. I was just there. When the garden first emerged, it was specifically as Sophia’s garden. And so it was this time.

There was a banner hanging from a tree branch, hawthorn I think. It was red, with a gold pentangle inscribed on it. I recognised it as the heraldic emblem from Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2). In this 14th century English poem the pentangle is introduced as a token of fidelity first devised by King Solomon. It is unbroken anywhere, and known in England as the ‘endless knot’. The poem involves an interrogation of ‘virtue’ as understood both in King Arthur’s Camelot and in the older world of the Green Knight far to the north. Gawain will have to navigate both physical perils and moral ambiguities.

Why did I find this device, as a spontaneously emerging image, in Sophia’s Garden? Firstly, I had been thinking about virtue ethics as described by Brendan Myers. Secondly, the pentangle in this form has been a significant image for me ever since I encountered the poem in my late teens. I’ve revisited it from time to time ever since, and this includes the reading of John Matthews’ Sir Gawain: Knight of the Goddess (3) which makes the link with Sophia. “In the Gnostic system, Sophia, the divine emanation of the Godhead, would not permit anyone to enter her Realm of Light, unless they were in complete balance, and bore the sign of the pentangle upon them”.

The offered meaning, as I see it, is that when addressing virtue ethics, I can’t rely on reason alone. Virtue ethics is up close and personal, more than an abstract principle or set of rules. I need to mobilise more of myself. In Sophia’s Garden I’m in a deepened form of awareness, and can contemplate the imagery using heart and intuition as well as rationality. They all work together.

Allowing the vision, I entered a light trance, with the image firmly in mind. I lay down with pen and paper near. I fell asleep for a short period – not part of the plan, but cleansing and useful. On waking I had words: Love/Wisdom. Sophia is Goddess of Love/Wisdom. The love is the greater quality, and it is an Eros fuelled love, for Sophia is the emanation of the Divine who ‘fell’ and then recovered (4). There must an opening up and movement towards someone or something, however slight and tentative, for it to be ‘love’. Whereas I owe justice and a pre-supposition of basic good will towards sentient beings, love is in my experience beyond command and does not result from a conscious act of will – though I can certainly work at expanding my potential to be a conduit. Wisdom is connected to this love, acting as a detector of distortions – empty or ungrounded sentiment, unaware compulsion, possessive attachment, ‘spiritual’ love as world rejecting flight, or driven and reckless forms of generosity lacking in self-care.

But love modifies wisdom too. Wisdom here is too energised to be altogether prudential. Counting the cost may make sense, but it’s not the only criterion. Wisdom uses the head yet is lodged in the heart. At the same time, wisdom also knows that ‘Love’ and ‘Wisdom’ as words can begin to solidify into things, always a problem with ‘nouning’. They can become wooden idealisations devoid of context and process, accessories to self-image, identity performance and external reputation. They can become alienated and commodified. They can even turn and be turned against us. So wisdom guards herself and love by guarding against too much reference to ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Love’.

At this stage I’m thinking again of the pentangle and wanting to use it to bring the virtues into relationship with each other rather than separating them out. I’m feeling happy about using this traditional framework so long as I can be playful with it. For I understand this to be the Sophian Way – with solemnity seen as having a stupefying effect, anaesthetising awareness. So in this ethics of the endless knot, I place love at the apex of the pentangle as I look at the banner, I move down to the base on my right, igniting the love/wisdom link.

Then, moving diagonally up left from the base I come to justice, for love and wisdom need justice in the world for the sake of their own flourishing: injustice inhibits the free flow of love and wisdom. I’ve already named justice, and fairness, as something I owe to all on a personal level, based on a presupposition of basic good will. I’m also clear about the need to work for justice in the wider world. On this, my vision is of a justice is careful of its methods, or it risks licensing revenge, both in power and opposition. Care about language and imagery are themselves a work for justice. Injustice wants to constrain and police these great resources. It seeks to close down their emancipatory magic. Working for justice is rational activity in service to love and wisdom. Sophia has always cried out against injustice, false justice and no justice. She has an ambivalent relationship with the law.

