contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Kabbalah

BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE (REVISED AND UPDATED EDITION)

Highly recommended for anyone drawn to contemplative and mystical traditions. R. D. Krumpos’ The Greatest Achievement in Life: Five Traditions of Mysticism & Mystical Approaches to Life (1) is now available in print, in a new revised edition. I like having it now as an old-fashioned physical book that I can leaf through easily both for reference and for inspiration.

The book explores the mystical traditions embedded within Hinduism (Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (Sufism). Krumpos shows how, underneath their manifold differences, they share an understanding of mysticism as the direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God.

Mystics are described as people whose spiritual lives are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos spells out the uncompromising idealism of this project. “Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called ‘this life’. Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is i,e, the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now”.

The book is divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approaches to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short essays, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. The essays are based both on conversations with mystics and engagement with mystical literatures. Krumpos draws directly on the words of well-known mystics themselves, with 120 quotations interspersed with the essays. He also offers his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.

The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.

For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.

(1) R. D. Krumpos The Greatest Achievement in Life: Five Traditions of Mysticism & Mystical Approaches to Life Tucson, AZ: Palomar Print Design, 2022. (Originally a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012).

NB This review is a revision of my review of the original edition. See:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/06/

STRENGTH IN SIMPLICITY

In recent days, living a pared down life, I have seen the strength in simplicity. Both my contemplation and my inquiry are reflecting this. I have a few simple practices adapted from a variety of sources. At first under the pressure of illness, I have moved away from the kind of system building that was drawing my attention a month ago (1). Now I have reminded myself that customising, using a light touch, and keeping practice relatively simple has been my generally preferred way of responding to influences. It helps me to avoid half-awarely ventriloquising teachers and to maintain my own discernment.

As an example (2), I describe a simple meditation. It focuses on the breath because that is something I am busy with – and ambivalent about thanks to my COPD. In it I draw on the understanding that breath and spirit share the same word in some languages (e.g pneuma in Greek). No more than ten minutes is needed for a session.

Although simple, the practice does have a liturgical framing – for instance adapting one of Stewart’s Qabalistic crossing forms from The Miracle Tree. I also draw on my OBOD background, especially the commitment to finding peace. This kind of framing helps. In formal practices like this, I am not just plunging into raw experience. I have other opportunities for that. Rather, the practice affirms an already existing perspective, developed over time, and this is what the words proclaim.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2022/04/05/towards-an-integration/

(2) See text below:

Crossing, using my right hand, I say: In the name of Wisdom (forehead), Love (pubic bone), Justice (right shoulder), Mercy (left shoulder), and the Living Breath (both hands over upper chest). I enter stillness. Then I say: Deep within my innermost being, I find peace. Silently, within the stillness of this space, I cultivate peace. Heartfully, within the wider web of life, may I radiate peace.

I do a breath exercise*, and then say: I am a movement of the breath and stillness in the breath; living presence in a field of living presence: here, now, and home.

Then, I begin slow, deep breathing, as if inviting the Cosmos to breathe through me. I may use the I AM mantra. For me it affirms the non-separation of the finite life and the Source, and the gift of a place within the ecology of being.

On completion I repeat the Crossing and say: I give thanks for this meditation. May it nourish and illuminate my life. May there be peace throughout the world.

*11x breathe in through nose, counting to 8; hold, counting to 8; out through mouth, counting to 8, hold, counting to 8.

TOWARDS AN INTEGRATION?

I contemplate an image is from R. J. Stewart’s The Merlin Tarot (1). It is the Ace of Beasts, the Earth suit. I sense it guiding me to a new phase of my inquiry, I hope a phase of integration. The stag has reached the point of stillness. There is nowhere to run, and no longer any need for running. Between his antlers sits a black mirror, showing the four powers of Life, Light, Love and Law unified by a central fifth. Here, it is the magical implement of the Earth element, an alternative to the shield or pentacle.

