Tag Archives: awe

When muggles consider magic

I read widely and encounter thinkers from many different backgrounds. Some of those trouble me enormously, and it’s taken me years to figure out why, but, here we go…

Rational mainstream thinking is all about logic. Any effect will have a cause. Any good theory produces testable, re-usable results. Once you understand something you can accurately predict what it will do. This is the thinking of the science lab. It holds up just as well in the kitchen, or wielding the wool. It is the logic of dependable physical reality and as such is a bloody good thing and generally makes life easier.

We’ve got into this habit of thought collectively. This idea of logical progressions from causes to effects, one thing meaning that another will follow. We expect to be able to unpick all of nature, uncover ever last law of physics and have it make sense. However, we’re taking that tidy, resolving approach into our spiritual thinking and into our magic, some of us. The same certainty, the same confidence that my cause and effect will work as well for you as if I had undertaken a lab experiment and proved it. We bring the logic of the mundane and predictable to something that should be neither.

The consequence of this, is the absence of room for wonder. Religions on the whole are remarkably good at tidying spiritual experience up into something safe, sensible and predictable, and by so doing, knock out all the mystery. There is no room for anything numinous to creep in when you think you have it all figured out and are confidently asserting what the rules are. Awe and wonder are, instead, part of the experience of being out of your depth, unsure, overwhelmed and unable to safely rationalise.

Uncertainty has been important to me for a long time, as an unconsidered, emotional response to spiritual experience. And lo, I have managed to bring the art of thinking rationally to that uncertainty, and have usefully found out something about what it is and does and why I need it. What reason tells me, is that if I want spiritual experience, sometimes I will have to let go of the desire to have it all make sense.

Second Chances

I don’t tend to assume that life will deliver second chances. Some opportunities repeat, but many do not. I’m all too aware that sometimes you say goodbye to a person, and you never get to see them again, and you do not know at the time that this will happen. Chances to experience things, to connect with people, to fix problems, to learn… anything that turns up can be a one shot deal. There isn’t time always to follow every lead, but making those choices conscious that there may be no second chances, helps focus the mind rather.

I tend to give second chances where I can. I’m acutely aware that people mess up, and mess up for good and honourable reasons and the best possible intentions. If there’s anything to suggest that might have been the case, I’ll cut a lot of slack. People who mess up in that way are usually keen to fix things and get them right, which makes it well worth having the conversation. However, people who are sure they know better than me how I feel and what I need may have convinced themselves of their noble intentions, but do not get to pull that stunt repeatedly.

The majority of my closest friendships have, at some point been tested to breaking point, through challenges, things I’ve done, things they have done. The determination to come back and fix is key here. The person who says ‘how do we put this right?’ and who takes the time with me to do that, or to listen to my request to do that if I’m the one who messed up… these are the people I keep. The measure of a person is not their capacity for perfection, but what they do when things go wrong. Where we own mistakes, there’s scope to work with it and move forwards. Where there is genuine remorse, there’s every opportunity to sort things out.

However, where the desire is to blame, to score points, to ‘win’ I quit, as fast as I can these days. I’ve tried reconciliation with folks who like to score points, and sooner or later they do it all again. If the appearance of being right is more important than the actuality, I walk away. If the other person’s aim is to blame, or duck responsibility, to never admit to being wrong, I walk away. If I think for a moment that someone enjoys inflicting pain, I am out of there, fast. If there are double standards, and someone excuses in themselves something they find unacceptable in me, that’s another sign to leave. I do not stick around for ego trips, melodrama, scapegoating and people who like having a whipping post. Since I’ve adopted a low tolerance to this kind of behaviour, my life has improved considerably.

Not all of the losses of people and opportunity are about conscious choice, or mistakes made. Sometimes life draws people in different directions, and the slipping away is a slow, accidental process. Sometimes other factors change what’s available. Sometimes we don’t realise the value of the person we lost until there is no way back. Often there are no second chances with these, once contact is lost, there’s no scope for rebuilding it. And yet… the last week or so has raised the possibility of reconnecting with two people who were hugely important to me in my teens.

Second chances are precious things, rare, and worth being wide –eyed with awe and a little bit daunted over. Not something to take for granted.