The classical virtue following on from justice, as I move in a straight line from left to right, is courage. What kind of courage am I looking at? For me it’s not about ‘warriorship’, with its theatricality and somewhat militaristic associations, however reframed for current values and conditions. (Perhaps that’s why my pentangle is inscribed on a banner rather than a shield.) Rather, it combines resilience with witnessing. Early Taoism captures the resilience aspect: “true goodness is like water … it goes right down to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way” and “the hard sword fails, the stiff tree’s felled. The hard and great go under. The soft and weak stay up” (5). I understand witnessing in a ‘truth to power’ sense and link it to my notion of care about emancipatory, life and world-expanding language and imagery and the need to guard them. This witnessing courage, to be honourable, may involve the willing loss of recognised honour and standing in a world that is formally virtuous. So it depends on a strong inner authority and a willingness to go against tribal custom. This is the courage I would tie in with love, wisdom and justice.

Moving down diagonally from courage, we come to the base of the golden pentangle on the left hand side, where I place temperance. In the course of its long history, ‘temperance’ has tended to shift from ideas of moderation to ideas of abstinence, as culture and religion have changed. Here and now, I have a resonance of ‘treading lightly on the earth’, in two senses. One is about limiting demands on material resources for the health and flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants. The other is about an ultimate non-attachment to material goods, contents of consciousness and the self-image they create. For me, there is a balance here which is why the word temperance comes in. I can love my possessions, my ideas and visions, my loved ones, my neighbours and my sense of who I am. But I am not fundamentally identified, not wholly immersed, in them. For these forms of love, if they are to flourish, demand some space around them, and there is a sense in which I am alone even within these nourishing interconnections. In another sense I am not. For I can go back to the simplicity of aware being and loving, timelessly arising from the fertile latency of the void. In this way I complete the endless knot.

This vision and reflection are only a beginning. I intend to continue engaging with this ethical approach, integrating it into my contemplative inquiry.

References

  1. Brendan Myers, Charlotte Elsby, Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray & Nola Semczyszyn Clear and Present Thinking: a Handbook in Logic and Rationality, Version 1.1 (21st May 2013) Available via brendanmyers.net or Amazon/Kindle
  2. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License – see creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/
  3. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight edited with an introduction, prose translation and notes by W. R. J. Barron. (Revised edition) Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998
  4. John Matthews Sir Gawain Knight of the Goddess (Revised edition) Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998
  5. Pistis Sophia: a Gnostic Gospel translated into English with an introduction and annotated bibliography by G. R. S. Mead. Blauvelt, New York: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (New Foreword for American Edition by Richard K. Russell
  6. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. LeGuin)

WRITING THE LANDSCAPE

contemplativeinquiry:

Reflections on place, language of place and spirit of place.

Originally posted on Druid Life:

How the landscape is written about is something I’m exploring at the moment. That which we do not talk about, we tend not to value. If we don’t have words, or a language for something, then often we don’t pay as much attention to it anyway. With our landscapes threatened by all manner of ill conceived development, with rising urbanisation and a generation of children who are more familiar with Daleks than magpies, it seems important to me not only to talk about the land, but to make sure I’m doing that well.

My natural default when I don’t know an answer to something large, is to read books. At the moment I’m reading as much Gloucestershire orientated material as I can, because it helps to know the place being described. I started the conscious leg of this journey with Robert McFarlane’s Landmarks (even though he’s not from round here!)…

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POEM: THE BREATH OF NATURE

When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds

Which, noiseless in themselves,

Awaken voices from other beings,

Blowing on them.

From every opening

Loud voices sound. Have you not heard

This rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood

On the steep mountain:

Oak trees with holes and cracks

Like snouts maws and ears,

Like beam-sockets, like goblets,

Grooves in the wood, hollows full of water.

You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,

Shouts of command, grumblings,

Deep drones, sad flutes.

One call awakens another in dialogue.

Gentle winds sing timidly,

Strong ones blast on without restraint.

Then the wind dies down. The openings

Empty out their last sound.

Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu replied: I understand:

The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.

The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.

What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:

Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.

Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.

What is this power?

