Current Events, Holy Wild, peace, Poetry & Music

#WritersResist: Bring the Fire Down

Remember To Look Up

Bring the Fire Down

Move through the hills unrolling
dense and shifting green below the night,
touch earth — between justice
and mercy, between nakedness and warfare,
between all that you would not do
and all you have done, unknowing —
move through the water to the streambed,
move through the mountains to the heat,
move through the empty sky, crying.
To touch the slick, smooth rocks wet
with life and blood and water;
to walk the land; to kiss the deep
echoing heart of the offering well.
Move your compassion. Move your peace.
Move slow and solemn in darkness
and do not be afraid, though their power
burns to brightness, busy, churning
life upon life, grinding colors from their bones
to paint their eyes — move, you beauty,
move, you simple world. Reach up
with your remembering. Reach up with your
longing. Reach up with your being
and your making and your singing
strength into the storm; reach up with all
the detail of the in­between, the tragic
and the torn; reach up to touch the sacred
flame exalting in the midnight earth,
reach up to touch the sun as she is rising;
reach up to show your hands are empty;
reach up to leap your dance on holy ground,
the hills unrolling, the whole earth breathing
— reach up your love, and bring the fire down.


This post is part of #WritersResist. Thank you to Melanie, for spreading the word.
Photo Credit: “Remember to Look Up,” by Cat Burton (CC) [source]

Featured, Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, praxis

Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer

“How do I pray without fire?”

– question asked once in a dream

Just the sound of the word reminds me of fire: adoration, the heart aflame.

This is the first kind of prayer I ever really learned. The prayer I come back to again and again.

burningwaxsticks_CaitlinDoe

The strike of the match on the box, the scrape, the hiss — and then the little wick of the candle catches and holds…

This moment, this motion — it is a word in itself, a softly-spoken mantra of devotion. Shivering there, changing a little from one second to the next. Sometimes wavering. Sometimes utterly still. Swaying around its center of gravity in the wake of my breathing-out and breathing-in again.

It is enough: to sit before the altar each morning, to light the single flame, to watch it catch and hold. It is enough to show up to this act of intention. Without the need to grasp what cannot be grasped. Without the need to name what cannot be named.

To hold my heart like a candle wick, steady, upright, held open to the presence of my gods.

To hold my heart like fruit, or a flower, or a handful of seeds in an open palm, that they might arrive — might alight so gently, their touch barely felt — enticed, invited, uncompelled. To be eaten as the earth will one day eat me, slowly, bone by bone…

But then: sometimes it’s not enough. All this gentility — this steady, quiet kind of praying. The little bent wick sunk in its pool of wax, rooted in place, giving itself only just a little at a time.

“Let us pray with a good fire,” the Druids say.*

And so I pile up the kindling, some of it still wet from the rain. Under its skin, sap hisses and snaps where the fire licks it clean. Smoke slithers out between the splinters, unwinding upwards like incense. The husky whispers of my more selfish desires. I give it all to the flame.

It can take a long time for the damp kindling of my life to catch fire. I might sit for an hour making my inadequate offerings, poking here and there, wincing when a bit of wood shifts and suddenly the flame sputters out, suffocated, all but lost.

It is a ritual of unwavering attention, this kind of prayer. Arranging and rearranging, gathering in, working with what I have, trying to make room — opening up space for the fire to breathe. In a world that insists we fill every spare moment with progress, or at the very least a busyness that approximates it. It can feel like a radical thing to make space in my life for waiting and failure and stillness, to open up my lungs in song to my gods and let them breathe me empty.

It is not as clean and easy as a candle flame. It is the kind of prayer driven by longing, by frustration, by unrealized vision…

Until finally, I have sat before the smoking embers long enough, watched the wood turn first charred black and then white with a loose skin of ash. Watched the flame slip along each thin twig as if along a twining labyrinth of praise and recrimination, watched it run its course and meet its end and flicker out again. Until my whole body, my whole being has grown quiet and raw and I think, This is it, I have given everything I have and it hasn’t been enough…

And then, the moment I realize I was wrong.

blueflame_TracyRhodes

Sometimes what I want is a wild fire. A fire that roars. A fire that beats at the air with its bright fists clenched. Sometimes I want prayer like a fire that claims everything it touches. Prayer that ripples out across the rough dark surface of the world like music spilling down endlessly from the night sky, carrying the stars with it. Prayer that rolls over the vaulted ceiling of the heavens with thrilling impossible lightness — a fire round and hot like laughter, dragging the lush purples of faraway galaxies in its wake.

Prayer that turns over into adoration — into a joy that burns so hot, it blossoms like a blue flower inside every thrumming ember, unfolding its quiet petals one by one. As still and steady as an open palm.

Sometimes what I want is to give my whole life over to this adoration, to the hunger of the ones I love.

