contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Caitlin Matthews

ROSE, PEWTER & NATURE MYSTICISM

In my introduction to Contemplative Druidry (1) I describe “a wholly unexpected and not at all dramatic epiphany … triggered simply by noticing and contemplating a wild rose”. Although the experience lasted for only a few moments, “for some weeks I woke up every day with a sense of joy and connection”. It was a shift in my spiritual centre of gravity.

This happened on a midsummer morning in 2007, just outside the Scottish Border town of Melrose on the bank of the Tweed. It is a place loaded with religious and mythic reference – Melrose Abbey with its Green Man carvings and the heart of Robert the Bruce; the Eildon Hills, those hollow hills where the Queen of Efland took True Thomas, making it clear to him that she was not the Queen of heaven.

I had chosen to walk away from those, and towards a riverside path. My experience of the rose was entirely natural, in this legend laden land. In that sense I can call it an instance of nature mysticism, and a nudge towards a contemplative Druidry largely shorn of mythic narrative for the sake of a clearer eye. Looking back, I understood my experience as a lesser form of the one reported by the German mystic Jacob Boehme, who “fell into a trance upon looking into a burnished pewter plate that reflected the sun. In his ecstasy he saw into the very heart of nature itself and felt totally at harmony with creation” (2). Unusually for a seventeenth century Protestant, Boehme had a sense of the Divine feminine, and thought of Sophia as “the visibility of God”. He went on to be a key inspiration in a growing movement for a kinder, gentler version of the reformed faith despite the trials and trauma of his time. Boehme’s work finally appeared in English in 1662 and gave rise to a group called the Philadelphians, less known or numerous than the home grown Quakers.

Now I have entered another, different, phase. It is marked by a demystification of mysticism itself. It involves a deeper, more conscious inquiry into what I mean by ‘nature’ – the nature I see, the nature I am, and the relationship between them. On 23 May 2014 I scribbled down some words attributed to the 20th. Century teacher and sage Nisargadatta Maharaj and posted on the Science and Nonduality website. I thought of working them into the text of Contemplative Druidry. But though I found them inspirational, I hadn’t tested them or assimilated them into my experience, and so I left them out. These words are: “Love says ‘I am everything’, Wisdom says ‘I am nothing’. Between the two, my life flows. Since at any point of time and space I can be both the subject and the object of experience, I express it by saying that I am both, and neither, and beyond both”.

My new connection with the Headless Way, with its simple, transparent processes, provides a framework for doing the work I had not done two years ago. My readiness to do it owes much to my experience of contemplative Druidry during the intervening time, just as my earlier work with contemplative Druidry probably helped me to recognize the value of Nisargadatta’s words in 2014. As I move forward, I increasingly see the threads of continuity in my overall inquiry, and this gives me confidence and energy for the work itself.

  • James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/KPD, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
  • Caitlin Mathews Sophia Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God Wheaton IL: Quest Books, 2001

WESTERN WAYS II: MOVING TOWARDS SOPHIA

In my earlier Western Ways post I talked about a distinction between a ‘Native’ Tradition and a ‘Hermetic’ one, acting as “complementary opposites”. The first was said to be concerned with “ancestral earth-wisdom”, whilst the second was described as a “path of evolving consciousness”. (1)

I am influenced by this idea and the distinction that is being drawn. But I have a different sense of the detail, and a different experience of how these themes have played out in my life. My original choice to ground myself in Native tradition resulted from an experience in the Orkney’s. I was allowed to hold an ancient eagle claw necklace and an extraordinary energy shot through me – ancestral power, certainly, and a lesson in taking the heritage of land and ancestors seriously. However my current  of Druid doesn’t directly follow on from this experience, but is, rather, a contemplative nature mysticism. This is spacious and gentle and from my perspective generally works well in both its personal and collective versions. I feel satisfied with what I am doing and, in a good way, my inquiry energy for it is waning, even as my practitioner energy is present and available..

