Life After…Go figure

A Narrative of Life Outside The Box

Archive for the category “Pagan Community”

Personal Theology/ Ok this is What I THINK it means to me…possibly…somewhat…

The truth is, even if UU’s embrace so many different sources and principles—to say nothing of the range of Druid beliefs—I do not believe I can function as an aspirant, let alone as a candidate or beyond, without further understanding of Christianity and its theological views of God, Christ, and doctrine. Growing up in Catholic High School, Elizabeth I, Catherine Parr and Anne Askew were my heroes because whatever Henry VIII’s motives in embracing aspects of Protestantism, it was the young intellectual women and girls who studied, questioned, learned, and carried the ideals of reformation and women’s education forward. I felt, and continue to feel, an intrinsic need to understand Christianity from a perspective that included but ranged outside Catholicism, and I suspect I always will.

In attempting to explain my belief in God and the nature of God, the stumbling blocks I run into most often are “as a UU do you believe in God as an all-powerful divine force, or do you embrace other sources that make up the foundation of your faith?”. –Because, of course, we have those, among them, Jewish and Christian teaching, the lives and works of prophetic men and women, humanist teachings and perspectives and the spiritual teachings of Earth-Based Religions (www.UUA.org). And of course people also ask me ‘If you are pagan, how do you express a belief in one God, if you can do so at all?’ Succinctly: I can and I can’t. Forest Church’s statement about God the Mother provides one vehicle for Unitarian Universalists to believe in an all-powerful God while also exploring other aspects of that God’s identity that may prove more healing, enlightening or comforting. Church’s perspective differs from foundation of my personal faith as a Pagan or Druid.

I believe in a compassionate Mother Goddess. The problem is, that because I believe in more than one deity, I may not worship every God or Goddess in existence (and in fact, based on my personal beliefs and the limitations of human physical endurance, I don’t) but I acknowledge other Gods and Goddesses. I may not be entirely convinced of every other Deity’s true existence and power, but the very premise of paganism, including pagan belief through a Druid lens, encourages me to believe this: if I believe my Gods are real, others believe their Gods are real—and the belief in multiple deities, by nature, obligates us to accept the principle that other gods are also extant in space, time, word and deed. This is why Church’s ‘loving’ maternal God is problematic. Goddesses that preside over warfare, death, untimely death, violence in nature, and even violence across the dimensions of all existence are worshiped all over the world. I am not sure that encouraging UU’s to look at just “the Goddess” and “God the Mother” as Church does—with such wonderful intentions and tolerance—is as holistic as a more thorough—if stark and unsettling—acknowledgement of all the faces of the Goddess.

The Goddesses I pray to most frequently in my personal spiritual practice are Irish and Gaulish/Britannic respectively. Brighid, primarily an Irish deity, although she has ties to Britain, is the suzerain of blacksmiths, poets (and therefore, arguably, Druids themselves), healers and midwives. Epona, worshiped in ancient Gaul and eventually in Britain, is a Goddess of earth, primarily horses, although she has healing properties and some connection to guiding the dead to the afterlife (Green).

I believe in Christ and, in fact, believe in his divinity—as I have mentioned to you before. I believe in his father as a very specific force. I tend to view the Christian “God” as a continuation of Elohim, the Lord in Hebrew Scripture and therefore for me, Christ as his son would, of course, be divine as well. After all, other deities I acknowledge, Isis, for instance, have children who are also divine. Even if I had not been raised a Christian, accepting Christ as the son of a God is much less of a novel idea to some pagans, myself included.  In personal practice, although that is evolving for me, I’ll refer to “God,” meaning Biblical Elohim, “The Gods,” acknowledging the reality of deities I worship and those of other cultures, “The Living Gods,” or “Christ and the Living Gods” in an interfaith worship or, when working with UU’s I may also refer to “the spirit of life” in an attempt to avoid pushing any one deity down the spiritual throat of an atheist, agnostic or humanist.

