(I got to deliver this during service after writing it for Memorial Day 2014)
(I got to deliver this during service after writing it for Memorial Day 2014)
This is my latest attempt to talk personal spirituality.
BE WARNED! ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO—oh never mind just hang in there
Systematic Theology I
One Druid and Their Path
I am writing and conducting this research as an applicant for ministry within the Unitarian Universalist Association and also as an unaffiliated modern Druid. This is neither a succinct nor an cumbersome classification; still it needs getting out of the way. Currently, a brief perusal of a general networking website for Druid groups and affiliated/supporting organizations lists locations and congregations all over the world, including the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Europe. Group interests and affiliations range from Nimue Brown’s Gorsedd (organization) of Druids in the west midlands of England to a lecture on Zen Druidry, cataloged and podcast.1 The Druid ‘religion’ may be described more accurately as the Druid ‘path;’ certainly that is the terminology I have come to use. However my perspective not only cannot but absolutely should not be taken as representing any single larger and clearly delineated Druid organization. At the risk of belaboring an introductory point, it is vital to make these distinctions clear, if only in the interest of respect for the Druid groups for whom I hold it and to avoid any misconception that my approach to the Druid path is common. There are, of course many Christians that operate in different denominations, with disparate interpretations of their faith even within those sects, likewise Jews, Muslims and Humanists. The range of Druid belief and practice is beyond that level of diversity. It shares most in common with the diversity of Hindu practices and beliefs—not sharing deities, religious or linguistic terms but in the force of different approaches and traditions.
There is, of course, with a perversity that almost comes as second nature to our modern
Druid identities, one thing that almost all of us do hold in common. Not only are we all approaching our spiritual practice with slightly differing ideas, we are all starting from a religion or faith that has two inescapable qualities. First, whatever we may say on the matter, any complete delineation of its original form, from the late Bronze Age through the Roman Empire is lost, most likely forever. Second, despite this chasm between modern and original Druid belief and practice, we can point to evidence that the foundation of our religion—the Druids of the pre-Christian and early Christian era existed. We know roughly where we were and we know somewhat definitively when we were.2
The Druids were the priesthood, legal, juristic, medical and educational division of Celtic society in Europe, Britain and Ireland. The first reference to them in primary sources occurs in the work of the Greek historian Timmaeus between the 3rd and 4th century B.C.E.3 Other writers of note to discuss them include Julius Caesar and Caesar Strabo, between the 1st century B.C.E and Pliny the Elder and Tacitus after the 1st century C.E. Miranda Green notes a disparity between these writers, a gap of sorts between the 1st centuries B.C.E and C.E respectively. She describes Caesar and earlier writers taking a ‘positive, active image of the druids’ before things take a turn for the more obviously derisive and derogatory in Tacitus and later Roman writers.4 The difference has much to do with later sources of misery and tension born of Ancient Roman imperialism and racism. 5 From my own experience with Caesar’s Gallic Wars I would not catalog him with that positive a view of the Celtic Tribal confederations in what is now France. There seem to be too many insults and biases, both overt and subtle.
For more than a century, new orders of Druids have tried to reconstruct the ceremonies of those who came before us. Some of us follow as strict as possible adherence to the few details about pre-Christian ceremonies that remain. Some of us borrow ritual practices from other pagan traditions, such as the faith of Wicca. Some of us try to seek guidance on how to celebrate our faith in meditation. Some of us write new ceremonies. And some of us take all of these approaches in concert. Whichever modern Druid order is celebrating Samhain,for instance, most of us mark the festival through celebration of the dead and the acknowledgment that the year, like a wheel, has turned. Most of us perform rituals that seek to honor and celebrate a balance and a harmony with all life—when we fail we make amends, when we succeed we seek to do even better.
No part of this essay is a prelude to claiming that I derive my call to ministry or any authority I may someday wield as a minister from within myself. I didn’t receive the call from within my own authority. It is also not an attempt to present my ministry or path as a druid as unique or solitary. I am far from being the only one called this way.
I am a servant. And like any servant, for instance, Anna Bates as created by Julian Fellowes, I have my home base of operations—in her case, Downton Abbey, in mine, this continent. I started out doing one type of spiritual service at the risk of continuing the whimsy, I might say was the under-keeper of the duck and fish ponds and I may end my career in a different wing of the house—I hope—a church congregation. This continent has many servants that perform large varieties of caretaking and spiritual stewardship. Our First Nations, Native Americans, don’t need a druid or a servant whose family hailed once from County Meath or the Jewish communities of Prussia. That needs to be said. But other people live on this continent now, and while it would not be appropriate for us to pursue First Nations’ spiritual practice (if we do not belong to one of those Nations or have another legitimate connection to one) we’re still in need of our own. I am perfectly content—even joyful—to be a servant of this continent in that context. And I suspect I have more fun than Anna Bates.
