Friday, March 29, 2019

Receiving Blessing; Getting the Good from Group Ritual

My spiritual life has included a slow move from private, often solo ritual to ever-larger group rites. Literally beginning alone in the attic of our community house I found my first circle of 8 or 9 people, and spent the next years working in ‘covens’ of no more than that number of folks. However the 1980s saw the invention of Pagan Festivals and soon I found myself involved in efforts to do magical work, or produce spiritual results, for randomly assembled groups of 50, and 100 and more people, using methods developed for those smaller groups.
        But this article is not about how to do ritual for big groups. More often than I found myself leading such rites I found myself as one of the folks in the circle, trying to open myself to whatever magic the operators intended. Somewhere between the operator’s skill and my own willingness and ability to participate in receiving, lies the answer to the question “am I wasting my time?”
      This article is about the latter – the skills and methods that allow an attendee at a public rite to make the hour into a personal spiritual and even magical experience, and not that of an ‘audience member’. I think that being present at the Sacred Fire, as we Druids do, or coming into the Magic Circle is an opportunity for blessing. However it requires effort, and even skill, to best receive that blessing.

     By Blessing I do not, incidentally mean only the sweet calm and excitement of coming out of a rite with the Fire and Water in you. Rather (or in addition) I want to talk about how a regular round of such ritual and spiritual world can help (by ‘magic’, as some might say) to create a magical life of weal and wisdom for those who participate in our Pagan religions.
      So, my reader, I’ll assume that we enter into participation in a group ritual with the intention to help the ritualists achieve their goal, and thus to obtain for ourselves the portion of the rite’s result available to us. If you attend a Pagan group’s rites as an observer, or an inquirer, and are not committed in that way, I still suggest that adopting these ideas as an experiment will help you understand what is being done.
           Let me begin with a core assumption that positions all the rest of the work:

I Am Not The Audience
A formal group seasonal or spiritually-thematic rite (even a wedding or funeral) can be very like a theatrical. This is no accident, of course – theater grew from the performance of ritual. However the modern Pagan lives in a world where information parades before us almost non-stop, competing for our slim bank-accounts of attention to be paid to them. We ignore vast quantities of signal, triage inputs, and are used to critically assessing all efforts to hold our eye.
        All that needs to be set aside upon entry to someone else’s rituals. As I see it we must all come together the way a village might have done, all confirmed in our earnest desire for that good harvest and peace. It is not the job of the ‘priesthood’ or celebrants to ‘entertain’ the assembled folk. A rite of this kind is performed both to and for the Gods and Spirits, and it is performed by everyone whose face can be seen in the light of the Fire. So even if one is two rows back in the gathered folk, it is good to begin by understanding that you are a player in the work at hand, even if not a central one.

        Just to belabor this a bit, we can hope that when the Gods and Spirits come to our fire, in answer to our calls, they will be presented a scene of dignified ritual, with a dedicated company that includes all of the folk. It has become my custom to assert that the Holy Ones “see our hearts and know our thoughts”, so it seems proper to encourage us all to join mutually in the focus of the rite. Together we will offer a good sacrifice (sacred work) and seek, in turn, a good blessing.

Trance Participation
One of the primary ways of accomplishing that mutuality is through group trance and vision. It is fair to say that ancient ritual did not include periods of focused or directed meditation or guided mutual thinking. My opinion is that lacking the mutual cultural hypnosis of a group of villagers, raised in the ways, we must compensate through deliberate effort.

               Successful participation in group ritual requires first the clear intent to participate, and then the willed effort required to do so. Settling one’s mind into concentrated entrancement in a church-basement or backyard, as a distant train rumbles on by and the celebrants rattle papers is precisely such willed effort. Make it your work to listen closely to whatever voice is guiding such work, and allow your inner process to be guided like a caller guides a dancer’s steps.
               Participation is enhanced by what I call Basic Trance – a combination of physical relaxation, mental focus, and the suspension of the critiquing impulse for the duration of the rite. This latter is key; a willingness to dive in, to refuse aloofness, to ignore the criticizing voice is one of the primary efforts of will of the work – especially if the ‘performance’ is less than polished. Holding firm to your Center, reminding yourself of your trance by patterned breathing, and deliberately constructing the intrinsic visual forms of the rite (the Circle, or Gates, the forms of the spirits, etc) will help bring a more powerful result.

