contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: R.J. Stewart

HONOURING ‘THE WAY OF MERLIN’

The Way of Merlin came into my hands at the right time. It seeded a number of key understandings, which nudged me onto a Druid path in October 1993. The first is that “sacred space is enlivened by consciousness. Let us be in doubt that all space is sacred, all being. Yet if human beings dedicate and define a zone, a location, something remarkable happens within that defined sphere of consciousness and energy. The space talks back”. Author R. J. Stewart backed this up with the further declaration that “The mystery of Merlin is a backyard mystery, for it declares the smallest, most local space to be sacred, to be alive, to be aware.” I was living in South London at the time and remember being challenged in this book to befriend a spring and a tree. At first, I thought, ‘what?’. Then I found them both, on the day I started looking, in a local park.

Such activities went with the view, “yourself and the land are one”, and that this apparently humble work has a larger context of “holism … identical to the deepest perennial magical and spiritual arts”. Magic is seen as a process of having intent and applying energy and imagery in service to it. Working within mythic frameworks asks for an enabling suspension of disbelief rather than a dogmatic literalism.

I did not work with the suggested programme of visualisations and rituals concerning Merlin, the weaver goddess Ariadne, and other scenes drawn largely from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin. As practices they seemed too long and formal. But reading Stewart’s text was psychoactive in itself. The weaver goddess Ariadne is a key figure, and the vision of Ariadne reveals a cosmic mother at the threshold of Being and Unbeing. She draws us into the empty silence of the Void, out of which emerges the sound of breath – our own breath and at the same time the breath of all Being. Being breathes through us, “and we realise that we have a body that is the body of all Being. The stars are within us. We are formed of the weaving”.

The specific image of Ariadne never took root in my imagination. But I acknowledged the power of this Pagan Gnostic creation myth. Its sense of our reality emerging from empty potential at the behest of a cosmic mother has stayed with me. My work with Sophia earlier in this inquiry pointed in the same direction. So does my recent post about Dancing Seahorses and Modron (2). I am happiest with the Modron image, because it is less defined and anthropomorphised than those of Ariadne and Sophia. At at the threshold of being and unbeing, she shows us that we are not separate from the divine breath that forms us, or from the creation that is formed. The stars are indeed within us, whether we know it or not.

The Way of Merlin has something like an ancestral role in my spiritual life. R. J. Stewart and I were born in the same year, but he was doing this pioneering work in the 1980’s when I was busy with other things. He influenced me in the period immediately before I embarked on a Druid path, and I have revisited his work over the years. It still has riches to offer.

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

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/25/dancing-seahorses/

ELAINE’S CAULDRON: BURNING DEAD LEAVES

My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.

In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.

The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.

For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.

I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/06/30/meditation-and-healing/

BOOK REVIEW: SCOTLAND’S MERLIN

Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, by Tim Clarkson Edinburgh: John Donald, 2016. I find this book a useful resource. Author Tim Clarkson says of Merlin that, “like King Arthur and Robin Hood, he is both familiar and mysterious – an enigmatic figure who seems to stand on the shadowy frontier between history and myth”. Clarkson is firmly on the historical side of that frontier, working clearly and accessibly through the early literature as he quests for the source of the legend. Some of it is a proto-Merlin literature in which the central figure bears other names: Lailoken for the wild man of the Caledonian woods; Emrys for the young prophet of Snowdonia. Myrddin Wyllt is the name given in a group of early Welsh poems to the Scottish Lailoken, and Geoffrey of Monmouth goes on to create the medieval Merlin out of these and other disparate sources. Clarkson provides extensive extracts from the literature, showing how the Merlin of Arthurian literary legend was able to emerge.

