A discarded flowerhead, wet mud and grass.
I am drawn down into seeing,
Astonished by the ordinary,
I am opened up to awe.
A discarded flowerhead, wet mud and grass.
I am drawn down into seeing,
Astonished by the ordinary,
I am opened up to awe.
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)
I am looking downwards into water, identifying patterns, on a surface that swirls and moves and changes. I have the same impulse to identify patterns in my contemplative life. In essence, contemplative experience is simple, still, and drawn from wordless depths. But there’s a surface swirl that’s more agitated, largely driven by worries over naming and explaining, clarifying where my inquiry sits within human communities, and accurately representing spiritual philosophies. Here too, I am giving the surface swirl the attention it seeks. I do not ask the swirl to stop swirling, because swirling is what it does. There is value in the swirl.
I centre myself in modern Druidry, but my self-presentation from 2012 as a ‘contemplative Druid’ is slightly misleading – too narrow. I champion the value of a contemplative current within Druidry, and I am happy to describe my blog as a contemplative inquiry. But I also have a strong commitment to the life of the world and opportunities for the flourishing of all beings, within both the constraints and the opportunities of our interconnectedness. I am concerned with our planet and its biosphere; with human history and culture; with ethics and engagement; with beauty as well as truth and goodness; and with issues of wounding and healing. They are part of my inquiry. I cannot separate them from my contemplative commitment.
I also celebrate the influence of ‘nondual’ currents outside Druidry. Nondual is a translation of advaita (not-two) in classical Sanskrit philosophy. It describes the divine/human relationship. Its original home is the Advaita Vedanta path in India, but there are nondualists in other world religions, including the Abrahamic ones: Sufi currents in Islam, Jewish Kabbalah, contemplative Christianity. In Christian terms, you would say that we are all essentially Christs – in a creation of one Light and many lamps. In some interpretations, nonduality does not apply only to humans, but to all lives in the cosmos. Some iterations of nonduality – Mahayana Buddhist and Taoist in particular – avoid the language of divinity, preferring terms like ‘true nature’ or the deliberately undefinable ‘Tao’.
I have engaged with current nondualist teachings for some years, most recently with the Eckhart Tolle community – https://www.eckharttolle.com. I have learned a lot from them. In this blog’s About section, I say: “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given”.
I could maintain this stance as a humanist or existentialist, but my deepest intuition is that the ‘present moment’ (or eternal now), fully experienced, links my passing personal identity to a cosmic one, a ground of being that is my true nature. Belief has come in: ‘willingness to follow one’s deepest intuition’ is one definition of faith, and I have surprised myself by becoming a person of faith in this sense. The purpose of continuing inquiry is to keep me open to new experiences, understandings, and connections, as well as teaching me how best to live from the peace and at-homeness of the centre.
My inquiry is a self-directed enterprise that welcomes input from multiple sources. But I draw on two main centres of community wisdom and support. The first is OBOD Druidry (https://www.druidry.org), with its embrace of the earth and its loyalty to the world of space and time, nature and culture. For many of us this includes the sense of a living cosmos and a divine ground. The second is the specifically nondualist Headless Way, based on the work of the late Douglas Harding (https://www.headless.org). I have started to think of myself as a Headless Druid, in a modern kind of way, whilst also aware of older traditions in which decapitation is indeed the gateway to a larger life:
‘It’s off with my head’, says the Green Man,
‘It’s off with my head’, says he.
Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak
As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features;
‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man.
‘I speak through the oak’, says he.
William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.
After the equinox comes a deepening of autumn. Light, colour, texture – my sense of the world is different. Images of this moment in the year shape my sense of time as well as of place. I savour the turning of the wheel. All time is transitional, yet every time has its own uniqueness.
Contemplating images like this is for me a way of sustaining what modern Druids sometimes call a re-enchantment with and of the world. Simple attention to the living world is a renewing experience, and protects the heart from what can seem like the half-life of a Wasteland culture. Opening to a living cosmos, I plead guilty, with pride, to the charge of Romanticism.
It is after 9 a.m. on Sunday 26 September, Locally I enjoy orange as a colour of ripening, rich and shiny with life, as the season of bearing fruit moves on.
There are trees whose leaves have already turned, but will stay on their branches for awhile, giving these woods a more mixed, autumnal appearance.
But there is still a preponderance of green, some of it surprisingly fresh. Here it provides a canopy of green light and shade.
The season is also asserting a downward pull, towards the earth and dissolution – a process, however, still in its early stages. The broken fence seems almost to be sharing this, beginning a return to the land.
Then there is the undergrowth, with its mix of living and dead wood, living and dead leaves, and the soil that holds them. The evergreen leaves are defiantly vivid. Taking pictures, I celebrate the time of year.
“It may be that night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.” (1)
I am contemplating the role of ‘lantern bearer’. The Lantern Bearers is the last book in a trilogy set in different periods when some people thought of themselves as both Roman and British. This makes for cultural complexity and a need to make conscious personal choices. Aquila, the main character, is a young officer in the last auxiliary cavalry cohort remaining in the province at the time of the final withdrawal*. The mission is to maintain the lighthouse at the decaying fortified port of Rutupiae (Richborough near Sandwich, Kent) to guide ships and demonstrate a continuing presence on the ‘Saxon Shore’. On being told that his unit is to leave, Aquila deserts and hides.
When night falls, he lights the beacon for one last time. Then he goes home to his family farm. His commitment is to them and the land. It is an old military family, originally from Tuscany, but his father forgives him saying that he would have done the same. They have little to connect them to fallen Rome and even less to distant Constantinople and the orient.
