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Posts Tagged ‘Religion and Spirituality’

I had a strange Lent and an even stranger Holy Week. While I last posted on Holy Saturday, nearly a month ago, the only Holy Week liturgies I attended were Palm Sunday and Good Friday. For the former, I was the narrator for the dramatic reading of Matthew’s Passion Gospel; for the latter, I went to the little parish where I grew up for a taste of old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic religion.

And then I woke up one day and realized that I no longer believed in what was in the Creeds. Actually, it was probably in the shower. I realize a lot of things in the shower. If I actually believed that other gods existed–which I did, and possibly always had–if I actually believed I could pray to Antinous, a deified Greek youth, and get a response–which I definitely did, and had–then I really was not a Christian.

I still believe Jesus was a historical person who lived and died and was resurrected, becoming divine even if he wasn’t pre-existently divine. I believe he was and is a God on the side of the poor, the occupied, the oppressed, the disenfranchised. It’s just that he and I really don’t have much of a relationship. I don’t think we ever have.

My relationship has always been with the tradition, with Anglicanism, with saints like Julian of Norwich, with the music of Byrd and Tallis, with poetry like Donne’s and Herbert’s, with writers like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams. Not, ironically, with the God who inspired them.

I’ve been praying and making offerings to Antinous and observing the festivals of the Ekklesía Antínoou for about the last month, with a good deal of personal satisfaction. I’ve started a side Tumblr where I’ve been writing about my experiments with devotional polytheism, Antinous for Everybody. I will still be posting here and hanging out on other WordPress blogs, though.

I feel like I have suffered a lot of losses in the past two years. Yet that has left me extraordinarily free to pursue my religious and creative aims. And I have been blessed with a stable job, good friends, and the company of my pet cockatiel Rembrandt, aka Spanky. It’s a good life.

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From the website of my parish, Emmanuel Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore, Maryland:

We understand that the life of faith, and life in general, is filled with both hope and skepticism.  For that reason we want our communal life at Emmanuel to be honest and provocative. Services and sermons are rooted both in tradition and in the real world, the spirit is joyful and fun, and the congregation is warm and welcoming.  We believe our spiritual life is marked by the following characteristics.

Liturgical/Biblical. Anglican spirituality is rooted in communal daily prayer (Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayers, Evening Prayer, Compline) as laid out in The Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican way of praying tends to have structure and to be shaped by the Scriptures and a prayerful meditation on the psalms.

Communal.  Communal prayer comes before and shapes personal prayer. Prayer is seen as an activity that connects us to God, to each other, and to the world around us. Communal prayer is part of daily, weekly and yearly rhythms and both surrounds and informs community gatherings and meetings in which decisions are made.

Sacramental. We see the world, itself, as sacramental and therefore capable of mediating the grace of God. We are centered on the two primary sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist along with other sacraments: confirmation, holy matrimony, reconciliation, unction, and ordination.

Incarnational. We emphasize the incarnation, God’s entry into human life and history. Accordingly,  we have an earthy spirituality that affirms the goodness of life and the created world and believes that the extraordinary is to be found in the ordinary.

Mystical. We experience union with God as happening over time, bit by bit through a journey aided by spiritual discipline and prayer. Such a belief is consistent with the description of spiritual progress found in the mystics.

Comprehensive. We believe that truth is to be found in the tension between opposites. We therefore affirm both the sacred and the secular, the material and the non-material, the mind and the heart, the transcendent and the intimate closeness of God.

Ambiguous. We are not “black and white” thinkers, but instead affirm the ambiguity of experience and the value of learning to tolerate and embrace complexity and ambiguity in many aspects of human life and in the spiritual journey.

Open-minded. We are people of a questioning faith. We search for wisdom in many places and encourage people to listen to each other and to bring their honest questions to their spiritual life.

Intuitive. We are at home in the world of image, symbol, myth, ritual, and the arts. Very few Anglicans write systematic theologies. Instead we are writers, poets, pastors, and musicians.

