Posts Tagged spirituality

Outside

When people ask me what Paganism is, I always start with a baseline. Because (let’s face it) Paganism is hard to define in a soundbite. Any spiritual path is, due to inherent complexities of belief, subjective individual perspectives… stuff most people aren’t really interested in.

Interestingly, I was also asked years ago to help explain Christianity to a lovely couple of Muslim co-workers at a temp job. My friendly manager jumped in, and we ended up using a whiteboard to illustrate. The Muslims then did likewise – and it was both fun and pretty enlightening, as you try to explain something that’s by its nature pretty amorphous.

But anyway. Paganism, I tell people, is seeing the sacred in Nature. Baseline, as best I can determine. Do any Pagans not believe this? I haven’t met them yet, if so. And I’m not sure why they would call themselves Pagans, because this kind of is the foundation of the definition.

Then come the differences. What is ‘sacred’, what is ‘natural’, how do we view this, how do we practise… it’s tricky, but it’s also interesting, to me, because this is where we can explore. Why we do what we do, but also why others do it in their own particular manner. Not saying anyone’s wrong, just poking a bit to challenge and understand.

Lately, I’ve been considering the meanings behind words we use to describe spiritual connection (specifically, how they’re often misused – or is that just the word-meaning evolving? A topic for another day). And I realized how so many of our ‘modern’ ideas are almost binary: right/wrong, us/them,  black/white… Science/Nature.

Not to go into too much detail, as it’s all out there if you want to look it up, but the idea of Science VERSUS Nature seems to have come about during the Industrial Revolution. In order to understand the world better, thinkers, scientists and engineers decided to use a mechanical model. This meant that complex forms could be understood by looking at their component parts, with a view to potentially tinkering with those to help or enhance, to find answers to Why Things Are the way they are.

So came the idea of physical versus meta-physical. What is empirically real – provable by Science – as opposed to what is not.

But the answers failed to be found, as each discovery simply posed more questions. Shades of me and my whiteboard and pen, trying to define a religion within finite space and with a language that didn’t quite help.

And again… I don’t think this is a bad thing. But I can see the frustrations when the ideas of the world don’t fit into neat little boxes. We’re reminded we can’t know everything… but we can still connect with it. We have to, in fact, or we die.

We see the sacred in Nature. And not just see. We use every one of our senses – and more besides. We seek that connection… and when we get a taste/touch/glimpse of it, we realize how indefinable, immense and complex it is.

But that is ok. That’s one of the first steps on this journey.

Here’s a task for you today. Pagan or not, it doesn’t matter – if you’ve got this far, I’ll assume you’re still interested.

Step outside. Take a few minutes. Do it. No excuses. If you absolutely can’t (and I’m speaking to my lovely readers who may not be physically able here, not just those who are confined to office cubicles), then get to an open window. Trust me.

Feel the Outside, with every one of those senses. The air on your face, perhaps rain or breeze. Birds singing, people talking, dogs barking, vehicles, phones, music. The ground beneath your feet.

How does it all feel? Close your eyes if it’s safe to do so, and reach out a little. If folk give you funny looks, don’t panic – you won’t see them.

Now. Notice your thoughts. How’s your brain dealing with all of this? Feeling stupid? Looking at the time, at the commitments you have to get back to, worrying about things to do… just catch that internal monologue in the act. Tell it you’re Outside. Remind it that you’re Pagan. You’re Doing a Thing. Shut up. All of that noise can wait.

Then notice the world again. Go deeper. You’ve put aside the mundane concerns, you’re having a spiritual moment within the everyday. This is your own small ritual. Reach down, reach out… connect.

Because that binary reality isn’t an accurate depiction of life, not really. It’s a way that people chose to help them understand, and that’s fine – as a model.Not the Ultimate Truth.

You touch the natural world while hearing and feeling the human-made – concrete underfoot, tiny computer in your pocket, machined clothes, make-up, processed food.

As you stand outside, your brain may want to go back in. This isn’t right, people will think you’re weird, there’s stuff to be getting on with! Or perhaps… as they look, seeing someone who has simply stopped, pausing to breathe… they might be envious? How many have the courage to ask you what you’re up to? How many more would want to join you? Would they be able to let themselves? Just smile.

