contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY: MEME OR MOVEMENT?

On 3 October Contemplative Druid Events (CDE) – see http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com – will hold its last planned event for 2015. This will be a Contemplative Day, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The facilitators will be James Nichol, Elaine Knight and Nimue Brown. Our programme is designed for a group of up to 15 people, and 12 are already committed. With just over a month to go we have a comfortable size of group, with room for a few more.

CDE offerings are built around insights from the book Contemplative Druidry: People Practice and Potential about the kinds of contemplative work that most seemed to resonate for the present generation of Druids. We offer sitting meditations of based both on a bare attention and on active imagination. We have outdoor walking meditations and opportunities simply to be, with awareness, in natural settings. We use methods that draw on creative arts. We have developed ‘Awen space’ as a group opening to, in and as Spirit. We build our repertoire as we gain in experience.

Is CDE spearheading Contemplative Druidry as a movement? I don’t see it that way. CDE was created as a minimal level of organisation for a single purpose. This is to offer a particular kind of event to small groups of Druids and fellow-travellers willing to join us. In doing this, we also promote the contemplative Druid meme, which now seems to be well recognised in modern Druid culture. But the CDE brand does not exhaust the possibilities of contemplative Druidry and we wouldn’t want it to. Modern Druidry, which is in some senses a postmodern Druidry, has a strong commitment to free exploration and diversity. The contemplative meme will find its place within that wider cultural framework. For better or for worse, we will never, as a collective, be organised around a Druid ‘four noble truths’. Contemplative Druidry will mean different things, and inspire different journeys, for different Druids.

POEM: PRIMARY CHIEF BARD

Gnostic Bardistry from The Book of Taliesin? These are just five of the verses, selected by me from one poem. What interests me is not so much working out what to us seems like a set of puzzles, but how something new and dialogical is created by interweaving indigenous material and biblical references. I say a few words in italics after each verse.

Primary Chief Bard

Primary Chief Bard

Am I to Elffin

And my native country

Is the region of the summer stars.

 

The first statement is a statement of identity. It begins with a local (though important) role, and goes on to the cosmic and transcendent. This taps into a sense of belonging somewhere else (whether perceived as a place or state). It makes me think that statements like ‘being here now, in the present’ and ‘my native country is the region of the summer stars’ only seem contradictory: meaning depends so much on context and the work that words are doing. If the two statements are separated and polarised, they diminish into limiting slogans. Taken together, they can lead us to a different quality of experience.

I was full nine months

In the womb of the hag Ceridwen.

Before that I was Gwion

But now I am Taliesin.

Taliesin’s current personal identity is explained in terms of a second birth, in this life, triggered by the actions of Ceridwen. This second birth fits him to be a Bard and take the Bardic name ‘Radiant Brow’, one that bespeaks major shifts in energy and consciousness. It also allows the sense of the summer stars as his ‘native country’ to be real within him. It orients him to his true home.

I was patriarch

To Elijah and Enoch.

I was there at the crucifixion

Of the merciful Mabon.

Elijah and Enoch ascended to heaven without dying. They have deep roles in Jewish mysticism. They are in the tradition of so-called ‘ascended Masters’. If we treat these metaphors (insofar as they are metaphors) as concerned with enlightenment, then – as their ‘Patriarch’ – Taliesin is claiming primacy over them. He is in some sense a Christ figure and so can be present at the crucifixion of another Christ figure, referred to here by the name of the magical child of British tradition ‘the Mabon’.

 

I was at the cross

With Mary Magdalene.

I received the Awen

From Ceridwen’s cauldron.

The poem presented here is a product of the later Middle Ages, likely as late as the fourteenth century. Traditions giving Mary Magdalene the role of major teacher and possibly spouse of Jesus were deep underground, but everyone in Christendom Knew of her witnessing role at both the crucifixion and the resurrection, and so as privileged in some way. She also shares her name with Mary the mother. The two couplets together bring the idea of Christ’s transformation through death on the cross with Taliesin’s transformation from Ceridwen’s cauldron, and the critical role of a feminine power in each.

I was in the larder

In the land of the Trinity

And no one knows whether my body

Is flesh or fish.

