Hail, Vacuus!

I see that everyone else is having profound conversion experiences this April 1, so I’ve decided to join the herd — always the joiner, that’s me — and give up Druidry for something empty.

As in, completely empty. I’ve decided to become a devotee of Vacuus, God of Nothing.

As with the Tao, the Vacuus you can see is not the true Vacuus. His Holy Symbol is the vacuum bottle, but it is only a shell that encloses the true divinity that is inside: or rather, that is not inside.

Because Vacuus is the God of Nothing, he can only be approached through his two archangels, his twin manifestation on the material plane: on his empty left hand, Archangel Kirby, and on his empty right hand, Archangel Hoover. Together, they truly suck.

Spring is, for Vacuans, the Time of the Great Cleaning. The evil twin of the Easter Bunny, the wicked Dust Bunny, emerges from hiding and is pursued through the House of the Rising Sun by Hoover and Kirby. If the Dust Bunny escapes to the next House, there will be six more weeks of Spring Cleaning.

In the Autumn, Kirby and Hoover must Empty themselves as part of the annual cycle, and the Dust Bunny is reborn under the living room couch (or sometimes the dresser in the guest bedroom) in the House of the Setting Sun. The Great Mystery of Vacuism is how the Dust Bunny makes its way back to the House of the Rising Sun. Many scholars believe that mischievous elves are involved: those who have sought them out, however, have Seen Nothing.

Our aspiration as Vacuans is to truly Know Nothing.

We begin our studies with the Vacuous Smile, and proceed to perfecting the Vacuous Stare. We are taught Empty Platitudes, and this helps us learn to Do Nothing. Once we have successfully emptied our minds (and our wallets) and learned to Do Nothing, we can reach for the blessed state where we Know Nothing.

Hail, Vacuus! Seek Him, and you shall surely Find Nothing!

14 Relationships: Rites of Passage

This is proving to be a difficult writing topic.

Rites of passage must be about true passages. Not formal but meaningless passages that belong to a bygone age. Or to someone else.

What are the traditional passages? Birth. Naming. Puberty. Adulthood. Marriage. Childbirth. Menopause/midlife. Croning. Death.

I’ve gone through all of these save the last two, and I’ve assisted in both of those. But they weren’t the most central to making me who I am.

Here are some of the more profound passages I’ve experienced. First kiss. First sex. First drunk. First deliberate choice to disappoint my elders as an adult to follow my own path. First real job. First birth of a child. First death of a child. First extramarital affair. First divorce. First business startup. First business failure. First dream abandoned. First abandoned dream rediscovered. First diagnosis of malignant cancer. First declaration of “clean and clear” of cancer cells.

I could be wrong, but I suspect this is a more representative list than the first for most people alive today. How many of you remember “puberty” as anything but an extended period in Junior High Hell? But I’ll bet most of you remember your first kiss with crystal clarity.

The traditional passages all revolve around the individual within tribal community. Birth of a new child is another mouth for the tribe to feed. Naming means the child has survived early childhood, and merits consideration as a future member of the tribe. Puberty is the point at which boys and girls must be separated, lest the tribe face irresponsible pregnancies. Adulthood means the child is ready to take on first true responsibilities — hunting, farming, making war. Marriage is the community sanction to reproduce. Menopause/midlife is the beginning of the transition to elderhood and tribal leadership. Croning is the celebration of seniority. Death is the final loss of the person to the community.

Where is our modern community? For most of us, in this sense of shared ties of obligation and interdependence, there is no community.

This isn’t all bad. The bonds of tribal community bind in both directions. If the tribe says you may not marry, then you may not marry. If you defy the elders, you face exile. The community that helps you raise your children also tells you how to raise your children. Tribal society does not coddle dissidence. It can enforce brutal conformity.

Whether we crave this kind of community or loathe the very thought of it, the fact remains that most of us don’t have it.

So in the absence of such community, does a “rite of passage” make a lot of sense?

Our Druidic Circle is planning to discuss one small aspect of this next weekend. As one of the more-visible Druidic groups in Colorado, we occasionally get requests to perform Druidic handfastings for couples — notably, people we don’t know, who contact us through our web site.

