contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

ACCEPTING THE ARRIVAL OF WINTER

It was 26 November 2022, 11 a.m. I was at the Gloucester end of the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. I found myself accepting the arrival of winter. I was observing three cygnets, now without their parents but still keeping company with each other. The underlying temperature was around 7 C (44.6 F) and good for walking, But I was feeling the pinch of a cold wind. In memory I am feeling it now. The water and sky looked grey. The trees were starting to feel skeletal, whilst still retaining some leaves. My lingering sense of autumn had finally drained away.

To accept winter’s arrival in the presence of swans felt numinous. Swans are otherworldly birds in Celtic tradition. The three together, not yet in their full adult plumage, seemed auspicious. They suggested coming opportunities for creativity, love and celebration. Winter can be a preparation for renewal, both as season and as state of mind. My acceptance goes with a faith in winter’s regenerative darkness, and the riches this can bring.

BOOK REVIEW: THE CIRCLE OF LIFE IS BROKEN

Highly recommended. Brendan Myers’ The Circle of Life is Broken (1) is subtitled “an eco-spiritual philosophy of the climate crisis”. Myers is a Pagan identified author and a professional philosopher who teaches at Heritage College, Gatineau, Quebec. His Paganism is naturalistically oriented, and animist in a sense that “the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present”.

The book begins with an view of the Earth from outside, through the loving eyes and words of astronauts. “It is as if the Earth as a whole was only discovered in 1968, when Apollo-8 astronaut William Anders shot the famous Earthrise photograph; the image of the Earth coming out from behind the edge of the moon”. This ‘overview effect’ is balanced at the end of the book by an invitation to immerse ourselves more fully and awarely within the world, through the practices of a weekly green sabbatical and an annual ecological pilgrimage.

Between this beginning and ending there are three main sections, each addressing a ‘root question’. Each question is rigorously explored, before receiving a carefully formulated answer.

The first question asks: what is the circle of life? A key understanding is that ecologists today do not see the Earth as “an aggregate of individuals competing for resources and survival”. Rather, they “are teaching us to see the Earth as a complex system in which everything is directly or indirectly involved in all the life around it, and in which symbiosis and cooperation, across multiple levels, keep the system as a whole flourishing”. This is the circle of life that is now breaking down. “It isn’t simply changing form. It is also short-circuiting; it is falling apart”.

The second root question asks: who faces the circle of life? This concerns humans and how we deal with realities of a higher order than our own. The exploration includes a look at how people see the world at different life stages. Myers wants to know “what becomes of the human reality when cast in terms of the encounter with the Circle of Life as the ultimate reality?” He notes that the Circle goes almost unmentioned in the history of Western philosophy, and also explores a perceived a tension between our ‘being-ecological’ and our ‘being-free’.

The third root question asks: can circle be healed? Myers quotes a saying of the philosopher Hegel: “the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”. When things are bad, new ideas and possibilities can emerge and philosophers especially are challenged to think big. Myers looks at the political and cultural obstacles to any healing process, with good sections on ‘eco-fascism’ and the ‘gatekeepers of human nature’. He also makes a number of specific positive proposals.

Although written in plain English as far as possible, The Circle is Broken is not a book to read in one sitting. Myers’ thinking is holistic, with room for scientific information, complex argument, deep feeling, contemplation and engagement. It is written with love and a sense of wonder, generously drawing on personal experience. I think of it as a long-term companion, a gift to anyone concerned with the climate crisis and creative responses to it.

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books 2022 (Earth Spirit series)

(2) For other posts about Brendan Myers’ work, see:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2015/05/22/the-worship-of-the-gods-is-not-what-matters/ (Reblog from Naturalistic Paganism)

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

“Over the last twelve years I have walked every trail, every hillcrest, every stream-edge within a two hour walking radius of my house: everything between Lac-Des-Fees and Pink Lake, and a little beyond. …. I still encounter things I never saw before. Last year I saw a Great Horned Owl in the park for the first time. Its swift yet stately flight above my head caught my eye; a dark shadow in front of the sun, silent, and powerful in its silence.