Away with the fairies

There’s a hide not far from the canal – private land being developed as a mini nature reserve, with tree planting and a small pond. We regularly see badgers, foxes, rabbits, buzzards and garden birds there, having permission to visit as we please! The badgers are the main attraction, because they generally aren’t easy to spot other places. However, the hide owners tend to put down peanuts to attract them. Last night, there were no nuts. A lone badger of the dozen or so from the set came round to check, and that was the end of the matter. Still, seeing one badger is a joy, and we also had an encounter with a huge, unidentified moth.

We were just getting up to leave when Tom spotted lights amongst the trees. We all saw them – a cluster of small lights that could only be seen from one angle, and that all went off at once. It was nearly dark by then. The nature area does not adjoin any gardens, ruling out fairy lights, solar lights, anything gardenish – there’s a thick hedge and a grass walkway and another hedge between what we could see and the nearest garden.

There were glow bugs in the area, but we haven’t seen any in weeks now. There is a guy who studies moths, we pondered moth traps. Much work went in to looking for a perfectly rational explanation for what all three of us had seen. Increasingly aware that none of us were entirely at ease with the rational explanations, I eventually got round to saying ‘could have been fairies.’

It’s an interesting one for me. I’m a druid and a pagan, I believe in the idea of magic and otherworldliness, but at the same time I pride myself on being a rationally minded creature, willing to consider the evidence as dispassionately as I can. I’ll always look for the banal explanation first, rather than seeing everything in terms of gods, hobgoblins, aliens, Atlanteans etc etc. But there are times when the sense of wonder, the feeling of encountering something numinous is too strong for the rational explanation.

The last time this happened to me I was in Portland with Tom, and we both saw a tiny little whirlwind spinning leaves around. It was so small, so localised, the rest of the air so still that whatever the logical explanation might have been, the sense of seeing something otherworldly was powerful indeed.

Often it’s about the language we use. Thunder and earthquakes have perfectly sensible explanations, we know what they are, and yet at the same time the power of them, and other regular, natural and universally recognised phenomena is breathtaking. Spirit and science do not need to be at odds here. It may be tempting to call things we don’t understand ‘magic’ but there’s no reason not to recognise the known as magical, too. That first rainfall after days of dry heat. A full moon haloed by mist. There’s no reason for the experience of magic to be irrational.

We saw something last night. We don’t know what it was. Any speculation is just that, no version any more evidenced than any other, despite our best efforts. Of course I want to know what I saw, but for me, that knowledge would in no way reduce the feeling of wonder, awe and delight that the moment inspired.

Art, religion, druidry

Recently in Tewkesbury abbey I saw an exhibition by Christian artist and priest Iain McKillop. It was incredibly vivid, sensual, physical depictions of Jesus, focusing on his last days. As a consequence it was also heartrending and brutal in terms of subject matter. There were a lot of paintings – Gethsemane, last supper, cross bearing, depictions of crucifixion. There were also images inspired by religious crisis. It was incredible art work, and at the same time, almost unbearable to look at.

Coming to it as a non-Christian, as someone outside the story, I was simply shocked by the intensity of pain. The abbey contains plenty of older, more traditional art. Usually, the crucifixion is portrayed in a very clean, peaceful way. Beautiful colours, peaceful faces. Often Jesus looks like he’s taking a little nap, not dying by one of the most tortuous punishments ever devised. Those older paintings must have informed a lot of perceptions of what the death meant. Jesus dying is usually a gentle, soulful affair. To see it offered up, so bloody, extreme and agonised, is a bit of a shock.

As a druid, I’m very open to art, beauty and expressions of soul. I also seek to be aware of reality in all its complex shades, the pain as well as the pleasure. And still I am stumped by what I’ve seen. Trying to imagine the journey of the artist into creating this kind of work. What does it mean to live with such brutal images? To work on them, unrelentingly? And more importantly, what does the depicted pain and suffering mean?

I believe that everything has the scope to bring meaning and religious experience into our lives. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Pain is no exception. Except that kind of extremis makes it nigh on impossible to think. There comes a point when both physical and emotional pain start to blot you out, so that nothing seems real, nothing is truly experienced beyond it. Is that a religious experience?

