Pagan enough

DSCN0990So there’s been yet another internet dust-up between non-theist and polytheist pagans over who is and is not a “real” pagan. And while in the past I may have engaged to defend my own non-theist position, this time around I find myself not caring.

If you’re interested, I point you to this rather brilliant post by John Halstead at Humanistic Paganism (or really all the posts at that blog):

Literal gods are for the literal-minded: re-enchanting polytheism

As for me, I don’t care if Mr. Random Internet Pagan number 4537 thinks that my paganism isn’t real, or that I am a vile blasphemer for not believing in gods. There will always be someone who disagrees with you, and, in matters of religion, this disagreement can easily turn hateful, and I want no part of that.

I don’t find my paganism on the pages of Facebook. I find it in the land beneath me. On my lunch break yesterday, I sat under a willow tree by the riverbank. Sunbeams filtered through the leaves, casting interplays of light and dappled shade onto the grass. A light breeze moved the branches, making them sigh and whisper, the sound mingling with the tinkling flow of the river washing over the stones on its banks, and the choir of birds, each singing their own song, calling for mates or territory. Because the riverbank area is common land, there were cows grazing, occasionally lowing softly to each other. Being in the centre of town as well, there was the sound of traffic buzzing past, and people talking, out enjoying the sunshine.

All these sounds combining to produce the song of the land, the Oran Mor.

And I sat, feeling the warmth of the sun above me and the softness of the earth beneath me. Everything, from the grass to the rocks to the clouds overhead seemed to tingle with life and vitality. The edges of “me” blurred until all there was was this moment, this connection, one life in many forms.

This is how I perceive the sacred. No gods required, just this.

To me, “pagan” means “of the land”, as its Latin derivation suggests. To be truly of the land, to know it and love it and connect with it, is to be pagan. If that means reifying bits of it as gods and doing elaborate rituals, that’s your prerogative. If that simply means sitting under a tree and letting the infinite now carry you beyond yourself, then that is pagan too. And nobody can take that from me.

Truthfully, since coming back from Ireland, I have removed all trace of gods, even as archetypes or personifications of natural forces, from my practice. Not consciously, but they have just fallen away, an old crutch no longer needed. I still love the old stories,  of course, and have a deep respect for the power of myth, but my daily paganism is of the sun, the land, the river, the trees, the moon, the stars and the stones.

And it feels deeper. Less structured perhaps, less formalised, less “religious”, but more real, more from the heart and blood and bone. I am here. The earth is here. That is pagan enough for me.

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Spiral

maze-56060_960_720The journey, we are told, is linear. The hero leaves “here” and goes “there”. Mountains are climbed, distances are crossed. Time itself we perceive to be linear. Past-Present-Future. One arrow, pointing one way.

This is not how it works. Modern physics suggests that time is not a straight line, but something much more complicated.

And journeys, too, are more complicated. Is a journey even a good metaphor for a life? Where is the “there”, the destination? Surely not death, although of course that is the ultimate destination for all travellers. But that is rarely what is meant by the journey metaphor. People generally use it to mean some state of achievement, success, self-actualisation, enlightenment, whatever.

I prefer the image of a labyrinth. Not a maze, in which you might get lost, but a traditional labyrinth of the kind you might walk as a meditative practice. There is one path, but the path weaves in and out, doubling back and over on itself, sometimes coming tantalisingly close to the centre, and then looping back out again.

And note here the destination is the centre. Not an external point of reference, but something integral to, and inseparable from, the labyrinth itself. The centre that is nowhere, but is now here.

In nature, we see how life moves through spirals of great activity and then stillness, the hibernation of the hedgehog, the dormancy of the tree, the new life in spring, the punctuated equilibrium of evolution.

And so, too, in any spiritual practice.

Since coming back from Ireland, a trip whose subtle effects I am still working through, I have been busy. I’ve started a new job, one which finally brings me back to the work I want to do as a librarian, the work I trained for and studied for.

This busy-ness and new wave of information, expectation and responsibility, has left me with little time for Druidry. So my practice spiralled into dormancy. And that’s OK. I think I always feel a sense of guilt in these times, like I’m not doing enough, I’m not “Druid” enough unless I do all the things. But that’s not true. I simply had to shift my priorities around to accommodate this new Big Thing in my life.

But it’s been three weeks, a good Druidic triad of time, and things are starting to level off. So my Druidry is emerging again, like a small shoot on a branch, fragile and delicate, but filled with the hope of new life.

