Posts Tagged ‘john michael greer’


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(including movies I’ve seen this summer)

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In late Advent I returned to one of my core spiritual practices: Saying the Daily Office from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Office of Morning and Evening Prayer involves repeated exposure to Scripture; each day there are psalms, canticles, and readings appointed, a reading from the Old Testament, another from the Gospels, and a third from the rest of the New Testament, in a two-year cycle.

This week, the first Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary begins reading the book of Genesis, the Gospel of John, and the letter to the Hebrews. It will continue to read these books at least until the beginning of Lent. This is by no means the first time I have read these texts with the lectionary, but it’s been a few years since I opened either Hebrews or Genesis.

The book of Genesis is where it all begins, literally. The Hebrew title of the book, Berishith, literally means “beginnings”. It’s a book about the beginnings of the world as the ancient Hebrews understood it, about the beginnings of human culture in their part of the world, about the beginnings of their identity and history as a people. Right now Genesis is one of the two most contended books of the Bible, the other being Revelations. Stories of beginnings, stories of endings, how they should be interpreted, what they are meant to tell us–these are things the Christians are arguing about amongst themselves and with non-Christians, particularly scientists.

The last time I read all the way through Genesis, I noticed something interesting. It’s not just about the beginning of the world or the universe, not just about the beginning of the Jewish story–it’s about the beginning of storytelling. Through the course of the narrative, the narrator learns how to tell a story, in prose, with skill and artistry.

Genesis begins, of course, with the magnificent poem of the seven days of creation. This is the first reading at every Easter Vigil, the signal that as we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, everything begins anew. It is a narrative, but it is distinctly a poem, with its strong parallel structures and its repetition of certain key lines: “… and God saw that it was good…. And it was evening and it was morning, a third day.”

The early chapters of Genesis of full of what a writer might call “plot holes”, those gaps in the narrative that skeptical readers love to exploit: If Adam and Eve are the first humans and they have three children, Cain, Abel, and later Seth, then who does Cain marry? How long did the flood last, and did Noah take two of every animal, or seven of the “clean” animals and two of the “unclean”? Did he send out a raven or a dove or both? Scholars explain this as the result of multiple versions of a story being combined (clumsily) into a single tale.

The narrative hits its stride with the introduction of Abraham. The peripatetic Abraham, his wife Sarah, his kinsman Lot, and their children and dependents will occupy the rest of the book, culminating in the saga of Joseph. By the time Jacob’s other sons, desperate and hungry, meet the Egyptian official who is, unbeknownst to them, the brother they tried to get rid of decades ago, the narrator has achieved mastery of his art. He’s able to portray Joseph thinking one thing while saying another, using the Egyptian language in front of his brothers and employing an interpreter without giving away that he understands what they’re saying, and playing on the advantage that he recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. All the techniques of storytelling are in place, and the story of Joseph might just be the most sophisticated storytelling in the Tanakh.

After I had formed this theory, that Genesis is as much about the beginning of storytelling as about the beginning of the world and of the Jewish people, I read a book about Genesis that confirmed my theory, since it was a scholarly author, an expert on the book of Genesis, saying the same thing. My memory tells me that this book was called The Genesis of Narrative and was by Robert Alter; however, neither my library’s catalogue nor Amazon.com can confirm for me that Robert Alter ever wrote such a book. He is the author of The Art of Biblical Narrative and of a translation of Genesis with commentary, but I’m not certain that either of them is the book I read. (I work in a library; I read or skim a lot of books that I don’t afterward buy.)

Some years later, I read John Michael Greer’s The Druidry Handbook, which was written as first-degree study material for the Ancient Order of Druids in America. Greer covers a good deal of material which came out of the Druid Revival of the eighteenth century and makes it accessible and meaningful, demonstrating that it’s not just an elaborate forgery with a lot of Welsh names thrown in. He begins his exposition of Druid lore, appropriately, with a creation story:

Einigen the Giant, the first of all beings, beheld three rays of light descending from the heavens. Those three rays were also a word of three syllables, the true name of the god Celi, the hidden spirit of life that creates all things. In them was all the knowledge that ever was or is or will be. Beholding the rays, Einigen took three staves of rowan and carved all knowledge upon them, in letters of straight and slanted lines. But when others saw the staves, they misunderstood and worshipped the staves as gods, rather than learning the knowledge written upon them. So great was Einigen’s grief and anger at this that he burst asunder and died. When a year and a day had passed after Einigen’s death, Menw son of Teirwaedd happened on the skull of Einigen, and saw that the three rowan staves had taken root inside it and were growing out of its mouth. Taking the staves, Menw learned to read the writing on them and became famous for his wisdom. From him, the lore of the rowan staves passed to the Gwyddoniaid—the ancient loremasters of the Celts—and ultimately from them to the Druids. Thus the knowledge that had once shone forth in three great rays of light, passed through many minds and hands, now forms the wisdom of the Druid tradition.

