contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: October, 2021

POEM: THIS STILL CENTRE

Here, indeed, is no ordinary spot:

no place on the map, in the cosmos,

is anything like it.

This still Centre is the one spot

where energy is actually discovered

welling up out of Nothing.

All the irresistible torrents

which swirl and roar through every other place

rise silently in this place,

never ruffling its perfect calm.

Douglas Harding Everyday Seeing: daily meditations on the One within. London: The Shollond Trust, 2019 (Quotations selected by Richard Lang)

POEM: ASTONISHED BY THE ORDINARY

A discarded flowerhead, wet mud and grass.

I am drawn down into seeing,

And,

Astonished by the ordinary,

I am opened up to awe.

THOMAS TRAHERNE DAY 2021

The image is of two modern stained glass panels in Hereford Cathedral, commissioned in honour and remembrance of the seventeenth century priest, poet and mystic Thomas Traherne. The Anglican Church has dedicated 10 October to his memory. Here is the first verse of Desire, one of his poems:

“For giving me Desire,

An Eager Thirst, a burning Ardent Fire,

A virgin Infant Flame,

A Love with which into this World I came,

An Inward Hidden Heavenly Love,

Which on my Soul did work and Move,

And ever, ever me Enflame,

With restless longing Heavenly Avarice,

That never could be satisfied,

That incessantly a Paradice

Unknown suggest, and som thing undescried

Discern, and bear me to it; be

Thy Name for ever praised by me.” (1)

(1) Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings London: The Canterbury Press Norwich, 2008 (Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology)

NOTE: Thomas Traherne (1636-74) was the son of a prosperous Hereford shoemaker – big house, numerous resident apprentices.  He grew up during the civil war (1642-49) and England’s  republican experiment (1649-1660) in a naturally royalist area. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1652 (16 being a normal age at the time) under a strictly Puritan head, took  a BA in 1656 and was appointed minister at the Herefordshire Parish of Credenhill by the Commissioners for the Approbation of Public Preachers in 1657. As soon as Charles II returned to England Traherne arranged to be ordained as Credenhill’s Anglican vicar, developed strong links with the renewed life of Hereford Cathedral, and also found time to be Chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Charles’ Lord Privy Seal. Denise Inge* describes Traherne as “distinguished from his seventeenth century peers by the fact that he is blissfully untroubled by the tensions, doubts, anxieties that (we are repeatedly told) mark the age in general”.

*Thomas Traherne Poetry and Prose London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002. (Selected and introduced by Denise Inge for the series The Golden Age of Spiritual Writing)

SEVEN IMAGES: LIGHT AND SHADE IN A GENTLY WANING YEAR

BENDIGEIDFRAN (BRAN THE BLESSED)

Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, is a legendary King of the Britons. He is best known to us through the medieval Welsh text The Second Branch of the Mabinogi (1). The primary theme is hope betrayed, most chillingly by Efnysien, Bran’s “brother on his mother’s side”. A marriage feast ends in a series of disasters. But this is not the whole story.

The marriage is between Bran’s sister Branwen and Matholwch the King of Ireland, intended to bring the two kingdoms together in peace and amity. But Efnysien mutilates the Irish party’s horses at the celebration hosted by Bran. It is among the worst things he could do.

In one savage, impulsive act, Efnysien opens the space for an outpouring of resentment, suspicion and hostility – eventually, from both the Irish and the British people. Bran’s efforts to resolve the situation through explanation, consultation and negotiation end in failure. The level of compensation and apology he offers is too much for the British and too little for the Irish. The time comes when Branwen is seriously abused in Ireland. The absolute breakdown of trust between the two countries leads to a bitter, brutal war.

After the war, Bran returns from Ireland with seven surviving companions, his only victory being that he has got them home. Ireland is completely devastated. Bran has been wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear, probably a mortal wound. Bran makes a radical decision, leading to a period of healing and renewal for his companions and a new protective role for his country. “Bendigeidfran ordered his head to be cut off. ‘And take my head’, he said, ‘and carry it to the Gwynfryn in London (the White Mount, now the Tower of London) and bury it with its face towards France. And it will take you a long time; you will feast in Harlech for seven years, with the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. And you will find the head to be as good company as it ever was when it was on me. And you will stay for eighty years in Gwales in Penfro. And so long as you do not open the door to Aber Henfelin, facing Cornwall, you can remain there, and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer. Make for London and bury the head. And now set off across the sea”.

Bran has never been an average human. Too big “to fit inside any house”, he wades across the sea to Ireland “carrying all the stringed instruments on his back”. Later, he bridges the River Liffey by lying down across the river: “hurdles were placed on him, and his men walked on top of him to the other side”. Bran is more than a physical giant. There is something numinous and otherworldly about him, built into his name Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed.

