contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: neo-Paganism

BOOK REVIEW: SEEK TEACHINGS EVERYWHERE

This post is about Philip Carr-Gomm’s Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the specific topic and/or the development of modern spiritual movements more generally.

Elegantly and accessibly presented, the book testifies both to a personal journey and a key role in developing modern British Druidry. Both the journey and the role are an interweaving of Pagan and Universalist threads. PCG’s approach has been to adopt Druidry as a ‘meta-path’, one able “to transcend religious distinctions”, and allowing of involvement in other paths as well. The Jain path, shared with his Druid mentor Ross Nichols, is the one given the greatest individual attention in the book, in a long section on Druidry and Dharmic traditions. This section touches also on other Indian derived movements and practices (Buddhism, Yoga Nidra) and speculates on ancient cultural and linguistic resonances between early Indian traditions and early European Druidry. PCG dedicates other sections of the book to Christianity and Wicca, with suggestions about how they too can harmonise with Druidry.

This overall approach is reflected in the lived culture of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), which PGC has led for thirty years. He is now in a process of stepping down from the role, and so the book is a timely account of both vision and legacy. He says: “each spiritual way has gifts to offer, and some people find in Druidry all the spiritual nourishment they need. Others combine their Druidry with other approaches, such as Wicca, Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism”. OBOD’s ancestry as a movement derives from Celtic and Western Way currents within early twentieth century theosophy. The Order remains true to that heritage – as evidenced by a website that actively describes synergies with other paths and provides links to them – see www.druidry.org/ .

My personal takeaway from the book concerns PCG’s substantial presentation of Jain ethics, grounded in three key principles: ahimsa, aparigraha and anekant, here described as the Triple A. PCG explains: “Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence, made famous by Gandhi, and espoused by the other Dharmic traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism”. Aparigraha, the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition, likewise appears in these other schools. Anekant, a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness, is unique to The Jains. The three principles can be seen as completing each other – with many-sidedness an aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and so on.

PCG recommends these principles for our time. They inform his own vision of Druidry. “We know that the world suffers from too much conflict, too much fundamentalism, and too much consumption. This suffering can be alleviated by applying the Triple A doctrines: seeking non-violent solutions, respecting and learning from others’ opinions and beliefs, and reducing consumption to sustainable levels”. In the Jain tradition, such an approach to life is supported by practices of ritual and meditation that work towards the release of negative attachments. PCG recommends versions of these as well.

Part of the beauty of this book is that different readers will find different reasons to take note and learn from it. I have found it valuable both as an authoritative record of a current in modern Druidry, and as a personal inspiration.

Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

In his Reclaiming Civilization (1), modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers asks three questions: What is civilization? What is wrong with it? What should we do about it? As part of his work with the third question, he looks at ethics. He starts with the proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good. This proposition may seem simple and obvious, yet it has not been a reliable quality of ‘civilization’ as we know and have known it.

Myers goes on to describe virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a flourishing happy life, we need to install ways of understanding, responding to, and acting in the world that will tend to support it. These are the virtues. Through the process of identifying and working with virtues, we reach towards the person we want to be and the world we want to live in. Myers implies a necessary inner work, when he speaks of “the possibility of a greater depth of life-experience that can appear when I am willing to let go of my illusions, willing to risk harm and despair, in pursuit of a more honest relationship with reality” He then presents his own list, offering his virtues as ways of responding to three ‘immensities’: earth, interpersonal otherness, and solitude/death.

For earth, the virtues are “those ways of being in the world that enable you to look upon the earth, in all its beauty and danger yet feel no need to own it all, nor to destroy it … but to explore it, play with it, know it. Myers recommends “virtues of wonder: including imagination, creativity, open-mindedness, aesthetic taste, and curiosity”. He adds that this does not preclude practices such as farming but does call for them to be “conducted in careful (as in full-of-care), sustainable and co-operative ways”.