Projected Awareness
I’m uncertain what to call the technique of identifying yourself with the words and ideas of a ritual, even when you are not performing them. In this work it is good to be familiar with the experience and feel of personal, solitary ritual – of speaking one’s will firmly into the air, or displaying the mystery-symbols to yourself. As a participant in group ritual all that experience is conferred on the performing celebrants, and must be inferred in turn by the observing participants.
               So as participants we make the words of the ritual script, of the celebrants, our words. We can recite them quietly, in affirmation, in our own minds, saying again what was said by our own voice. The ‘speaking part’ ritualists become the representatives of each individual in the company, and all join their intent together around the worlds and images of the rite.

Receiving Blessing
In the Order of Ritual (OoR) used in Our Paganism (ADF Druidiry) special attention is payed to the work of invoking and receiving the Power of the Powers, once the invocations and offerings are done. We teach that ‘a gift calls for a gift’ and the Holy Ones give us their various good things in response to our worship. Most magical religion includes such work, but sometimes it can pass with less emphasis than other sections. Our Order of Ritual includes a specific invocation, usually a litany shared with the whole company, which calls on the Powers to give their Blessing. As a participant it is worthwhile to note this moment in the rite, and be certain to employ it personally.
Our OoR Invokes the presence of a number of spiritual Powers in every rite. Along with the Earth Mother and Fire Gods, we call the hosts of the Three Kindreds, and the specific persons of the occasion. Other traditions will have a different ‘constellation’ of Powers, but in general it is valuable to open one’s awareness to those presences. A Visualization of the assembled Holy Ones is a fine way to open oneself to their blessing. This is followed by conscious participation in the visualizations of blessing the Drink, or the Flames, or whatever symbols the ritual is using. We have never formalized such visions. Many find that our vision of the Blessing has grown and changed over time, but one can always begin by seeing the flow of the Nectar or Mead descending into the cups, even as the material ale or water is poured.
Internalizing the Blessing is a moment that is usually private an individual. Some ritual scripts may include some meditative guidance for it, but often one is left to quietly feel the material blessing, drink, etc, in us physically, and open up to the power of the Powers we have helped to invoke. ADF’s OoR usually includes at least an affirmation that the Blessing has been received.

Group Ritual, Personal Magic
This is the moment when the combined power of the group’s work becomes available for the individual mind. A deliberate effort can make it useful for specific desires or boons. However in my opinion the best use for such magic is to flood the whole body, whole self, in whatever pattern of energy-flow one has used for centering. The Blessing requires very little detail beyond “Let me be whole, and well, and let every good thing that is proper to my way be mine.”
The work of gaining the good of these blessings, in our Pagan ways, relies on persistence. We are offered the Blessing of the Season, each in turn. If we consciously and deliberately accept each in turn we can hope to be blessed with life, strength, beauty, gain, reward, and rest, each in the measure our fate allows. But it all happens at the pace of the sun and seasons, perhaps with Lunar occasions for more detailed work.
Some corners of our modern Pagan scene seem to want to use spellcraft as a method building a blessed and whole life. The use of spiritual power for personal, specific goals (fix my car, chill me boss, etc) can be valuable, but it can also bring us to a point where we have too many lamps to tend, and possible cross-purposes in our several intentions (be rich, or have leisure?) I think that the persistent, slow-burn work of Pagan ‘religious work will eventually result in the Health, Wealth and Wisdom we might seek, and do so in gentle harmony with the turning of the world.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Tredara Good News

Spring 2019
Oh my friends, I have a story for you. It’s a good story, because it has a good ending, and being near the end of it makes me Very Happy.
Many of you know that I and my partner have, for many years, been using and developing our patch of land as Pagan sacred space. Starting with an 8-acre lot that Sue has been on since 1975, and expanding in 2013 to include 8 additional acres to our north. Along with a small patch on the other side we now work with 17ish acres. The tale begins following the expansion.

