Life After…Go figure

A Narrative of Life Outside The Box

Archive for the category “Spiritual/Meditation”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bad movies and honesty. Oy Vey.

So this week, for my Christian Ethics class, we were asked to watch one of three films about the Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was obligated to go for the only one that was free, on youtube, titled or found after a search labled as Bonhoeffer.

Here is what I was asked:

What is the most salient part of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought for you? How would you see yourself sharing this with your community of faith?

Honestly, I am not sure what to do with this question. Having watched Bonhoeffer, my first moment of total disconnect occurred when his Jewish relatives were grousing about ‘deception’ in their false papers to leave Germany. The next occurred in the (however brief) ethical struggle Bonhoeffer appeared to have over A) lying to the government and B) assassinating Hitler. By ‘disconnect’ I mean yelling at the movie and pausing it to search for the other films on option for this week (I was unable to find or view them). And the disconnect involved some spontaneous, if not necessarily kind, dark humor.

Jews trying to flee Germany were trying to flee Germany. Lying to the Nazis, I would respectfully argue, was not even a tertiary concern for someone who needed to escape that kind of genocidal insanity. It would not have been a concern at all for me and in fact I hope I would always have the spine and the facility to lie to any human being seeking the death and destruction of other human beings be it in Nazi Germany, Peru, Guatemala or South Africa. My only priority would have been to lie effectively. And while I agree with the combat veterans who have nurtured and protected and taught me all my life, that I have no way of knowing what I would do in a killing scenario, I would volunteer to kill Hitler any day of the week. This includes any eventuality of having to actually do it myself. Could I? I cannot say 100%. Would I try? Hell, yes.

I am an ethnic Jew. I am alive today, and my family is alive today because while we descend from Prussian Jews, my grandmother was born in the US. Here is, from my compiled understanding of a variety of sources, what would have happened if she had been born in her grandmother’s native Prussia.

  1. Declaration under the “racial purity” laws that my great grandmother and grandmother were Jews.
  2. Various penalties on my great-grandfather (Episcopalian) and my grandfather (Roman Catholic) for marrying and producing children with Jews.
  3. Deportation of my grandmother, my Aunt Carole—a toddler in 1939—and my mom, either a newborn or “in utero” as it were (Mom was born in 39) to a concentration camp. Possibly deportation of my grandfather and great grandfather but that is a murky area.
  4. Immediate ‘selection’ upon arrival at death camp. As a pregnant or nursing mother with a second small child that (almost always) meant instant execution, either shooting, primitive gas chamber, or an ‘advanced’ gas chamber and crematorium system.

And I would not be here engaged in the pursuit of ministry. I would not be here trying to work past what I must confess as a sort of dismissal of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I would never have been born at all, nor would my cousins, or my uncle.–And if my husband had been born 15 years earlier, he would have been murdered at birth because of his heart condition.

I have debated posting this particular response. I understand that hindsight is 20/20. I also understand that Bonhoeffer stood up for what he believed was right (please forgive my massive and shameless simplification) and died a painful and humiliating death for it. I do not want to dismiss him, or undervalue his contributions to Christianity. I find myself with a great deal of respect and humility towards a man who, at least in his portrayals, tried to live and die as Christ would have—which was different from the way that many Christians survived World War II in Germany.

And, I truly beg forgiveness for belaboring this: I am not a Christian. As a pagan, as a woman, as an ethnic Jew and an ethnic Celt, I think I might well draw more ‘salient’ figures and their example before my congregation some day—some of them Christian, some of them not. Hypatia of Alexandria, Harriet Tubman, the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Hannah Sezenes who parachuted behind axis lines as saboteurs, spies and resistance fighters—few of her compatriots survived.1 Yet, as a Druid, and a UU I have a joint obligation to remember and share Bonhoeffer’s story because both those hearts of my religious belief place enormous importance on preserving history, sharing history, the right of conscience, and the inherent worth and dignity of every soul. So how would I ever be right in dismissing or belittling Bonhoeffer’s stand on opposing Hitler and the Nazi’s? But how do I fully relate to his moral compunctions because while I respect them, lying and assassination would have been acceptable factors with me in terms of resisting Hitler?