It’s not that difficult to throw together an impressive-as-hell Pagan handfasting ceremony, but it raises an important pair of questions: who are we trying to impress, and why? More generally, what are we trying to accomplish by providing this “service?”

I would understand more clearly if a member of our Circle wanted us to acknowledge his or her developing bond with a partner. We’d be thrilled to participate in that. Conversely, we might find ourselves moved to offer some cautionary words instead. (“You want to do WHAT? With WHO? Are you nuts?”) Should we support the bond, we become a part of it, and should things not end well, we’d feel some of that pain. It’s not just something they should take seriously — it’s something that WE need to take seriously as well.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps we should just view all of this as a kind of Druid “fairy dust” we scatter on other people’s parades by request. Like a dance band they hire for the reception.

When I look at my list of life-changing events, they’re of peripheral concern to the tribe. As important as it was to me, I would hardly want a public rite of passage to celebrate the first time I had sex. Nor would the tribe care to celebrate that with me. But some of the others could bear a little Druid fairy dust.

Perhaps.

I don’t personally have much patience for fairy dust, Druidic or otherwise.

So I’m back to pondering what our real cultural rites of passage are.

The car keys are one of the big ones — the driver’s permit, followed by the license. It marks a true change of status for the adolescent. It also marks a true change of status when we are eventually forced to take the car keys away from our elders.

Forced retirement is another true passage.

Graduation used to be a true passage. Even up through my young adulthood in the 1980’s, school eventually came to an end. You graduated and then moved into adult life: you did not expect to ever see a classroom again. I’m not going to launch into a rant here on “lifelong education,” the academic marketing catchphrase of the 1990’s and 2000’s, but it’s clear that most modern young people don’t ever really expect to be free of school, and many are terrified to leave its confines.

Marriage is not a true passage, and has not been for a rather long time. People marry freely and consult no one but themselves: in Colorado, six bucks, two signatures, and some photo IDs are all that’s required to marry. Marriage is not required in order to have children, nor does marriage imply the intention of children. No-contest divorce is almost as easy as marriage. It occurs to me that one of the reasons gay marriage is such an affront to religious conservatives is that it spells out in large letters the loss of tribal “sanctity” that marriage lost so long ago.

Death is not a passage, either. Or rather, it may be for the individual soul — each of us gets at least one fully authoritative reading on that — but society doesn’t much mourn its dead. There are too many of us, and no one is essential. We live long enough to become burdens on our children and on society, long enough to lose our memory and our wisdom as well as our health, so sometimes our passing is greeted less with mourning and more with relief. Funeral homes have taken over the sacred business of death, and the rites are often perfunctory and sterile. We no longer venerate our ancestors, and the custom of visiting the departed and sharing a picnic with them in the cemetery is long-gone.

Perhaps I’ll think of other true passages, but I think modern civilization is remarkably free of both passages and rites to celebrate (or mourn) them.

It isn’t clear to me at this point how Druidry could address this.

13 Relationships: Solar Festivals

Of the eight solar festivals celebrated by modern Druids, the four Solar Festivals or Sun Festivals are the most easily defined. They are based on specific astronomical events which occur predictably and measurably every year: the two solstices and the two equinoxes.

Practical daily timekeeping is most easily measured by the sun. Every day — except at extreme latitudes — the sun rises and sets without fail. It may be obscured by clouds, but the sun is so bright that even under heavy cloud cover, you can visibly tell day from night.

Our custom of measuring the day from noon, or its opposite of midnight, is a relatively modern phenomenon. In Renaissance Italy, the old clocks — such as the clock in Saint Mark’s Plaza — are marked with twenty-four hours, rather than twelve. Less well-known is that the clock measured the hours according to the hora italica in which hour twenty-four occurs at sunset, rather than midnight. The Druidic Celts measured the day from sunset, as did ancient and traditional modern Jews.

For longer periods, the moon has always been the obvious timekeeper. The period from one new moon to the next is approximately 29.5 days, varying by a few days from month to month. Most early civilizations and indigenous peoples measure the year by moons.

