contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

BOOK REVIEW: THE CRANE BAG

The Craane BagThe Crane Bag, Joanna van der Hoeven’s forthcoming book*, offers an introduction to the ritual tools and practices found in the Druid tradition. It achieves this briefly, simply and with a light touch – as books in the Pagan Portals series are designed to do. Yet it much more than a tick box guide. It provides context and meaning, showing the modern evolution of the Druid tradition itself.

The author makes it clear that she wants readers “to develop their own path in their own time in their own fashion”. Re-enchantment is both path and goal. With proper use, the crane bag “can further the Druid in working with the tides of nature, finding his or her own place in the environment, living in balance, harmony and peace”. The movement overall is “toward reintegration with the natural world”.

At its simplest, the crane bag is the container for Druid ritual tools and as such enables the practices. Bag and tools provide the practitioner with “something tangible to express the spiritual”, acting as a portable “map of the soul”. Behind the crane bag lies an ancient Irish story beginning with the contention between two sisters and the transformation of one of them, Aoife, into a crane. The story is beautifully told and its relevance clearly explained in the first chapter of the book.

In ritual, a period of time and an area of space are set apart and dedicated. This is not to create a lasting duality of sacred and mundane, but a step on the way to experiencing everything as sacred. “Ritual helps us to step back from the busyness, into another way of being. It is a change of consciousness, where we can shift our perception away from a singular view to a more plural view, realising that we are part of an ecosystem”. There is a clear preference for working outdoors, where awareness can shift more readily, though this is not insisted on.

A Druid’s tools will vary with the Druid. The book identifies the following: a silver branch; a staff; cups/bowls/cauldrons; drums; a sickle or knife; robes; altars; fire/candles; incense. People may make or buy them. Ethical sourcing of tools and materials is discussed in some detail, in line with the values of The Crane Bag overall.

What goes into a ritual is explored under the headings of call for peace; preparing the nemeton; honouring spirits of place, three worlds, four directions, ancestors, deities; ritual action; prayers and magic; offerings; eisteddfod; sacrifice; feast; closing. There’s encouragement to practitioners to craft what is right for them from within this set of suggestions and beyond it. The author adds, “I have been in circles with Christian Druids and Buddhist monks, as well as other religions from all over the world”. What matters in ritual is being present and performing the ritual with mindfulness, so that “any words that you speak, any gesture or movement you make will flow more easily, be more graceful and filled with meaning”.

There’s a final chapter on ‘altered states’. I don’t use the term myself, because it makes an ‘altered’ vs ‘normal’ distinction that doesn’t really work for me in my own life. But I recognise it as a term that is widely and usefully employed. Here, it facilitates valuable discussions of meditation, drumming, chanting and song, sensory deprivation, sacred landscape and sitting out. Three kinds of meditation are distinguished: calming the mind and re-tuning the body, journeying and problem solving. Guidance is offered on each kind. Different suggestions are also explored within the other topics. For sensory deprivation, there are two. One is the Celtic version of the sweat lodge, called teach an alais. The other is total immersion in darkness for a considerable period before being brought out into the light. The author refers to early medieval accounts of this, where it was done in aid of Bardic inspiration and prophesy: imbhas forosna.

I found The Crane Bag a very useful contribution to its topic and highly recommend it.

 

Joanna van der Hoeven The Crane Bag: a Druid’s guide to ritual tools and practices Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2017

*According to the publisher, the book is due for release on 28 July, and can be pre-ordered through Amazon US & UK, Indiebound and Hive.

REBLOG: SCIENCE IN SERVICE TO MOTHER EARTH

Science is, after all, an endeavor of humans and our machines. What would it mean to put this endeavor at the service of Mother Earth? Presumably, our efforts must always be guided by human discernment, in all its fallibility. Who decides what best serves this vision of the Greater Good?

via [A Pedagogy of Gaia] Science in Service to Mother Earth, by Bart Everson — Humanistic Paganism

POEM: GREEN MAN

William Anderson’s classic Green Man poem has thirteen verses of four lines each, and follows the wheel of the year from the Winter Solstice. As I write we have just reached the sixth verse, which has an off with my head theme. The honey of love is over and speaking through the oak is yet to come.

Like antlers, like veins in the brain, the birches

Mark patterns of mind on the red winter sky;

‘I am thought of all plants’, says the Green Man,

‘I am thought of all plants’, says he.