Despite all the above, Taliesin remains an enigma – a shape shifter and trickster. He defies definition and description and won’t fit into any box that attracts unwanted piety. Other readers may understand this verse much better than I do, but I see it as very tough minded and unwilling to let me parcel up this poem and tie it with a neat bow. To the extent that I get a sense of medieval Welsh literature, this seems very characteristic. However, in the most obvious ‘Land of the Trinity’ (Western Christendom) people want to know where everyone stands. The accepted narrative is that we’re with Jesus the avatar of Pisces and through the sign of the fish we know him. And yet the old Celtic world has many trinities and many fish, including the salmon of wisdom. And Taliesin’s body might be flesh after all. So we are thrown back on our resources, with riddling words and ambiguous images to reflect them.

 

The complete poem can be found in Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland by John Matthews London: The Aquarian Press, 1991.

THE DREAM OF SCIPIO

Dream of Scipio“He went into the chapel and looked at the pictures she had studied, and saw them through her eyes. He looked at the picture of the blind man and Sophia, her gesture so tender, his so responsive, and saw again how she had made it her own. She had lost herself in this old work, her personality dissolving into it, so that she had been set free. The immortality of the soul lies in its dissolution.”*

This post is stimulated by a novel, but too personal to be a book review. It is energised by my belief that the best poetry and fiction are more supportive of spiritual inquiry than most texts designed specifically for spiritual teaching. The same can be said of visual arts and music. For me, spiritual understanding is not a body of information available for download from the cosmos. It does not arise from surrender to a persistent monologue. A certain kind of peace and safety might come from this, but the full fruits of the meeting between wisdom, love and creativity are missed.

Iain Pears’ novel The Dream of Scipio has inspired my spiritual direction whilst not directly defining it. I like novels as a medium for their ability to shift between different points of view and see people developing in a context of living relationships and events. They can look at the cultural and political impact of belief systems over time, as well as personal experience in the moment. The main protagonist in this novel is a philosopher and teacher from late antiquity. Actually named Sophia, she is in the tradition of Hypatia of Alexandria, now celebrated as both a Pagan and an Atheist martyr.

Pears’ story has three timelines, with two main point of view characters from each. We are presented with thoughtful people doing what they see as their best in specific contexts of time, place and culture. In each case the setting is the south of France, east of the Rhone. The first and in many ways defining period spans 475-486 and the ending of Roman rule. The second is 1342-8, mostly set in Avignon during its period of Papal residence. It includes the devastating outbreak of bubonic plague known as the Black Death. The third is 1940-1943, covering the defeat of France, the Vichy regime and then full German occupation as resistance strengthens and the tide of war begins to turn. In each case the plot turns on experiences of a Sophian figure and a man in some form of relationship with her. On the political level the focus is on crisis, choices, and consequences – especially for the Jewish community of the region.

In 475 Sophia runs a modest philosophy school in Marseille, inherited from her father Anaxius. They are insecure migrants from Alexandria.  Anaxius had been a pupil of Hypatia and can’t live there anymore.  Marseille is relatively small, provincial and in decline. But it is a Greek city in origin and part of the Mediterranean world. Southern France is a land of highly Romanised Celts, with significant Greek and Jewish communities in the larger towns.  Both as an independent woman and a philosopher in the Greek tradition, Sophia is an anomaly in a society of increasing religious conformism and narrowing cultural horizons. She presents herself as a guide, not a teacher, available to help without being an instructor. She asks people to speak freely and not to believe anything she says. She wants to emphasise the distinction between understanding and believing. Her theology is a rather austere neo-Platonism. “Let us take the premise” she says, “that the individual soul likens himself to God through the refinement of contemplation, and that virtue is a reflection of this understanding”.

Sophia’s main pupil is Manlius, a Gallo-Roman aristocrat who provides protection for Sophia as the school dwindles away and life gets more difficult. This supports his self-image of upholding the best of an old culture in bad times through an act of discerning patronage. They are attracted to each other, but the relationship is not consummated. They are holding to an ideal that “pure love is a reflection of the beautiful and a striving to return to it. Only through its accomplishment is the soul freed”. They both agree that Manlius should take a role in public life by making a formal conversion to Christianity and accepting the offer of a Bishopric. With the collapse in Roman military capacity the Romanised upper class is dependent on what we now call ‘soft power’. The church is its vehicle, and wants Manlius for his wealth, his family name and his administrative capacity. Manlius goes on to use his new office to negotiate a Burgundian occupation of his region as a means of maintaining order and keeping out the harsher Goths. This is presented as realistic in its own terms, though it involves the betrayal and killing of old friends who still want a Roman solution. However, even with the political settlement achieved, Bishop Manlius still needs to enhance his Christian credentials with the local population. They are not quite sure of his faith. So, taking advantage of a disturbance involving a Jewish criminal, he gives the entire local Jewish population three choices: conversion, exile or death. Most choose one of the first two options, but some are killed. From this time on Manlius is treated as a saint. He has solved the issue of the Christ killers on his patch.