But all advanced civilizations — the Mayans, the Chinese, the Sumerians, and (of course) the Druidic Celts — developed very sophisticated measures of time that revealed inconsistencies in the motions of the heavenly bodies. The time from sunrise to sunrise grows shorter through the spring months, and then grows longer through the autumn months. The “inconstant” moon does not pass from new to full to new in exactly the same amount of time every month.

These cultures all discovered that the time from noon to noon — or from midnight to midnight — is the same every single day of the year, without fail. Season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

In the same way, they discovered that despite the inconstant wanderings of the moon, or the weaving dance of those “wanderers” or “planetai” like Mars and Venus, or the slow drift of the stars across the night sky through the seasons and decades, a steady heartbeat existed — the solstices and the equinoxes.

The summer solstice is the “longest day” of the year at any point on the earth other than exactly on the equator. The winter solstice is the “shortest day.” The equinoxes occur exactly halfway between the solstices, in spring and autumn, and mark the point at which day and night are (approximately) equal. It is always exactly the same period of time from summer solstice to summer solstice — 365.25 days, a magical number that most modern schoolchildren learn, but which, in more ancient times, only the most educated members of high civilizations knew.

It takes precise measurements indeed to pinpoint the solstices and equinoxes, the more precise as you venture closer to the equator, which is why their measurement and celebration tends to be considered one of the markers of an “advanced” civilization.

Today we have built upon this ancient knowledge to the point that we’ve reduced the prediction of these solar events to a fairly simple formula that I’ve used to place these events on the Treehenge website calendar. Those calculations are accurate to the nearest minute, and should be good for at least another thousand years. More complex calculations that take the small wobbles of the earth’s axis into account can reduce the error to a matter of seconds, or even fractions of a second.

This solar pendulum of seasons is driven by a very simple thing: the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the circle the earth traces around the sun.

A peculiar thing about a spinning object is that its axis of rotation always tries to point in the same direction in space. So as the earth moves around the sun through the course of the year, its northern pole doesn’t keep pointing toward the sun — it keeps pointing toward the North Star. That means that on one side of the sun, the north pole is tipped toward the sun, while on the other side of the sun, the northern pole is tipped away from the sun into the dark night of outer space. When pointed toward the sun, the northern half of the earth gets more sunlight and longer days — when pointed away, the northern half gets less sunlight and longer nights. This is what drives our seasons.

This seems such a simple and elegant concept, but even four centuries ago, no one in Europe wanted to believe that the Earth was an unmoored object that moved. The earth was clearly stable, and fixed, and the moon and stars and planets and the sun moved around it. Many great minds pondered the bizarrely regular, yet inexplicable motions of these heavenly bodies.

But while they could not explain these motions, they could certainly observe and record them, especially with the help of fixed earthly structures that let them measure exactly how these objects moved. The Mayans constructed towers along mountain ridges. The Chinese built large towers that could be used to line up and sight stars, and elaborate water-filled pools that could be used to precisely measure the lengths of shadows cast by the sun. And — of course — the paleolithic inhabitants of Europe had their great stone circles.

Another peculiarity of spinning objects is that the spinning axis doesn’t point exactly toward a fixed point in space. When a force pulls on it — such as the gravity of the sun, which keeps the earth tethered rather than allowing it to float off into space — the axis of rotation wobbles. Anyone who has ever spun a top and watched gravity pull on it as it spins has watched it wobble, slowly at first and then faster as it slows down.

The Earth is very large and is spinning — in astronomical terms — at a pretty good clip, so its wobble is very, very slow. It takes about 26,000 years to wobble just once. As it wobbles, the constellations of stars seen at the spring equinox appear to slowly turn through the heavens.

It takes just a little over 2000 years for the constellations to turn through one twelfth of the full circle of stars, each marked by a specific constellation and called one of the “houses of the zodiac” in ancient astrology. This is the basis of the expression “entering the Age of Aquarius” — the Vernal Equinox has been in the House of Pisces (one of the constellations) for the past 2000 years, and is now entering the House of Aquarius (an adjacent constellation). The point at which one constellation ends and another begins is, of course, fairly arbitrary — we could equally well have said that we entered the House of Aquarius a thousand years ago, and have another thousand years to go before we enter the House of Capricorn.