Ironically, although I’m sure followers of Athanasius might have cheerfully stoned me in a convenient 4th century agora (Not that this ever happened to smarter women, cough, AHHUMHARUMHP< Hypatia of Alexandria, humpharumph…), the idea of an infinite God resonates a lot with my personal spirituality. Many of the Gods, Goddesses and divine forces I worship, are, indeed guardians or aspects of the physical world we live in—earth, air, fire and water, poetry, metal craft, medicine and animals. The physical world, however, in its finite forms, has come together in its elements (the periodic kinds: iron, oxygen, etc.) from infinite sources. Everything on our world was once part of a star, and everything that was once in those respective stars came from other stars, or other electromagnetic activity before and beyond them. The spiritual entities that I view through the lens of this world are tied to our world either comprehended or slowly comprehending through time.

In their very connection to this world, just as in the case of my connection to this world, the deities or entities I revere come from those same elements that have traveled infinitely through space and time in one form or another. –The iron in my blood and in the veins of the Earth Goddess traveled through time and space, for instance. The gasses and solids that burn in the sacred fire of a UU chalice—or personify the Goddess Brighid—have also been traveling that same endless journey. It is my belief that my Gods and spiritual Guardians walk roads that I can never follow in conscious understanding. This forces them to choices that I can never fathom, choices that are not just about me and my prayers to them but follow the obligations of the Gods to the truth of those incomprehensible roads.  The statement is both a metaphor for some of the commonly accepted science I’ve outlined and a belief routed entirely in the spiritual, non-corporeal realm. Even as I can respond to the images of star stuff and its kinship to me, and our relationship to space and time, it means something distinct to me when I say the Gods walk other roads. In the sight of my heart, in the space of meditation, sometimes I conceive a brief glimpse of this, a brief idea of the footsteps a Goddess or Guardian spirit might take, walking through the roads of existence itself, watching the stars and planets around and below them, drinking from solar winds and guiding souls through roads of nebulae and particles.

I do not feel entirely comfortable describing my own beliefs without repeating, forcefully, that they are only my view of the acts or nature of the Gods. I do not describe my ideas as unique or preferable to any one approach. They probably owe much more to the last scraps of my childhood imagination or my less focused adult perceptions  than they do to any sound and logical structures of intellectual and well-thought out theology.

Samhain Sermon, 2011

I had the grace and good support to preach this sermon at my UU Congregation in ____RI last fall.

Opening Words Grant, O Holy Ones, your protection;

And in protection, strength; And in strength, understanding,  

And in understanding, knowledge; And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;

And in the knowledge of Justice, the love of it;

And in that love, the love of all existences;

And in the love of all existences, the love of Earth, our Mother and all goodness.

Michael Greer, Ancient Order of Druids in America, 2006.

Sometime around the end of what we call the month of October, the tribal confederations of the Celtic peoples celebrated their festival of the Dead and the New Year, Samhain. The feast day was a very important part of the religious calendars of people in France, what are now England and Wales, and Ireland. Much of what happened during those rites is lost forever, because the Celts did not write down their law, history or ritual practice before the advent of Christianity. We know today that Samhain was a time for prayers to be said over domestic animals that needed to survive the winter. We know that at Samhain people remembered their Dead and marked the end of the agricultural year. And we can surmise that the Druids, as the principal celebrants of the Celtic priesthood, would have presided over many of the rites of prayer, celebration and remembrance.

For more than a century, new orders of Druids have tried to reconstruct the ceremonies of our predecessors. 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 pagans, 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, most of us mark the festival through celebration of the dead and the acknowledgement 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.

Calendars have shifted since the years when Celtic tribes knew and loved Samhain. For this reason, we can look at Samhain as a fluid time of celebration; the feast day might have taken place at any time between the end of October and early November. The festival might have gone on for one day or many. We don’t really know.