For interpersonal otherness, the virtues are “those ways of being that enable you to look upon your neighbor, however strange or different she may be, and feel no need to make her conform to your demands, nor a need to send her away (such as, to her death) … the virtues … enable you to see another earth, in a manner of speaking … your neighbor’s eyes are another way of looking upon the earth … you have another way of exploring it”. Here, Myers recommends “virtues of humanity” – care, courage, friendship, generosity and the “Seven Grandfathers of Wisdom, Truth, Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Love and Respect”.

For “the immensity of solitude, and of death”, the virtues are qualities that contradict any need to avoid solitude and death at “any cost, however destructive to yourself and others”. These, for Myers, are “virtues of integrity: including reason, consistency, dignity, Socratic wisdom, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness, mercy, the will to establish a legacy, and the will to let go”.

When I reviewed Reclaiming Civilization last year (2) I knew that I would want to return to it and examine its ethical approach more closely. What I like about this approach is that it avoids both a ‘follow your bliss’ vagueness and a rigid prescriptive system. It fits very well with my sense of a Sophian Way. It suggests principles and a method and then challenges us to develop our own list. Here, we have an ethics that asks for close attention, questioning and (I would suggest) a continuous work of understanding our chosen ‘virtues’ and checking them out in practice. For me, the notion of a flourishing life for ourselves and others has to extend to the biosphere. A purely human approach no longer serves even we humans ourselves. I also like an approach that (without being partisan) has political implications. It is not just an ethics for private life. Myers provides a tool for living the ‘good life’, and perhaps, identifying possible contributions to reclaiming (and re-framing) ‘civilization’ – the central theme of Myers’ book and the context for his ethical discussion.

(1) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(2)  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-recl…ing-civilization/ ‎

 

 

SOPHIA SOURCE OF WISDOM

“The Holy Spirit of Wisdom as the guiding archetype of human evolution is one of the great images of universality. Transcending the limitations of any one religious belief, it is an image that embraces all human experience, inspiring trust in the capacity of the soul to find its way back to the source.  … To discover the root of the idea of Wisdom we have to go back once again to the Neolithic era, when the goddess was the image of the Whole, when life emerged from and was returned to her, and she was conceived as the door or gateway to a hidden dimension of being that was her womb, the eternal source and regenerator of life … the idea of Wisdom was always related in the pre-Christian world to the image of the goddess; Nammu and Inanna in Sumeria, Maat and Isis in Egypt, and Athena and Demeter in Greece. Even the passages in the Old Testament that describe Hokhmah, the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, powerfully evoke her lost image, though here the image is dissociated from the world.

“But as we move into the Christian era there is a profound shift in archetypal imagery as Wisdom becomes associated with Christ as Logos, the Word of God, and the whole relationship between Wisdom and the Goddess is lost. Now, the archetypal feminine is finally deleted from the divine, and the Christian image of the deity as a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes wholly identified with the masculine archetype. … This theological development effectively erased the ancient relationship between Wisdom and the image of the goddess. Gnostic Christianity, however, retained the older tradition and the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom survived. Here she was the Great Mother, the consort and counterpart of the God head. When the Gnostic sects were repressed by the edicts of the Emperor Constantine in AD 326 and 333, the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom was again lost. However, after an interlude of several hundred years, it reappeared in the Middle Ages, in the great surge of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the pilgrimages to the shrines of the Black Virgin … then, in the sudden manifestation of the Order of the Knights Templar, the Grail legends, alchemy, the troubadours and the Cathar Church of the Holy Spirit, Sophia, or Sapientia, as the image of Wisdom, became the inspiration, guide and goal of a spiritual quest of overwhelming numinosity.” (1)

I am committed to a Sophian Way. My view and practice are largely settled. I have worked, studied and sometimes simply surrendered over a long period, exploring methods and movements and gaining insights from them. That phase is done. On several occasions now, the phrase ‘it’s over’ has flashed into my mind, imprinting itself with the force of command. A quest is fulfilled. I know how best to maintain (to use my own language) a sense of At-Homeness, a living ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ interconnectedness with the Divine. With this, my contemplative inquiry has reached the high-water mark of ‘contemplative’. It is therefore set to become a contemplation-and-action inquiry, in which I will, among other things, look at my understanding of ‘action’ at this time in my life.