Stewart says of this image: “its deep power is that of Law and Wisdom, the Mystery of Night and Winter. Thus it can indicate a force or restriction that leads to liberation …. the Wisdom of endings that bring beginnings”. For the next phase of my formal inquiry practice, I will work through the programme of R. J. Stewart’s The Miracle Tree (2). I am already familiar with it, but I can drop into a beginner’s mind readily enough. The novelty is in being focused and systematic, as I was over the years of my training in OBOD (3), but here with a more closely defined and demarcated programme.

Why this? And why now? The Miracle Tree is based on the Western Way Qabalah, and its version of the Qabalistic crossing practice runs: “In the Name of the Star Father (right hand over forehead) Deep Mother (genitals) True Taker (right shoulder) Great Giver (left shoulder) We are One Being of Light (circle right and downwards from top of forehead to genitals, completing left and upwards to back of forehead)”. I like its integrative quality, and its way of presenting a non-dualist perspective – especially the use of ‘We’ in a statement affirming ‘One Being of Light’. It does not use the Absolute to crush the human and natural. It acknowledges the diversity held in ultimate unity, and embraces multiple forms and dimensions of Being. The Cosmic Tree shelters all, whilst not being separate from any.

Stewart says of this system: “the idea of relationship holds good for all world views and models. It is not so much a matter of their accuracy, for their accuracy is relative and ephemeral, but of their value to us as models of relationship to, and participation within, the greater world of which our human world is a small part”. The way to test the value of the model is experiential, and this is what I will do. For me, contemplative inquiry involves a surrender to, and immersion in, the work, whilst retaining a capacity to track and appreciate its effects. I do not expect this cycle to negate what has gone before but, rather, to complete it. Where appropriate, I will discuss this in the blog from time to time.

(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 Gray)

(2) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books,2003

(3) Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids – https://www.druidry.org/

INQUIRY, IDENTITY AND COMMUNITY

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.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/6/14/tree-mandala-oak and https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man

DION FORTUNE: THE SEA PRIESTESS

I like to attune myself, imaginally, to significant moments in time, place and culture. I have always done this but I now think of it as an aspect of my Druidry. I have become more conscious about it.

Here I am contemplating an alignment of 1930’s Britain, Brean Down on the North Somerset coast (Bell Head in the book), and the occultist Dion Fortune. I am especially thinking of her determination to “bring back into modern life something that has been lost and forgotten and that is badly needed”. Rather than being a review of her book The Sea Priestess (1), this post is a reflection on spiritual ancestry, and an acknowledgement of her project’s success. As the publisher of the 2003 edition happily notes, “The Sea Priestess is a classic occult teaching novel with romantic overtones, and a foundation work for modern Wicca, paganism, and ritual magic”.

Gareth Knight outlines the main theme in his foreword to the 2003 edition. “The story concerns a high initiate, Vivien Le Fay Morgan – or Morgan Le Fay as she comes to be called – who is about to undertake a major work of sea and moon magic for which purpose she needs to find a suitable location upon which to build a temple complete with living accommodation. At the same time she needs to find a man suitable to train as her assistant in the magical work. With commendable economy of means, she kills two birds with one stone by selecting a local real estate agent, Wilfred Maxwell, who has the necessary professional contacts to find a location, together with sufficient skills to help her refurbish and redecorate it appropriately. He also has the temperament and personal circumstances that can make him a capable, if unlikely, magical apprentice.”

Wilfrid and Morgan get to know each other at weekends where he is busy turning an old army fort at the point of Bell Head, named Bell Knowle, into Morgan’s temple. They become close. But Morgan’s purpose is not personal. Working under the aegis of the Priest of the Moon, a discarnate being, she seeks to connect herself to “the ultimate spiritual source, known to Qabalists as the Great Unmanifest, the formless power behind the fount of creation itself. This in turn relates to the great zodiacal tides of the precession of the equinox, whereby in the coming Age of the Aquarius the old gods will be coming back, after another manner. Her own part in this is to make the way clear for the realization of the divine feminine as part of the cult of the Great Goddess, who, as our Lady Isis, comprises all goddesses – of the corn, of the dead, of the sea, of the moon”.

