Wilderness

‘Wilderness’, it’s such an evocative word. For me, it immediately evokes daydreams of wild places, mountaintops, vast plains, windswept beaches, storm-drenched coast, beautiful nature in its unspoiled element. Our genes are programmed to love these places, to crave air and space and sunshine and rain. We need these things to thrive, to be happy. Research shows us this time and again. Yet, here in Britain this small crowded island with its cities and agriculture, for all our green and pleasantness, mountans, valleys and rivers, there is little that is truly wilderness; by which I mean, the places that nature is allowed to be, untouched, unmanaged by humanity. Almost every inch of these islands is grazed, managed, copiced, cleared or ‘protected’. Short of travelling a considerable distance most of us have very limited access to wilderness.

If you are anything like me though, you crave it, feel the ancient need for it deep within your bones and search for it as an essential source of healing. As a pagan, nature is where I find my deepest source of solace, I think of my ancestors who for thousands and thousands of years walked and lived in vast tundra and dense forest, the nearest neighboring tribe might have been days walk away. That’s not to over romanticise an idyllic existence of course, modern life brings us much comfort that I would not be without, but it illustrates the point that we’ve lived in the wilderness for far longer than as urbanised creatures. Even here in rural Leicestershire, in my tiny village of 180 people, I struggle to think of a single place I can go, certainly without getting in my car, where the horizon in every direction is free from settlement or farm building, where my view contains no field boundary or managed hedge.

In a search for the wild, perhaps for many of us, the places that we find wilderness most easily may be on the inside. We are animals after all, our humanity is just a civilised gloss over creatures who just need to eat, sleep, love, birth and screw; just as every other creature does. It is only our unique mental processes and the ability to manipulate our environment which affords us an illusion of difference. However, whilst we crave the romanticism of the wild, so often we fight it too with every fibre. We are social beings. We fundamentally need interaction, relationship and support in order to survive. We fear to be alone, really alone, or venture into the dark places of our heads where no one else can follow. Those places are scary and we avoid them, often for good reason. We fill our lives with constant interaction, facebook, phones, TV, radio. I suspect that we do this sometimes, to avoid the dark places. There is good evidence to suggest that the sights and sounds of the modern world, noise, traffic, screentime, crowds actually have abnormal affects on our brainwaves, changing our thought patterns and responses to the world negatively. Conversely, natural sights and sounds, green spaces, woodland, sky, birdsong, positively modulate and normalise our brain patterns and responses to stimuli.

How many of us can say that we have the balance right, spending MORE time in benefical environments allowing ourselves to naturally process our feelings and emotions than we do in the places, both physical and virtual, we are bombarded with images and chatter? I know that my interactions with social media for example can be profoundly damaging if I am not extremely careful, at times removing my ability to think clearly or independently. I’m overwhelmed by the detail of others lives and a level of interaction and sharing that feels to me sometimes, to be profoundly abnormal and intrusive. I am caught between the need and want to support friends and the need for peace, headspace, and solitude. It’s hard to get the balance right. For many of course, social media is extremely beneficial, relieving feeling of lonliness and social isolation, connecting people accross oceans and distance. But for others it adds another layer of complication to modern life to be navigated and managed. Or worse, becomes a sticking plaster to the things we really should be thinking about and dealing with, but aren’t.

All this returns me again to the need for wilderness. Sometimes we just need to disconnect from the chatter, let it all go, and to work out again what is authentic, the people, relationships and things that matter to us most in the real world. Sometimes in order to do that we need to be alone, to wander a little and get a bit lost. I would argue that there are times in our lives where this wandering is not only desirable, it’s absolutely essential because without it we only ever know ourselves as we are reflected in the eyes of others. To return to the wilderness even if that is a metaphorical wilderness is part of an ancient human process, when we can no longer bottle it up, button it up, suck it up, and when to continue to do so does us more harm than good.

When we need to find again a sense of self which is independent and a strength which comes from centre and not from others, getting lost can be helpful. There is profound use in stopping, sitting and peacefully acknowledging your surroundings, realising that you have no idea where you are or what to do. In the moment that you stop pushing, stop fighting, stop running, stop trying to be somewhere else, and recognise that you are lost in the wilderness, the panic and urgency is calmed and the answer emerges – for there is no other – you learn to say simply, “I’m here” and find a sense of presence in the moment. In the moment, we breathe, are able to hear the birdsong, the sea, the wind in the trees, and smell the honeysuckle when before we were distracted. In the moment, we can look for the place on the horizon where the sun rises or the side of the tree that the lichen grows to help us orientate again. But we can only do this effectively when we have the space and time to do so.

Of course few of us are ever truly alone, enforced  lonliness is a terrible place to be and the point is not to permanently isolate ourselves in the quest. Having people around us, who honour our need for wilderness and support the vision quest is vital. In such a way we can be lost in quiet company, where those who understand the need will stand with you and hold the compass as it spins, or quietly watch as you smooth out the map. What is needed in the wilderness are those able to suspend their own need to locate, push, solve the problem, move, chivvy or cheer us, knowing that wilderness is healing in itself, and the process of stopping and locating ourselves is the only way to go forward. This may take time, a lot of time, but when we finaly find the courage to move again, located in the moment, the path will emerge from the undergrowth and the wilderness will return to the familiar. The clarity and strength we have gained will teach us to be less frightened of returning to the wilderness again when we need to, because we come back to the world stronger than we left it. Perhaps most importantly though, in experiencing wilderness and its capacity to heal, we learn to support the process for others, suspending our own needs, and witness quietly as they too stop and smooth out the map.