The hungry birds harry the last berries of rowan

But white is her bark in the darkness of rain;

‘I rise with the sap’, says the Green Man,

‘I rise with the sap’, says he.

The ashes are clashing their bows like sword-dancers

Their black buds are tracing wild faces in the clouds;

‘I come with the wind’, says the Green Man.

‘I come with the wind’, says he.

The alders are rattling as though ready for battle

Guarding the grove where she waits for her lover;

‘I burn with desire’, says the Green Man,

‘I burn with desire’, says he.

In and out of the yellowing wands of the willow

The pollen-bright bees are plundering the catkins;

‘I am honey of love’, says the Green Man,

‘I am honey of love’, says he.

The hedges of quick are thick will May blossom

As the dancers advance on their leaf-covered king;

‘It’s off with my head’, says the Green Man,

‘It’s off with my head’, says he.

Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

As its crown forms its mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,

‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

The holly is flowering as hay fields are rolling

Their gleaming long grasses like waves of the sea;

‘I shine with the sun’, says the Green Man,

‘I shine with the sun’, says he.

The hazels are rocking the cups with their nuts

As the harvesters shout when the last leaf is cut;

‘I swim with the salmon’, says the Green Man,

‘I swim with the salmon’, says he.

The globes of the grapes are robing with bloom

Like the hazes of autumn, like the Milky Way’s stardust;

‘I am crushed for your drink’, says the Green Man,

‘I am crushed for your drink’, says he.

The aspen drops silver on leaves of earth’s salver

And the poplars shed gold on the young ivy flower heads;

‘I have paid for your pleasure’, says the Green Man,

‘I have paid for your pleasure’, says he.

The reed beds are flanking in silence the islands

Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits;

‘I have kept her secret’, says the Green Man,

‘I have kept her secret’, says he.

The bark of the elder makes whistles for children

To call to the deer as they rove over the snow;

‘I am born in the dark’, says the Green Man,

‘I am born in the dark’, says he.

 

From:  William Anderson Green Man: archetype of our oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990

SOPHIA AND GUANYIN

 

The Moon rising on the indigo sea,

A pearl like a seed.

Open your heart to compassion and change:

The protector will blossom there.

 

Sophia journeyed along the Silk Road to the wild west of China and became the Bodhisattva Guanyin*. In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows to wake up and work for the happiness of sentient beings. At the point of entry to nirvana, or ‘no-wind’, where the hot winds of desire and compulsion are forever stilled, you choose to remain in the world of samsara, the world of illusions that we all inhabit, and fulfil your promised role. This pledge is inaugurated by the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, in which the Buddha’s disciple Avolokitesvara addresses another disciple, Shariputra. Guanyin emerges in history as Avolokitesvara’s female manifestation some hundreds of years later. Her emergence may well be owed to the influence of Sophia, who in that time and place is looked to as a Gnostic redeemer. I am grateful to Stephen Karcher for taking me through the history (1).

“Between 400-600 CE, various sects associated with the ‘great heresy’ of Gnosticism entered Northwest China, driven out of the Mediterranean area by the violent persecution of the Orthodox Church. Gnostics were not really heretic Christians; they were pseudo-Christian just as they were pseudo-Jewish and pseudo-Pagan. They represented an ancient strain of thought that attached itself to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them to orient us towards the gnosis or direct ‘acquaintance with the spirit’, a practice that may have originated in an old, pre-Rabbinic form of Jewish worship. This Gnostic stream flows through Manichean and Mandaean thought into the great melting pot of North West China, the beginning and end of the Silk Road. …  The Gnostic figure of Sophia the Redeemer who reaches out to awaken the divine spark in each being may have been the catalyst that produced Kuan Yin, the compassionate one, out of her male form Avolokitesvara”.

Once born, Guanyin takes on non-Buddhist characteristics local to the region, including powers such as that of the Mare associated with the K’un Field in the I Ching. She has strong Dragon associations. “These animal powers are still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the sources of life. They speak with gigantic voices, the movers of the world”. She is also “clothed in the mystery of the Tao, the Taoist valley spirit or ongoing process of the real that nourishes all the myriad beings. … There are many images for this: flowing water, the uncarved block, child, female, mother, valley spirit, dark door, empty vessel, for it is the womb of creation. We can open this space within ourselves and return to the source of all things … [When] we have become empty within, we can return to the source and … watch the Tao shaping the universe out of chaos, while yin and yang continually transform it. When we grasp this process, our whole identity becomes fluid. We become like a spirit, a shen”.

