Saturday 31 October 2009

Happy Samhain!

The cherry tree is dripping with amber; the garden, refreshed after last nights light rain, is ready for the coming of winter; all the bird feeders are full; the outdoor candles, flares and our pumpkin lantern is lit. Some dear friends are coming round in the next hour to share our huge Samhain feast and we've laid a place for all our Beloved Dead. The Ancestral altar is polished and before long our family Ancestors will be joined by those of our friends, and a pomegranete is ready to open to honour Persephone. The house is pristine and I am knackered but very happy.

Later tonight when everyone's gone I'll light our memorial light to welcome all the benevolent dead to our home for Winter, and then I'll renew the boundaries around each doorway, each window for the coming year.

May your Samhain be blessed, your coming year joyful and may peace be welcomed into all our homes.

Happy New Year!

Thursday 22 October 2009

Interpretive Beings

I’m having to immerse myself in Christian philosophy in order to get some idea of how to approach the philosophy of religion and so I try to attend as many Heythrop College open lectures as I can. What’s becoming clear is that the Christianity people in Heythrop practice is very different from the Christianity I’m used to. They discuss their god in tremendous depth, moving beyond sex and hellfire, beyond sweetness and light, into something far more reflective. They seem to use contemplation of their god as a way of meditating on their lives and way of being in the world. They, too, are distressed by the simplistic nonsense presented by so many of their peers.

I’m going to write the occasional reflection on what I learn from this course as a way of asking myself questions about Paganism and what it means for me to be Pagan. I’ll be using many other peoples' words and ideas and don’t want to pass them off as my own, and I’m also aware of the potential for knee jerk reaction if I say “St Augustine says this . . .” I’m sure St Augustine has said many things which I wouldn’t like, but if he’s said something I feel is useful how do I offer that without some Pagans immediately assuming I’ve become a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, or just rejecting the idea outright?

That’s their trip, I suppose. Too many of us have chosen Paganism because we see it as the best way to show defiance to Christianity.

Today’s lecture was about reading the “Signs of the Times,” observing what the world is communicating and deciding how we respond. The gospels and scriptures guide Christians but I wondered what our equivalents might be. I suppose the closest thing to a holy book we have is the earth itself, the whole nuanced, delicate biosphere. It offers both stability and innovation, the laws of nature can’t be changed but change is the only certainty for the earth and everything dependant on it.

The bible seems to me to be a collection of stories that people can use to justify anything they want, and so it is with out own myths and legends: CuCullain, the Caileach, Demeter and Persephone, Deidre and so on, as well as the more modern myths and legends of our contemporary elders who may in centuries become the Pagan equivalent of Talmudic and biblical characters.

(Did you know, by the way, that there’s an oral Torah?)

Paganism holds tolerance in high esteem for excellent reason, we’re all very aware of how intolerance affects our own lives, but I believe we now need to review what has certainly become a kind of dogma. Tolerance has drifted into relativism: your view of what’s happening in the world and how to deal with it is just fine and my view is just fine and everyone is entitled to their own view, their own truth including, presumably, Stalin. This manner of engaging is very superficial, its lazy acceptance requires no energy and little thoughtfulness, whereas a respectful, authentic meeting takes skill, focus, and will. It accepts the risk that everything might not always be comfortable, and that discomfort is worth it if something more valuable can be gained.

Reframing the problem as seeking understanding rather than truth, is helpful. Where people are certain of the truth we can begin to sense the beginning of a mob mentality. The Truth ™ is easy, and easy to beat other people up with, whereas understanding is collaborative, relational, mutable. How, then, to avoid the retreat into relativism?

“Whatever leads to a better love of God and humanity is a good understanding.”

My own understanding of human behaviour has lead to an increasing dislike of humanity. The sheer historical repetitiveness of it distresses me deeply so that for some years meaning has been difficult to discern, there seems no aspect of life that remains untouched by our individual and corporate stupidity. For me, this has meant retreat and if there were such a thing I’d happily enter a Pagan monastery to do exactly as I do now, but in the dedicated company of others on a similar path. As yet, there’s no room for focused community contemplation within Paganism. I’ve been so desperately moved during visits to monasteries, the rhythm of coming together and moving apart, of steady, mindful movement through the day, and can’t believe that Paganism isn’t capable of something as graceful and disciplined. As yet, however, we are not. As yet, we don't want it badly enough.