 

 

 

Wakeful Priesthood

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As is so often the case, I am motivated to write by a discussion I have read or been a part of in internet land over the past few days and weeks. This post is no different and coincidentally, I note that Nimue has been motivated to write on a similar subject here with a slightly different slant. It is an issue I have considered and grappled with for a few years now, searching for a path that I would consider to hold the most honour. The issue is that of Pagan Priesthood.

As always within the pagan community and its many branches, gaining consensus on an issue is somewhat like herding cats. This in particular is a difficult and thorny subject, with many and varied viewpoints which seems to elicit some very emotional responses. Not least I suspect, because many pagans arrived in their chosen tradition, in part as a direct rejection of established religion and all that entails. The language of priesthood is for some, simply too close to this. Perspectives range from those who do not see the need for a priesthood at all, feeling that they do not need anyone to stand between them and the gods, those who rely on priests for teaching, ritual and guidance, and those who appoint themselves as professional priests taking on the role full time. Unlike established religions, there is no ‘church’ to appoint, pay or regulate those who take on the role and whilst there may be small groups and teaching schools who do offer training anyone can chose to undertake the role. Whilst I firmly believe this to be a strength of paganism and seriously hope we never go down that sort of C of E route and all the corruption it entails, the lack of it does create some problems of its own which require careful consideration. After all, where do the priests come from, who makes them, who ensures that they are not fiddling with the children, and further do we need them at all?

My answer to that final question; ‘do we need them at all?’ is an emphatic yes. Whilst many do feel that they do not need a priest to minister for them, having the confidence to do this themselves, there will always be times, and I can think of many in my own life when we need to hand that role over to someone who is really good at it. A perfect example is a wedding, a day when we have so many things to think of: the dress, the cake, the flowers, the ring, whether Auntie Betty is being looked after, that we need someone to do this for us. After all, we are probably not cooking the wedding breakfast or serving the buffet ourselves either. We need the day to be an ‘Occasion’, the community – our friends and family need the gathering, the moment, the spectacle, to feel the job well done, to recognise and support our moment of transition and change and this for many, requires a person who can hold the space and the focus for us to do what is needed. But priesthood is about more than the rituals and the weddings, it is about shouldering the responsibility that our traditions will continue, that we will teach the next generation the skills needed, and within that, comes the role of the teacher. There really is no substitute (I believe) for the dedicated, one to one teaching relationship that guides and mentors us through the decades of learning the skills and working through our own ego sufficiently to do it well. It is usually the pagan priests who offer (or should be offering) this kind of dedicated teaching.

So to return to the previous questions: who appoints a priest and ensures they are doing a good job? I would give four answers: The Self, The Gods, The Ancestors and The Community. Each are an important ingredient in the mix and a vital part of good teaching ensures that the student (and would be priest) has sufficient relationship with each to understand what they are taking on when they step forward. Each of these four is a post in itself, the first three arise out of our own deeply personal relationships and sense of duty, service and calling, but it is community that is perhaps most immediate. For unless the community we serve recognises us as holding the role of the priest and more specifically that we are doing it well, with ethics and honour,  no one will ask us for those services.

It is the consideration of community that leads me to the issue of payment or exchange. After all, the priest provides a service, gives up her time, incurs costs and expends emotional energy. Not only that, but people value what is given to them most when they feel that they have made equal payment in exchange. So should the priest charge? Again this is a loaded issue with many feeling that it is somehow wrong to charge money for spiritual services. Whilst I am not of this view, I do believe that we need to exercise care when mixing priestwork and money. There are a number of charlatans out there and integrity so often seems inversely proportionate to the sums of money involved. Priestwork is not the same as any other job where we can demand a living wage from an employer for the work we do and I worry when I hear folks expressing that the community owes them a living or has a responsibility to support them. Because I don’t believe it does; that responsibility rests solely with ourselves.

Priesthood is a job of devotion and service first and foremost; it has to be to retain its integrity. Sadly there are a number of folks out there offering magical healing, a way to the truth or worse, exploitation. The ethical responsibilities of the priest, working with people in sometimes extremely vulnerable spiritual situations means that it is of paramount importance that we keep our egos in check. Getting rich is one sure fire way to exaggerate, out of all sense of proportion, our own importance. I firmly believe in the principle of equal exchange and it is what I base the priestwork that I do upon. I will ask for expenses where I am out of pocket and an exchange of energy for my time. Sometimes that energy takes the form of money, sometimes it is a favour, a bill paid, food or shopping or cleaning. It will depend upon what the person has, how much they can afford and what they can offer. Not being paid the agreed price or not being paid on time is of course deeply disheartening, and frustrating and a different issue entirely. Yet,  most working within the priesthood do not expect to grow rich, I have a strong instinct that to struggle, to a greater or lesser extent, is a part of the role. Priesthood has a long tradition of simplicity, monasticism, and frugalness. It is integral, important and it keeps us humble. If we arrive in the priesthood without realising this, we may be in trouble. To what extent we struggle with day to day living is, to a certain extent, between us and our gods and the opportunities we make and create for ourselves. If we do not have enough, we are not asking enough or more likely, not clearly enough of the right people in the right way. Possibly we need to reassess our perspective on what enough actually is. But then I believe this is a good philosophy for life in general.

