Book Review: When a Pagan Prays

wappBrown, Nimue. When a Pagan Prays: Exploring Prayer in Druidry and Beyond. Moon Books, 2014.

Nimue Brown, a Druid author who blogs at Druid Life, wrote Spirituality Without Structure (my review of which is HERE) in the space between writing this book, and When a Pagan Prays feels very much like a spiritual successor to the former.

Nimue describes When a Pagan Prays as not one book, but two:

“One of those books is an amateur attempt at some academic writing, featuring comparative religious studies, psychology, sociology and a bit of research. The other book is an experiential tale of what happened to me when I started to explore prayer as a personal practice”.

While I found the academic analysis of prayer (what it is, what it’s for, why people pray etc) interesting, not least because of my own background in religious studies, it’s the “other book” that makes When a Pagan Prays stand out.

Nimue is frank and open in her exploration of prayer, and comes to it from a position of agnosticism (“maybeism” as she describes it) rather than one of faith. This makes her exploration all the more interesting to read, especially as her theological starting point is strikingly similar to my own. She says “while I am not an atheist, I’m not very good at belief either”.

So why pray? Well, this is the very question that Nimue sets out to explore, through personal practice and experience. Taking it pretty much as a given that materialistic “God give me a pony” type petitionary prayers not only don’t work, but are described by several religious writers Nimue cites from all over the theological map as being the least important form of prayer, Nimue instead looks at prayer as “entering into a mystery, not getting a result”.

One fascinating concept Nimue introduces is what she calls the “nontheist test”. That is, if a spiritual practice has real-world benefits, then it should, in theory, be able to be practiced by a nontheist. In other words, you should not have to assume the existence of any deity in order to do a particular practice. Meditation, for instance, would pass the nontheist test, as it has clear and well-documented benefits. But prayer?

When it comes to whom to pray to, Nimue explores various approaches and ultimately finds the Shinto concept of the Kami one that fits well with her approach to Druidry. The Kami are similar to the concept of Nature Spirits one often finds in animist and Pagan worldviews, and are more immanent and approachable than a distant and omnipotent God-concept.

But you can also pray to ancestors, aspects of nature (the Earth, the Sun), or even to other people. Prayer in this sense becomes a way of deepening connection to all that is, and there is no need to adopt any specific beliefs to do this. As Nimue writes: “If you are willing and able to be open, vulnerable, listening, if you are here to be changed, that’s a very realistic possible outcome, no matter which tradition you follow or the methods you adopt.”

Nimue guides the reader through her own explorations of prayer, and never says that because she did it this way, therefore her way is the right way, or that all Druids must pray, or that any particular belief is necessarily the right one. I appreciate that, and it is fitting in a tradition such as Druidry which has no Holy Books, that every Druid find their own way to pray, if indeed they choose to at all. The final few chapters look at creating Druid prayers and working in group prayer and ritual, and are doubtless of use to any Druid who is involved in creating and leading group rituals.

My own theological framework tends to non-theism, agnosticism and animism, and I find that I have no frame of reference for traditional-literal concepts of God or the gods. But this book has made me look at prayer in a new light, and think about my daily practice of greeting the sun in the morning and the moon at night as a form of prayer.

In the end, it seems that prayer is what you make of it, and that it works in mysterious ways. Whatever your theological persuasion, I would recommend this book to anyone, of any religion or none, who is curious about maybe starting a prayer practice or just wants to take a refreshing new look at the subject.

As Nimue writes:

“Mostly, prayer doesn’t work. Except that to a degree I find quite disconcerting, mostly it has”.

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Interview with a Druid

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Kirk Thomas. Image from the original article.

Dr Karl Seigfried over at The Norse Mythology Blog has done an interview with former Archdruid of ADF, Kirk Thomas.

It’s a fascinating piece (part one of two), and gives a great look into Druidry from an ADF perspective, as well as touching on questions of reconstruction and reinvention, ADF’s Indo-European focus, orthodoxy vs orthopraxy and racism . So go read it!

The interview is available via The Norse Mythology Blog.

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Druidry in simplicity

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At times, working through courses of study from various Druid groups and orders, or reading certain books, Druidry can seem like a very complicated thing; full of long, wordy rituals that require you to face certain directions and recite certain prayers, or use specific equipment, or venerate certain gods, or wear particular coloured robes.

For the longest time, I was worried that by not doing these things, I wasn’t actually doing Druidry, or at least not doing Druidry the *right* way. Of course, there is no right way. Druidry, and Paganism more generally, does not proceed from a Holy Book or a Divine Revelation. There are no Pagan Popes, and no Book of Liturgy.

Druidry is one branch of a spiritual tree that sprung from people’s relationships with the land, the sea and the sky. Pagan religions tended to evolve organically and shift naturally over time as people moved around, grew crops, faced winters and summers, exchanged ideas and gods with others, developed linguistic differences or similarities etc.

Modern Druidry can be seen to have developed in similar ways: from the earliest days of the Druid Revival there was no “master plan”, just different people rediscovering Druids and redeveloping, or making up, new forms of Druidry for their times. And so it is today.