We may seem to live in a very different world from the Celtic tribes. Certainly, we live on the curving body of a vast continent thousands of miles from the lands where people kept the festival of Samhain. Most of our cultural roots come from societies and philosophies built upon the written word. Our medicine and technology become more astounding every day. But how different are we, really?  If I were to curtain all the windows and turn off the lights, or if we were all to sit here and wait until the sun went down, we might begin to physically understand the world of the Celtic tribes and much of Europe beyond them. The royal feasting hall of Tara in county Meath and the high stronghold of Dunedin, or Edinburgh were at the mercy of sunrise and sunset, the people living there dependent on candles and hearth-fires for warmth or light. If we were there with them we would know the same kind of world, the absolute darkness of the great hall when the fires died down, no phones, or LED screens or antibiotics. Would we be so very different?  We all suffer pain in this era, and sometimes that pain is beyond even our medical advances to correct. Some of us are still born blind or deaf, or unable to see clearly without glasses. All of us have faced the challenges of being young in a world run by adults, all of us are growing or will grow old, and begin to find white in our hair. Infants and children can still be taken from us before their time…And yet we can still find joy and comfort beside a blazing hearth.  We call plants and grasses or even trees ‘dead’ after the fall because we don’t see new leaves and shoots. We may have to replant seeds or wait until new buds grow in the spring. We may see a fallen tree stretched massive and bleached as a whale’s skeleton across a path in the forest. But is the tree really dead?  Is it sleeping, has it just changed and begun to live again as something new?

The world of nature that may seem beyond us and our day to day lives is actually a part of our existence at every moment. And in our world, death is also ever present and much more of a change than a finite event.  But it only helps us so much to know that, doesn’t it, when we lose someone we love to that point of irrevocable change? When we say good-bye to the departed in the awareness that we will not see them again through the remaining days of our lives, or when we remember that a beloved ancestor from family stories will never actually stand living and breathing with us…This is hard.

I know that this has been a very difficult truth to face in my own life and I won’t pretend that my belief that death is change rather than an end has made losing my beloved ones easier. It’s only a belief; I can’t give any sure answer that I’ll see them again, or be aware of what or who they have become.  What I can say is that this time of year can give us more than one true gift, no matter how elusive they may seem. We have the gift of respite and the Earth Lady herself shares it with us.

In the midst of all the frantic paces in our lives, all of our days, of the school year, preparing for winter, anticipation of the holidays of December, the earth turns much more slowly. And as she turns in her dance among the giants, it grows colder and darker. So many of her children go to rest and renew themselves for the next turning into the Spring.  And as the dusk grows, as the fire dims, we can watch the sparks as they still rise and leap up toward the sky. We can welcome the Hunter and hound stars at night. We can rest as the old year dies, even if we only allow our souls to stop or pause and mark the change. We can celebrate the memory of the beauty and abundance of the summer and mark the eldritch loveliness of the creaking blackwork the bare trees make against the setting sun. We can remember that even though it will become darker each day until the Winter solstice, the light will return to the sky.

And if we may also believe that, perhaps we will see our dead again when our time comes, that we may rest and renew and move with them, time after time, life after life through forests of the heart* and sun-drenched trails and worlds without end.

The beliefs in paradise or the Summer Country, the idea of reincarnation or rebirth do not exist in isolated vacuum chambers, rather, they can coexist. If we don’t know that any of these things happen for certain, we also remain unable to say that they don’t. Even if we believe that nothing happens after our death, that we go nowhere but our grave, there isn’t a burial practice in the world that doesn’t send some part of our physical bodies back into the earth. And as we become part of the earth again, that which was once us lives on.

Meditation

In this meditation, I hope to introduce you all to one of the servants and faces of Epona. Epona is an ancient Goddess, worshiped by the Celtic tribes across Europe. She watches over horses and all animals. She walks in the west, sometimes with two legs, sometimes on four. She guides souls to the afterward. I hope that today a sense of her will walk with all of you, even if only briefly in your mind’s eye. Close your eyes and draw in a deep breath, letting it out as soon as you feel ready. Try to focus on that calm, shapeless world behind your eyelids. Now imagine your eyes opening. Even as you open your eyes you feel the air, cold and sharp with the red-brown wind of fall teasing along your cheeks. You feel the thick frost of early morning seeping in cold through your shoes.