We, as Unitarian Universalists in 2014 have the freedom and the evidence to understand more and more about the science of our existence, as well as our galaxy and universe. We might follow Steven Hawking’s approach and trace the events of time and existence back to the Big Bang and then see nothing beyond that, or, if not nothing, not a deity either.6 We might also chose to consider that pre-universe je ne sai quois, where even time did not exist yet, as the space where our Gods, deity or deities exist. We may conclude that if there is a divine force at work in reality, in any way, that it/they are so powerful they can or did exist in the very void of the utter unknown.7
On the Druid path, we have many choices in how we will make sense of the Universe and our faith. In light of the sheer volumes of information we have lost about choices the Druids made in Ireland or Gaul before 700 C.E, I personally look to science. Science does not need to support any of my theological perspectives with evidence. Science is one of my theological perspectives, both in the ancient Greek view of the Druid as natural philosopher and the Unitarian Universalist’s view that humanistic principles and the science those acknowledge can be a source of faith or spiritual inspiration for us.8 Science strengthens my faith because I believe that the more we learn in various fields, the more we can celebrate what divine grace is actually capable of because we understand the facts behind the wonder.
As someone whose theological view depends on science, the theory of a Universal beginning at the Big Bang and an ever expanding universe and reality, I can end up with a different focus on ideas and theologies from earlier Unitarians or Universalists. On occasion, the Druid sees Gods in the heart of uncertainty, as forces that hold sway over much more than humanity and focus their attention beyond our species. While the process of establishing a role for God in the universe, such as what part God played in creating evil, or allowing evil, might be foreign to a religious tradition with little or no written theology it remains relevant. It remains important to explore responses and ideas like those of Hosea Ballou, and to remember that he found it highly significant to ask questions like: has God a plan, and if so is evil part of that plan, and, therefore, is it important to establish evil’s role in God’s plan? If for no other reason, the UU minister, regardless of where their own spirituality comes from, must take into account where other UU faith sources focus.
Again, to the Druid, the world around humanity, “nature” is both connected to and above good or evil. We may personally view a specific animal, bird, rock formation or plant as more significant spiritually because that organism is the traditional avatar of one of our deities. If the deity in question represented is not one always benign to humanity it might be easy to assume we believed them and their avatar to be evil. Some Druids and pagans may well adopt this view. Personally, I believe assignin9g good or bad to a spiritual or temporal force simply because of how that power interacts with my species to be a flawed and potentially harmful approach. A hurricane, a vulture, a puff adder and a black widow spider are all, in varying degrees, harmful to humanity as a species. In no way are we relevant enough to them that they would seek us out and attack us. We might be mistaken for prey, we might be construed as an imminent threat to survival that must be countered but rat, dove or venomous plant, a life form that follows its biological directive is not doing so out of evil.
‘Nature’ is a problematic category. To speak of ‘nature’ or the ‘natural world’ and then discuss humanity can imply that they are separate entities, reinforcing the idea that we are above the rest of living existence. However, in one case it may be extremely important to refer to nature and humanity as distinct entities. Nature, at least when its defined as the all encompassing interaction of living, non-living, scientifically proved phenomena and the workings of the Universe could make a claim successfully that at this date humanity cannot. Nature may very well deserve a sort of free pass, a universal pardon in the creation or perpetuation of evil. As a Druid, I might go farther and argue that Nature needs no pardon; evil and good are not relevant concepts—except, I might also specify, in the context of humans and our interaction with the natural world. We need to seek a great deal of pardon, but unfortunately, humanity is not equipped with an impeccable defense.
The idea that humans were created in the image of the Judeo-Christian God and also given dominion and mastery over all other life is no longer a universal tenet of all Christians’ faith. The idea that simply because our species possesses a larger frontal lobe or uses recognizable language we are assured our place at the top of the food chain, the dominant (if omnivorous) predator on the planet is also losing some ground. We are, without a doubt, the only vertebrate species capable of ending all life and viability of our planet known to exist. But Bacterium could give us all fair competition if completely un-intellectual factors, like environmental change allowed various species to propagate more extensively. When we ‘hunt’ we can pile up more kills than any vertebrate (again, viruses and bacterium might beat us on the final trophy count), and we hunt, gather, expand territory and domesticate agriculturally far more than we need.
None of these reflections are meant to portray a world view where I write all humanity off as beyond and beneath redemption. I do find it interesting that as some Christian denominations have and currently do focus on humanity’s sinful nature, I do too, although for very different reasons. As I have said to my Unitarian Universalist community when I preach or write for the newsletter: I attend two churches. Both of them are important and vital to my spiritual practice. One is literally a church, where I can gather and celebrate worship with my beloved community within the UUA. I can also worship in the church that is the forest (although I need to do so respectfully and carefully—someone very big or very small might snack on me during that worship service!). This is a cathedral of trees and a floor of leaf-mast where most living things are moving in their own harmony with the planet and the gods. I am far from the most relevant species and also still part of the whole. The reverence of that harmony is at the heart of the Druid path for me.
On the Meditation Cards. (These were submitted with the paper, more may be blogged at a later date).