The difference between Outside and Inside is a closed portal – a door or a window. You have the power to move through it (doesn’t that sound magical, just by thinking in those terms?). Civilization creeps outside, while the natural world effortlessly sits inside: earth, air, water, fire…

If you are Pagan, seeing the sacred all around, you can step outside to better connect. But you then take that with you as you move forward with your day. As your senses have opened, your awareness has been reminded of what is there all the time, just waiting to be seen, acknowledged, appreciated. It’s all combined, part of life. City or country, wild or tame, sacred or profane… we engage through taking the time to witness it, to be part of it. Any time, any place. We should not be afraid to do this. It’s not about ‘finding time’.

And it’s up to us what we do with that, ultimately. I’ve tried to turn a huge and almost indefinable feeling into words here, to convey my thoughts and understanding. We can let it inspire us, channelling through our own personal creativity in whatever way suits us best – prose, poetry, art, music, computer code, pottery or Lego… we use the technology (as I use this laptop right now) to pin down feelings, just for a moment. There’s that model again, something that allows our human brains to come to terms with cosmic reality.

We can’t see air, but it’s there and we use it. We may not understand electricity, but it we know how to harness it. I’ve always known in my heart that flying in a huge, heavy metal box above the clouds is a very particular form of magic that I’ll never comprehend, but I’ve done it.

And so I know that feeling the particular energy of the night-time is not strange. Joy at a sunrise, the primal pleasure of a fire in my hearth… or the warmth of a nourishing drink in my hands, sharing laughter with friends or witnessing someone else’s tale on screen or page. Our ancestors have done every one of these, using whatever technology they had. We reconnect with the world and we reconnect with our selves, our families, friends, stories… the wild and the tamed, intertwined.

As Pagans, we notice. And we are grateful and glad. Marking Nature as sacred in our lives, as they are lived.

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Vocation

I may be the last of a generation who remembers the local village vicar. As familiar a sight as the local Bobby (policeman) walking his beat, the vicar was often about, visiting parishioners, helping in schools, generally being part of the community.

Now this is a sight only for fiction – Agatha Christie dramas, ‘The Vicar of Dibley‘ and suchlike.

And yet I’ve discovered that the roaming priest is still very much needed.

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This image is not a place where I have personally walked. But it is cookie-cutter similar to those I, and many others, do.

As I lock the heavy gate-door behind me and enter the prison wing, I always feel a little nervous. But it’s similar to the feeling before a public ritual, a Handfasting or even visiting a private house for a supportive chat.

Because you are ‘on’ – you are Priest, Minister, Chaplain, Celebrant… whatever you want to call me (as I often say, you can call me anything provided it’s nice!).

I minister to those who identify as Pagan – but I am often approached by others too. In the prison environment it’s first of all because I’m female, but then out of curiosity. Again, it’s similar at public events when I’m in robes. I’ve spoken of it before and I’m still glad that people are curious rather than fearful, able to approach and ask questions rather than cower or even be abusive.

I’ve discovered, too, that despite my nerves, I rather love it.

I got back to the Chaplaincy at the prison a few weeks ago, after spending quite a while on the wings, and commented on how good it was to do, how worthwhile. The Church of England Chaplain looked around and smiled. “It is, isn’t it?” he remarked. He’s often out and about, Bible in hand, huddled against the cold but always busy, out there with those who need him. The prisoners have told me of the friendly Imam as well, often there for a chat.

The Priest serves their community as they are needed and called upon. This is regardless of faith path, religious doctrine or even personal preference. We help because that is our role and our job, but also our calling as people. We want to make friends, to find that common ground, to share and connect with others.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about Ministry, biographical accounts of women fighting to become priests in the Christian Church over recent decades, but also those taking vows to join monasteries or convents. The latter may seem to be removing themselves from their communities in order to better understand and work with their spirituality, but in fact they are often the busiest, getting out into the roughest areas to help those who the ‘regular’ world believes beyond help: the sick, dying, homeless… those in need.

I read of the ‘call’, vocational summons to live life for God. This is an interesting idea from a Pagan perspective, and one that I’m not sure has really been explored yet (not that I’ve seen, at least). Many of us live our lives with honour to our Gods, but giving everything up for Him/Her…?

