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. 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.
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. 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. The difference has much to do with later sources of misery and tension born of Ancient Roman imperialism and racism. 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. 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.
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. 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 assigning 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.
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.)