One concern, given this confirmation of personal path, is the question of affiliation, and of social identity in the spiritual domain. How do I place myself in culture and community? Merely to name a ‘Sophian Way’ is an invocation of sorts, yet I am neither a Christian nor a Gnostic in the sense of the old movements. My valuing of a wisdom text like the Gospel of Thomas is on a par with my valuation of texts from other traditions – the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, the Tao Te Ching, or Rumi’s poetry. I don’t have a category called ‘scripture’. I value the concept of gnosis, especially as defined by Baring and Cashford: “knowledge in the sense of insight or understanding, which requires participation not merely of the intellect but of the whole being. It is knowledge discovered with the intuition – the eye of the heart – which has no need of the intermediary of a priesthood”. But people in many spiritual movements would stand by this definition, and I have limited resonance with the specific frameworks of the ancient and medieval movements that we call Gnostic.

I have talked recently about being ‘spiritual but not religious’, but this now feels somehow weak and lacking in content. My sense is that both words have lost precise definition in the English language. Thinking of my commitment, and conscious of the Baring and Cashford passage above, I feel Pagan, and still held within modern Paganism. Baring and Cashford describe a twelfth century image of Mary in her Sophia aspect at an Oxfordshire church. It is in a Christian setting but for me works most powerfully with a Pagan understanding. She is “seated on a lion throne, as were all the goddesses before her. The divine child is held on her lap and her right hand holds the root of the flower, which blossoms as the lily, disclosing that she is the root of all things. The dove, for so many thousand years the principal emblem of the goddess, rests on the lily, and a stylized meander frames the right-hand side of the scene. All these images relate the medieval figure of Sophia to the older images of the goddess, which reach back into the Neolithic past. But in her the goddess is given a specific emphasis, which offers an image of wisdom as the highest quality of the soul, and suggests that, evolving from root to flower, the soul can ultimately blossom as the lily and, understanding all things, soar like a bird between the dimensions of earth and heaven. Nor is this Christian image unrelated to that of the shaman lying in trance in the cave of Lascaux, for there, also, the bird mask he wears and the bird resting on his staff symbolize the flight his flight into another dimension of consciousness”.

From about the twelfth century, people in the West have increasingly made themselves creators of their own mythology (2), at an increasing rate. As a modern Pagan I know this and respond to the challenge. As a modern Pagan I can honour the tree of life, which is also the tree of knowledge, one tree, the Goddess’s tree, from root to crown. I can be At Home.

(1) Anne Baring & Jules Cashford Sophia, Mother, Daughter and Bride, Chapter 15 in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London” Arkana Penguin Books, 1993

(1) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (First edition published 1968 in New York by the Viking Press. Creative Mythology is fourth in a series of The Mask of God)

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition
  • May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others
  • May I experience abundance in simplicity
  • May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

Publication date 25 August 2017. Highly recommended. Contemporary Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers offers a nuanced and reflective discussion of civilization, its evident dysfunction, and how to respond. Overall, he takes the view that: “civilization is not an unambiguously good thing. The ‘shining city on a hill’ is a mirage. It lessens the suffering of one group by entrenching the suffering of others; and it promises things to the protected and privileged that it can never entirely deliver. Nevertheless, civilization may yet be a salvageable enterprise”.

Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity is a study of the sacred, from a socio-political perspective. The book is presented musically, with an overture leading on to three movements punctuated by interludes. The overture – a ‘meditation upon a lake’ begins with a personal question: ‘why should I return to the city?’ given that this entails going back to debts, responsibilities and ‘absurdities’.

These absurdities go well beyond the personal level. they include: modern working and consumerist lifestyles; rampant economic inequalities; double-speak in politics and religion; a pervasive sense of alienation and division; war and the effects of war; and the accelerating effects of climate change. So Myers’s first, personal, question leads on to three other, general ones: what is civilization? what’s wrong with civilization? What, if anything, should be done for civilization? These questions are explored in the three movements that follow.