Aesthetic. We believe that beauty is a doorway to truth and goodness and therefore a doorway to God.

Moderate. We avoid extremes, believing that a godly life is one that is disciplined, balanced and temperate.

Naturalistic. We have a reverence for nature and its rhythms. Anglicans believe in working to protect the natural world and its creatures.

Political. We believe that Christian life has political implications and that civic life is both a legitimate and important place to struggle with and engage our faith and values.

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I recently began to read, for the first time, The Cloud of Unknowing, a famous fourteenth-century English text on contemplative prayer. As a sort of meditation on the text, I’m going to be posting it here, using a public-domain translation by Evelyn Underhill from Christian Classics Ethereal Library and editing it into sense-lines for easier reading. I don’t know how often I’ll be posting; if I actually post one excerpt more or less daily until I finish the book, I’ll have done really well.

Herewith, the beginning of The Cloud of Unknowing:

Here beginneth a book of contemplation,
the which is called the CLOUD OF UNKNOWING,
in the which a soul is oned with GOD.

Here Beginneth the Prayer on the Prologue

GOD, unto whom all hearts be open,
and unto whom all will speaketh,
and unto whom no privy thing is hid:
I beseech Thee
so for to cleanse the intent of mine heart
with the unspeakable gift of Thy grace,
that I may perfectly love Thee,
and worthily praise Thee.
Amen.

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The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word for choice. A heretic, according to the Christians who considered themselves Catholic and Orthodox, was someone who didn’t accept the whole body of Christian faith and doctrine, who didn’t take the system as a whole; they chose bits they liked, according to their own lights, rejected what they didn’t like, made up bits to fill in the gaps. They were somewhere between the “cafeteria Catholic” who agrees with the magisterium on the rights of workers but not on the sinfulness of homosexuality and the New Age self-help guru who invents a system that will make him money and win him followers, especially attractive, available female followers.

Not that one has to agree with this characterization of much of the early Christian movement. Definitions, as well as histories, are written by the victors.

What has caught my attention over the past couple of days, however, is the necessity for a kind of picking and choosing in one’s spiritual life that is not heresy, just accepting human limitations. It’s the same sort of picking and choosing that a poet does in order to write a sestina, which requires a pattern of six words shifting in position across six stanzas of six lines each. The poet has to choose six words on which the changes of the poem will be rung. It’s a highly complex form of a game all humans, until recently, have known how to play, the game at the root of all games: Limitation for the Sake of Freedom.

I have come back to the Church, specifically the Episcopal Church, and to Christianity generally, after some ten years of experimenting with alternatives. I would be lying if I said that I have not learned a great deal from exploring Tibetan Buddhism, ceremonial magic, Wicca, Druidry, and various kinds of Neopaganism. I have, and I’m starting to see how much of what I’ve learned can illuminate the tradition I grew up with and have come home to. But on a practical level, I can’t really be a Wiccan-Buddhist-Anglican-Druid-Magician (with a full-time day job), any more than you can write a sestina with ten key words instead of six. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and besides, I’d be evading the rules of the game.

The game of limitation says that a sonnet has fourteen lines, a sestina six key words, a musical scale eight notes, four bases on the diamond, no touching the ball with your hands. If you don’t accept the seemingly arbitrary limitations, you aren’t playing the game. And the object of the game is to see what you can do within the limitations. Think of Shakespeare, Mozart, and your own personal heroes in the arts or sport or science and what they did with freely accepted limitations like blank verse, sonnet form, and the Western musical scale. On the other hand, anyone with a minimum competence can pick up those rules and play with them, write poems, compose songs, practice shooting hoops.

