Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Work with the Spirits

It's not my habit to brag about my magical work, or really to expose much of my personal practice here on el bloggo. However, I felt an urge to do a 'journal entry' and maybe a bit of self-introduction and history. If there's a lesson, it's that 35 years of intermittent effort can produce a result every bit as good as ten years of focused training...

I’ve been a working magician, in various ways, for some 35 years, not counting stupid teen experiments. In that time I’ve worked as a priest and invocator, as a designer and leader of group theurgic rituals, as a diviner (more so early, less so more recently), and as a spellbinder. Most of my spellwork over the years has concerned financial need and general protection and blessing, occasional uncrossings, and of course the general year-blessings of the round of Pagan holidays. Most of my theurgic, or spiritual development, work has focused on relating to the presence of the divine in the persons of the many gods, and on visionary and symbolic work intended to organize and empower my own souls. Again, much of that work has been organized by the eightfold Neopagan calendar.

I have always understood magic to involve the alliance with spirits, whatever other sort of work I might have been doing. I have worked with ‘impersonal energies’ regularly throughout my life, and still consider the ability to stand wrapped in the Fire and Water important to magic. However my work has slowly but surely led me to the understanding that traditional magic in the west has always been about alliance with other beings - about pacts with the spirits. In recent months I’ve begun to teach simple summary workshops on the topic at festivals, based on my own Pagan Druidic perspective informed by other recent research and development, such as Jake Stratton-Kent’s approach.

So I thought that I would write about my work over the years. This is for my own sake as much as yours, because memory gets long, and I may as well get used to keeping it as I get older.

Working With Gods
Early Pagan Witchcraft was very focused on the Gods, however they might understand them. I began doing ritual out of Mastering Witchcraft, with its focus on the gods as powerful spirits whose power can be called on with the right calls. In the fashion of the time (for those who had no feel for Christianity) I became more religiously Witchy over the years. I was never really a Lady-and-Lord dualist, though. The traditional system in which I eventually worked had a specific constellation of deities, and I always viewed that as our particular ‘witch-cult’, not the sum total of the Gods.

Working with the gods meant learning invocation, and I learned from classical magic and theurgy. My mentors led me through both elemental and planetary self-empowerment rites, but at the same time we were working with the mythic forms of Gaelic lore. While I learned method from the former it was the latter that really captured my attention.

I have been applying theurgic and ceremonial methods to the invocation of the Gaelic gods and spirits for many years. To those who see a confusion is that, I assert that Grimoire magic holds a lineage of magical *practice forms* that are traceable Pagan in origin. While we may need to replace nearly all the mythic content of the grimoires, we can be confident that the ritual and invocatory skills taught in them are not very different from those practiced by a temple priest in Pagan Greece.

Using those skills I became the worshipper of several powerful deities of the Gaelic cultural complex. Lady Brighid remains the patron of our house, who once saved us from fire, and has inspired my work and weal these many years. Dagda Mor, especially as the Ruadh Rofessa (red lord of secret knowledge) and Manannan Mac Lir aid me as well. Being a fairly literal polytheist, I treat these as some among many. Our local year-cult honors a regular round of the deities, so that folks aren’t left honoring only the powers closest to them, but work in balance with the cycles.

While I don’t really petition the gods for specific works or favors much anymore, I do continue their worship. I feel that the blessing gained from this sort of regular attunement to the divine is a primary source of my authority (or whatever) among the spirits. With a goddess at my back I am armed in my armor and armed, as they say.

I experienced a major switch in my path at one point, completely discarding a previous ritual system for a new one. The good news for me is that I didn’t have to change my deities at all. The scholastic level of the old coven meshed nicely with the new form. So, I’ve been working with my central contacts for a long while.

1980s Shamanism
I had experimented with ‘rising in spirit vision’ and ‘pathworking’ in the Golden Dawn style early in my experiments. When Michael Harner published “Way of the Shaman” (the beginning of practical shamanism among western mages) in 1980 it looked like familiar stuff (pun unintended, but kept for the sake of not skippin’ ‘em). At the time I was working in a rigorous Witchcraft system looking for ways to move from ceremonial magic tropes to equally-powerful folkloric tropes. Shamanism was a great angle, and I used it in connection with deliberate summoning rites to make alliances with allies that I still work with today.

My alliances are with a Familiar/guide among what seem to be the Landwights, and a Teaching spirit from among the Dead. They have remained consistent, though unfolding, through all my work. Of course my own level of devotion, piety and/or diligence has varied widely in that time. Fortunately my commitment to the regular work of Pagan season mysteries means that I’m never too long between ritual occasions.