To answer the first, Myers looks at human innovations like fixed houses, settled farming and the domestication of animals, and the subsequent appearance of cities and their walls – designed to keep some people out and other people in. He suggests that ‘civilization’ has been a long experiment by which we resolve what it means to be human “not by discovery, but by invention”. Civilized people are those whose qualities are their civilization’s virtues. Myers calls civilization humanity’s ‘most metaphysical project’ – humanity ‘realizing itself’ (for some people) by living up to a ‘civilized’ ideal.

The second, ‘what’s wrong’, question identifies the intensification of social hierarchy and domination with increasing economic surplus overall. Myers discusses the accompanying ideology in terms of “illusions which exalt us” (i.e. those of us who are ‘winners’). These include: the permanent self; notions of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ men and of the virtuous prince; the devious enemy; the self-made man; a human birthright of dominion over the earth. In part, such illusions enable exploitation with an easy conscience. More deeply, they help to fend off nihilism and despair – themselves not an “existential condition of human life” but “a feature of reason and rationality”. There has been something essentially distressed about civilization as a project. Its distortions aren’t just accidents or mistakes.

Myers’ response to the third question (‘what should be done’) makes political suggestions, supported by the author’s ethical lens. Virtue ethics is the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a fulfilling and happy life, according to Myers, we need to install ways of being in the world that support this aim: these are the virtues. For Myers, we develop virtues in the face of existential ‘immensities’. Awakening to the earth, we respond with the virtues of wonder – and take a stance of open-mindedness, curiosity and creativity. Awakening to people and relationship, we respond with humanity – with care, courage, respect and generosity. Awakening to solitude and the certainty of death, we respond with integrity – reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

Myers is encouraged by what he calls four lamps:

  1. Human nature is malleable – so culture and society can and do change.
  2. Empathy, co-operation and compassion are among the qualities that are embedded in our species and have helped to build civilization so far.
  3. Casting away illusions is hard, yet on the other side of despair lies a greater depth and life.
  4. We are already doing most of the things we need to do.

Reclaiming Civilization is a valuable addition to our literature. If the above account has stimulated any interest in the questions, I recommend getting the book. The issues are more fully explored, and Myers also shares something of his personal journey, especially in the Interludes.

Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: PAGAN PLANET

jhp55ddc04c930d1“For this reason I am doing what I do, working towards …. the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”. Simon Wakefield is a biologist, Druid and contributor to Pagan Planet: Being, Believing and Belonging in the 21st Century. He talks about the “most profound experience of my life” when observing a nesting sea turtle on a starlit Greek beach. “Putting aside all the requirements to measure and monitor I decided just to be present, and I opened up to an experience of deep time and an ancient longing by another creature simply to be, to express its uniqueness, which has never left me”.

For me, Simon has expressed a point of unity in this diverse collection of essays edited by Nimue Brown and published by Moon Books. The authors come from a variety of Pagan traditions, though with a tilt towards Druidry. Many stand witness to a growing movement of Pagan activism, where people find themselves involved in the demanding, draining and potentially perilous work of resistance, protection and defence. The value of Simon’s words (which he attributes originally to Charles Eisenstein) is to keep an eye on the prize: “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”. Beauty, of course, depends on our ability to perceive, name and cherish it. Reading the essays in Pagan Planet, I come away with a sense of this as a unifying Pagan commitment.