Karcher concludes: “Born from this great spiritual melting pot, partaking of its many traditions, Kuan Yin, the One Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World, walked forth among the beings she vowed to cherish and enlighten, breaking all sectarian boundaries. She is equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics. The stories of her miracles of healing, deliverance and enlightenment have proliferated in East and West. Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.”

One of my attractions to this story is that it identifies the spiritual traditions that have at different times, and indeed the same time, influenced my heart and imagination: Gnosticism, Buddhism, Paganism and Taoism. By implication, it excludes the ones that haven’t: the essentially God fearing Abrahamic traditions and God drunken Vedic ones, including their ‘non-dualist’ presentations. This is a matter of feeling and attraction, not of cosmology or belief. Although I can’t make a complete assimilation of Sophia and Guanyin, their iconography does, for me, help to bind these influences together. “Return to the true thought of the heart” is not a bad summary. I have bought a statue of Guanyin, as a birthday present to myself for later this month. In this statue she sits on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. It is the note that I am looking for.

  • I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Chronicle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

 

BOOK REVIEW: LESSONS IN MAGIC

 

In a seemingly artless little book*, Philip Carr-Gomm celebrates a kind of magic that is “supremely natural”, like conceiving a child or planting seeds in the earth. He defines it as “the art and science of bringing ideas into form, of making what is intangible tangible. It is, in essence, the creative process – but informed with spiritual understanding”.

Lessons in Magic is organized into six chapters and ends with a list of resources. The first chapter, Apprenticed to Magic, describes the author’s own journey and sets the tone for what follows. The other five are a series of lessons. The resources include poems, songs, films, books and meditations.

The author describes his life-long attraction to magic, beginning in childhood, and nourished in youth by apprenticeship to the Druid magician Ross Nichols. His understanding was later extended by Jungian analysis, the study and practice of esoteric spiritualities from around the world and a training in modern psychology. To capture the essence of life lived magically, he quotes Fiona Macleod: “there are moments when the soul takes wing; what it has to remember, it remembers; what it loves, it loves still more; what it longs for, to that it flies”.

The stance is unrepentantly romantic and transcendentalist, whilst earth and life loving as well: we are here because we are meant to be. This is our theatre of becoming. Thus, the five ‘how to’ chapters show us how to align ourselves with what our soul wants, rather than what we think we want as average sensual folk. How do we tell the difference? One suggestion is to draw up lists of what we want to have, to do and to be – and then reverse cultural custom and tackle them in the order of be, do, and have. Going first for what we want to be may save distracting levels of concern with doing and, more especially, having. Another recommendation is to look for unsuspected strengths in our apparent weaknesses and failures. They may be the key to our flourishing.

Through such means, the book suggests, we find passion and purpose. Following our bliss, in this sense, is experienced as the best and most natural way of serving a higher purpose, and of bringing healing and joy into the world. To achieve this, we will need to draw both on an open receptive capacity and on the powers of focus and intention. The author takes us through the processes of finding and establishing our magical purpose, letting it gestate and grow, and asking for help at all levels (including prayer and divination). We are also warned not to over-specify outcomes once the work is under way. In this magic, we are always serving a higher purpose as well as our own. We are working in a larger context than we can expect wholly to own or control. Eventually we find that magic is happening around us. Unsuspected possibilities present themselves. The quality of our experience changes. We are in partnership with the living cosmos.

Philip Carr-Gomm speaks with the authority of someone who has walked the talk. Just under thirty years ago he re-founded the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) [1] based on a visionary prompting. It has been a highly successful venture, both itself and as a catalyst for others, playing a major role in the modern Druid and Pagan revival. One of OBOD’s key offerings has been the distance learning course offered to its members. This isn’t just a training in knowledge and skills about Druidry. It includes a thread of personal development work understood in magical terms, which students may follow at their own pace and in accordance with their own inclinations. A kind of apprenticeship, made more widely accessible, to meet modern needs in modern conditions.

Although this book is an introduction, it clearly presents a significant lens on magic, as understood by Philip Carr-Gomm and within OBOD Druidry. Highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

*Philip Carr-Gomm Lessons in magic: a guide to making your dreams come true Lewes, East Sussex, England: Oak Tree Press, 2016

[1] www.druidry.org

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a Pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008

 

 

 

WARMEST WISHES

In my final blog of 2016, I want to send all readers my warmest wishes at the turn of the year – as we move through the  winter/summer solstice and into 2017.

