Month: October 2011

When the cows come home

The stag bells. Winter snows.

The sky is the soft gray that silently heralds an impending storm. The bulk of yesterday morning’s snow has melted, but will be renewed by the tide of white. Images: Snow encasing blood-red maples leaves, Grian’s bright face liquefying the white, rainbows caught in the dripping snow-melt.

It’s frustrating in some measure, because the snow has stymied today’s travel plans and continued work on our geothermal system. But that is par for the course come Samhain; the name means “summer’s end” and, indeed, it is. The Celts had two seasons: winter and summer, when the cows come home and when the cows head out to pasture. We’ve been called back from the pastureland, now. The snow brings us back to the homestead.

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Fall cleaning, sacred objects

Scél lém dúib
dordaid dam
snigid gaim
ro fáith sam

I have news for you:
the stag bells
winter snows
summer is ended. (Old Irish poem)

The sky, iron gray, pulls out the gold, brown and scarlet from the leaves. The garden is mostly done, save for some herbs and the last leaves of the horseradish; hungry deer skipped the fence and feasted on the rest.

Samhain is one hinge and Beltane the other. And so, as with spring cleaning, there’s fall cleaning. I change my altar cloths, dust the statues and decide if any of the offerings should be returned to the earth.

Detritus of paths, inspirational perhaps, but no longer followed. The Hindu altar is moved downstairs to where I do yoga, the only remnant of practice I have from that path. The Buddhist altar moves to the downstairs hall. The Greek altar, swabbed but largely inactive, remains alongside my two Celtic altars — the one to all the Tuatha, and the one reserved especially for Brighid, although she’s represented on both.

Give me a flat surface and I build a shrine. It’s instinct to me. But it’s hard to know what to do with statuary and accouterments of paths I no longer largely follow, although I may offer impromptu honors and prayers. It seems wrong to rid myself of them, unless as a gift to a devotee. Sacred things don’t just lose their holy nature, in my thinking; their holiness is not dependent on human whim or the winds that shiftingly blow through human life.

And so, Hera and the Greek goddesses stay, crowned with peacock feathers. Kali dances alongside my yoga mat and the downstairs cat. Kwannon reminds me of compassion in the hall — all cleaner, with fresh altar cloths and re-arranged offerings. Not all the attention I give to Brighid and the Tuatha, it’s true. But what to do?

illness, and the energetics of divination

To divine, or not to divine?

The germs have been making their rounds through the local human community, and finally caught me this week. It wasn't epic — a hacking cough that hurt my chest, the characteristic taste of phlegm, a wonky body furnace that swung from wearing-two-sweaters cold to hot, a humming head. A cold.

Colds are always a bummer, but they're especially a bummer when you have engagements. I have a monthly engagement reading tarot cards for the masses as part of an art walk here in the Great White North. I earn my keep and have some loyal clients. Missing a month stings me — and the seekers.

But I weighed my options. I shuffle the cards between readings, and give them to the clients to shuffle before theirs. They sit directly across from me, a distance of a few feet. By any shred of healthcare wisdom, I should have bowed out — and did, but for more than the simple desire not to be the Typhoid Mary of the common cold.

Since I've given many readings through the years, I've made a study of the energetics of divination. It is, at its base, a magickal act: I enter into a light trance state, offering prayers to Brighid, my matron goddess. I inscribe symbols on my energy body/aura/chi/whatever-flaky-term-you-want to use: an awen on my tongue and between my eyes, the circling triskelion of Manannan, flames in my three cauldrons. I run a short tree meditation, and see the branches about my head and roots about my feet throughout. And then I maintain this: all the visualizations, the connection with Brighid, the Otherworldly Tree, while I send forth a tendril of my own spirit to touch that of the client. I am a conduit between them and Brighid. As I turn over the cards, I tune in to my heart-cauldron (or chakra, if you prefer that term) for the feeling that answers the question, and then sift through words until I find the words that fit the feeling, a key to a lock.

So if you've ever wondered what I'm actually doing with the cards, there it is. It's why my eyes are half-closed, and I don't seem to be looking at the clients or the cards.

Seership requires a certain amount of energy exchange: between the seer and the spirits, and between the seer and the client. A single reading likely won't affect the seer in any major way, but back-to-back readings during the course of an evening always will. On busy nights, I've crawled into bed a frazzled, weepy mess because of it. Part of the reason is that it's inherently an ungrounding activity, one that takes you outside of your physical being and the psychological boundaries of your self. It also requires a good deal of vital force, whether you call that chi, prana, magick or just plain ol' energy.