(Greer, John Michael (2006-02-20). The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth, pp. 50-51. RedWheelWeiser – A. Kindle Edition.)

Greer refers to this story, rightly, as “the origin myth of the Druid Revival”. That is, it’s not so much about the beginning of the world as about the beginning of a movement, of how a group of people who came to identify with (what they knew about) the ancient Druids began to look to nature for meaning and to interpret that meaning in story and poem. As I see it, it’s also a story about the origins of the creative process. Einigen sees a light which is also a word, something to be heard and said. He records his experience in an act of art and craft, the carving of newly invented letters on pieces of wood. The words he carved on wood emerge from his mouth as green shoots, new words that are seen and understood by Menw. Those who saw the letters and worshipped them without trying to understand them missed the point; the point was the transmission of meaning from rays of light to letters on wood to mind and mouth, through the creative process.

I think the creation story in Genesis is also a story about the origins of creativity. And like the Druid Revival, which was after all created by men who had been formed by Christianity and the Bible’s stories, the book of Genesis locates the origins of meaning, of creativity, and of story in words. Just as God creates everything by speaking it, naming it, telling a story about it, so the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition that inherited its stories, creates meaning by telling a story. The Talmud is the record of generations of argument, discussion, and debate of those stories, an Internet forum before there was an Internet. Jewish tradition also gives us midrash, stories about the stories of the Scriptures; one story can best be commented on by another.

The lector reading or the cantor intoning the Scriptures, the old guy talking about his youth, your grandmother’s stories of when your mother was little, and we bloggers pouring our words into this digital Talmud–we create and recreate the world.

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The First Sunday of Advent was yesterday, a Christian feast that never passes without my attention. It was the feast of title of my childhood church, celebrated with as much pomp and festivity as our little parish could muster. It was also usually the season of the bishop’s visitation; I was confirmed during Advent at the tender age of nine.

I don’t think mainstream Christians are saying much lately about the Second Coming, maybe because it’s all the Evangelicals can talk about. Strangely enough, while the Gospels depict Jesus talking about the kingdom or reign of God, they don’t record his primary message as, “I’m going away, but I’ll be back and then you’ll be sorry.” I should no longer be surprised that a lot of Christian teaching, especially though not exclusively of the Evangelical variety, has nothing whatsoever to do with the plain sense of the Gospels, and yet I am.

In any case, in Advent the Church traditionally looks back to the birth of Jesus as the coming of the long-expected Messiah, looks forward to his return as the King of Glory, and looks inward to preparing for and welcoming his presence in the heart. Jesus will return as King to fix things that are broken, to put things to rights, to make sure that the world works the way God intended it to, that is, on principles of peace, justice, fairness, sharing, compassion, forgiveness. And then we shall all live happily ever after–except for those who don’t want to play fair and share their toys.

The myth of the Return of the King is deeply embedded in Western consciousness, whether as a Christian trope or not. When Tolkien’s publisher split The Lord of the Rings into three volumes, he titled the third one in a way that gave away the plot (Tolkien complained) but tapped into the archetype. It is vitally important that the rightful King be restored to the throne, so that the Free Peoples of Middle Earth can take their places around him, just as the lesser kings of Ireland took their places around the High King in the mead-hall of Tara. It is against the backdrop of that enthronement that Frodo suffers his slow decline and Sam his gradual flourishing; because King Elessar is on the throne, Sam can draw his family close and say, “I’m home”.