It was those early experiments that led to public alliance-rites done at a dozen or so festivals over several years. Those efforts have developed into a set of formal summoning-and-alliance rites. The results have convinced me that shamanic-style, vision-based evocation can have powerful and lasting results. While special-effects are always welcome in magic I find the ability to rise in vision and speak with the spirits to be entirely effective.

Gods, Dead & Sidhe
My big change of system was to move from a Western Magic/Witchcraft cosmos and ritual form into a new system of ‘Druidry’ based on research into ancient Euro-Pagan ritual forms (ADF, specifically). This meant abandoning the ‘four elements’ for a “Land/Sea/Sky & central Fire” cosmos. The designers of that system, of which I was eventually one, may have gone too far, early on, in tracking the baby and bathwater in what was kept and what discarded. There turn out to be fine Hellenic reasons for drawing a circle around a sacrifice ground, for instance. However the results have been very effective, with rites that resemble Indic yajna and puja rather than Masonry or the Mass. Those forms have been in use for the past 25 years in local congregations around N America.

The change made a huge difference, in time, to my work with the spirits in a Pagan Magic context. Our Druidic ritual is based on welcoming the Gods and Spirits in three classes – the Gods, the Dead and the Landwights, or Sidhe. We know these are permeable categories, but we use them as a simple way to be thorough in our offerings and honorings. What it meant for me is that I began to regularly make offerings, and lead offering rites, to the spirits. I’m here to tell you that if you do that sincerely, the spirits will answer.

For me that answering was mediated by my allies; first by the Goddess Brighid, whose inspiration is a fire unquenched. I also have been instructed, I think, by my Teacher among the Dead. What I’ve asked is how to work magical ritual for moderns using Druidic models and notions, and while the material I’ve produced has been somewhat idiosyncratic I think it could have a wider application for Pagans. The results are available in my newest book “The Book of Summoning”.

In the last couple of years, as I have felt this sense of inward tuition reach a fairly high mark, I have been working a formal set of empowerment and attunement rites that have bumped up my practice. In the course of formal rites to and with the Dead and the Landwights I have made two specific new alliances that are working well for me, while maintaining my long original pacts.

My Work Now
As I have become more intimate with my Familiars, I find myself less likely to ‘pray’ to the gods for an outcome, and more likely to ask an ally to aid me with it. I have developed a formula for asking the Familiar to find a spirit who can aid in a specific works. Thus far my results with this have been pretty good, including weather effects, household management and protection. My relationship with the Ancestral Teacher has progressed – where before the figure was shadowy and concealed, I now know name and form, and am in more direct conversation. Through the Teacher I am also developing contacts with what I see as spirits of those who served as priests and magicians in old times – druids, if you will. All of that continues to feed my stream of inspiration, one of my core goals.

Assuming that I get what I ask for, look to see more song-writing from me in coming times.

My work with the Gods continues. Led by my inspiration I am looking at what it would mean to work with daemones of the Gaelic gods. In an ongoing effort to work in the spirit model, it seems to me that ‘rays’ of ‘force’ from the god/desses can profitably be replaced by ‘legions’ of spirits.

This summer is busy. Do I say that every summer? Yes. Nevertheless, we mean to begin work on deepening our connection with local wights here on the land we keep. This should involve several formal evocations using the system I’ve worked. Expect news here as that occurs.

From a personal standpoint I have greatly enjoyed moving my magic practice from energy work toward spirit arte. Paganism teaches relationship, between people, between humans and the land, between humans and the spirits. Impersonal energies cannot respond to relationship. In the common world we have changed from depending on one another for our daily support to depending on machines. Rather than keep relationship with a servant or employer, rather than knowing the teller at the bank-window, we rely on impersonal devices to do our will at will. It seems to me that we might want to avoid making that happen in our spiritual and magical work as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This Grim Stead – a Festival in Prison.

This past weekend L and I flew out to eastern Washington to participate in what may well be a unique event in modern Pagan history. Archdruid Rev Kirk Thomas arranged a mini-festival for the Pagan inmates of the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, a 2000-inmate joint on the edge of the desert. The event was a full day of workshops, rituals and music, that included Pagan inmates from Asatru, Wiccan and Druidic traditions. L and I travelled from Northeastern Ohio to represent ADF, Patty Lafayllve from Connecticut represented the Troth (she’s the former Steerswoman and author of their Lore program) and Ashleen O’Gaea, from Tucson, AZ, represented the Wiccan path. Of course Kirk was there, along with the Wiccan priestess who has been a long-time volunteer for the prison. Also present were the de facto director of religious program for the state Dept. of Corrections (de facto because titles and responsibilities seem to be influx…), the chaplain for Coyote Ridge, and some four Christian other chaplains from the Washington DOC.