And yet, I realize, perhaps I am doing this already. I mediate between the spiritual and the everyday, in my writing and my ‘walking the talk’. I represent deity (as named individuals and the wider Natural world) in public ritual. I end my day exhausted but glad, having worked as a Pagan for those who ask – and those who don’t, but who welcome me anyway.

I may not even mention ‘Gods’ to those who approach me as I walk the prison paths. But I do explain what my Paganism means, find common ground (often surprisingly easily!) and simply chat, as a visitor and potential friend. I’m not out to convert anyone, but respect those who step up to ask. The other day, as I locked those same barred gates behind me, I heard a (non-Pagan) prisoner commenting to a mate of how pleasant I was. The Pagan prisoner I’d come to see was beaming – proud at last that his spirituality was recognised and valued, rather than mocked. Just by my turning up and engaging.

So the Priest is still walking the streets, still needed. In traditional ways, but also exploring new ground – online, via social media and Skype – but where there are people who need companionship, help, just someone to hear them and be there. I suspect many ‘quiet’ or solitary Pagans do the same, in their small but meaningful way.

It might not be a job for all of us. I’m still often surprised that I’ve fallen onto such a path! Or perhaps… just perhaps… I answered that call.

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Seeking Sacred – A Challenge

Today, I was chatting with my partner about my current book projects. Which haven’t been moving very fast of late. Busyness, mental blocks, personal mood or external issues… ultimately, the words have just not been coming.

He suggested I take myself deeper into my own practice, diving into the topics I want to write about, to explore them more fully myself. I can see where this takes me, to give ideas for the work and also help with the overarching issue of Not Writing. The oldest trick in the book, really – Write What You Know.

So how can I do this, I thought? I’m not exactly Jack Kerouac, about to head out into the world to see what’s there (which I kind of do anyway, albeit in the course of my work!). Nor Edgar Allen Poe, locking himself in a garret to write from his madness. Hmm.

Perhaps a challenge that I can write about as I go, to find that flow again and also open myself to ideas from others – those who like the writing and themselves provide inspiration. Actively seeking the sacred each day, reconnecting with deity if that is the form it chooses; going beyond inspiration into the deep roots of my spirituality within my life.

As I type this, I find myself actually rather daunted. It sounded like a great idea in my head, but is no small thing in actuality. But if I want to write from experience, something true and valid that’s worth reading, I owe both myself and my readers the courtesy and honour of putting in that effort.

So here we go, then. I’ll be cross-posting with my Drops of Awen blog, as that seems an appropriate place for random inspiration bursts, but also here for considerations specific to my Druidry. I’ve no idea where this will end up, but I will, as always do my best. I’ve no doubt I’ll have tough days, but I will do my best to keep to that truth and not be self-indulgent or – horrors! – boring…

As always: onward.

 

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Sacred Reading

The year is turning still. In the Western Hemisphere in which I live, Spring is indeed springing all around, with the brightness of daffodils, the unique smell of showers on fresh grass, and birds chattering amidst green leaves.

This is also a time of celebration for many. Pagans have just marked the Vernal Equinox with Ostara; Hindus are joyous with Holi, the amazing festival of colours and love; and Christians are in the middle of the intensity of Lent.

Each of these is very different, but it is fascinating to compare how different faiths mark this time of year. From very personal, private rituals and promises to large public statements, it seems that many of us are doing something to actively notice the budding of new life around us, and inspiration within us.

Despite – or perhaps because of – my primarily Pagan path, I’ve been reading a lot of varied articles and books recently about other faith paths, or simply the personal practice of religion and spirituality. I recently chanced upon a fascinating ‘Making a Heart for God’, about life in Catholic Monastery – interesting reading for a Druid, you might think, but first of all, I read pretty much anything that catches my eye, and secondly, I love stories. Especially those of others, heartfelt and true, and often bypassed in favour of something more ‘glamorous’ to end up on charity shop shelves.

As demonstrated with the current seasonal festivals, I’ve often remarked on how our spiritual paths have more commonality than difference. We are, at heart, all humans seeking our own personal truths, ways to walk through life and find meaning, exploring connection and relationship with others. Generally we seek those of similar persuasions and ideas, but I’ve never seen any reason to ignore those who choose a different way to my own. Once I look, I always find that common ground again – usually very quickly – and the smile of understanding begins, as I learn of traditions, beliefs and human stories that inspire me to learn more… as well as to consider their relation to my own personal practice.