So I feel conflicted because especially when viewed through a modern cinematic attempt (at what, I think remains debatable; this was not a good film), the most salient aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life is both incredibly profound and appreciated—standing up to Hitler at the cost of his freedom and life. Yet in comparison to what even Anne Frank and her family endured, in comparison to resistance by the enslaved or marginalized before World War II and during, I know there are other stories I would almost always share with a congregation before Bonhoeffer’s.

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Szenes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypatia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman

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Things I Can Never Say From the Pulpit

1. The obvious, if beloved four-letter words.

2. I cannot point out that Jael killing the dude with a tent pole may be the first sex-toy fatality in scripture (death by pegging).

3. I also cannot point out that Deborah was 1 million percent done with everyone’s Sh—t. Especially because it was probably true.

4. I probably should not talk about the Witch of Endor summoning the prophet Samuel’s spirit–specifically because I always imagine that he appeared as an old guy with a cane shouting “Damn you kids GET OFF MY LAWN!”

5. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing we call…life”*

6. “I have come here to chew Bubble Gum and Kick Ass. And I am all Out of Bubble Gum.” (John Carpenter)

7. Attributing statement 6 to ANY identity in theology, scripture or the history of social justice.**

8. “Does God sit on the toilet?”

9. “Holy Moses!”

10. “Come on, guys ZOMBIES ARE PEOPLE TOO, DAMMIT”***

11. “The next Congregant that I see littering can volunteer to test the 18th century lightening rod on our 19th century church.”

12. “Let me explain to you all a thing”

13. “To tell you all the truth, I think that particular denomination is_______”

14. “In the end, the differences in Religious belief and practice and how those spread through populations around the world all come down to SECTS”

15. In order to teach you all the flaws in Reverend Forrest Church’s ideas on the “all loving mother goddess” we will be holding an authentic Iron Age ritual TO said mother goddess. Bring raincoats and 40 pounds of raw kidney.” ****

16. Any AC/DC Lyrics. Ever.

 

* Prince/Artist formerly known as Prince “Let’s go Crazy”

** Because really how could that EVER go wrong?

*** I’m not even going to elaborate on biblical figures this could relate to for fairly obvious reasons.

**** Forrest Church “Cathedral of the World” 2009.

 

 

Memorial Day Prayer

(I got to deliver this during service after writing it for Memorial Day 2014)

 

A Prayer
Great Ladies,
Mother of Courage, Tenacity, wise counsel and safe return
Mother of Blacksmiths, convoy-mechanics, quartermasters, healers and chaplains
Mother of the Earth, of travelers and roads, those roads that keep life flowing, those roads unseen that the dead take to the West
We give you thanks.
We thank you for men and women who for so long now, in so many places, have run towards danger
have run to the explosion
The mine field
the hospital tent
the munitions
The wounded or trapped
The civilians in danger
the snipers’ sights.
We are free to believe whatever we may about war. We may pray or protest alike, speak or remain silent alike. Whatever we may do or say or argue or agree….We must know that men and women have died. Let us remember that they died to protect freedom, and in turn, let us use our freedom to honor their memory.
Holy Ones, please take all the dead of war into your hearts and your grace. Please wrap the women and men lost in combat in healing, love, and everlasting light. Please guide them on their journeys. Please shelter all those families left behind. And please give us a lasting, living Peace.
LGK, May 2014.
Eleven years since the invasion of  Iraq
Thirteenth Year of the war in Afghanistan.

 

UU/Druid Where do I start….errrm….

This is my latest attempt to talk personal spirituality. BE WARNED! ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO—oh never mind just hang in there

Geoghegan Kellner

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.

5Ibid.

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.

Oh, that’s interesting: three pages to deliniate UU Cannon…

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.

Service as a minister

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.”

Well then!

(draft) of our Circle opening/cast at UU Winter Solstice Ritual 2013

East

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.

 

South

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.

 

West

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.

 

North

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.

 

Centre/Laura:

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.

 

CLOSING

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.

Jesus and Poop

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?

Final Sermon, Thematic Preaching Class, December 2012: Lumzo speaking in memory of Grandpa

It is important to add this: Time has been tinkered with. Generalizations have been made. I’ve ordained myself three years in advance, and altered my grandfather’s timeline. Our assignment was to preach on a death in the community. I needed the experience, because the last funeral I spoke at or about was my husband’s. I couldn’t just make somebody’s death up, or invent a tragedy or natural disaster. And I never had the grace of being able to mourn my grandfather outwardly, much, when he died. The town does exist, as does our family history there, and grandpa’s family did build as much of it as I relate, although the interfaith chapel was far away, and never became a UU church.