Among other things, this is a time when I feel the force of strong invitations to reflect in specific ways about the season. Generally I am happy to follow these suggestions to a large extent. But I am also checking in to my more personal and idiosyncratic response to this point in the year.

I’m in a misty muggy valley in a warmish seeming winter. The sky is overcast and it is relatively dry. I don’t feel traditionally seasonal, though I do feel comfortable, and I do resonate with the subtle tensions of stilling and latency in the land.

I want to lie fallow, right now. It feels like the creative thing to do. I’ve decided to do less reading and writing – and therefore also blogging – for a while. I believe it will be good for me. I am not making a vow, or time specific commitment. But my direction is to hold off blogging for two or three months. In the meantime this blog as it stands will continue to be available and I will respond to any comments that might come in. As 2017 develops, I will get a sense of whether (and if so how) to return to posting..

Once again – warmest wishes to all, now and for the future.

 

 

MIDWINTER THOUGHTS

I am tuning in to midwinter, before it gets overlaid with festivity. Outside, I encounter skeletal trees and the dying back of the land. Inside, I am half inclined to hibernate. I am sleeping longer and more heavily at night. During waking hours, I want to pars everything down. I want to be simple and minimalist.

This mood includes me and ideas. I want to shut them down for a while. But before I do, one topic is holding my attention: agnosticism and its spiritual value. I feel nudged to write now and then leave my seed thoughts to germinate when 2017 gets under way.

Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor says, “the force of the term ‘agnosticism’ has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say ‘I don’t know’ when you really mean ‘I don’t want to know’” (1). He goes on to say that “for T.H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through the rigorous application of a single principle’. He expressed this principle positively as: ‘Follow your reason as far as it will take you’ and negatively as: ‘Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable’. This principle runs through the Western tradition from Socrates … to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it ‘the agnostic faith’”.

Batchelor characterizes early Buddhism as agnostic in this sense. “Buddha said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as ‘God’. …The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do.” In Batchelor’s account, Gautama Siddhartha was seeking to create an existential and therapeutic culture of awakening, refracted through the symbols, metaphors and images of the Gangetic basin in the sixth century B.C.E. Inevitably over time, the movement tended to lose its agnostic dimension and to become institutionalized as a religion. “The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered” was too politically useful to be ignored by rulers in the Buddhist influenced world.

Looking at Buddhism in the modern West, Batchelor says that while Buddhism’s establishment has long “tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms” today it is in the further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. The danger is the “loss of potential to become realized as a culture, an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life”.

I am not a Buddhist and do not share these specific concerns. And yet I sense something there to reflect on. Modern Druidry and Paganism, as coherent movements, are new. But they are no longer brand new. We do have institutions, and the beginnings of wider social recognition. We enter religious alliances like Interfaith. We intervene in political and other civil society environments. I feel increasingly that I want to apply the test of agnosticism, or something like it, both to my own practice and to any public identity that I might have. I will need to be sensitive and careful. My practice and view are grounded in feelings and intuition. I came to Druidry as a path of beauty and wonder, of nature and the senses, willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of embodied human life. I will not wield the sword of discrimination recklessly. My hope indeed is that a little mental housecleaning will refresh me, bringing a greater clarity and purpose.

I wonder what changes I might make in how I express myself. I wonder about re-assessing my previous work. I wonder what I might seek to develop and engage with in the future. An agenda for the coming year.

Stephen Batchelor Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1997

AWEN AND CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

A Contemplative Druidry (1) reader has asked me to say more about Awen, which had a chapter in the book. Introducing interview extracts in my Awen chapter, I wrote, “Awen is classically seen in Druidry as the power of inspiration, and in particular the creative force for poetry and prophecy. It is what transformed the boy Gwion – though not before further trials and transformations – into Taliesin, the radiant browed Bard. Many of the participants in this work uphold this tradition in its conventional form. Others seek to extend the traditional meaning better to express their own experiences and aspirations. Some don’t connect with Awen experientially and treat it as a convention – mainly as a shared chant, which brings Druids together”.

My self-criticism here is that the chant is itself an experience, frequently state-altering for both the chanters and in a sense for the space. I might have done better to say, ‘some don’t connect with it conceptually’. I see from my interview questions appendix that the Awen question was about meaning. If I did this work again, I would start with the sound, the feeling, and senses of occasion, and work out from those.

