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" The songs of our ancestors

are also the songs of our children "

The Druid Way

A Single Gesture of the Infinite

July 22nd, 2008

This blogkeeper is going on a busman’s holiday to the OBOD summer camp, so no more posts for a couple of weeks. The idea of a busman’s holiday reminds me of a question somebody asked one of our group when we were on a Druid retreat on the Isle of Iona: “Why do you choose an island with virtually no trees for a Druid retreat?” Quick as a flash the Druid replied “Because we’re on holiday!”

Immersed in trees and tree-lore all year round, what could be more soothing than a barren island that holds the secrets of the world in its stone?

Immersed for a lot of the time in a computer screen, I’m going to enjoy a few weeks away close to the earth.

In the meanwhile here’s a quote from fellow Druid John Michael Greer. ‘A single gesture of the infinite’ – what a wonderful idea!

‘Ultimately as the traditional lore of magic teaches, everything is part of a single gesture of the infinite. It’s from this fact that natural magic takes its power.’
John Michael Greer

Alchemy and the Opera

July 21st, 2008

Engelbert Humperdinck (not the pop singer but the German composer who followed in the wake of Wagner) once saw a performance of his most successful opera, Hansel & Gretel, and confided in a friend that he was dismayed by its superficiality. You too would be dismayed I think – this season Glyndebourne has produced a dazzling production with the most wonderful sets. But the opera itself is so trite you can’t help feeling you are trapped in an end-of-term production of the biggest-budget children’s panto ever performed.

Some of us want more challenging fare, and it is no coincidence that ‘opera’ uses the same term as alchemy, from the latin opera (‘works’ but meant as singular: ‘work’). The connection between  opera and alchemy is only of interest to very few people, but I know that a few readers here are interested, so I’ll just mention an interesting piece I’ve just discovered. Cherry Gilchrist, a writer and soprano singer, devotes a chapter in her ‘The Elements of Alchemy’ (now undeservedly out of print) to the relationship between Alchemy and Baroque music. Well worth getting a copy from Amazon for 1p.

‘The audience watching a Baroque opera is like an alchemist gazing into his vessel.’

Cherry Gilchrist

Dame Poverty and the Snowman

July 17th, 2008

The author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, who created the haunting ‘Snowman’ book and film lives near us, and I recently read his account of how he arrived here and why he loves it:

“Poverty drove us into Sussex and I’ve been grateful to Dame Poverty ever since.

Unable to afford the slums of South Wimbledon, we found we could not even afford the slums of Brighton either. So eventually we bought a rural slum in a quiet country lane at the foot of Ditchling Beacon.

We could not believe our luck. A three-room yellow brick hovel it may have been, but the garden ran straight onto the Downs, with cows gazing at us over our fence. At the front, the one and only window looked out over fifteen miles of the Weald to the far horizon of Ashdown Forest. To us, the quiet was unbelievable. We were awestruck.

Born and brought up in the suburbs of London, this was another world. For the first month we could not even put on music, let alone jazz, as it seemed sacrilegious.

On our first morning, I looked out of the window and there was a wren, a few inches away. The first one I had ever seen.

All around there were wonderful walks, footpaths across the fields and bridleways up the slopes of the Downs. Then, on top of the Downs, there were the one-hundred miles of the South Downs Way, with all Sussex to the north, and to the south, the sea.

Furthermore, despite living in beautiful countryside, towns like Brighton and Lewes were only twenty minutes away and London only an hour.

This is beginning to sound like an estate agent’s blurb, so I’d better stop now.

“Come October, Oi bin in this ‘ouse fer forty year.” So, three cheers for Poverty.”

From The Snake River Press Review

Colossal Stupidity

July 11th, 2008

When I started this blog I promised myself it wouldn’t be all deep thought and no fun, so if you’ve got a few moments and enjoy ‘colossal stupidity’ zip over to the blog that celebrates human failure and inadequacy in all its glory – with photos and videoclips chronicling just how stupid some of us can be. I particularly enjoyed the dyslexic Satanist’s graffiti that shocked passers-by with a pentagram and the terrifying message ‘Hail Satin!’

Thanks for this link from your carrot award-winning blog Riverwolf!