Clarkson’s main interest is in the Merlin who, traumatised by his experience of the Battle of Arfderydd, flees to the forest. The battle was an historical event, was fought in C. E. 573 and is well covered by Clarkson, who earned his PhD with a study of warfare in early historic (i.e ‘dark age’) northern Britain. Historically, there is real difficulty in knowing who was fighting against whom, and what their motivations were. In a Scottish hagiography of St. Kentigern, Lailoken is simply a veteran of the battle. Its context is not discussed, and little is said about Lailoken himself, beyond describing his broken wildness. He has occasional encounters with St. Kentigern, who eventually blesses him. Shortly after this he suffers a threefold death, as he himself had prophesied, by falling down the banks of the Tweed onto a sharp stake with his head bent into the water. Everyone praises St. Kentigern for enabling Lailoken’s salvation by blessing him in time.

By contrast, Geoffrey’s Merlin (1) recovers, and he becomes a contemplative forest hermit together with his sister Ganieda. His madness has been a journey, not just a torment. A threefold death is prophesied by Merlin, and occurs. But it is not his own death. Instead, Merlin gets a new lease of life revolving around summers in the woods and winters in an observatory that has been built for him. He is able to have erudite and wide-ranging conversations with his visitor Taliesin, presented as a colleague and peer. But the setting is the same, a specific landscape in south west Scotland, where early British place names are still found – Loch Mabon, the River Nith and Caer Laverock (on Solway Firth at the mouth of the Nith) being three of them, with two ancient god forms thereby remembered. For me, the written records are a demonstration of how culture, and cultural agendas, change over time. Fragments of stories are pressed into the service of new cultural imperatives. The deeper past keeps its secrets, even whilst new understandings are crafted around its after-image.

There is no sense here of the what R. J. Stewart calls the Mystery of Merlin (2) – no suggestion of a local connection with the youthful prophet, though local Mabon names point to one. The Romano-Celtic world (including this region, immediately north of the wall) had Apollo Maponus as a significant deity. Clarkson is good at orienting readers to the general culture of early historic Scotland, and relating his Merlin story to a specific local landscape – with a good selection of maps and plates. He explains that, in the context of the sixth century, ‘Britain’ names an island without any political connotations. The terms ‘British’ or ‘Britons’ describe the native Celtic people who once inhabited the whole island. The story is set in what later Welsh literature described as Hen Ogledd (The Old North), which Clarkson takes to be southern Scotland below the Forth Clyde isthmus, “together with some adjacent parts of what is now England”. He notes that, by 800 C.E., on the eve of the Viking invasions, the British ruled in only three areas: Cornwall, Wales and the Valley of the Clyde.

Clarkson is the author of The Men of the North (4) and The Picts (5) which between them cover much of Scotland in the early historic period. He believes that a kernel of the Merlin/Lailoken story – about battle trauma and flight to the woods – is about an historic individual who took part. He also acknowledges that the story may preserve a memory of early shamanic practices in the locality. Merlin lives on in many different ways.

(1) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley, 2011

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

(3) Tim Clarkson The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010

(4) Tim Clarkson The Picts: A History Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012

CREATIVE MYTHOLOGY

Joseph Campbell names ‘creative mythology’ as a way of “opening … one’s own truth and depth to the truth and depth of another in such a way as to establish an authentic community of existence.” He goes on to explain that such mythology “springs from individual experience, not dogma, learning, political interests, or programmes for the renovation of society; … but faith in one’s own experience, whether of feeling, fact, reason or vision.” (1)

Campbell thought that, in the context of European culture, a move towards creative myth making became visible in the twelfth century. Western Christendom was established from Scandinavia to the crusader territories in the Holy Land. It was a period of cultural curiosity and expansiveness, now known as the ‘twelfth century renaissance’. (2) There was an appetite for new stories, and Campbell names the sources drawn on to create them: the pre-Christian heritage of the old Greek and Roman worlds; the pre-Christian heritage of the Celtic and German worlds; and influences from Gnosticism and Islam.