Morgan needs Wilfrid’s help in performing a ritual that depends on an exchange of sexual energy without involving physical sex. He needs to be in love with her, or at least infatuated, for the ritual to work. But there is to be no relationship thereafter. Morgan is completely honest about this with Wilfrid, but he finds it too difficult to take in. After the ritual, and the great storm and destruction of the temple that follows, Morgan disappears. Wilfrid is left with a brief letter re-emphasising that there is to be no further contact between them. There is no forwarding address. Wilfrid falls to pieces.

But this is not the end. Morgan has scrupulously adhered to an ethic of reciprocity in work of this kind. She has subtly nudged events so that he makes a connection with a young woman – his secretary at the estate agency – and they marry. There are pragmatic reasons for this too. Molly needs to escape from a violent and chaotic step father. Wilfrid (now aged 36) needs to stop living with his mother and older sister; he also needs to sort out his post-ritual depression and alcohol problems. Marriage as a solution is enabled by Wilfrid’s domestic neediness and Molly’s compulsive care-giving, shaky emotional foundations for a life-partnership. Morgan’s contribution is to lay the ground work for greater possibilities. She has already arranged to leave her magically imbued sapphires for Wilfrid’s wife to be.

After their marriage, the newly weds move out of town to Bell Head, where Morgan’s caretakers had kept a small farm. Morgan’s temple is ruined, but they inherit her books and magical working records. These influences inspire Molly to start “talking to the moon”. She begins to take on her own priestess role. Wilfrid recollects: “it was all different here from the fort, and yet it was taking on a life of its own. There was more of earth and less of the sea than out on the point, just as there was more of earth in Molly than in Morgan; yet it was cosmic earth, and I remember that the Great Goddess ruled both moon and earth and sea. Molly would never be a Sea Priestess, like Morgan, but there was awaking in her something of the primordial woman, and it was beginning to answer to the need in me.”

At the end of the book, on a midsummer’s night, the couple light a fire of cedar, sandalwood and juniper. Such a fire is known as a Fire of Azrael, first prepared by Wilfrid when working with Morgan. It enables trance states and communication with the ‘inner planes’, especially if blended with moonlight. Molly receives an extended transmission from the Priest of Moon, and her subtle sexual energies are enlivened. For “the Astral plane is ruled by the moon and the woman is her priestess; and when she comes in her ancient right, representing the moon, the moon-power is hers and she can fertilise the male with vitalising magnetic force”. Molly initiates the consummation of the couple’s magical relationship. They have now received the touch of Isis and the gates of the inner life are open.

I experience The Sea Priestess now, on the third of three readings separated by many years, as a voice from long ago. In some ways it isn’t. My parents were born within a few years of the fictional Molly, and had nowhere near this sense of gender, sexuality or spirituality, let alone magic. I suppose my own sense of temporal distance is partly due to the dynamic evolution of her influence, and that of others like her, in successive generations – not least in the thirty years since I first read The Sea Priestess. If she now seems old-fashioned, it is a back-handed tribute to the creative power she helped to unleash. Before we think of her being old-fashioned even today, we have to ask ourselves: compared to whom?

(1) Dion Fortune The Sea Priestess Boston, MA & York Beach, ME: Weiser, 2003 (Copyright 1935 Society of the Inner Light)

BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE

The Greatest Achievement in Life is a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012. Author R. D. Krumpos looks at five traditions of mysticism, in which mysticism is understood as a direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God. Mystics are described as people whose religion and life are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos himself speaks of finding that “preeminent Reality is the holy One in All and All in the wholly One”.

The five mystical traditions examined are those embedded within Hinduism (e.g. Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (e.g. Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (e.g. Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (e.g. Sufism). I imagine that many people reading this blog will be working outside these traditions. But I recommend the book to anyone with a serious interest in mysticism, however you define it, given that the influence of these traditions is pervasive to the point where it can be virtually unconscious. As a person on a modern Druid path committed to inquiry and with a leaning towards mysticism, I have found Krumpos’ work very helpful in reminding myself of what the ‘five traditions’ are pointing to.

