BOOK REVIEW. THE JOURNEY INTO SPIRIT: A PAGAN’S PERSPECTIVE ON DEATH DYING AND BEREAVEMENT

by contemplativeinquiry

51bkGc06cCL__AA160_An important, multi-layered, deeply rewarding book. Especially useful for Druids and Pagans with any concern for death and dying, bereavement and grief, or what, if anything, lies beyond our 3D existence.  Also of potential interest to people with similar concerns in other spiritual traditions or none. Highly recommended.

Kristoffer Hughes says of himself: “In my spiritual life I have developed into a priest of the dead, a walker between the worlds, a psychopomp.” He is a priest of the Celtic Druid tradition who leads the Anglesey Druid Order. He is also an autopsy technologist working for the UK Crown Coroner’s Service. ‘The Journey into Spirit’, draws on both of these roles. It also draws on other, more closely personal experiences. These include the loss of near kin and friends, shared in a moving, loving way. They include the author’s ‘clairsentience’, a psychic gift that enables a felt sense of presence, or spirit, in relation to those who have died. All of these aspects together make for an unusual richness of narrative and subtlety of approach. The inclusion of ‘contemplations’ – reflective exercises – invites us to extend our own lived understandings. Hughes’ own conclusion is that “through death I have learned the meaning of life, and I am comforted by my understanding and experience of the hereafter”.

The book is divided into four parts, the first three based on the system of three circles of existence outlined in the ‘Barddas of Iolo Morganwg’. The first circle is Abred (AH-bred), the realm of necessity, the physical world of 3D reality. The second is Gwynvyd (goo-IN-vid), the realm of spirit, a psychic/subtle realm usually not perceived yet interwoven with Abred. The third is Ceugant (KAY-gant), the realm of infinity, a source or causal realm.

In the section on Abred, the author quotes the triad: “the three principal calamities of Abred: necessity, forgetfulness, death”. This is where we learn to be human, surrounded by life, subjected to death, governed by the cycle of birth, life and death. The author explores ‘apoptosis’ (the dropping off of petals or leaves) and the need for organic life to die to make room for new growth. Yet a divine spark continues to live in everything. The whole section explores life and the consciousness of death, including fear of it, and our questions about what if anything comes after, drawing on a wealth of knowledge, experience and anecdote.

The section on Gwynvyd looks at the grief process – including a wonderful section on the ‘seasons of grief’, more fluid than familiar ideas about ‘stages’ of grief, let alone medicalized views of grief that now want to treat it as depression after the first 14 days. Part of this is coming to terms with the reality and finality of death. Yet the section also identifies what survives. For the author, the personality dies with the body, yet a substrate of witness consciousness, understood as unchanging, continues in some sense as the stuff of spirit. The forgetfulness of Abred, held in the flow of experience, leads us to forget this substrate. Yet it is eternally there: never born, it cannot die. “What remains constant is the spirit, and upon it is the imprint of the human that lived and breathed here in this world”. This is where a felt sense of connection, if the feelings are strong and the senses attuned, is possible. Gwynvyd is also described as the realm of gods, archetypes, and any beings including discarnate humans who have a role in mediating between Gwynvyd.

Ceugant is the place, or state, of origin. “It is from Ceugant that existence originates and it is to Ceugant that the Universe sings”. Yet it is no-thing, like Ain Sof in the Kabbalah. The author says that this realm, or core reality, can be intuited through visions and meditations, but that no attempt to describe or point to it can be more than an indication. Hughes’ most suggestive metaphor is of a return to a primal sea of potential. In terms of English etymology, he links this to the word ‘soul’, originally a sea-referenced word – and it is universal soul, rather than any personal soul, that he has in mind. He does strongly hold the view that Ceugant represents an ultimate belonging for us all, and so is not something to be achieved through long arduous tasks and learning. It is just there, twice removed from us in our present state.

The final section offers a set of rituals and practices – including a vigil for the dying; preparation of the body; funeral for a Druid; saying goodbye, and a treatment of Samhain as a three day festival of the dead with appropriate practices for each day. Like the rest of the book, these are creative suggestions, based on experience and insight, which we are invited to look at and take on board to whatever extent is right for us.  A welcome text on a sensitive topic.