But sources and influences do not define, or confine, the resulting developments. Rather, they provide material for the creation of new culture. “Materials carried from any time past to a time present, or from one culture to another, shed their values at the culture portal and thereafter become mere curiosities, or undergo a sea-change through a process of creative misunderstanding. … For the shaping force of a civilisation is lived experience … and the manner of this inwardness differs not only in differing civilisations, but also in the differing periods of a single civilisation. It is not a function of any ‘influence’ from without, however great and inspiring. Consequently, when historians confine their attention to the tracing and mapping of such ‘influences’, without due regard for the inward, assimilating, and reshaping force of the local, destiny-making readiness for life, their works inevitably founder in secondary details. (1)

One of the influences that nudged me towards Druidry was R. J. Stewart’s body of work concerned with Merlin, itself stimulated by the work of the twelfth century scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth. Stewart wrote two books about this (3,4) and then produced the Merlin Tarot (5) which, with its companion volume The Complete Merlin Tarot (6) is a workable esoteric system in itself. Geoffrey’s work revisions older Celtic/Classical material in a culture thirsty for it. He introduces mainstream European culture to Merlin, Arthur, and Morgan. Shape-shifting through cultural fashions over the centuries, they are still with us. In the later twentieth century, R. J. Stewart drew on Geoffrey’s work for creative myth-making of his own.

As part of my current inquiry, I am revisiting this work to see how it might, with an element of further revisioning, contribute to my Druid practice. I will expand on this in future posts.

(1) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God 4: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (Original US edition published in 1968)

(2) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2011

(3) R. J. Stewart The Prophetic Vision of Merlin: Prediction, Psychic Transformation and the Foundation of the Grail Legends in an Ancient Set of Visionary Verses Arkana: London & New York, 1986

(4) R. J. Stewart, The Mystic Life of Merlin Arkana: London & New York, 1986

(5) R. J. Stewart & Miranda Grey (illustrator) The Merlin Tarot London: The Aquarian Press, 1992

(6) R. J. Stewart & Miranda Grey (illustrator) The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992

AWEN: FRUITS OF DREAMING

The image above is from The Dreampower Tarot (1) by R. J. Stewart and Stuart Littlejohn. It is called the Sleeper, and concerns dreams and unrealised potential. The pack as a whole is underpinned by R. J. Stewart’s view that “the surface world is reflected out of the Underworld, not vice versa”. Its imagery is drawn from “the mysterious inner and Underworld story of life before surfacing or outer birth”. An inverted tree stands at the back of every card, indicating a path of interiority and descent.

Over the years I have been deeply impacted by R. J. Stewart’s work, and I think of awen as an Underworld gift. Although I am not using the Dreampower pathway directly, I share its sense of a staged descent from physical (stone) to psychic (pearl) to causal (whirlpool) dimensions. The whirlpool is a field of stars at the deepest interior level, as physical and psychic reality dissolve into creative void, and the whole cycle is repeated.

In my last post https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/05/17/touching-awen/ I described a dream, which moved through three locations. Today in my awen mantra meditation, I followed the resonance of the mantra into three discrete images distilled from the dream. Moments rather than narrative vignettes, I find these slightly different in their new constellation.

First, I am in an almost dark tunnel. It is all encompassing but for a very distant light. There is a feeling tone of unease. It is not due to the pervasive wetness. It is due to what I would now language as an intimation of being separate .

This is pre-birth and approach of birthing imagery, womb imagery, perhaps with elements of something like pre-personal memory. In an awen context, it reminds me of the womb imagery in Taliesinthe lake, the cauldron, Ceridwen’s womb, the night-sea journey in the coracle. I am also reminded of Thomas the Rhymer’s journey with the Queen of Elfland:

For forty days and forty nights, he wade through red blude to the knee

And he saw neither sun nor moon but heard the roaring of the sea.” (3)

Second, I am present in the sunlit city, on one of its hills, and looking down. A sense of appreciation, at-homeness and freedom – familiarity and belonging within absolute novelty and strangeness.

I am in a state of simple innocence, which I might call grace. In this otherworldly place, pristine experiencing is normal.

Third, I am on the promenade at the beach, for me the most significant part of the city. I am aware of the sparkling sea, and of looking at the beautiful café nearby, wanting to eat and drink there. But I have got hold of the idea that I am not allowed to. I do not know what the penalty for this imagined transgression would be. My worst fantasies involve permanent entrapment in this space, or complete exile from it, no longer able to walk freely between the worlds.