It’s easy to turn away from that which horrifies. Especially in art. It’s easiest to close down senses, refuse to engage and go somewhere safer. I stood those paintings for as long as I could bear, and I’ve meditated on them since, and I know I do not understand. All I can offer here is a profound sense of confusion. What does it mean, to offer such suffering as spirituality? For me, pain has taken me away from my spiritual self, not deeper into it. In the aftermath of pain, I have learned compassion and tolerance, and no doubt other things too, but that requires a time after, a peace, a space to regroup and move on. There are things here I feel a need to understand, but I have no idea what to ask, or whom. (Suggestions most welcome).

Tewkesbury abbey also features modern stained glass windows by Thomas Denny. He has windows at Gloucester too. They are beautiful, vivid, detailed and use colour in the most amazing ways. The more you look, the more you see. Light coming through the glass fills the chapel with warmth and every shift of light affects the image. Standing in front of Denny’s work, I see an expression of pantheism, God shining through in all things. It’s not emotionally uncomplicated or free from shadows, but is rich, moving, challenging and inspiring all at once.

I stand before those windows and I see something that fills me with wonder and a sense of the numinous. Just encountering Denny’s art is a religious experience for me. It fills me, nourishes my soul and sends me out into the world wakeful and hopeful. My Druid self loves what he does, and the different sources of our inspiration don’t seem to matter at all. This kind of Christianity, I understand.

Magic, fiction and paganism

Often in fiction, magic exists as a plot device, and alternative to science and a means to get things done. Sometimes, the mechanics are laid bare. Fictional magic often lacks mystery. Spell casting wizards whose magic is reliable if they say and do the right things are commonplace in fantasy. Psychic powers and magical attributes are usually well defined, predictable, reliable, and (to borrow from Red Dwarf) other words ending in ‘ible’.

As a pagan, my whole idea of magic is completely at odds with this. For me, the very essence of magic is mystery and wonder. I don’t perceive magic as an alternative to science either. I see them in far more complex relationship. That which we do not understand, is magic. That which we have an explanation for, is science, in terms of how humans deal with things. But science can engender wonder and a sense of the miraculous.

Brendan Myers defines magic as that which inspires awe (my books are in storage, I can’t do references!) I think this is a great place to start. The fireworks and thunderclaps of fantasy magic are no different from any other pyrotechnics. They inspire excitement perhaps, but not any sense of wonder.

In fiction, magic just isn’t magical very often.

The desire to explain, to pin down and regulate seems to be on the increase. We confuse understanding, with pinning a thing to a board. To understand a butterfly is to see it in flight, watch how it sits on a flower, to marvel at its colour. Pinning it to a board will help you define and quantify it, but destroys the butterfly. All the mechanical explanations in the world cannot really give you understanding of any complex thing. There is a world of difference between theory and practice, between figures and insight, between taking a thing apart and understanding how it works.

There are some authors who offer wonderful expressions of magic – Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Charles De Lint, Robert Holdstock, Jonathan Carroll, Terry Pratchett with his witches. There’s the whole genre of magical realism, inspired by pre-colonial ways of knowing the world – I’m not a huge fan of Salaman Rushdie, but he’s a fine example. Isabelle Allende is a personal favourite.

These are authors who write experiential magic, and who embrace the numinous. Magic is not, for them, a tidy and coherent system that works like a science or a technology. Magic is wild and wonderful, unruly and full of mystery. It does not explain itself. It will not sit down and tell you where it came from, how it works, and what you can and can’t do with it. Instead, it is the magic that transforms lives and brings inspiration.

There are a lot of people out there who perceive stage magic, fantasy magic, as the aspiration of actual pagans. They imagine that we want to be Harry Potter. They watch impossible, crazy things and understand that magic is impossible and unreal and not available to them. So much magic in fiction is actually taking away from people the idea that magic exists, by turning it into high fantasy. I’ve yet to meet anyone who does Harry Potter style magic (I assume no one would admit it if they could), but if this vision of what magic means defines it in the public conscious, most people will understand it is not for them, and that only crazy people would seek for it.

Remystifying magic, re-enchanting it and bringing it back into a spiritual and meaningful context, would be an epic task. But not impossible. It’s just such a nuisance that Hollywood pyrotechnic pseudo-science goes round calling itself magic, when it’s about as unmagical as you can get.