Tag Archives: god

Those whom the gods most love

Heather left a powerful comment on my Downtrodden blog, about spiritual attitudes to poverty. I’ve been reflecting on that, and wanted to follow on from there. I’ve never been one for the New Age theories of like attracts like, or that misfortune is the paying off of karmic debts for some awfulness we did in a past life. Equally I have never seen wealth and affluence as proof of being in a deity’s good books. Until recently I hadn’t examined why I hold such beliefs, but on reflection I think it has everything to do with the Celtic element of my Druidry.

Skipping over how truly ancient any of the Celtic myths are, I would say it’s fair to describe them all as a bit mournful. Very few Celtic myths end happily ever after. Many end with the death of the ‘hero’. Tragedy is a pervasive theme. I think about Rhiannon, deprived of her child, blamed, humiliated and suffering. I think about the torments Branwen suffers, and all those doomed lovers, people destroyed by geas… Celtic myth is not resplendent with happily ever after, and this is a big part of what I grew up on. But then, the more I think about it, the less able I am to find stories where the righteous do not suffer. In most traditions, religious stories are all about being tested. From Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, onwards, the Old Testament makes it very clear they have a God who tests his followers.

What makes a hero, or a legend? Once upon a time, there was a man who the gods loved. They did everything imaginable to make life easy for him. He never had to work because money grew on a tree in his garden. He had a wonderful wife who recognised all the qualities in him that the gods loved, and did not want him solely for the money tree, and who bore him lots of charming, beautiful and well behaved children. Life was perfect for them in every way. It’s not a very good story, really. It’s dull, and you’re waiting for the moment when it all goes crushingly wrong, because that’s what happens in stories. It also raised a point. What are the qualities, in this deity-blessed man, that make him so appealing to the deities? If they do everything, and he does nothing, all they’ve got to go on is who he imagines he is. This man is untested. He is not a hero. He has never done anything of note, and he never will.

Compare this with the story of a woman who starts out badly – her parents are poor, maybe she’s blind, maybe she has some virtue – a good heart, a quick mind, a pretty face. To take care of her aging parents, she sets out into the world and faces terrible adversity. Bears chase her. Bandits steal her only possessions. She shares her last crust with a swan who turns out to be a fairy who can tell her how to find a fortune if only she will undertake to do three impossible things first. Not only is this more like a story, but at a symbolic level, it is more like real life.

In practice, being dishonourable, selfish, greedy and ambitious is more likely to pave the way to affluence than being generous and kind. A compassionate person won’t use their energy praying for a new car, they’ll be praying for the starving, for the homeless, and will spend their time trying to help others. Only someone who sees it as their god given right to strive after wealth above all else, will live that way. However, very few people like the idea that they might be morally bankrupt. So, by assuming money, ease and success to be signs of divine favour, they neatly get round the ethical issues. I must be fine, see how much the gods love me, see how much money I have…

If the stories are anything to go by, the gods are anything but kind to those they love most. You do not get to be a hero unless there are monsters to fight. Saints are given opportunity to die for their faith. Heroes die in battle. Mythical women die for love, or protecting their children, or defending their virtue. In face of adversity, the people who spawn legends, shine. We might take Nelson Mandela and Ghandi as more contemporary and famous examples here. The martyred icons of protest, the heroes of bloodless revolution, the ones who stand up to injustice. They are on the news every day. You can bet they aren’t praying for a pay rise. Those whom the gods love most, they challenge, sometimes to breaking point. But then, it’s only when you break a person that you see what’s inside them. Often it’s the cracks that let the light through. Often it is the wrongs, or the pain suffered that motivates a person to do amazing things. A person can have a life of ease and comfort, or they can have a life of trial and heroism, but not both. For me, one of the essential messages of the Celtic myths, is that I would seek out the latter if it did not come to me anyway.

Everything is sacred

Today I am writing in response to Solitary Druid’s most excellent post here – http://phoenixgrove.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/what-is-sacred/ (you don’t need to have read it to follow mine, but trust me, it’s well worth doing so.)

I embrace the idea that everything is sacred, that sacredness is inherent in all things. And, mindful of the blog I alluded to, I also recognise that for human functionality, this is a non-starter. I might hold it as an intellectual premise, but in practice how I treat a cat poo in the litter tray is not how I would treat a mouse that turned up there. Part of this is because of difference – the poo has no needs that I know of, whereas I need to get rid of the smell. The mouse if alive, needs to leave swiftly and gently. So even if everything is sacred, its uniqueness requires us, if we care for it, to treat it in a relevant way.