You are standing in the middle of an open field. Before the frost and winds flattened it, the grass would have brushed above your ankles. Now most of it is against the ground, frozen into pale green and yellow whorls and spirals. There is faint sunlight streaking the sky and from the distance, you see a thick bank of clouds, blue and deep grey as the back of a swimming whale, soft as a quilt, advancing towards your patch of sunlight. The clouds are vast, but not threatening. This is one of the great sky-scapes of New England, wind, cloud and sunlight blending into a thousand different shades and patterns through an ever-changing world.  Behind you, you hear movement, the low, muffled thud of unshod hooves in the thick grass. The mare comes and stands on your right side. Her winter coat is thick and soft; the warmth of it reaches the edge of your senses. She is many colors, black, brown, grey, any and all colors you may see in your heart. One of her eyes, the size of a golf ball, takes you in, and you can see your reflection in its infinite dark. She sighs, as horses do and her ears flop slightly in relaxation. Her breath is warm on your neck.  She is one of Epona’s children, a horse spirit, servant and embodiment of the Goddess, the Mother of Mares, the sacred and wondrous Earth lady.  Now, today this mare is here to help you. Imagine your fingers buried in the thick fur at her neck. Imagine the strength of the curving muscle under your hand. Ask her for comfort and love while you remember your dead. Ask her for help in carrying your love, your celebration, your feelings of any sort to your dead. Or simply imagine her beside you in solidarity as you acknowledge your dead on your own.  There is no right or wrong here. You may feel the dead, an awareness of them or their awareness of you. You may not have anything to say, you may not have entirely resolved feelings. In doing this, you allow the dead to know you remember them and yourself to think of the love or healing or strength they gave you in life.  Send them your love or any true feelings you wish to share. Breathe and remember as you do.

 …The mare whuffles softly into your neck. The sun has set in the west and the moon has risen in a perfect white disk against the pale purple quilt of clouds and sky. She will stay to guide your dead. It’s time for you to take another breath, come back into yourself and open your eyes.

Closing words The planets have turned. The old year has died, gone into the time of waiting, respite and change. So have all those we have loved or known who have gone before us. Take whatever time to remember them in any way you choose or feel the need. May the strength and wisdom of the great Earth Lady bless us for all our days and may we all meet again in the next turn of the wheel.

*Forests of the Heart Charles De Lint, 2001

Fear and the Restatement of the Obvious

So. It’s pushing 95 degrees F (F a lot of things actually). Heat Index has us at 100. I’m holed up in my fourth floor apartment in a house built 110 years ago by people who never expected to need air-conditioning–and didn’t care if their servants melted anyway, regardless, once a shift was over. I’m lucky. I have an air-conditioner to sit in front of and one in the bedroom as well. I’m in an area with lots of tree cover–at least below the fourth floor so we’re over all cooler than where I lived in Rhode Island. That neighborhood had less mature trees. More exposed ground. More scorching. In Maine, anywhere off the coasts, the woods are turning into dense, dark, prickle dens of pine, hot and often oddly dry-feeling, a luxury country club for mosquitoes and black flies. Where I lived for a few years, 10 miles north of Bangor, almost nobody had air-conditioning. The University of Maine (probably still–it’s been six years) justifies letting Stephen King’s original manuscript drafts rot in their oven of Special Collections back storage rooms. Originally, nobody thought the UMaine Orono library would need AC. Now, the school pawns grad assistant salaries and humanities classes to chill their science facilities and student athletic club. The library has never been even a tertiary thought; it’s unlikely much has changed. Many of the people on the street where I lived in ____can’t afford air conditioning, or they couldn’t six years ago, before the economy crashed. If they have it now I shudder to think what it cost. Nobody had central air; no one within a four town radius that I ever saw could have afforded it.

Colorado and New Mexico are burning. The Rockies too, or parts of them. Dead cornfields in Illinois. I drive through Wayland and think I’m looking at a huge expanse of farmland. It’s not, nor even a communal garden, but a golf course, a vast one. I walk through parts of Newton and see expanses of clipped green lawn, plants that need huge amounts of water. You can tell where the money lines break; the border zones have smaller lawns, chain link fences, more modern windows, more air conditioners, less central units, less landscaping, more kids making the best of sprinklers and Italian ice trucks.