The sun still rises. The earth still turns. The birds still sing. The wind in the trees still whispers “all will be well”.

All of which is a long and flowery way of explaining why I haven’t been blogging of late, but there you go!

Ireland

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So I got back last week from a trip/pilgrimage to Ireland, and was swiftly thrown into the deep end of a new job, so I didn’t have the time to reflect much. But it would be a shame not to post some pretty pictures at least!

Ireland is the place of my ancestry, and I was raised by my grandfather to have a very deep sense of rootedness and connection to my Irish heritage (legend has it we’re descended from a long line of ancient chieftains going back to around the 3rd century), yet it isn’t somewhere that I visit very often. So it was great to have a chance to go back, and also to go to some parts of the country that I haven’t been to before, especially the amazing scenery of the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast.

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One thing that struck me was simply the beauty of the landscape, truly like nowhere else on earth, and all in a relatively small space. Mountains, sea, lakes, rolling fields, all seem nestled up to each other and you can drive through several strikingly different landscapes in one three-hour jaunt across the country.

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The peace of nature was literally breathtaking, in places like Gougane Barra in West Cork or Lough Leane in Killarney. I can see why so many poets, artists and mystics have come from this island and drawn inspiration from it.

There were always reminders of the innate spirituality of the land, whether in the form of Catholic roadside shrines or the older and more numinous places like stones said to have associations with the Druids, dolmens known to be doorways to the land of the Shide, healing wells and sacred lakes.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that even in Blarney Castle, one of the more tourist-trap locations, there were remnants of the ancient past, and also a recently-restored “Druidic” stone circle originally built around 1703, at the very earliest stages of the Druid Revival period.

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The trip was a busy one, visiting around 7 locations in 6 days, but it was also a wonderful way to take a break from the daily world of work and reconnect to something deep and ancestral. And of course, lots of good food was eaten and local beers were drank!

 

 

Childfree and Pagan

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So, yesterday I watched a documentary on the BBC about people choosing to be sterilised so as not to have children. The programme itself (available on iPlayer for those in the UK) was pretty awful. The people chosen, while all awesome and very much my sort of people, were to the mainstream viewer’s eye…well…weirdos. Nerds, aspies, people with mental health issues, non-binary folk etc. Again, they’re all brilliant people and brave for going on telly, but they were clearly chosen to fit a particular narrative about what childfree people are like.

The programme also interviewed a “bioethicist” (actually a theologian, not a medical doctor…yeah, let that sink in) who basically said that having children is what makes us human, sterilisation is mutilation, and “allowing” people to make that choice is “treating these people as if they were irredeemable”. So…thanks for that.

This got me thinking about the emphasis on childbirth in Paganism, as well as in the wider “life script” offered to us by society. In certain forms of Paganism I have experienced, there is a huge focus on “the God” and “the Goddess” coming together to create life. The Wiccan Great Rite reflects this idea (in either its literal sexual form or its symbolic athame & chalice metaphors), as does some forms of Druidry.

The idea of “male and female polarity” is part of this as well, suggesting that “male” and “female” are universal energies, that embody certain qualities (often seen in “traditional” hunter-gatherer terms) that are innate to one gender or another and that they need the “opposite” to be complete. Srsly, I’ve heard Pagans say that a man needs a woman and a woman needs a man to complete them…yeah.

This also often leads into a very heteronormative idea of sex and sexuality, where, despite Pagans talking a good game about sex-positivity, can boil down to basic biology of male seed + female womb. The elevation of straight, reproductive, penetrative sex as the Most Sacred Mystery of course necessarily involves the unspoken assumption that other forms of sex and sexuality are lesser. You don’t have to hold a “God Hates Fags” sign to perpetuate homophobia, even unconsciously.

And then there’s the perpetually-pregnant statues of the Mother Goddess, and the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetypes, and Ceridwen and Taliesin, and so on and so on.

All of which serves to make me, a childfree, sexually-fluid, not particularly “masculine” man happily married to an equally childfree, sexually-fluid, not particularly “feminine” woman, feel pretty alienated. I would love to know how it makes gay and trans* Pagans feel (I genuinely would love to know, if you are one please leave a comment!).