The book is brief and divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approached to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short chapters, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. Krumpos draws heavily on the words of well-known mystics themselves, as well as offering his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.

The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.

For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.

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.

MEDITATION: WISDOM’S HOUSE

The Wisdom’s House meditation descends from an earlier ‘Temple of Sophia’ practice (1). It owes something to the ‘art of memory’ of the ancient Greeks, a system of impressing places and images on the mind. The art of memory flourished again in the European Renaissance period, and late practitioners included Giordano Bruno and the English alchemist Robert Fludd (2). This post provides both an introduction and the full text of the meditation.

Many of the visualised images have a strong archetypal resonance, but I do not now look to them for dramatic experiences or insights. They are a familiar Innerworld landscape whose influence grows quietly over time.

I enjoy this meditation. It has a strong aesthetic and cultural dimension, valuing time and memory. It is an affirmation of belonging within modern Druidry, and an individual expression of what how my location in this tradition works for me. At the same time, it points to a more universal and perennial wisdom tradition. My current version has a clearer tilt towards the evening of my days than do earlier ones. As in the older versions, Wisdom is omnipresent, but She does not appear as a person within the meditation. The image above is from R. J. Stewart’s Dreampower Tarot. (3)

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/03/temple-of-sophia/

(2) Frances A. Yates The Art of Memory London: Pimlico, 1966

(3) T. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn

TEXT OF THE MEDITATION

Closing my eyes, I check out my body and sensations, and I let go of potentially distracting feelings and thoughts. I take 9 Awen breaths, and open myself to the images of the Wisdom’s House meditation. They generally appear as a sequence, but not as a fully connected narrative. I may follow the sequence, or I may linger on particular images – allowing them to change and develop beyond the script.

I find myself on a lake shore, looking westwards, out over the water to a wooded island in the lake, where Wisdom’s House is found.

I walk down to a small beach where a blue rowing boat is waiting to ferry me across. The rower is a person of indeterminate gender, robed, hooded and wearing a mask, somewhat in the manner of Greek and Japanese classical theatre. On seeing them, I bow. They bow in return, doffing their mask, and revealing the emptiness behind it.

I am in the boat, being rowed towards the lake. I notice light on the water, and the descent of the sun. The island is getting closer.

On reaching the western shore, I thank the rower before turning my attention to a cliff path, which is stepped, quite steeply, in certain places. Its base is marked by two carved stones. The one on the left shows Pictish dancing seahorses and the concealed image of Modron; the one on the right shows the Tree of Life, as a trees, with a serpent coiled around the bottom of the trunk, and a dove perched high in the canopy.

At the top of the hill, I am walking, east to west, through woods and then pasture, until I reach a gateway in a wall, behind which are the grounds of Wisdom’s House.

Entering the gate, I walk through a fine orchard before reaching the House itself, which has some church-like characteristics. It is a domed stone building. The main body is round, though arms are extended in each of the 4 cardinal directions to create an equal armed cross. These extensions do not run out very far – only enough for a porch, a modest side chapel, and room for covered flights of steps.

I enter the House through the porch that comprises the eastern wing. I look across the interior to the western wing, somewhat like a small chapel. Its most striking feature is a rose window with clear, though slightly pink-tinted, stained-glass. It is designed to catch the sunset. A little way in front of it is an altar whose white cloth is embroidered with a golden gnostic cross and strewn with white and red rose petals. At the centre stands a chalice, white candles on either side. Looking around me I see steps spiralling downwards to a crypt, right (northern extension) and steps spiralling upwards to an upper room, left (southern extension).

The interior is lit by chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well as natural light from clear glass windows. On the floor is a large mosaic given definition by the golden outline of a circle, crossed at the cardinal points by golden lines which merge at the centre within a fully golden circle, which includes 3 white seed pearls in a triangular cluster at the centre.

Just outside the outer circle, around the wheel of the year, are depictions of 16 trees: yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west; hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west.