There is a different feel to this part of the meditation. Thinking arises, with a strong sense of dilemma. Am I or am I not meant to obey this instruction, if there even is one? Is it a test of obedience or initiative, of acceptance or self-determination? This time, I know, it is OK to simply visit the beach, enjoy it, and be safe. I can feel restored just by looking at the cafe and the sea. But if I come here again, and do nothing, I may fade into primal non-being. If I go to the cafe, I am likely to empower hidden or lost potentials – at an unknown cost. I am the Child of Light in my own universe. It is entirely for me to decide.

At this time of writing, I know that I am engaged. I am in the slipstream of awen. Although I have talked of an ‘awen inquiry’, this no longer seems like skilful framing. For there is a surrender here, that asks for my trust and a different language. Finding resonant and empowered language, and knowing when silence works better, are part of this path. All that is asked of me, at this stage, is to consolidate my practice and to continue writing this blog.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Otherworld London & San Francisco: Aquarian Press, 1993

 (2) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985

MODRON

An unlocatable darkness, beyond deep time, beyond even the metaphysics of origin. Almost detecting, or so it seems, an ultimate motherhood. A motherhood beyond name and gender, beyond being, beyond even latency. The possibility, perhaps, of Modron. No Word. No Bang. No Mabon.

When Mabon ap Modron (Youth, Son of Mother) appears in Celtic culture, he is in fact already archaic. He can only be traced at all through the memory of the oldest animal – the Salmon of Llyn Lliw (1). Mabon and Modron are embedded in the old Brythonic language, but pre-date it. They may well come from a time when paternity was unknown, and the male primarily recognized as a son.

In a previous post (2) I have described working with prayer beads and saying Ama-Aima. This is an Aramaic phrase, which I got from the Sophian Fellowship (Ecclesia Pistis Sophia). For them, as Christian gnostic kabbalists, there is a reference to Sophia as Binah on the tree. As Ama, – not quite Goddess, not quite Shekinah – she is in her maiden, or latent state; as Aima, she becomes the one who is impregnated, bringing form into being.

Working with the beads, I find myself losing this mythic structure and separating Ama-Aima from Sophia. Both name and experience feel more primal. I take ‘Ama’ to belong to a simple and culturally widespread family of sounds like ‘Ma’ and ‘Mama.’ I don’t feel infantilized by using the term. But it does take the practice beyond meditation, beyond prayer, beyond even devotion. It seems, rather, like an act of recognition, or alignment, and a will to relate to a source beyond existence itself. At a more personal and animal level, I suspect that I am also aligning my conscious self with pre-linguistic and ultimately pre-natal levels of being. These do form part of my physical existence and, however remotely, memory. Here I am at cause with the mystery and miracle of the life I have woken into, often in a simple state of gratitude for the opportunity to be human.

If there is a Sophian connection here, it is indicated in images like ‘The Maiden’ in R.J. Stewart’s Dreampower Tarot (3). As Maiden, she who appears in translucent white, as “the still and pure potential which is ever renewed out of the Mother Deep”, her virginity “a spirit of renewal rather than a physical condition”. The primal Mother within The Maiden, from whom she comes, is shown by a Sheela-na-gig behind her. It is a very faint figure, barely visible, but it seems as if the translucent maiden has appeared out of the vagina. This old image is found in Celtic regions, carved upon stones and early churches. “It is an ancient representation of the Mother of All, with her open vagina from which all comes forth and into which all enters and returns.”

In a sense, Sophia is the whole image. But for me Ama-Aima is more the Sheela-na-gig, herself dissolving into empty invisibility. Sophia is more like Stewart’s Maiden, mostly concerned with “stilling and guarding life energies” and learning to direct them inwardly in new forms of illuminating capacity. This is very much the Wisdom I am working with at the present phase of my life

  • The Mabinogion Sioned Davies (translator) Oxford: OUP, 2007 (The reference is to How Culhwch Won Olwen.)

