Lately I have been seeing more catkins and leaves amongst the elegant branches of their trees. A vivid green is present on the ground. As yet the changes are tentative. But they hold the promise of new life and growth. There’s a freshness here, enhanced by strong breeze. I notice and feel energised, walking down the path.
The changes have not gone very far, but the trend is now clear. For me, it shows up well against a blue sky. In this changeable season, I see possibilities for my own life, now that I am settled and in good health. These too are in their early stages, showing signs of promise more than accomplishment. My inner wisdom warns me not to move past ‘promise’ into ‘accomplishment’ too speedily or strivingly. Promise has its own season.
Where I live, March has so far been a contest between the coming of spring and a winter that won’t let go. The city of Gloucester has been relatively insulated, but we have still had sub zero nights and low day time temperatures. There has been snow that didn’t settle, cold hard rain and occasional high winds. There have also been frequent periods of sunshine – still cold, still rainy, yet a joy to be out in. Underneath this changeability, the period of daylight grows longer.
A canal side walk shows a more subdued world than last year, and a sense of latency, as though life is waiting to see what will happen next. The wheel of the year turns as ever. What to expect on the ground has become less certain. The climate crisis is visibly in process, with the consequence of vast changes in the arctic now making themselves felt here. We could say that the Cailleach is angry and mobilising. But what this means for our day-to-day weather isn’t always clear.
As I experience these shifts (not so dramatic in themselves in the here and now) I can’t help thinking about culture as well as nature. Climate has moved down the formal political agenda – again. Outright denialism and repression of information about relevant topics still aren’t over. Sir David Attenborough, who has been making nature programmes since the beginning of broadcast TV, will not be having his most recent one (6th and last of a new series) shown live by the BBC. It will be available only on iPlayer.
Supported by groups like WWF (World Wildlife Federation) and RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), this programme highlights the destruction of nature in Britain and looks at rewilding as part of the solution. There are allegations that the restricted availability of this content stems from a fear of offending Conservative politicians and the right wing press. The BBC has issued denials but I have not seen any other plausible reason put forward. Yet this is about conservation: in older meanings of ‘conservative’, the protection of nature and the exploration of rewilding could readily have become a conservative cause. They have been, in the past – think about Theodore Roosevelt and the National Parks movement in the USA.
From a Druid and Earth spirituality perspective, the desacralisation of nature, and the emergence of a wasteland culture, lie at the heart of this problem. This is not new. It has being going on for a long time, for many reasons – religious, economic and political – driven by people with widely different projects and motivations. I know that there is much creative work going on to develop better understandings and positive projects. But it still saddens me that the balance of power and resources, especially in a renewed time of wars and the threat of wars, remains so troubling.
In my personal life I am happy and optimistic. I can feel sad about what is going on around me without being defined or disabled by my grief. Moments of fear and sparks of anger, too. They need not be driven away. They too have an honoured place at the table. They are part of the larger whole, and, lived with emotional intelligence, a way of bearing witness and a spur to action in the world.
Crocuses are appearing, harbingers of spring. In the middle of the day, I feel the power of the sun. In my own life, I am getting used to a smaller and lighter living space. The work of moving is almost done. I shed calculation and care, making room for curiosity and glee.
Some of this is visual. I track changes in daylight from misty early morning to strong sunlight and vivid blue sky at noon. Subtle shifts moment to moment lead to big changes over the hours.
A personal mood of renewal fits the change of season, now that we are clearly in a rising year. The difference is that I am allowing myself to experience a tiredness that I had not fully acknowledged when our moving process was at its height. I am also aware that there are still things to be done. I am not fully in a get-up-and-go frame of being. What I need most, right now, is an alert kind of rest.
I have a sense of coming to a place, and settling, and embracing the experience I am offered here. I’ve been working to refine my personal understanding of Eckhart Tolle’s use of ‘Presence’. For me, it seems to combine an immersion in the flow of experience and a communion with it. Not only bare awareness but also relationship. Being alive in a living cosmos. Opening up to gratitude and love.
This is a key aspect of my contemplative inquiry within the modern Druid tradition, though the experience pointed to is universal. Uncovering what is hidden in plain sight by polishing the lenses of perception. An alert kind of rest.