For a man that so many of us loved, so very much, the day has broken and the shadows have fled away. Philip Edgar Fitzpatrick died on December 3, and his funeral service was last week at the Catholic Church of Saint John downtown. I was able to attend the service. Many in our congregation were able to go as well. Some of our number had obligations that would not keep, work, family, the ties of conviction, the demands of health. And in one of those moments of grace, the path of my own heart, and the wishes of many of our congregation followed the same road. Therefore, we are gathered here to remember Philip together, in all our community. And this is the story of how we begin to remember.

For someone who was a proud and devoted follower of another faith, a lot of us knew him here as well as any official congregation member. He was easy to find, at six foot two, even when he sat in our midst during services. He always wore a blazer, tie and trousers.   The gleam in his bright blue eyes, large and deep set, never really went away. He was the gentle giant of whatever row he sat in, whatever corner of our gathering room he occupied. Whether he sat at home in his chair by the windows overlooking the broad Lake Champlain, or here, he held himself like an ancient clan chief of Ireland. But it was his genuine sweetness and calm that bore all his dignity and authority outwards.  Philip died in fealty to his own church, one that he revered all his life. Yet his other faith, his other lodestones were love and conscience, and it is his unconditional love that brought him into the life of this community.

After his wife Carolin underwent eye surgery, Philip came on his own more often. He could always be counted on to escort ladies to empty chairs, bring coffee to anyone using a wheelchair or cane. After we lost Carolin, after that first wave of grieving, he still came. He would still tell jokes with his soft, dignified voice that left us surprised almost as hard as we laughed. And, Philip never hesitated to explain why he attended so many services, so many events, even as a devout Catholic. “Oh my wife and I always have enjoyed it very much. And our granddaughter—Laura, our youngest, is the minister here.”

Philip was born in 1908, the middle son of Francis and Mary Fitzpatrick, on Hamilton street, in a house Frank and grandfather John J, the contractor, had built. John’s brother, Simon and his wife lived next door and Frank’s brother, George lived nearby in town. The Fitzpatricks had sailed from Kilmessin Ireland in 1822, landed in Canada and walked across the border to New York State and our town of Plattsburgh. John J, and Francis Fitzpatrick after him  ran a building, contracting and dredging business. By Philip’s childhood, every street in town had “John J Fitzpatrick and Sons” stamped on regular intervals—because his family had laid them down. In his teens, Philip and his brothers, father and uncles helped to build, the Plattsburgh Municipal offices, Saint John’s Elementary School, most of Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Church in town…and our Church. Or, our church building—it was Congregational at first and then we moved in, in 1985.

Philip’s father broke ground on this church, actually, the year something extraordinary happened in the family. Between 1927 and 1928, Philip completed his freshman year at Dartmouth College. His oldest brother Fitzpatrick finished junior year at Williams, and his youngest brother James enrolled at Yale—we can forgive the lack of Fitzpatrick women in college for the era because Philip had no living sisters. All three boys were the first generation of their family to attend College. All three of them were in school on Academic scholarships. Fitz entered Law School, James as well and Philip, upon graduating, began medical school in New York City, also on scholarship, because he had always dreamt of becoming a doctor.

And then the Great Depression hit. The business of John J Fitzpatrick and Sons Contracting shattered into bankruptcy. Fitz and James were barely able to hang on as law clerks. Philip waited tables and worked extra jobs, but his scholarships could not meet his needs to continue in Medical School, and he had to withdraw. He never became a doctor. Instead, he returned home, helped the fragments of his family’s business take whatever construction jobs they could find. In 1932, at a football game, he met the daughter of an Episcopalian and a Jew, Carolin Howell.