The cards submitted with this paper are a work in progress. I do not know what their eventual number will be; it is not a decision that rests in a framework of methodical planning. Divination has been a part of spiritual practice among pagans, Christians and modern, earth-based traditions for thousands of years. These cards are, in small part, based on traditions like Tarot, which is not an exclusively or even significantly a practice among Druids. Divining the future was part of the Druid’s ability and duty among Pre-Christian Celts. Exactly how they pursued the practice will never be known with absolute certainty.10
These cards are not meant as divination tools to predict any aspect of the future. They relate to the present and past. The reader meditates on an issue they are currently facing or in which they’ve encountered a challenge. Shuffling is not a greatly practical option but the reader may flip the cards to their backs and mix up their order. Eyes closed, focusing on the question/challenge the reader draws and reveals anywhere from one to four cards immediately. The goal of the exercise is to think about whatever the image of a given card might provide in terms of unrecognized connections, unexplored resources and avenues of spiritual meditation and focus that may be relevant. If I am using the cards, their individual meanings are tailored to my experiences and perceptions. If I am reading for someone else, my practice is to have the other participant share (if willing) what the given cards mean to them, then share the personal meanings of the cards drawn and recommend only that whatever has come up be meditated upon and considered carefully at the participant’s discretion. The only ‘rule’ is that the deck cannot be used to ask any question related to the future.
My reasons for this distinctions have nothing o do with any prohibition against divining the future. I have two traditional Tarot decks that I willingly use for that purpose whenever I have the chance to read for someone else. I have noticed, in fifteen years of reading that I tend to get very accurate ideas and predictions from Tarot card queries on the past, present or future. This could be a staggering coincidence; I do not believe it is. Conversely I certainly do not believe that I have a rare or powerful ability. Success either happens or does not happen for Tarot readers. In my case, it happens.
I believe, however, that it is too easy, especially for me, to become fixated on the future. On a personal note, since I was diagnosed with OCD ten years ago, I think that Tarot divination about the future for myself by myself are a bad idea. So many cards have so many different possible nuances and meanings. It is too easy for me to become obsessively worried about any detail of a given card that might or might not portend tragedy or loss. I risk disregarding any of the themes related to the past or present that might be less obvious and more valuable to consider. -When I’m reading for someone else, answering their question, or when someone is reading for me, this is not an issue. So this growing deck of meditation cards has an extremely ambitious goal as well. It is an attempt at a divination or meditation tool that is accessible for the reader with a mental health disability. Primarily I hope to use the cards to simply generate topics to meditate upon privately. I predict that if they are helpful it will be because they make me think of connections or issues related to whatever I am meditating about that are not so obvious on the surface.
Rough Break-down of Card meanings:
Cardinal Wing: colors and air currents, changing seasons, resilience and sweetness during those changes. What might I learn from Cardinals’ behavior?
North America: Here is the continent I am bound to. What does that mean? Am I serving the land and humans in my community on the land appropriately?
Irish Ancestors: What do my Fitzpatrick, Traynor, Geoghegan and O’Brien (the names written in the Ogham alphabet on the card) ancestors, their lives and examples have to tell me?
Jewish Ancestors: (on the card, Hebrew words for “diaspora” specifically “Out of the Land” and “Ashkenazi” These are the the Jewish groups I descend from ethnically). What does the history of my ancestors who came out of the middle east, north and west through the Roman Empire and into Europe have to tell me?
Crow Wing and Eggs: Element of the air, winds and currents. Crow as teacher, helper, one who removes carrion and excess and keeps us all healthier, one of the more intelligent birds on the planet. What can I learn from thinking about Crows? Can I remember that they always make me happy?
Pack Leader: What can wolves, hunters, leaders and protectors of their family teach me? What can remembering the role of the pack leader, the deer hunter, the king stag teach me?
The Earth Goddess/Mother of Horses. Mother Epona’s hoof print contains signs of life, remembrance and renewal.
Diving Humpback Whale. A whale is descending into their natural element. What might be beginning?
Pines: remember the strength of northern trees, of evergreens. What have I learned in pine forests?
Wheel of the Year: Where am I on the cycle of seasons and why might that be important?
The Cathedral: I must always remember the common ground between Christianity and paganism, remember my allies in whatever I am facing presently. Also, what does remembering Ely Cathedral on Christmas eve, and the huge stone bowl of votive candles in the dark vaults help me to realize? (That is the inspiration for the central image.)
2One only needs to pick up a brochure for the Creationist museum of Kentucky or a social studies textbook in parts of Saudi Arabia to understand what a blessing this is.www.creationmuseum.org http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/25/world/meast/obama-saudi-texbooks/
3Miranda Green. The World of the Druids. 20-21. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
4Green, World of the Druids 14.
6Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking Part Three: The Story of Everything Discovery Channel film: 2010.
7Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking Part Three: The Story of Everything.
8Miranda Green, World of the Druids 41.
9Hosea Ballou. A Voice for Universalists. Boston: 1849. Kindle ed. 1126 of 3689
10Miranda Green World of the Druids. 96-97.
So this is my first entry in the Evil Diaries. No they are not supplemented by Dr. Evil, there is no Evil Petting Zoo and I will not give you directions to Minas Morgoth. But in a class I’m taking we frequently get asked to think about certain topics and this was my week’s reflection. I have put the original parts of the question
used as an outlining tool by a hapless hopeless seminarian in Bold.