I chose not to work as a full time priest, because whilst I know and have known those who do, in many ways I feel the same about the career priest as I do about a the career politician. It is not sustainable in the long term and we are in danger of losing touch with the world in a way which is not healthy. Not only that but in making priesthood into a career we are in danger of losing what brought us to it in the first place and it becomes nothing more than a job like any other with it’s toil and tedium. Having other ways of paying the mortgage not only keeps our feet on the ground and helps us to remain useful in wider society beyond the small confines of our own perspectives, but it removes the sense of desperate financial need on our ministry and prevents the breeding of that dreadful sense of entitlement, loneliness, bitterness and frustration when inevitably we don’t earn enough.

The primary motivation of the priest must be the work we are doing for the gods and the community beyond any finacial recompense. That is not to say we should not receive fair exchange for the blood sweat and tears, and of course we all need to eat but the life of a priest was never one of ease, nor should it be. This keeps us wakeful, striving, searching, doing our best and the rewards that priesthood brings in terms of our own satisfaction, relationships with the gods and ancestors is in many ways the payment we receive for choosing to walk this road.

Walking the Cotswold Way.

A Pilgrimage to Sulis Minerva.

The Beginning and the End

The Beginning and the End

The idea of pilgrimage is always one that has fascinated me; there is something very sacred about taking the time out of day-to-day life to devote to making a journey. As a teenager I studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and was swept up as much by the act of travelling to a place of reverence as the characters and their raucous stories.

In a world where we travel a hundred miles in an afternoon and think nothing of popping down the road by car to our ‘local’ sacred site, which may actually be 20 or 30 or even more miles away, so few of us know how it feels to walk 100 miles or more, or the effort, energy and the determination that takes even for someone as blessed as I am with good health and the use of my legs. Yet, it was a more common occurrence to our ancestors for whom often, walking was the only means of transport.

As pagans, we often talk of the act of journeying as being central to our spirituality. Whether we track the inner paths of meditations, the shamanic journeys of healing and divination or the perfectly orchestrated journey of a well planned ritual for a rite of passage or celebration, the language of the journey is common to most of us. But, how often do we make a journey that is consciously and actually walked, step by step and moment by moment, a journey that may last a few days, a week, a month or even longer; surrendering ourselves completely to where that journey may take us and the challenges that may be encountered along the way? Of course there are many ways to create this kind of journey but as I discovered this week, a long distance walk is particularly powerful.

When my friend Sophie asked me at New Year if I would like to walk the Cotswold Way with her in the coming May, a 102.5 mile route that stretches from Chipping Campden, down and across the entirety of Gloucestershire, to Bath in Somerset, my immediate reaction was ‘YES!” quickly followed by a feeling of trepidation and the wondering of what I had let myself in for. I was a casual walker, easily capable of 7 or 8 miles without a problem, but I knew that that was not going to be adequate for this kind of journey where a pace of 10 -16 miles needed to be maintained every day for 8 days. Not only that, but we decided very early on not to use the services of a sherpa to carry our bags. We were going to do this properly; carrying everything we needed was an important part of the journey.

For both of us, the Cotswolds are a sacred place. The escarpment that stretches from the Midlands to the south of England has been a backbone to much of our lives. For me, it links the Cotswold stone of my childhood, the bedrock upon which I now live, a significant part of my life for the last decade, and the ancestral land of my mothers line deep into Gloucestershire and Somerset.  We knew that to make a pilgrimage along the escarpment following that line down to its natural end in Bath where the steaming red water pours from the rocks into the roman baths at the shrine of Sulis Minerva, who became our constant companion en route, would be powerful.

Having trained extensively this spring, we both had a fair idea that we could cope with the maximum daily distance of 16 miles. But, we had no way of knowing whether we could cope with it day after day without actually doing it.  In the event, the repeated distance, carrying of a pack and the hot weather we were blessed with for the first three or four days became a recipe for blisters, sore feet, and a not insignificant amount of pain and it seemed to be so for many of the other walkers we met on route. We quickly realised that this too was a part of the journey and that the pain became a devotional act, a sacrifice to the gods of the landscape through which we passed and in sympathy with the many ancestral feet that had walked the path before us. We soon understood that pilgrimage is not supposed to easy and the satisfaction and achievement of reaching the end is in direct proportion to the trials experienced along the way.

We were overwhelmed too with hospitality, folk seeming to understand on some level the importance of what we were doing. We met friends, and relatives who took us in, fed and watered us, shared supper or a drink and walked with us along the way. Other walkers on the same journey became our companions and whilst we were all walking for very different reason, there was a shared understanding, each became an important part, the journey being as much about the people we met as the landscape we walked through. In Sophie’s words we “had one the most fabulous and memorable weeks of our lives. We giggled and sang our way along the Cotswold Way repeating the mantra that ‘pain is only sensation and will arise and pass away’, when the pain in our feet was hard to bear. We walked through blazing sun and howling gale, climbing up and down the escarpment time after time. We walked through bluebell and garlic filled woods, regaled by birdsong and the wind in the trees; over hill forts and long barrows covered in cowslips where we stopped for the odd extreme knitting session; crossed trunk roads and the M4 and finally arrived in Bath where we made offerings to Minerva at her spring,” tears running down our faces as we cast the traditional offerings of money into the blood-red waters, breathing the warmth and steam of her sanctuary whilst tourists snapped pictures and milled around oblivious. For most, the traditional end to the Cotswold way is the Abbey, but for us it was here, in the caves beneath the city.