“It rested on a tree branch not more than twenty meters away, and regarded me. I regarded him in turn. I had known for years that there are owls in the area: I’ve heard their hooting, and seen their pellets on the ground. But until that day and for ten years, I hadn’t seen one here before. Further, and I think more importantly, since I had entered the forest that day for no particular purpose but to enjoy a warm afternoon, to reaffirm my love of for the park’s landmarks and vistas, and to experience a few hours of pure human freedom, in simpler words to play, the encounter with the owl could take on a magical meaning.

“In the light of such magic, what a magnificent animal he was! How proud he seemed, as though in charge of the world, as though I required his permission to take another step. How unpretentious too: this owl had no need to pretend to be something he was not. The size of his claws, the laser-focus of his eyes meeting mine, was proof enough that he was a predator. No need to flex his weapons or brandish them. And what a delightful conversation we might have, if he were to speak. How much he could tell of the places he had seen, the adventures he had while hunting, and the pleasure of flight… Much as I would have loved to stay and hear him speak, I decided to move on after a few minutes. I did not know whether meeting his eyes might be provocative. And much as I might enjoy telling the story of how I got owl-claw scars on my face, I would certainly not enjoy getting them.

“…. Such is the magic of the forest. It can mean what you want it to mean under the aspect of play, yet at the same time it can surprise, and threaten and reveal itself, in ways no human artifact can do. It can suggest a kind of magic no human artifact can adopt: the dramatic discovery of a world not made by human hands. Thus it participates in the play, bringing its own contribution to the emergence of meaning.” (1)

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis London UK & Washington USA: Moon Books (Earth Spirit Series)

NOTE: Brendan Myers is a Canadian philosopher and author currently living in Quebec, where he teaches philosophy at Heritage College, Gatineau. He has written extensively on Pagan themes from a philosophical perspective, and his most recent book takes them further through an exploration of the climate crisis. I will review the book in my next post.

ON THE CUSP OF SAMHAIN: A NEW MOON

You can just see it, above the buildings, at the last breath of sunset. A sliver of light over murky cloud, the slender crescent of a new moon has appeared. I took the picture just after 6.45 pm on 28 October, still inside British Summer Time. I chose this time on this day because it was not yet dark. The sky is making room for a variety of effects, not just the stark duality of darkness and light. I stand at the cusp of the year’s endarkenment, before the festival of Samhain.

At this time of this year, I find myself tuning in to the lunar cycle as much as the solar one. To me, now, it feels subtler and more nuanced. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford describe its significance in a way I find illuminating:

“The moon was an image in the sky that was always changing yet was always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark, in an ever-recurring sequence. Implicitly, however, the early people must have seen every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole.

“The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.” (1)

When out walking, I noticed that Christmas lights had started to appear. The ones below, at Gloucester Quays, seemed suitable for a new moon. They shifted on and off in a flowing, liquid kind of way, at slightly different times. They did not dazzle or glare or demand my whole attention. They illuminated the space without dominating it. They did not claim that their light was all that mattered.

If I tune in the another cycle, the wheel of the day, I remember how much to thank the sun for. Barely half an hour before I took the pictures above, I experienced the very different colours of the two immediately below. In the first, there is the pink of sunset cloud and some draining of blue from the sky – but, still, a sense of vivid green in the grass. An autumn evening in what is still the light of day.

The second shows a tree-lined street, with full autumn colours, fittingly sundown colours, against a misty looking autumn sky.

It seems that I am saying farewell to one season whilst welcoming another, and that my evening walk on 28 October, partially shared with my wife Elaine, somehow enabled this. There is a starkness and wildness in my last image from that walk, below, which draws me in, despite the remarkable contrast with what has gone before. Just to notice, to fully experience, and make meaning of, the cycles of moon, sun, day, year and life itself gains importance for me year by year, as the wheel turns.

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

LEARNING ABOUT OUR PAGAN ANCESTORS, AND LEARNING FROM THEM

Recently I watched Ronald Hutton’s first Gresham College lecture about Gods of Pagan Britain on youtube (1). It sets the scene for a series, raising questions about what we can know about the spiritual lives of our ancestors, what we can fruitfully imagine, and how to tell the difference.