Moving into the main circle, I find images of the elemental powers associated with the four directions: north, a white hart; east, an eagle with wings outstretched; south, a red dragon; west, a leaping salmon. At the golden centre of the circle, the cluster of three white pearls recollects the three drops of inspiration distilled from Ceridwen’s cauldron and the visionary power of Awen. There are also other trinities – the triple goddess; the Christian trinity; the divine mother, father and child; the 3 triads of Kabbalah together and separately, or the singularity of Tao becoming the two, three and 10,000 things.

Spiralling out of the circle, and exiting north, I descend into the crypt. Here I find an empty sarcophagus dimly lit by candles. Two or three steps below the sarcophagus is a small, warm pool, lit by night lights – a ‘birthing pool’, perchance a re-birthing pool. A dancing seahorses/Modron image is painted on the ceiling. I can spend time lying within the sarcophagus, contemplating change, death and dissolution. I can also move on to the birthing pool, immerse myself in it, and taste the experience there.

Leaving the crypt and moving across the house, I climb the steps to the upper room, which has a meditation chair at its centre, with a chalice, or grail, on a small table in front of it. A field of stars, white against an indigo, is painted on the ceiling; otherwise the room is plain. I centre myself on the chair and drink from the chalice.

I find myself in a garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. It is noon and mid-summer. I can hear birdsong, and feel the warmth of the sun at my back.

My attention is drawn into the fountain until I experience myself as part of it. Propelled to the top, I fly as a single drop into the air, shot through with sunlight, as I begin my descent, which feels slow and gentle, into the pool below.

On coming back from the vision of the garden and the fountain, I sit and rest for a while, in the upper room. Eventually I leave the upper room and go down to the ground floor of the House. I walk to the south point of the circle and from there move, spiralling, into the centre. I face the altar at the west, bowing and giving thanks before I leave the House through the porch on my eastward return.

Finding myself in a dim pre-dawn light, and facing towards its source, I return to the lakeside and take the ferry back to the mainland.

MERLIN’S TRANSFORMATION

The hermit card from The Merlin Tarot (1,2) shows a traditional image of the contemplative. The accompanying narrative points to evolution beyond the life of this world, whilst still in service to it. Stories of this kind characterise many spiritual paths. This one is Druid friendly, alive in my heart and imagination. Here, I want both to pay homage to heritage and to note a personal divergence.

Merlin has reached the top of the mountain, the austere end of his ascending path. All that remains is to bid the outer world farewell, “not as an inspired youth or madman seeking nature, but in full understanding”. The understanding is that of the Great Mother herself, typified by simplicity, clarity, and a will to withdraw from manifest existence. This is the moment to relinquish the earthly plane. A simple leap will do it. But Merlin’s destiny is not to abandon the world. In a greening of Mahayana Buddhism’s bodhisattva concept, Merlin, discarnate, will continue to serve the Goddess and the land.

Even as hermit, in this frozen moment on the cusp of anticipated transformation, Merlin is not quite alone. The seer is steadied by his staff, a branch from the tree of life itself. A wren, sacred bird of kingship and blessed of the Great Mother, has companioned and witnessed him throughout his journey. Soon it will be free to return to the green safety of its beloved low hedges. Merlin contemplates a crystal lamp – crystal being the underworld’s mineral equivalent of light. Caught inside the lamp, two primal dragons, dynamic yin and yang energies, underworld born, are held in a static balance that is described as “perfect”. A heretical thought arises: is the candidate for transformation, at the very last moment, questioning the ‘perfection’ of this absolute, frozen, stillness? What price the infinite?

In The Merlin Tarot, this is the last we see of Merlin. But for us, there is the path of descent, right down to its completion in an image of embodied realisation. The Tarot trump following that of the hermit Merlin, and complementary to him, is the Innocent, a young Sophian wisdom figure. Linking with the active energy of a Star Father who seeds the cosmos, she initiates pathways of giving and sharing on the descent, so that the earth itself may be changed.