Having completed the journey and today resting at home, I am left with a deep impression of the power of the pilgrimage. Its ability to challenge and focus us, provide a medium for the outward expression of an inner devotion to ancestors and landscape. I know that I will do it again and I know other pagans who are helping to resurrect that tradition within our religion where it is sadly lacking. For me it has been the ultimate experience of learning to walk this sacred land in a way I had not experienced before and one I hope that others might be inspired to explore.

With thanks to Chris Hastie you can see the route from our GPS tracks here

Very many congratulations to Sophie too, who raised over £1300 for Prostate Cancer UK. You can still sponsor her here

She who just had other things to do.

This post has been gestating so to speak, for some time now. It began in early spring last year (hence the slightly unseasonal references), got added to when Cat Treadwell posted about a similar subject last year and got completed today when I recieved yet another well meaning but ill-considered comment.

As the cycle turns again past the Spring equinox, the days lengthen and the sun warms, the world suddenly seems alive with creatures busy becoming, or preparing to become parents as if their lives depended on it. It is a little early yet for the baby birds and many other creatures, but there are lambs – albeit brought on early by artificial farming systems. Most other creatures wait a while for the sun to be a little warmer yet and the food sources to be more abundant. The sap is rising though, and the first scents of lust are in the air. It seems that each thing is starting to express that primary urge to procreate, indeed the goddess of motherhood, that deep, aching, yearning drive, begins (for the females at least) to obliterate all else. For me she is not ever loving, nurturing, soft and yielding, but a demanding bitch who will get her way at all costs and damn who gets hurt in the process. Spiders eat their mates to provide them with the energy to gestate and birth sometimes consumed in turn by their offspring. Frogs mate themselves literally to death to produce clouds of spawn, and Blue tits run themselves ragged to the point of exhaustion, sparing little for themselves as they stuff another worm down a gaping baby’s mouth. As a midwife, I know that motherhood can offer moments of utter beauty and tenderness, but I also know that a good amount of the time, it is not ‘nice’.

As pagans at this time of equinox, we start to get busy with eggs, obscene amounts of chocolate, hares, daffodils and other representations of the spring. We celebrate the first scents of warmer air, fertility and life, the growing fecund earth, our Mother. Motherhood: it is a central theme that runs through out just about every paganism throughout the world, but where does Maiden-Mother-Crone leave those of us who are intentionally childless and intend to remain so, or those who so desperately wanted children but cannot have them for whatever reason. What of the Bitch, Witch, Barren-Woman, Working-Woman, and Woman-With-Just-Plain-Old-Better-Things-To-Do? She rarely features in the equation although she is abundant in Mythology. No, whichever way we look at it, the woman without children is an oddity, a challenge and often, the rest of society is just not quite sure what to do with her. If you are unable to have a child, in addition to having to deal with your own sense of grief and often rage, you are the subject of pity and hushed voices, ‘it’s so sad…, such a shame‘ the sense that no one quite knows what to say as if you have somehow failed in your essential duty. Conversely, woman who chose to be childless often appear to be unwitting prey to those in life who, bowled over by the wonder and joy of their own parenthood, consider it their personal mission in life to win you over, not realising that the source or their own joy is rarely, if ever, as interesting to the rest of the world.

It seems that as soon as a woman gets to a certain age, usually her 30’s, other women, always mothers themselves, seem to decide for you that your biological clock is undoubtedly ticking. How many times have I heard the phrases ‘so, it won’t be long now before…’, ‘you really don’t want to leave it too late…’, ‘you’ll regret it if you don’t, my children are my greatest joy..’ and other such encouragements to bite the bullet and join the mother club. As a woman in her 30’s who falls into the Woman-With-Just-Plain-Old-Better-Things-To-Do category, on explaining my position I am invariably met with either pity or a knowing smile that says ‘one day you’ll crack and then you’ll realise what you’ve been missing.’ On posting something similar to Facebook the other day, irritated beyond measure by yet another of these comments, I was amazed at the other women and a good few men too who empathised. Childless for different reasons, the majority were irritated, hurt or baffled by the assumption that childbearing should be the normal thing to do, that anyone who goes by a different path is somehow not normal, has something wrong with them or simply will not be complete without a baby.

Without doubt, the fleetingly rare times in my life where I have been even remotely tempted to have a child have all been motivated by my ancestors. The understanding that we are at the front of a long line of inheritance that connects us back to earliest humanity and beyond is where, if there is any sense of it at all, my greatest feelings of duty and responsibility lie. If I don’t pass on that inheritance do I fail my ancestors in my genetic duty? Within a religion that holds such deep reverence for our ancestors, I think perhaps there is the tendency for pagans to beat ourselves with this particular ceremonial plank more than others. Yet, in striving to be a thinking, rational, wakeful human woman, in a world where over consumption runs rife within a growing population who not only demand to be fed and watered but comfortable with it, I would encourage every woman to make a conscious choice, wherever possible about childbearing. After all, having a child (or three) will undoubtedly be the biggest increase to your carbon footprint you will ever make, it doesn’t matter how many transatlantic fights you may have made in the past, they will pale in comparison. Apart from anything else, are my genes really so fabulous, that I just have to pass them on? I am not so special and the flow of humanity will undoubtedly continue whether I reproduce or not and I can be sure it will be just as, well… human. I would like to see motherhood as something women opt into consciously and deliberately rather than an opting out of which confounds societies unspoken expectations.

