This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: July, 2014


The hour when minute by minute
The colours are stolen away
When red goes brown and black
And green goes grey

The simple twilight-falling hour
The twinkle hour the dewdrop minute
When the hare with a scuffle is gone
Through long grass with a forked twig in it,

When thrush drops down
Last loud chirrup and jig
From the alder top bare
Lo then is the time of calling and taking,
Of mating, and the enlarging of mind into mind,
When the eye thinks and the light stays behind.

Chant by Philip Ross Nichols Prophet, Priest and King: the poetry of Philip Ross Nichols, edited and introduced by Jay Ramsay Oak Tree Press, 1989. Ross Nichols – ‘Nuinn’ – founded the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) in 1964.


‘Druid Contemplative Voices’ is a book project in which I have brought together 15 people with an active, practitioner interest in Druidry and contemplative practice. This post is to introduce the book and share something about working methods, ethics concerning participants and their contributions, and the context of the work.

The book is largely based on a set of questions (answered in live interviews or through written responses). These explore people’s links with Druidry and other traditions and the role of meditation and other contemplative practices in their lives. They also look at the potential advantages of such practices for the wider Druid movement. This part of the project is almost complete. The last two contributions are due by the end of this month.

I am adopting a themed approach for the writing, rather than presenting a succession of individual contributions. While this book has no pretensions to be academic, I have started to analyse the material and identify themes in a way combines a certain intellectual formality with an intuitive tuning in to what is emerging. I have some background, including a PhD about transition into later life, in ‘qualitative’ health and social research. Qualitative, here, means research focused on people’s own sense of their lived experience – and this can include ‘insider’ research (where I am part of part of the group under consideration). Although the context and relationships here are different, I find this discipline helpful. Far from being an abstracting and alienating process, it keeps me alert and in integrity.

I am writing the book and responsible for its content, but everyone else will have a chance to look at the text and comment before it is published. Where they are directly quoted (which will be a lot and at length, in the approach I am using) participants will need to be satisfied that I am presenting their contributions accurately and in context – and that they are still happy to stand behind them in print. If not they can be amended (within a timeframe) or withdrawn. The book will also include two appendices drawn from early threads in the life of the Contemplative Druidry Facebook group. In this case I sought, and gained, positive specific permission from each contributor to these threads before going ahead.

Druid contemplative voices is the latest stage of the ‘contemplative exploration’ launched in the OBOD* magazine Touchstone in April 2012. Connections made through the article led to a ‘contemplative exploration’ day in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England on 7 July 2102. The Contemplative Druidry Facebook group was launched on 1 August 2012, and this blog on 28 August of that year. In each case, one of their aims has been to champion the contemplative meme within Druidry and support the wider contemplative exploration. By the beginning of 2014 an expanded local group in Stroud had a regular meeting cycle of two full days each year (in May and November) with shorter monthly meetings in between. 11 of the contributors to the book have been involved in this group. Druid Contemplative Voices will include an appendix that looks at the group’s structural frameworks and programmes.

*Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids

NB This I am blogging a day early, ahead of Druid Camp.


Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1) draws on the legendary history of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland. The overall story, written in the middle of the twelfth century, is about wounding and healing in various forms at the level both of the individual and the collective.

My interest here is in the resolution. Four people, somewhat bruised by life and getting on in years, retire to the Caledonian woods. They vow to live a contemplative life – outside in the summer, and in an elaborate ‘observatory’ in the winter, dedicated to star lore. Their leader is Merlin himself, recovering from a period of (still masterful and charismatic) breakdown, precipitated by a war of neighbours between the old British peoples of Cumbria and Strathclyde. This was at a time when both of them had invaders from other language groups (English and Gaelic) to contend with.

The little community’s second member is Merlin’s sister Ganieda, now widowed, previously Queen of Strathclyde – a kingdom ruled from Dumbarton and extending south to the Solway Firth. The third member is the traumatised vagrant Maeldinus, disoriented and damaged by the juice of poisoned (i.e. magical) apples. Last but not least is the Bard Taliesin, often taken as the model for self-realization in British Celtic tradition. He is world weary after the passing of Arthur from the apparent world into The Isle of Apples – Avalon, a Celtic Otherworld – to be healed and cared for by a wholly benign Morgan and her sisters. In the deeper picture Arthur will never die. But it is still it is the end of an era and a time of lengthening shadows for the culture he defended.

Geoffrey of Monmouth became the first Bishop of St. Asaph in North East Wales, though he never visited the diocese.  But for literary purposes, he relies on the imagery and world views of both Roman and Celtic paganism. The forest contemplative group is dedicated to the Roman wisdom and owl goddess Minerva (often used as an equivalent to native British goddesses as in Sulis Minerva at Bath, and inscribed on a cliff overlooking the Dee at Chester, the city called Deva/Dea by the Romans). Indeed Ganieda, taking on the mantle of prophecy, in a sense becomes the Minerva of the little community. Describing his reason for joining forces with Merlin, Taliesin says “I have spent enough time living in vain, and now is the time to restore me to myself”, which seems to me to have a subtle tinge of divine self-recollection, thereby synthesising Pagan British and Neo-Platonist understandings of who he is. A recent verse translation (2) goes as far as say “I will have time to discover my true self”. I prefer the older translation, since Taliesin has already made that discovery, much earlier in life (3). What he needs is a place where he can fully connect again, after a life of service in the world. Either way, it’s an untypical view of contemplative spirituality for the place and time in which it was written.

