This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: July, 2015


Druid Camp starts tomorrow. There will be more than 200 people there, perhaps many more since it’s an open event with the option for day tickets. Quite a few people from my local contemplative group will be there.  The site is close to where many of us live, across the River Severn at a point where it is still not quite estuarial. I will be there with my partner Elaine, specifically holding the banner for Contemplative Druid Events (CDE). We have been given the opportunity to offer two sessions, to demonstrate the kind of work we are developing.  Our challenge is to create a contemplative small group atmosphere within a bustling, dynamic environment.

We are going to be focused and experiential. People can fluff around words like ‘contemplative’ and Druidry’ almost endlessly, and ‘Contemplative Druidry’ could have many legitimate iterations. We are there to give a strong taste of ours. Both sessions will be built around specific practices held within a formalised sacred space. We will provide  minimal context, clear practice instructions and leadership in lean ritual. In each session one of us will present the practice, while the other will be in readiness to attend to the process and needs of the group.

I’ll be offering a semi-structured meditation in stages concerned with aspects of the here-and-now, with a maximum of 20 participants. Elaine will be offering Animist Hermetics, a more intense process, with a maximum of 12. We will offer the practices in an experimental way, and participants will have opportunities to talk about their experiences in a mix of smaller groups and the large one.  By the end of these sessions the participants should have a pretty good idea of what these practices have to offer and how we come to be presenting them as ‘Contemplative Druidry’. We are both looking forward to this opportunity to present our work.


A sunless maze of tangled lanes enfold

The magic dwellings of the forest race,

Whose hidden shapes are flames that leave no trace

At mid-moon when the Druid’s dream is told;

The shadows of enchanted orchards hold

Red thatch of wings and woad-stained doors that face

The wandering stars, and guard the sacred place

Where faery women thread their warps with gold

The dragon knight shall lose his strength of hand

Nor ever raise his long leaf-shapen shield,

If he but follow where the white deer roam;

And never will the mariner reach land

When harps ring seaward as the dawn fires yield

The golden caer upon the ninth wave’s foam.

A Druid Town 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.


red poppy MIA_400x296“We call the poppy ‘vanity’ and we write it down as a weed. It is humiliating to think that, when we are taking ourselves seriously, we are considering our own self-preservation, or the greater scheme for the preservation of mankind. What is it that really matters? For the poppy, that the poppy disclose its red … Seed and fruit and produce, these are only a minor aim: children and good works are a minor aim. Work, in its ordinary meaning, and all effort for the public good, these are the labour of self-preservation, they are only means to an end. The final aim is the flower, the fluttering, singing nucleus which is a bird in spring, the magical spurt of being which is a hare all explosive with fullness of self, in the moonlight; the real passage of a man down the road, no sham, no shadow, no counterfeit, whose eyes shine blue with his own reality, as he moves amongst things free as they are, a being; the flitting under the lamp of a woman incontrovertible, distinct from everything and everybody, as one who is herself, of whom Christ said, ‘to them that have shall be given’.

“The final aim of every living thing, creature, or being is the full achievement of itself. This accomplished, it will produce what it will produce, it will bear the fruit of its nature. Not the fruit however, but the flower is the culmination and climax, the degree to be striven for. Not the work I shall produce, but the real Me I shall achieve, that is the consideration; of the complete Me will come the fruit of me, the work, the children.

“And I know that the common wild poppy has achieved so far its complete poppy-self, unquestionable. It has uncovered its red. Its light, its self, has risen and shone out, has run on the winds for a moment. It is splendid. The world is a world because of the poppy’s red. Otherwise it would be a lump of clay.”

D. H. Lawrence A Study of Thomas Hardy in D. H. Lawrence Complete Works Delphi Classics on Kindle

When reviewing Nature Mystics –  – I mentioned D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy as two of the named writers who had become part of my life during my teens. I also wondered how far such free spirited people can be enrolled as ‘properly’ proto-Pagan as suggested by the author. This passage is certainly very Laurentian. In modern terms, it seems to connect with the current conversation about ‘wildness’ rather than religious Paganism or nature mysticism, though of course these are all interconnected. I have certainly enjoyed revisiting Lawrence’s words after a long absence.  They were written early in 1915, with the red poppy simply representing abundant life, and so before its memorialising significance became marked. Lawrence was just under 30 at the time of writing, with  just 15 years left to him.