What moves me most, I think, is an overall sense of resilience and optimism – not so much an optimism of calculation as an optimism of the heart. In his piece about the foundation of PaganAid, Ian Chandler says: “I have heard people’s stories that make me cry, I have seen destruction that has brought me to my knees with despair. But I have also met people whose dedication against all odds fills me with awe. I have seen achievements that make me want to sing and dance in the street. Now is not the time for us to give up on the future – it is time for us to decide what we want and to make that future happen”. Edwina Hodkinson talks about the frontline herbalism of the Wild Sistas in anti-fracking protection camps. “We dispensed tinctures, teas, creams, cough syrups, health advice, general nurturing and lots of first aid. Protectors who had been injured from interaction with the police wanted treatment for badly bruised ribs and groins, sprained wrists, and grazes … people had great faith in what we did, compliance was good and the results of the herbs spectacular … I’ve come to believe that when we go out of our comfort zones and are prepared to make some kind of sacrifice for ourselves and the earth, the earth responds and works with us”. One of their successes was the ‘warrior drops’ created to deal with trauma, stress and anger on the front line. “Protectors said that these really made a difference in calming them down” and one said “it grounded him and reminded him why he was doing the protest”.

A number of the essays stand witness to the creative energy of Pagan vision and life practice at this moment in history. These include Lorna Smithers’ visionary evocation of Castle Hill, Penwortham, described as “a magical place, in spite of the damage”, whose “alternative story” has been passed on “by its spirits, by decree of the fay king”. Hearth Moon Rising says that “my vision for some time has been to ground modern witchcraft more completely and more concretely in the natural world, to create a deeper understanding of what it means to have an animistic practice”.  Other people are exploring roads less travelled, like Laura Perry in Walking the Modern Minoan Path or Calantirniel in Working with Tolkien, where part of the purpose is to integrate the “Christ energy” into a Pagan path. Irisanya from the Reclaiming tradition offers a piece on Lifestyle/Work/Relationships which is centred on overlapping considerations of gender and peer communication and the magic of knowing how to track the energy in a conversation, when to listen, when to speak up and how to be supportive of voices that are not being heard. There are a number of pieces about the family context, including supporting dependent elders and raising children. In The Teachings of Children, Romany Rivers reports that people ask her whether her spirituality affects her parenting; her view is that it’s the other way round – her parenting affects her spirituality. “I realised how one small person’s emotional state can impact an entire environment. I have learned more about Reiki from working with my children during times of pain and stress, peace and snuggles. I have discovered new reasons to meditate. I have reconnected with the power of imagination. I have found new creative expressions”. She concludes, “I believe that is my children who are Pagan, and it is they who raise me.”

There is much more. I’ve got a piece called Living Presence in a Field of Living Presence: Practicing Contemplative Druidry. I would certainly have thought of it as supporting “the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible” at the levels of perception, recognition and cherishing. But I didn’t think of it, and have only done so now as a result of reading the rest of this book: the value of community! Because of my involvement, I’m not going to review the book outside this blog or award points. I hope instead that I’ve been able to demonstrate something of its energy, diversity and commitment – and that the Modern Pagan movement from which it comes.

 

Nimue Brown (ed.) Pagan Planet: Being, Believing & Belonging in the 21st Century Moon Books, 2016

SOPHIA, GNOSTICISM AND CONTEMPLATION

When I wrote Contemplative Druidry I said that “in many ways this is a story of neo-Pagan sensibility and its growth since World War Two”. In addition to their Druidry, many of the book’s contributors reported involvement in Witchcraft and/or the indigenous Shamanism of other lands.

I also said in many cases this sensibility was modified by other influences, “most notably Buddhist philosophy and meditation, Christian mysticism and other Western Way paths with Gnostic and Hermetic traditions specifically mentioned”. I made the point that such influences are significant for contemplative practice, because to an extent they provide models. In the book I mostly focused on Buddhist influences, because they were the most common. I also paid  attention to the Christian ones, notably the Ceile De, Anglican mysticism in the tradition of Evelyn Underhill, and the partly Franciscan inspiration behind the (Druid and Pagan) Order of the Sacred Nemeton. I didn’t say much about other Western Way traditions, though I mentioned R. J. Stewart as a personal influence on me and also my training at the London Transpersonal Centre. This was essentially Jungian and thus based on a modern Gnostic psychology.

