Storms come. Earthquakes shake the ground. Plants fall or withstand, and animals quiver.
Such occurrences stem from the cycles of Earth and Ocean, the macrocosm of which we are part. Storms, floods and earthquakes have always touched us. And I wonder: WWOAD? (What would our ancestors do?)
Simply put, they’d react when the situation struck, clean up the pieces, and make offerings to the spirits in thanks for their lives, or with pleading for their loved ones. They didn’t have Doppler radar to track storms a week before they hit, river gauges for up-to-the-minute hydrological reports, or NOAA to issue alerts. The signs of nature — the sky, the behavior of animals — might give some sign of the impending phenomena, but not with enough lead time to evacuate. And in the days before automobiles and highways, evacuation was a slow business.
And so. Before you join the ever-lengthening line for batteries and bottled water, think of the ancestors.
They would have food stored away and perhaps a source of potable water, or at least pans to catch the rain. You never know when storms, illness or bad harvests will strike. It’s best to have some modicum of preparation for life’s eventualities ready anyway, and not scurry last-minute to make provisions for, say, the total cinematic breakdown of society.
They, too, would have known that if it’s your time to get hit, it’s your time — and no amount of grease will help you slip out of it. Sometimes, you just get hammered, whether you’re the righteous or the unprepared. Live and learn, die and move on.
And so. I don’t pray for the Storm God to move aside (although an amble to drought-stricken Texas would be nice). Who am I to order about the planet’s greater powers, or order her cycles? I pray instead that individuals find reserves of calm and strength inside themselves to weather all storms and adapt to whatever circumstances confront them.
The rain sleets down, drawing out the yellow of the squash blossoms, a terrestrial sun. Bees crawl in their satiny cavern, emerge and then flit to the calm blue of the borage.
Rain is a gift — something that the planet herself, or the Gods, or however you see it, must grant to us. We cannot take it, although we can store its bounty in reservoirs and glass bottles. Rain, too, can be a curse, bursting through walls and levies, sweeping away the semblance and accouterments of our normally-imagined life. Then, too, it is something given. This isn’t to conceal mankind’s role in climate change, mind you, but merely a reflection of the vastness of planetary pattern in contrast to the smallness of our mammal selves and cares.
I’m thinking today of friend’s musing on grace, and spiritual flatness. Grace — whether of the Gods, the ancestors or nature spirits, or the common concept of Yahweh — is like the rain. The word means favor, and is connected with an Indo-European root meaning “praise.” From what I understand of Christianity (albeit as a lifelong outsider), it cannot be asked for, given or earned.
As such, grace has always seemed to me an unjust thing, a poor means of enlightenment, a poor demonstration of love. I feel the favor and love of the Gods, but I try to lavish them with praise and attention. I offer prayers of gratitude and blessing during the most common of circumstances — seeing a bird, or light striking a telephone pole in a particularly interesting way, or reaching the end of my destination without the Malibu going up in a ball of flame. Like any individual, I can be an ungrateful sot at times, particularly when it comes to my fellow primates. There have been some occasions — thankfully rare — that I haven’t been appropriately grateful to the Gods. But overall, I do my best to give forth blessing for any I have received, even if it’s only warm words and kind thoughts.
And perhaps this is why I don’t think grace is unearned. Grace and gratitude come from the same root: the Latin gratus, or pleasing. When you say a word of blessing to the passing bird, the unkempt stranger, the slant of light or the listening spirit, you are offering your grace; it’s not a one-way street, some pipeline from the Gods to us. And when you offer gratitude to the spirits, other creatures, the universe for the blessings given — especially the blessing of their existence, and not what they’re doing for you, per se — you feed the flow of grace.
I’ve had my dark nights of the soul(s), so to speak, the sense of disconnection from society at large, my essential pessimism about humanity’s future. But I’ve never felt forsaken by the Gods, not even when I was a little girl making spontaneous offerings to the spirits at Woodland Park down the street. Forsaken by humanity — sure, been there, down that, got a whole wardrobe of t-shirts. But I’ve never had a sense of being alone in the universe; the Gods are there and listening, even if they can’t or won’t offer ready-made solutions or pat answers.
Sometimes, I’m closer to the heart of things than others; my sense of connection with particular deities can shift and waver. I think, however, that the sense of grace as gift — gift I share and not only passively accept — fosters that spiritual connection. I am more than a beggar, giving my sob story to the spirits so they can give me their alms.
This isn’t, I must emphasize, addressed toward my friend, who is one of the most spiritual and thoughtful people I know. I’m just making sense of things.
One of my favorite poems — undoubtedly posted before, and now posted here again, is Mary Oliver’s “Mockingbirds.” It tells the ancient Greek story of Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple visited by the Gods. Although they have little by way of possessions, they offer what they have gratefully to the strangers — and ask for nothing in return other than the sense of connection, of presence. I have it posted on our fridge.
This morning two mockingbirds in the green field were spinning and tossing
the white ribbons of their songs into the air. I had nothing
better to do than listen. I mean this seriously.