How do you explain Evil in your congregation?
(I make Evil show us some valid ID Then I sit Evil down next to a hall monitor and make sure they don’t chew gum I DON’T KNOW, IN OTHER WORDS)
We don’t explain evil in my congregation as much as we acknowledge it. I think this is a good approach; I’ve always found evil to be irrevocably linked to a vein of the inexplicable, the degree of connection depending on each case. I’ve heard my minister acknowledge the evil of terrorist attacks, King Philip’s War and the Marathon Bombings. We acknowledged the evil in the orders of King Herod to kill all newborn male children in Bethlehem in our Christmas eve service. I think the distinction between explaining and acknowledging is an important one. I think Evil as a concept remains nebulous and imprecise and that it is over and under-applied countless times each day, all over the world.
How do you explain Evil?
I worry sometimes that evil cannot be explained, but rather identified. Or perpetuated. I think some of our attempts to define what is evil are successful, like the concept of genocide. That may be setting a very low standard for the definition of evil, but consider what happens when as a species, humanity has tried to define evil beyond its own, and what happens when we think we’ve got the hang of the classification process. –For instance, of the many reasons that the bubonic plague rates skyrocketed in 14th century Europe one stands out. The cats that had once kept the rodent populations (who carried the infected fleas) had been decimated because the church had declared them, as potential witches’ familiars and demonic spirits, evil. Crows and Ravens who play a vital role in removing carrion and small scavengers are still killed brutally and in high numbers because humanity decided that their nature—which led them so frequently to battlefields, corpses and garbage dumps made them evil. So we must remember how, in our attempts to define evil along the lines of our own needs or cultural practice or aesthetic comfort, we in turn as a species have done a great evil to the web of interconnected life around us.
What did you say and do when you found out about the Newtown shootings?
I was devastated by the Newtown shootings; the majority of children in Boston and Rhode Island I have taught or worked with were kindergartners. I couldn’t stop seeing their faces.
The Newton shootings made me think, also, that it is too easy to mistake other problems for evil. Was Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter evil? I do not feel qualified to deliver a verdict. He was clearly mentally disturbed. He and his mother clearly should not have had access or purchase rights to firearms. In the case of the other, much over-eclipsed shooting of that month, three firefighters were shot to death by a man who attacked his neighbors, set a house on fire and then picked off the emergency responders with firearms that he should not have been able to obtain, in Webster NY. On the surface, I look at Lanza’s crimes, and those of this other
spunk-stain shooter and I want to classify the people, Lanza and the shooter as evil. I know, however, rationally that both of them were reported after the fact to have emotional and mental disorders. The Firefighters’ shooter had already been convicted of murder; his grandmother in 1980. Lanza had not been given enough intervening mental health screening and treatment, he had not been monitored sufficiently and he was therefore free (I mean not-confined) to act. These shooters were not the awesome civilians-with-gun-know-how that I encounter more often than the media might prefer. They were people who should not have had guns or legal access to guns owned by other people.
What I believe is truly evil about the situation is that politicians, ‘big insurance’ companies, lobbyists and the corporate sector did not have to all but destroy a working budget for mental healthcare facilities in our country but they did. Residential facilities should not have been decimated but they were. The laws that made the guns purchased in both horrific incidents don’t need to have those loopholes, and the lobbyists and politicians don’t have to push for them, but they do.
Oh, and…? The same categories—lobbyists, politicians, the very wealthy and corporate on the anti-gun side do not have to cave in to political pressures, trade away reforms for back-room deals that will keep them in power and make them money—but they do.
And yet individual people take those jobs. Individual people take those jobs and if they discover or discern morally questionable practice, and they keep their job (and they do not have an economic hardship) are they evil? Are they doing evil, rather, or is that a valid distinction? I want to say yes, frequently. I can’t just always stop myself from wanting to say yes; I almost always want to say it. In my eyes, these are the big world grown up versions of the school administrators who made my life (and my peers’) prey to their ambitions and the bullies who preyed on the vulnerable. Especially the bullies who did so because they could, and the understanding that they could gave them something–maliciously, I want to say ‘joy.’ Realistically, I need to say “I don’t know”
And then extend my middle finger. Or my middle and index fingers. Depends how Agincourt-y I am feeling.
Now having said all that, the day of the Newtown shootings I wanted Lanza dead. I would have been saddened at the needless loss of life if he had been shot on the way to the school, and I would have felt much the same about the politics surrounding the problem as I’ve said above. The only reasons, in fact that I am not saying “I would have shot Lanza myself” are:
1. My mother’s PTSD patients at the VA have always said nobody knows how they would react in a killing scenario until they are in one, and my own limited weapons experience (foil, musket, throwing ax) seems to corroborate with that.I still remember the first time someone invited me to take a (rubber tipped) foil and (slowly) poke his (protected) chest. All games of Knights and Warriors aside, it was, at that point, one of the hardest things to do I had ever begun.