So whilst not negating the role of the mother here at all, I would like to share a celebration of the childless woman. The ones who made the choice not to, the ones who couldn’t, the ones who tore their souls open in grief at the failure and found peace on the other side, the ones who still have to find peace, the ones who never will, the spinsters, the ones who maintained their freedom with fierce courage in the face of society’s norms, growing roses and dancing in the rain. The unheard stories. Sisters I salute you.

Spirits of Place

My husband and I are moving house.  We have found a beautiful cottage in a very old Warwickshire village. It is a village that has many local legends attached to it, an old tump which has (supposedly) been a Norman castle, Saxon settlement and ancient British mound. It has a 13th century church, and several very old pubs and orchards. The place is bound together by the thousand layers of human story that have created it, the many, many ancestors who have lived and died there; the candle maker from the old factory that was dismantled in the 1980’s and the shoemaker listed in the 1841 census, are all ingredients in the glue that holds the place together. A village is a mingling of folk, from the spirits of the deep landscape, the bedrock and underground water systems, to the rivers, hedges and field boundaries; the ancient badger set in the field, the people, dead and alive, human and non, the colour of the sky and the taste of the rain are what make it what it is.

I know that the house is old. Maps from 1837 show a building plan that is identical to today’s googlemaps, so I suspect it has been a residence for nigh on 200 years. We like each other, the house and I, although my husband and I discounted it initially. It has a number of things that I wouldn’t have chosen, compromises we will have to make and there is work to be done. But there are wonderful things I would never have hoped for too: idyllic, in a quiet courtyard, a studio in the loft, a farmhouse kitchen and an old, old, apple tree. It feels to be the right house, a place we could be happy, after a good few years of hard house-hunting and upheaval, it is a place worth compromising for. Falling into the category of ‘things I wouldn’t have chosen’ are, I suspect, a number of ‘former residents’ and some slightly ‘sludgy’ energy from the previous couple, who separated whilst living there. Most of us are prepared to put in some DIY when we move house, but how many of us are prepared to put in the energy work too? Making sure that not only do we feel comfortable in our new home, but also that our home feels comfortable with us, is perhaps even more important.

Having been sensitive to the dead all my life, I have always been wary of living somewhere that I am directly required to share my space with them. I grew up somewhat afraid of the dead, no one else saw or felt what I did, which meant that people either thought I was strange, deluded, or more probably, that we just didn’t talk about these things. I certainly frightened my mother on a number of occasions and soon realised that talking about the old woman in the corner of the room wouldn’t go down too well. Either way, I quickly came to understand that the dead were to be feared. Consequently, despite the work I do as priest and teacher, the dead still frighten me at times which means I have never learned how to work with them with much skill and I am aware that I need to learn how. The idea of sharing a house with some of them makes me apprehensive. It feels to be different to much of the ancestor work that defines my craft, because rightly or wrongly, I feel like I have more control of the situation and more importantly, I know them and feel comfortable with them.

Consideration of this situation has led me to think long and hard about the best and most ethical way to work with the spirits of this new place. I wonder, what it will be ok to clear out and what I have no right to ask to leave? After all, any person living there may have been resident for 200 years, what right do I have to ask them to go and more importantly, are they integral to the place, literally holding it together in some way, part of the building itself? What door might drop off, wall start crumbling or pipe burst as a consequence of their leaving? On the other hand, helping blocked and stagnant energy to move through, energetic house cleaning, would seem perfectly acceptable when done with good relationship and consent, healing for all concerned. Ultimately, I think that is a discussion to be had amongst everyone after we move in; what and who wants and needs to stay, what and who can be released. There is also a balance too, just as with all things in life, what do we disturb and rearrange that we might exist with any degree of comfort, because it will have to become comfortable or we won’t stay.

All of this prompted me to ask these questions, both on the practicalities and the ethics of working with the spirits of place in this way, in an online, broadly Druid, discussion group. I was surprised by some of the responses I got. Everything from stories of folk who had been in a similar situation and found a way to create relationship with the place that was harmonious, to those who recommended a spiritual ‘butt kicking’ and a sense that the world is for the living, that the dead don’t belong here. The second school of thought led me to wonder how common it is that even within the Druid community we still carry so many assumptions left over from a broadly Christian and dualistic mindset. Firstly the assumption that the world is for us – the living, to be used as we see fit, regardless of what other persons we might share it with, and secondly, that the dead do not belong here; that they live somewhere else, another supernatural, unknowable dimension in another time and place. That somewhere might be Heaven, the Summerlands, Valhalla, Hel, Annwn or the many other places that our mythologies sing to us of. Wherever they are, we cross our fingers and hope against hope that they are anywhere other than here. The dead make us uncomfortable and so we comfort ourselves with the idea that they are somewhere else, in a collective hall, singing and feasting away eternity. If they are here, then (we assume), nature has obviously gone wrong, and the process has failed for some reason, they are somehow stuck and require help to be moved on. Is it really that they shouldn’t be here though, or just that we’d rather they weren’t?