In Greece, a long time ago, an old couple opened their door
to two strangers who were, it soon appeared, not men at all,
but gods. It is my favorite story– how the old couple had almost nothing to give
but their willingness to be attentive– but for this alone the gods loved them
and blessed them– when they rose out of their mortal bodies, like a million particles of water
from a fountain, the light swept into all the corners of the cottage,
and the old couple, shaken with understanding, bowed down– but still they asked for nothing
but the difficult life which they had already. And the gods smiled, as they vanished, clapping their great wings.
Wherever it was I was supposed to be this morning– whatever it was I said
I would be doing– I was standing at the edge of the field– I was hurrying
through my own soul, opening its dark doors– I was leaning out; I was listening.
This is by way of Fiona MacLeod, the feminine alter ego of Scotsman William Sharp, circa 1904:
I am older than Brigit of the Mantle,
I put songs and music on the wind
Before ever the bells of the chapels
Were rung in the West
Or heard in the East.
I am Brighid-nam-Bratta: Brigit of the Mantle,
I am also Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne: Brigit, Conception of the Waves,
And Brighid-sluagh, Brigit of the Faery Host,
Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brigit of the Slim Faery Folk,
Brigit the Melodious Mouthed of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.
And I am older than Aone (Friday)
And as old as Luan (Monday),
And in Tir-na-h’oige my name is Suibhal-bheann: Mountain Traveler,
And in Tir-fo-thuinn, Country of the Waves, it is Cu-gorm: Gray Hound,
And in Tir-na-h’oise, Country of Ancient Years, it is Sireadh-thall: Seek Beyond.
And I have been a breath in your heart,
And the day has its feet to it
That will see me coming into the hearts of men and women
Like a flame upon dry grass,
Like a flame of wind in a great wood.
I’ve recently finished Ian Corrigan’s Sacred Fire: Holy Well. While I disagree in how he categorizes some of the Gods (for example, I honor Aine as the sun, not a land goddess, and Midhir as the Moon, not some sort of fairy-king), the overall text inspired some thoughtfulness.
Namely, how does one make appropriate offerings to the Kindreds? And for what cause?
Many modern Druidic traditions are centered around sacrifice rather than, say, the working of will one finds in ceremonial magic and some forms of Wicca. Sacrifice, in this case, means making offerings to the Gods, nature spirits and ancestors — giving them gifts to help foster relationship.
Corrigan proposes that the Druid make the traditional offerings: actual gold and silver, along with oil burnt in the sacred fire, various forms of alcohol, etc. Unlike Keltria, ADF formulates sacred space using the Well, Tree and Fire; the physical representation of the Well should be given actual silver as an offering upon each use, and it should then be disposed of in running water.
Now, I have a problem with this — and have historically, as a former member of ADF — from an ecological standpoint. In modern times, we’d probably better honor the waters by taking a piece of metal out of them. And I also have economic issues, shall we say. By requiring a Druid to make offerings of actual precious metals, you’re effectively limiting practice to the upper class, to folks who can afford such offerings. (There are only so many family heirloom rings you can file down for dust or toss into a body of water.)
Corrigan also requires the authentic nine kinds of wood for the sacred fire, which can be an imposition if they don’t all grow in your area or — moreover — if you don’t have the property from which to gather them. Importing would be a less than ecological idea, in the days of the emerald ash borer when transporting wood more than 50 miles will result in a $250 fine.
From a historical standpoint, the strictures are understandable. Druids were the upper-most class and drew their members largely from the nobility. In short, they had the resources to offer gold and silver, cattle, animals, even slaves. They offered on behalf of the whole community, and so the community pooled its resources for important rites.
But in these times, we do not make offerings on behalf of our entire culture. Rites are private and personal — just as rites probably were for the average Celt on her farmstead or in his pasture. Humanity crowds the natural world with its numbers; offerings left in holy waters or on sacred land can too easily become pollution, as this New York Times article demonstrates.
To find out what to offer, you need to know why you’re offering anything at all. Is sacrifice a means to prove your disposable wealth, as it was for ancient nobles? Is it a gift-for-a-gift exchange, in which you’re bribing the spirits to work for you?
I hold, rather, that it’s the forging of relationship. You’re offering hospitality, making the spirits as welcome as you would your human kin. You don’t need to deed over your house, but offerings of food, beverages and sweet incense can make the spirits feel welcome. In my experience, song, poetry and anything from your heart, even if it’s not what we call “professional quality,” is eagerly sought after. At the end of the day, it’s not what you offer, but the spirit in which you offer it. Anything from the heart — a poem, a cup of tea lovingly made — is worth more than all the formulaic gold and silver offerings in the world.
Granted, for this to work, you need to develop a personal relationship with the Kindreds, which is appropriate in any case. That’s the difference between a priest/ess and a magician: one forges relationships out of love and a sense of our place and role in the cosmos, the other coerces forces to work her will. Religion should be more than asking with open hands, or giving a gift for a gift. Faith is generous, and gives gifts out of love and the greatness of one’s heart for the betterment of all.
Don’t worry about the nine woods, or where you’re going to get the silver for the well. Ask your heart how to honor those you love — whether human or God, animal or spirit. Give of what is most uniquely yourself, and what is closest to your soul(s).