So my journey is one of how to make better understanding. “If I understand at all, I understand differently.” And it’s my belief that there are growing numbers of Pagans who want to do this too.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Science, Soul, Self

There are some mysteries that we'll never fathom and some that we may just begin to understand. The concept of Soul, of the essential, non-material part of ourselves has intrigued humanity from the dawn of conciousness and various theories, from a basic animating principal to the astral body have been proposed.

Take a look at this on BBCiPlayer for a cutting-edge update of what makes you, you.

This link may be up for a limited period of time so make the best of it!

Monday 19 October 2009

Time To Take Stock

We are living through a period of history that humanity has never encountered before. The world has opened up to us in incredible ways so that although we may never visit Lhasa we know what the temples at the top of the world look like, what sounds come from them, how the people who live in and around them dress and eat and work. We have some concept of the preciousness of the rainforests and the creatures who live with it, we know that we too live with the rainforests because we understand that climate is partly regulated by them. The horrors of war are revealed where in the past they could be denied or minimized. The realities of child labour, animal experimentation and other abuses, and all other miserable realities have been brought into our living rooms at the same time as miracles of health, travel, personal opportunity, semi-democratized knowledge, and choice have blossomed.

Everything is possible at the same time as we are being told that the world is on the brink of collapse. The places where Paganism has best flourished – the UK and US - have never experienced such freedom and comfort. We no longer depend on the opinions of popes and princes to tell us our place in the world, we’re not conscripted into industrial war machines, death doesn’t have such a consuming affect on our lives and we can chose whichever version of the afterlife best suits our desires.

Modern Pagans look to the past as a source of inspiration but we ignore the flea ridden, half-starved, freezing gloom of an average European family home pre-electricity. Most other religions look to an existence beyond earthly life for good reason, experiencing earthly life as something to endure, their Deity being somewhere other than where they are. Most Pagans who have a concept of Deity understand that Deity to be immanent, present in ourselves and in all things and I believe this is significant for Pagan practice.

All other religions make sense of the world through an understanding of Deity, and so has Paganism. When Crowley, Gardner and Valiente introduced the concept of a female Deity it was beyond radical and had serious material effects. Why do Pagans claim to care so much about the planet? Initially, because we understood the planet to be a manifestation of the Goddess. We’ve absorbed animist spirituality and as well as immanence it gives us the concept of genius loci. So we have some vague thoughts about what and who and how Deity might be.

Animism, a product of belief in immanence, has important effects on our practice. If everything is alive and in relationship then what responsibilities do we have for each other? Do rocks and birds have responsibilities towards us, and if not, what makes us believe we are so unique that only we have responsibilities towards other beings?

It seems to me that there are two things fundamental to justifying our ways of being in the world: the ways in which we understand power, and the narratives we tell ourselves. If we believe the narrative of original sin, or that suffering makes us more like Jesus, or of the gifts that Kali gives us then this will effect how we feel about each other, the world and ourselves. The manner in which we live these beliefs will be affected by our understanding of the use of power.

From the dawn of human consciousness people have been struggling with all of this and I see no need to reinvent the wheel, we can use the structures created by others to gain greater understanding of who we are. Where they don’t fit us then we surely have the intelligence and imagination to create our own. But create them we must. The Unitarians, who also avoid dogma, embrace and live within an ethical code. Are Pagans dressed up Unitarians? If we’re not we need to run to catch up with the rest of the world if we expect to be respected by it.
I have learned two lessons in my life: first, there are no sufficient literary, psychological or historical answers to human tragedy, only moral ones. Second, just as despair can come to one another only from human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.

Elie Wiesel

I’ve entered the stage of what’s been called ‘Post-Paganism’, a moment of awareness that Paganism as it is practiced no longer satisfies or means anything much. Apart from Samhain, I haven’t ritually marked any festival for myself for years though I make a mental nod to calendar dates and natural symbols – the snowdrop, the hawthorn flower – as they appear. My understanding of Deity has changed too, but the genesis and the final cause of my stepping out from Pagan practice is the way that too many Pagans behave.