I really hesitated to start this piece because at best it seems like I’m setting the stage for something worse, some true evidence that a dystopian break up worthy of Steinbeck is around the corner. At worst, it’s whining. But isn’t that what many of us–yeah, damn straight me included–are at least tempted to do when we’re afraid?

I am truly afraid, not in the terror of an obsessive fixation (I hope), and not in the ‘Radioactive Alien in a scary suit in my dark closet’ mode. I’m deeply afraid and inescapably saddened by the possibility that we will lose this planet. We will lose it, we will not survive the loss as a species and the pain and suffering that we’ll inflict on ourselves and the other living beings we take down with us will be a horror  beyond belief.

My husband, born in the 50’s, knew the Nuclear Arms race as it accelerated. He knew the fears of the Atomic Age and lived them in a way I can never imagine, but I was born into and knew the twilight of the Cold War. I remember Ronald Regan’s campaign for reelection mostly for my six year old hope and logic that Walter Mondale would win, and then, being old, he would die and Geraldine Ferraro would become the first girl President. Even more overwhelmingly, though, I remember it for the accusations I overheard, the repeated charges and discussions of whether Ronald Regan wanted to amass enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world. My grandparents lived on Lake Champlain; the back of Valcour Island and expanse of endlessly verbal water made up their front yard. I was awakened at least a few times each night by the sound of a powerful engine roaring low over the water and off into the black sky. I know people explained–probably at length–that these were planes from the Air Force base in town. When I heard the planes at five or six years old–and for years afterward–I wondered, always, if Ronald Regan–or somebody else–had finally found enough weapons to blow up the world and it was starting to happen.

That’s the kind of fear I remember when I watch the news, or when I see dead albatrosses, their stomachs loaded with plastic until they starved or a newly rising dust bowl in the west.  It’s what fuels the dull sick and sad frustration at golf courses and seed-grass lawns and SUVs and Conflict Diamonds and pipelines and aquifers on the brink of poison. I know I’m stating the obvious. I know better writers and better minds than I are shouting this from the rooftops, actively fighting for solutions, for awareness for a change. In contrast I feel a lot like the teachers telling my husband at 11 to duck and cover under his desk if a missile was launched. I use mostly rags and cloth instead of paper towels, disposable mop heads, dusters. I clean the Tupperware and use it again instead of tinfoil. I recycle more than my landlords, less than I could potentially, more every time I find a way. No bottle of juice comes into my home that isn’t used a minimum of four times before it goes in the recycle bin. I sew and buy more environmentally healthy cleaners or food as I can afford them. But really, while I’ll never stop trying to make a difference, if it’s just at that level, I’m doing no better than duck and cover.

This is not meant to be a hopeless post. It’s not meant to be a condemnation. –I can’t cast the first stone; I do not qualify.  What I really, profoundly hope is that it isn’t the first in  a series of good bye letters either. There are multitudes of people who will not make it if we don’t come up with a sane approach. Some of us won’t be able to afford medical care. Some of us will live in areas of environmental disaster and get lost in the next explosion. Some of us, someday, will wither away and die of a broken heart when the land we’re spiritually bound to falls into the sea, or burns or cracks open with coal fire, pollution or drought. More and more, my fear as not that I will be one of those people.–My odds of becoming one of those stories are neither far removed or immediately high. My fear is of having to watch my loved ones, and all that I love about this world go with me, until I am gone and free from the loss.

I have my hope and my calling as an aspiring Minister. I want to spend the rest of my life in the line of people digging our toes in, standing up, trying to change enough so that we and this world do not go over that blurred and dark edge. I think my output will not be among the greatest volume or the most effective efforts. I’m moved to say all that I have because I’m afraid. I’m saddened. I don’t know what is going to happen, and I need to share what I fear if I’m going to fight it. Thanks for hanging in with me.