Daring to be Eccentric

July 10th, 2008

That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time
John Stuart Mill

I had always avoided looking at the work of Terence McKenna, ever since I saw a videocast of him talking where he looked so stoned and was so enthusiastically promoting psychedelics in what I felt was an irresponsible way, I decided he was just too off the wall for me. But in the back of my mind I sensed he was an extraordinarily gifted man, and that one day his work would repay study.

Rather like the books mentioned by Cannetti in yesterday’s post, some people’s work can be ‘kept on hold’ for years before turning to it – at just the right time. And for me, this moment came when I began researching alchemy for the book I’m working on. Lo and behold McKenna appears in Esalen twenty years ago (I think – it’s not clear) talking in an extraordinarily prescient way about the times we find ourselves in, and about the value of turning to ancient traditions. Try the following quote for size and if you like it, have a look at the full transcript of the talk he gave here (It’s Lecture 1 – and there are more).

The imagination is central to the alchemical opus because it is literally a process that goes on the realm of the imagination taken to be a physical dimension. And I think that we cannot understand the history that lies ahead of us unless we think in terms of a journey into the imagination. We have exhausted the world of three dimensional space. We are polluting it. We are overpopulating it. We are using it up. Somehow the redemption of the human enterprise lies in the dimension of the imagination. And to do that we have to transcend the categories that we inherit from a thousand years of science and Christianity and rationalism and we have to re-empower and re-encounter the mind and we can do this psychedelically, we can do this yogically, or we can do it alchemically and hermetically.

Now there is present in the world at the moment, or at least I like to think so, an impulse which I have named the archaic revival. What happens is that whenever a society really gets in trouble, and you can use this in your own life – when you really get in trouble – what you should do is say “what did I believe in the last sane moments that I experienced?” and then go back to that moment and act from it even if you no longer believe it. Now in the Renaissance this happened. The scholastic universe dissolved. New classes, new forms of wealth, new systems of navigation, new scientific tools, made it impossible to maintain the fiction of the Medieval cosmology and there was a sense that the world was dissolving. Good alchemical word – dissolving. And in that moment the movers and shakers of that civilization reached backwards in time to the last sane moment they had ever known and they discovered that it was Classical Greece and they invented classicism. In the 15th and 16th century the texts which had lain in monasteries in Syria and Asia Minor forgotten and untranslated for centuries were brought to the Florentine council and translated and classicism was born – its laws, its philosophy, its aesthetics. We are the inheritors of that tradition but it is now, once again, exhausted and our cultural crisis is much greater. It is global. It is total. It involves every man, woman and child on this planet, every bug, bird and tree is caught up in the cultural crisis that we have engendered. Our ideas are exhausted – the ideas that we inherit out of Christianity and its half-brother science, or its bastard child science. So, what I’m suggesting is that an archaic revival needs to take place and it seems to be well in hand in the revival of Goddess worship and shamanism and partnership but notice that these things are old – 10,000 years or more old – but there was an unbroken thread that, however thinly drawn, persists right up to the present.

Terence McKenna

Note: I’m not sure what he means by a revival of ‘partnership’ – it could be a transcription error.

The Book That Remains Silent for Twenty Years

July 9th, 2008

‘There are books, that one has for twenty years without reading them, that one always keeps at hand, that one takes along from city to city, from country to country, carefully packed, even when there is very little room, and perhaps one leafs through them while removing them from a trunk; yet one carefully refrains from reading even a complete sentence. Then after twenty years, there comes a moment when suddenly, as though under a high compulsion, one cannot help taking in such a book from beginning to end, at one sitting: it is like a revelation. Now one knows why one made such a fuss about it. It had to be with one for a long time; it had to travel; it had to occupy space; it had to be a burden; and now it has reached the goal of its voyage, now it reveals itself, now it illuminates the twenty bygone years it mutely lived with one. It could not say so much if it had not been there mutely the whole time, and what idiot would dare to assert that the same things had always been in it.’