Sophia is appalled. The point of public office lies in the opportunity to exercise virtue. Manlius was meant to take it to avoid it going to someone worse – someone bigoted or cynical. His behaviour is a betrayal of everything her teaching stood for. Manlius thinks of it as effective statecraft through the willingness to take hard decisions. Sophia still has to rely on Manlius’ protection – at one point to obtain her release from prison – and she moves to a small hermitage on his land. She and her role are no longer possible in the city. However, this doesn’t stop her from confronting him, expressing shame at being his teacher and breaking off the friendship. Manlius writes A Dream of Scipio (where she is his guide in the dream) as a kind of apology and tribute to her teaching, and to express his private opinions. Sophia refuses to read it.

Sophia survives Manlius. She lives on at the hermitage, protected by the good will of a Burgundian war lord who inherits the estate. He feels an odd respect for her though he can’t make her out and is easier to deal with than Manlius had become. Over time local people, especially women, have begun to treat her as a holy woman and seek her advice on personal and family problems.  After her own death, she is woven into legend as St. Sophia – the most faithful of a group of women gathered around Mary Magdalene when forced to leave the Holy Land. On arrival in the south of France, Sophia becomes a teacher and healer second only to Mary herself. A favourite story is the curing blind of Manlius, for example, who went on to become the holy Bishop of Vaison after regaining his sight and who rewarded her with the hermitage. The chapel built on the site becomes a centre of pilgrimage.

In the medieval part of the story, a young Italian painter experimenting with a more humanistic and representational art paints scenes from St. Sophia’s life on the chapel walls. They include the saint curing the blind Manlius.  Real people, younger and naiver than their originals, are used as the models. The Sophia figure is Rebecca, an orphan from the officially extinct Cathar community, working as the servant of a Jewish rabbi. Manlius is Olivier (and actually Rebecca’s lover), the young secretary of a Cardinal and also a poet in a new and evolving style. He finds an old manuscript of The Dream of Scipio. Its language is haunting and challenging. Some of the things Rebecca says, when she lets him know who she is, remind him of this manuscript and this is woven into the attraction. The chief political event is a knife-edge Papal decision to prevent a massacre of Jews rather than promote one as strongly advised. (The plague is widely blamed on the Jews.) The connection between Olivier and Rebecca makes a difference to this outcome, though at the eventual cost of Olivier’s life.

In the World War II part of the story, Julien is an academic and Julia a painter. They’ve known each other, on and off, for some years. Julia comes from a Jewish family but doesn’t think of herself as Jewish until forced to. After the occupation Julia manages to get exit papers from France but her ship is diverted to Cuba where U.S. authorities deny her permission to enter the United States, thus getting round a promise that no Jewish refugee will be turned back from a U.S. port. No other country will take her and she is forced back to France. Julien has a job as a Vichy censor based in Avignon (accepting it to prevent someone perceived as worse from having it). He is able to help Julia hide out discreetly, and she enters a highly productive phase as an artist. An important source of inspiration is the old Chapel of St. Sophia, its legends, and the medieval paintings that, somewhat the worse for wear, are still there. She makes use of the themes – especially the healing of blind Manlius by Sophia. However, she also becomes more visible – used by the Resistance to forge money and documents, and also because a Resistance co-ordinator flown back to France from Britain creates a cover role as an art dealer and sells some of her pictures. Julia is supposed to be put on a flight and taken out of harm’s way, but she is just too skilled and useful and her extraction keeps being delayed. When arrested she affirms her Jewish identity to half-hearted French police who are hoping that she will deny it (the arresting officers don’t know about her connection to the resistance, which one of them will shortly join). She is last known of on a train taking Jews to the camps. Julien, remorseful about failing to save her, dies whilst trying to save another resistance member from arrest.