In the end, all the orders and books and courses (and all the long-winded rituals, and all the gear) are just maps, they are not the territory. At most, they can tell you what someone else thinks about Druidry and what has worked for them. But each of us who wants to take this Druidry thing to heart and make it part of our lives has to find their own Druidry, one that fits with your own life and commitments and, more importantly, your own ecology.

If Druidry is meant to be nature-focused, then it must be rooted in the nature around you. There’s no point looking for snowdrops for an Imbolc ritual if they don’t come up in your area for another month, or if it’s been so warm that the daffodils are already blooming.

And there’s no point in reciting words written by others that don’t hold any meaning for you, or which you find objectionable. One of the great strengths of Druidry is its diversity. That’s why the oft-used “Druid’s Prayer” has so many variants. You may call on different gods than the Druid next to you, you may be a Christian Druid and dedicate your rites to the Holy Trinity, you may be an atheist or agnostic Druid and not call on personified deities at all. It really doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t make anyone less of a Druid. Nobody can say you’re “doing it wrong”. This may sound like a license for “anything goes” make-it-up-as-you-go spirituality, but is that such a bad thing? Let a thousand flowers blossom, and all that.

For me, my Druidry is best expressed in simplicity.

I greet the sun in the morning, and the moon at night.

I touch the earth when I leave the house for work and when I return.

I give silent thanks to the earth for my food.

I feed the birds (and squirrels and hedgehogs, and the occasional neighbour’s cat) in the garden, and grow veg and herbs.

I recycle about 80% of my household waste, and cycle rather than drive to work.

I sit under trees and be still.

I don’t very often do anything that looks like formal meditation or ritual, and I’m more likely to be found doing something seasonally appropriate like planting seeds on the Spring Equinox, having a barbecue for Summer Solstice or decorating a tree for Yule, than standing script-in-hand waving a wand around.

And as for fire-bowls, sage smudges and incense? Nope, I live in a rental and have small rodents as pets. The most I can do is the odd tealight candle.

And the rare occasions when I feel a need to mark a Solstice or Equinox with a ritual, it tends to be a small, short one, often without a script, just raising a glass of mead or whisky and toasting the spirit of the occasion.

It’s a different form of Druidry, one more everyday, more low-key, but I still think it’s Druidry all the same. Sometimes, though, I feel inadequate compared to the more ornate, ritualised forms of Druidry, like I’m not putting in enough effort.

That’s when I need to remember to go outside and look at the trees and the birds.

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. -Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”

 

 

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Book review: Nature Mystics

nature mysticsBeattie, Rebecca. Pagan Portals: Nature Mystics: the literary gateway to modern Paganism. Moon Books, 2014.

This book, another title in the short Pagan Portals series from Moon Books, introduces the reader to a variety of modern (generally 19th and 20th century) writers who may be said to have influenced “the cultural environment that allowed modern Paganism to develop and flourish throughout the twentieth century”.

Beattie makes it clear that none of the writers chosen were Pagans themselves (indeed some, like Tolkien, were devoutly Christian), and she sets the date for the inception of “modern Paganism” as being around 1951 with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, to 1954, with the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today. This date is generally agreed by scholars like Ronald Hutton, so by definition most of the writers in this book could not be modern Pagans, although some such as W.B. Yeats and E. Nesbit were members of occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, from which much modern Paganism developed.

The writers chosen are, as Beattie’s title suggests, all to some extent “Nature Mystics”, which she defines as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature, or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration”. What the divine looks like differs from one Nature Mystic to another, but it is this connection that is all-important, and it is this that can be seen as a thread linking the Nature Mystics to the worldview and experiences of nature that are central to modern Paganism.

Beattie’s selection of writers is, as she admits, not an exhaustive list, but she does an excellent job at selecting a diverse range of writers (five men, five women) who represent a wide selection of different approaches to nature mysticism in literature. The familiar figures one may expect are there (Yeats, Tolkien, Hardy) but also several whom I had not before encountered such as Mary Webb, Elizabeth von Arnim and Mary Butts. It’s interesting to note that it is the women writers who have been less well-received and less well-known throughout literary history, which is doubtless telling of the nature of literary criticism’s treatment of women.

Standing out as an outlier in the book is Keats. Beattie writes that Keats very nearly didn’t make the cut, as he was an earlier writer than the others discussed, but that people clamoured on her blog for him to be included. And I’m very glad he was, because not only is he my favourite poet, but his writing has had a big influence on my own Pagan path and worldview.

Beattie states, however, that there is little evidence of Keats as a nature mystic, and describes him instead as a “Human Nature Mystic”, whose poetry was inward looking for inspiration rather than out to nature, and, while he wrote about nature as beautiful, it was not necessarily seen as a connection to the divine.

This is one point in the book where my views differ from that of the author. Lines such as:

For what has made the sage or poet write
But the fair paradise of Nature’s light?

