Monday, January 23, 2012

some of my pagan, shamanistic practices

in 1993 i read tom cowan's a fire in the head.* i was just beginning to explore 'celtic spirituality', with my only guide 'til then being mostly bede's ecclesiastical history, with its stirring hagiographies of the celtic saints whom he, great romanizer that he was, clearly admired. i was a little surprised this past summer to visit a friend who had a copy and who reminded me that i had recommended it to him a few years ago. most recently it has been his 1998 book, the way of the saints,** which has represented mr. cowan on my reading stand. but i reread some of a fire and found it as provocative as it had been 19 years ago, and decided to give a look to his shamanism as a spiritual practice for daily life,*** a book published just two years before the saints.

i have during the past twenty years become fairly well acquainted with most of the controversies and questions around 'celtic spirituality' and 'celtic christianity' and the 'celtic church.' many of them center on texts. there are those who deny that there was or is such a thing as 'celtic christianity' because after all the celts used almost exactly the same missal and breviary as the rest of the church in europe. while it is true that a lot of the new age neo-celtic folk are unaware of what that mass is like, and would probably be more or less appalled by it, the statement seems correct. at the same time i think the scholars who focus on the words used miss most of the spiritual life.

after what has come to be called 'the elizabethan settlement' in 1559 all of england, and the english church in her colonies, used the same book of common prayer. but it was used with a wide variety of practices and ceremonies. the physicality of the cross-vigil, in which a monk would pray the whole psalter with his (or a nun with her) arms held out in the form of a cross, beginning with blessing the four directions, has parallels and perhaps antecedents in the eastern church, but was probably rare in france and italy. praying while immersed in a stream or even the ocean seems a bit extreme to many of us. (i think i could do it if i still lived in charleston.) and animal companions, even if not called by the new-age term power animals, are common to celtic christianity and orthodox christianity, but they do sometimes show up in italy, more or less, as illustrated perhaps by st. francis and the wolf of gubbio. (although some contemporary 'scholars' want the wolf to be a voracious politician rather than a real wolf, the contemporary acceptable world having been reduced to economics and politics.)

cowan in shamanism says of a practice that it is 'quite simply something that one does.' (p. 16) so i thought this evening i might consider some of my practices that i find orthodox but at the same time pagan, with no apologies to either camp. as the sun approached the horizon, i went out to the field near my little cell and made an offering of tobacco in the form of a cigarette with the words of psalm 140 (141):

'Lord, I call upon thee; hast thee unto me, and consider my voice when I cry unto thee.

Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense; and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice. . . . "

then, as the light of the sun faded, i went inside and lit the candles with the hymn

'O gracious light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in Heaven;

O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed,

As our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing thy praises . . . .'

and when i put out the candles tonight, i will say my own little version of a snorring prayer:

'blessed art thou o lord our god, who created the night and the day:

may we come to share in the inheritance of all thy saints, especially st. chad,

and may the darkness of this night be fruitful, through the prayers of the blessed thetokos,

mary, the mother of thy son, who ever lives and reigns with thee and the holy ghost, one god,

unto the ages of ages.'

these little acts are practices, and and i don't think they are too unorthodox. but are they shamanistic? cowan says in shamanism that 'shamanism is the intentional effort to develop intimate and lasting relationships with personal helping spirits by consciously leaving ordinary reality and journeying into the nonordinary realms of the spirit world.' (p. 2) what could be more shamanistic by this definition than the communion of the saints, saints being in cowan's words 'men and women who have never disappeared.' (way, p. 1). to live in the communion of the saints is to develop intimate and lasting relationships with those men and women who constantly remind us that a nonordinary realm, the realm of the kingdom of heaven, is at hand.

now, it may be that cowan is wrong about shamaism, and i am wrong about orthodoxy, and that to be orthodox i must say these words in latin. (although of course a strong argument could be made that the language of heaven is hebrew, or at least greek.) but for now i find my little practice keeps me in touch with the spiral of time that is perhaps only meaningful when it is seen as a doorway into the apprehension of eternity. and i see it as a reminder of the words of the gospel according to john, the gospel most precious to the celts, that 'the light [which] shineth in the darkness . . . was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.'