2. I am not a member of Law Enforcement or the Armed Forces and have no business toting a gun around, (yes I am one of those wimps who willingly acknowledges their authority. This is not a Fuck the Police Blog). I do not hunt, I do not shoot clay pigeons, I do not have a permit and I do not live in a vast forest surrounded by turkey vultures who want nothing more than to drop rabies-laced vulture-chalk on my house 24/7, I do not at this time live in a scenario where it would be appropriate for me to be learning to use or using firearms. (I do believe many of those scenarios exist, so no, Ricky and Willard, I am NOT coming with the President to take your guns.)
3: I am not at all trained in modern firearm use and not likely to be a good shot without a great deal of work, so I might well have missed. Worse, I could have hit someone else.
Does my very use of that criteria make me evil? Is taking a human life always evil? Am I unfit for ministry? Or is that set of questions and factors something that good people ask themselves? Or is it merely that people who have the potential for good go through that process? Would I be evil if I said I would do anything to defend a congregation under my care, such as the horrible shooting of a UU church in Kentucky? Up to and including the violence that sometimes comes with defense against an armed intruder who entered the physical space of church grounds with intent and means? Or would I just be wrong? Is there a difference between “evil” and “wrong?” I do not know. I hope this is not a mere laundry list of questions but truly, my understanding of any potential answers is a work in progress.
Have UU’s Overestimated Human Nature?
I worry that UU’s may have overestimated human nature, and I feel, again, that the arguments to focus on humanity as the central core of our religion in the form of humanism have led and could lead to more of that over-estimation. We need to be upfront and clear about what, as a species and through many cultures, we are capable of. But I do not think, conversely, that humans are beyond redemption—If I did, if I thought we were nothing more than an unstoppable infestation akin to fire-ants and tape-worms I would be a veterinarian, not a ministerial applicant. And, of course, we will be unable to preserve what is good and wonderful about us and heal the injuries we have inflicted on the web of life unless we have the chance to act and we take it. We have evil…and then we have Harry Belafonte, Mozart, Picasso (whose cigar farts surely smelled evil) and Little Turtle (Miami Confederation, 1790s, google him!)
This was why I found one particular reading in class this week so powerful. Reverend William Schulz, who has served as the head of my church in the past and as the executive director of Amnesty International is (what a dubious distinction, perhaps) one of the thinkers who has affected me most this semester. (that and the fact that he has a sense of humor, and honesty that I can aspire to in my own formation process and beyond). This is not actually the forerunner of a William Schulz Celebration Post
(do those exist?). I don’t want to suggest that I believe we can hold the words or actions of any human being alive or dead up as infallible or as proof that the individual will never say or do the wrong thing. It’s the effort Schultz makes to confront torture, to determine the many facets of evil, suffering and terror it encompasses and speak honestly of his feelings about each factor.*
(How does your understanding of evil relate to your capacity for hope?) My understanding of evil does a lot of damage to my concept of hope. I cannot defeat evil whether alone or in alliance. I cannot prevent evil. I cannot prevent the effects of evil deeds on my loved ones, on humanity itself or our world. But the wise person who said ‘evil triumphs when good people do nothing’ (adjusted for bad memory and less gender-exclusive language) is right. So I cannot turn away from hope, especially the hope that we can do better than those who do evil, and we can heal what evil leaves behind. Even if we cannot eradicate evil, to cease standing up to it would be to despair and therefore succumb to another sort of evil in itself.
*”What Torture’s Taught me” Rev. William Schulz, UUA General Assembly June 21 2006.
Could I perhaps be shot out of a cannon instead? Into a mosh pit staffed entirely by willing, good-looking and talented British and Irish actors?
I find myself in more at odds with Rev. Katherine Ellis’ statement: “ I think we need sanctuary in order to truly experience a sacrament, in order to feel reverent and touched with holiness. You don’t see the holiness in the red bird singing or the child’s face when you are feeling scared and lost.”
First, I do believe, from my own experience working in congregations and prayer circles that the sanctuary of a church or sacred space adds a layer to my experience of sacrament. For me it is in the power of communal worship, the sharing of a ritual that expresses my faith with others, as if we are adding an even larger beam to the umbrella of light that prayer and faith cast over humanity (and, if humans are doing ti right, all life). However. I would suggest that perhaps the “you” Ellis adopts here is unreasonable; she might have made her case more sincerely if she had stuck with her own point of view and used “I.” For, in contrast to her, I do see holiness in a red bird, even, sometimes in the midst of utter fear or despair. Sammuel Calthrop, the 19th century UU minister saw it in tomatoes! Conversely, I almost never see it in children, even in the midst of the sacred moment of a dedication or coming of age service. This is because I do not look for holiness in children; they are their own independent souls and can be either good or not good. I find I prefer to take the pressure off of them that comes from calling them holy and instead calling their nurturing, care and education ‘holy.’ That might help them to remain good human beings which in turn will keep them closer to that which is holy.