MBI and Thou was written by the Jewish scholar and theologian Martin Buber in the 1920’s and first translated into English in 1937. I’ve used a 1970 translation by Walter Kaufmann*, who prefers the term ‘I and You’ since ‘I and Thou’ sounds formal and churchy in modern English. The subject is ‘I-ness’ and the way it comes into existence only through alterity, though linkage to the other: for Buber this means other humans, other life in nature, and spiritual beings. Buber distinguishes two forms of such linkage: ‘I-It’ and ‘I-You’. The second demands more of us – and it brings “the breath of eternal life” into the world. Buber makes this distinction very clearly in the passage below.

“The I of the basic word I-You is different from the basic word I-It.

“The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).

“The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genitive).

“Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.

“Persons appear by entering into relation with other persons.

“One is the spiritual form of natural differentiation, the other that of natural association.

“The purpose of setting oneself apart is to experience and use, and the purpose of that is ‘living’ – which means dying one human life long.

“The purpose of relation is the relation itself – touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by the breath of eternal life.

“Whoever stands in relation, participates in an actuality, that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside him. All actuality is an actuality in which I participate without being able to appropriate it. Where there is no participation, there is no actuality. Where there is self-appropriation, there is no actuality. The more directly the You is touched, the more perfect is the participation.

“The I is actual through its participation in actuality. The more perfect the participation is, the more actual the I becomes.”

Buber has been described as a ‘religious existentialist’, though he personally didn’t like the term. Whilst willing to share with all, He was not a Universalist and always saw himself as speaking specifically out of his ancestral tradition. He also wrote Tales of the Hasidim about the intensely devotional form of mystical Judaism that first developed in Central and Eastern Europe and then found new homes elsewhere, especially in North America and the Holy Land itself.

*Martin Buber, I and Thou Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York City, NY, USA, 1970 (A translation with a Prologue I and You and notes, by William Kaufmann)



Picture cc by 2.5 pl – originally uploaded by Shira-commonswiki

The golden hill where long-forgotten kings

Keep lonely watch upon their feasting-floor

Is silent now, – the Dagda’s harp no more

Makes sun and moon move to its murmurous strings;

And never in the leafy star-led Springs

Will Caer and Angus haunt the river shore,

For deep beneath an ogham-carven door

Dust dulls the dew-white wonder of their wings.

Yet one may linger loving the lost dream –

The magic of the heart that cannot die;

Although the Rood destroy the quicken-rods;

To him through earth and air and hollow stream

Wild music whines, as two swans wheeling cry

Above the cromlech of the vanished gods.

New Grange 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.


A Summer Haiku by the 18th century Japanese poet Buson from the collection Zen Haiku, selected and translated by Jonathan Clements. London: Frances Lincoln, 2000

Across the summer stream

With such joy

My sandals in my hand


jhp54f743a60d1fbHighly recommended. Nature Mystics: the Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism is a new and refreshing departure in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. It introduces readers to some of the literature that many modern Pagans perceive to have influenced the culture of their spiritual family. It will be published at the end of this month (31 July 2015) and author Rebecca Beattie dedicates it “to all those Nature Mystics who have come before and continue to inspire us to a spiritual path with their words”.

Selection has clearly been an issue and the author has both used her own judgement and consulted with associates in a ‘Nature Mystic’ blog. Her centre of gravity is England in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and, more particularly, the opening decades of the twentieth. She has chosen five women and five men to represent a place, a time, and a suggested sensibility. There are outliers – John Keats from an earlier time and W. B. Yeats from Ireland – but Beattie shows in her introduction how they fit within the selection. The full list is: John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D. H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W. B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. Each author has a dedicated chapter describing their life, work and cultural setting; exploring specific works in some depth; and discussing both their declared or implied spirituality and ways in which it may inspire modern Pagans. Each is given a remarkably thorough treatment for an introductory book that addresses a larger theme.

I grew up with some of these writers and went on to study English literature for my first degree in the final years of the 1960s. It’s been interesting for me to check back on the writers I knew and those I didn’t, at that time, as a way of checking out how the world has moved on. Four of the men – Keats, Hardy, Lawrence and Yeats – were an important part of my life; Tolkien not so much, though I had read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. E. Nesbit I knew as author of The Railway Children and connected with the Fabian Society, the intellectual voice of respectable British Socialism at the time. Thanks to Nature Mystics, I’ve enjoyed being introduced to her The Accidental Magic: or Don’t Tell All You know and The Story of the Amulet, works for children penned by the Nesbit who was involved, as I knew that Yeats was, with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I discovered Mary Webb later, when I went to live in Shropshire where she was remembered. By then I was able to read Precious Bane and Gone to Earth in Virago editions and I later found Sylvia Townsend Warner and Lolly Willows in the same way. I still see these powerful and highly relevant books through a sort of feminist ally lens, as primarily about free-spirited women in outsider positions navigating gender and sexuality in a largely hostile and uncomprehending world, and looking for oases of safety and possible flourishing. Beattie’s book adds to the picture by spelling out Pagan tinged nature mysticism as a spirituality that is congruent with this quest, and also informed by it. I have still not read anything by Elizabeth von Arnim or Mary Butts, and before getting my review copy of this book, knew of them only through their links with other people. Now I’m encouraged to look at their work.