There is a good deal about this book that is grim, and a good deal that is inspirational. If Sophia represents a spiritual wisdom, love and creativity, then the book has something to celebrate about these wonderful qualities as true human resources. Yet they are fragile. The book also speaks of dark times and the choices people make. The culture of the three periods is presented as accurately as possible and the major events all happened. Many possible lessons are suggested, and none are imposed. I found it very rich, and it’s one of the few novels I reread from time to time.

*Pears, Iain The Dream of Scipio London: Vintage, 2003

SOPHIAN CONTEMPLATION

I have begun a series of Sophian contemplations. They are built around brief passages from texts that I treat as being in her tradition, passages that have drawn and excited me and continue to resonate beyond their initial impact. This is the first.

I am the light within the light.

I am the remembrance of Forethought.*

 

I sit, eyes closed. I say: I am the light within the light. I get the image of someone holding up a lantern. It’s like the Hermit’s lantern from Tarot, except that Sophia is holding it. Then there’s the image of the candle inside the lantern, and I briefly become the flame. I am surrounded by protective walls of glass, safe and steady. I know that the glass will enhance my radiance.

Back outside, I as observer notice that the lantern offers a pool of light in a deep twilight setting. This light is not aggressive or overwhelming. It hardly disturbs the magic of the gloaming, which is also somewhat lit by moon and stars. The contribution of the lantern is that it helps to illuminate a path. Sophia is holding up the lantern so that people can walk somewhere a bit more easily.

Sophia holds the light and points the way. Sophia does not ask for prayers. She does not ask to be loved, though love is in the air. She does not even ask to be followed, or for a path to be followed. Rather she says to me, in my observer position, “now you do it”. To become a lantern bearer, a lantern, and the flame within, is her worship. It begins with the flame within, or there is no light. At a level, it also ends with the flame. From the perspective of the lantern there is no path; just illumination.  From the external perspective, there is a path, and a role of lantern bearing guide. Yet there is only one experience, which can be seen in different ways.

I continue to sit, eyes now half open, soft focus, panoramic vision. I say: I am the remembrance of Forethought. I notice that I feel very comforted by the word ‘remembrance’. I’ve always had a sense of memory beyond memory, predating me and beyond personal. I am not thinking in terms of past lives or other forms of existence. But I do think that if those had a meaning and I could access them, this ‘remembrance’ would be there too. It’s not a memory of any identity or event – it’s just ‘remembrance’. It’s a very deep intuitive sense, and I believe that I share it with others, though the specific experience and ways of attempting to language it will vary. It has the feeling-tone of home. The old Gnostics used the term Pistis Sophia (faith-wisdom), which is the wisdom of deciding to have faith in the value of experiences like this, rather than dismissing them. There’s a decision to build life and meaning around them and to stand by the images, words, metaphors and practices that emerge – though not without examination and inquiry. ‘Forethought’ also has its own special resonance. In this context it’s anything so concrete of definite as ‘forward planning’. Rather, it derives its meaning as a contrast to ‘the Word’. It suggests a prior latency before the beginning that was the Word – a bit like the ain soph of the Kabbalah. As such, I can appreciate that language is being stretched beyond its reasonable reach and is dissolving into Mystery. Yet somehow, all the same, it stands for something I can recognise and assent to. Sophia’s invitation to me is to take ownership of these lines, and taste their reality as fully as I can.

I am the light within the light.

I am the remembrance of Forethought.*

*These lines come from a Gnostic text called The Secret Book of John. The book is a Nag Hammadi text and now available in a number of English translations. This one is taken from The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels translated with an introduction and notes by Marvin W. Meyer, New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

SOPHIA (HOKHMAH) AND WHERE SHE CAME FROM

In my understanding, Sophia has walked with us on a long cultural journey. We first discover her paradoxically placed within monotheist and patriarchal Judaism. She is named Hokhmah, which like the Greek Sophia translates into English as Wisdom. Her subsequent journey has often been through difficult and dangerous territory in the apparent world. It always marks a drive to awaken from toxic and delusional ‘realities’ and it has sometimes had a markedly pessimistic tone. This journey continues into our own times, and with it Sophia’s gift for what the old Gnostics called ‘continuous revelation’: “I will again make instruction shine forth like the dawn, and I will make it clear from far away. I will again pour out teaching like prophecy, and leave it to all future generations. Observe that I have not laboured for myself alone, but for all who seek wisdom”. (1)

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford point out (2) that although Wisdom in Jewish sacred literature was technically an abstract and transcendent quality, associated with the divine, it was always referred to as ‘she’, though without any image to support the personification. However the poetry of Hokhmah reveals her emergence from the earlier Great Mother. Wisdom speaks as Inanna and Isis spoke before her, powerfully, authoritatively and sensuously, making abundant use of natural imagery to come into full presence.