From:  Thomas Merton The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004

Chuang Tzu, one of the great figures of early Taoism, lived around 300 BCE. The frontispiece of this edition says: “He used parables and anecdotes, allegory and paradox, to illustrate that real happiness and freedom are found only in understanding Tao or Way of nature, and dwelling in its unity. The respected Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent several years reading and reflecting on four different translations of the Chinese classic that bears Chuang Tzu’s name. The result is this collection of poetic renderings of the great sage’s work.

WITHIN, BETWEEN, BEYOND

In a recent post I wrote of John Heron’s proposed ‘4th wave humanism’, a humanism open to the numinous and welcoming of Mystery. This naming allows Heron say that two out of three previous humanist waves in Western culture (Greek classical and Italian renaissance) have already been like that, with the current post Enlightenment wave a bit of a cultural oddity.

One of the things I like about the approach is the idea that we may find the extra dimension – the one we vaguely, almost helplessly, call ‘spiritual’ – in three places: within, between and beyond.  I’m relating this to practice, and how in my experience works for each domain.

I can speak of ‘within’ with the most confidence. I have a solo practice that works firstly as a therapeutic process: it supports and affirms personal wellbeing. It offers healing and deep peace. But these, although desirable as outcomes, and appreciated as rewards, are not the ultimate aims.  Such states enable a sense of awarely being and loving, in gratitude for the gift of human life and also feeling held within a larger context. This doesn’t happen without times of self-alienation and their call to shadow work. But the tendency of practice is in the direction of opening up and opening out.  The reflections that come from this are about integrity with self, others and the wider world, and how to live my active and relational life.

For the ‘between’ I can speak from the body of experience I’ve had, especially in the last couple of years, in groups working in contemplative Druidry. The groups are quite small and have a form of intimacy that comes from that. But the practices are not designed to create close personal relationships or an orchestrated group mind. We each have our own space in a setting where we also have a concern for each other and opportunities for personal sharing.  The connection is a ‘between’ one, neither frozen by distance nor drowned in euphoria. It owes something to each person’s within, and to the growth of personal connection, but it’s at least as much present in the group atmosphere, the subtle presence of a ‘more-than’. This aspect of the group work has become clearer to me than it was during the writing of Contemplative Druidry.

So it’s my view that ‘within’ and ‘between’ can be cultivated quite effectively – not without ups and downs, but effectively all the same. My sense of the ‘beyond’ is a little different. Beyond is beyond and needs to stay wild. It is true that the Ceile De fonn ‘Sireadh Thall’ (Seek Beyond) names the search, the voyage towards an ever-receding horizon, as in-built in us – for some, a sign of our awakening divinity. But we also need to avoid the colonisation of the numinous and any compulsive holding on to visionary experiences. They are gifts – inspiring, nurturing and transient. Brendan Myers, in his The Earth, the Gods and the Soul, includes a telling paragraph from A. E.’s The Candle of Vision.

“Such is human nature that I still felt vanity as if the vision was mine, and I acted like one who comes across the treasure house of a king and spends the treasure as if it were their own. We may indeed have a personal wisdom, but spiritual vision is not to speak of as ours any more than we can say at the rising of the sun, ‘this glory is mine’. By the subtle uprising of such vanities in the midst of vison I was often outcast, and found myself in an instant like those warriors of Irish legend, who had come upon a lordly house and feasted there and slept, and when they awoke they were on the brown hill-side.”

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

jhp51efa580a1aafThe Earth, the Gods and the Soul: a History of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers fully justifies the ambition of its title. I see it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in pagan ideas and culture – past and present. Part of the author’s  mission is to demonstrate that “a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just”.

Myers provides useful working definitions of both ‘pagan’ and ‘philosophy’, whilst also showing the complexities involved in each term. He limits ‘pagan’ to people in the nations of the west and their predecessor societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, whose religion is non-Abrahamic (not Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This may now be complicated by patterns of migration and the Western impact of dharmic religions, but it works well enough if you are looking for a specific pagan tradition and its origins. Modern paganism, according to Myers, is informed by three families of ideas – pantheism, neo-Platonism, and humanism: these address the “immensities”, respectively, of Earth, Gods and Soul.