I shall not be put in a cell, I shall not be wounded …
No fire, no sun, no moon shall burn me,
No lake, no water, no sea shall drown me.” (1)
Brigid has a long history, stretching back in Gaelic traditions to at least the pagan Celtic iron age. The words above come from the Western Highlands of Scotland, in this form probably dating to the traumatising early modern period. Caitlin Matthews suggests that, even though the the words are addressed to ‘St. Bride’ rather than the Goddess of poets, they still have the talismanic power to preserve life.
More recently, Brigid has been successfully revived as a Pagan Goddess, where, according to an affirming Imbolc self-dedication story by Morgan Daimler (2) she has lost none of her capacity to protect her devotees.
“When I decided that it was essential for me a self-dedication to the pagan path, just like all my books talked about, I chose Imbolc to do it on. At that point the holiday to me was on the 2nd, the same day as America celebrated Groundhog Day, and was about cleansing and blessing of the self, so it seemed ideal for a self-dedication. I got everything together and when the night of the ritual arrived I was excited to take such a life changing step. At 13, coming from a non-religious background, doing something like this was momentous and I felt like I was ready to commit myself to the spirituality I had been studying.
“I went out alone into the bitter cold, without a winter coat on, and tried to do the ritual the way I had learned how to, but it was hard to focus. February in Connecticut is frigid and the darkness on that particular night was total, without any moon to light my way. It was Brigid’s holiday, so I automatically started calling on her, asking for her help, for the strength to do what I planned to do. At the same time it was almost a reflex to call on a Goddess I associated with warmth a light under those circumstances. It was important to me to make a declaration of my religious path, the books I’d read at that point had emphasized the need to be outdoors, and I was too stubborn to let the cold weather stop me. So I prayed to Brigid.
“It’s funny the way, as children, we simply take experiences in our stride, without considering them at all out of the ordinary. I don’t remember ever feeling Brigid’s presence or having a sense of the numinous, but I prayed and then I was warm. The cold simply ceased to be something I noticed, as if everything around me had become an indoor room temperature. I took the usual half hour or so kneeling on the cold ground to do my ritual, dedicating myself to the Irish Gods and to pagan spirituality. And then I got up, collected my supplies and went back inside, feeling euphoric.
“At the time it never even registered that what I did was dangerous or that I was risking frostbite and hypothermia. And I never stopped and thought that it should seem at all remarkable to pray to Brigid for warmth and then be warm. It all seemed entirely natural and normal.
“We speak, and the Gods really do listen. Sometimes they even answer.” (2)
(1) Alexander Carmichael Carmina Gadelica Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972 (Cited in Caitlin Matthews The Element of the Celtic Tradition Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1989)
(2) Morgan Daimler Pagan Portals – Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing Well Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2016. Daimler identifies as a reconstructionist polytheist pagan working in the Irish tradition.
My sense of January this year is one of bleakness qualified by promise. I spent the first week of the year grounded by back pain. So it was a pleasure, when the time came, to walk once more among trees. Their very bareness has a certain majesty. Their simple presence suggests the prospect of transformation as the year goes on.
Here, at 3.30 pm on January 9th,, I am noticing the slow lengthening of the day. It would have been twilight at this time three weeks ago. The change has an expansive note. A new lightness and colour are suggested below. They lead me further from the lassitude and brain fog of recent days. They make the world a genuinely felt privilege to be in.
Yet a taste of disenchantment does have its value. More than once, I have experienced it shortly in advance of a creative shift in energy and direction. My wife Elaine and I will soon be moving to the long=term home we have been working towards for some time. We will be setting it up, not just chasing after it, over the coming weeks. Without quite seeing the future, I do feel a returning zest and optimism.
I am writing on the last day of 2022. My very best wishes for 2023 to all readers. Many blessings for the year ahead!
The picture above was taken on 26 December (in England called Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day) – this year a chilly day of bright blue sky. The truncated spire* of St. Nicholas Church, Gloucester, reaches up towards the vivid sky, despite its history of damage. For me, this image of spire against sky is one of clarity, definition and spaciousness. It is a breath of fresh air.
I don’t know what 2023 will bring. I do want to bring clarity, definition and spaciousness to whatever unfolds. As my contemplative inquiry continues, I find that it subtly modifies its purpose. Discovering and re-discovering the purpose involves an element of divination, since my thinking personality is not exactly in charge.
It is as if authentic clarity and definition come out of the spaciousness itself, not out of cognitive review or ‘brain-storming’. These may be aids, but I have also to wait for signs. When I began this blog, I surprised myself by calling it ‘contemplative inquiry’ rather the ‘contemplative Druidry’. I see now that contemplative inquiry is the root description for my path.
