contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Celtic spirituality

PHILIP CARR-GOMM: DELICIOUS EMPTINESS

I attach a link to Philip Carr-Gomm’s podcast Delicious Emptiness, in his Tea with a Druid series. The series is produced by the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) which Philip led for over thirty years. The podcast beautifully describes meditation as a means of cultivating ‘delicious emptiness’ and its possible fruits. Highly recommended. OBOD can be found on http://www.druidry.org/ .

BIRCH: NEW BEGINNINGS

Within my mandala of the year (1) Birch – Beith in the Irish ogham alphabet (2) – is the first tree for the spring quarter beginning at Imbolc. The overall theme of this quarter, in my world, is one of early growth. Birch presides from 1-22 February and will become one of the first trees to flower in spring, from March onwards. It is also one of the first trees to colonise new ground.

In ogham lore Birch is understood to support new beginnings and to encourage careful preparation, a skilful laying of the ground on which we will build. “In making your spiritual journey with this tree as your guide, remember to concentrate your mind on the uplifting slender whiteness of the tree, a whiteness that stands out clearly from the tangled undergrowth and confusion of shrubs and thorny bushes that cover the floor and, hence, may inhibit an easy journey” (3). The Green Man’s wisdom (1) is that a good beginning leads to a good conclusion.

In runic tradition (4), where Birch (Beorc, Berkana) is also linked to new beginnings, there is specific reference to the young Goddess, sexuality and birth, as well as beauty and creativity more generally. Birch may signal a laying aside of old patterns, whether merely redundant or positively toxic, and a willingness to welcome new, more energising and nourishing ways of being.

For me, this is a welcome shift from the necessary defensiveness and protectiveness of alder. This year, it comes just at the moment where such a shift is possible – as my wife Elaine continues her recovery from major illness and we begin to dream and think our way forward, into a new cycle of life. The wheel turns, and there is a promise of positive change in the air.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

(4) Sweyn Plowright The Rune Primer: a Down to Earth Guide to the Runes Rune-Net, 2006

CHERISHING LIFE

The world is changing, again. New growth insists on its place in the world, however icy the conditions. Life asserts its rights, as we move towards the festival of Imbolc. But this post is personal rather than generic. I am welcoming the return of my wife Elaine from seven days in the Royal Gloucester hospital, where she was treated for a life-threatening, non-Covid condition.

This was the background to my previously reported Covid test, (1) since we thought that Covid might be a factor for Elaine, whose symptoms were severer than mine. I have not said anything about this context up until now, because Elaine did not want to be mentioned in this blog at the time of the crisis. Now she is fine about it. In her first two or three days of Elaine’s hospitalisation, I was very worried about her. In the last couple of days I have been more relaxed and confidently looking forward to her return and a period of convalescence at home. Elaine speaks very highly of the hospital, its staff and the treatment she has received. I was able to communicate with her (and others) by text, email and sometimes (on her initiative) phone. So I did not feel cut off from her even though the hospital is operating a complete ban on visitors due to the Covid crisis.

The week has reminded me of the fragility of both life and love, and of their immense value. The outcome feels like a victory for life at a time when nature, in my neighbourhood, is pointing in this direction. Meanwhile the festival of Imbolc celebrates the return of the light. I will cherish this time as we move forward from here.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/01/18/another-dawn/

ALDER (FEARN) PROTECTION

Within my mandala of the year (1) Alder (2) is the fourth and final tree for the winter quarter that begins at Samhain. The overall movement of this quarter, in my world, is through death to regeneration. Alder presides from 8-31 January and links the regenerative aspect to a continuing need for protection already signalled by Holly (3). There is something foundational about protection. The late eighteenth century Druid prayer (4), which set the note for modern Druidry, begins by asking for protection, as the beginning of a journey that leads through the quest for justice to a place of universal love.

I live in a watery place and there are alders around, though – in contrast to willow – I have never been on hugging terms with this tree. But the oily and water resistant timber is well-adapted to its surroundings, and for humans has provided good timber for boats, bridges, and underwater foundations. Many medieval cathedrals were built on alder piling. Although the wood makes poor fuel, it is good for charcoal.