 

 

  • J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot London: Aquarian Press, 1993 (Paintings by Stuart Littlejohn)

SOPHIAN MAGIC 101

My Temple of Sophia is a magical space. So what do I mean by magic? What is its place in a contemplative inquiry? What makes it Sophian?

On magic, I tend to take my cue from R.J. Stewart (1). He says: “Magic is a set of methods arranging awareness according to patterns. The serious application of magical methods leads to transformation; it is the transformation that is of value, not the magical methods themselves. The basis of magic is utterly practical and experiential”.

This is very good news from an inquiry point of view. Stewart is careful to say that magic is neither a truth or religion – nor yet a philosophy, though “echoes of profound philosophy” are to be found within magical traditions. In my universe, the Way of Sophia is more than a magical tradition. But magic, with its precise focusing of will and intention, its experimental approach, and its interest in outcomes, has a strong and valued place.

When starting an inquiry, I prefer to start with some sort of model, from which I will depart over time after I have gained enough experience to evaluate and modify it. R.J. Stewart – again – is a good model of Western Way integration, in particular through bringing together Celtic traditions and Kabbalah. In my Way of Sophia work I will be drawing on  Kabbalist patterning – again with the intention of gaining experience and then playing creatively. Indeed, this process has already begun.

I inaugurated my Temple of Sophia at about 4 a.m. on Tuesday 22 March and I am following Stewart in his view of five fundamentals in magical practice. As I move around the circle, I notice a cousinship with my previous OBOD Druid practice, whilst also recognizing difference.

CONCENTRATION – linked to the east, the element of air, and a view of origination.

MEDITATION – linked to the south, the element of fire, and a view of creation.

VISUALISATION – linked to west, the element of water, and a view of formation.

RITUAL PATTERNING – linked to the north, the element of earth, and a view of expression.

MEDIATION – the fifth fundamental, associated with Spirit, and in circle terms at the centre. Stewart points out that in mystical and religious discourse, the word ‘inspiration’ is used as an alternative. But in this context I find mediation the better word, more powerful as well as more specific. In the most general terms, we mediate the “constant power of Spirit”.

I want to say a little bit about all five fundamentals, with a particular emphasis on CONCENTRATION at this stage. Stewart says that before even starting, we need some ability to achieve inner silence, stilling the repetitive dialogue that we all have. In this context we are simply looking for a level of silence that will allow us to switch our focus fully onto the relevant inner disciplines. We are not here in the business of investigating the monkey mind itself. Stewart (1) offers brief exercises specifically for stilling the mind and generating silence. Having achieved this, we launch the work. Achieving silence is the first use of concentration. Holding it throughout the magical working is the next. Will Parfitt (2) has a valuable comment about concentration. It is often seen as strenuous, about being “very deliberate”, indeed somewhat compulsive – and above all an effort. He reminds us that it does not have to be this way. He notes that children at play concentrate effectively – to the point where it is hard to draw them away – yet without obvious strain and effort. This is possible because they are interested and excited. He says “it is that simple – if you are interested you can concentrate; if you are not interested you can’t and would be better off doing something else”. When I re-read this I felt sad for the many children and adults who lack adequate choices in this matter. More happily, I have noticed that I am finding concentration in the Temple of Sophia easy. My will and enthusiasm are behind it.

R.J. Stewart offers concise and simple definitions of meditation, visualization and ritual in magical work, and I will see how I go with these, in this inquiry, as time goes on:

MEDITATION: the discipline of directing consciousness inwardly upon chosen subjects.

VISUALIZATION: the act of controlled image making and development of inner vision.

RITUAL PATTERNING: the fusion of creative imagination with effective expression.

On MEDIATION I need to say a bit more, because this is where I become specifically Sophian. The purpose of my Temple is to mediate the Light of Sophia. For me, at this stage, this involves both energetic and contemplative work.