Professor Hutton explores two specific topics. The first is our current archaeological understanding of the Stonehenge monument on Salisbury Plain, England, together with its legendary history and place in the public imagination. The second is the case of the Lindow Man, who was violently killed and thrown into a peat bog in Derbyshire, thus partly preserving his body for conceivably (but probably not) 2,000 years. He has been widely considered, including at times by archaeologists, to be the victim of a Druid sacrifice, though Hutton points out that there are good reasons to question this.

I was drawn to this lecture, both informative and entertaining, by my interest in learning from an ancestral culture without its own texts, as well as about it. This is part of my reason for following a modern Druidry that embraces indigenous themes long pre-dating the Druidry of the Celtic iron age. The people who built Stonehenge in the third millennium BCE bequeathed us the wheel of the year, with its circle and cycles, and its focus on the solstices and equinoxes. We can be inspired by this and honour the ancestors by embedding it in our own lives in ways that suit our time and culture.

For readers who have not yet seen and heard the lecture, I recommend that you take a look at the video.

(1) https://youtube.com/watch?v=QjC0lGr4h04&t=5s/

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, a specialist in Pagan and Druid studies, and enjoys a very high reputation within both the academic and Pagan communities.

BEYOND THE EQUINOX: THE PLEASURES OF A LATE SEPTEMBER WALK

Some days seem truly blessed and easy. For me this autumn moment is one of them. I have stumbled across a previously unknown place that radiates the beauty of the season. Woods and river call to me and I respond. I like being where I am, open to the day, free of complications.

I like not knowing what’s round the next corner, whilst enjoying the new spaces I am already in. I notice how small changes of position alter the feeling-tone of place.

There’s little to say, at a time like this. There is the experience and there is the visual record. I hope the images suggest something of my simple delight in being here.

The path below seems to be telling me that there’s always somewhere else to go, but here is where I decide to stop taking pictures. A certain kind of moment is over, and best recognised as such. Nonetheless, I bask in the happiness of connecting with this new and unsuspected space.

ALBAN ELFED: A TIME FOR RECEPTIVITY?

Blessings of the season! Where I live, the sun is descending but still has a certain power. We have entered the period of the Autumn Equinox, honoured by modern Druids in the festival of Alban Elfed. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on harvest, but Dana O’Driscoll (1) suggests ‘receptivity’ as a resonant theme, “because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way”.

She relates her approach to the changes that the world is experiencing now. “It is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level. It belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8,000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. … But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally; we’ve moved on to the Anthropocene … characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives.”

I find the call to receptivity challenging. Part of me wants the late Holocene back, in a reformed version – socioeconomically, culturally, technologically. Part of me accepts that it has gone for good but doesn’t want to acknowledge the speed and severity of the transition. Currents of anger, fear and grief cry out for recognition. These are as much part of my life-world as are the climate crisis itself, initiatives for adaptation, and the forces undermining those initiatives. I somehow have to find a receptive space for all of the above, without being overwhelmed.

The good news is that my ‘receptivity’ seems to be sourced by a deep peace at the heart of experience, a peace that grows rather than diminishes with time. In my daily practice as a modern Druid I call for peace in the east, south, west, north, deep earth & underworld [below], and starry heavens [above]. Then I say: “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. These words are vibrant with life for me however often I declaim them. I experience this deep peace as a fruit of my contemplative inquiry. Perhaps there is a harvest aspect here after all.

Certainly, to stand in such peace empowers my receptivity, linking it to other qualities like reverence, delight and awe. None of this changes the world. But it allows me to contemplate it with an underlying confidence, and to face its challenges in a more resourceful way. I am very happy to mark Alban Elfed as a feast of receptivity.

(1) https://thedruidsgarden.com/ – see Fall Equinox: a Spirit Walk and its internal reference to Equinox on Receptivity

NOTE: Pennsylvania-based Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the US homesteading movement. She is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and an OBOD Druid. She is a Mount Haemus scholar, lecturing on Channeling the Awen in 1912.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/06/09/book-review-sacred-actions/ )

For AODA, see: https://aoda.org/

STATES OF LIGHT

This is the face of dawn outside my window, just after 6.30 a.m. I welcome the mid September day, appreciating this moment in the year. I like the infusion of pink into grey clouds, and the suggestion of warmth in the old church tower.