For me, now, the call of Sophia is more dynamic. It is a call from the other half of the Western Way – though not strictly Hermetic, because not concerned with the Greek-Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistos. So I have decided to make my Way of Sophia the focus of a new  personal inquiry cycle. It is not like starting something new. It is more about making this aspect of my spirituality more focused and specific.

In my private sacred space I will establish a Temple of Sophia and this will be separate from from my involvement in Druidry. Ultimately there will be an integration and unity, but I’m aiming to craft a coherent overall Way. I’m not happy to treat pick’n’mix eclecticism and pluralism as more than a staging post. I want to give the Goddess her due and discover for myself how these apparently diverse approaches fit together. I hope that this may be of interest to other Druids, since many of us have a simultaneous engagement with other traditions.

I will report developments in this blog, and I will also continue to write posts outside the inquiry, including book reviews, poems, Druid contemplative developments, and other news and events.

  • Caitlin & John Matthews (1986) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 2 – the Hermetic Tradition London: Arkana

WESTERN WAYS: DRUIDRY AND SOPHIA

In my world, Druidry and the Way of Sophia are linked, though not the same. In The Western Way (1,2) authors Caitlin and John Matthews made a distinction between a ‘Native’ Tradition and a ‘Hermetic’ one, which act as “complementary opposites”. The Native Tradition is “the inward spiral of a maze which leads into the heart of ancestral earth-wisdom”. The Hermetic Tradition is the outward spiral of the same maze: a path of evolving consciousness which is informed by the inner resources of our ancestral roots, “augmented in a macrocosmic way” (2).

My original interest in a ‘Celtic’ spiritual thread, developing from the 1980s, wasn’t specifically Druid or Pagan. It came mostly through Celtic and Celtic influenced literature. Although a long tradition in its own right, it post-dates the demise of institutional Druidry and Paganism in Celtic speaking regions. Most of it has been written with at least an element of Christian reference and influence. So we get verses like this from the medieval Welsh Book of Taliesin:

I was at the cross

With Mary Magdalene.

I received the Awen

From Ceridwen’s cauldron. (3)

 

What I intuitively liked about this was the sense of a culture working to integrate diverse influences rather than attempting to be ‘pure’. Pure culture (or the attempt at it) narrows horizons and banishes possible resources, becoming limited and inflexible in my view. Sophia is both an image of the divine and expresses a blending of Jewish and Greek wisdom traditions. She came to prominence in Alexandria, the largest city of Roman Egypt. She is cosmopolitan. In the verse above Mary Magdalene (an incarnation of Sophia in some gnostic traditions) and Ceridwen (not a traditional Celtic goddess from Pagan times) both have Sophian roles in relation to male figures seen in different ways as light bringers.

Some of the Celtic-derived stories from the medieval period are clearly breaking new cultural ground whilst using resources from the Celtic past. They belong to a realm of creative mythology, as Joseph Campbell called it, whose purpose is “the opening … of one’s own truth and depth to the depth and truth of another in such a way as to establish an authentic community of existence” (4). Twelfth century Western Europe sought to renew itself by drawing on its classical heritage (native in Italy) and Geoffrey of Monmouth drew on it in his Mystic Life of Merlin (5), for example by dedicating a contemplative ‘Observatory’ to the owl deity Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom. It also drew on Celto-Germanic heritage, with the Arthurian mythos – the matter of Britain – taking a prominent place. This mythos does not name Sophia. But it does have the image of the grail and the story of the grail quest. For me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia, and Caitlin Matthews has described it as “a prime symbol of Sophia” (6).  Perceval, the grail winner, has to encounter the divine in a new way for himself. At one level his role is to honour and heal the land, renewing its tantric energy. But the Grail Goddess, whilst enabling that traditional collective healing, adds a new and more individuated depth of wisdom and compassion. So although I have always been moved by the scenes and images of the more archaically oriented Peredur (7), I have found a more compelling narrative in Parzival (8). It is the innovative aspect of the story that engages me and the grail image that nourishes me.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, (9) Jesus of Nazareth asks three leading followers to say what they think he is like. Peter, traditionally Jewish, says “you are like a just messenger” (or righteous angel in other translations). Matthew, familiar with Graeco-Roman ways, says “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas says, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like”. The teacher responds, ‘I am not your TeacherBecause you have drunk, you have been intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended’.  As I read this text, it is a confirmation that a lived spirituality is beyond packaging.