In meditating on both the Sun and the Fire rites of Druidry, what impresses me tonight is how the Sun Rites unify us, while the Fire Rites require us to acknowledge our differences.

I explored briefly yesterday how different our Colorado seasons are from the British seasons — how in many ways the agricultural and pastoral celebrations of old Europe make little sense to us in our high-plains desert at the edge of the mountains — the uniqueness of our wildlife, our trees, our planting and harvesting seasons. There is no difference in value, no “standard” to strive toward — only differences to be celebrated.

The Sun Rites are based on something common to everyone on the Earth. We experience these differently by latitude, but we still experience them. The Australians have Summer Solstice while we have Winter Solstice; for those north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never rises during the Winter Solstice, and never sets in the Summer; for those near the equator, the difference is only noticeable in that the north or south side of the house gets more or less light. But those who study the sun and the stars, no matter where they are, find the same unchanging constants in the midst of variation.

12 Relationships: Fire Festivals

Of the eight solar rituals celebrated by modern Druids, four are classified as “Fire Festivals,” while the others are called “Sun Festivals.”

The timing of the Sun Festivals coincides with solar astronomical events: the two solstices and the two equinoxes. The fire festivals fall almost exactly halfway between these dates, but they are not coordinated directly with astronomical events, but instead, agricultural and pastoral rhythms.

Imbolc, which falls around Febrary 2nd, is also called “Lambing Day.” It is, as I understand it, the time of year that ewes begin to lactate, anticipating the birth of lambs a little later in the spring.


Beltaine, which falls around May 2nd, is the spring fertility rite, a time to request of the spirits and the gods a fruitful summer, and strong, healthy children.


Lugnassadh, which falls around August 2nd, is the end-of-summer and first harvest, and traditional celebrations involve lots of food, games, and competitions.


Samhuinn, or Samhain, falls around November 2nd, and is the Last Harvest festival, and a final putting-up of the winter store. It was by tradition a three-day feast, beginning in late October.


As a modern, urban Pagan, I have never found these four Fire Festivals to have much personal immediacy or relevance. My food appears magically in the supermarket, and includes exotica like Costa Rican mangoes and Chilean grapes in the dead of winter.

Matters are made even more confusing by the local climate, which is nothing at all like the climate of Great Britain.


Here we see Colorado in February, weather that typically drags into March or even April. February is when we get our cold snaps, where the temperature plunges to 20 or 30 degrees below zero. As I write tonight, it’s reasonably warm — 32 degrees, right at freezing — but the wind has been roaring through the bare tree branches all day.


The images of Imolc in Great Britain are more appropriate to our Beltaine, shown above. By May, we are starting to see warm weather on a consistent basis, though Beltaine is typically a wet celebration, with cold rain or even snow. There is usually a chilly season in late May through early June, just before the summer heat sets in by mid-June.


By Lugnassadh, summer is already finished and the first cool weather is setting in. When I’ve celebrated the solstice in the mountains, it has sometimes been warm enough to sleep outside, under the stars. By August, when we gather for Dragonfest, you need a sleeping bag and your poly-wool underwear. And maybe an extra blanket.

 


In late October, the cold has returned: the traditional Halloween candy-crawl with the kids is often canceled due to the first snow of the season.

 

 

 

 


Although we celebrate the traditional British versions of the OBOD fire festivals in our Druidic circle, we have been slowly adapting them to our own rhythms of nature. We speak of the bison, not the bear of the North. In the West we have the trout, not the salmon. The South is the domain of the elk, rather than the stag. Only the East is unchanged: here we also have the hawk, and the eagle as well.

Our trees depart even further from the British norm. There are no mighty oaks here — only scrub oak, and most of that is further south, toward Texas. Our mightiest trees are the blue spruce in the mountains, and the cottonwood in the lowlands, both of which are very different from the oak. One of our most magical trees is the aspen, which has no real match in the British Isles. Or the mysterious lodgepole pine, the grove in which I initiated my journey into the Bardic path years ago.

We have only barely begun this adaptation, but it seems right to me that as people of the land, of the earth, who claim to be at home in nature, we should adapt to the earth as it is — not as someone has remembered it in a story from a thousand years ago in a land nearly halfway around the world. It is good to remember that world. But remembering should not stand in the way of fully celebrating this one.