I have now grown used to getting up in the dark, and to beginning my morning practice with an awareness of darkness outside. The nurturing dark and enabling light are both part of my experience. A transient time of balance has begun. It feels numinous to me, and a time of great potential. I am energetically alert and alive.

Later, a little before 9 a.m., I am walking by the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. I notice light on leaves, and its influence on the gaps between trunks. The view, here, is over water. But it is the influence of sunlight that makes the greatest impression on me – captured in the picture as well as in real time.

By contrast, the spaces furthest away from the light source are able to show their earthiness, their woodiness and the depth of their green. The light is everywhere, but it is subtle and not over-bearing. It reveals its influence in different ways. Rather than radiating raw power, it allows possibilities in this small, fragile habitat. Contemplating autumnal states of light, as I approach the autumn equinox, I have been shown something about power and its manifestation.

LUGHNASADH 2022: RE-ENCHANTING TIME

A familiar sight at this time of year: a family of swans, adolescent cygnets with their parents. A superficial glance at the picture gives me a satisfying sense of near completion, of an annual cycle showing its results. It is a still image, literally a snapshot. Nothing in it can change.

Yet when I took the photo, the swans were highly mobile, constantly shifting their relative positions while sometimes gliding elegantly along the canal and sometimes pausing to investigate its banks. I also foresaw their likely passage through a more extended time. Soon enough, the cygnets will be grown up and on their own. A new beginning enabled by an ending.

I live in southern England, where daylight hours have begun noticeably to shorten. Lughnasadh (Lammas) marks the beginning of August. This festival initiates a quarter that moves through the autumn equinox and ends at Samhain. These three months embrace decline, decay and eventually death, whilst also celebrating grain and fruit harvests and (in past times) the culling of livestock to see us through the winter. The themes belong together.

I treasure this attunement to cycles of time. Part of my contemplative life rests in the timeless. Another part, more worldly, enriches my experience of time. By contrast mainstream western culture characterises time as a limited resource to be measured and priced; to be ‘spent’ productively and not ‘wasted’. The phrase ‘time is money’ comes to mind. This time hurtles onwards like a runaway train into a future always packaged as better, even redemptive, but now looking increasingly dystopian.

But any time we can know is a matter of human perception, and therefore malleable. There are, and have been, many ways for humans to live in time. For me, living the cyclical time of the eightfold wheel of the year, widely practised in Druid and Pagan culture, continues to be a re-enchanting experience.

INNERWORLD HARVESTING

The Innerworld has its own times and seasons. When I attune myself carefully, it speaks to me through images in the DruidCraft Tarot (1). Today (20 July) I encountered the 7 of Pentacles (above), with its image of winter harvest. A Druid, equipped with a golden sickle, takes mistletoe from a tree. Where is the wisdom here? What am I being told?

‘Take note of the obvious’ is an early thought. ‘Be willing to state it’. After ten years of contemplative inquiry, I am still anchored in Druidry. Yes: my practice forms are idiosyncratic and contemplatively inclined. Yes: my inquiry process is personal and self-directing. Yes: I continue to learn from other traditions and sources outside the traditions. But what I do comes out of an immersive OBOD training of many years and would not be the same without it. I continue to belong to the Order and identify with the modern Druid tradition. Being clear about this is a fruit of my inquiry.

The form of words that we know as the St. Patricks’ Prayer, alternatively as the Cry of the Deer, runs: “I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock”. In my own usage I think of ‘heaven’ simply as a sky or firmament word, majestically naturalistic. But my greatest sense of support comes from the words ‘stability of earth and firmness of rock’. The 7 of Pentacles Tarot image includes seven pentacle signs carved on to mossy rock. It is a strongly earth-related image. I feel grounded and affirmed by this powerfully Pagan imagery.

There is much more to be learned from the 7 of Pentacles image, but these obvious recognitions, easily taken for granted and thus overlooked, are a good place to start. They have allowed me to identify some fundamental understandings that my inquiry has provided, and to clarify its direction for the future.

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

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