To be so bright inside that you cannot look, and cannot look away.

The Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy…

You cannot get there with a candle flame. You cannot get there by wanting to be useful, reliable and tame.

You can only open your most secret heart like a furnace door, smoky-dark and so hot that to touch it — even for a moment — will leave a mark.

Only know that nothing is so precious it will not burn.

whatdoyousee_EileenMcFall


* Though they stole it from Hinduism.


Photo Credits:
• “burning waxsticks,” by Caitlin Doe (CC) [source]
• “Blue Flame,” by Tracy Rhodes (CC) [source]
• “what do you see in the flame?” by Eileen McFall (CC) [source]

nature spirituality spring equinox ecology hope
Deep Ecology, Featured, Holy Wild

When the Frogs Begin to Sing

“As we enter the path of transformation, the most valuable thing we have working in our favor is our yearning.”

― Cynthia Bourgeault

Pacific Chorus Frog, by Minette Layne

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]W[/dropcap]e hear the song long before we reach the pond itself ― the rolling, rhythmic voices rising up from among the grasses all around us as if we have entered the halls of some vast monastery during evening prayer. The thrum washes over us in the darkness.

We step carefully, sweeping the red-cellophane-filtered beams of our flashlights back and forth across the path. Somewhere in the darkness nearby, a duck splashes gracelessly into a bed of reeds, seeking shelter for the night. A barred owl calls overhead. The kids are tense with eager excitement for the hunt, whispering questions at each unfamiliar noise, flicking their flashlights over every stray stone or lump in the grass hoping to catch a glimpse of movement ― the flexing muscular limbs or the bulging throat of a frog.

But there are too many of us. By the time we’ve reached the water’s edge, the low chanting voices have dropped away and the whole place has fallen into silence. The kids are growing increasingly anxious now. Without the meditative hum of frog song to captivate us, the cold, damp air of this foggy March night seems harder to bear. I wonder for a moment at the foolhardiness of coming out at all. How strange and awkward we must look, a troop of lumbering giants bundled in our coats, rustling noisily in our raingear, tramping through the mud in so many thick-soled boots.

As we strain to listen, the silence seems to lengthen into an accusation. I feel every bit the unwelcome intruder in this wild place.

But we are determined. We have come this far, tracking the song through the darkness along wooded trails. We flip off our flashlights and settle in to wait a little while longer. To calm the restless kids, someone suggests a story, and another begins in a low whisper to tell a tale from the indigenous peoples who have lived here since long before the Europeans arrived.

The story is of the last snow of winter: when the families had been gathered together in their longhouses for many long, chilly weeks, and the elders had told the children all the stories they knew several times over until they were hoarse with the telling. Everyone was restless for the spring to come. Then one day, the last snow of winter fell, and as each snowflake touched the ground, the delicate crystals melted, transforming themselves into tiny frogs, one for each human soul. That night after sunset, a rich chorus filled the darkness. It was then that the people knew the land was again beginning to wake.

As the story gently unfolds into the quiet surrounding us, the children grow still. They crouch down among the grasses along the muddy bank of the pond like so many little froglets themselves, legs akimbo, arms hugged close.

Just as the story ends, a hesitant croak drifts towards us from across the water. We turn our heads towards the sound, gesturing at each other in excited silence to stay quiet and hold still.

We can’t keep our smiles hidden when we hear the second croak, much closer this time. Then another, and another, gathering momentum, stumbling tentatively over one another as each brave frog sounds his call into the dark. All in a moment, we are drenched in a cascade of thrumming, wild tones. The night around us is transformed, now pulsing with a living rhythm that tingles on our skin, moves within our blood, reaches into the very core of our being. The rush of the waking land is on us.

Unable to hold back our own exclamations of surprise and awe, we flinch at our noise-making ― but the song continues, rolling over us, drowning out our clumsiness. Soon, we lose our fear of speaking altogether, raising our voices in wonder at the roar of the wilderness that surrounds us.

Still, the frogs sing on.

We are all of us, kids and adults alike, wide eyes and amazed grins. I see the little girl next to me is whispering something to herself under her breath over and over, and I lean down closer to hear.

“They came back,” she is saying, as if grappling with some kind of miracle. “We were quiet, and they came back, they came back…”

And I realize that I’m crying.


Photo Credit:
• “Untitled,” by Minette Layne (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Theology

Back to Basics

Goddess of SpringWhat is it that I believe? This question has troubled me on and off ever since I left my childhood Catholicism and began wandering in the wildness and wilderness that is modern Paganism.