Of course, we now know that gender is a spectrum and that the roles and qualities attributed to “men” and “women” are largely social constructs. Women can be warriors and men can be homemakers. Shocking, right? It’s almost like it’s the 21st century or something…*snark*

One of the cool things about ADF Druidry, where I began my Druid training, is that they don’t do any of that. They deliberately don’t do Wiccan-style “God and Goddess” gender polarity stuff, and they are pretty explicit in their openness to, and support of, the LGBT community. And while they do have a virtue called “Fertility” they go to some pains to point out that they don’t mean it as literal reproduction (think a fertile field or mind instead).

But it seems all too common for Paganism in its more generic forms to fall back on unquestioned 1950s concepts of gender and sexuality, which may have been truly revolutionary compared to the conservative Christianity of the time, but are now woefully out of touch with the wonderful diversity blooming in our modern, connected world.

What am I getting at with all of this? I don’t know, mostly it’s just a rant about something I find deeply irritating and unsettling. But also, I would like to look to a vision of Paganism that, yes, still holds childbearing and mothers as sacred, but also encompasses the sacredness of LGBT people, childfree people, non-binary people, asexual people, people who cannot have children because of biology rather than choice, and everyone in between.

For me, it is Nature which is most sacred. And Nature shows us infinite variety and diversity. Not only has homosexuality been observed in literally hundreds of species, there are eusocial insects and naked mole rats, where whole colonies are sterile apart from the queen and a few chosen suitors, there are fish which change gender depending on water temperature, there are trees which mate as male and female, and trees which are both and mate with themselves. There are single celled organisms that reproduce by dividing, aphids who make clones, galaxies born from the black holes of other long-dead galaxies.

There is, as in the Vulcan creed (Trek nerd alert!) Kol-Ut-Shan: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

And that is sacred. We are sacred. Our bodies and our choices are sacred. And above all, Love is sacred.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law. Love under will”. -Crowley

The day something broke

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Something broke inside me today. Some wall, some shell, some badly forged armour or shield or something.

Since Brexit, since Trump, I have been broken. The world I love has changed, and I fear for it. That fear has paralysed me, despite all the good advice and keep-going hope I’ve been writing lately, I can’t seem to listen to myself.

I stopped. I stopped caring for myself, and saw this blank detachment from my own life as somehow insulating me from the horrors going on outside. It didn’t work, it couldn’t work, but there it was.

So my days became robotic, routine. Wake after a sleepless night, go to work, spend half the day glued to the car-crash unfolding on Twitter and the news, come home, try to escape into TV, go to bed, pretend to sleep. Repeat ad nauseam.

My Druid practice? Withered. Forgotten in the midst of fear.

My health? Ignored, wasted away to comfort-eating and sedentary nothingness.

The joy of life? Lost. Guilt tells me not to enjoy life while others fear for theirs.

But this evening, for no apparent reason, something broke. And I saw what I had become, and how far that is from what I want to be, need to be, in this world.

I don’t know how to move on from here, but I know I must. If despair wins, then the forces of evil win.

Self-care is not selfish. I’ve read the words a thousand times, heck I’ve written them. But now I need to embrace them, with my whole being.

And so, to restart.

Daily Druid practice, a small five-minute devotion at my home shrine in the morning (probably using Michael J. Dangler’s Crane Breviary and Guidebook as inspiration).

Daily exercise. Yoga would be a good place to start, followed by going back to the strength training I used to enjoy.

Eating better. Junk food is just that, junk. It does nothing for physical or mental health in the long run.

Spending more time outdoors, away from a screen. Getting back in touch with the land, the waters and the sky, the roots and heart of my Paganism.

Switching off the damn phone. I will still read the news to keep informed, it’s more important now than ever, but I don’t need to be on it 24/7. I need to step away and allow myself space to breathe.

Fighting where it matters. Going to protest marches and writing letters to my elected representatives rather than sharing online petitions that will be read by nobody. Focusing on one or two issues (the environment, LGBT rights) and not trying to solve every problem at once.

It’s going to be a hard few years, and burn out is a real danger. So is apathy. I hope that by doing the above steps, I can walk that fine line between the two.

And so it goes.

Happy New Year

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After taking a break from blogging over the festive season, I wanted to check back in at the start of this new year.

2016 has been a difficult one, both globally and personally, and it looks like the world in 2017 will continue to be uncertain and challenging. Much of what we love will be under attack from politicians and big business, and there will be some tough times ahead, of that I’m sure.

