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.'

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