This was a one day event, so that meant lightning travel. We left Cleveland on Friday morning, took three flights to get to Pasco, Washington, and then left Washington again on Sunday AM for a full day of travel back to Ohio. Not even enough time to adapt to the western time-zone. Along with a day of program that lasted from 8am until 9 pm, the event left me as work-out as many longer fests.

We arrived Friday night for a dinner and drinks with several of the chaplains and the other teachers. Patti is the author of “Freya, Lady, Vanadis”. I’ve met Patti before, I think, at Starwood and other fests, but this was the first time we have had a real chance to chat. I know Troth folks pretty well, so we had some common ground. This was my first chance to meet Ashleen, author of “The Family Wicca Book” and, more recently, “Enchantment Encumbered” a book based on the prison ministry that she has been involved in for some years. Of the four teachers at the event, only Ashleen had previous experience with prisoners, though only as a correspondent. She, like the rest of the traveling guests, had never been ‘inside’.

Going inside was fairly scary to me, from a distance. Like many alternative-culture Americans, I have no great faith in or affection for the criminal justice system and its institutions. My exchanges with Chaplain Erik Askren of Coyote Ridge by emails, and Kirks’ hardy support of him convinced me that we had a friend in the system, and that was a plus. Meeting some of the other chaplains and their approximate manager the night before had also put me at ease. If I’m skeptical of some elements of the system, I’m also confident that in the USA an alternate religion wouldn’t be hassled too hard, once we had gotten as far as the day of an event.
In fact the existence of the event is, itself, evidence of the strong commitment to religious plurality and equality built into the system from the constitution on down. The existence of an actual population of Pagan prisoners mandates that those prisoners be served. When Kirk’s energetic organizing produced a chance for an event like this, and the local chaplain was on board, it happened. I was also clued in that the existence of a new manager at the top of the state chaplaincy had also been invaluable. So while I hope that this event can help to spur further organized outreach to the incarcerated, I do think that access and conditions are likely to vary widely from state to state. For this event we had the right confluence to allow it to happen.

The prison itself is huge, new and clean as a whistle. Five large buildings sit on 86 acres. It was high-desert cool in the morning, and the sun glinted brightly on the concertina wire and clean new 15-foot fences. The grounds were covered in wide fresh concrete walkways with yards of gravel between them – nothing to mow or clip in sight. Kirk was out guide through the first ‘rooms’ of fencing. He’s been coming to Coyote Ridge every six weeks for High Days for the last couple of years, and knows the way. The officer at the front desk knew him as well, and the process of checking a few personal items, examining my guitar and bag of ritual wear, etc was painless. We were met by another of the chaplains, who helped us through the next series of security rooms to the building where the events would take place.

The classes, group sessions and concert were held in an educational wing of the building, which looked pretty much like any community college corridor, stripped of the usual flyers and cultural clutter. We convened at 8am for a plenary session with all the guests and the men from the Druid, Asatru and Wiccan contingents. The men gathered looked, I must say, rather like guys you might see at a Pagan fest, though perhaps with more shaved heads than usual among the long hair, beards and braids. After taking a few questions through the chaplain we adjourned to the first rounds of sessions.

The day was split between workshops and rituals. Each of the traditions had its own chance for ritual in the outdoor worship space provided by the prison. Our Druidic session began with L and me presenting her Indo-European Goddesses workshop and slide show, which was well-received. We then headed for the outdoor Nemeton for ritual.

The outdoor ritual spaces for Pagans were a good walk across the barren yard. I was quite pleased at what the men of Frogstone Circle had accomplished. There was a nice lined and edged pit for the Fire, a standing pedestal-basin Well and a post cemented in as the Bile. All quite stark and spare, but as complete and formal as one could hope for in the circumstances. I understand that the gravel yard is due to receive ‘beautification’ in the form of grass in the near future. In any case, the feel of the place was actually pretty juicy, despite the grim setting, and the rite went off well, with a version of the ADF unity rite done by Kirk, L and the leader of Frogstone Circle, Thomas Brown.