R. J. Stewart is in a line of Western Mysteries teachers including Dion Fortune, Israel Regardie and W. C. Gray. In this tradition, discarnate beings linked to a cosmic hierarchy and dwelling on other, more spiritual planes, are real. They are not metaphors, aspects of the human psyche, or opportunities to think with stories. R. J. Stewart is clear about this, and I have always had to take respectful note of this view whilst not committed to sharing it. But I am moved and inspired by stories. On the contemplative path, the rational mind has at best an ancillary role. It doesn’t do well by itself. One option is to move into stillness and silence, and sometimes I do that. Another is to engage the heart and imagination, which are fed and watered by stories, their resonance, and their play intrapsychic relationships. The story told in The Merlin Tarot has nourished me for a long time, and continues to do so, in ways that satisfy me, without my wanting to be him.

(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.

MERLIN AND THE MIRACLE TREE

This is the last post in a series offering an overview of R. J. Stewart’s Merlin-related work. The Complete Merlin Tarot  (1) in the picture is the companion book to The Merlin Tarot (2). Together I find them a good way to engage with the images that Stewart derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s introduction of Merlin to twelfth century readers. For me it is an example of what Joseph Campbell (3) calls ‘creative mythology’, a feature of Western European culture from Geoffrey’s time onward. Creative mythology drew on traditional Celtic and Germanic stories, the classical inheritance of Greece and Rome, and elements from Gnosticism and Islam. It gave imaginative depth and freedom in an era of constraining religious formalism.

Geoffrey, specifically, made wide use of classical and British Celtic sources. In The Life of Merlin (4) both the wild man of the woods section and the contemplative observatory section point to something beyond the conventional spirituality of the day. Its cultural frame of reference is broader – the observatory motif points back to Stonehenge and east to the proto-modern observatories in Damascus and Baghdad.

In The Merlin Tarot, R. J. Stewart places Merlin imagery within a Kabbalist Tree of Life framework. His commitment to the Tree goes beyond simple observance of the Tarot’s structural conventions. Stewart affirms that Kabbalah essentially means “whispered wisdom, mouth to ear” (5). He talks of three streams of Kabbalah, Jewish, Sufi and Western. All, he suggests, predate the Abrahamic orthodoxies of the Middle East and Europe, whilst being influenced by them. Ultimately, the Tree of Life is “not a set of symbols, not a system of meditation and vision … not even a tradition … we are already the Tree of Life”. It is a Tree of Life, not a Tree of Literature, a Miracle Tree that can change us “from a false and imbalanced state to our real and eternal Being”.

From an historical, record examining perspective, Kabbalists became visible in the urban Jewish communities of Languedoc, in South Western France (6), also during the twelfth century of Campbell’s creative mythology. Indeed, other Jewish scholars and mystics frowned on their eclecticism. Languedoc’s vibrant culture included the then flourishing Gnostic Cathars and was the heartland of the widely travelling troubadours. This was the day of the crusader kingdom in Jerusalem, and the partial adoption of local lifestyles by its own permanent military residents – next door to an Islamic world which tolerated religious minorities. It is a moment in the domains of the Latin Church, not destined to last, that was friendly to new ways of thinking and feeling. For me, there are sufficient cultural resonances  here to make a Kabbalistic framework for the Merlin Tarot images feel both appropriate and celebratory.

The tree is imprinted imaginatively within my body. I use now it in subtle healing and light energy work – choosing it over other systems like the three cauldrons of poesy or the chakras of kundalini yoga. The major trumps are likewise imprinted and related to the pathways between sephira. They will always be part of my spiritual story, thanks to an early, intense relationship with the deck and the understandings behind it. As part of my current consolidation, I have begun to use The Merlin Tarot again within my contemplative work, given its place in my history and its for me enabling association with creative mythology.

(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.

(3) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God 4: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (Original U.S. edition published in 1968)

(4) R. J. Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

(5) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books 2003

(6) Gershom Scholem Origins of the Kabbalah The Jewish Publication Society & Princeton University Press, 1987 (edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky; translated from the German by Allan Arkush. Original German publication Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1962)

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