In the Monastery tale, the female narrator writes of time spent at this all-male monastery, where she was permitted to live alongside the brothers (gasp!)… and was welcomed into their spiritual world. She speaks of the relevance that such living still has in the 21st century, and how such monasteries are booked far in advance for visiting folk looking to retreat from the everyday world for a while.

My smile began. I know many Pagans who seek retreat time and space for any number of reasons, but certainly to focus on their own spiritual quests and relationship with the sacred. Imagine choosing that path to live, night and day, for years… My respect for those who do this rises with the turning of every page.

Reading on, I then discovered the practice of Lectio, which struck me as rather wonderful – and to be performed at this particular time of year. I love it when books provide information in such a timely manner!:

‘At the beginning of Lent, the [Benedictine] Rule called for each monk to receive a special book from the library and “to read the whole of it straight through.” This practice continues today.’

I was amazed that I’d never heard of this before – what a great idea! But of course, it’s not actually as simple as it sounds. Reading a book ‘straight through’ is no problem at all for me (and I suspect, many of you), but to elaborate:

Lectio [is] “reading with the expectancy that some word, phrase, paragraph, or page is worth stopping and reflecting on – a message that fits somewhere in our search.”… The point of lectio, regardless of the subject matter, is to listen to what one is reading with “the ear of the heart.”

A powerful idea. Monastic time and space is set aside specifically for this reading, to allow total focus and deliberation. How many of us have ever done such a thing? How many of us have that time? Like a retreat, such things might well have to be planned for, with the busy-ness of life making it a challenge in itself!

And yet, I’m sure that most (if not all) of you reading this have paused while reading to ponder a particular sentence that calls to you, that is applicable right now, that answers a question that you weren’t even aware you were asking. The rest of the book might be good, bad or indifferent, but if inspiration is sparked in the reading, perhaps this is touching on the spirit of ‘lectio’.

Setting such time aside for sacred reading may well be something that we need to do in our busy lives. In the manner of meditation, a door is closed, phones and gadgets switched off, and we simply sit to focus. We might not be seeking the same answers as those monks, but their practice is inspiring us in our own. A story which we might otherwise have ignored can help us.

So let’s combine traditions. Seek out a random book – whether something familiar, or a chance pick from a second-hand shop shelf. I’d suggest non-fiction for this, as that will allow you to share directly in someone else’s story, but decent fiction might work just as well, as you follow the characters through their own journeys. Audiobooks may well also work, especially those narrated by the writers themselves.

Set side time to just read. To focus your intention on the pages, the words, the voices and the images they evoke. Find a particular comfy chair, a room where you can see the sky, or even outside in green spaces with friendly trees as company.

Storytelling is sacred. We honour the tellers with our attention, and as we carry their tales forward in our lives – as we listen with our hearts. We see what others do, feeling so passionately that they have written about their experiences. Even if we don’t understand or agree, we can witness and learn, be inspired and explore.

It’s Spring. Time for new ideas.

Note: I apologise if this post is a little more disjointed than usual. Inspiration hits me and I dash to write, but today has been an interesting process, as due to physical injury, my mind is slightly muddled by pain and painkillers. Therefore any inadvertent errors or leaps of topic are entirely my own!

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A Modern Druid

Last Monday, I greeted the dawn with my partner, as we called the Awen from within the circle at Stonehenge.

The sun was more of a rosy glow than a dramatic flaming sphere, but the atmosphere was tangible. Damp grass beneath us, the indescribable age and weight of the stones around. Dawn chorus loud in our ears, sheep and cows calling to each other from nearby fields. Security guards keeping watch, smiling, and tourists eagerly snapping away with their cameras. And the two people that we were ministering to, dressed so beautifully, nervously waiting to join hands and step forward.

It struck me later in the day that we ticked so many of the perceived ‘Druid’ boxes in that brief moment – Stonehenge, robes, Awen, sunrise, chanting… performance.

It was the last in a long month of travel, performing ritual for many, many people across the land, and while being honoured to do so, becoming aware of how very tired we now were.