The term ‘blessed’ points to something other than it would in the life of a Celtic saint. Caitlin & John Matthews call Bran the Blessed a “titanic god of the Celts … a god of earth and mountain” (2). R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson describe him as a “primal guardian deity” (3) enacting a role of sacred king traditionally concerned with music, poetry and bridging. In the narrative world of the The Second Branch, such roles are alluded to rather than fully described, but the world is full of magic and spiritually ambiguous, with formal religion little mentioned.

The decapitation of Bran is a magical act. It has two successive effects, both of them benign. The first is when the presence of the head enables an extended period of protected respite for Bran’s companions: the seven years when they feast and hear the birds of Rhiannon (4), and then eighty years as “the Assembly of the Noble Head”. During this time, they forget “all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, [and] … any grief in the world”. Life is pleasurable and delightful and no one seems to age.

It has to end, for the story to continue. The western door is opened, by Heilyn son of Gwyn, driven by curiosity. Grief, loss and ageing return to the companions’ world. They hasten to London to complete their destined task. As long as the head remains buried, no enemy can conquer the kingdom. This is where The Second Branch story ends. Bran, through the agency of his buried head, is confirmed as enduring protector of the land.

There is a coda. It is said that King Arthur dug the head up in later days in the belief that no one but he should protect the country, and that subsequently the head was lost. In later days, the power of the head was transferred to the presence of resident ravens. Bran’s name means raven (also crow), which allows the ravens to take on his power. He is them. They are him. Ravens are kept in the Tower of London to this day, a practice insisted on by Charles II, concerned for the preservation of his country as a kingdom. During World War II the ravens fled after a bombing raid, and every effort was made to ensure that they were swiftly replaced. Seven ravens, the responsibility of Ravenmaster Chris Skaife, live in the Tower now. (5).

(1) The Mabinogion Oxford: the University Press, 2007. (Translated with an introduction by Sioned Davies)

(2) Caitlin & John Matthews The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition London: Arkana, 1985 (Foreword by Gareth Knight)

(3) R. J. Stewart & Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford/Cassell plc, 1996 (Colour illustrations by Chris Down)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/8/4/a-bird-of-rhiannon

(5) https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/the-ravens

DOUGLAS HARDING: THE MIRACLE OF EXISTENCE

“Besides the countless particular miracles that we comprise, there is that supreme irregularity – the fact that anything exists at all. Most unnaturally, there is not just Nothing. How adroit for It to happen! How deserving of our congratulations It is, for having arranged its quite impossible existence! After that, what are a few billion universes more or less.”

These words are from Douglas Harding’s epilogue to The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth (1) published on the recommendation of C. S. Lewis, distinguished scholar and Inkling. Lewis’ introduction places it among “philosophies that have some of the same qualities as works of art”, and he is reminded in that respect of Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.

Harding describes his work as “an unconventional attempt to discover, for myself and in my own way, what I am and what I amount to in the universe. What am I? That is the question. Let me answer it as honestly and simply as I can, forgetting the ready-made answers.”

Harding also has the courage to declare that he has not found an answer. Instead, he has entered a state of “amazed reverence” that reveals his whole inquiry as both “absurd” and “a needful absurdity”. He finds that “because all my roots are in the Undiscoverable, I also am undiscoverable: I will not bear inspection, and can never make head or tail of myself. Self-knowledge is the smouldering wick that is left after the light of wonder has been put out. … If this book quenches the feeblest flame of awe, of direct awareness, in myself or anyone else, then it were better never to have written it”.

Harding did not end his inquiry with The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth. Instead, he went on to become a midwife of direct awareness, and The Headless Way (https://www.headless.org) was born. Where The Hierarchy of heaven & Earth is concerned with exuberant yet disciplined system building, Harding’s later work challenges each of us to ‘look for yourself’ using a set of experiments, now accessible on The Headless Way website. I reported an early, intensive experience of them on return from a four day retreat with the Headless Way in 2016 – https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/07/28/look-for-yourself/ Interestingly, my wrap-around commentary, especially the post-workshop phase, would now be a little different from the one in that post, while my report of the direct experience remains the same. In my current practice, I particularly draw on a seven point version of the experiments presented in Head Off Stress (2).

I never met Douglas Harding in person – my discovery of the Headless Way is too recent. But his writing and recorded material show never-ending wonder at the miracle of existence. They also show his passion for facilitating a transformative recognition of who we really are, and then to live from that recognition.

“I certainly don’t find myself

on the brink of a bottomless abyss,

trying to make up my mind

whether to let go and take that dreadful plunge.

I am already clear of the brink

and free-falling,

and have never been otherwise.

To see this,

all I have to do is look for myself,

and fail to find myself, and find instead

the treasure that has no name

in the well

at the world’s end.”

(1) D. E. Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth London: The Shollond Trust, 2011 Introduction by C. S. Lewis. (Abridged edition – original edition published by Faber & Faber in 1952)

(2) D. E. Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (Originally published by Arkana in 1990)

(3) Douglas Harding Everyday Seeing: daily meditations on the One within London: The Shollond Trust, 2019 (Quotations selected by Richard Land)

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