Whilst I certainly do not discount the existence of any, all and many more of these ‘Otherworld’ places, the world is vast, multi-veiled and complex, I do not understand there to be only one ending place where we all ultimately end up. The soul too is multifaceted, rarely sticking together in any wholly coherent form after death. To the Animist, body and soul are not separate, with the animating force leaving the cold corpse behind at death. Consciousness fizzes through fingers and toes, heart and hair as an integrated whole. When we die, memories, personality, layers of thought, emotion, blood, bone, fluid, atoms, carbon and oxygen start to disperse and with it our human solidity and coherency. We become memories in mud, thoughts that remain with our living friends and family, songs in the wind, particles in carrots and piss in the water, wandering the places that we loved or were attached to in life. Parts may dream on in our concepts and memories of Summerland or Hel, spend a while held in the arms of our gods, whatever we conceive that to mean, or exploring the stars and becoming a hundred other lives and a myriad other existences. Reincarnation becomes so much more exciting! To me, there is no sense that there is only one option, that the same is true for each individual or that there are rules about where we go or where we should or shouldn’t be. Rather, I would suggest that here is a perfectly legitimate place for many of these ancestral folk and shards of memory in their varying degrees of consciousness and coherency, as a part of the collective of the tribe and community, the richness of place and within the humming wholeness of landscape, integral and essential to it as we understand it.  We should think very carefully before we make decisions about where these folks belong and what is best for them. Just maybe they have made a decision or know something we don’t? Perhaps the first thing we should deal with is our own sense of discomfort and unease?

We talk a lot in our tradition about the spirits of place and I wonder what each of us imagines we are speaking to when we call to them? Is it just the nice things, the trees, the sky, the wind? Or is it all of nature, present in its blood and bone, mess, difficulty, memory and emotion. All the things that actually make a place what it is?

To make sacred

I have been reading with interest Nimue’s postings over the last few days on sacrifice, offerings and dedication, here http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/no-sacrifice/ and also Cat’s words here http://druidcat.wordpress.com/ Sadly I missed Cat’s original words, so can only respond to her current post.

*edited to say that Miss Cat has now re blogged her original http://druidcat.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/sacrifice-2/#comment-531

For Nimue, sacrifice is a word that she would happily see dropped from modern Druid vocabulary, evidently  it doesn’t float her Druid boat, and that is fine. For Cat is seems to be something she uses in her daily devotions. For me, it is absolutely integral and central to my own craft, expressing and cementing a number of my personal relationships with my gods. Rather than drop it from use, I would invite us to reclaim it, considering instead its ancient meanings, steeped as they are in the deeply religious and devotional, releasing some of the fear that perhaps the word invokes in us as Pagans, which organised, monotheistic religion has so effectively instilled in us and society. I have no idea how closely my own practice and understanding matches the rest of the Druid community, but I feel Sacrifice to be a beautiful, religious concept, full of love, and gratitude, speaking powerfully of change and transformation, and what we dedicate and devote to being sacred in our own lives and what we release, leaving behind us in order to allow growth and change.

To look at the etymology of the word, at its root, we find the latin sacer meaning holy; it is the same word from which we draw our modern word ‘sacred’. We also find facio, to make or do. So the act of sacrifice is to actively dedicate something as sacred or holy. This is reflected in the most common use of the word found in translation around the world; that is, to give a gift of something deeply valued to a deity. For me too, this is sacrifice at its simplest and most powerful; the act of devoting a thing to the Gods so that it becomes sacred, set apart, no longer mundane, entrusted to a deity for safe keeping, transformation or simply as a gift. To me it is distinct from the small every day offerings and dedications I give, the food set out for my ancestors, the seeds shared with the birds and spirits of place, the prayers made as I kindle the fire, my daily affirmations of service to gods and community. Sacrifice is about the big things we give, it does hurt, it changes things because we release, let go and make space for new growth. Change is not easy, we shy away from it, it makes us uncomfortable but it is also necessary, a part of nature; the amount of space we make being directly proportional to the amount that we may grow.

Spending time watching as the cycles turn shows us this. We prune the roses so that we get better foliage and more beautiful blooms, the tree puts an enormous effort into fruit in the hopes that just one seed might find the fertile soil in which to grow. Watching as the box of baby blue tits fledged last summer right outside my window was a serious lesson in the sacrifices that parents make in order to bring their children to healthy adult hood. The babies, easily distinguishable from their parents, fat, healthy with beautiful feathers, sat at various strategic points in the garden as mother and father fed every last morsel of food they could find into their waiting mouths, keeping nothing for themselves. By contrast, the parents, thin, scrappy, and hungry, were ragged and exhausted from the hard demands of their young brood. This winter past, watching my sister go through the same process with her little boy, she is only just starting to reclaim a small sense of her own identity and self as he grows and finds some independence, she returning just a day or two a week to work. I realise how much she has given him, how little she has kept for herself and how just how much my own decision not to become a mother is about not being prepared to make that particular sacrifice.

