Sometimes it’s all about the words. And sometimes, words just aren’t enough.
It’s part of our makeup as humans to communicate, to convey our experiences to others, both as a validation and to make sense of them to ourselves. We journal as an act of personal psychiatry and historical record. We blog to tell our stories to others, and to throw ideas out into the wider world, entirely unknowing of who will read them.
The paradox of what could be called Contemporary Pagan Practice (or 21st Century Magic, if you want to be glamorous) is that so much of it is hidden behind words. So many books, websites, so much talking, setting down traditions in stones of words mortared with vague ideas… and yet not much of it actually containing much that helps. So many secrets… or are they, really?
Since my last post, I’ve been pondering those Pagan ‘absolutes’, those key tenets that we are taught to work from. Each theory came from another after all, like any philosophy, those stones building on the work of others, tested by new readers/practitioners for strength and relevance, and built on in turn.
But how lazy have we become, with our ready supply of electronic information? Remember when to find something out you had to actively seek it? Go to libraries, order books from far away, write letters to pick the brains of others. Now the dilemma (and skill) is sifting through the overload of data, the ‘fact’ from opinion, the truth from fiction. Isn’t it just easier to pick the ‘facts’ that we like and work from them, without testing them to see if they actually fit our own needs, worldview, life?
And that in itself is another paradox. How can any spiritual ‘truth’ truly be true? Surely every spiritual experience is subjective, open to interpretation… and when turned into words, pinned down like a butterfly in a presentation frame, losing so much of its reality as to be useless – or at best, a story.
I know that the irony here is my writing of such things itself being so limiting, as I try to pin down concepts that are just too amorphous to be adequately portrayed in language. But that’s the rub for me – that’s the mystery itself.
The ancient Bards told stories to convey meanings, human truths that exist beyond ages, passed down through generations. Life is hard, but we’ve lived it – here’s part of the map that might help. Stories worth telling and re-telling. The value of fiction is lost, found, lost again, repackaged, hidden in marketing jargon… but when the words themselves convey Truth, you read or hear them and feel the difference. Compare a daily newspaper story with a much-loved tale that you know so well, you could almost quote it. Or imagine it so vividly that you could describe the landscape, how the wind feels as it blows across moors in Middle Earth, the stink of smoke in Victorian London, the fear in the heart of a lost hero.
True words are more than just swirls on pages (or pixels on screens). Words told well can go deeper, past the intellectual, the grammatically correct, the Award-winning. Enduring words pierce the heart, the soul, conveying experiences that we all know at some level, or want to know, actively seeking out again to feel for ourselves.
This is the heart of the Bardic mystery, for me – where words resonate as experiences.
Paganism (ancient or modern), as it is understood as seeing the sacred in the world around, conveys in words what has been called a ‘mystery religion’. In other words – ahem – you need to understand the mystery to gain the knowledge. It’s experiential. Books can guide, but only you can get out there and really do.
And that, dear reader, is the laziness we so often see. People want the books to give them answers, which they can learn and parrot back without true understanding. We all do it, there’s no shame – that’s how we’re taught these days. 2+2=4 (allegedly). Or the simpler alternative: the soundbite. Look deeper? Why should we, the story’s right there in the headline! But then as a young practitioner, someone will ask you a question about those rote-beliefs and over-simplistic statements… and you’ll realize how little you truly to know.
This is the point where many step away, returning to something a little safer, more easily quantified and understood. Those who continue are essentially readying themselves for the next step – moving into the story, becoming the hero, aiming to take part in the journey to understand where the writer is coming from. And, in due course, having their own story to tell, being a guide themselves, with all of the hard-won scars they earned along the way.
So what’s the point of the words? As I said, maps are handy, guidebooks, stories from those who’ve been there before. Every journey is unique (ask any explorer), but it’s always nice to set off with a rough idea of where you’re going and what you’re going to get into.
To me, Pagan/Druid (whatever label-word you wish) practice is tangible. Proper practice, that is – real work. Feeling the change in the seasons, the different tastes of energy in a crowded room, woodland, seashore or street. The deeper knowing that goes past the regular sensory input – seeing the relationships, the meanings, the motivations, the undercurrents. Going beyond the directions and out the other side of the map book: blank page, ‘Here be Dragons’.
The difference, for example, between casting a circle as per the instructions in your first guidebook and truly doing it truly, your way, when needed. The worry in the back of your mind that you’re ‘doing it wrong’, something bad may happen, you’ll feel stupid, it’s all just playing about anyway. Then the achievement of actually feeling that connection as you work with spirit, energy, however you wish to define it. Gained by practising, getting it wrong a few times, stumbling and carrying on anyway.
That’s what helps you build your own map. Describe it with words if it helps, but the memories of those experiences become familiar with practice, even with their subtle differences based on time, location and situation. Then you know what you’re aiming for, the goal, the circuitous route to it from the initial idea of ‘I want to perform a rite for this reason’ to standing there, at the focal point of that journey, almost at the summit and prepared to truly do…
When it’s no longer about having the right coloured candles or the Very Expensive Altar Tools. Your Gods will know what you mean – step forward with honour and trust (in ritual and in life… because what’s the difference, anyway?).
This post was inspired by reading the story of a City magician, scrawling his runes in spray-paint on walls, recognising the power that we give to simple symbols – the Apple, the Golden Arches – and the simple transport magic of waving a Travelcard in the right place. The protection rite of a Lollipop Man, with his gilded robe and staff. The magical web of social media sites. We take so much for granted, that this is appropriate, that is not. What works for us, personally, ourselves? What stories do we live in, every day?
When the Bard tells his story, listen to the words. Listen deeper. See the look in his eyes, the smile on her lips. For a tale to truly be told, it must be known inside and out, otherwise the discordance is audible. The note struck true, the poetry of inspiration, Awen, muse, conveyed through a skilled traveller, is no substitute for your own experience – but if it inspires you in turn, it has fulfilled its purpose.
Sometimes a metaphorical lightbulb over the head; a cosmic kick in the rear; an ‘oh yeah, silly me’ moment when something clicks into place. The words get us there… if we let them. Learn to listen, but then be brave enough to explore for yourself. Have no doubt that someone will listen to your tale in future, to chart their own course.
As I’ve said before, you’re never alone.