Elias Canetti, The Human Province

Mt Haemus Lectures 2004

July 8th, 2008

Some projects take a while to come to fruition. Back in 2004 a couple of members kindly filmed the whole Mount Haemus Lectures event we held in a village hall in Appleton Oxfordshire. It took them 3 years to produce an edited version on DVD and it’s taken us another year to get some of it up on to Youtube. Here’s the first ten minutes of the event to give you a feel for what it was like. It was a lovely sunny day in a small Oxford village…about a hundred of us were in the hall…

A Universalist Temple

July 7th, 2008

I used to think that the Bahai’i faith was the religious equivalent of Esperanto – combining all the world’s faiths into one universal religion that united all humanity. In reality Bahai’ism is a religion that is essentially Abrahamic, with Baha’Ullah being seen as the next great world saviour.

An attempt at a more universal approach was made by the Universalist Church, which originated in the 18th century, but even then it was decidedly Christian in its approach. In 1961 it became absorbed into the Unitarian Church, but when it was still a separate organisation it was championed in England by the founder of the Ancient Druid Order, George Watson MacGregor Reid. He was an eccentric and a maverick, and injected a more egalitarian approach – trying hard to amalgamate concepts and texts from all the world’s religions into their religious services. And since MacGregor Reid also held Druid ceremonies at Stonehenge, aspects of this approach slipped into his version of Druidry, and as a result of this one can still  find Buddhist ideas in Druid ceremonies being used today, for example.

London Universalists used to meet for their ‘Esperanto-like’ services in MacGregor Reid’s house in Clapham, and Dr Adam Stout recently unearthed a fascinating planning application while researching the old Chief’s life for the Mount Haemus award. The house had been destroyed by a bomb during the blitz, but a phoenix was designed to rise from its ashes – a temple or church that combined elements from many faiths. Have a look at the drawing below. I think it looks splendid! Imagine walking around a corner in Clapham and discovering half of the inner circle at Stonehenge inviting you to walk towards a building that combined elements of mosque, church, synagogue and temple architecture.

I love the Art Deco typeface used too! Click on the image to see it in full. Click on that image and you can enlarge it.

A Vision of the Future

July 6th, 2008

This is absolutely extraordinary – filled with insight and solutions to global problems. With people like this in the world there is hope for the future. Startling creativity, intelligence and wit combined.

Spiritual Path or Spiritual Home?

July 5th, 2008

We’re very used to talking about our spiritual life in terms of a path, but sometimes we talk about ‘finding our spiritual home’, and the other day it occurred to me that these two different ways of thinking about our spirituality reflect the two primal modes of being best articulated by the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang.

If we use the metaphor of a path, we see ourselves as taking a journey through life, and we find ourselves seeking the best path to attain our goals – of enlightenment, self-realization, fulfillment, or however we choose to articulate the ‘Holy Grail’ we are seeking. Seeing ourselves taking a path is a product of linear, rational, left-brain thinking – it is set in time, and is disposable – in the sense that a path should have obsolescence built into it. A path is like the booster rocket to get you to your goal. Once there, it should fall away. As the spiritual teacher Sean O’Laoire, quoted in a post on this blog a few days back, says: At the beginning of our search we may set out together on a common path.  At some stage, if we persevere long enough, we will each chose a path less travelled.  And for the final stretch of the journey you will “go where no man has gone before.”  You will forge a brand-new path in the trackless, uncharted wilderness that leads into the very heart of the Mystery.

But how does Yin rather than Yang see the spiritual life? If you use the metaphor of a ‘home’ rather than a ‘path’ you are switching to right-brain thinking, and your understanding is more feeling-based than intellectual. When you’re on a path you’re thinking about moving along it and the goal ahead. When you come home, you switch off your thinking and settle into a feeling of warmth, safety, comfort and nurturing. This feeling is not time-bound and is about settling in rather than moving on – a spiritual home is not disposable.

Neither metaphor is more right or ‘true’ of course – they both have value in helping us understand spiritual life and practice. They certainly seem to correspond to brain function, but I suspect they correlate with our evolution too – the path appeals to the nomad, the wanderer in us, the home appeals to the agrarian and urban.

If the ‘Alchemical Marriage’ of God and Goddess Within is what we seek, then we can have our cake and eat it: following a path, and finding our home at the same time.