Pondering Awen afresh, I find myself drawn to deep human ancestry, and especially the early emergence of speech and music. These brought a new kind of identity: new experiences, new awareness, new feelings, new understanding, new forms of connection and solidarity – new worlds. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have subsequently developed creation stories linking origin with sound. In India, the phrase Nada Brahma tells us that God is sound/the world is made of sound. OM is the primordial sound form, the vibratory essence from which the universe emanates – and the universe needs to emanate only the smallest step (if any) to get to us. Kabir said, “if you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you” (2). A major philosophical school, Kashmir Shaivism, is referred to as ‘the doctrine of vibration’ (3). It talks of ‘spanda’ as “the primordial vibration at the root of all manifestation, a form of Shakti” (a term equally meaning ‘power’ or ‘goddess’).

Welsh Bardistry gives us Awen and the Taliesin story, which can be read as working with related themes, whilst diverting our main attention to the Bard as trickster/hero. In the old Gaelic world, we have the term Imbhas, equivalent to Awen, and a more touching story about the eating of the salmon of wisdom, in which the old Bard (as I read it) sets himself up to pass on the true nourishment to a promising youth. We also have the notion of the Oran Mor (Song of the World). Frank MacEowan (4) writes: “a conscious knowing of the ancient ‘music behind the world’ has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions. In the words of Stuart Harris-Logan, a Gaelic healer, scholar, and author of Singing with Blackbirds, ‘out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mor as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen’”.

Jason Kirkey (5), an associate of Frank MacEowan, treats ‘Oran Mor’ and ‘Divine Ground’ as synonymous both with each other and with David Bohm’s ‘implicate order’, in which the world of space, time and individual particles are enfolded into an undifferentiated wholeness that provides the holographic pattern (each part contains the pattern of the whole) by which reality unfolds. In Ireland, a sense of the Oran Mor could legitimately continue into Christian times. St. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (6) This greatly moved John Scotus Eriugena, the great Irish philosopher/theologian of the ninth century – the time of Viking invasions in north west Europe. In his commentary on the Gospel he says, “John, the theologian – ascends beyond all visible and invisible creation, passes through all thought and intellect, and deified, enters into God who deifies him … John, the observer of the inmost truth, in the paradise of paradises, in the very cause of all, heard the one Word through which all things are made … Therefore, most confidently he cried out, ‘in the beginning was the Word.” (7) True knowledge and experience of the primal Word are divinizing – a remarkable statement for a western Christian of the day. John Scotus had learned Greek at a monastic school in his native Ireland (then not an available option elsewhere in western Europe) and was familiar with neo-Platonist thought. Perhaps that and his indigenous culture together allowed an understanding that the Word calls us to recognize our own divinity.

Modern Druidry was Universalist before it was Pagan, and retains a willingness to learn from other traditions. I believe that we can use the wider cultural history I’ve identified to inform our sense of what we are invoking when we chant the Awen. This chanting is something which Druid contemplative practitioners share with other Druids. Our unique practice is the ‘Awen space’ that follows the chant. Like other Druids, we do not require people to gather together under the umbrella of a common cosmology. It is OK to have different understandings, and it is OK for us to change and develop our personal understandings over time. That said, I end this piece with a reflection about the broad intentions behind our inherited Celtic spirituality, to provide a cultural context for Awen/Imbhas and where they might fit. It’s from Frank MacEowan (8): “The ancient Celts … were … ever yearning to connect with divine inspiration (imbhas), and ever longing to live a life of beauty imbued with connection and spirit. We are also on this path, and the fulfillment of our collective task as a human community lies in the process of actualizing a deeper communion with these same life-affirming powers. Celtic spirituality is an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death. The ancient spirituality of the Celtic peoples has always been a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying). This vision is of a life ending in a wondrous death journey to a home we have all been away from. When death is really an experience of going home, what is there to fear?”.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert)

(3) Mark S.G. Dyczkowski The Doctrine of vibration: an analysis of the doctrines and practices of Kashmir Shaivism Delhi, India: Divine Books, 1987

(4)Frank MacEowan The Celtic way of seeing: meditations on the spirit wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(5) Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the spring: the ecology of Celtic spirituality San Francisco, CA: Hiraeth Press, 2009 (Foreword by Frank MacEowan)

(6) Holy Bible (authorized version)

(7) The voice of the eagle: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2000 ed. (Translated by Christopher Bamford, foreword by Thomas Moore)

(8) Frank MacEowan The mist-filled path: Celtic wisdom for exiles, wanderers and seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

  • Osho When the shoe fits: commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu London: Watkins Publishing, 2004