The Return of the King is what we are hoping for every time somebody publishes a new novel about King Arthur. There is no end of Arthurian literature, some of it focused on the history, some on the romance, some on the magic and mysticism. The BBC is currently airing its fourth series of the show Merlin, which pairs a youthful Merlin of peasant birth with a youthful Arthur who has been raised as a prince in a Camelot where magic is forbidden; he gets hid on the head a lot so that he won’t notice Merlin has just saved his life by magic, again. I am inordinately fond of this show and its extremely handsome young actors, Colin Morgan and Bradley James. There are moments when, despite being a prat much of the time, young Arthur Pendragon as played by Bradley James really does manifest the archetype of the True King, the one whose place at the center of things ensures peace, justice, and prosperity for all. The show is already hinting that the strength of Arthur’s kingship won’t be in winning battles, but in listening to people regardless of their station and bringing them together.

I love the archetype, but I don’t live in a monarchy and I don’t wish to. (Even if a monarchy looks better, some days, than the plutocratic oligarchy we actually seem to be living under in the U.S.) Nor do I think that Jesus will come back and reward a few right-thinking people and condemn everyone else to eternal punishment for short-term mistakes. In his recent book Apocalypse Not, John Michael Greer traces the myth of apocalypse back to the ancient cycle of the precession of the equinoxes, which was first observed very early in human history, and to the first man who interpreted a recurring cosmic cycle as a one-time historical even: Zoroaster, or Zarathustra. Zarathustra, a priest of the Iranian fire-religion that was very similar to the religion of the Vedas, successfully reformed that religion into a linear monotheism that looked forward to an end time, a shift in the cosmic principles that would be permanent and unceasing. Then his people, the Persians, handed on those concepts to the Jews who lived in diaspora in the Persian Empire… and the book of Daniel emerged, and the apocalypse meme propagated in Western civilization.

What’s the antidote to the apocalypse meme? How do we know that the world will *not* end at the Winter Solstice 2012, just as it did not end in May or October 2011 as predicted by Harold Camping? (Read Greer’s book: He explains why we think it might, and why it won’t.) The antidote to the apocalypse meme, I guess, is to look at cycles rather than lines. Night is always followed by day, winter by spring, sleep by waking. On this basis we speculate that as birth is followed eventually by death, death is followed somehow by rebirth. The point of sunrise slips backward against the constellations; at present it’s still creeping through the sign of Pisces, and won’t cross into Aquarius until around 2600 C.E. After Aquarius comes Capricorn, then Sagittarius, and so on, and when we work our way back to Aries, we’ll just start all over with Pisces, if any people are still here on earth to look at the sky and take notice.

In my own life I’ve started to think of spirals. IF there’s any progress in life, it’s in spirals, in circles that are not closed but a little bit open, in coming back to the same places with new experiences. I come up against the same issues over and over,  until I want to beat my head against the nearest wall, but I’m beginning to remember that neither I, nor the issues, are exactly the same each time; going around the cycle has changed me and the issues and in that knowledge there’s a chance to change further, consciously.

And now I shall leave you with this video from Penelopepiscopal of my favorite Advent hymn:


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After what seems to have been a long hiatus, I find myself in the middle of the woods, like Dante–but not Dante’s dark wood of lost purpose and mid-life confusion, rather, the light-filled, ever-changing wood of druidry. (With perhaps a bit of lost purpose and mid-life confusion thrown in.)

It was almost four years ago that I gained the rank of Druid Apprentice in AODA, but I haven’t gotten far with any attempts to gain the second degree of Druid Companion. Why is that? I’m not sure. Part of me, looking at my current experience with learning and practicing yoga, would like to say, “Because you thought the requirements were too hard, you wuss.” The degree requirements in AODA are hard, in a way; they don’t give you easy answers, or a form to fill out, or even a checklist of things to read and do every day. You have to build your own structure of study, meditation, and practice.

It was that very openness and flexibility that drew me to the Order in the first place. I think I’m ready now to toughen up and approach those (new! improved! well, recently revised) Second Degree requirements. If I can do Downward-Facing Dog, I can do anything, right?

My first task is to pick up the work of the First Degree curriculum where I left off. This includes regular contact with nature, urban nature in my case; meditation on druidic topics, for which I’ll be going back to our Grand ArchDruid’s excellent book The Druidry Handbook; getting into daily yoga as my movement meditation; resuming a daily ogham divination; and celebrating Lughnasad, the upcoming holy day.