Tea and Unitarians

One of the last things Steve gave me was a cold that lasted for three weeks. In fact, even by the days leading up to the funeral, the interior of my nose was still a rubberized glacier of mutated silly putty as I stood in my Aunt’s kitchen in Rhode Island. I couldn’t drink coffee, not with the amount of milk I have to put in the stuff to keep my skin from turning green and concerned bystanders from dialing 911. I lived on hot, strong tea with honey in it. Our house had run on PG tips, so I drank Earl Grey–at least it was something Steve had never liked, so somehow that kept me from dumping Aunt Briggs’ supply in the compost.

I had to put a funeral together for my husband. Now, I have always had very strong feelings about people (won’t name any names beyond…oh, how about Glen Beck) who react to crisis by going to a phone book and essentially dialing 1-800 religion to find some random clergy to help them deal with whatever mess they are in. Here was where things got interesting. Steve was (and possibly still is; I suspect even the Gods weren’t cued into his stubbornness until now) an agnostic, and he felt rather strongly about the importance of saying he didn’t know what went on in the spiritual world. I’ve got two in-laws who are ordained Baptist ministers–Steve’s youngest aunt and her husband. My mother is Catholic and dad worships at the shrine of Male Patronizing Behavior. (I think their Basilica is located somewhere in the southern mediterranean–the ancient city of Test-ost-to-ro-ne. Having said that I have to admit he has behaved very kindly since Steve’s death.) And then there’s me, Steve’s widow the Irish-Jewish-American Druid.

So I had some choices. The Funeral home offered me a Baptist minister that they swore was “very liberal.” Well, six months previously I had enjoyed a minister’s (not my in-laws’) sermon where the man had described the Jews’ “murder of Christ.” Steve was not thrilled and I was infuriated. My great grandmother’s ancestors were not that stupid, thank you. Then there was Steve’s mostly Christian conservative family. Steve was their boy. They had all known him and loved him, helped him grow up, given him father figures and Auntly support in kind. They loved him, they mourned him, and Druid funeral rites would have been as much of an affront to them as to Steve’s agnosticism.

So I guess in essence I dialed 1800 religion. Actually, what I did was go on-line and search out Unitarian congregations in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Hopefully that was less of a Glen Beck approach.

Why did I do this?

I had, maybe, been to one Unitarian service in my life and could remember nothing about it. Their Church as an organization still came highly recommended. In 12th grade, where I was chained (sorry, enrolled) up at Our Lady of the Perpetually Crossed Legs and Titanium Chastity Belt (Catholic girl’s school), we had each been assigned a separate faith to report on for our Daily Indoctrination Hour (religion class). Most of these oral reports ran along the lines of “The Quakers don’t BAPTIZE!” or “Pantheism says that EVERYTHING is holy!” in tones of horrified shock that you usually only hear on commercials for bathroom mold removers. The Unitarians were described by their designated impartial representative as “Absolutely crazy! They ordain WITCHES and AETHEISTS…” My other favorite was “Jews spend so much time talking about the Holocaust…” Now, certainly I wish I was exaggerating. Unfortunately I’m not. I may be peeling some details from other romps with rampant bigotry over my five years at that school, but just stop and consider the implications of that…

In absolute honesty it was mostly this memory that prompted me to search Unitarian congregations to find a minister for Steve’s funeral. If the majority of uninformed opinion in my High School thought they were too liberal, chances were good that I would at least appreciate a conversation with one of their clergy.
(I wasn’t looking for shock value.–See Laura’s personal principles of Paganism, line 3 “Thou shalt not convert for the sole joy of letting thy conservative Catholic grandma find thy pentacle in the laundry, scream, and spontaneously birth a litter of kittens as thou laughest in late teenage rebellious pique.”)

I was trying to find someone who would compassionately include every disparate faith in saying goodbye to someone we all wanted back.–And the unlikelihood of a Unitarian celebrant accusing my maternal ancestors of killing Christ really did add a high gloss to the idea.

So I stood in my Aunt’s kitchen–one of my favorite rooms on the planet. I let my feet settle into the smooth, burnished wood of the floor and looked out the large windows over the sink at the curtain of silvery Weeping Elm branches. I drank my tea and I called the first Unitarian congregation on my list of four.

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