There are times when we have to choose priority. We can’t do everything, relate to everything, save everything. Our energy and time are finite and every moment of living involves an almost unthinkable amount of choice as we pilot our way through potentially infinite options. So we respond to the things that move us, that we are inspired by, or care about and give them priority over those that aren’t so emotive. We save the cute fluffy mammal and leave the remarkable insect to die. We give money to orphans with large eyes, not homeless guys with drink and drug problems – or however it falls out in our unique experience. There is no way of not doing this.

We can, however, take out little bits of time along the way to think about our priorities and relationships. If, for example, I have been excluding my own rubbish from the ‘sacred’ category, I miss its relationship both with the raw material it came from and the land it will be off to fill. I might still find it hard to see god in a paper bag, but I can think about my own relationship with the tree that went to make the paper, and the land it could be going to fill (both easily sacred), and I can opt to recycle it instead. Sometimes the best approach to ‘everything is sacred’ is not to try and grasp the inherent deity in things we can see no use or value for, but to put them back into a bigger picture. They come from somewhere, they go somewhere, it is all nature. Holding the bigger picture in mind, full time is impossible, but pausing to contemplate bits of the bigger picture, and trying to put small, apparently unimportant things into context, changes perspectives.

I am not going to see goddesses in a cat poo. But I do see a reflection of the cat’s life cycle, and a reminder of my own. I do see the challenge of waste disposal, and all the headache-inducing questions of sustainability and impact. Odds are in a few hours time, I will have forgotten the poo, and will be instead looking at the clouds, striking up a conversation with a seagull, contemplating my ancestors or going wherever today takes me. Until Mr Cat makes another offering.

The plus side of an ‘everything is sacred’ perspective, is that it makes everything worth contemplating. As I said last week, feeling druidic is easy when you’re somewhere like Avebury, and its harder wok in a supermarket, or a traffic queue. But starting from the premise that there could be sacredness here to find, is a good way of getting past the sense of isolation from beauty and wonder that urban living can bring. I’ve spent times in depressing urban places, and I used to find it very hard. The prompt from another druid to keep looking for spirits of place, and to assume a presence of the sacred, took me some time to get to grips with, but has radically altered how I feel about being in cities. Nature is everywhere. It’s with us every time we draw breath, or empty our bladders, and it’s worth keeping sight of that.

The quest for beauty and meaning, for sacredness amongst the worst messes of short term human ‘creativity’ can take a person strange places. Many of the good things are accidental, the wildlife that has moved in, the unintentional art. Where there is grim building and low aspiration, a place can feel soulless. Recognising that it does have soul, changes how we relate to it, what we do with it, and ideally in the end, it changes the place. Once you start treating everything, and everyone as though there is a dash of sacredness there, the odds are you’re going to show it/them more care and respect, and real changes will occur.

Pondering this yesterday I came to the conclusion that sacredness and relationship go together. Without relationship, ideas of sacredness are meaningless. It’s not the intellectual premise that matters, it’s how we live it, and that’s about what we do with everything we encounter.
Also, I now wonder if my cat is psychic. As I was typing away about cat poo, he thoughtfully undertook to provide me with one! If god is in that smell, it’s going to be a while before I can experience ecstatic relationship. But then, I’m only human.

Your ineffable predestination

Not so long back, Autumn Barlow guest blogged here about the idea of whether things are Meant to Be. I’ve finally got round to formulating a response, so here we go. I don’t personally believe in predestination. I do not think there are any gods, fates or forces directing our lives and setting us up for certain experiences. Nor do I believe that before this life we all got together in heaven, or some other place, and planned how we wanted it to go and what we wanted to learn. I think that life is improvisation. I also know that I do not know how reality works, and that my theories are best guesses. I therefore want the most useful theory I can find. I cannot know if I am right, but ‘useful’ is something I can measure.

However, the idea of an ineffable plan can be comforting in hard times. When all you get are setbacks, the idea that it means something, or is taking you in an important direction might turn meaningless pain into a bearable sense of significance. The only trouble is, if the plan is either that of a deity, or your higher self in another realm, you have no personal control. You can only endure and follow the path that you were fated to take. I don’t find that helps me make the best choices, and that’s why I reject it as a world view.

Sometimes there seems to be nothing to do but endure, suffer, and try to survive. Sometimes it feels like the only available life lesson is ‘you do not get to win’. But there are always other ways of thinking about what happens. We might not be able to change our circumstances, but we can change how we think about them, and that can, in turn, change everything.

On Monday I was starting to feel like I would inevitably be crushed by forces I cannot control. By yesterday morning I had reasoned out that there must be ways of not being crushed. By the afternoon I had come to realise that I do indeed have very little power because responsibility lies elsewhere. I went on to recognise that I can choose to trust the person who does have responsibility for dealing with things. This is someone who has not previously had to step up and shoulder such a huge load, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, or won’t. By this morning I had come to the conclusion that maybe this other person needs the opportunity to grow that will inevitably come as a consequence of stepping up. My role is no longer to be on the front line. I’m now at the support end, providing backup, information, resources and trusting someone else to take the lead. I feel fine about this.