After a brief and beautiful family reunion, Aquila loses everything, as his farm is attacked and destroyed, his father killed, he and his sister taken captive. Then come three years of thraldom (slavery) in Jutland; return to his homeland when his owners migrate permanently; escape; a bitter discovery that his sister has become reconciled to a forced marriage with a one of the hated invaders following the birth of a son; a journey to join Ambrosius Aurelianus and his new resistance army, its heartland already far to the west, in the mountains of modern Wales. Aquila becomes militarily effective, while still traumatised and emotionally frozen. He too accepts a loveless arranged marriage with the daughter of a local warlord as part of Ambrosius’ plan to bring the ‘Roman’ and ‘Celtic’ sections of his coalition closer together.
Over time, and long years of war with peaceful intervals, Aquila begins a process of healing and increasing insight. The conversation about ‘lantern bearers’ comes at the end of the book, when Aquila and the army doctor Eugenus are talking during a victory celebration. The young Artos (presented here as a beloved hero, though not quite the Arthur of legend) has won a major battle. But it is obvious to both Eugenus and Aquila that the invaders will not be thrown back to the sea or even held back in their current territories for very long. The imbalance of population and forces is too great, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes themselves in flight from other invaders further to the east. Despite knowing this, the last Roman British will not give up. They will continue to do what they can. They will be lantern bearers, trusting in the possibility of a legacy, holding onto the hope that something of value may be carried on, even into a distant future that they cannot even imagine.
I read The Lantern Bearers when I was 11 or 12 and it made a strong impression on me. Even then I thought that the lantern bearing philosophy wouldn’t work for a nuclear war. But I thought that it might work for anything less drastic and immediate. Now we have the climate crisis, which is global and much more serious than the fall of the western Roman Empire. Military operations are no part of any just solution.
They are not the only solution even in The Lantern Bearers. Brother Ninnias is a refugee monk and bee-keeper, sole survivor of a monastic community in what is now the invaders’ territory. He isn’t the stuff of which the masterful saints of the Celtic Church are made – equally willing to become martyrs or princes of the Church as the faith appears to demand. Indeed Ninnias’ formal practice is much decayed, as he stays with a community of destitute refugees, one of them, a healing presence who helps out where he can. His occasional meetings with Aquila are a crucial part of the soldier’s psycho-spiritual recovery, because he listens and understands without judgement, also helping Aquila to save his ‘Saxon’ nephew from a massacre of fleeing wounded enemies, and then return him to his mother with a reconciling message. Brother Ninnias is not much interested in the wider context of history and culture. He scarcely seems interested in his religion, as a Religion. Rather, to use the deeper language of his tradition, he helps to open spaces where grace can come in, wherever the moment of opportunity arises. He is a lantern bearer too, though after another manner.
I can take on the notion of lantern bearing – bearing witness, choosing consciously how to live, taking appropriate action, favourably influencing events as far as lies in my power. It helps me to feel more resourceful. My recent reading of The Lantern Bearers has been a gift to me from my younger self, across sixty years of chequered history.
(1) Rosemary Sutcliff The Lantern Bearers Oxford: the University Press, 1959 (Third of a trilogy – the others are The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch).
*Sutcliff places this in the 440’s, a generation after after the departure of the legions.
Illustration: the Hermit card from 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.
Above, inside looking out. Below, outside looking in – with added reflections.
Below again, from a little further back, the full richness of a sunlit moment, in a particular time and place. For me, it becomes the image and feeling-tone of its day, and, later on, a soft thought in memory.
Walking in the woods yesterday I saw the coming of autumn, in the sky and in the trees. I felt it too, and not just in my physical sensation of coolness. I experienced a mood of loss and ending, not limited to the summer of 2021.
The natural wheel of the year, where I live, has classically been one of soft transitions. Our seasons have merged gently into each other, with September as a modified extension of summer. Leaves gently turn, but there is not much of a fall. For much of my life I enjoyed the sense of a predictable pattern in the the turning of the wheel. That sense has eroded in recent years and has now reached vanishing point. Hence the feeling of loss.
Summer 2021 seemed to die in August, after a short and faltering life. It may be succeeded by a once unseasonable hot spell, or it may not. Considering the effects of the climate crisis in other parts of the world, this is hardly dramatic. But this weird summer season, including a background awareness of developments elsewhere, has ended my already weakened feeling of security. The phrase ‘winds of change’ comes to mind. I think, what next? And when?
I feel challenged to be open to whatever happens, without obsolete expectations to confuse me. In the state of openness, I find that an inner peace and clarity are present. They act as my guides through a shifting, changing, world.
“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”
If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.
“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.
“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”
Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017
Becoming the single eye, the eye of contemplation, I am a stressless, frameless window. Unboundaried and immersed, beyond the sense of window, joyful experiencing is vivid and intimate. I am a broken branch, stuck in mud. I am a sticky ooze. I am the shadowy reflection of a tree. I am ripples on water.
Walking, I am a body in movement. Then I become a space for memories. I recall the words: “a green thought in a green shade”. Relishing these words, I become a green thought in a green shade. Then I fall into the role of self-conscious observer, morphing from my original state into another one – lacking the immediacy of the first, yet still worthy of welcome.
The woods reach out to me. They and I are distinct now, though we are still held together in the dynamism of a living world. The whole of life is in these woods as summer starts to wane.
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