I’ve been delighted to read a work that offers new information and a new lens. The writers concerned are a diverse and free-spirited group. I’m not entirely convinced that they either could or should be enrolled in a league of “properly proto-Pagan” Nature Mystics. It is my belief that most of them would resist the identification. Beattie herself says that Tolkien was dismayed by some of the responses to his work in his own life-time. At the same time I do see a common tendency, in this group, to find the numinous in natural settings and the spirit of place, “that sense of bliss and divine communion that is gained from time spent absorbed in the natural world” as Beattie puts it. I’m sure, too, that there will be a ready assent among many readers to the suggestion that “where Woolf said every woman needed a room of her own, von Arnim would have said every woman needed a garden”.

I will leave the last word to Thomas Hardy, in a brief passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, quoted in Nature Mystics. It is about Tess herself, and evokes a moment when a sensitive human consciousness is more fully awakened by a moment in the cycle of the day: “She knew how to hit to a hair’s breadth that moment of evening when the light and darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralise each other, leaving absolute mental liberty”.


Words, single words, can have a tremendous power in me whether I want them to or not. They have a hinterland of feeling, imagery an atmosphere. They are linked to memories and associations – indeed their use comes to have a memory trail, and the triggering effects that go with that. Sometimes this seems independent of their plain meaning or general use.

Grace is like that. It’s the theological, redemptive meaning that has stuck. Yet it is independent of the received theology, or almost so. I notice that when President Obama spoke the eulogy for the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston recently, he made use of the popular hymn Amazing Grace. It was written by the Englishman John Newton, an 18th century slave ship captain who eventually became a clergyman and prominent campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. As such it suited Obama’s point about how a shocking terrorist assassination can open up possibilities for learning and doing better. The first verse runs:

Amazing Grace (how sweet the sound!)

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found,

Was blind but now I see.

Now this is a very simple and classically evangelical verse. The very simplicity of language and thought is part of its power. As it happens, I am not aligned to the specific religious narrative that stands behind it. I understand it very clearly – and I’m not aligned.

And yet … that’s not the whole story of what happens for me when I hear this verse, especially sung to the tune it acquired in the USA in the 1830’s. I cannot help being moved by ‘Grace’, and when I’m told that it makes a sweet sound, I’m completely with the hymn. In a certain mood I have no problem in thinking of myself as wretched. It isn’t exactly a moral terms, more about being alienated and out of reach to self and others. Modern English (British English anyway, in its polite form) is a softened, evasive language which generally doesn’t run to terms like ‘wretch’ – too strident and extreme; almost comical. But I know experiences that fit.

It’s also true that in the verse, an experience, described in the sweet sounding word ‘Grace’ has become available. Free and regardless of merit, it seems to have the power to change the quality and direction of a life. So the verse ends: ‘I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see’. The brief four line verse frames the experience of Grace as a single turn-around moment, a very specific reference experience of spiritual rebirth. Life is a bit different. John Newton’s life changed in slow and gradual steps. But it changed, and eventually it changed radically.

Just as I have personal reference experiences for ‘wretch’, I also have personal reference experiences for ‘Grace’. The Cosmos includes Grace. In my universe of meaning I don’t know how to account for Grace – what it is, how it works, what it means. As an experience it begins as a powerful feeling/sensation in the belly and heart centres, more emotional than physical, that extends through and beyond my whole body. I have known it come within a formal practice, or through another trigger, but most likely it comes out of the blue. I’m clear that it isn’t ‘just’ a feeling, though it contains a strong feeling element. It’s more like an energetic, emotional and spiritual cleansing. It creates a spaciousness, and an expanded sense of being though not of personality. I’m left in a heightened state in which a lightness and clarity emerge. The world looks and feels different. I feel more compassionate towards myself and others. I am less interested in problems and events, and more resilient. There’s an element of drama and energetic arousal that gradually dies down and I find myself calm and at peace – in communion with what is. I do not have any sense of personal deity or energetic emanation from a higher realm, or of benefitting from a cosmically warranted plan of salvation or enlightenment. What I experience is a re-arrangement of my life as is, my place within it and my relationship with the whole. I am connected to the other dictionary meanings of ‘grace’ – smoothness and elegance of movement, courteous goodwill in speech, a ‘grace’ period given before favours are called in or debts have to be repaid. There’s a spirit of ease and generosity in the air.