A week ago, in a wholly different scenario, I found a sudden weight of responsibility descending upon me. A vast amount of work loomed as a consequence, and work that I had no idea how to do. The prospect alone could have put me down, could have convinced me that I was beaten, or caused me to relinquish autonomy to someone else as a way through. On that occasion, thinking it through, I realised that I was indeed the one who had to step up to make changes, and that I could do it. Now well under way in that process, the responsibility I took starts to feel like freedom.

In both situations I could have accepted the idea that I am fated to be crushed. Having two, or three, or four hard things fall one after the other (midweek we learned a lot about mechanical repairs) the scope for taking it personally is huge. I could decide that the gods have it in for me and mean to break me. I could conclude that my defeat is inevitable and that I might as well just lie down and wait to die. This would be a story, not a truth, and would only become real through my embracing of it and my acting it out.

Another day, another challenge. I do look for meaning, but am increasingly determined that the meaning I need to seek is about how to make the best of it. Often, there is some kind of good to extract from even the worst setbacks. Often there are ways of moving forwards even when at first it does not feel that way. The only grand plan I think is going to matter is the one I construct inside my head. If anything can be described as ‘meant to be’ it will be because things have happened as I meant them. Or as someone else human and present meant them. As I keep saying to my child, there are often no ‘wrong’ answers when it comes to life, there are only the answers we choose for ourselves. Keeping in sight the ways in which we can choose is a big part of taking responsibility, and finding freedom. It’s only when we convince ourselves that we have no choices, and no power, that we’re really in trouble.

Belonging to the land

Talking about druidry on this blog recently, I suggested the idea that what defines druids as distinctly different from other pagans, is that druids belong to the land. There was a lot of affirmative feedback on that, so I wanted to come back and consider what that means.

The land is the source of all life, and the basis of most ecosystems (oceans aside). So by focusing on the land we are called to take a longer perspective over living things, ourselves included. The long term wellbeing of the land is essential for all life. You cannot mistreat the land and hope to have life continue unchanged. Mistreating the land is something humans do continually, with no eye to the long term and little sign of any enlightened self-interest even. To be a druid is to speak for the wellbeing of the land, to act with that in mind, to see the deeper connections and the longer time scales.

Belonging to the land also places us specifically in the land we inhabit, along with all of its flora, fauna, history and human activity. Wherever we are, we belong, and it doesn’t matter how often or how far we move, while we are living on the land, we have the relationship and we can hold it consciously. It gives us a starting place from which to explore all the relationships we can have with other inhabitants of the land, and with its history, and future. Belonging grounds us – literally. We have a place to stand – literally again. It is the kind of knowing that gives strength and the ability to endure.

I think the idea of belonging to the land also leads us to relationship with much more immediate manifestations of deity rather than big, distant concepts. We’re more likely to take an animist approach, seeing spirit in all things, to look for the spirits and deities of our places, and to honour deities connected to the land we know. The sacredness of our land and the spirit of it is present to us, however we choose to understand it, and this immediacy feeds into a sense of direct involvement. God is not distant and inaccessible. The gods, the spirits, the divine is here, present, now. It can speak to us with the voices of wind and stream, from the roots of trees and the soil itself. We can glimpse it in the running hare or the soaring bird. These too belong to the land and are part of the same magical relationship that builds reality from one moment to the next.

If we belong first and foremost to the land, then we do not belong to our human communities above all else. We are not the property of the state, or owned by our employers. This affects how we perceive ourselves and our human relationships. We are not owned by the job, or by the demands of human expectations. We belong instead to the land, and consciousness of that allows us not to be ruled so easily by misguided cultural norms, or social pressures. We are also less inclined to see the land itself or anything that lives upon it as property to be owned by humans. We belong to it, it does not belong to us.

You can build a whole ethical framework from the principle of belonging to the land, and have that shape everything that you do. Equally, it is a viable basis for belief. The land does not require our belief, but the idea of its sacredness does, especially when we’re surrounded by people who see only resources to exploit and potential for profit and economic growth. A man on radio 4 this morning described the creation of jobs and wealth as a moral imperative. To me, that’s an absolute nonsense. Making sure there is sufficiency and sustainability are my moral imperatives. That we should have enough, and take no more than constitutes enough, and be careful to properly understand what ‘enough’ means is an ethos far more in line with belonging to the land, than imagining we own it.

I’m barely scraping the surface here but the more I look at it, the more I feel able to define my druidry in this way.