In this sense, terms like Druidry, Way of Sophia or Western Way have only a limited use. Joseph Campbell said “the best things cannot be told; the second best are misunderstood; after that comes civilised conversation”. The problem is real yet I believe he overstates his case. I think it is worth the effort of finding words, making distinctions and enabling affiliations in full awareness of the difficulties. Civilised conversation with moments of … something more … feels like an honourable pursuit.

  1. Caitlin & John Matthews (1985) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 1 – the Native Tradition London: Arkana
  2. Caitlin & John Matthews (1986) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 2 – the Hermetic Tradition London: Arkana
  3. John Matthews (1991) Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: The Aquarian Press (with additional material by Caitlin Matthews)
  4. Joseph Campbell (1976) The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin
  5. R. J. Stewart (1986) The Mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana 
  6. Caitlin Matthews (1986) Sophia Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God Wheaton, IL: Quest Books
  7. The Mabinogion (1976) Harmondsworth: Penguin (translated with an introduction by Geoffrey Gantz)
  8. Wolfram von Eschenbach, W. (1980) Parzival Harmondsworth: Penguin (translated by A. T. Hatto)
  9. The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (1992) San Francisco, CA, USA: Harper San Francisco (translation with introduction, critical edition of the Coptic text and notes by Marvin Meyer; with an interpretation by Harold Bloom)

ETHICS OF EMPATHY: IMMRAM

Ancient Gaelic culture had a tradition of the Imramm – well-described by Caitlin and John Matthews (1). Imramma are “voyage quests, whereby a hero is called to penetrate to the furthest west to find wisdom, healing or paradise. For the Celtic peoples, the lands westward over the Atlantic have ever been the regions of the Blessed Isles, the happy Otherworld from which faery visitants, empowering objects and supra-human wisdom derive. As with the Grail quest, the Imramma are found in both pre- and post-Christian traditions, testifying to their importance, which may have been remnants of a once-coherent ‘book of the dead’ teaching, preparing people for states of existence after death, similar to the Tibetan bardo wisdom”.

I have one which was presented to me as a voyage to discover heaven and hell. I do not know its date or precise origin. The monks – I think they were monks – sailed past many islands in their hard journey into the open sea, their craft small and vulnerable, the conditions variable and sometimes scary. Occasionally they were able to land and refresh themselves – without finding anything much beyond the means of continuing subsistence. Eventually they grew close to a relatively large and inhabited island. They couldn’t see it very well through the mist and rain, but they could hear the cries and shouts of a human-seeming population in distress. Getting closer the voyagers glimpsed large, steaming cauldrons on the shore and the smell coming from these was succulent, not bad at all. Yet angry and emaciated figures were huddled around them – some were snarling, jostling and fighting; others were paralysed with despair and sunken into vacancy and helpless gibbering; yet others were just a little bit more solution focused (as we might now say) and caught up in their own private frustration about how to get food from the cauldrons into their mouths with the very long spoons provided. They were so caught up in this that none of them even noticed the travellers, who found it wisest to back away from this scene before they were discovered in ways that might turn ugly.

The voyage continued … and continued. Eventually, as the story goes, and on a brighter calmer morning, the monks found themselves approaching another island, with an uncanny resemblance to the first. Quite large, with similar human-seeming inhabitants and large, steaming cauldrons on the shore and the same succulent smell. The beings gathered around them even wielded the same awkward, ungainly and very long spoons. The only difference, of course, in the whole scene, is that they were using these spoons to feed each other.

