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.

Sucky Wonderful

What a disastrous, wonderful evening!

Here’s the background: tonight was supposed to be my broadcast interview (and Andrew Ravensong’s) on Colorado Public Radio on Colorado Matters at 7:00 p.m. So we got together, tuned in on our PC (since radio reception of CPR in Fort Collins sucks the Big One,) had a fabulous dinner with free-flowing alcohol, and huddled around the PC and its speaker extensions like a family huddled around the Marconi during WWII. I half expected exhortations to “never, ever, ever, ever give up.”

Turns out that the program was on Colorado Spotlight at 7:00 p.m., and no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get it over the PC (and did I mention that radio reception of CPR in Fort Collins sucks the Big One?)

So we listened to someone on Colorado Matters yammering with a British accent about the X-15 and burning up at Mach 20 and a whole lot of other stuff just as totally disappointing (under the circumstances,) and as 7:00 grew pale and 8:00 grew bright and solid and dead-ashes-cold, we came to the conclusion that we’d missed the show.

SUCKS!

We cussed in our various ways, dialects, and languages (I’m rather fond of Hugh Grant’s riff from Four Weddings and a Funeral.) My youngest son had parties to attend — for him, it’s still Christmas. The rest of us took the dog on a chilly hike around the townhouse circle under a glorious almost-full moon while trying to remember what star formed the eye of the constellation of Taurus (Aldebaran, correctly asserted by one of our tribe), and its spectral class (K III, and I claim “close” because I said it was a red giant), and how the heck do you pronounce it (no one got that right, though some of us guessed correctly it is from Arabic).

When we came back, we poured more celebratory alcohol and played ridiculously music-geeky YouTube videos (e.g. Giles Apap’s incredible cadenza to the Mozart Violin Concerto #3, one of my all-time favorites.) P.D.Q. Bach sorts of things. If you don’t know who P.D.Q. Bach is/was, you probably would not understand why we were howling with laughter.

Then I played the Missa for those present from my personal stash of recordings.

My oldest son bailed after the third movement. “I want to hear this live,” he said. “And the second movement is VERY difficult to get right. I understand why the choir wants more time to rehearse it.” He wanted to be a composition major, but let the UNC faculty talk sense into him (I speak here with bitter, if resigned, irony.) He took the California Zephyr in from Chicago just to come for the concert tomorrow night. He and Marta went to the garage to retrieve an air mattress.

His mother — my former wife, who flew in from Minneapolis for the concert — and I listened through the last two movements, both of which will be performed tomorrow. Both movements reduced me to tears. Maybe it was the Bloody Mary. But I always have a hard time really listening to the Missa without tearing up.

I never feel like any of my music is entirely mine. It comes from somewhere else, and I’m merely a channel. It honors me. It humbles me. I wish I could hear it more clearly. But I’m glad I hear it as clearly as I do, and that I have at least some of the talent and training needed to write it down.

Tomorrow’s concert will be grand….

A Day of Music

Yesterday I met with the director and members of the Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir. They will be singing the Missa Druidica on January 7, with several more performances scheduled for next spring.

The gathering convened at the Star House above Boulder, starting at 8:30 am, so Marta and I had to be on the road by 7:00, which is a little early for me. The autumn had reached its peak, and the leaves turned every ray of morning sunlight into molten gold. Colorado trees in autumn have mostly yellow leaves. Only a few trees here and there burn with red to provide startling splashes of color amidst all the sunlit gold and the few patches of hardy and stubborn green.

The road to Star House winds steeply up from Boulder, with hairpin turns, marked at ten miles per hour, that overlook harrowing drops onto people’s roofs. It strikes me as an awkward place to live — when someone “drops in” for dinner, it could be quite a bit more literal than anything I would be comfortable with. Roads were dry and warm, however, so we observed the caution signs and had no trouble.

We at last cleared the population centers and came to the near-perpendicular dirt driveway that led to Star House. The building stands a short walk from the parking lot, in a clearing surrounded by twelve stones that mark the houses of the Zodiac. These stones are not nearly so large as the great megaliths of Europe, but they are not insignificant — most stand about chest-high to me, and are a little too large in girth for me to wrap my arms around.

The house itself is a 12-sided single-room structure made of native wood taken from the forest about it. The support pillars around the periphery are whole trunks taken from the forest in the direction away from the house in which the tree originally stood. The bark and branches were stripped, and the bole smoothed and varnished, but each pillar is clearly identifiable as a tree trunk. Windows open onto views of the surrounding forest and mountains in all directions but the north, where a wood stove stands in its stone alcove.

The theme for the gathering was “mindfulness.” Andrew, the choir director, started us with breath-work, mindful walking, vocal relaxation, and a “chakra-tuning” that involved sung tones. I’ve done many of these exercises before, but it was lovely to be led through them and to be reminded of how important they are.