Saturday, January 7, 2012

the theophany: water and the spirit

i confess i am addicted to post-apocalyptic-wasteland movies, perhaps because they seem so contemporary. the insane race of mad max continues on highway 101 all the way from port angeles, washington, to east los angeles, california. i find that a wonderful irony. roger corman is one of my favourite directer of b movies, and i remember one of his b or c p-a-w works in which everyone had been changed into zombies by drinking too many skinny decaf vanilla lates except one old man, his daugher, and her boyfriend. girl and boy have the task of repopulating the world, but first the zombies must be exorcised. how? the girl discovers that they are afraid of water. standing in the holy water of a stream in their surviving suburb, they are safe.

it is a common theme of folklore that evil spirits cannot cross running water. but it is also a common theme of folklore that something has happened, that the waters have somehow been bewitched (think the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, or genesis, with its garden, now lost, once watered by a river which became four.) what happens when the waters that were seen to be good in creation are fouled, when they no longer dispel evil although the bottle containing them is marked holy water (think the exorcist--but not for too long.)?

older than the celebration of christmas, the feast of the nativity, is the feast of the epiphany, or theophany. indeed the beginning our salvation is, in the liturgy of the church, marked by the annunciation to mary, the conception of the messiah, as the ancient hymn for that day notes:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
"Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!"

again, the dangers and possibilities of the unborn child is common in folklore, with celtic tales especially aboundin with stories of pregnant women being sent to their death but who are rescued by some miracle, usually involving fish or animals.

but the mighty act of the holy one which began in the virgin's womb is hidden. even after the birth, only a few foreigners, some shepherds--not in ancient palestine a very respected folk--and two old people who were at death's door knew what had happened.

and then: behold! god the son enters into the waters, the voice of god the father is heard from heaven, and god the holy spirit descends like a dove. the restoration of the original goodness of creation has begun, the synergistic work, if i may be allowed a bit of theological jargon, of god and man in the person of the god-man jesus christ.

the waters of death become the waters of life. quickly this understanding of our own baptism becomes part of the tradition of the church (think paul's letter to the romans, chapter 6). and in a sort of parallel image, the church becomes a ship which carries us across the waters, no longer story but calmed at the command of the god-man.

there are so many parallels to this story in folklore, again especially celtic folklore, that i cannot begin to consider them in a blogpost. i will leave you with just one, and it is one of my favourites, connected as it is with the origins of christianity in britain. it is the holy isle of avilon, hidden in the mists, surrounded by the lake presided over by the lady, and visible only to those who have died to the ways of the common world, and initiated into the kingdom of heaven, the land of the apple tree.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

circumcision: what's in a name

i have a friend in seminary who is a recent 'convert' to 'the big church'. he grew up a baptist, more or less, and is now being trained in the best post-modern, post-vatican ii, post-bultmann way. while there is much emphasis on 'relevance' to 'contemporary culture' there is very little emphasis on the liturgy as a repository of wisdom. he reported to me with some amusement that in the old hymnals there were hymns for circumcisions. he thought they were for the actual surgical event rather than for the feast of the circumcision of jesus. nowadays of course much of the western church has 'suppressed' that feast and replaced it with either a feast of the holy name or a feast of the mother of god. how was he to know?

we have just come through the darkest period of the year, a darkness which is said in the gospel to be the environment of the true light, which comes into the world at christmas, the nativity of christ. in the christian understanding of history, this incarnation of god the son is the pivotal event of the cosmos, and it is surrounded with a period of preparation--the western church's advent season and the orthodox nativity fast--and smaller feasts that expand on its importance.