Christopaganism

The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids has just launched its gorgeous new site, and I got some feature-space (see here) for the Missa Druidica. You can also find it on their site by searching the site for ‘Joseph Nemeth’ or ‘Missa Druidica’.

Interestingly, they filed it under “Resources for Exploring Christian Druidry.”

I think I understand the webmaster’s rationale — after all, it is called a “Missa.”

I also suspect that relations between Christianity and Paganism are not quite so strained in the UK, since they don’t have political buffoons (e.g. Newt Gingrich) and right-wing propagandists (e.g. Glenn Beck) using the term Christian as a synonym for Patriotic Right Wing Conservative and the term Pagan as a synonym for Something Horrid (We’re Not Quite Sure What, But It’s Bad).

Still, it shocked me a bit to see the music classified under “Christian Druidy.” I’m still working that one through.

I formally departed the Christian fold in the mid-1990’s and began to identify myself as Pagan. At that time, I thought that I might merely be on an extended walkabout: that I needed to get out and see the world, then perhaps eventually return to the place I’d once called home.

Instead, I changed, and Christianity also changed. Like going back to a high-school reunion and discovering that you no longer have anything in common with your old friends; furthermore, the city has torn down the school you attended and the park you played in as a child to put up a warehouse surrounded by razor wire and vicious dogs.

You’ve changed. They’ve changed. So much so that you may find a hesitation in your voice when people ask you where you’re from. You might even be tempted to make up something, rather than tell them the truth.

You’ve moved on. And yet….

Those early experiences shaped you. Whether you like them or not. Whether you agree with them or not. Whether you claim them or not.

I grew up Christian. I attended church through college and graduate school and while my kids were growing up. I was much more than a Christmas and Easter Christian.

This shaped me. No subsequent disillusionment, no choice, no magical rite can remove that shaping from me. To do so would be to remove decades of memory and experience, hundreds of interpersonal connections, an entire language of symbols. It would necessarily destroy who I am in this life.

So I am actually an expatriate Christian. A Christopagan. Whether I like it or not.

It’s a little more palatable to me when I realize that I certainly cannot be considered a Judeopagan, nor an Islamopagan, nor a Buddhapagan: terms I’ve heard at our summer gatherings for people who have come by way of various other faiths. By the same token, I can’t properly call myself a Paganopagan — that is, a second-generation, family tradition, hereditary, “true” Pagan.

I’m Christopagan. Not by choice, but by circumstance.

However, while I may speak with a Christian immigrant accent for the rest of my life, there are reasons I’m an expatriate. One of those reasons got in my face today.

The February 2012 Rolling Stone magazine ran an article entitled “School of Hate,” about the rash of teen suicides in Michele Bachmann’s home congressional district in Minnesota. We all know some of Ms. Bachmann’s extreme religious views from her presidential campaign. It turns out that it’s something in the water up there: the Evangelicals have been preaching about the sins of homosexuality and waging war on teen-age homosexuals through the school system. They have created an extremely hostile environment for gay students, and this hostility figured strongly in the rash of suicides. Nine of them within two years.

Now anyone who makes a public statement can watch it go astray. Goddess forfend that I should ever say anything that leads to a teen suicide, but it could happen. If it did, my reaction would be utter, bone-chilling horror.

“Oh, my God!” I’d say. “I had no idea. I had no idea. I’m so sorry, so sorry. That’s never what I intended. It’s not what I meant. How can I try to make sure this never, ever happens again?”

I probably would not say another word in public for years.

That’s how I — an expatriate Christian who no longer feels the least bit of interest in God’s Law — would react. I think it’s the only decent, human reaction to causing so much human suffering.

Here’s what Barb Anderson, Evangelical Christian and one of the lead crusaders for the Minnesota Family Council which drafted the gay-hostile policies adopted by the Anoka-Hennepin school district, had to say:

“If gay kids weren’t out of the closet in the first place, then they wouldn’t be bullied.”

 

 

What kind of soul-rot causes a person to make such a statement? What kind of decay of the intellect protects a person from seeing the sanctimonious, self-serving, self-righteous arrogance of such a remark?