Round alder shields were once used as protection for warriors in Ireland, and “in Celtic myth, we read of palisades of alders that deter invasion of keep prisoners confined, and these fences are sometimes described as being decorated by a row of severed human heads” (2) . The Welsh hero Benedegeit Bran (Bran the Blessed) is reputed to have used his body to span the River Linon, forming a bridge to raise his followers above the dangerous waters, as the wood does when used as a building material. Later, when mortally wounded in a battle against the Irish, he gave them instructions to cut off his head and carry it with them. They were rewarded with song and prophecy from the head over many years.

Much more can be said about Bran (whose name means raven). My overall learning from alder is about a willingness and capacity to hold boundaries Bran adds sensitivity and openness to the larger context in which events are playing out. Placed at the end of the winter quarter, I see alder as guarding the tentative return of spring, as the light slowly returns and we find increasing signs of growth in the natural world. The weeks before Imbolc can be cold and dreary, but life is stirring both outwardly and inwardly. Alder reminds me of the need for protected spaces to nurture a latent abundance.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the winter quarter from 1 November, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Yew, north-west, 1-23 November; Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December; Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January; Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January. The spring quarter then starts with birch at Imbolc. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/12/23/holly-tinne-the-turn/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

HOLLY (TINNE) THE TURN

Holly (1) is a vivid, vital plant, and especially so at midwinter with its rich spiky evergreen leaves and its blood red berries. It is not afraid to take a strand in the world. Tradition names it as fiery in nature and it is described as ‘best in the fight’. In Celtic times the wood of the holly was used to fashion spear shafts. Amergin, the warrior bard and shaman who invaded Ireland, links himself to holly when declaring that ‘I am a battle waging spear’ among his many identifications.

Within my mandala of the year (2) holly initiates a major change of energy and direction. The winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, in the life of the land that I live in and in some sense in me. Elder has completed the work of descent into a form of death already signalled by the yew. Now, from 17 December to 7 January, it is for the holly energy to ignite my regenerative potentials and aid my birth into the life of another year.

Holly helps me with its vitality, strength, clarity of direction and balance. My worry this year has been about my own capacity to step up. But now, on 22 December, I feel the first stirrings of renewal. Under the aegis of holly I am in protected space and time. I can draw strength from the holly and regenerate in safety, during an extended holiday sheltered from the world. A blessing, indeed.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

ELDER AGAIN

I am drawn to write again about the elder, the tree of the caileach, or crone (1). In my sixteen tree mandala of the year, it covers the period from 24 November to 16 December. I am writing on the last day, tuning into the image more deeply, open to an intuitive personal response.

I see grief, loss and limitation there, in a face both haunted and haunting. Survival at a price. It is what it is. I see neither the pretence of a good time, nor the shadow of self pity. The tree is alive and bearing fruit – alchemical fruit which is poisonous raw and safe after cooking. Perhaps it is the fruit of severity. In the face of a sacred tree, I see a face of the Goddess – an ageing, winter face, yet one that is strong and indomitable. I see this mirrored outside, and also within. Something in me is like this too.

From about the beginning of November, I have been dealing with a succession of minor health problems, not dangerous, but draining in their cumulative effects. I have had frequent experiences of lethargy and a kind of fog in the brain. I move between fundamental acceptance of the experience I am given, and a pragmatic need to push back. I am working at reduced capacity, I have some frustrations about this, and I am finding a new balance. I am glad to have made the core of my life and practice simple and easy to maintain. For me, simplicity allows focus on what really matters. Focusing on what really matters is what I need to do.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

DRUID ALCHEMY

“In the foreground we see Brighid. She is both Brighid Goddess of the Holy Flame and Holy Well, and a woman in her service, a Fferyllt, or Druid Alchemist, who combines the powers of fire and water to create harmony, balance and transformation.

“In the traditions of the nineteenth and twentieth century Druid revival, the Fferyllt were Druid alchemists who were said to live in the magical city of Dinas Affaraon, in the mountains of Snowdonia. Much of the work of DruidCraft can be seen as an alchemical process of uniting and combining different elements of the self to achieve wholeness, illumination and a release of our creative potential.” (1)

The words and illustration above are from The Druidcraft Tarot, where the writers are Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm and the illustrator Will Worthington. The card in question is the trump numbered fourteen, conventionally named Temperance. Here, after the manner of C. G. Jung, it points to the work of psycho-spiritual development. Affirming the fundamental unity of spirit and matter, it encourages us to extend the bandwidth of our experience beyond that provided by our early conditioning in modern mainstream culture. This work is placed in the context of modern Druidry and modern Druid training – specifically that offered by OBOD (see http://www.druidry.org/}.