In that way, divination is akin to other "magickal" rites, whether trance-journeys to the Otherworld, spell-casting or scrying. All of them require a certain amount of vital force, which connects with the vital force of the Kindreds and of the Land, Sea and Sky. Think of it as a great web of potential, energy and magick; your vital force allows you to give back to the grid, so to speak.

I've had sick, cold-medicated clients, and they usually have poor readings. Simply put, they don't have the vital force to lend to the reading, and thus I can't connect with them. And rightfully so — their bodies need that energy to heal.

So, as a sick reader, I can see the evening panning out one of two ways: 1. my body refuses to allow me full access to the trance state and the connection with clients, leading to poor readings. 2. more likely, due to my journey experience, I use illness to thrust me even more deeply into the trance, the readings go as they should — and my vital force becomes dangerously depleted, making me sicker.

As a teenager, I remember reading Scott Cunningham's "Living Wicca." (Don't laugh; I've always had great respect for Cunningham, who struck me as genuinely devoted to the Gods of his tradition and a gentle human being to boot.) One of the questions in the book was, "Do I do ritual when I'm sick?" As silly as it sounds, it's a decent question. It will come up sooner or later in your practice.

My rule of thumb: Listen to your body and act accordingly. Meditation is usually okay, but journeying is out. A personal divination is fine, but make it short; no marathon sessions of any type. Devotionals to the Gods, ancestors and nature spirits are fine, as long as they're not too intensive; they'll forgive you if you're feeling like human fecal matter. After all, they love you and want you to stick around.

Simple stuff, but it's amazing how easy you forget it when your brains are germ-addled.

a prasad of apples

Last weekend, we went to the blessing of the nearby Indian Cultural Center by a Brahmin priest. The ritual lasted several hours, accompanied ceaselessly by the pundit's clear-voiced chanting in Sanskrit. Each movement, each word was keyed to the offerings: leaves, flowers, coconuts, the flare of ghee in the central fire, the sacred grass under the mat. The eldest man and his wife assisted, sprinkling offerings on the holy flame.

It was a beautiful ceremony to watch, and we shared the blessings of aarti and drank of the earthy sacred water. Apples were our prasad, fresh off local trees.

The pandit was my age or a little older, perhaps, having learned Sanskrit and the rituals since childhood. From memory alone, he can perform and recite long ceremonies for multiple occasions: house-blessings, weddings, deaths. A Hindu friend told us of an event, years ago: Hundreds of Brahmin priests reciting ancient prayers for rain, to bring on the monsoon and end the drought. And so they did.

And, as a Druid, I think: This is what we have lost.

The priest or priestess is essentially a servant of the community, both mundane and divine. S/he keeps the ancient traditions alive, the path that connects one directly to the ancestors. In the dance of hands, words and offerings lies the thread of time, memory, place.

It's not our fault we have lost this. Traditions are living things: birthing, living and dying along with their people. We have lost what the ancient Druids did, their sacred words and actions; they had lost the sacred traditions of those who dwelt in the land before, the Megalith builders, and on and on through the first emergence of hominids with a sacred sense. Time is a waltz between memory and forgetting.

Two thousand years from now, perhaps, we'll have Pagan priest/esses performing prodigious rituals from memory. Or perhaps we've changed too much for that?

So much of modern spirituality is focused on the individual and the individual's needs: We do a ritual asking for abundance, or spiritual enlightenment, or some amorphous version of personal development. Gods and spirits are archetypes, or spiritual tools; not entities to be loved, honored, even feared — babove all, known, recognized as something beyond the individual self.

We've turned faith into consumerism, self into spirit, selfishness into enlightenment.

It's not enough to love yourself: you need to love your neighbors, too — all of them. You need to love the world and its denizens, seen and unseen. The Gods and spirits, if you believe in them — and especially if you ask boons of them. You make offerings not because your friends or neighbors or Gods need stuff, but because that's how we, as fleshly creatures, show love, care, respect. The blessings are shared among one's community, one's neighbors, not kept in a miser's vault. It's a spiritualization of our identity as social creatures — as indeed we are, political rhetoric aside. 

Even if you've lost the words, make an offering — and share the prasad with your neighbor. Pay it forward, that memory of sacredness.