I grew tall like a cedar in Lebanon,

And like a cypress on the heights of Hermon.

I grew tall like a palm tree in Engedi.

And like rose bushes in Jericho;

Like a fair olive tree in the field,

And like a plane tree beside water I grew tall.

Like cassia and camel’s thorn I gave forth perfume,

And like choice myrrh I spread my fragrance,

Like galbanum, onycha, and stacte,

And like the odour of incense in the tent.

Like a terebinth I spread out my branches,

And my branches are glorious and graceful.

Like the vine I bud forth delights,

And my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit.

Come to me, you who desire me

And eat your fill of my fruits.

For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,

And the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.

Those who eat of me will hunger for more,

And those who drink of me will thirst for more,

Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,

And those who work with me will not sin. (1)

Baring and Cashford suggest that the greatest legacy of the goddess culture in the eastern Mediterranean is “the idea that the earthly, visible order of creation participates in the invisible source of being”. This is the foundation of the Wisdom traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt, some 2,000 years older than Greek or Hebrew civilisation. “In Greece, whose great philosophers visited Egypt, it is the foundation of Plato’s Great Chain of Being. Israel’s own ‘Wisdom Teaching’ is woven with the thread of these older traditions, although the name, person and representation of the goddess could find no place” (2).

I am drawn to Sophia because for me she is fully in and of nature yet not locked in to the role of earth mother. She stands for every part of Plato’s chain: matter, life, mind – soul and spirit too if you want to make further distinctions.  She doesn’t stand for a dream of bliss within the womb, or in an over-managed garden. Reading the old Jewish myths through a Gnostic lens she, under the name of Eve, puts a stop to all that. She will not accept a reign of ignorance and false consciousness. Sophia stands for awareness, which includes a willingness to see the world as clearly as possible and a capacity to hold and manage a measure of self-aware suffering. In my universe Sophia is pneuma, the very breath and spirit of awakened and relational life, and as such she represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. For none of these fully blooms without the others.

  1. Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach 24, 13-32,The Apocrypha: the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament, New Revised Standard Version Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1992
  2. Baring Anne and Cashford Jules The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London, England: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

POEM: SAILING TO BYZANTIUM

I’ve had a request for the full text of W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium and so this post is devoted to it.

1

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

-Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel crowded seas,

Fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

II

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there any singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

III

O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre*,

And be the singing masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

IV

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

  • “Perne in a gyre” – ‘pern’ is another name for spool, and ‘to pern’ or ‘perne’ is to move with a circular, spinning motion; a gyre is Yeats’ symbol for circular movements in history – In A Vision Yeats said that “each age unwinds the threads another age had wound”.

Yeats, W. B. Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan & Co, 1964 (Selected with an introduction and notes by A. Norman Jeffares)

SOPHIA, GNOSTICISM AND CONTEMPLATION

When I wrote Contemplative Druidry I said that “in many ways this is a story of neo-Pagan sensibility and its growth since World War Two”. In addition to their Druidry, many of the book’s contributors reported involvement in Witchcraft and/or the indigenous Shamanism of other lands.

I also said in many cases this sensibility was modified by other influences, “most notably Buddhist philosophy and meditation, Christian mysticism and other Western Way paths with Gnostic and Hermetic traditions specifically mentioned”. I made the point that such influences are significant for contemplative practice, because to an extent they provide models. In the book I mostly focused on Buddhist influences, because they were the most common. I also paid  attention to the Christian ones, notably the Ceile De, Anglican mysticism in the tradition of Evelyn Underhill, and the partly Franciscan inspiration behind the (Druid and Pagan) Order of the Sacred Nemeton. I didn’t say much about other Western Way traditions, though I mentioned R. J. Stewart as a personal influence on me and also my training at the London Transpersonal Centre. This was essentially Jungian and thus based on a modern Gnostic psychology.