So not only do I hold a significantly different idea of what is or is not holy, or when I see these things as such I am not alone. As a Druid, the forest is church as much as a building with walls and a steeple. It is not superior or inferior, just different. And in the church of the forest, a sacrament can just as easily be crows removing carrion from the ground before it can spread rot and disease, or a fox killing a rabbit so that the fox’s infant will live, or a rabbit in turn keeping the vegetation balanced and distributed. But there’s a sacramental nature to pursuits outside church that other religious traditions can find—Orthodox and Hasidic Jews live a life with many daily reminders of sacred law and practice—keeping kosher, separating refrigerators to do so, mikvahs, clothing and activities specific to gender…I am not trying to paint these aspects of their religious practice as sacraments. However, the strict observation of religious law keeps the sacred space firmly in the every day world. It challenges the idea of a weekly prayer service in a sacred space as the main thrust of a religious practice. I can’t be a Jew, religiously speaking, but my grandmother’s ancestors and modern Jews today have contributed a great deal to the church I am part of and I try to look for every day sacred space because their example inspires me as much as my spiritual practice of a Druid.
I believe we have sacraments as Unitarian Universalists. First, I think I should say that the great deal of autonomy in our congregations seems to insure that there are different numbers of sacraments as well as definitions of the term from group to group. I think it is fantastic that we have a UU congregation in Boston that uses the Book of Common prayer and offers communion monthly. I think it is equally important and wonderful that we have congregations that never mention Jesus, or if they do, they do so quite rarely.
Is it acceptable to view a sacrament as a ritual or act that reinforces what I believe the Buddhists call right action, or right thinking? For instance; I see child dedication as a sacrament because the ceremony gives a child and their parents a source of comfort, religious mentoring and spiritual reinforcement from a specific community. And our only hope, as it would be in any species, is in our children. Supporting them, then is a holy enough act that a specific ritual of dedication has the feel of a sacrament to me. Although not a Christian I have no dispute whatsoever with communion as a sacrament, though I take the protestant (loosely speaking!) view of it as a celebration and remembrance of Christ and the last supper. –After all, as a pagan, I see the bread as already the body of the divine Goddess; blessing it to make it Christ is a bit fatuous. The ordination of a minister is a sacrament, to me because it is a form of oath taking and dedication by and for someone willing to live their life as a spiritual caretaker.
A UU candidate may draw their personal faith from different sources and make that promise within themselves to different faces of God—but we are also committing to a life of serving congregations within our larger belief system, congregations seeking to live by the seven principles. So while I truly hope it’s not dodging an answer to the question of whether we have sacraments. I have tried to address, in very small part, my thinking behind some of the things I do or participate in during UU worship. I am not fully convinced we have a cannon and I am also not fully convinced that is a bad thing. It’s only a suggestion, but let’s see where our congregations go and what they need.
I really do not find a lot of common ground with my UU traditions professor. Lately I’m starting to wonder why we’re assigned readings about the UU tradition but asked questions that have more of a bearing in the private and abstract.
This is the first: Where do you derive your authority to be a minister? God? Tradition? Congregation? Relationships? Self? What gives you the right/authority to preach?
This is one of the hardest questions to answer for me as a Unitarian Universalist coming from the faith source of an Earth-based tradition, specifically the path of a modern Druid. On one hand, becoming a UU minister is not merely a means to an end; I didn’t go down this route solely to find a way to do my job as a Druid in a church or organization that was large enough to potentially employ me. I spent a year between my first moment of vocation and my second with what became my home UU congregation in Rhode Island. If Unitarian Universalism had really not been where I wanted to serve those two personal calls to ministerial service, I would not be here today at ____divinity school. Conversely, I was called to service as a Druid; nobody and no spiritual force said ‘you are my UU minister.’, rather they said ‘you are my Druid.’ Figuring out what it meant to answer that call was up to me.
Only an imprecise archeological and literary record remain from the time that Celtic tribes depended on a clergy of Druids for spiritual care-giving, and some of the traditions we can confirm from the iron age and late antiquity (also known as the age of Arthur, the Dark Ages, the Early Medieval period) are simply not morally practicable today—such as human sacrifice. As a result, the Druid path of the modern era, particularly the last forty-odd years is intuitive and meditative in nature—we draw inspiration and insight from meditative contemplation. Some of us don’t combine that discernment with any evidence (of the non-sacrificing variety!) from the original Druid period in archeology or folklore. As it happens, I do; I and many other Druids adapt our spiritual practice through a combination of primary source material, meditation and yes, on occasion we develop (or make up) a new practice. There seems to be a similar pattern of spiritual formation in the large-scale modern Druid groups—many of whom hold the status of formally recognized religious organizations in countries like the United Kingdom.
While this may seem like a bit of a digression, Druids are not such a numerous religious sect in 2014 that I can expect people to be widely familiar with how I operate. I hope that this brief outline can demonstrate that we are an earth based tradition that does not have a codified, linear, written theology or spiritual practice. Now of course, the UUA has got all these things, and I’m pursuing ministry as a Unitarian Universalist. I was not however, called in the context that many of my fellow seminarians were or even the same that many of our authors from the week’s readings were. I was not called in a Christian, Judeo-Christian or (in the case of what I consider a refreshing number today) Humanist context.