I should say a word about Thomas. In many ways that inmate is the reason that this event happened. He began his interest in Druidry with OBOD, and holds their Druid grade, the highest level of their study program. He has completed the ADF Dedicant Path work, and is enrolled in our Initiate Path, doing my Nine Moons work as his practicum at this time. His dedication to the path has helped him gather a circle of other Druid students in Coyote Ridge, and it was his correspondence that got Kirk involved in the first place. Kudos to Thomas for his diligence, courage and wisdom.

We ate lunch with the Druid guys, sharing their pre-packaged pb&j kit and lemonade. Complaints about the food were ubiquitous. We noted that no-one goes either to prison or the UK for the food…

For the afternoon workshop session I taught a meditation class, which went pretty well. Those things are not the most exciting topic, but I could tell that a handful of students ‘got it’, and that’s as good as I expect in any such festival teaching. I had prepped a class on magic as well, but that material got somewhat deferred until later.

Before dinner, we performed a set of music. Good sound system, incidentally. I’ve worked a lot of audiences over the years, and I could tell that some of the guys were prepared to be unimpressed. This one-guitar show just might not be cool enough for them. I’m pleased to say that by a few songs in most of them were bopping along to Pagan hits like “Hoof and Horn”. I consider the concert a real success, and I’m very pleased to have added what must be a serious splash of color to the inmate’s fairly drab sensory existence.

We had dinner with the system chaplains and the other pagan teachers. The local chaplain had arranged a nice spread of fruit, veggies, cheese and meat (and chocolate, for which L was grateful) – as pleasant as could be expected in the circumstances. We’d been warned that some of the chaplains might be less than welcoming, but in the end everyone was polite and pleasant, at least. Kirk donated copies of the ADF Dedicant book to each of them, and Ashleen had copies of her prison-ministry title as well, so they left with at least the opportunity to be much better informed than before. To be fair, several of them attended workshops as well, and they were all at the concert.

After dinner we held a syncretic all-groups ritual. These are always a laugh riot to coordinate, and a hit-or-miss proposition, but we had enough skilled ritualists to pull it off nicely. We did a Wiccan Circle-casting, followed by Opening the Gates, and Kindred offerings in the Druidic fashion, and for the blessing did a simple one-round symbel in Norse style. This was done indoors, and while it wasn’t the very most powerful rite I’ve ever been in, it went just fine.

The final event of the evening was a panel discussion, with the initial topic of the place of magic in Paganism. I started things out using some of my usual definitions and categories notes, and we moved into discussion and then questions from the men. It was a lively and interesting discussion, and the questions led us into some places we hadn’t gone.

In retrospect, my experience with this minimum-to-midlevel security environment wasn’t scary. As always for me, it was a pleasure to meet other pagans, and the fact that they were inmates made only a little difference. It’s customary for chaplains to simply not ask about things like offenses and sentences, so those topics didn’t come up. We talked about their special challenges and needs, and I hope provided some resources (all the guest teachers donated books to the library). The institution was no problem, even the officers (don’t call them the guards…) were generally pleasant, even chatty when I took a minute.

Will I take up prison ministry? I’m pretty busy. I will say that the notion is now in our minds, and that we’re greatly encouraged to consider the possibility. Certainly if the chance arose, it wouldn’t be fear that prevented us.

If I had ever gone to prison I flatter myself to think that I might have spent the one great resource it provides – time – on spiritual matters. I’m certainly willing to help those who are actually doing that, and I’m very pleased to have had the chance.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why I'm Not A Gnostic

As always with these theology posts, this is my opinion. Opinion is essentially the same idea as doctrine, so it's fair to say that this is my doctrine, concerning gnostic ideas. YDMV

I don’t believe in God. Not that unusual a statement, these days, but I suppose I mean it differently from many people who say it.

I *do* believe that there is a continuum of existence that is subtly interconnected with material existence, yet is usually imperceptible by material sensation or instruments. I’m willing to condense that to terms like Otherworld, or Spirit World(s), for both brevity and to make better sense of traditional mythic models. Within that continuum a variety of beings exist.

I also commonly refer to this entire continuum as ‘the divine’. I use ‘divine’ and ‘of the spirit world’ pretty much interchangeably. I’ll probably talk more about the rejection of dualism but, as a start, I reject good and evil as spiritual principles and consider ‘the divine’ to be as morally neutral as ‘nature’. In the mythic model I use, the divine is not in conflict with itself (or with anything else) and there are not two opposing sides.

As a modern Pagan, I take nature as my primary revelation from the divine, and assume that the divine resembles nature, and nature resembles the divine. By observing nature, I find that the divine must consist of a multitude of individual entities, all existing in a variety of relationships and ecologies. That variety may end up as One Great Process, though science has yet to really decide on that. I remain agnostic on a mythic level about it as well.