To say nothing of the hypocrisy. I seem to remember a few Christian principles like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or even “Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.”

Bullying a young person to the point of suicide is one hell of an offense. Encouraging bullying throughout an entire school system… Is there any ocean deep enough for that millstone?

Now, what I hear in response from reasonable Christians is, “But WE don’t behave that way! These are right-wing nutcases. They aren’t representative of Christ or of Christianity.”

I do understand that complaint, and I’m sympathetic. I’d hate to be tarred with the stupid and/or immoral things some Pagans may have done, or may someday do. On the other hand, I don’t see this kind of sustained hatred and soul-warped indifference flowing as a steady, fetid wind out of many non-Christian groups.

I don’t see atheists driving children to suicide in the name of Reason or Secular Humanism. I don’t see Pagans doing this in the name of Athena or Brigid. I don’t see Buddhists doing this, though in truth I don’t know very many Buddhists. I’m no longer in touch with the Jewish community, but I’m sure they are at least as outraged by bullying as I am. I can see in my mind’s eye their response to someone saying, “Well, if those Jew kids didn’t wear their little skullcaps in public on their way to church, they wouldn’t be bullied.”

I do, however, see a lot of Christians persecuting “sinners” all over the world. In the US, it’s currently a gay-hunt. In parts of Africa, it’s a witch-hunt. People suffer. People die, brutally. And all the while, the perpetrators salve their guilt with the idea that they’re doing “God’s Work.”

Perhaps it is the salve that covers the stink of the infection and allows it to chew its way into the soul.

Regardless of how this disease progresses, it is not something I can bear to be around, and it infects most branches of most Christian churches in the US. The churches today that aren’t actively hating homosexuals, or struggling over just how human they are (and thus, how fit to serve in various capacities within the church) find themselves all-but-defined by the sanctuary they offer gays against the other Christians.

I think it’s just what happens when you decide you’ve got such a firm handle on the Mind of God that you can write down His thoughts in a book, then read it stupidly.

Years ago, when I was first parting ways with Christianity, I had a meditational conversation with Jesus. We stood only a short distance apart from each other, but a small stream flowed between us: he was on one side, I was on the other. I knew that as we walked downstream, the stream would become a deep river.

“I can’t stay on your side,” I told him. “You, I always liked. But your Dad — that’s a different story. I can’t deal with him.”

He smiled: a sad, worn, weary smile.

“I understand,” he said. “And you know, you’re lucky. He’s MY Dad.”

He wasn’t speaking of the Abba of his sermons. Nor of the Father, Who Art In Heaven. Not even the rotten bastard who left him to die on the cross, the My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

We were both speaking of the monster-god invented centuries later, who demanded at long last the blood-sacrifice that Abraham was spared from making of his son. The creation of cantankerous old men who thought they had such a firm handle on the Mind of God and the Needs of the Empire that they could write it down and fix every word of it for all time, like some exotic species of butterfly pinned to a name card. The God of generations of people hearing and reading those words stupidly.

Jesus is stuck with him, now. It’s actually quite sad.

So no — I don’t think I’m really a Christian Druid, though I do speak Pagan with an immigrant Christian accent. And certainly, the Missa Druidica is not a Christian work.

11 Relationships: Ritual and Worship

The sun drops toward the cleft. To its left, I can see only the shattered end of the ridge that thrusts into this valley and ends abruptly at the deep lake; from here, the ridge seems to rise out of the lake like a volcanic cone. To the right, a more distant fold of mountains rises, outline softened by thick pines. The sun will set almost directly in the notch between the ridge and the mountains in this early autumn season, giving long light and longer shadows.

I stand in the nervous, fluttering cluster of people. They chatter like birds. I’m no less nervous, but nervousness usually makes me quiet, not talkative. Tonight I have a question, for the first time in all the years I’ve sought audience. A cryptic question, but a simple one. A simple yes or no.

I don’t know what answer I will receive: I’ve thought through both answers, what they mean. One answer tastes of sour despair, and leads to more questions: demands even, for explanation and guidance. The other answer is bitter in my mouth: it also leads to questions, but those are questions I will not ask, because I know the answer is to live the questions — not ask them.