None of this is a prelude to claiming that I derive my call to ministry or any authority I may someday wield as a minister from within myself. I didn’t. It is also not an attempt to present my ministry or path as a druid as unique or solitary. I am far from being the only one called this way.
I am a servant. And like any servant (cue the Downton Abbey music in five…), let’s say, Anna Bates as created by Julian Fellowes, I have my home base of operations—in her case, Downton Abbey, in mine, this continent. I started out doing one type of spiritual service –let’s continue the whimsy and say I was the under-keeper of the duck and fish ponds and I may end my career in a different wing of the house—I hope—a church congregation. This continent has many servants that perform large varieties of caretaking and spiritual stewardship. Our First Nations, Native Americans, don’t need a druid or a servant whose family hailed once from County Meath or the Jewish communities of Prussia. That needs to be said. But other people live on this continent now, and while it would not be appropriate for us to pursue First Nations’ spiritual practice (if we do not belong to one of those Nations or have another legitimate connection to one) we’re still in need of our own. I am perfectly content—even joyful—to be a servant of this continent. And I suspect I have more fun than Anna Bates. (Even though she gets to have Mr. Bates as a husband between murder accusations…)But where does my authority to preach or minister come in?
I believe that a good minister is a spiritual caretaker for a congregation or a group. They maintain the congregation’s covenant of worship, they live and encourage their community to live the principles of their faith—in our case, of course, seven—and they serve as spiritual counselor. They can do this one on one, or, through preaching each week, they can seek to help their congregation gather and focus in on one particular idea, or principle or spiritual issue through the focused lens of a sermon and group prayer. I do agree with all of our readings where the authors stressed that preaching is not supposed to be easy. This is not a weekly broadcast of a talk-show; we are not up in those pulpits to be entertaining or to say only comforting and placid words. (Given how many awful preachers go on from coast to coast in every religious sect in existence I hope nobody thinks of it as entertainment). I think it is easier for some of us in some respects because we may have more training or aptitude for public speaking, we may be better storytellers and we may be able to read our listeners enough to engage them, and even engage them through occasional laughter without losing the force of our message.
Still not doing a great job with where my authority comes from. I can say “I am here because my Gods told me to do this” and that would be so. I can say “some of my authority comes from knowledge and experience and I have that knowledge and experience of service to land and people because I answered a call and it took me places that people in a congregation who are lawyers or doctors or bakers don’t really end up going when they learned how to do their jobs.”–and while that would be true I think that may be more part of my identity as a spiritual resource than authority. I can say my authority would come from my willingness to do the job of ministry that others frequently are not, except I believe it would be too easy to fall in to ideas about guilt or obligation or misplaced authority if I did that.
Any minister who has been ordained, let alone any who have served a congregation for a long time holds authority over me, personally because they are my elder and my superior in rank. That does not render them infallible; sometimes it even fails to render a senior minister likeable or one that I could respect! But since this is not added to my personal authority—being where I am in my process—I add it only because I have not successfully answered this question. I would submit, however, that those of us aspiring ministers who may struggle to do so, have as much to offer as those who are certain of the nature of their authority.
Aside from what I submitted above I think it worth mentioning what my field education supervisor–also a minister had to say about questions like this “nobody is ever going to ask you that.”
Rising Winds, Breath of Life…element of the east, Air, please bless us all. Carry our words from soul to soul, and with them our love and thanksgiving. Bring us through this, the longest night, and every night to greet the dawn. Caress the sunrise at your gates and all those living as we greet the light. We know you, we love you. We greet you and give you thanks for all your graces.
Great and radiant Fire, element of the south, please bless us all. Please share in our love and thanksgiving. The fire in the heart of stars has cast light from them to us throughout the night sky. The fire of our immortal spirits, all of us, of each and every living creature of this planet, burns together. As we light our candles and chalices, light our darkness, now and always. We know you, we love you. We greet you and give you thanks for all your graces.
Oh living rivers and oceans, element of the west, Water, please bless us all. Please bear our love and thanksgiving through your currents and tides. Water of the skies, waters of swamp and stream and lake and bay, water carried in their air as mists, water of life be ever a wellspring of healing and health in our hearts and Spirits. We know you, we love you. We greet you and give you thanks for all your graces.
Home to the winter’s power, element of the north, Earth, we are breathing with you. As our love and thanksgiving echoes in our hearts let it always take root in your fields. Oh Giants, who form the cathedral of great and sleeping trees around our church and along the breast of this living continent, and ancestors who lie sleeping in your roots, and orchards, mountains, glacier rocks and flat plains…let us strive to live in harmony with you and bless us always. We know you, we love you. We greet you and give you thanks for all your graces.
Our circle is cast through the graces of air fire water and earth. Father Wolf, great lord, my most beloved guide, guardian and my honored father: please walk the edges of our worship, both to give ear to our loving thanks and to protect our service and people in mind and body and spirit. No harm will enter, or let footstep fall through your grace and through the force of our love for one another. Blessed be.
North: We give you thanks, Element of the Earth and bid you good night.