The key images from my last post, Sailing to Byzantium, were images of Sophia and the Holy Fool from The Byzantine Tarot. They made an intense and (in common sense terms) disproportionate impact on me. For they reminded me of my own Gnosticism, a current that qualifies and modifies my Druidry. I am talking about modern Gnosticism, “based in an affirmation of nature and the world and a positive relationship to embodiment, not the classical Gnosticism of world-denial or pure transcendentalism.  It is a gnosis based on bringing the world fully to life, while also enjoying the state of embodiment and sensual pleasure, without excess or obsessive appetite”*.  Thus far, I could be talking about modern Druidry without any need to look elsewhere.

But, to follow Irwin further, Gnosticism also talks of “visionary awakening” through the power of archetypal imagery. From such a perspective, affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul as “the primary ground of a living and animate nature”. This can inspire “states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience”. The key is the “animating vitality” of images, which can arouse “a cascade of energy and potential surpassing the image and leading into a more luminous condition of being and seeing”.

According to Irwin, the traditional fields for study and practice in Western Gnosticism are neo-Platonism, hermetics, alchemy, kabbalah, mystical theology, comparative theology and meditative disciplines: quite a curriculum. But the essence is quite simple. We are invited to work with Being as embodied (through exercise, body awareness and energy work), imaginal (connected to the mundus imaginalis, open to its power) and illuminated (through contemplative practice and insight).  Much of this is offered within Druidry – for example, to anyone who takes full advantage of the OBOD distance learning course. Yet for me, here and now, once again, it is the image and name of Sophia that gives me my orientation and guides me on my path. I’ll explain that resonance and consequences more fully in later posts. In practical terms, for now, I’ve made two small adjustments in my morning practice. One is to cast my circle specifically in the sacred grove of Sophia. The other is to begin sitting meditation, or contemplative communion, by saying “I open my heart to the Light of Sophia”. It doesn’t seem much, but it shifts my centre of gravity to a place where a feel more empowered and more at home.

  • Irwin, Lee Gnostic Tarot: Mandalas for Spiritual Transformation York Beach, ME, USA, 1998 (There is no pack of cards with this book. It’s a set of interpretations emphasising “spiritual transformation and illumined states of awareness”. The Universal Waite Deck and the Ravenswood Tarot Deck have been used as points of reference.)

SAILING TO BYZANTIUM

This post is inspired by The Byzantine Tarot, a collaboration between two notable talents – John Matthews as writer and Cilla Conway as artist. It’s an excellent piece of work, but this post is not a review. It’s about two of the major trumps and their effect on me.

I impulse-bought the pack about a month ago. I didn’t get it for divination. I wanted it for the iconography of the major trumps, though in fact all the cards are carefully chosen and beautifully rendered. Part of the integrity of this tarot is that the images are drawn from the culture they reference – a culture itself very busy with sacred images, though at times its ruling circles reacted against them. Cilla Conway’s work is a wonderful evocation of this culture and its imagery, an imagery consciously crafted in the service of Christian Orthodoxy*.  It’s an interesting subject for a tarot pack, since the tarot form itself introduces an element of gnostic subversion into the work.

In the Byzantine Tarot, Sophia appears as the Papesse/High Priestess. She mediates “between the higher and lower realms of creation, watching over the Holy Fool on his journey and guiding those who seek her blessings to find their own path through the world”. In the apparent world, Byzantine Orthodoxy had no vacancy for a Papesse/High Priestess, and was not in business to encourage people to find their own way unless it was also the Churches’ way. The Fool of this tarot is a Holy Fool and draws on the history of the Desert Fathers, though the specific image is from Moscow, for the Slav world inherited the Orthodox tradition and the role of the Holy Fool. There is a happy reframing of these formidable world-renouncing ascetics in the text. A naked, haloed man steps outside his cell raising his hands towards the dove of the Holy Spirit and “prepares to step off into the air above the sea, asking without words to be allowed to access the joy and wonder of the world”. He is said to represent ‘crazy wisdom’, also known to Sufi and Buddhist tradition.

I feel engaged with these images, but not close to the Orthodox Church. Fortunately good images transcend doctrine. They have a larger suggestive power. I see a Goddess, depicted in one card as an angelic intercessor and in the other as a dove. I see a devotee who is a completely opened up. I’m learning how development works in spirals. A few years ago I was taken up with the image of Sophia and this modified my experience of Druidry. It was initially her influence that got me to explore meditative disciplines and see through the eye of contemplation more systematically. When my exploration took me further East, my specific sense of Sophia began to diminish.