Despite the formidable prejudices many Catholics held, all of which the Church reinforced, Philip proposed marriage to Carolin before she had even converted to his faith. They had to be married in the Air Force base Chapel because it was forbidden to hold a Mass at Saint John’s—despite the number of stained glass windows, corner stones and the communion rail with the name of his family on their surfaces. Carolin’s father helped Philip find a job at the bank in town, and Carolin converted to Catholicism, agreeing to raise her children in her husband’s religion as well. Philip grew up, fell in love and married long before his family had heard the word “Interfaith.” But he was friends with Baptists, Episcopalians, Jews and Armenian Christians. He was a loving, affectionate and devoted son to his mother in law. He was the caretaker of the Jewish Cemetery in town for decades. And when a nun told his seven year old daughter that her mother was bound for hell, because she was Jewish, Philip was willing to stand by his wife and daughter in love and respect. –Of course, because all four feet and eleven inches of my grandmother marched down to the school and filleted the Sister in question without any difficulty, Grandpa was more of a reserve strategy.

Having said all this, Philip was not only a devout Catholic, he was a conservative Catholic and a deeply conservative man. He mourned the end of the Latin Mass. He was deeply concerned to see lay teachers out numbering religious orders in parochial schools. He was a committed Republican. One year at a “new” Catholic Easter service, the Easter Bunny came hopping up the aisle, just before the consecration of the Communion bread. All six feet and two inches of Philip Fitzpatrick, aged 72, stood up in slow, deeply raging fury, his face pale, his nostrils flared, his eyes burning enough to blast a highway from granite, and walked out of that particular church….never to return!

When I was seventeen, and announced that I could not be a Catholic because I would no longer accept the beliefs about Communion or the Pope’s (occasional) infallibility, my family, Philip’s clan, reacted mostly in one or two speeds: dismissal and derision. My grandfather, the unnamed clan chief, our patriarch, was “grandpa” to me, but I feared his reaction. Still when he asked me sternly but gently about it, he stood implacably by me my decision to refuse confirmation and leave the church. When I began to embrace Pagan traditions, I was sure it would be going too far for my aging and slowly dying grandfather to accept in peace. I decided not to tell him. A member of our family, angry at the world and, somewhat removed, me, went at full speed to him and told him I was a witch. I know what they fully expected—and I think grandpa did too. They expected to be able to run back to me with the gleeful news of his tears, rage and upset, and strong condemnation.

Grandpa looked the woman in the eye and said “If Laura is sincere, and devout and conscientious in the choices she makes about religion, I do not object.”

When I began to embrace Unitarian Universalism, I would, when pressed talk to my family about my reconciliation with all our sources and principles, including Christ and the Goddess, humanism and Conscience. My mother remained somewhat upset. My grandmother was very disappointed, although she embraced neither cruelty nor rejection. Grandpa listened, time and again. He read my letters and asked me questions and then listened some more. Finally, one day, he sighed, a mountain gently settling into its foundation. And he said then, and again and again on other days, at other times, “I’m proud of you, Lumzo.” And I cannot remember any instance of hearing it, or him saying it, when our eyes were dry.

And here is why. Here is why it was so important to me, reasons so simple and full of grace, and beyond the “big stuff” of faith and intellect and choices in life. Grandpa nicknamed me “Lumzo” when I was four. Nobody knew why. I loved it. He called me “Lumzo” all my life. I loved it, I loved that he read me fairy tales. That he gave each egg in the refrigerator an obscure saint’s name, let me pick one, then soft-boiled them for me on his home baked bread. That he sought to bring me up in the strongest fidelity to our family traditions, love, good humor, compassion, truth and thoughtfulness. My grandfather loved me. He cared for me, listened to me, and worked so hard to teach me about the Christ he loved and followed.

Grandpa had a stroke shortly before my ordination, and was too frail to attend. He moved into the Vilas home, here in town, for his last year of medical care. He got quieter, and weaker, and very unhappy with his physical condition. But, he never failed to send me his love. He never failed in his letters to members of our congregation, lunch dates with anyone who could make it to the cafeteria, donations to our “guest at the table” and habitat for humanity congregations. And the gentle jokes never flagged.

The stories I and all of us remember from before we lost my grandfather, Philip Fitzpatrick, are something else now. They are one. This one, this all-encompassing span, this is the story of how we begin to remember. This one vast story is about Philip, and his family, my family, and our town, even, and our congregation as well, because he gave himself to us, here, in every way he could. Because of love, I didn’t lose my grandfather when I set out on the path to ministry. Because of love, we had Philip with us, all of us. And we always will.

 

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

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