The Vita Merlini is a poem written in Latin hexameters and presented as a literary game. It is an opportunity to display both classical and indigenous wisdom as understood in the twelfth century Renaissance (2). Yet in The Mystic Life of Merlin (4), R. J. Stewart shows how the work has greater potential depths for anyone open to them. His Merlin Tarot (5) images draw on two of Geoffrey’s books, the second being the better known History of the Kings of Britain (6), and on Stewart’s own seership. They are further explored in The Complete Merlin Tarot, (7), and The Miracle Tree (8) and ask for our contemplation as much as divination, having the power to open imaginal doors. Geoffrey’s books themselves introduced Merlin and Morgan to medieval European literature outside the Celtic language sphere and did much to establish Arthur. The imagery of the Vita Merlini evokes a sense of woodland renewal, of groves as healing places, and a restorative ‘Island of Apples’, presided over by a magical Otherworld sisterhood. It offers something to medieval people in Western Europe that was unavailable through the mainstream spirituality of the day. The world that Geoffrey made has been a potent resource ever since.



1: Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1150) Vita Merlini Latin text with English translation by John J. Parry (1925). (Transcribed for Sacred Texts by Graham K. Tallboys.)

2: Walker, Mark (2011) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’: a new verse translation Chalford: Amberley Publishing

3: Hughes, Kristoffer (2012) From the cauldron born: exploring the magic of Welsh legend and lore Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

4: Stewart, R. J. (1986) The mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana

5: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The Merlin Tarot London: Element (Illustrated by Miranda Gray. Boxed set with pack of cards, handbook and notebook for users. An earlier edition was published by the Aquarian Press in 1992)

6: Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966. (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

7: Stewart, R. J. (1992) The complete Merlin Tarot: images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press (Not to be confused with the Merlin Tarot handbook which accompanies the pack, but is sometimes sold separately)

8: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books


In the middle of the ninth century the Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena got into trouble with the leaders of his church. He publicly opposed St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). He called them “a most cruel and stupid madness”.

John lived in France, working for Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks. John’s role was to superintend the palace school and to translate rare Greek texts. Although a layman, he had been educated in an Irish monastic school – the Irish monastic schools at the time being among the very few places in Western Europe where Greek was still taught. He countered the Augustinian orthodoxy with the Neo-Platonist argument that ultimately God, the One, must necessarily contain everyone and everything, or not be the One. His arguments were dismissed, in an interesting choice of calumny, as “pultes Scottorum” (Gaelic porridge – since ‘Scotus’ then referred to a language group rather than a place). Nonetheless he stuck to his position, under the protection of his king, and managed to avoid obeying a summons to Rome to explain himself.

John makes a somewhat pointed statement about the spirit of contemplation versus a certain kind of activism in his Homily on the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John. As I read it, Peter founded the church in Rome is identified with the papacy, whereas John Scotus is modelling himself on the gospel writer. “Peter is always presented as the model of faith and action, while John portrays the type of contemplation and knowledge. The one indeed leans on the bosom of the Lord, which is the sacrament of contemplation, while the other often hesitates, which is the symbol of restless action. For the execution of divine commands, before it becomes habitual, may shatter the pure brilliance of virtue and fall short in its judgements, clouded by the fog of sense-bound thinking. The keenness of profoundest contemplation, on the other hand, once it has perceived the countenance of the truth, neither hesitates, nor slips, nor is darkened by any cloud”. In a sense contemplation becomes a quiet resistance: resistance supported by a way of stillness and insight.

(This story is told in Christopher Bamford’s (2000) The voice of the eagle: the heart of Celtic Christianity: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the Gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisifarne Books (New translation, with reflections and commentary. Foreword by Thomas Moore.) the book was published in 2000 and there is a Kindle edition.


It is two years since the Stroud based Druid ‘contemplative’ group first met. On 7 July 2012 six Druids met for a day of meditation and personal sharing in sacred space and began a tradition in which 16 people are now involved. As reported in an earlier post (‘A Brief and Luminous Tea Time’, 15 January 2014) we currently have monthly meetings, mostly for two hours on the second Tuesday of the month. In two months – May and November – we meet for a whole day, so far always on a Saturday. We had 11 people on 10 May this year.

Today was one of our Tuesday meetings, held in a dedicated space called the Rose Sanctuary, a new environment for us. We sat there through a summer storm, seeing flashes of lightning through the windows, hearing the thunder rolling in the distance, and then listening to the rain falling on the roof – first hard, then soft. The scene outside, insofar as it was visible, was lush and glistening, albeit a little dusky for the time of day. Inside, the space was one of elegant simplicity, a natural container for contemplation and reflective sharing.