There’s another, recently published book on druidry that is proving to be a big help in finding my way through the forest again: The Path of Druidry by Penny Billington. Billington is a Brit and a member of OBOD who takes a wonderfully practical, practice-based approach to druidry. Each chapter has three different types of activities: exploring nature, studying and doing inner visioning, and creating relationship, which Billington relates to Dion Fortune’s principle of the Three Rays of nature mysticism, occult knowledge, and spiritual devotion.

Once I feel like I have a stable druid practice again, I can look into the requirements of the Companion degree afresh, both the older and the newer versions, and see what it is I really want to pursue.

I’ve tried being a Tibetan Buddhist. I didn’t find a permanent home there, but I learned a tremendous amount, and it has permanently changed my outlook. I was shaped by the Episcopal Church as a child, and there are still many things I love about Anglicanism that are important to my druidry, but I’ve realized that, as the famous novel tells us, you can’t go home again. Strangely enough, it is druidry that seems to me to be the most grounded in the here and now, in my actual life as it’s lived, of any religion or practice I’ve tried. Not an imagined or reconstructed druidry of the ancient Celts, but a revival druidry constructed and elaborated for the last three hundred years by people living in an increasingly urban and industrialized Western society, with the dual history of Christianity and Classical Paganism behind them as well as the mysterious history written in megalithic monuments and magical legends. It has room for yoga and Buddhism and stories about Jesus and stories about King Arthur and everything I seem to want to have in my spiritual life. And it comes from my people, people like me–those eighteenth-century eccentrics who looked at traditions that their culture had pushed aside.

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Seven books a month seems to be my average reading pace–not quite two books a week.

The UFO Phenomenon by John Michael Greer: I’m not sure what to say about this book. Greer is one of the best occult writers out there, a solid researcher who checks his facts as well as one of the very few writers who can describe clearly and usefully how a magical procedure is carried out. Even an obvious “potboiler” like this is worth checking out, and a book like A World Full of Gods, on polytheism as a worldview, ought to be a classic of neopagan literature. After reading this book, however, I felt oddly cheated, as if I’d been promised one thing and delivered another. I can’t fault Greer’s conclusions about the UFO movement, but when peak oil and global warming showed up in the last chapter, as they have in the last chapters of several of his books that ostensibly weren’t on those subjects… was it Cato who used to end every speech, no matter what the topic, with, “And in conclusion, Carthage must be destroyed”?

Lucifer v. 7: Exodus: Continuing to follow this myth-bending comic series with interest and pleasure. I still have four or five volumes to go.

Teachings of the Earth: Zen and the Environment by John Daido Loori: Daido Loori’s books have been very helpful to me lately, inspiring, thought-provoking, moving. I found this little book the most difficult of his works so far, but I’m sure it will reward re-reading.

The Pocket Tibetan Buddhism Reader, ed. by Reginald Ray (r): A handy little collection of extracts on basic Tibetan Buddhist concepts, mostly from lamas who flourished in the last century or are still alive. It’s a good thing to carry around and re-visit from time to time.

Dead until Dark by Charlaine Harris: I keep saying I don’t like vampires, vampires are boring, and then finding exceptions to my rule. The first five seasons of Buffy were one exception, and prolific Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels are another. Sookie Stackhouse, cocktail waitress in a small Louisiana town, has been hoping a vampire will visit the bar where she works, now that they have “come out of the coffin” and admitted their existence; she has no idea how complicated her life will get when her wish comes true.

Just after Sunset by Stephen King: Stevie proves he can still bring the scary with this collection of short stories. I read the whole collection in two days, mesmerized. “Stationary Bike” stands out in my mind as one of the best stories of the collection, a brilliant example of King’s ability to twist the fabric of reality until it’s almost but not quite unrecognizable, while “A Very Tight Place” shows that he can still gross you out and make you laugh at the same time.

The Way of the Bodhisattva
by Shantideva, tr. by the Padmakara Translation Group: Shantideva is the Thomas Aquinas of Mahayana, a brilliant philosopher and codifier who was long mistaken for a useless good-for-nothing. His Bodhicaryavatara, also known as the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, is one of the great texts of Mahayana Buddhism, a prolonged poetic meditation on the paramitas or transcendent virtues which characterize the path of the bodhisattva, who seeks enlightenment in order to help others do the same. It’s a beautiful and inspiring work, and I enjoyed reading it, even if the chapter on wisdom was totally beyond me–it was beyond the translators, too, they said as much in the notes.

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