I can view being an Episcopalian, an Anglican Christian in the U.S.A., as a happenstance derived from my place and time of birth and the events of my childhood, or I can view it as a freely accepted creative limitation. Within that structure, I can dabble in all manner of theory and practice across the spectrum of Christian tradition–labyrinths or Ignatian meditation, centering prayer and the Rosary, the Rhineland mystics, the desert fathers and mothers, Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton–or I can accept another creative limitation. I can accept that I don’t have time, energy, or brain cells to learn everything there is to know about every Christian tradition and practice, and I can stick to those that have resonated with me consistently for decades: The Showings of Julian of Norwich. The Rule of St. Benedict. The medieval mystics of England, Julian’s contemporaries, such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Saying the Daily Office. Keeping a journal as a form of meditation. Writing in general, fiction, poetry, journal, or public blogging, as a form of meditation, digestion, lectio divina.

I shall string up my net across the court, pick up my racket, and wait for God to serve the ball.

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I’ve renewed my membership with Ar nDraiocht Fein and am looking again at the Dedicant Path program. I have Michael Dangler’s helpful book that lays out the requirements over a full year.

I’ve enrolled in the Bardic grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’ve only wanted to do their study course, which is how one becomes a member, for about twenty years. I stopped telling myself I couldn’t afford it.

Today I took the three pictures of Antinous that I printed off from the ‘net weeks ago and mounted them neatly on a piece of cardboard to form a triptych. An artist friend of mine took me shopping yesterday for appropriate materials and gave me some tips on how to safely cut heavy cardboard with a knife.

And, not least, I purchased a nice fleece robe to wear around the house and a bottle of Mrs. Stuart’s Bluing for Whiteness so I can rehabilitate the white robe that I originally bought for druid work and have something else suitable to wear when I’m chilly. I hope the bluing works on the tea stains.

Wish me luck.

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“The holidays are upon us,” I keep hearing, meaning Thanksgiving-and-Christmas, the season of spending large amounts of money on friends and family to prove our love for them and eating large amounts of food which we will be called upon to ritually repent in January.

“The holidays” are upon us, if I believe the advertising I see and hear, the jolly red-and-white covers of December issues of magazines that I check in at work, splashed with candy canes and cake recipes, and we are expected to rejoice. As for me, I’m always grumpy and refractory, this time of year. It’s still November and I’m thinking about the dead–my Aunt Margaret, whose birthday was yesterday; my father-in-law, whom I ought to pray to and for more often; my mother, dead 26 years on the 22d, who still in many ways haunts my life.

And I’m thinking about Advent, about apocalypse stories, about the Rapture and the great zombie takeover and what the Mayans did or did not predict. Just for the record, I don’t think they or anyone else predicted the End of the World on 21 December 2012. I definitely don’t think Jesus is coming at any minute to waft away all the True Believers and punish the rest of us with gruesome special effects. As for the zombies, well, we are the zombies, aren’t we? Mindless consumers who will eat everything in sight until there is nothing left, and we eat one another, and die off.

Well.

But it might just be the late-afternoon, early winter light making me feel this way, right at the moment. Remembering the beloved dead is not necessarily a sad thing. It’s remembering the not-so-beloved dead, like my mother and our problematic relationship, that is hard. And for an introvert like myself, the over-cultural exhortations to cook, eat, buy presents, spend money, drink egg nog, ho ho ho, ha ha ha, always make me want to lock myself in a dim room and listen to austere Gregorian chant until it all goes away. That doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to the Thanksgiving meal with family, or to exchanging gifts with those I love. It just means I want to do so in my time, not at the corporate world’s demand.

Long-term readers of this blog (if there are any–one or two) are no doubt used to my vacillating between religious labels: Am I a Druid, an Anglican, a Buddhist, or something else? Is there anything I haven’t tried and found wanting? Maybe I, myself, have been tried and found wanting, by the gods or the egregores of a tradition or at least by my readers. I was raised an Episcopalian, and I will probably always be able to quote the Prayerbook and sing hymns from the Hymnal 1940 with gusto. But the Christian tradition that in large measure formed my spirituality has done a lot in the past ten years or so to kill my love and admiration for it. Granted, it’s been helped along by the atrocities of a number of other Christian traditions–the Roman Catholic hierarchy protecting its pedophile priests, the right-wing Evangelical Protestants in the U.S. doing their best to control female sexuality and reproduction throughout the population–but I cannot hold the Anglican Communion blameless any more.