I throw the hood of the light wool cloak over my head and face, blocking out the sunlight, the bird-chatter of the other Walkers, the feel of the breeze in my hair. The polypropylene-wool blend of long underwear itches in a familiar way, and it has grown uncomfortably warm under the wool cloak. That will change once the sun sets. I ignore the warmth and the itching.

Stillness. Darkness. Quiet.

Who am I? Let it go.
What do I want? Let it go.
What will happen tonight? Let it go.

Feel the air in my nostrils. Reach for the deep energy of the earth — I envision roots growing from the bottom of my torso, extending into the earth, drawing up energy. I feel each chakra flare as the energy moves up. Weakly at some: my second chakra barely flickers, fourth is guarded and shadowed, fifth is almost dark, sixth is blurry. No surprises there. The past three years have been devastating.

Let it go.

I turn to my partner-Walker. She’s one of the chirping birds. She stops chattering when she sees my face, my eyes.

“I am ready,” I say.

This is, after all, sacred theater. That is its purpose — to draw us out of the mundane world of blunted corners and smoothed paths, into the world of the gods. In the mundane world, I would say, “I’m ready,” or “Let’s go.” Contractions and idioms. Familiar patterns of speech that mask the fearful wonder of the world.

I am ready. Formal words, spoken formally. I am in character, now. Ready to face the gods. To ask my question.

She stumbles a bit, thrust unprepared into her role as guide, but she recovers well. “Then come,” she says soberly, and leads me up the hill.

Her urge to chatter overcomes her halfway up, and she tries to make small talk. I ignore her, as gently as possible, and she flutters back into silence. My mind is on this journey. My body works its way up the slope, but my soul takes a longer path. Each step of the body is a league to the soul.

We approach the tent. She has chosen white, and her long red hair makes a strong contrast. I see but do not see her assistant dressed in black, the one who stands behind her and holds and contains the energy of this place. He is essential, but not important. I approach, and kneel. This is not an act of penitence, but merely of respect: there is a pillow to guard my knees from the hard earth and sharp stones. It is part of the theater. I look up.

The sun has grown lower still and taken on a golden color. A mild breeze passes across the lake below us, and the sunlight glints from the ripples. I see a brood of ducklings follow their mother — they cut a sharp vee in the water, and I hear their broad honks, faintly. Tiny white clouds dot the clear sky, which is pale gold in the west; it shades rapidly to pale blue that deepens to cerulean above my head. The face of the looming peak lies in deep shadow. I smell pine on the breeze, and woodsmoke from the camp.

All this impresses itself on my memory in a timeless instant that stretches to eternity.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

My eyes return to the eyes of the priestess who sits before me. The sunlight flickers through her breeze-stirred hair, lights the diaphanous white of her robes with warmth. Her eyes startle me — I am accustomed to the cornflower blue that makes such a pretty contrast to the red of her hair in the camp below, but here, her eyes are pale, gray-blue, almost white. I can feel the energy of Presence, quivering deep in whatever organ senses such things — it is like the boundless excitement I felt as a small child when Mom agreed to take us to the amusement park.

I draw upon the earth to steady myself. Long ago I followed a god who demanded submission in the pattern of the Roman patronage within which the religion was born. The Great and Mighty would permit certain liberties to those beneath them, but only so much and no more. We had our place, and we were expected to know it and submit to it. There was no greater crime than to seek parity with our betters — for such offense was humankind exiled from Eden and Lucifer cast down from Heaven.

Patterns of subservience are hard to break, but they dishonor the gods I seek now; I struggle for a moment before I feel the answering surge of godhood within myself. I take a deep breath, straighten my back, and look ancient Isis squarely in the eye.

We speak then, in that eternal golden moment. I ask my question, and receive the bitter answer, not the sour. The answer I had already suspected was true. She embraces me — unusual in such settings — and I thank her.

I stand and let the guide take me back down the hill, as my soul follows the longer path. We meet, my soul and I, at the grounding area, and I touch the earth with my fingers to remind myself that I am here, in the real world. But I don’t come all the way back, not yet. I still have my duties as a Walker.