The new acreage was, when we purchased it, a disused satellite growing-field for the nursery-stock, shrubs, etc that is a common local agriculture. On our early inspections it was serene, with shoulder-high grass, overgrown shrubs and a variety of lovely flowering trees. It was a lovely acquisition, but with it we also acquired new neighbors. 
Just north of the northern boundary of this new property a family keeps their several acres of small agriculture, horses, etc. We seem to have frightened them. It was certainly the case that for as long as they had owned the property that patch had been quiet, even deserted… flowers, deer and bunnies, nice place for the dogs to run – I get that. Then comes us. The grass is mowed, the roads regraveled, regular tractor action, and people – our people. (for details on the progress, click the Tredara tab on the blog front-page, and recall that articles are reverse-time-line order)

Having acquired the acres in 2013, we immediately began building a new, larger worship space, and by the following spring we were holding our Stone Creed Grove seasonal rites in it during the summer. That fall we built a new 30 x 50’ pavilion-roof and attached shower-house. With that in place we hosted the ADF Wellspring Gathering at Tredara in May of 2016. This modest, 120-ish-person event had previously been held at the Brushwood folklore center, but this moved it into our full management.

Even prior to that we had our first visit from our local zoning inspector, who mentioned some neighbor concern and wondered just how commercial an operation we were running. He explained that some complaints about our activity (and some presumptuous youtube vid claims by me...) had brought him out, but was satisfied that we were making incidental use of our personal back-yard to host our church events.

The fact is that Tredara is not and has never been a ‘campground’. We do not charge by the night to camp, nor advertise ourselves in that way. We are, and have always been a sacred space for Pagan worship and spiritual practice. From the days in the 80s when our coven met in the woods, through the evolution of our public Druidic work the place is the private project of Lia Fal and I. We build in service to the Gods and the folk, and with honor to the land. While we have been blessed with donations we seldom seek them, and we’re just not in it for the money, as they say. Nevertheless, the place has been a buzz of construction, campers, hippies, pagan drumming and chanting and the installation of idols in the five-ish years we’ve owned it. I can understand a degree of culture-shock for the closest neighbors.

So this past fall the zoning inspector returned to our door, and had a look around. I’ll keep the details simple – our ‘agricultural’ zoning forgives a lot, but we’re not really doing agriculture. The decision was that our uses were ‘permitted’ under ‘conditional uses’ in the local ordinance. That began a process of determining the ‘conditions’ under which we would be permitted to continue.

Of course I was prepared to stand on the first amendment. I was allowing my church to use my farm for services and our annual reunion-campout. However in the USA if anything overrides the bill-of-rights it’s local land-use sovereignty. I hoped to avoid the employment of attorneys in the matter, and in the end I was able to do so. 

I have also had my faith in the culture of my corner of NE Ohio affirmed by the lack of passionate Christian opposition to our efforts. The offended neighbors held back from any religious reference, and we debated noise and imposition. Early on there *were* people at the podium with concerns about “what kind of church” was being permitted, but the members of the Board of Zoning Appels plainly said that such a topic was not at issue in the discussion. At no time past the very first speakers were our ways mocked or belittled – mainly they were accommodated. In the end there was no outcry from either Evangelical or Catholic local churches, may they be blessed by the spirits of America.

The offended neighbors leaned on issues of noise and property-security. It seems they had had a distressing random visit or two, which they wanted to attribute to our guests. We agree that good fences make good neighbors.

My kin, this all-winter process has had my brain just Parked! Our goal here has been to make a sacred space for the sake of our folk, and now we faced an external authority’s mandate on whether we would have to undertake a serious fight to keep our dream alive. Discussion happened only on the record at live meetings, so we were simply suspended for weeks at a time. By the final meeting quite a groove had been worn in my patience.

However the process was, I must judge, fair and right. The bureaucrats were helpful, the board members cooperative and neutral-to-neighborly. They all toured the place for an eyes-on judgement, and listened in fact to our needs and plans. It seems plain that they had never seen anything quite like us, before.

In the end we were granted our conditional use permit as a ‘place of public assembly’! The only bad news is a mandate to install a big, damned-expensive fence along the boundary with the offended neighbors. We’ll do it, fulfill a few other simple requirements, and be free to flow as a working Pagan sacred forest and worship garden here in NE Ohio.

Magic? Well, some… we’re not done with every little thing, but I’ll say that I began asking Certain Others for their aid last fall, and various measures have been taken over the months. I give thanks, of course, to all those who have aided us.
All in all this is the public birth of the Tredara Hearth Farm & Shrine. Now we can actually put up a sign (must do, in fact…) and publicly be what we have been. At this time we’re not soliciting new events, or looking to expand our event program. Rather we’ll focus on our facilities for worship, and making our occasional camping guests even more comfortable. Our sacred work will continue, teaching and incidental ceremony will probably increase, and we can begin really fitting ourselves into this thing we’ve built, and growing into the corners.