It doesn’t matter what sacred books we do or don’t refer to, somehow we manage to interpret life to miraculously concur with our personal worldview. So it is that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Pagans, Hindus and everyone else generally conforms to their country’s legislation and social mores. Pagans may ask for time off for religious holidays but this is more a stamp of individuality than a heartfelt yearning for religious obligation, or a passion to be with the Land at a particular point in our joint journey around the sun.

If one of our strengths is our lack of a holy book then a corresponding weakness is that we have no idea what it is that we should be doing or not doing, or why, other than feeling good about ourselves. What began with the weighty “Know Thyself” passing through “ . . . if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, then thou wilt never find it without thee” has become pure solipsism. People outside of ourselves exist only as extras in the great, consuming drama of our life. We don’t actually want community at all, other than as some kind of heightened social life.

Protestations of openness, love and honouring as you walk away from a partner into the arms of his friend don’t mean much, neither do Twitters about how strong and beautiful and loved you are as your family flails about in agony. We’ve exchanged Bitchcraft (though this maintains a strong presence) for ethereal non-committal. This isn’t based in a concept of respect for personal choice and trust that we will make good decisions if we are cherished: it seems to me to be fundamental laziness. I’ll light a candle for you as you struggle with your child’s decent into drug addiction but don’t expect much more from me other than affirmation via Facebook. There is no action or event that requires meaningful group introspection or discussion.

I’ve just begun an MA in Philosophy of Religion and whilst I’m amazed at the contortions that scholars have put themselves through over the centuries to anthropomorphise Deity they also have basis' from which to make decisions. This is why Jews and Christians beleive and live as they do, because they have particular understandings of their religions. What might a Pagan theology around voluntary euthanasia be, and why? Non-Pagans might also say ‘Because I wouldn’t allow my dog to suffer like that” but is there a particularly Pagan response? Are we simply romantic, ritualised atheists? Paganism has no morality in the widest sense of the word, our ethics come down to plant trees and save the world by meditating and not watching TV. We would never dream of discussing how many children a Pagan might consider having, even though human population is the single most urgent issue facing the planet, way beyond carbon footprints and coal burning power stations. We have no answers or even suggestions on how to approach the most important issues in human life because it might impinge on someone’s personal choice.

My relationship with Deity, mainly in the form of the Goddess, continues, it’s not that I’ve given up believing that seasons change or that the Ancestors exist; rather, I’ve lost respect for the triviality that masquerades as Paganism and don’t want to associate with it. Like many Pagans, Jews, Muslims and people from other religions, I’m content to simply be in the presence of Mystery rather than wrangle over whether He/She/It is wholly simple or everlasting. But for me, the everyday application of a religious belief has to be greater than doing exactly as you like and justifying it by wearing a cloak.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Planning Ahead for a Samhain Project

We never get round to it because we’re too young to die, we’ve got nothing to give away, and the kids will be looked after.

I remember reading the horrific story of a mother who’d appointed the bank to be her executor. The children’s social worker had to physically intervene between the banks representatives and a fire to rescue a photo album from the conflagration of the children’s lives. Since the bank was only interested in what was saleable everything else could go to hell.

Despite what some websites will tell you, writing a Will is a complex matter, not something you can – or should – do on a form from a stationer. Samhain seems the very best time a Pagan can consider our own deaths, who we trust (and why we trust them) to see that our Wills are properly executed, and make sure our loved ones don’t have to struggle more than they must.

Will Aid have been going for years and make giving money to a lawyer far more agreeable, since the money you donate goes to charities. Will Aid comes but once a year, sometimes not even that often, so please make use of this great scheme.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Towards An Animistic View Of Mental Illness

Please visit this site:

As an animist, my relationship with my spirituality has frequently been positively provoked in discussions with people who function much of the time from within altered (as in altered from the norm) states of consciousness. For example, I spent an amazing night shift packing plastic bottles in a factory (before my nursing days) with a gentle young man, discussing the story of Lot in Genesis (Chapter 19) in which Lot is visited by angels (unknown to him) and insists on offering them hospitality. To this young man, these angels were messengers from God and in his realisation messengers from God came in many different forms, from the casual crossing of paths with a total stranger to the fall of a leaf as you passed a tree. And to him, all experiences were to be welcomed as being potentially such a messenger. In some respects, he was one of mine and I remember that one night, 25 years on,with much fondness. I didn’t see him again, but I did hear three months later that he had been forcibly detained for treatment in the local psychiatric ward.