Two tarot images have brought her back into my life. Now that she’s in my life, I have to move on from the specific images, for all their potent catalyst role. In relation to my life and practice, the Sophia depicted is too hierophantic and static. I like the Holy Fool icon, but the ‘Crazy Wisdom’ references in the text open up unwelcome possibilities of dogmatic intuitionism and licensed abuse-by-Guru that we find in Crazy Wisdom Masters from many traditions.

If I want to orient myself to the ‘Holy Fool’ archetype, there are lines within W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium, which act as a better guide. He starts with the complaint “That is no country for old men” – Ireland, but more essentially the world of “whatever is begotten, born and dies, caught in … sensual music”. Then he says:

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress.”

On my reading the world of begetting, birthing and dying – with all its sensual music – is absolutely fine and to be celebrated. It’s the being “caught” in it that’s the problem. For there is another dimension. The seven directions operate vertically as well as horizontally, with eternity at the centre, within, around and throughout.  Sophia reminds me of this, and it changes everything.

* Early in the 4th century C.E. the Roman Emperor Constantine began the Christianisation of the Empire and moved the capital eastwards from Rome to the old Greek city of Byzantium which he rebuilt and modestly renamed Constantinople. Two hundred years later when Orthodox Christianity was dominant and enforceable, a new Cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) became the greatest building of the city. It still is in some ways, having survived two conversions since the fall of the city in 1453, first into a mosque and later into a museum in today’s Istanbul.

Matthews, John & Conway, Cilla The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom from an Ancient Empire London: Connections Book Publications, 2015

Yeats, W. B. Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan & Co, 1964 (Selected with an introduction and notes by A. Norman Jeffares)

POEM: ARTHUR

Behind storm-fretted bastions gray and bare

Flame-crested warriors of Cunedda’s line

Feast in a gold ring, – their targes shine

Along the wall and clang to gusts of air;

And in the shadow, torches blown aflare

Reveal a chief, half human, half divine,

With brooding head, starred by the Dragon Sign,

Hung motionless in some undreamed despair.

But when he starts, three torques of twisted gold

Writhe on his breast, for voices all men fear

Wail forth the battle-doom dead kings have borne;

And as the mead-hall fills with sudden cold,

Above the wind-tossed sea his heart can hear

The strange gods calling through their mystic horn.

Arthur 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.

CONTEMPLATIVE TASTER AS PROMISED

In my last post I promised to share my Rainbow Druid Camp 2105 taster session. Its aim was to interweave elements of mindfulness, extended sensory perception and celebration, and also to show how silent meditation and group sharing can act together to raise contemplative awareness.

This session was tightly timed to fit with its placement in a larger event – the timing was handled through the use of bells. In a different environment this practice could be run more spaciously, with longer periods devoted to each section of the meditation and space for writing and drawing or indeed simple time out between the sections. It’s a highly malleable programme.

 

START Welcomes and check-in round of names, including why we are here, how we feel right now, and any expectations we have.

Overview. The purpose of the session is to introduce Contemplative Druid Events and to share some of its working methods. This session aims to interweave aspects of mindfulness, extended sensory perception and celebration.

Entry into sacred space through lean ritual Facilitator leads, saying “we are here today in the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.   May there be peace in the 7 directions – east, west, north, south, below, above, within; may the spirits of place flourish here; may we be present in this space”.

Meditation in 5 three minute stages:

  • Becoming aware of our body and senses, scanning and finding something specific we appreciate or through which we feel blest
  • Becoming aware of our feelings, thoughts and images, scanning and finding something specific we appreciate or through which we feel blest
  • Becoming aware of the space around us, including each other, scanning and finding something specific we appreciate or through which we feel blest
  • Becoming aware of any other levels of presence or being, scanning and finding something specific we appreciate or through which we feel blest; alternatively extending and intensifying the previous section if nothing specific to this section emerges
  • Resting in awareness of everything that has come up in this meditation so far.

 

Sharing of experience – In groups of three, each person speaks in turn for three minutes each, with aware, supportive listening in silence, without dialogue or interaction. When everyone has had their turn, there is an opportunity for six minutes conversation in the group. On return to the main group, each person briefly reports back to the whole group.

Exit from sacred space through lean ritual. The facilitator says: “May the 7 directions be thanked for their blessings. May the spirits of place flourish here.  May this work inspire our lives.  We stand today in the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.”

Any questions? Anything left unsaid? END

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