Philip Carr-Gomm discusses this further elsewhere: “Alchemical Magic involves working on yourself. It is called alchemical because in alchemy the idea is to change ‘base metal’ into gold, the ordinary into the extraordinary. Our goal is to do this with our own lives, our own selves.  That is much of the purpose of following a path such as Druidcraft. … The idea in alchemy is that you start with the ‘base metal’ that is equivalent to all the raw material that you possess as a personality and a soul. Then, by following a spiritual path, you gradually transform this into a quality of being which literally radiates. That is why people who are on this path often have a quality of youthfulness and life which is almost tangible.” (2)

To this day, I have a section in my regular practice liturgy in which I say: “a blessing on my life; a blessing on the work; a blessing on the land”. My use of ‘work’ is an alchemical reference, invoking the classical alchemical opus as a transformative metaphor. I experience this as among other things a healing work, in a healing container, though it might not always feel that way. We can take the legacy of painful, problematic and confusing experiences and find the hidden gold within them.

There can be another discovery too. Jungian-influenced therapist Matt Licata writes: “through this exploration, we come to discover that although suffering feels and is personal, it is also archetypal and, as the Buddha noted, universal in human experience. The invitation is to allow our broken hearts, confused minds and vulnerable emotional bodies to serve as a bridge to a place where we make embodied, loving contact with the ‘others’ in our lives – not only the external others but the inner others who have become lost along the way.”

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.

(2) Philip Carr-Gomm The Magic of Wicca and Druidry Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2013

(3) Matt Licata A Healing Space: Befriending Ourselves in Difficult Times Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2020

DREAMING THE MAGICAL CHILD

I often experience winter as a time of powerful dreams, and I had one yesterday night. It moved through three phases, ending with the image of a magical child as guide.

First phase: I am in a crowded place in a sizeable town. I am apparently in charge of two or three young children – close relatives, by the feel of it, though I am not clear on the specific relationships. I do know that I am of the grandparental generation. Suddenly, I notice them running off towards a stretch of park and woodland. I need to catch up and keep them safe.

Second phase: As I mobilise and follow, I am not catching up as rapidly as I had hoped. I notice that the terrain is wetter and rougher than fits with the initial image. The location feels quite different. I may have to cross water and am I not dressed for it for this eventuality. I assume that the children find this easier than I do, and I have confidence that they are OK. I am less sure about myself. This pursuit is a bit of a stretch.

Third phase: I halt at a riverbank. The boy – only one child, the others somehow no longer present or relevant to this dream – has stripped to the waist and taken like a fish to the water, swimming strongly against the current. He seems to be older than when I last looked. I have a moment of panic and dismay before leaping in after him. Fortunately for me, a sort of backpack I have been wearing turns into a comically inflatable throne. There is no doubt now that the boy knows what he is doing and is purposefully leading me upstream towards the source of the river. Paddling with my hands and arms, my task now is to follow as best I can. As I start following in earnest, I wake up.

The ‘I’ of the first phase is apparently in charge, yet vague and inattentive. Only action by the children gets me to notice and pay attention, though I continue to sport an air of responsible authority, with the felt need to keep the children safe. In the second phase ‘I’ am different, becoming aware of a more rugged environment and feeling challenged by it. I am more positive about the children’s capacity, and less so about my own. The third phase is different again. Halting at a riverbank, I recognise the boy as a version of the archetypical magical child, who naturally finds the sacred in all things, connecting us to a larger life. He is numinously present in this phase of the dream. He is the leader. I am the follower. My means of locomotion is clumsy and absurd. But at least I have one, and I do follow. The constructed ego has a significant part to play, it seems, on this journey, but not the leading role it has imagined for itself. Once I start ‘following in earnest’, I am free to wake up.