After a short break, a gentleman who goes by the name of Puck took us into a physical exploration of rhythm, which I found both fascinating and surprisingly difficult. After all, I’m known in my drumming circles as the pain-in-the-ass drummer who introduces five-beats or seven-beats when it’s my turn to lead. This was simply mixing threes with fours — not even three-against-four (which is actually a twelve-beat divided up two different ways). The difficulty lay in getting all of the pieces working together: we marched one rhythm with our feet, spoke a different rhythm with our voice, and clapped a third rhythm with our hands. Most of us experienced flashes of success for short periods, but then we’d lose our coordination — even Puck. We laughed as we stumbled about, lost our rhythm, and started over.


After another short break, Andrew turned the meeting over to me to talk with the choir about the Missa Druidica.

I had great fun talking with them. A significant number of choir members had not heard the entire work (as performed by my own iMac Symphony Orchestra and Choir), and none of them was familiar with Druidry, so I used the music itself (on CD) as a framework for talking about the music.

I answered one of the Big Questions promptly — Why so many B-flats for the sopranos? — by blaming it on Andrew. “Because he said I could,” was my answer. That caused a short uproar, fortunately not directed at me.

The group, which is mostly Wiccans and Heathens (Norse pantheon), had a lot of questions about Druidy, and because our Treehenge Drudic Circle has given many talks about the subject at Dragonfest, I was able to give them a reasonably concise and entertaining history spanning the last 4000 years of Druidic practice (most of which is fully covered by the two words, “Who knows?” accompanied by a shrug.)

One of the choir members surprised me with the question of whether they were invoking some god or goddess named Awen, and I very seriously told them that Awen was the consort of Sam Hain, Celtic Lord of Dark Underwear. After my previous erudition on the history of the Celts, several long seconds passed before the groaning began, this time directed at me. Talk about spending all your social capital at once….

I reassured them that Awen is simply the Gaelic word for “inspiration,” something that the bards and poets would invoke, and additionally viewed as something that could be drunk from a cup, much like the Greek ambrosia. Knowing writers and playwrights and musicians, I have a pretty good idea what was in that cup.

I also speculated on the relationship of the word “Awen” to the Christian word “Amen,” and the ancient Sanskrit word “Aum,” which can be taken as the primal tone that describes the creation and demise of the universe as a whole. Philologists would undoubtedly want to skewer me for such an irresponsible association, but they are not generally a physically imposing lot, so I don’t really care.

One of the more interesting questions for me regarded liturgical parallels between the Missa Druidica and the Roman Catholic Mass. I had — perhaps surprisingly — not given the matter much thought at all.

For one thing, I had started to compose the music as it came to me, with no overarching theme in mind at all. I simply wanted to write something to sing at our Druid gatherings, and the Peace to the Quarters was the first music that appeared in my head. Only after I started to hear the opening Power of Star and Stone did it occur to me that I could set the entire opening and closing of the seasonal rites to music, as a kind of sung “Mass.”

For another thing, I really didn’t know much about the structure of the Roman Catholic Masses (I’ve learned a lot more since yesterday.) I’m musically familiar with some of the great Requiem Masses — the Mozart and Faure, for instance — but I’d never paid much attention to the liturgical structure, since I knew that a lot of these later Classical and Romantic period works were intended for the concert hall rather than the cathedral. Something like the Rutter Requiem discards even the pretense of being a “regular” Mass. Even after I adopted the idea of writing a kind of “Mass” for our rites, it never occurred to me to look to the Roman Catholic mass for guidance on structure.

Finally, the idea for calling it the Missa Druidica wasn’t really mine. I had referred to it descriptively as a kind of “Druidic Mass” early on, by which I simply meant a choral work sung as part of a liturgy. Marta, my wife, came down hard on me. She’s an ex-Roman Catholic with no love nor patience for the faith, and didn’t want me mucking up our nice Druidic Rites with a bunch of Catholicism. So I dropped the term entirely and started calling it the “Druid Cycle.” Then one of the listeners in England referred to it as a Missa Druidica, and the name stuck. I liked it — even Marta thought it sounded pretty good in Latin.

So I’d never really thought much about structural similarities to the Catholic Mass. If anything, I’d simply assumed they would be similar because all religious ritual is, at root, fairly similar.

There are musical similarities to existing Masses, of course. I hear influences of Mozart, Faure, Brahms, and Rutter in the music. Someone said something about a Bach chorale at some point in the conversation, and certainly Bach is in there, too. I’d like to think there’s a little bit of everything I’ve ever loved about music in there, somewhere.

But liturgical similarities?

The question left me momentarily floundering. Fortunately, Andrew picked up the conversation at that point and laid the matter to rest.

The term “missa” comes from the Latin “Ite, missa est,” which means, “Go, it is the dismissal.” So in itself, the word is little more than stage direction for the crowd at the end of a Roman Catholic communion service. Because it was repeated at the end of every service, however, it gradually came to mean the service itself.