There are three things I particularly like about this story. One is that the ethics of empathy can grow in very pragmatic soil, the soil of enlightened self-interest, the soil of common sense. The turn to co-operation doesn’t have, in itself, to be especially high-minded. So in a way the ethics of empathy, in a fuller sense, can develop out of the experience of simple, practical co-operation. The second is that, although hell is all too easy to get into, it is also quite possible to get out of: no need to abandon hope. The third is that the Otherworld journey takes us straight back into the realm of everyday life and how we do it.

  1. Matthews, Caitlin and John (1994) The encyclopaedia of Celtic wisdom: the Celtic shaman’s sourcebook Shaftsbury, Dorset, UK: Element (also published by Element in Rockport, Massachusetts, USA and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)

MABON

Druidry has its own view of the magical, redemptive child or youth: the Mabon. Here is my transcription (and I apologise for any inaccuracies) of Mabon, a song recorded by Silver in the Tree as part of their Eye of the Aeon album in 1991 and re-recorded on Dreaming the God in 2007.

I am the Mabon I am the child
I am YR the golden bough
I am the dart the yew lets fly
Three pure rays the pillars of light
I am the Wren the King of Birds
I am Bard and teller of lies
I am a song within the heart
I am a light that will never die
I am stars within the void
I am the Eye of the Aeon

In Celtic times the reference is always to Mabon, son of Modron (Youth, son of Mother), “the primal child who was in existence at the beginning of things” (1). The story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2) includes a section where a search is mounted to find and rescue the lost and imprisoned Mabon. Roman Britain and Gaul record devotion to a youthful male deity called Apollo Maponus, very well described by Lorna Smithers in a From Peneverdant post on 26 December 2012 http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/Maponus/.

In the medieval poem Primary Chief Bard – attributed to Taliesin – Christ is referred to as the “merciful Mabon” and the “Maiden’s Mabon” (3) The Taliesin of the Hanes Taliesin (3) is himself a Mabon figure. The area around Loch Maben in Dumfriesshire is tied to stories of Lailoken, the Scottish Merlin (see also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/merlin) and his interaction with St. Kentigern (aka St. Mungo) at the time of Christian conversion (4).  When I visited the Loch at Lochmaben some years ago, the water’s edge, in morning mist, had some of the numinous feel of Llyn Tegid at Bala, though the Scottish loch is much smaller.

Modern Druidry gained momentum as a spiritual tradition at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when, more widely, a ‘Celtic twilight’ current met that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (think of W. B. Yeats). Hence in some iterations of modern Druidry, the Mabon can be understood as a Celtic Hermes, birthed within the practitioner as the fruit of inner alchemical work. It may also be that the “Eye of the Aeon” reference at the end of the Mabon song nods in the direction of Aleister Crowley’s view of our ‘new age’ as being the Aeon of Horus (5). The eye of the Aeon is also the ‘I’ of the Aeon, the you and me of the Aeon, because that’s how this age is understood to work. It’s about transformation of consciousness, and if we want to use such a term, divinisation, within the individual – Jung’s journey of individuation, from self to Self.

The Mabon is a primary archetypal image within Druidry, and we can relate to this image – resonance, presence – in many ways. For me, Mabon, the song has power. Ten brief lines, each one a portal in itself. Silver on the Tree can be found at http://www.last.fm/music/Silver+on+the+Tree

1: Matthews, Caitlin & John The western way: a practical guide to the western mystery tradition (volume 1: the native tradition) (1985) London: Arkana

2: Davies, Sioned The Mabinogion (2007) Oxford: The University Press

3: Matthews, John Shamanism and the bardic mysteries in Britain and Ireland (1991) London: the Aquarian Press

4: http://www.everything2.com/title/Saint+Kentigern+and+Lailoken

5: DuQuette, Lon Milo (2003) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser

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