‘Philosophy’, for Myers, is an intellectual discipline that seeks answers to the ultimate questions about ‘life, the universe and everything’ using reason rather than the authority of dogma or an intuited divine source. He usefully lists 7 branches of this discipline: logic, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, phenomenology, aesthetics and the history of ideas. Western philosophy’s origins are in Greece, and linked to the ‘know yourself’ injunction outside the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Myers sees this as a basic ethical demand for an honestly examined life, especially when wishing to enter the presence of a god. It leads to a wider view that self-knowledge heals, enlightens and empowers, though it may also at times judge and condemn.

The book is arranged as if musically, in an overture and six movements. The people chosen for inclusion are in many cases neither philosophers not pagans, and in many others only one of the two. But they have helped to define modern pagan ideas, culture and sensibility. Each movement covers a different historical period:

  1. A look at the old northern (‘barbarian’) world includes the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, Iceland’s Elder Edda, early writings about Druids, Irish wisdom texts and the Pelagian heresy (an early Christian heresy popular in the Celtic lands). There is no direct voice from a pagan culture in north west Europe, so Christians with half a foot in the old pagan world, or (in the case of the Druids) Greek and Roman authors are cited.
  2. A substantial collection of pagan Greek or Greek influenced philosophers from the early pre-Socratic period to the pagan martyr Hypatia of Alexandria. Also included are the Irish Christian neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena, and a section on the much later Italian renaissance. The people in this section, up to and including Hypatia, are both pagans (as we use that word today)and philosophers (in the ancient Greek understanding of that term).
  3. This movement is called ‘Pantheism in the Age of Reason’ and includes 18th century figures like John Toland, Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) and the Platonist and translator Thomas Taylor – as well as the more famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the nineteenth century, we have Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
  4. A movement on pagan ‘resurgence, reinvention and rebirth’ begins with Helena Blavatsky and the launch of 19th century Theosophy, going on to include J.G. Fraser of The Golden Bough, Robert Graves of The White Goddess, George William (A.E.) Russell of A Vision and Aleister Crowley. It goes on to look at the background to Gerard Gardner’s work and the Book of Shadows, then at the appearance of American Feminist Witchcraft and also at the separate stream of Eco-Spirituality and Deep Ecology.
  5. The fifth movement comprises ‘living voices’, so Stewart Farrar and Isaac Bonewits are placed at the end of the fourth, whereas Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone appear here. So too do Starhawk, Emma Restall-Orr, John Michael Greer, Vivianne Crowley, Michael York and Gus diZerega. There is also a section on ‘the critique of monotheism’. Myers praises Emma Restall-Orr for her work on ethics, its spirit of critical inquiry and her formal use of philosophical sources.
  6. Here we find Brendan Myers’ personal commentary. He talks about a hoped-for development of a critical tradition on paganism, and the value of ‘institutions’ in maintaining such a tradition. (He acknowledges that this may go somewhat against the grain of paganism as a dissident culture). He talks about modern to paganism’s history of ‘faulty ideas’, and promotes the development of better ideas for the future.  He also celebrates the health of a ‘will to live in an enchanted world’. Myers has ‘no special teachings’ of his own. A declared pagan philosopher, he builds his personal inquiry around four questions: how shall I dwell upon the earth? How shall I converse with all people? How shall I emerge from my loneliness? How shall I face my mortality? He then goes on to discuss what these questions bring up for him.

Myers ends his book by saying: “the best music is made with humanity, integrity and wonder – everyone has instruments to hand … When I hear music I share it … when I make music I share it too … I hope that my people will celebrate with me and play along … when I make dissonant or offending sounds, I trust my people will warm me, so I can make amends … nothing more, perhaps, could be asked of anyone. And, perhaps, nothing less”.

The Earth, the Gods and the Soul is a well-informed and simply written history of pagan ideas, which tells modern pagans a lot about the shoulders we sit on. It is a great reference book. But what it did mostly for me was to get me thinking about my own relationship to philosophy and its working methods. I call my own journey a contemplative inquiry. How could I use tools from philosophy’s  toolkit to improve my own inquiry in service of a pagan critical tradition? That’s where there’s an inspiration for me – because I sense an invitation there, from a professional philosopher, to make use of this toolkit. Myers’ forward includes a reference to Clear and Present Thinking, written by him with support from a number of University colleagues for a general audience, and freely downloadable. It’s another good job, and very useful to have.

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