Alongside Keats’ invocations of the Classical Pagan landscape in Endymion, or his poems dedicated “To Autumn”, or “On the Sea”, seem to me to fit Beattie’s definition of a nature mystic as one who “has mystical experiences in nature…and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration”. In some of Keats’ lesser-known works, he comes even closer to what we might consider to be the ethos and even the forms of modern Paganism:

‘Tis ‘the witching time of night’,
Orbed is the Moon and bright
And the Stars they glisten, glisten
Seeming with bright eyes to listen –

But this is a minor criticism for an excellent book which provides a great potted introduction to some very interesting and influential writers, some of whom deserve to be better-known than they are, and all of whom (consciously or not) have influenced ideas which led to, and continue to inspire, modern Paganism today.

As with all the Pagan Portals book, this is a quick read, and one which is lovely to devour on a sunny afternoon or two. I’m definitely going to look up some of the authors mentioned and read their works thanks to Beattie’s introduction, which I think means that Nature Mystics is a definite success.

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Demon est Deus inversus

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A star in the morning; night and day entwined
In liminal afterglow, their passions spent.
Lightbringer, your burden is eternal – to pour out
Yourself on earth, ecstatic, theopoiesis in reverse.
Light of Days, who burns with knowledge of life
And death, the swinging thurible of time,
A pendulum above a pit; the monstrance clock
Timing your descent, a fall so fortunate.
Lux aeterna, lux feram, with wounded independence crowned,
Who bears the sun between the crescent horns:
The old heirogamy repeats itself.

*I’m currently reading about nature mystics, and have just got back from seeing the band Ghost play in concert, so I thought I’d combine the two and challenge myself to write a Luciferian poem. Not my usual thing, spiritually speaking, but it was a fun exercise, and oddly cathartic. Not sure how successful the result is, but it is what it is.

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Spring Equinox

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I’m so tempted to write a rant about the disastrous politics happening today, but no. I won’t.

Rather, let me wish you all a very happy Spring Equinox, however you celebrate it. I spent the weekend in the garden, planting new bulbs and flowers as well as all sorts of fruit and veg (strawberries, carrots, beetroots, radishes, spinach) and herbs.

No formal ritual for me this year, but a day digging in the earth and planting seeds was a pretty appropriate way to connect with the energies of the season, and get my practical Druidry on!

While today is pouring with rain where I am, the weekend was lovely and springlike. A reminder that whatever happens in the human world, nature persists and spring returns again.

Blessings of the season to you!

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Paying for Paganism

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Sometimes you hear, in the Pagan community, the assertion that you should never have to pay for Pagan teachings. While a lovely idea, in practice this is nonsense. People’s work, time and effort should be fairly recompensed, as should the costs of any materials, location booking, printed handouts etc that are part of a standard teaching session.

On the other hand, I have recently seen some discussions on Pagan online spaces that seem to suggest that paying for Paganism automatically makes you a better Pagan. This is also nonsense.

While many Pagan groups keep their fees for members as low as practically possible, there will always be some who cannot afford to pay. The attitudes that paying membership fees to some organisation or other means you are more committed to your Paganism than someone who cannot do so is not only clearly wrong, it is discriminatory and privileged. If you earn a comfortable wage then the cost of a Pagan membership might seem trifling to you, but for someone deciding between that cost and feeding their family, it can be a fortune.

When someone comments that the cost of membership fees is, for instance, “less than a cup of coffee a week”, there is an assumption that everyone can afford a cup of expensive store-bought coffee a week. I know when I was out of work I couldn’t.

It reminds me very uncomfortably of comments recently from some US Republicans that people could afford healthcare if they just didn’t buy an iPhone. It suggests that poor people are just irresponsible with their money, and if they really wanted to, they could budget enough.

The other assumption is that people are choosing to spend their money on, say, a cup of coffee rather than membership to a Pagan organisation because they care more about their coffee than their Paganism. Comments I’ve seen to this effect accuse people who can pay fees, but choose not to join a larger organisation, are simply seeing Paganism as a hobby and are not *srsly srs Pagans*.

While I applaud the work of Pagan organisations, especially those that offer some form of compassionate membership discount for people of lower incomes, I feel that it needs pointing out that you don’t have to be a member of a Pagan church, Order, coven or any other group, to be Pagan. And it certainly doesn’t make you less serious about your Pagan path if you’re not. Some of the most interesting, inspiring and committed Pagans I have come across are, or at least have been, solitary practitioners.

Joanna Van Der Hoeven’s The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid is one of my favourite books, and it eloquently discusses how to be a Druid without necessarily joining any organisation at all.

This is not to knock Pagan organisations, I am a member of at least three myself, because I am lucky and privileged enough to be in a position to be able to afford to at the moment. That could change.

But it is a plea to show compassion to people who cannot afford membership dues, travel costs, libraries of books or course fees. They are no less Pagan than anyone else.

And those who choose not to pay for any of those things, and simply greet the Sacred in the sun and the soil, they are no less Pagan either. Arguably, they may even be more so.

Because, as far as I am concerned, Paganism isn’t really about courses, organisations, churches, Orders, certificates, degrees or books. It’s about your own personal relationship with the land, the sea and the sky, and with the Sacred, whatever you conceive that to be.

And that, thankfully, is free.

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