At the outer world level, culturally, perhaps the wisdom of age includes recognising and making space for the wisdom of youth. In Irish myth, the elderly poet, shaman and sage Finnegas spent seven years trying to catch the salmon of knowledge. When he finally caught the salmon, he asked his apprentice Demne to cook it. As he worked, the boy burned his thumb and instinctively sucked it – and so it was he, not his teacher, who became imbued with the salmon’s wisdom. Finnegas graciously gave Demne the whole salmon to eat, renaming him Fionn. Fionn went on to become the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool).

ELDER (RUIS) ENDING A CYCLE

Elder is the tree of the caileach, the crone, the wise older woman. The image above comes from the Green Man Tree Oracle (1), but for me an earlier work, Liz and Colin Murray’s The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination (2), offers a more illuminating narrative:

“This Ogham card is linked to the eternal turnings of life and death, birth and rebirth. It represents the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end; life in death and death in life; the casting out of the devils of the old year and the renewal of creativity of the new; the timelessness of the cycle by which the fading of old age is always balanced by the new start of birth.

“The card has no reversed position. The circle will always turn afresh, change and creativity arising out of the old and bringing about the new. All is continuously linked as phases of life and experience repeat themselves in subtly different forms, leading always to renewal”.

In my sixteen tree mandala of the year (3) elder covers the period from 24 November to 16 December, following Yew and preceding Holly. If the winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, then elder deepens the descent into death signalled by the yew, whereas holly brings in the note of regeneration and makes the transition into rebirth. So it is not surprising to me that in Christian folklore elder provided the wood both for the cross of Christ and the self-hanging of Judas Iscariot. There was also a belief that people living in houses built in the shadow of the elder were likely to die young. Indigenous folklore, more benignly, said that to sleep beneath an elder tree is to wake in the Otherworld. If you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the faery troop go by. Casting away fear, and whatever the weather, we may find magic in this tree.

(1) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Edition, 1988. (Illustrated by Vanessa Card).

(3) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

DEATH (THE APPLE WOMAN)

In the approach to Samhain, thoughts turn to death. In R. J. Stewart’s Merlin Tarot (1,2) the Death card has The Apple Woman as an alternate name.

Stewart explains that “the original image for Death is that of the taking or destroying Goddess”, for “who but the creatrix may truly destroy and withdraw created life?” He adds that, in Celtic tradition, she often appears as a female power offering magical fruit.

In his source text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), we find a mysterious woman – ex-lover of Merlin – who lays out poisoned apples to entrap him. These apples, arranged “under a tree upon a pleasant green”, are eaten by Merlin’s boon companions: they are either killed or driven insane. Although Merlin escapes the apples, he does not escape his own later insanity in the Caledonian Forest, brought on by the traumatising Battle of Arfderydd.

For Stewart, the Apple Tree is one of the simplest expressions of the Tree of Life. “It is the Otherworld or Underworld Tree that reveals eternal potential, the fusion of ending and beginning in one paradoxical form”. The apples are the fruit of raw, untransformed power. Whereas Merlin’s companions snatch at the apples and eat them greedily, the legendary Thomas Rhymer volunteers to pick magic apples for the Fairy Queen, who recognises his gallantry by giving him the bread and wine that can nourish him. He wins the gift of prophecy and the tongue that cannot lie.

Both lover and killer, the Goddess of Death and Change is young and ancient, weaver and unweaver of a web that is the universe. She is destroyer of hope and giver of hope, for “in her hand she bears the fruit of perpetual life and rebirth, and the razor Sickle that cuts the tread of continuity”.

Stewart ends with this reflection: “perhaps Merlin’s sub-story of The Apple Woman simply means that adulthood is our most deluded period of life. We reject understanding and substitute self-image, habit and even dogma, in our convoluted attempts at survival; the hostility we experience is not that of the Goddess, but our own hostility reflected upon us. Reject love, risk poisoned apples – such fruits are deadly to the greedy and unprepared. But if we accept the fruit or any of its many transformations (such as bread and wine) from the Goddess, she blesses us with gifts of timeless understanding. These gifts may appear in the outer world as prophecy, attuning to the land; death itself is a timeless moment of understanding when all relative interactions cease. Ultimately, we are the fruit”.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 . Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 1 85538 091 9 No cards, but a full explanation and discussion of the system and its imagery.

(2) R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 000 716562 5 (First published by London: The Aquarian Press, 1992). Cards, handbook and notebook for record keeping.

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