And yet, however hard sacrifice is, it should always be willing and herein lies its power. We give, the biggest thing we can give, whether that is our ignorance, our time, our pain, our fear, our reluctance to change, in absolute freedom, knowing that sometimes it is the only way to grow. Or knowing perhaps if we do not chose to give it willingly, the frosts of winter may take it anyway which may be more painful. Knowing either way that we often hold the keys to our own bonds, the things that hold us back, keep us small. Sometimes it is easier to remain the victim, or the person who is frightened or hurt than make the biggest sacrifices to allow us to break those perceived bond, and change. One of the greatest and reoccurring sacrifices in my own life is the sacrifice of fear. Fear is an old friend, fear feels like hell, but it makes life easy. It means I can find excuses not to do the things that are challenging, that make me a bit vulnerable or exposed. I hate doing things in public, I would far rather follow my solitary nature and spend the day at home, which is daft for a person who regularly stands in front of a class of 50 students to teach, or a congregation of 100 at a hand-fasting. Yet I know they are important things to do, they are a part of my own vow of service, I value them, as do the students I teach and the couples I marry. So I gather up my fear and hand it over to my Goddess sacrificing it into the cauldron or offering it as blood onto the earth. The space that it leaves does create a vulnerability, but it allows me space to grow the courage I need to walk on. Without the repeated sacrifice of fear, I would not be doing the work that I do. More poignantly, a friend recently sacrificed her uterus to cancer, it was not a choice that she wanted to make, it bloody hurt and I do not envy her. With it she lost much of her sense of identity as a woman and she will now have to build a new identity based on what she has left, but she made that sacrifice to the gods of death in order that she might live. It was the only thing she could give. It would be nice to think that life is not meant to hurt, but the fact is that it does and sometimes we sacrifice simply to survive; sometimes the offering of an apple is not enough.

For many years I was part of a grove that hugely valued the act of sacrifice. It was something we celebrated at Lammas as being a part of the natural ebb and flow of life. We built John Barley Corn from sheaves of wheat we gathered in the field and dressed him with love and care, in fruits and flowers from our gardens as a symbol of how hard the earth works to feed us, giving selflessly, giving her bounty that we may eat and live. The small creatures that are taken by the combine, that our ‘nature loving’ society rarely thinks of, were grieved for. The sacrifice of the corn felt to be an ancient mystery, far bigger and older than any of us. To some he is Frey, to others Beowa, Yarn Kaax or Osiris. Either way, the story is fairly universal, the idea of sacrifice playing an important part in each story and to the peoples and cultures from whence those stories came. The symbol of the sickle or even the scythe is a powerful one in Druidry, linked with the first sacred cut or the harvest.

So, our ancestors standing with us as we cried for the death of the corn, that we might take it and transform it in to the bread that would feed our bodies, in deepest gratitude and thanks we made our own sacrifices to the earth in return, searching deep for the things that might in some way be sufficient exchange for what we were given. For some it may have been ignorance, others vowed only to buy second-hand clothes, reduce consumption, go vegetarian, buy organic, recycle, shower less. For each it was something that would take time, effort, that was not easy or was actually painful, inspired by what we were seeing and feeling in nature all around us.

Sacrifice is not supposed to be easy. Where is the value in what we give if it costs us nothing? Yet, neither is masochism, pain or hurt the point of sacrifice. The point is letting go what is necessary in order to move, change and grow and devoting that letting go to the gods we serve. Whilst the letting go is hard and often painful, there too can be great joy, freedom and healing in sacrifice done well. I think it is as powerful for us today as it was to our ancient ancestors.

Magic, Nature and Flow.

Having finally crawled out of the fug of winter (I know it’s almost June!) with enough clarity to make sense of my own scattered soul to make words, I realise how long it has been since I last wrote and poignant that my last post was about the snow. Such a contrast to the heavy rains of April and the beautiful sunshine of the past week. Getting to this point has been a journey of will, determination and creative thinking. Life looks quite different now to how it did six months ago. The process of working out how we have arrived at a certain point – if we have not done so consciously and assessing moment by moment how we might move forward in the best and most honourable way, is a foundational part of my Druid practice, particularly when it seems that all we can do is take the next step or the next breath. How we actually go about that, often says quite a lot about our own individual philosophy and paganism.

We get all sorts of questions into the Druid Network office from the mad to the media and everything in between. This week we got a question asking about ‘Druid Spells’, if there was a book available and what Druid magic would be like. Cat has already blogged on this here http://druidcat.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/magic-spells-and-creation/ (although this theme seems to be having its perennial linking problem so you will just have to copy and paste!) and it’s amazing to see how differently we deal with this issue even within the Druid community, like anything, ask a Druid a question and you will get as many different answers as there are Druids. Those answers will be similar, but definitely not the same. Being the first to pick up the question, I responded  from my own experience, which is that magic, in its most usual definition of being the art of producing a desired effect or result through the human control of forces of nature using spells, is just not really a part of modern Druid practice at all, at least not as I have experienced it. I do not use it in my own religious practice and I have not yet met a Druid who spends hours slaving over spell books, ensuring that they have the right colour candle, scented oil, incantation and herb for that perfect love spell. More usually there are too many sunsets to watch, paths to be walked and bird song to dance to, the real business of living to be tended.