it is, i think, helpful to look at this darkest period of the year in a way that goes beyond 'the shortest days' if we are to understand what is at stake. at no other time of the year are the forces of darkness, the forces of evil, working harder. in our 'contemporary culture' these forces take the form primarily of consumerism disguised as 'gift-giving', and are surrounded by great displays of electric lighting which give the illusion that the darkness has comprehended the light. satan comes once again disguised as an angel of light.

the best gift-giving after all recognizes the true potential of the recipient. the wise men brought gifts that were not 'useful' for a new-born, such as disposable diapers and baby lotion, but gifts that recognized him as the king of the world, who would die for his kingdom. i'm not sure what wii games recognize in our youngsters, but it does not seem to be something that develops their highest potential.

and our acceptance of 'artificial light' at all times in all places seems mostly to blind us to the uncreated light rather than illumine us in any way. it is, isaiah reminds us, the people who walk in darkness who have seen the great light. it's very hard at this time of the year to find a dark place to walk. the star followed by the magi has to compete in the sky with the glare of las vegas.

and the idea that sacrifice--especially blood sacrifice--is necessary for true enlightenment is entirely out-of-synch with the new happy-happy-joy-joy worship centers that have been built in the fast half-century, with a 'holy table' replacing the altar, the theology of the feeding of the 5,000 replacing the theology of the upper room.

but the background of all our solstice celebrations seems to have been a sacrifice, either of the king himself or of one of his children. we see remnants of this, suggest scholars such as shirley toulson*, in the festival of santa lucia, in the wild hunt of the norsemen which became tamed as our visit from father christmas, or the hunt for the wren. the church kept this understanding in a variety of ways, starting with the christ mass itself, the mass being understood as a sacrifice. then come the feast of st. stephen, who is credited as the first martyr, the first to witness with his death, and the feast of st. john, who alone of the apostles was able to escape martyrdom because he had not shunned the death of his master by crucifixion, and the feast of the holy innocents, in which the false king herod is ready to shed the blood of children in a vain effort to preserve his own life.

the octave of the christ-mass is the feast of the circumcision. (octaves have also been suppressed in the post-vatican ii church. but the idea is no less helpful, even if, or perhaps even more so, because, it is pythagorean. a vibration is repeated, resonates, at a higher frequency, the octave.) and so on the eighth day of his life, a jewish boy is circumcised, as a witness to the covenant between the holy one and the children of abraham, a covenant which is for the blessing of the whole world. the church sees that covenant as fulfilled with the circumcision of jesus, and a new covenant established with the greater sacrifice of his blood in the crucifixion.

none of this bloody stuff goes down well with our euphamistic 'christmas is for children' avoidance of the real stakes of the invisible struggle going on all around us. (although we don't shy away from shedding the blood of those who oppose our kingship over their oil, and we sacrifice our children in that war.) our pretence that there is no struggle will not make it go away, it rather encourages us to to think we can avoid taking sides.

yet we do know the struggle is going on. the vast popularity of the lord of the rings and of harry potter is evidence that our children do not believe us when we tell them everything is getting better. i have been intrigued by the controversies surrounding these books. critics of the potter books especially seem upset that they do not explicitly seem 'christian'. but the coming of the light into the world is bigger than our creeds--and i say this as someone who firmly believes the symbols of the faith. if we deny the riches of the traditions, whether they are the traditions of the one holy catholic and apostolic church or, the traditions of our grandfathers, even when we don't 'understand' them, then we should not be surprised when the traditions pop up somewhere else.

indeed the next big feast of the church, the epiphany, or theophany, centers around the baptism of jesus, by which all of the waters of the earth are made new, made part of the streams of living waters that proceed from the throne of the holy one. thinking about that puts our treatment of those rivers in a much bigger context. but that, as it is said, is a story for another night.

*shirley toulson. the winter solstice (london: jill normal & hobhouse, 1981).