But, hope is still rising. People around the world are coming together to do great things, to defend the planet and her people and creatures, and to fight hatred in all its forms.

For me, I plan on being more active this year, and also deepening my Druid practice to give me a firm foundation on which to engage meaningfully with the world.

May you all have a hopeful and happy new year, and may 2017 be the year we stand firm and put down our roots.

In other news, the book I contributed an essay to, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans edited by John Halstead, has been chosen by the Pagan Tama blog on Patheos (which is a seriously cool blog, discussing Shinto-Paganism among other things) as the Pagan Book of the Year!

Megan Manson writes:

Because non-theistic Paganism can be seen as rejecting Pagan deities on the surface, the idea of godless Pagans is controversial for some. Is it appropriate for atheists to define themselves as Pagan? Or are they misappropriating the term? The essays in Godless Paganism all reach the same conclusion: Rather than rejecting the idea of deities outright, atheist Pagans are re-defining what “deity” means within the Pagan context. Quite simply, they are Pagans who take great meaning and fulfillment from the nature-based and mystical aspects of Paganism, but want to reconcile this with 21st century rational, scientific outlooks on life…

Godless Paganism is a very valuable contribution to the world of Pagan literature – in some ways, an essential contribution, as it’s one of the few works out there in which non-theistic Pagans have openly expressed themselves and been given a chance to argue their case for this rather different interpretation of what it means to be Pagan. Not only that, but Godless Paganism shows a very real solution to the very real problem of reconciling modernity with tradition, and spirituality with science: by putting science and naturalism at the heart of spirituality, and by giving people the freedom to define their spiritual experience however they see fit.

I’m very proud to be part of this work, along with so many other incredible writers from across the Pagan community, and to share in giving voice to non-theistic and naturalistic Paganism to the wider world.

Godless Paganism is available to buy online via Lulu.

Lessons from a Gorse bush

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Ever since I got given the Gorse Ogham few at Druid Camp in August, this spiky little shrub has been teaching me lessons.

Gorse (Ulex europeana) is not exactly the stately, ancient, tall tree of the forest one might first associate with Druids and with wisdom: that title surely goes to the mighty Oak. But, it is not without insight.

Gorse thrives on the margins: clifftops, coastlines, scrubland, cleared forest, waste ground. For those of us on our own margins, for ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT folk, eco-activists, 2016 has been a hell of a year, and 2017 looks set to be even worse. The UK and US have been turned upside down in a wave of xenophobia, sexism and right-wing extremism. Fascists, racists and ecocidal maniacs are in the ascendancy and much of what we now hold dear will be laid waste over the coming year.

Yet Gorse teaches us to dig in, to put down our roots and not be moved. Gorse is a tenacious bugger, and survives harsh weather, poor soil, cutting down, and even wildfires, always springing back up, spikes raised up like so many middle fingers, as if to say “I’m still here, you sods, now what are you going to do about it?”

To say that Gorse is prickly is an understatement. It is covered in spikes, every leaf is a needlepoint blade. This spikiness is its great defence. Small animals, who can slip through or under the spines, shelter in Gorse bushes from predators and use its protection. Gorse teaches us to protect ourselves and those we love when predatory politicians or dangerous ideologies threaten us and our world. Whether through learning self-defence, joining a group or cause and gaining strength in numbers, protesting, being present as an ally for oppressed people or just locking your doors and protecting your hearth and home, Gorse reminds us of the importance of protection and defence.

These spines also remind us of the importance of allowing ourselves to be prickly, to be angry, to not have to be “nice” and polite accommodating and docile in the face of blind hatred.

Gorse can be used in healing, and the wood is a great kindling for a hearth-fire. Gorse teaches us the importance of staying warm and healthy, of practicing self-care. In times of turmoil, self-care is not selfish, it is self-preservation and a form of defiance against those who would seek to diminish us.

Gorse has bright yellow flowers even in winter, and is rarely out of bloom. Gorse teaches us hope in the darkest of times, and reminds us to “bloom” even when the odds are stacked against us. Gorse gives hope that even when all seems lost, the sun will shine again and life always prevails. There’s a tradition to kiss when the Gorse is in bloom, which reminds us to hold our loved ones close, to enjoy love and to be in control of our own sexuality.

For 2017, let’s try to be more like this hardy, tenacious, stubborn, spiky little shrub. Let’s raise our spines against the forces of hate and put down our roots, bloom brightly, and always, always grow back.