But life doesn’t stop. My partner still has his day-job, and I have my own work. Self-employed means, I’ve found, working far longer hours than I ever did in an office, and for less pay. The perks are there, of course, but the life of a writer – as many others have remarked upon – can be a lonely one.

This is the balance which we are currently living: walking the line between the powerful energy of public ritual, and the private needs of two people. Bills still have to be paid, pets walked, housework done. But also articles written, talks booked, deadlines met… and of course the endless emails!

Please don’t think I’m complaining, by the way. This is the life I have carved out, so different from what I expected years ago when asked that awful question: ‘So, where do you see yourself in 5/10/20 years?’ Nobody can answer that, not really. Life is seldom that straightforward.

However, from the initial problems that I faced when starting out on this path – the combining of ‘real’ everyday life and my spirituality, finding time for ritual, questioning my ethics and challenging the integrity of my practice – I’ve come to realize that very little has actually changed. Although I now call myself ‘Druid’ publicly, those issues remain; they’ve just grown larger.

It’s less of an issue of finding time for ritual, more about finding time for personal work, private time. My way of life is constantly challenged, as now I often represent more than just myself, especially when standing up for The Pagan Federation or The Druid Network. As I told those who attended a recent talk, when you begin to identify publicly as a Pagan (Druid/Witch/etc), when you give yourself that label, people expect certain things – or they’ll be watching curiously, to see what that label really means. You’ll become that wee bit more accountable.

I’ve been challenged in person a lot recently as well. That tired old question, asked in terribly self-righteous tones, of ‘How can you call yourself a Druid?’ How dare you do what you do?

I feel as if I’ve answered this so many times. No doubt I’ll have to again. Sometimes the manner of the questioning hurts, deeply. But as my patience wears thin with lazy questions, backed up by ill-informed arguments, I’ve felt my pride in my work step up to answer.

See those stereotypes at the beginning of this post? Stonehenge, Druids, all that? I did that, yep. I will again. And not for me – for those who asked. My own practice was not at all a factor in that ritual, as it is not in any that I perform for other people. As Priest, I represent my path, my homeland, the Powers that Be as they are perceived… by and for those for whom the ritual is being conducted. I stand there in service to their need. My experience tailored to assist in the duty which I perform. If all you can see is the theatre, the robe and staff, then you need to look deeper.

I work bloody hard, every day, in service. My email box is full of questions, requests for help, tasks to fulfil. And so I am working – yes, in terms of hours of labour – for my Community, as a Druid. Because that’s what they want of me.

By this, I do actually feel the appropriateness of the word, as it ties to our ancestors. Of course we don’t know what the ancient Druids did, not in any detail. But we know that throughout human history, people have lived, loved, been born and died. Rites of passage have been crafted to mark important events. Support has been needed in times of crisis. Our ancestors did this, and so do I.

This world in which I live is so far removed from that of those ancestors that I doubt they’d recognise it – from the construction of my home to the food that I eat. The Britons have moved forward, after all: in our learning, our technology, our philosophy, our way of life (and our named identity). The specific acts of the ancient Druids would likely be irrelevant now, if they were transplanted wholesale into modern life. Modern Druids don’t forget, but we must remain relevant.

My work as Druid, as Priest, has to reflect my tribe, those who call upon me. I love history and archaeology, but I can’t be worrying about the precise ‘authenticity’ of ritual, for example (which we can’t know anyway). My concern is acting with honour and integrity for those who do ask – whether it’s for practical, tangible help, or just information and teaching. My relationship with my community is not theoretical, with dogmatic dictates or Company Policies – it’s real! Each person, each situation, each ritual request is unique. I treat them as such.

Incidentally, this is not romantic or glamorous, idealised, all flowery language and floaty robes. It’s the ultimate in practical. My robes have to survive all conditions, but so do my mind and body. Weddings are beautiful, but they’re also times of enormous stress for those involved. As are funerals and births – rites of passage which we will experience in all their bloody glory. Those times of terrible crisis where spirituality is so very necessary but which cannot provide easy answers. I’ll still be there, when called. And I think that’s the line at which modern ‘clergy’ will rise or fall.

I stepped up to this task, forced by circumstance and not entirely sure how well I was going to succeed. I was aware (and have since been reminded!) that by standing up publicly, I would be exposing myself to all those slings and arrows of others, those who disagree, who hate, who have no wish to engage or understand. And so I do.