The energetic work is based around a strong development of Kabbalist middle pillar practice where I open myself to the light presence and light energy of Sophia, and let them fill me. Over the last few days this has had very strong effects. At an inquiry level, outside the Temple, it raises a Kabbalist version of the “are chakras real?” question. I’ll be writing about that in due course. On the contemplative side – again using an R.J. Stewart definition relating to magical work – I enter into a “wordless, formless fusion of consciousness with a chosen subject”.

This is the Light of Sophia – and I sit within the light generated by the energy work, and indeed go through a process that leads, when the work is going well, to the wordless, formless fusion described, wrapped and rapt in a form of Samadhi. But the larger aim is both to be and to represent that Light in the world – to mediate it. I will say more about all this, and what it means, when I better understand the implications for me. So far I know only that I have a strong sense of contact and a general direction. The inquiry itself will show me the way.

  • J. Stewart (1987) Living Magical Arts: Imagination and Magic for the 21st. Century Poole: Blandford Press
  • Will Parfitt (1988) The Living Qabalah: A Practical and Experiential Guide to Understanding the Tree of Life Shaftesbury: Element Books

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.)

TREE, GODDESS AND SERPENT

Time was, according to Anne Baring and Jules Cashford (1) when “the Tree of Life was one of the primary images of the goddess herself, in whose immanent presence all pairs of opposites are reconciled. Growing on the surface of the earth, with roots below and branches above, the tree was the great pillar that united earth with heaven and the underworld, through which the energies of the cosmos poured continuously into earthly creation. The animating spirit that moved within it was the serpent, guardian also of the fruit or treasure of the tree, which was the epiphany of the goddess, therefore the experience of unity”.

Without necessarily romanticizing the lived experience of the Bronze Age, we can honour the power and beauty of this imagery. Indeed, in our own time, kundalini yoga, based on a serpent metaphor (2), and Qabalah, based on a tree metaphor (3), have become popular working models. They are inscribed on the body and its subtle energy systems, allowing for an embodied contemplation; they connect earth to heaven and back again; they affirm the possibilities of both immanence and transcendence, energy and consciousness. They have a view of wholeness, realization, and integration.

But much of Western (and Middle Eastern) spiritual history has repudiated this frame of reference and followed a divergent path. Orthodox forms of Abrahamic religion are heirs to a radical reframe of the older goddess iconography, namely the Eden myth in Genesis, and hold to a doctrine of the two trees. Joseph Campbell (4) calls this a “mythic dissociation by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in a separation of the Tree of Knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life. The latter has become inaccessible to man through a deliberate act of God, whereas in other mythologies, both in Europe and in the Orient, the Tree of Knowledge is itself the Tree of Immortal Life and, moreover, still accessible to man”.

In the specific case of Western Christianity, the sense of dissociation increased with the victory of St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). These emphasize the moral impotence of human will and provide for an absolute alienation from the divine for anyone not of the faith, with a doubtful prospect of grace for those in it. To Augustine’s supporters this confirmed the need for external control (a Christian state and an imperially supported Church) in matters of religion (5).

This meant that contemplative mysticism was subject to forms of doctrinal surveillance that could be suspicious and unsympathetic even towards respected insiders. The contemplative could not legitimately aim for, or claim, unity or oneness as an experience, since God and the world were divided. Even in a period of doctrinally softened Christianity and increasing secularism, we are still living out the ill-effects of this inheritance. This is why, with a natural pre-disposition to a contemplative spirituality, I chose to locate it within Druidry, as an emerging tradition that keeps its feet on the ground.

1: Baring, Anne & Cashford, J. (1993) The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image Harmondsworth: Penguin Arkana Books

2: Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1984) Kundalini Tantra Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust

3: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

4: Campbell, Joseph (1964) Occidental mythology: the masks of God Harmondsworth, England: Penguin

5: Pagels, Elaine (1989) Adam, Eve and the Serpent New York: Vintage

MERLIN AND CONTEMPLATION

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1) draws on the legendary history of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland. The overall story, written in the middle of the twelfth century, is about wounding and healing in various forms at the level both of the individual and the collective.