For me, contemplation is a yin quality, an open and receptive engagement with experiences – most especially, with forms of relationship. Inquiry is a yang quality, actively deepening knowledge, refining understanding and seeking meaning. Together they support my path. Druidry is a vehicle that supports spiritual self-direction, and also challenges disastrous social norms concerning both nature and culture. Today I have revised the ABOUT section of this blog, on the eve of 2023, and my key statements are below:
“My contemplative inquiry began in 2012. It is grounded in modern Druidry, though not wholly defined by it. I acknowledge the influence of other sources, especially the wider turn towards an eco-spirituality that meets our historical moment. The inquiry process itself is my core practice, from which others radiate out.
“Over my inquiry years, I have found an underlying peace and at-homeness at the heart of experience. Here, it is as if I am resourced by a timeless, unboundaried dimension from which I am not separate. I find myself guided towards a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”
*NOTE ON ST. NICHOLAS’ SPIRE: the church was first built in 1190 and added to over the centuries. A 200 ft. spire was built in the fifteenth century, but received a direct hit from cannon fire in 1643, during the English Civil War. The final repair waited until 1783, when the spire was reduced in height and capped.
The picture above, taken in the mid-afternoon of the recent Winter Solstice, shows a local water meadow after heavy rain. My eyes are drawn downwards, to the reflections in the water and beyond. But height is there too, with trees and an early sunset sky. All with a sense of stillness. I felt in touch with the unknown within and beyond me, and open to the world.
Earlier in the day I had already been profoundly moved by the live-streamed funeral of John Heron, an elder for me in the field of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and also in what he called ‘participatory spirituality’. This describes a ‘spiritual animation’ that occurs ‘between people, between people and place and other kinds of beings in place’. He saw this as a spiritual inquiry process, largely outside the traditions.
Over the last several days, I have been contemplating words, not by John himself but by Carl Rogers, the originator of person-centred counselling, about this kind of openness and its power. He wrote them in continuous prose, but I have re-arranged the spacing to help with my contemplative process. I find that they help me to better understand both my failures and my successes. They are a kind of direction for me. Although they are about being with people, they have become linked also with this landscape, because of the openness I felt there, in this liminal space.
“I find that
when I am closest to my intuitive self
when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me
then whatever I do seems full of healing.
Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other.
From the collection Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1986. The translators note that “in some languages of the Middle East the word for ‘rain’ and the word for ‘grace’ are the same”.
I am very conscious at this time of year not just of darkness, but of a longer night. Here Sufi poet and teacher Rumi evokes qualities of night, suggesting potential forms of relationship with it.
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.
Winter shows itself though early twilight. The pictures above and below were taken at about 5 pm (GMT, now, with summer time a fading memory). The sky retains a certain diversity of colour – clouds are still visible. But there is a leaning towards indigo. St. Mary le Crypt sits in stillness and tranquillity.
For me, the artificial lighting behind the stained glass is just right for supporting these qualities. It illuminates but does not glare. It feels homely and welcoming. The heavy stone of this medieval church is softened by dusk. Christmas is coming – a friendly period in the church calendar.
Twilight makes space as well for another, more carnival mood. Gloucester holds a lantern procession and Christmas light switch-on every year at approximately this time and date (19 November). It winds through the old town, lights switched on overhead as it passes, to the Cathedral where a carol service is held. This year’s event was very well supported, with large numbers of people either following the procession or lining the route. It was as if everyone was ready for a festive moment, a chance for celebration and fun in a generally tough time.
Local artists had teemed up with local schools to work on an Alice in Wonderland theme for 2022. Hence the Mad Hatter in the shifting and slightly out of focus picture below. I think the makers have successfully created a Tricksterish image for him. Not entirely safe or bland.
In Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book, Alice is annoyed by the twilight zone of the Mad Hatter’s language. It seems to have “no sort of meaning” and yet be “certainly English”. He boasts about the great concert given by the Queen of Hearts, where he sang: “twinkle, twinkle little bat/How I wonder what you’re at/ Up above the world you fly/ Like a tea tray in the sky”.
What is the Mad Hatter bringing to the streets of Gloucester on this early winter’s evening? He is certainly a presence here, if hard to read, for the brief time it takes him to pass through. Winter twilight offers spaces for healing and festivity. As a liminal time, it is an arena for Tricksters too. Many possibilities are latent under this enigmatic sky.