My work is like that of any other person, when undertaken willingly and conscientiously. It can be difficult and tiring, with long days (and nights), challenges and doubts. On other days, it might be full of laughter, utterly fulfilling, glorious and awe-inspiring. My ‘everyday’ life has merged with my ‘spiritual’ life – it’s up to me to maintain that, to keep my own integrity of practice so that I might share that within my work. If I become complacent, blase, egotistical, then it will show – and I’ll fall on my face. Then have to pick myself up and carry on. My Gods constantly challenge me, whether in the form of energetic overload and burnout, or through a grilling from a well-informed journalist!

My resolve always was to do my best. I mean that; it’s the cornerstone of what I do. The difficulty right now is doing my best for myself and my immediate family, as well as those who are calling on me – keeping that balance steady so that one side does not tip the other into chaos.

Those of you who’ve spoken with me know that I value honesty, realistic spirituality (no, not at all an oxymoron!) and truly living your own life. I do my best – that is my promise.

I want to respond to those who challenge me in turn. I love what I do, I’m honoured and proud to do it. Can you say the same? Are you trying to help, by your questions, to encourage and explore? Or just raise yourself up by bringing others down?

I try to help, to bring joy or resolution, to inspire and inform. So…

What is your work doing?

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Listening

Yesterday, I was watching one of the nostalgia television shows that seem to be rife at this time of year. A children’s show of the 1990s had a phone-in game, where clues were given and a phrase had to be guessed by the young callers to win a prize. One rule: the phrase had to rhyme.

(Yes, those UK folk who remember such Saturday morning ‘wackiness’ may well know ‘Wonky Donkey’. Even if you weren’t there, does the name give you the idea?)

The presenter admitted that he would often go crazy into the camera lens, yelling at the audience, because each caller seemed not to understand that One. Little. Rule.  Kids called in and then just said anything, with no chance of winning because they just weren’t keeping to that simple statement. Were they not listening?!

It struck me then, just how apt this question is.

How often are we listening, really? We hear soundbites on the news and think we know the whole story. Someone tells an anecdote and we cast our own imprint onto it, subtly changing the tone, so that if we tell it in turn, it’ll be just that little bit different. Chinese Whispers in the everyday.

My partner is regularly frustrated by those who call Emergency Services demanding help, and yet on the basic request for their address, start shouting anything but – including ‘Why aren’t you here yet?’ Because they haven’t given the address, as asked. Such a little thing, subsumed by fear, lack of control, and sheer animal panic.

And yet, we always do know best, don’t we? It’s hard to shake the confidence of some people. You’re told a story that you know isn’t quite true, but when you try to correct the teller, it’s you who’s wrong (even if you were there at the time). The person who wouldn’t give their address may well report that the call-taker was stupid for not knowing (somehow) where he was, or what he wanted… despite this being impossible.

Modern technology doesn’t help. With the constant ‘What is your status?’ demand of social media, our interior monologue is constant, like the film noir voiceover as we narrate our own stories. We are the centre of our worlds, and therefore can’t comprehend data that we don’t understand, fitting it instead somehow into our worldview – even if that makes it very different to the truth. Despite the fact that the world is so complex, understanding any one tiny particle of it is a task in itself. Impossible to sum up in 140 characters.

It sometimes feels to me as if the world shifts with the telling (and mis-telling, and re-telling) of each story. Why does my recollection differ so drastically from what I’m hearing? Why is my knowledge of those ‘facts’ so different? Why does my side of a conversation seem to change in midair, as the response is so unrelated?

Ultimately, one crucial facet of the skill of listening is determining the motivation behind the story, the manner in which it’s told, the goal of the teller. What are they trying to achieve, what feelings do they want to evoke, reactions, emotions? As I said, each person colours their own tale to suit themselves. That’s part of the story. Different words carry different meanings to different people, after all.

We’re told (by Roman historians) that the ancient Bards used amazing mnemonic skills to recall verbatim the ancient sagas, passing on tales, family lineage and history, without tempering it in the slightest with their own personality, not even in the inflections of speech. This is a skill indeed (if true), and one which I think we have largely lost, despite our insistence sometimes on ‘proper’ versions of tales.