Friday, December 23, 2011

a wealth of images

chanukkah. the consecration of the temple. the entrance of mary into the temple. the glory of the lord. the birth of the king. shepherds abiding in the field.

all of those images belong to this time of the year, and they are related in ways we don't always remember, but which are important if we are to understand how it is that the birth of jesus is the fulfillment of the desire of the nations.

most of the time we don't make much of the coincidence of chanukkah and christmas, except that they both somehow involve light and giving of gifts. (i had jewish friends as i was growing up whose families had chanukkah bushes.) nor are we, as christians at least, much aware that the word chanukkah is a pun on dedication, or that the festival is mentioned in the gospel according to john (10:22ff.) where curiously enough considering the story luke will include in his birth narrative, jesus talks about sheep.

chanukkah is the feast of the rededication of the temple during the maccabean revolt in the second century b.c. the books of maccabees did not become part of the jewish canon of scriptures as it was codified in the centuries following the destruction of jerusalem in a.d. 70, but they remain in the canon of the church, providing a fascinating background to the incarnation, and to the charges against jesus at his trial, for saying that he will tear down the temple and rebuild it. the story in 1 maccabees (4:36ff.), although it is the setting for the miracle of eight days of rejoicing, does not mention the talmud's story of the miracle of the small cruse of oil that kept the lights burning throughout the ritual that is the basis for the current celebration. but for my purposes, there is another thing missing, even more important.

when the first temple was dedicated, by solomon, 'the glory of the lord filled the lord's temple.' (i kings 8:11) there is no such event connected with the second temple, either at its first consecration, described in the book of ezra (6:3ff.), at the behest of kind darius of persia, nor at its rededication at the behest of judas maccabeus.

but the temple and its ceremony and centrality remained important in jewish understanding of their identity and their relationship to god, something it is vital to consider if we are to understand 'the christmas story.' jesus would replace the stones of the physical temple, the very stones, probably, thrown at him on his dedication visit to the temple, with living stones. the church would suggest that the first of those stones was his mother, the virgin mary, whose womb became a temple larger than the universe. and the imagery of the coming of the holy spirit in the book of acts is parallen to the description of the dedication of solomon's temple and of isaiah's and ezekiel's visions of the glory of the holy one. but before luke tells that story, he had another story of the glory of the lord.

it begins 'and there were shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. and, lor, the angel of the lord came upon them, and the glory of the lord shone round about them . . . .' the king born in the stable is the legitimate king. the temple he builds will house the glory of the holy one. darius, judas maccabeus, herod, all are impostors.

and now, the glory of the lord is not contained in a building made with hands, a problem solomon had understood when he built the prophetic temple. but the glory of the lord can dwell (tabernacle, as john would say in his gospel, relating again to the presence in the temple and in the tent of meeting) in open fields with shepherds and, most importantly, in the human heart, where mary, luke informs us, pondered these things.

after the destruction of jerusalem, christians, whether jews or now, spread into the world, as did jews, christians or not, all sent to be witnesses to 'the light which cometh into the world', whether understood as having happened or still longed for.

so, one of the mitzvahs of the hanukkah lights that is often not appreciated enough is that they are lights for the whole world. they are not to light the house--for that there is the shamash, the helper or servant. they are to witness to the miracle, and to be an object for pondering, for meditation. they are often put in windows, or at the door opposite the mezuzah.

and so it is with the christ, the newborn king. "he is a light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people israel."

or as isaiah foretold it: ' and the glory of the lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the lord hath spoken it. '

Monday, December 12, 2011

the woman clothed with the sun: our lady of guadalupe

'and there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of seven stars . . . '

as i write, one of those candles in a glass tube one finds in the mexican food section of supermarkets, with a paper icon of the virgen del guadalupe on one side, and prayers to her in spanish and english on the other side, is burning before the icons of my sleeping loft, icons of my patron st. chad, a saxon who was trained by the celtic abbot aidan and who came to be consecrated bishop of mercia--the welsh marches--by the roman-appointed archbishop of canterbury from tarsus, and of ezekiel, the hebrew prophet and priest who wrote in exile in chaldea.