The key images from my last post, Sailing to Byzantium, were images of Sophia and the Holy Fool from The Byzantine Tarot. They made an intense and (in common sense terms) disproportionate impact on me. For they reminded me of my own Gnosticism, a current that qualifies and modifies my Druidry. I am talking about modern Gnosticism, “based in an affirmation of nature and the world and a positive relationship to embodiment, not the classical Gnosticism of world-denial or pure transcendentalism.  It is a gnosis based on bringing the world fully to life, while also enjoying the state of embodiment and sensual pleasure, without excess or obsessive appetite”*.  Thus far, I could be talking about modern Druidry without any need to look elsewhere.

But, to follow Irwin further, Gnosticism also talks of “visionary awakening” through the power of archetypal imagery. From such a perspective, affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul as “the primary ground of a living and animate nature”. This can inspire “states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience”. The key is the “animating vitality” of images, which can arouse “a cascade of energy and potential surpassing the image and leading into a more luminous condition of being and seeing”.

According to Irwin, the traditional fields for study and practice in Western Gnosticism are neo-Platonism, hermetics, alchemy, kabbalah, mystical theology, comparative theology and meditative disciplines: quite a curriculum. But the essence is quite simple. We are invited to work with Being as embodied (through exercise, body awareness and energy work), imaginal (connected to the mundus imaginalis, open to its power) and illuminated (through contemplative practice and insight).  Much of this is offered within Druidry – for example, to anyone who takes full advantage of the OBOD distance learning course. Yet for me, here and now, once again, it is the image and name of Sophia that gives me my orientation and guides me on my path. I’ll explain that resonance and consequences more fully in later posts. In practical terms, for now, I’ve made two small adjustments in my morning practice. One is to cast my circle specifically in the sacred grove of Sophia. The other is to begin sitting meditation, or contemplative communion, by saying “I open my heart to the Light of Sophia”. It doesn’t seem much, but it shifts my centre of gravity to a place where a feel more empowered and more at home.

  • Irwin, Lee Gnostic Tarot: Mandalas for Spiritual Transformation York Beach, ME, USA, 1998 (There is no pack of cards with this book. It’s a set of interpretations emphasising “spiritual transformation and illumined states of awareness”. The Universal Waite Deck and the Ravenswood Tarot Deck have been used as points of reference.)

BOOK REVIEW: STALKING THE GODDESS

jhp4ec2908d688eb_9781780991733_Stalking%20The%20Goddess_72Stalking the Goddess by Mark Carter was published by Moon Books in 2012 and is a critical examination of Robert Graves’ iconic The White Goddess. Carter has done a thorough job and I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject specifically, or in modern Druid and Pagan culture more widely.  He painstakingly examines Graves’ sources of inspiration, sources of information, working methods and conclusions. He also looks at the extraordinary impact of The White Goddess over the period since its publication in 1948, especially on the growing neo-pagan community – much of it surprising to Graves himself. Stalking the Goddess (a title I have to say I don’t much care for) is of course dependent on The White Goddess for its interest and very existence, so I find I can’t talk about the one without the other.

What was Graves doing in The White Goddess that mattered so much?

Firstly, he took up suggestions from 19th and earlier 20th century literature (The Golden Bough being the single major source) about a primal religion based on sacrificial kingship. He linked it to ideas of an early political matriarchy that pre-dated human knowledge of paternity and began to weaken thereafter. In bronze and iron age times, Graves saw Europe from Bulgaria to Ireland subject to struggles and migrations in which increasingly patriarchal warrior peoples put a steadily intensifying pressure on opponents who, whilst themselves less and less likely to have matriarchal political systems, nonetheless preserved conservative features like strong Goddess traditions, matrilineal succession, and a view of the feminine as representing sovereignty over the land.  He also followed writers like Charles Leland and Margaret Murray in understanding medieval witchcraft as an underground pagan tradition in conscious struggle with the fully Romanised Christian church as aggressively representative of a wholly comprehensive expression of patriarchy in both religion and politics.