When I was a Catholic, the question of belief didn’t trouble me all that much. Not because I had been told what to think and believe unquestioningly, but because I had two thousand years of theologians, mystics, philosophers and saints who’d explored these questions before me and come up with myriad ways of answering them, more than imaginable. Choosing what to believe was like a hunt for buried treasure among a rich tradition nourished and nurtured by elders and wise men for generations. And it was a hunt I was encouraged to go on, an invitation to adventure and not a threat of “getting it right” or facing some awful punishment (at least this was true in the liberal, intellectually curious Catholicism that I was raised in, a kind of Catholicism that seems to be rapidly disappearing these days). After a long hunt, I discovered that the treasure I’d uncovered — that “pearl of great price” — did not belong exclusively to Christianity, and in fact had a great deal more in common with the ancient, pagan traditions that knelt close to the earth, sinking loving fingers into the soil and dancing down the rain. It was a treasure born of the natural world, the poetry of my Celtic ancestors, the music of the World Song singing in the roots of the trees and the stones of the burial mounds and the caressing waves of the ocean lapping against the shore.

So I left Catholicism behind and began wandering in the wilderness. Druidry was the path I took, one that resonated with me deeply for many reasons. But as with most young traditions, I quickly discovered that modern Druidry, and much of modern Paganism in general, had only shallow roots that ran up far too quickly against the bedrock of lost heritage, oppression, disruption, colonialism and the uncertainty of intervening millennia. What were the traditions of the ancients that I hoped to rediscover, and even if I did manage to find them or piece them together from the few clues left, how could I be sure that they would be relevant and meaningful to me as a woman in the (post-)postmodern world?

The search for answers to my theological questions took on a new anxiety. Where once I could sift through the opinions of philosophers and mystics for the truths that resonated with me on a personal level, now I found myself striving to become an Expert In All Things Pagan, trying to build a whole new tradition for myself on the uncertain foundation of the ashes and dust and old bones of the beloved dead and the competing interests and egos of contemporary Pagan leaders, some of whom were (let’s be honest) not always very kind to newbies and neophytes (or even people they’d only just met who, for lack of a reputation, they merely assumed were newbies). As the Joni Mitchell song goes, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

Without a larger, well-established religious community to offer support and acceptance, without the tether of discernment and long-cultivated wisdom that allowed me to safely wander far into the depths of the unknown along my own spiritual path — I found myself incredibly anxious about straying too far from the herd. I tried for years to be a “good polytheist” with an anxiety and uneasy eagerness to prove myself that I’d never felt as a monotheist. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to profess a belief in my gods; I also had to prove that my knowledge of them was founded in solid, up-to-date research by only the best scholars. I had to pronounce names in unfamiliar languages with perfect accuracy during rituals, I had to demonstrate my knowledge of exactly how the Irish Manannan mac Lir differed from the Welsh Manawydan fab Llyr, I had to strive to believe in a “hard” polytheism that took for granted deity identity much less fluid than even the identities of my fellow human beings, I had to guard against eclecticism and syncretism as naughty words, or even the whiff of these that might waft off of sources and authors who weren’t considered approved reading. Personal experiences that fell beyond the carefully constructed box of modern polytheistic practice was tactfully labeled “UPG” and left to shiver out in the cold of solitary practice where it was easy to wonder if maybe I was just crazy after all.

Much of this was my own personality. I’ve always wanted to do well at whatever work I take on, in love with the challenge that learning, exploration and skillful mastery can provide. I hate doing things half-assed, and as a Gemini, you might say that I have two whole asses to worry about putting on the line. I fling myself into all kinds of work with a passion, and that includes spiritual work, the Great Work. But sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I don’t spend enough time paying attention to whose standards I’m striving to measure myself against. I do value scholarship and academic rigor, and I appreciate nuance and intellectual subtlety as much as poetry, art and damn good ritual — and so it took me a long time to realize that the anxiety I was feeling about my spiritual life as a Pagan was not the healthy passion to explore, but the sinking feeling of dread at being laughed off as crazy, wrong or — gods forbid — just perpetually silly and “noob”-ish.

I’m beginning to think that this is a pretty common experience for Pagans. Some of my favorite fellow Pagans have a deep ambivalence about the community and the label itself, sometimes feeling boxed in or trapped by it, unable to relate to others who use that term or the communities they represent. I have been lucky in finding some strong, supportive Druid communities who help to keep me firmly tether to a process of discernment and honest exploration — but among the greater Pagan community, the anxiety persists. In recent months, I’ve realized that the anxiety has grown so great that there are times when I’m not even sure what it is that I do believe anymore, so long have I been paying more attention to the delicate dance of group opinions than to my own personal convictions.