The fact that both the Roman Ordinary Mass and the Missa Druidica have five movements is purely coincidental, and the movements bear no relationship to each other at all. The five necessary parts of the Catholic Ordinary Mass are:

  1. Kyrie – plea that God will be merciful
  2. Gloria – prayer of praise to God, and plea for mercy
  3. Credo – statement of belief
  4. Sanctus/Benedictus – prayer of praise to God
  5. Agnus Dei – plea for mercy from the Lamb of God

By contrast, the five movements of the Missa Druidica are:

  1. Power of Star and Stone – call to celebrate together
  2. Peace to the Quarters – call for peace in the world
  3. Bless and Purify – blessing of the sacred space, and requesting the blessing of the spirits of the four directions/elements
  4. Here in Peace and Love – hymn of unity
  5. Releasing the Quarters – thanking the spirits of the four directions, and call for peace in the world

I’ve read and written any number of essays on the root differences between Paganism and Christianity, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a starker or more poignant contrast than this.

The only point of even superficial correspondence is the second movement, where the Catholic service mentions in passing “on earth peace to men of good will (in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis)” in the midst of a long prayer of worship of God and pleas for mercy.

By contrast, the Druidic liturgy calls for peace with the understanding that “without peace can no work be accomplished.” It flows from the Druidic prayer:

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the grove, may I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of humankind, may I radiate peace.
— © OBOD

As within, so without.


One of the most touching moments for me came through a chance comment from one of the choir members, after lunch, who told me that he’d need to be very careful during the second movement that he didn’t burst into tears.

I don’t believe any composer of any music whatsoever can have a more profound affirmation of the work than that it would move someone — anyone — to tears.

I know that when I hear the work on January 7, my cheeks will be wet.

Updating the Music

While I’m trying to round up real, live singers, I’ve decided to upgrade the Missa Druidica by adding the words.

I just finished the opening tonight, and it sounds fabulous — on headphones. It’s late and I don’t want to wake up everyone in the house, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what it sounds like on cheap speakers.

It’s getting easier to work with Symphonic Choirs. I’ve found a few tricks that keep it from crashing every five minutes, and that keep the scope of the changes to a reasonable level. There’s a lot of detail work involved — the syllables chosen, the exact length of each note, volume, emphasis, pitch…. I’ve probably already made a hundred sound clips, of which I keep a dozen or so and merge them together into the finished work.

The words do make a difference, though.

Philip's Site

When I got a ways into what people seem to want to call the Missa Druidica, I needed to write to Philip Carr-Gomm of OBOD for permission to use some of the (copyrighted) words from the published OBOD rites for the lyrics. He wrote back with a lot of enthusiasm for the project and my first sketches, and we’ve stayed in touch.

He recently posted about the finished work. See it here.

I’ve received some very positive comments from his readership, and my thanks to all of you for such kind comments.

Many have asked about purchasing the MP3. I’m working on that. Stay posted….

Listening to the Podcasts

A few people have had some difficulty getting the music to play. I’ve done a little research on this, and it’s actually rather amusing.

Short answer:

Download Apple QuickTime (it’s free) and install it on your computer. If you have an older version of QuickTime, upgrade it (it’s free).

Longer answer:

First, let’s turn the clock back to the olden days.

Once upon a time, you put an MP3 file up on the web and gave people an URL to find it. Your browser would download the file, then “render” it using some separate media player on your computer, like Windows Media Player or ShockWave or QuickTime or any of a dozen other free media players that some people swore by while others swore at them. You could also save the MP3 on your computer, make copies, burn your own CDs.

Then came Napster, and the fans who would rip the tracks from a new CD, upload it to the web, and share the URL with their “friends.” Most of whom were total strangers who were sharing their own ripped tracks through the ginormous clearing-house of Napster. All of a sudden, big-name musicians would sell a half-dozen copies of a CD, and then everyone else in the world would download the tunes for free from Napster. No more recording business. Which ultimately means no more professional recordings at all.

So the webmeisters invented “streaming” for both video and audio. You can still download the music or the video, but you (basically) can’t save it to your computer — you can only “stream” it through your player, and then it’s gone. Since the website now has control of the content, it can charge by the play, or charge for downloading the MP3 file, or turn off the feed entirely — in short, it puts the copying rights back in the hands of the copyright holder.

That’s the background. So I looked a little bit into how they do this “streaming” and discovered that the websites now load JavaScript that starts up a particular media player — one that doesn’t allow the file to be downloaded and saved. Since I created this web page using Apple’s iWeb, guess what media player it uses.

Gold star to anyone who said Apple’s QuickTime.

Even Faster

Wow. It practically finished itself. Now I just need to do all the work to get the primary mix right, then the final mix and the score.