As the sun sets and the night grows dark, I guide dozens of seekers to Isis for their own audience, serving as Walker, as Psychopomp — half in the sacred world, half in the mundane world. A strange feeling grows in me, and at last I recognize it: service given in love.

As the feeling grows, I look within and see that my fourth chakra, the heart, is opening like a flower.

A fresh beginning.

10 Relationships: Spirits of the Land

I prefer the term “Spirits of Place.”

I’m a bit of an animist. An animist is someone who believes that everything is alive and has its own soul or spirit.

My animism comes from a rather strange place, which is the rarified realm of physics.

I was thinking about this just last night in a different context. One of the issues with intelligence is that it necessarily violates conservation laws, including conservation of energy and momentum.

Consider a ball that someone has thrown. It describes a perfect parabolic trajectory under the (almost) constant, homogeneous gravitational influence of the earth. Conservation of momentum keeps it moving forward. Gravitational potential energy converts to kinetic energy as the parabola steepens, conserving energy. You can even compute the frictional influence of the air it passes through, accounting for laminar flow using elegant (if difficult) differential equations, and turbulent flow using a number of successive approximations. The mathematics are elegant, the predictions as precise as you care to make them.

Then the bat hits the ball and knocks it out of the park in the opposite direction.

“That’s not fair!” the physicist complains. “You introduced energy into the system from the outside.”

Well, yeah. That’s exactly what “intelligence” does.

The seventeenth-century scientists viewed the universe as a vast clock, an intricate whole made up of fitted parts, crafted and wound-up once a long time ago by the Great Clockmaker — God. They pushed the question of intelligence into the distant past and called it a Mystery.

Modern theorists have settled on a more specific event, the Big Bang, which they posit occurred some sixteen billion years ago, give or take. This is their version of the bat striking the ball, and what caused the Big Bang remains a Mystery.

I think the Mystery is much more present than either the seventeenth century scientists or the modern theorists claim.

I can demonstrate a completely different outcome for every laboratory experiment ever performed with nothing more sophisticated than a big hammer and a little free time. One friend had a PhD project where simply standing up and walking across the room would have given him different results, so sensitive was the equipment. No hammer required.

Acts of intelligence aren’t rare or elusive. To the contrary, scientists have to work very, very hard to remove the pervasive and disruptive interference of intelligence from their experiments. Random interference can be filtered out of the results; acts of intelligence cannot. Acts of intelligence tip over the entire applecart, then set fire to it.

Intelligence redirects vast amounts of energy. It does so all the time. How it does so is a Mystery.

If people exhibit intelligence, what about dogs? Parakeets? Paramecia? Elementary particles? What about forests, groves, caves, rivers, mountains?

People have long observed — not theorized, but observed — that some places are special. They have a “feel” to them, and most people who visit those places pick up on the feeling and tell similar stories. They sense a presence, an intelligence.

A spirit of place.

I’ve always been fascinated by the energy — as most of us Pagans call it in casual conversation — in various churches. We call it “energy” because that’s our first impression of it — something moving, vibrating, humming — and because we’ve just encountered it, usually, and haven’t taken the time to get to know it.

We have a lovely Episcopal church here in town with a sweet pipe organ, good architecture, nice acoustics — and the place is as energetically dead as a Best Buy or Wal-Mart. I’ve not visited a lot of churches here in town, but I’ve not found any nor heard of any here that resonate strongly with a spirit of place.

By contrast, there is the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Boston. I visited Boston in 1998, and simply walking through the front doors was almost overwhelming. When we left, it was like pushing through the surface of a bubble — the energy inside the church stretched around us into the street for just a brief instant, then snapped back.

I don’t know a lot about Boston or the Cathedral Church, but I do know that most Christian Churches in Europe are built atop old Pagan sites of worship, which were most likely there because the spirit of place was already present.

When you sit with the energy of a place, come to know it and love it, you find your love returned. This is something that every person who has ever had a love-of-place knows.

As a pragmatist, I think a little bit of animism is a good thing. Humans are rude and abusive of their environment. They are positively cruel to strangers. They are quite a bit better to their friends.

Those who make friends with the spirits of place will be, I think, a little better to and for those places.

At least, I hope so.