But then, I would question the value of such retelling. Is that not the other extreme? From randomly changing a story to not changing it at all? Everything changes, evolves, moves. Our understanding of history is coloured by our modern lives. Is anything we listen to truly neutral? And how valuable would it be if it was?

Part of my original Druid training was to simply listen. The simple part: to go out to a wild place in Nature, and do nothing. Sit and listen. Or walk and listen. Just hear – the birds, the trees, the small creatures, the shouts of children, aeroplanes far overhead. To feel myself in that picture of sound, my place within it, observing while being part of it.

Then the difficult bit: to listen when in the full flow of the everyday world. On train station platforms, in offices, on streets, in marketplaces, at home. The television, the radio, songs. What am I listening to? Why? What does it mean – no, really mean?

A child, screaming in a supermarket. Do you hear his words, what he wants? Or just the noise, as you will him to be quiet?

The simple phrase ‘I’m fine’ from a friend… who clearly isn’t. What are they trying to say, in the tones around the words?

A retelling of a much-loved story – Robin Hood, for example, or King Arthur. Are you hearing the flow of this story, or feeling it shaded by what’s gone before, your own experience of the tale, frustration at perceived errors?

This blog post, like most things I write, is in the hope of inspiring. Not guilt, not at all – we’re all guilty of the above faults, that’s just part of being a human in the world today. But without going back and re-reading, how much did you take in? How much of me did you ‘hear’, over the voice in your own head providing commentary? Were you judging my words, providing your own similar experiences, laughing or disagreeing? The tale is being told, here in black and white as I type. It’s being coloured by you, the reader, as you ‘listen’ to my virtual voice and make it your own.

Listen then, lovely readers, as you go about your life today. Feel the stories going on around you – and your part within that larger flow of time and space. Such a simple thing. Yet such a challenge.

What do you hear – and what do you understand?

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Unity

Right, be warned, folks. The following post contains jokes that may be seen as contentious. They aren’t intended as offensive, but to challenge and provoke thought. Comments are, as always, very welcome, but I’d rather have debate than argument. No abusive behaviour will be tolerated.

Still with me? Lovely.

Today, the lovely blogger Mrs B posted up her ‘Question of the Day’ on Twitter: ‘What’s the most frustrating part about being Pagan?’

I’m certain this received some colourful responses, but let’s face it, being a public (or even just ‘out’) Pagan is not all sweetness and light; nor should it be, especially if you’re living in the real world. Interesting to see what people say.

I responded in jest: ‘Surely the weekly requests for Guru-style teachings from those unwilling to make any effort whatsoever…?’

This is an old bugbear of mine, as some of you will know. It’s inevitably become worse since my book became popular and known, and it’s not actually something I object to – as I’ve often said, I’m happy to help and advise, and would rather questions be asked than suppressed because of fears of Appearing Stupid.

Frustration arises (as I’m sure any social, spiritual or psychological advisor will agree) when seekers appear seeking ‘quick fix’ teachings or help. When they discover they have to play an active and responsible hand in their own life-changes, they often then vanish quickly. The degree of time-wasting involved in such cases is variable, but this seems to be just something which happens – again, as a public/out Pagan.

‘Gerald Gardner’ (also a fairly ironic Tweeter) responded with a very thought-provoking reply: ‘Unfortunately modern Paganism still breeds these people because we lack unity in order to make progress.’

Now there’s an intriguing statement.

First off, is this an inevitable symptom or consequence of modern Paganism being the way it is? Is this over-simplifying, or describing with an overly-broad generalisation? Or is there a point here?

A while ago, I agreed to write an article about Pagan Leadership for a UK publication. It’s been germinating away, as I consider the evolution of this topic since Gardner himself first put pen to paper back in the 1950s. We’ve come a long way.

I said at Pagan Pride this year – while addressing several dozen people under a huge and beautiful tree in Nottingham’s Arboretum (surrounded by about a thousand more going about their business as public Pagans) – that such an event would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. Out and proud or just local and curious, Pagans are a social group to be counted. The Census issue has proved this, as has the publicity surrounding The Druid Network‘s Charity status.