Graves also suggested that, in Celtic lands, there was a second dissident group that survived well into the medieval period and indeed beyond.  These were the Bards, descendants of the Pagan Druids, preserving their secrets within often obscure poetry based on a little known or understood set of mythic references, and a magical system of writing, the ogham (itself with early origins in South East Europe). The ogham was not just a script, it was also a hand signalling system – and had its own set of magical correspondences, of which those with a group of sacred trees were the most potent.  The Bards as poets were in service to The White Goddess of the title. Graves believed that all true poets are in such service, whether they know it or not – citing more recent poets like Keats as an example. Graves placed himself in such a line, and used the inspired technique of ‘analeptic memory’ to extend his understanding when his sources didn’t give him all the answers he needed. He wanted to show that he was up with the relevant scholarship and that he could make a logical and evidence based case. But in the last analysis he wasn’t bound by these. He was (although he didn’t use this term) one of the awenydd, the inspired ones, not a philosopher or academic.

Carter’s contribution, in Stalking the Goddess, is the rigorous application to The White Goddess and some of Graves’ other work (for example The Greek Myths and King Jesus), of a critique which is itself now quite well known. Based on more recent (though not necessarily much more recent) scholarship than that available to Graves, it tells us that neither the approach of The Golden Bough, nor the view of matriarchy and its purported link to early Goddess worship, nor its overthrow, are supported by good evidence. Especially when dealing with pre-history (history before written records) modern scholars are tentative about what we can say that we know. There’s just not enough there for a powerful unifying story, partly at least because the evidence basis just isn’t suited to providing such a story, and partly perhaps because the actual stories may be much more diverse. In the case of medieval witchcraft, the available records concerning victims don’t fit the profile of Pagan Goddess devotees. In the case of Celtic Bards, the evidence shows ogham as an exclusively Irish writing system, created for the carving of simple messages, in use for a fairly short period in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. It may be that it was used, in a spirit of self-conscious antiquarianism, as a largely mnemonic device for the Bards of later centuries.  In terms of Graves’ reading of key works in the Welsh tradition – the Hanes Taliesin and Cad Goddeu in particular – Carter suggests that Graves “bent them to support his views”.

I am sure that this critique is essentially correct, simply because it is based on better information than the alternatives and argued plainly. I can’t of course vouch for every detail because I haven’t done any individual work. But I do have to recognise that Graves’ own approach involves a considerable element of dogmatic intuitionism and interpretative high-handedness. For me, in a context of advocacy, the latter characteristics weaken a case rather than strengthening it.

And yet … true criticality like this, using effective and ethical working methods, is its own kind of homage. Stalking the Goddess will not, and should not, demolish The White Goddess. It will help to keep it alive and rightly so.  When T.S. Eliot decided to accept The White Goddess for publication by Faber & Faber after several rejections from other publishers, he described it as “a prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book”. Yet he published it all the same. I for one am glad that he did. With that health warning from the original Faber catalogue, alerted to not taking The White Goddess entirely on its own terms, I am free to let it into my spiritual imagination. I can walk to my favourite spot at Woodchester (the old churchyard). I can stand in the avenue of yews, knowing that most of the ogham trees are in easy distance, and that Orpheus lies underground nearby, in the form of an early fourth century Romano-British mosaic. It was custom made for the villa on that site by a specialist mosaic workshop in Cirencester (Corinium) notable for its work on Orphic themes. Orpheus was from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace (once thought of as ‘Mount Haemus’). Graves thought that the ogham first came from Thrace, believing Orpheus’ dance of trees to be a “dance of letters”.  So here, now and in Woodchester is the lyricist who could charm animals, cause trees to circle dance, animate a new ship for a deep sea voyage, descend to the underworld and return, be torn to pieces by maenads and continue on as a talking head, uttering prophecies for Apollo. Rich themes for Romano-British people, perhaps also seeing resonances with their own native stories. Inspired and inspiring myth can survive any attempt to explain it, explain it away, or package it in overdetermined forms.

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY: BOOK REVIEW BY MARIA EDE-WEAVING

I like the way in which the reviewer takes the discussion forward whilst also saying nice things about my book!