the twelth of december is the feast day of our lady of guadalupe, commemorating the appearance in 1531 of a young girl to the peasant juan diego, to whom she spoke in his native languge, nahuatl, that a church should be built in her honor on the hill of tepeyac.  he told the story to his bishop, who suggested his story would be more convincing if there were some proof from the mysterious virgin, so juan diego returned to the hill.  the young woman, in deep winter, brought castilian roses into bloom from the dry desert soil, filling juan's cloak.  when he returned to the bishop and opened his cloak, the flowers fell out and in their place on the cloak, the tilpa which is still the center of the shrine to the virgen in what is now mexico city, was the image which is now the symbol of mexico and known in nearly every catholic parish in the world.

as so often happened, franciscans, in charge of the church that had been built on the spot of an ancient native  shrine to tonantzin, opposed accepting juan diego's claim, but the dominicans supported the aztec veneration of this image and understanding of our lady.  the archbishop, alonzo du montafar, himself a dominican, agreed to the veneration, gave the site to the keeping of the domincans, and called for the building of a larger church.  greater acclaim would follow.  in 1754, benedict xiv would declare the virgin of guadalupe the patron of new spain, pius x made her patron of latin america in 1910, and in 1945 pius xii would declare her patroness of all the americas.

it was only when i came to live in santa fe in 1989 that i began to understand the significance of the virgin of guadalupe. it was not primarily because of the great devotion to her there.  (the photograph above is of the new statue--some of my more protestant friends might call it an idol--of her outside the santuario de guadalupe, said to be the oldest shrine to her in north america.)  it was because in santa fe, where the valley of the river that gives life to the city seems itself like labial folds, a resonance made famous in georgia o'keefe's flower paintings, that i began to appreciate the importance of the mother.  it was there that i forgave my mother for what had seemed to me to be mistreatment of my brothers.  it was in santa fe that i began to appreciate the necessity of the virgin's willing partcipation in the salvation of the world, and there that i started my exploration of the many ways the virgin has come to be known to us.

when i moved to eureka springs the virgin of the life giving spring came into my life.  although eureka springs for the most part is a town given to the greed of selling t-shirts and 'lite beer,' the springs that gave the city a reason for existence are still there, still a gift of the mother.

now that i am at the corner of the united states, perched out towards the pacific ocean, living near a big field where i go to view the starry starry night, it is our lady the star of the sea who captures my imagination.

but for today's feast the important question remains, who is this young woman, this virgin, who spoke to juan diego in his own tongue?  is she really, as the franciscans said, the local goddess craftily reimaged  by an aztec painter inside juan hildago's tilma?  or is she, as the dominicans said, the very mother of our lord.  my response is, why must it be one and not the other?  why can they not be the same?  those who find the veneration of the virgin of guadalupe superstitious like to point out that the aztec tonantzin is coatlaxopeuh, 'she who crushes the serpent,' and not the virgin mary of our christmas carols.  ah, but the virgin of our christmas carols, quiet songs like 'away in a manger' is she not the 'woman clothed with the sun' of john's vision on patmos.  (i am delighted that both visionaries had the same name, john and juan.)

in a few weeks we will hear once again the angels' song to the shepherds of a savior which shall be to all people.  all people, not just to those living in judea.  we will respond with the symbol of the faith in which we say that savior rose 'in accordance with the scriptures.'  do we not deminish that rising when we insist that it is only in accordance with the hebrew scriptures?  we do well to remember that in those same hebrew scriptures, which we call 'the old testament', the holy and eternal one makes covenant with all people before abram is singled out, and the blessing through abram, renamed abraham, is itself for all people. 

like the people in jerusalem 'when the day of pentecost was fully come', juan diego heard the good news in his own tongue.  it is, i would suggest, part of of our task to hear the good news in our own tongue, to haste to bethlehem like the shepherds, who first 'found mary, and joseph, and the babe.'  let us like the magi follow the star we may be gifted to see, would be one of the people who look east.*

here at the corner of the world, for me that may be the star of the sea.