But Paganism is essentially still finding its way. It is made up of many disparate groups, with leadership based around those who stand up to take on the job. Paganism is inherently tribal. From the multitude of beliefs, to the shading within those faith paths, even different local characters – ‘Pagan’ will never be as simple and clear-cut a spirituality as one of the more mainstream religions.

I’ve seen full-on arguments about whether Paganism is even a religion (not getting into that today, thanks). What qualifies someone to be a Pagan Priest. How ‘valid’ is Paganism. All the old questions, that boil down to ‘who do you think you are?’ We aren’t taught philosophy these days; complex ethical questions can be tricky. It’s far easier to get passionate and kick out/back.

We are a generation that challenges, that has the confidence to speak out – and this is no bad thing. We are curious, willing to explore, to ask those questions that need asking. I’m a firm believer that any religion has to be able to stand up to scrutiny (and to have the strength to laugh at itself). My old Catholic RE teacher was quizzed by me on numerous occasions, and even the response of ‘ultimately, we don’t know – but I just have faith that it’s true’ is absolutely valid… and yet for some, that’s not enough. But that leads into fundamentalism, which is also not a topic for today.

I’ve been flamed online before for suggesting that faith paths have more in common than they do difference. To mel, this is because we are all humans, trying to make sense of the world. Again, those who follow the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ path don’t like that, because it stymies the ‘Us/Them’ arguments that hold them up, but I think I’m safe in that simple truth.

The difficulty with Paganism is that it’s a group with a label – which is made up of very individualistic people. Some wish to come together to learn, socialise, whatever, and that’s fine. They still retain their individuality. Others wish to remain solitary in their practice. Both will fight tooth and claw to do this (and rightly so). This all leads to the difficulty of a truly ‘Pagan’ unity or identity. We are a faith like no other. As far as I’m aware, nothing like this has been seen before: no doctrine or set text, no hierarchy… and an awful lot of unproductive bitching as personalities collide. But that’s humanity for you.

As I’ve said before, the issue of leadership seems to be one where Priest (as spiritual servant) clashes with Priest (as Power Tripper). Those willing to teach, to pass on skills and information, versus those seeking authority over others. Obviously this isn’t just a Pagan thing, but it’s there, a problem to be acknowledged and worked upon. How are we, as Pagans, represented – and how do we wish ourselves represented? The fact that we’re talking about it, having a public voice, means that we’re out there in the world, with no going back.

(I’m pretty sure that because I can string words together and speak about my spirituality openly, some do think that I have ultimate cosmic secrets that I can tell, which will then make their lives better. I have yet to encounter any way of life that holds such information. Sorry about that.)

While simplifying a little, Spiritual seekers – as I’ve seen them – are Genuinely Curious (willing to learn) versus Quick-Fix Answers (abdicating responsibility). Both are fearful; some are braver than others. Again, very human.

The positive thing about Paganism that I’ve perceived is that it takes all of these groups (good or bad) and challenges them. I’m not sure that any are ‘bred’ to act a certain way, but a decent Pagan path will make practitioners prove their worth, to their supporting spirits, ancestors, deities and immediate community. Why? Because unlike a lot of other faiths, we aren’t actually interested in converting anyone. We aren’t out for numbers. We’re just out to do our thing, our way. That’s enough, most days.

Every single life path requires you, as the one living it, to play an active part. This is a key tenet of my Druidry. If I were just paying lip-service to it, I’d be caught out in no time. I’m happy to admit things that I don’t know, and am always seeking out new and interesting information (hey, I’m a bookworm). I’m also entirely happy for others to live and practice in a way that best suits them – so long as they don’t mind questions either, should they be asked.

I doubt Paganism will ever have its figurehead, its ‘one true leader’ – we’re too individual, and yet too tribal as well. Eclecticism has become the norm. We have taken traditions and evolved, adding our own ideas, our particular shadings to the overall picture, our notes to the song. And this, I believe, is what makes Paganism so wonderful. We do (really!) have a unity… it’s just something we haven’t really quite got to grips with yet. Wild as nature, and as varied, after all, constantly fluctuating as we test its boundaries – and our own.

So. Are we working together in our differences yet…? And how much do those seekers really want to be part of a spirituality that can be felt in its evolution as it’s happening?

Is it worth it? Well it’s hard some days, for sure. But that just makes life interesting. I’m still here, after all. Coming with me?

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