In the great system of the divine there are an uncountable number of beings. Many of those beings seem to dwell with or near the dwellings of mortal humans. Many of those beings have become the regular allies of human tribes and clans. The greatest (i.e. most effective) of these we have come to call ‘gods’ (from a german root meaning “that to which we sacrifice”). Over the ages humans have worked out various methods by which to communicate with the gods and other spirits, and using them we have established pacts and mutual obligations, making some of these spirits functionally members of our societies. These are the ‘patrons’ of our various human endeavors, and out methods of relationship are what is called ‘religion’. We offer to them, and they bless us in turn.

The thing is, I see no model in nature for an omnipotent managing intelligence. I see no sign of it in nature’s processes. Those each proceed by their own strength, come what may. A sea-shore does not need a King Gull to keep the tides turning and the crabs breeding.

Thus, I find myself rejecting several core Gnostic ideas. First I reject the notion that material life is some sort of error. Since Pagan lore doesn’t contain the notion of ‘fallen’ nature, I take nature to be whole and holy exactly as we find it. Even the cosmic model of Neoplatonism seems far too pessimistic to me. In the archaic Indo-European cosmos the material world is not at the bottom of a ladder, rather it is in the center of a wheel. Here in the great world of story and beauty even the Great Gods come to the Fire, and make their will done. There are many Otherworld places to explore, but there is nothing to escape from here, and nowhere else that is our true home.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the psychologizing and politicizing influence that makes the Gnostic myth of evil matter into a socio-political allegory. There are certainly strains of mysticism that effectively use rejection of human social programming to enhance wisdom. The lesson that childhood messages of ‘right and wrong’, and adult programs imposed by commercial greed, are not so much ‘true’ as they are products of cultural hypnosis can be a powerful agent for personal growth.

However, I observe the Gnostic impulse (or what seems like it to me) producing a kind of paranoia. When one’s mythic landscape includes ol’ Yaldabaoth and his evil Archons, one naturally looks for their equivalent in the political sphere of the material world. After years as a left-wing observer of world politics, my own conclusion is that there is no cabal of rulers who determine the world’s course (at least not successfully… there are probably some who have tried). Just like on the veldt, there are lionesses and lions and jackals and elephants and every sort of beast, but nobody is in charge, and the system isn’t screwed up (and nobody's to blame) when some lovely antelope becomes dinner.

So I take the same attitude to society as I do to nature. There it is – and we have to deal with it. I have an optimistic view of human nature and the societies we make. My opinion is that the trend toward more money, freedom, education and health for all is proceeding nicely. Certainly there are plenty of rough spots, but how else could it be?

From a historical position, I view Neoplatonism and Gnosticism as very late products of Hellenism, with strong influence not only from the growing Christian movement, but from the huge number of Jewish philosophers throughout the Roman Empire. (One source asserts that before Christ as much as 10% of Romans were Jewish or were synagogue-attending sympathizers.) However I don’t mean to propose that the sort of One Final God at the Top that we find in Neoplatonism was totally a foreign import. Indo-European myth had been trending toward a pantheistic or monistic theology for a while, often with the archaic ‘law king’ type (Zeus, Ahura Mazda, Vishnu) as the ‘supreme personality of godhead’ (as the ISKON folks say).

Since my interest is in archaic Paganism, I tend to ignore those trends of the late classical era. I prefer a world-view in which the world is just as it is meant to be, and we are properly at home within it. As individuals we have a variety of paths open to us – there is no One Great Mission that is the Only Thing That Matters in the End. We can choose to be householders, living by code and custom, getting all the good of land and family, receiving the blessings of the gods through temple rites and hearth religion. We can choose to be various kinds of spiritual specialist or professional (in some cultures) whether as a musician, a diviner, an oral performer (i.e. a ritualist). In some cultures we have the option to discard social code almost entirely, to live as a hermit, wandering holy-person or madman. The warriors, the farmer, the merchant, the priest, the sorcerer, all are true and good parts of the Holy Cosmos.

In my opinion there is no Secret God who can take us out of the cosmos, and nowhere to go if there were. In terms of the afterlife, it may be that certain mystery initiations can allow a god to grant us a pleasant sort of specific afterlife. It may be that without proper preparation we only live as twittering ghosts or shambling sluagh, hungry for sacrifices. That notion is archaic enough. I don’t think there is a Tyrant God who keeps us in thrall, and I don’t think there is a mystery, or gnosis, that can free us.