For me too, there is the question of ethics in considering magic. My religion is about recognising and responding to the sanctity found in every particle of Nature. In creating conscious, living, healthy relationship with Nature and all its elements there is the constant striving to see and experience Nature in its own sense of self, rather than the assumptions and beliefs I impose upon it in my own stumbling, clumsy human perspective. For it is only when we allow something to BE, in its own right that we are able to create the honourable relationship that Druids so often speak of. If we are constantly placing our own expectations and needs upon another creature we do not allow it the freedom that we are constantly seeking ourselves, to exist within its own sense of self; whether that creature is a rock, a tree, the lettuce for lunch or a relationship with a partner or friend. So is it right, honourable or ethical to impose our will upon nature so that we can get what we want magically, particularly if we start to understand that in getting what we want, another thing, person or creature may have its own intention or freedom compromised.

In her post, Cat asks an interesting question “if we take magic to mean ‘creating change in conformity with will’, then yes, that’s a definition perhaps most closely tied to Witches. However, when you think about it, don’t we all do that on a daily basis? It’s a good question and my answer to it is not straight forward. Yes, humanity does do that, we do it all the time; we dig for oil, throw our rubbish away, eat food that has been air freighted, fly off on holiday and poison the sea. That’s the big stuff. We also eat, wear clothes, drink tea, swat the fly; all of the small things of our day to day lives that mean that someone somewhere has compromised itself so that we can carry on the necessities of our daily lives in an unconscious fashion. Is that magic? Does that justify the use of magic in our practice? For me the answer has to be unboubtedly ‘no’. The process of learning Druidry, certainly as I was taught it, it to constantly strive to expand our consciousness of what we are in relationship with so that we do not use and abuse, imposing our will on the world, or at least hugely reducing our own impact in that way. Of course not one of us is perfect, that’s an impossible task. I drive to work, I power my home and I probably use more that my fair share of water simply by living in the west. There are a myriad of things that I do on a daily basis that I impose my will on, using them to my advantage largely because I have no idea of my true impact. It is this ignorance that allows us to do this and it’s a constant journey of learning how we can do it better, rejecting the ignorance that allows us complicity. It is a fine balance, choosing consciously where we compromise in order to survive and letting go when it is greed, rather than need which drives us.

Of course, I understand Cat to be talking about the will to get things done being a good thing, rather than justifying the abuse that humanity consciously or unconsciously imposes on the world around us, but it can be easy to confuse the two. The will and determination to move forward, that imposition of will on the self to get the job done is of course just as necessary to survival if we don’t want to spend our lives in a small dark hole. There is a difference, though, between asserting will upon another and will upon ourselves to create change, the latter I would argue, being desirable and necessary. The absolute key to honourable relationship is working from the principle, however impossible its complete realisation, that we only ever have the right to change ourselves. In understanding the mammouth impossibility of this task, as consciously striving Druids, we seek the relationship, co-operation and consent with other beings in order to make life viable, understanding what our effect is and working to minimise our impact wherever possible. Magic in the classical sense is about maximising our impact, forcing a change which otherwise might not naturally have come about.

So what do we do when we need something we don’t have: a lover, a new job, money, or simply a way to breath through the next crisis or feed the kids? Do we crack out the coloured candles, oils, 3 feet of red cord and perfectly worded spell? Well, no. Without really good deep working relationship with which to affect that change within ourselves such things start to look like superstition. I have trouble understanding how an orange candle (and I understand that it must be orange!) will help with finding the money to pay the electricity bill. We could of course just accept that we are not meant to have whatever it is we crave and work on ourselves to find the acceptance to that affect; that might well be what we need to do, however difficult. Yet the the Druid also understands that existence unfolds, created moment by moment as an inevitable creation of all that has gone before in that unstoppable web of Wyrd. We have a certain degree of influence over what we will become, how we will change and our direction and what will happen to us from moment to moment.

How much of an effect we can have is down to practice and consciousness,  it is a process we can learn, and continue to learn through out our spiritual lives. We learn that we cannot fix it all and we cannot always have what we want. Wyrd is bigger than all of us, there are elements and relationships that we will never be aware of but this is where the real magic begins. Not in asserting ourselves upon the world, to change it to fit our needs, but in understanding how we can consciously shape ourselves to best fit the world, creating ourselves in every moment, rising to challenges and finding ease, and accepting the things we have no power over, the gifts we are offered by the gods, for they are gifts and opportunities even if we perceive them as challenge.

Today, I will make magic by going outside to lie in the sun. I know that with my back to the mud I will feel my roots extending through my skin and into the earth, respiring with the soil, the bugs and the water deep below. I know that there, I will find the wisdom and guidance of my grandmothers who have walked this road before, facing the same challenges. I will feel them in my body and blood, their strength a part of my own, the skill of their hands the skill of my hands. As I look up at the sky, sparkling with the brilliance of the sun I watch as the waves of colour move across it, blue and silver, white and violet and yellow, the different colours of heat and wind that move over the land. I feel the breeze on my skin, the breath of the wind, the song of the birds, as it ruffles the feathers of my back and I lift off into the air playing in the thermals above, watching my body below. I will arrive back having found the strength to walk into the next moment with the company of the ancestors, the freedom and clarity to make the right decisions and the knowledge of where the money for that electricity bill will come from. And the only thing I will have changed is myself. Magic.