So what exactly do I believe? To answer that question, I have to go back to basics. And in going back to basics, I have to face my fear of being forever shrugged off as a newbie fluff bunny who can’t be taken seriously. It’s easy to say, “So what? What do you care if people take you seriously?” But as a member of a scattered, small community, a minority religion in a predominantly Christian culture, it can feel pretty devastating to be shrugged off or shuffled aside even by those you thought would welcome you with open arms. But that’s the risk you have to face if you want to cultivate an open and free relationship with spirit and the sacred world. The world is far stranger and wilder than the books and experts would have you believe.

So what, at the most basic and deepest level, do I believe?

  • I believe in the Song of the World, a harmony of interweaving melodies woven from the chorus of atoms and earthquakes, of wind and fire, of sun and starlight, of misty woods at dusk, of the butterfly’s dance and the call of the heron, of rainstorms and rivers, of ocean tides and cresting floods, of blood and gore spilled red upon the white purity of snow and the black of the raven’s wing, of rosebuds and the smell of summer grass, of the gods in their myriad forms, of the beloved dead, of the spirits of the land. I believe this World Song is what the Taoists call “The Way of Things” — both the deep, resonating essential nature of all that is, and the guide of natural harmony that shapes the world and the land around us and within us.
  • I believe in fire and water, the sacred duality that dances at the creative heart of existence, born of that numinous unity which moves through the melody of the Song of the World. Fire and water move. They are the complimentary opposites that give rise each to the other, fire licking upwards, water trickling down, one bright and one dark, one hot and one cool, one active and one receptive, yet both liminal still, embodied best in movement not in form, consuming and all-permeating, the first spinning of unity into expression but still not yet manifest. I find that my guides to understanding this sacred duality are my primary gods: Brighid, goddess of fire, sun and stars; and Manannan, god of mist, storm and sea.
  • I believe in the Three Realms of land, sea and sky, and the three Druidic elements of nwyfre, gwyar and calas (wind, water, stone; breath, blood, bone; force, flow and form). These triplicities are the dynamic manifestations of the marriage of fire and water, day and night, above and below, and all such sacred dualities. But they are not static, nor forced into a stable, permanent form — they move and turn, each arising from the others. Above, below and center. Transcendent, immanent and manifest. The in-breath, the exhalation, and the moment of stillness between. Like a three-legged stool, the stablest of all, these triplicities embody a dynamic, ever-changing stability of the natural world. And as three points define a plane, the Three Realms define the sacred space in which we live and move and have our being, while the three Druidic elements describe the processes of that life, that movement, that being-becoming dance of existence.
  • I believe that the gods (however we conceive of them), the ancestors (however we remember them) and the spirits of the land (however we experience them) all play active, meaningful roles in shaping our lives and our selves. I believe that we in turn can cultivate meaningful, mutual relationships of love and respect with them through ritual, prayer, meditation and contemplative attention, and that these relationships offer us connection and opportunities to seek to live in harmony with the World Song through intention and free will even in the face of forces that are so much bigger than we can even imagine.
  • I believe that all things are manifestations of Spirit, the Song of the World, and that all things also have spirit, unique selves which embody the myriad ways in which the world experiences and is conscious of itself. Rocks and whirlwinds possess a consciousness just as humans and house cats do, not to mention oak trees and gods and computer circuitry. This belief is generally called animism, or sometimes pantheism (though usually pantheism is a kind of non-theism that does not include a belief in individual deities). Either way, it celebrates the raven-ness of ravens and the mollusk-ness of mollusks, the utter tree-ness of a tree and the stone-ness of a stone as sacred expressions of the numinous, each with its own gift of awareness and experience to give back to the World Song.
  • I believe that living rightly and mindfully in the world requires us to cultivate an integrity of balance and harmony with all these other beings that share the world with us, and that this naturally leads us to desire lives of sustainability and ecological awareness, as well as a reverence for nature. This reverence for nature is not only a love of the wildness and wilderness of landscapes and sacred places untamed and untrammeled by the controlling machinations of humans, but also a sacred acceptance and gratitude for the essential nature of reality itself, the Way of Things, the Song of the World. This reverence for nature leads us to see that nature is, indeed, everywhere, and cannot be otherwise but everywhere, for it is the essential, inalienable quality of the world itself. And realizing this, we no longer seek to exert control over nature, but to understand it and live according to nature in all its manifestations, including our own deepest, truest natures as human animals, members of this planet Earth.
  • I believe that ritual, like poetry and art, can open us to more authentic relationship with the nature of things, the Song of the World, and all of the beings who share the world with us by engaging us in the sacred play of creativity, imagination and creation. Through ritual, we experience space and time in new ways, and discover the diversity of experience embodied in the myriad beings of the world. Through ritual, prayer, worshipful devotion and meditation, we cultivate our ability to attend to new perspectives and to connect to the beauty inherent in all things, including the beauty and meaning within ourselves.

I believe in a great many more things, but these beliefs are at the very foundation of my Druidic practice and my spiritual life.


This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project 2012.
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