My interest here is in the resolution. Four people, somewhat bruised by life and getting on in years, retire to the Caledonian woods. They vow to live a contemplative life – outside in the summer, and in an elaborate ‘observatory’ in the winter, dedicated to star lore. Their leader is Merlin himself, recovering from a period of (still masterful and charismatic) breakdown, precipitated by a war of neighbours between the old British peoples of Cumbria and Strathclyde. This was at a time when both of them had invaders from other language groups (English and Gaelic) to contend with.

The little community’s second member is Merlin’s sister Ganieda, now widowed, previously Queen of Strathclyde – a kingdom ruled from Dumbarton and extending south to the Solway Firth. The third member is the traumatised vagrant Maeldinus, disoriented and damaged by the juice of poisoned (i.e. magical) apples. Last but not least is the Bard Taliesin, often taken as the model for self-realization in British Celtic tradition. He is world weary after the passing of Arthur from the apparent world into The Isle of Apples – Avalon, a Celtic Otherworld – to be healed and cared for by a wholly benign Morgan and her sisters. In the deeper picture Arthur will never die. But it is still it is the end of an era and a time of lengthening shadows for the culture he defended.

Geoffrey of Monmouth became the first Bishop of St. Asaph in North East Wales, though he never visited the diocese.  But for literary purposes, he relies on the imagery and world views of both Roman and Celtic paganism. The forest contemplative group is dedicated to the Roman wisdom and owl goddess Minerva (often used as an equivalent to native British goddesses as in Sulis Minerva at Bath, and inscribed on a cliff overlooking the Dee at Chester, the city called Deva/Dea by the Romans). Indeed Ganieda, taking on the mantle of prophecy, in a sense becomes the Minerva of the little community. Describing his reason for joining forces with Merlin, Taliesin says “I have spent enough time living in vain, and now is the time to restore me to myself”, which seems to me to have a subtle tinge of divine self-recollection, thereby synthesising Pagan British and Neo-Platonist understandings of who he is. A recent verse translation (2) goes as far as say “I will have time to discover my true self”. I prefer the older translation, since Taliesin has already made that discovery, much earlier in life (3). What he needs is a place where he can fully connect again, after a life of service in the world. Either way, it’s an untypical view of contemplative spirituality for the place and time in which it was written.

The Vita Merlini is a poem written in Latin hexameters and presented as a literary game. It is an opportunity to display both classical and indigenous wisdom as understood in the twelfth century Renaissance (2). Yet in The Mystic Life of Merlin (4), R. J. Stewart shows how the work has greater potential depths for anyone open to them. His Merlin Tarot (5) images draw on two of Geoffrey’s books, the second being the better known History of the Kings of Britain (6), and on Stewart’s own seership. They are further explored in The Complete Merlin Tarot, (7), and The Miracle Tree (8) and ask for our contemplation as much as divination, having the power to open imaginal doors. Geoffrey’s books themselves introduced Merlin and Morgan to medieval European literature outside the Celtic language sphere and did much to establish Arthur. The imagery of the Vita Merlini evokes a sense of woodland renewal, of groves as healing places, and a restorative ‘Island of Apples’, presided over by a magical Otherworld sisterhood. It offers something to medieval people in Western Europe that was unavailable through the mainstream spirituality of the day. The world that Geoffrey made has been a potent resource ever since.

 

References

1: http://www.sacred-texts.com Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1150) Vita Merlini Latin text with English translation by John J. Parry (1925). (Transcribed for Sacred Texts by Graham K. Tallboys.)

2: Walker, Mark (2011) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’: a new verse translation Chalford: Amberley Publishing

3: Hughes, Kristoffer (2012) From the cauldron born: exploring the magic of Welsh legend and lore Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

4: Stewart, R. J. (1986) The mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana

5: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The Merlin Tarot London: Element (Illustrated by Miranda Gray. Boxed set with pack of cards, handbook and notebook for users. An earlier edition was published by the Aquarian Press in 1992)

6: Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966. (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

7: Stewart, R. J. (1992) The complete Merlin Tarot: images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press (Not to be confused with the Merlin Tarot handbook which accompanies the pack, but is sometimes sold separately)

8: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

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