ContemplativeDruidry copy

A review by Maria Ede-Weaving of  ‘Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential’ by James Nichol

Modern Druidry is an evolving spirituality; each of its practitioners is continually adding to the breadth and depth of this path through their experiences. What gives a spirituality its power is it practices and approaches, and these are far from static – they live and breathe, grow and change, as we do. For a path to flourish and mature, it requires that we engage, question and explore, remaining open to the possibilities of change whilst honouring the wisdom already shared. James Nichol’s Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential is a wonderful example of this process in action.

Nichols has gathered a group of Druids to discuss their experiences of contemplative practice. Fifteen Druids share their thoughts about both their solo and group encounters with contemplative meditation and how these have impacted upon their Druidry and wider lives.

The book is in three main sections: ‘People, Practice and Potential’ with contributors not only reflecting on what drew them to contemplative Druidry and how such is expressed in their spiritual practice, but also posing the question of how such approaches might manifest in the wider Druid community, should they be more readily explored.

It is clear from these accounts that sitting meditation is only one part of this approach; mindful walking, chanting, daily offices, communion with nature/the divine and creative activities also play a part in keeping contributors present and connected. There is a real sense that each – for want of an established Druid-based contemplative framework – has been quietly experimenting, acting as pioneers exploring their own frontiers in order to find what works.  In doing so, they have been planting the seeds of a tradition that could potentially flourish into a valid and inspiring area of Druidry, one that until now has been rather ignored. Many have taken their inspiration from other spiritualities such as Buddhism and Christianity, however, their practices have developed a flavour that is distinctly Druidic. It’s a fascinating read and interesting to see how meditative practices give depth to Druid concepts such as the Awen and Nwyvre;  how Druid contemplation and mindfulness might  help to shape, transform or deepen a connection to life and self.

In the Neo-Pagan movement and the Western Mystery Tradition there has been a dominant focus on what might be perceived to be ‘active’ meditation techniques; the use of visualisation and path-working holding a dominant place. The Eastern approach to meditation has often been assumed to facilitate a removal of self from the world in an attempt to transcend its illusions. As such it might be perceived to be at cross purposes with the Druid world view where life and earthly experiences are celebrated. Most of us understand  Druid spiritual practices to be a gateway to deepen one’s involvement with earthly life, as opposed to escaping it via ascetic disciplines, however, what Nichol’s book illustrates is that the contemplative approach, explored from a Druid perspective, can be a tool that moves us into a richer and deeply felt relationship with nature, community and self.

Reading through the book’s many thought-provoking accounts I had that sense of excitement you get when a long-held suspicion about something is validated by another’s experience. My first encounter with meditation came years ago via the practice of Yoga. For me, regardless of how one might interpret the philosophy of Yoga, what its practices illustrated was that these techniques of mindful movement, breath and contemplation could actually help me to feel more embodied and present on this planet. They were immensely practical and useful , not only in aiding my physical well-being but also in creating a healthier flow between my body, mind and emotions, and in doing so, opening the door to my spiritual journey. The book’s examples makes it clear that I am not alone in my view that these techniques are not ring-fenced by any religion or path but are open for all to use. I see no contradiction in including them as part of my Druid practice. It is true that each spiritual path will approach these techniques through their own spiritual lens – and even each individual within each path will bring their own unique focus to bear – but Nichol’s books suggests that there is a rich seam of spiritual nourishment to explore here, and that even if such practices are not for us, then the debate about them can only deepen and widen what Druidry has to offer.

There is much here that gives food for thought. Contemplative Druidry is a valuable springboard for further discussion and a great starting place for those who are interested in including contemplative meditation in their practice. Nichol’s book encourages us to really think about what a contemplative Druidic practice might be. What is clear from each contributor’s experience is that it is an approach that is nature and body affirming, one that offers us a means to engage more fully with self and the world around us. In time, as this discussion deepens, as more people engage with these practices and share the results, I feel sure that many more benefits will become apparent. All this can only add to the richness and diversity of the Druid path.  – Maria Ede-Weaving

James’ book is available from Amazon and will shortly be available from the OBOD shop.

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