West: We give you thanks, Element of the Waters, and bid you good night
South: We give you thanks, Element of the South, and bid you good night
East: We give you thanks, Element of the East and bid you good night.
Centre/Laura Father Wolf, I give you thanks on all our behalf and bid you goodnight. In love, in faith and in Thanksgiving. Blessed be.
So recently I commented on a friend’s Facebook post about our Illustrious Congress, particularly Michelle Bachman: “Jesus would respond to people who say things like that by administering an enema.”
My friend and I had a very forthright discussion about it and their reasons for asking me to take the comment down were valid and because this person remains a respected mentor and friend, even if their stance had NOT been valid, ‘it’s on my page I do not like it it is going down’ was all they ever would have needed to say.
The whole thing, however, got me thinking. Snark, after all, is my life. I depend on it to keep my blood pressure low, plant subversive ideas into the public consciousness, and get attention –what, reader, you think I would not admit it? So had I just indulged in the most shocking insult in my (no caffeine 8am) arsenal or did I really think Jesus Christ would administer an enema to many, MANY Christians I have come across personally or who regale us with their vapid (and blatantly un-Christian) vacuous rants in certain public venues. And I realized that yes, indeed, I had not been going for the shock value as much as it may have appeared.
The fact is, I’ve grown up in a world populated by doctors. By stories of ancient Roman and Egyptian medicine, by stories from or set in the pre-Christian and medieval world, where gargoyles and images of explicit Last Judgement agonies are carved on Cathedral facades–to scale no less, and renaissance Crucifixions that make modern slasher movies look bland. And so I’m used to people who, while I have and never will meet them, looked at the world in a very different way–including their approaches to medicine. And while I will freely admit to not having time to research this specifically, I bet Jesus would give Michelle Bachman and those who follow her platform an enema. Absolutely!
First of all, why? Better theological minds than I have demonstrated extensively, exhaustively, that most of the vitriol, most of the ideas about ‘the war on Christianity,’ homophobia, racism, economic freebasing etc etc that right-wing ‘Christians’ and ‘Christian Groups’ claim that they embrace as followers of Christ is…groundless. Of course there are many other words I could apply besides merely ‘groundless’ but that’s obvious enough. So yes, I believe that Jesus Christ, the historical man who may indeed have been the son of a God (pagans have a lot less problems with the idea of Christ than many Christians ever want to admit) would have taken one look at a huge percentage of the Christian population of 2013 and said “Dad…these people are nuttier than a sack-full of cats. We need to get them to a doctor.” (
Of course I have projected this statement as an authentic translation of the Aramaic/Coine Greek that Jesus used word for word. Snort.)
So…compassionate medical care for the mentally ill….Jesus, as a young educated Jew of the early Roman Empire might well have grown up believing in the importance of bowel health. Roman medicine was advanced, but the Mediterranean world seems to have had a decent amount of focus on keeping the internal workings of the body healthy. Concluding that people who spouted such vitriol in public might be suffering from painful and traumatic constipation may not have been such a great leap.
Had Jesus been alive during the era where Christianity emerged as the dominant religion of Europe, it is highly probable that he would believe an enema was the most humane and effective method of helping Michelle Bachman, the Romneys, the Rush Limbaughs, the massively uneducated and bigoted congressmen and senators of the world to balance their ‘humors’, cooling the irritation of their bodies that was leading to their insanity.
So while I enjoy mocking, lambasting, and doing my best to rake the realm of Conservative Idiocy over the coals, I think I might really have been onto something with the original idea. I think Jesus would have kindly, politely taken certain fanatics aside and escorted them to a physician and given them support and encouragement in pursuing the proscribed treatment.
The next question I have is: Where do we draw the line between respect of Christ and embracing his relationship with the physical world–which included poop?
Well, I have not kept up with this blog. Real life has not been busy so much as it has been…draining. The sort of thing I’m much more interested in escaping than commenting on. And, on the platform of honesty…yeah. I discovered The Great Pit of rationalizing and Waste of Time….Tumblr.
I’ve been at my field ed site, serving our version of a ‘mini’ internship, since October. Rural Massachusetts is a joy. The site is a joy. I love our community and our minister is an intelligent, well educated, sincere and lovely woman who believes in the importance of profanity almost as much as I do.
And these are things I have been thinking about which may or may not become posts:
Jesus and Poop
My old Neighborhood
The Protestant Druid
A Christian Education (?)
I turned around and BEHOLD! I saw a pale rider on a white bicycle. And his neon-vomit-inducing bike trunks stretched over his Ken Doll ass. And he did ride in the middle of my lane on a sharp curve where I could not pass him. And later he did return to his Cycling Cohorts and regale them with how he had Put another Ignorant Car Driver in their Proper Place. And there was much rejoicing in their halls at this triumph for environmentally safe travel and healthy exercise. And then they did drive home from the club in their polished Lexus SUV’s.
And Meanwhile, LO! I perceived through a great and distracted haze that yes, the heat was gone and yes Mabon and the Equinox had passed and that yes, somehow, the year was at its final turn to Samhain. And I did nearly run over the pale cyclist who had appeared as if from no-where.