The effects aren’t permanent. I can go down again – stiffen up, contract. But I notice that the downs and diminutions are not what they were before I became aware of Grace, or began to remember its possibility a bit more consistently. ‘Grace’ is indeed mysterious. I have not incorporated it into a coherent world view. I simply know that it’s a powerful word, matched with a powerful experience, and I’m grateful for it. My instinct is simply to stay open and to let it be.


I’ve just had a couple of lazy summer days and I feel all the better for them. They’ve been interwoven with a relaxed stocktaking about contemplative Druidry and my part in it. I notice that my main focus is on small groups.

As I write, I’m at peace with my personal life and practice. At the collective level, I’ve had recent good news. My friend and colleague JJ Howell has let me know the specific roles that my partner Elaine Knight and I will be playing at Druid Camp in four weeks’ time. Druid Camp –  – is a large group (200-300 people), but we’ll be working with small groups, offering contemplative sessions from the repertoire built up by our local group over the last year. Meanwhile I also know that an open contemplative day in Stroud, organised by our own outreach arm Contemplative Druid Events –  – is now viable and will go ahead on 3 October. We have seven people fully booked and three more with strong expressions of interest, with 15 being our max.

The overall position is that we have a flourishing local group, now three years old; a book largely though not exclusively based on the thoughts of its members; and an outreach arm able to offer an annual residential retreat (The Birchwood Retreat) every April and an open contemplative day in October 2015, which might become annual too. In all cases the events concerned will have no more than 15 participants. We could do a little bit more – providing small group sessions at other larger events, or offering more contemplative days either locally or elsewhere. But my sense is that we need to respect limitations in our capacity, stick to the small group approach, and make sure that all our work is experiential and not simply discursive. People need to taste it.

For me perhaps the greatest value of the small group is the opportunity for all participants to introduce ourselves and be heard. For that to work fully, we need a quality of listening which itself becomes a practice and part of our culture, and whose intention is to ensure that no one is either misrecognised or ignored. This in itself is counter to mainstream communication, including ours, and needs conscious practice. It will include mis-steps from time to time within our own groups. So it’s not about ‘getting it right’ all the time: the point is to be conscious. In a contemplative context, we can hope to go further: establishing a level of trust that opens the door to deeper I-Thou recognition and communion. It’s a different opportunity to those provided when large numbers of people become immersed together in prayer, song, ritual or formal meditation. It’s more personal, in the best sense of that term. I find it both more challenging and rewarding, whilst believing that all of these approaches have their honoured place.

Small groups have other advantages too. It is easier to be flexible on programming within the event. It is easier to offer activities which demand time for reflection and debriefing. It is easier to become aware of other people as spiritual companions, even if we have not met them before or do not know them well. I think, too, that it’s easier to learn, not least when in a facilitative role, because the style of the event can be person centred rather than goal centred. Activities are designed to support us in our human, and therefore spiritual, flourishing. They are not Everests to be climbed so we can say that we ‘knocked the bastard off’.

I think this is why we have not oriented our contemplative Druidry around long meditations or meditation training. It was one way to go, and in some ways the obvious one. It would certainly be the most traditional one and my solo practice is very much tilted that way. But the group context changes things. Pragmatically, our local group is about evenly divided between people who gain from long meditations and those who don’t. We would lose people by taking this approach. More importantly, the group is co-creating a culture in which the blessing of space and silence is received differently – through short meditations, attunement to the seasonal moment, silent walks, or activities like ‘Awen space’ in which we sit with each other, open to spirit, and can speak, chant or sing into the silence when so moved. We can also explore co-creation from silence into sound and story, or find different ways of awakening to the fields of energy and presence within us, between us, and around us. It’s a subtle and sensitive kind of work. It needs times of stillness and silence. It also needs times of movement, sound and speech. It needs times of reflection and relaxation.

In my view, we are still at an early stage of this exploration. We have a name – Contemplative Druidry – to hold us. We have literature – Contemplative Druidry and also Nimue Brown’s Druidry and Meditation – to support us. We have a dedicated group and an outreach arm. The small group approach has evolved quite naturally and I see it as a critically important aspect of how we work.


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