There were seven of us present, two from the original group and five others who have joined since. The group reconstitutes itself at each meeting, building its culture a little more each time, developing its sense of what a Druid contemplative group looks and feels like. This time we began with an extended check-in and a five minute shared silence for attunement, rather than a long meditation. Then we chanted together, finding our shared resonance and the resonance of the space, sensing the pulse and vibration of the Awen in this place and time. We entered a period of intermixed silence and creative sharing, which this time included song, chanting, and accounts of numinous experiences in both outer and inner worlds. Every meeting finds its own note.

For me, it felt like a good second anniversary.


jhp530b85f08e66fThis is a timely addition to Pagan literature, highly recommended to anyone interested in the modern heritage of witchcraft, paganism and new (or new old) spiritual movements more generally. This book celebrates the 60 years since the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in 1954, affirming the confidence, dynamism and increasing openness of this growing tradition from a diverse range of insider perspectives.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, ‘Forms, Themes and Values’, begins with an account by Philip Heselton of how Gardner came to write Witchcraft Today. It goes on to look at ten specific forms of modern witchcraft that diverge from Gardner’s own, starting with Alex Sanders and going on to look at more radical departures like  Seax Wica and the feminist Dianic tradition. Some of the other paths described are less formal and ceremonial than the original models. Some are group based and others solitary.

Some can be distinguished from witchcraft altogether (the Egyptian Magical Tradition and Hekatean practice based on the approach of the Chaldean Oracles, to name two). The same issue arises at the end of the book, where a contributor talks about a journey through an Ovate Grade training in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD).  In each case, it matters to the practitioner that they are practising these traditions as a form of witchcraft.  Their inclusion in the book affirms the value of self-identification in spirituality and adds to an overall feel of inclusiveness. Any question would be about the potential weakening of the term witchcraft itself, in a context of such porous boundaries.

Part 1 also includes a chapter on the male experience of witchcraft and ends with one on ‘Witchcraft Tomorrow’ by David Salisbury, which demonstrates optimism about future possibilities and explores the issues of community building and leadership. Common themes in Part 1 include tensions between ‘preservation’ and ‘invention’ in lineage development, and ways of reconciling them. Common values include an avoidance of evangelism and a commitment to the ultimate autonomy of the practitioner.

Part 2, ‘Journey on a Crooked Path’, presents ten personal journeys.  It is particularly good at describing the ways in which people sense unmet spiritual needs in early life and make the connections (through reading, significant life events or personal encounters) that lead them on to their chosen paths. Throughout the book, there’s the sense of person and path choosing each other. They know when it’s right – and often have to go to some trouble to find their home.  The finding is reflected in the enthusiasm and commitment of the many people who have contributed to this valuable book.


A Guatemalan story illustrates the traditional role of elders. The Goddess of Water has been dismembered and her heart captured by the Lords and Ladies of Death. Her (non-divine) partner collects her bones together and descends into the infernal realm to recover her heart. He succeeds at a price, returning to the earth’s surface with only a toe bone and a tooth to go with the recovered heart of the Goddess, himself do badly wounded that he dies.

Four elders – Grandmother Growth, the Father of the Mountain, the Old Woman and the Old Man – now intervene. Covering the body of the man and the toe bone, tooth and heart of the Goddess with a blanket, they sing their wisdom. ‘The world wept and whimpered in the ground while the two gods and two old humans sang the ancient life-giving songs’ (1). After the old ones have nearly exhausted their repertoire of 200 songs, the blanket is lifted. Man and Goddess (now a mortal woman) have revived and are whole. The elders comment, ‘it’s the same every year’.

The story contrasts the distinctive roles of the younger and older generations. For the former the action presents a vivid and dramatic trial. The old ones participate through their knowledge of the ‘ancient live-giving songs’ and with the relative detachment of those who’ve seen it all before. They have not ‘retired’ but they have progressed to a different and more reflective way of making an impact on their world, using their resources as culture bearers.

Martin Pretchel, who recorded this story, spent his life ‘married to the meaning’ of such stories. In the Guatemalan Highlands of the 1980’s the indigenous Mayan community was under enormous pressure and threat. Martin, a mixed ancestry outsider from New Mexico, joined several hundred old Mayan men and women and ‘like a friar I became another of their wool-blanket-wearing order, dedicated to remembering back to life She who had been dismembered and therefore do what we could to keep Holy Nature dancing’.

The story telling activities of the elders are not simply forms of reminiscence. They can a front-line in the defence of land, life and culture. (Martin Pretchel eventually took refuge from threatened assassination in an unfriendly US embassy and was promptly deported.) It seems that deep Bardistry, maintaining the long cycles of cultural memory, and current political witness go hand in hand.

  1. Martin Pretchel The toe bone and the tooth London: Thorsons, 2002

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