Nor can I ignore the fact that I just don’t believe any more. I don’t believe or accept many points of Christian doctrine, as a description of reality. I don’t believe in, trust, have any significant relationship with Jesus. Jesus makes most sense to me now as a buddha or bodhisattva, a fully enlightened human being, a teacher of wisdom and compassion who, like Amitabha or Padmasambhava, has his own pure land, the heaven he offers his followers.

I have failed to find a place in Druidry, or to make a druidry for myself. Nobody can say that I haven’t tried, but Druidry has been for me a very beautiful, very attractive garment, in all my favorite colors, that just Does. Not. Fit, no matter how much I squirm or fuss. It is a cloak I cannot wear, a house I cannot live in, no matter how much I like and admire those who can wear the druid cloak and live in the druid grove.

Buddhism continues to provide me with invaluable perspective on managing my mind, on the purpose of spiritual work, on ethical questions, on how the scattered branches of the Western tradition, like the scattered limbs of Osiris, might fit together again into a living whole. Yet it remains a school of practice that is not for me, perhaps because of its cultural contexts, perhaps for more individual reasons. I’m not certain I agree with Dion Fortune‘s dictum that Western people must follow Western paths, but it does seem to me that Westerners who genuinely “convert” to Buddhism, for lack of a better word than “convert”, often come from a background in which there was no significant religious commitment, a secular Jewishness, for example, or a twice-a-year mainstream Protestantism, not from deeply committed practice in a Western tradition.

So where does that leave me? Actually, despite my gloomy start to this entry, I am not left alone in the cold, dark winter night of an atheistic existence. (Getting dark where I am, at the moment, but not terribly cold or wintry.) I still have my training in the New Hermetics, otherwise known as That Thing I Tried And I Finished The Whole Course And It Worked Really Well For Me. I also have, unexpectedly, a new devotion–to Antinous, the Bithynian Boy, the beloved of the Roman Emperor Hadrian who was deified, in accordance with ancient Egyptian tradition, when he drowned in the Nile.

There are a lot of interesting connections between Antinous, Hermetic magic, and stuff in my life, which I think I should save for another post. As I contemplate that, I’ll also be contemplating whether to change the name of this blog, or start a new one, or just muddle on with the name recognition of “Confessions of an Urban Druid” while I blog about magic, Antinous, and my media intake. Cheers.

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I was a member of the Ancient Order of Druids in America for over five years. I attained the First Degree of three. I sweated and procrastinated and flailed a long time, wondering why I couldn’t get myself organized to study for Second Degree. I am no longer a member of the Order.

I have been a member of Ar nDraoicht Fein for a year three or four different times. I procrastinated and flailed some more, wondering why I never got my feet on the street and went to one of their High Day rituals, seeing as they had a permanent grove location not far off a convenient bus route. I’m not a member of ADF any more.

I’ve wanted for two decades to join the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, but joining means subscribing to their correspondence course, and I’ve always been put off by the cost.

I have books I treasure by members of AODA, ADF, and OBOD. My druid practice looks like the unlikely offspring of AODA and ADF as reared in the forest like Percival by OBOD. I am grateful for all that I have learned from these disparate organizations and their traditions. But I practice alone.

Maybe that was the idea all along. Maybe I should have known. Ever since I discovered Julian of Norwich in my late teens, I’ve dreamt of the solitary religious life. I have often thought that if I hadn’t met my husband at the right time, I might have become a nun, or that if he died suddenly, I might enter celibate religious life rather than looking for another spouse.

I’m not so sure about that any more, but I am finally sure of this: I am a druid, and I am a solitary. I do best practicing alone, following my own path through the forest. Perhaps others will come behind me and use the path that I have cleared; if not, I know that when I return from my grove to the town, the fruits of my practice will be the gifts I have to give the world.

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