Tag Archives: sacred

What is sacredness?

While I was planning my talk for the recent market and conference in Wolverhampton, I had a bit of a light bulb moment. I was talking about sacred places, so of course the question of ‘what makes something sacred?’ was very much on my mind. Why are we more able to see the sacred some places than others? Why is Stonehenge sacred, while the Stonehenge car park isn’t? Why do we identify some days as more sacred than others?

The barrow I frequent is a sacred place for me. Other people go there to fly remote controlled aeroplanes, and to ride down the sides on mountain bikes. It is not a sacred place for them. The sacredness I experience is not self-announcing.

It struck me that it might be entirely off the mark to think of sacredness as being inherent in an object, place or time. What if sacredness is the kind of relationship we have? It follows that ancient sites and places of beauty are more likely to inspire us to a feeling of sacred relationship than a supermarket car park. At the same time, it means that someone who was looking for sacredness in a supermarket car park could do just that.

I have, as it happens. Supermarket car parks attract foxes – I assume they come for the rodents who come for the scraps. I’ve had a number of beautiful fox encounters on car parks, and that has given me a sense of sacredness in places that otherwise in no way seem to invite it.

In theory then, anything can be sacred. In practice, our little monkey brains can only do so much. Relationship is a conscious thing, it requires engagement, deliberateness, participation. Trying to be in sacred relationship with everything all the time would be exhausting. Perhaps when we are very old, and very wise, with decades of sacred relationships behind us, it will simply be a state we have entered, but that’s a ways off for me. Most of the time, it is enough to make the sacred relationships we can. Be that with a place, or a time, a creature or a tree, an idea or an experience. Sacredness can be the terms on which we choose to engage.


All Acts of Love and Pleasure

“All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals’ is a line from Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess (read the whole piece here – http://www.doreenvaliente.com/Doreen-Valiente-Doreen_Valiente_Poetry-11.php) It’s an interesting phrase to ponder.

Up until fairly recently, if I thought about the line at all, I interpreted it in sexual terms. However, over the last few months I’ve been on a journey and have been changing my relationship with my body. A wider idea about acts of love and pleasure has taken root, and has brought me back to this phrase with much greater interest in the idea of sacredness in the physical.

All acts of love of course has to mean more than shagging. I’m not always good with touch, I can still be panicked by unexpected contact, but on the whole I’ve learned to trust, to soften, to be more open to affection from friends. I’m starting to see my own love for the physical world in this line, too. Putting my body into water, or into soft grasses, or out in the sun or under a wide sky is also an act of love, and of sacred connection.

The scope for pleasure is vast. Our physical bodies have the capacity to relish many sensations. Our senses are rich with opportunity. Yet I’ve spent most of my life with a utilitarian approach to my body, seeing it in terms of what it can usefully get done, and as a means of getting my brain places. There’s been a puritan streak in my thinking since childhood – I have no idea where it came from, but it created the feeling that to enjoy anything too much with my body was unseemly, inappropriate, greedy… that the pleasures of a body were not to be trusted or invested in.

To take pleasure in food, and rest, in skin contact, a hot shower, a cool drink… every day offers so many opportunities to delight in small, bodily experiences. And if all acts of pleasure can be sacred, that really turns the tables on the life-denying puritan who took up residence in my head very early on in life. I think much of it for me comes from a feeling that I am not entitled to enjoy or to feel good, that I do not deserve to relax into things, or delight in them – I am meant to work, to strive, and to suffer. Well, sod that! It’s a miserable way to be that has kept me in some lousy places and contributed to poor mental and physical health, so I’m learning to head the other way and to enjoy what I have and make the most of it.

So many spiritual practices treat the experience of the body as something to control, and be ashamed of. I’ve lived with a lot of body shame, one way and another. Working to change that has made a huge difference already, and I feel I have quite some way to go along this path.

Pot-lickers of the world, unite!

Like most people (I suspect) I was brought up knowing that there were rules about eating food. One of the rules was not to run your finger round the plate afterwards. Nor should a person sneak out to the kitchen and carefully run their fingers around bowls, saucepans etc.

I grant you that it doesn’t look charming, and ups the risk of getting food on clothes. But at the same time, it’s a manners system that tells us it is preferable to waste food by washing it down the sink, rather than run a finger round the pot and eat what’s there.

Every morsel of food out there exists as a direct consequence of the death of a living being, except perhaps for milk and eggs, where the death of living beings is indirect, but still part of the equation. Anything that had seeds in tends to be the death of future plant life before it’s had chance to get started. For me, this makes it difficult to cheerfully wash that life away. If life is sacred, then surely, the careful running of a finger over a plate to make sure none of that life is thrown away disrespectfully, is a sacred act?

Anything we wash away has to later be cleaned out of the water. Down the sink is not ‘away’ really, it’s just a problem for someone else to deal with.

My guess is that the underlying reason for the manners of not licking the pot, is not wanting to seem that desperate. Getting every last scrap off the plate might look like poverty and desperation, and humans will go to remarkable lengths to convince themselves, and each other, that they aren’t that desperate, even when they are. However, there are many ways of achieving a feeling of abundance, it’s not like food residue is our only option.

So, I am putting my hand up to say that nothing goes into the washing up with edible food on it when I’m around. I don’t care what it looks like and I don’t care if anyone feels moved to judge me. I feel very strongly that we need to change our collective attitude to food waste – because what we collectively throw out is obscene and we’re killing a lot of things just to chuck them in a bin or wash them away. We need to show our food more respect.

Stepping into ritual space

How do we enter ritual space, let go of the cares of daily life and become open to magic, divinity and that which is sacred to us? When I wrote about Glamour in Paganism a few days ago, one person in the comments picked up on the issue that kit and setting are important in how people transition into ritual space. It’s a valid point, and one that stands looking at. How do we enter ritual space?

Dedicated clothes and objects can help create a sense of specialness, of time out of time. Many people find this really helps them, and I don’t want to invalidate that experience, but I think there’s an alternative that is worth exploring. The trouble with depending on ritual kit is that you can only respond in a Pagan way when you’ve set out to do so, and it makes it that bit harder to express your spirituality in the heat of the moment. Without robes, cloak, wand, crystal, or whatever else you normally need, how are you going to handle it if you get an unexpected experience, or have a sudden personal crisis where a bit of Druidry in self defence would not go amiss?

For me the key thing is spirits of place. Other traditions call them land wights, genius loci, faeries, elementals, and a host of other things. However you understand the idea of that which is spirit and present in the land, is what you need to work with here. Atheist pagans can just take this literally and work with whatever is present – trees, rocks, grass, soil, it’s all good.

For me, the transition into ritual is a transition into awareness of the spirits of place. I do this primarily by taking the time to go in and be with the place. Sitting, strolling, standing as the weather and ground conditions dictate. I look and listen. I feel the air on my skin and I taste it. I think about who and what came here before me, and I open myself to the place. I listen to the songs of its birds, or if it’s what I’ve got, to the hum of the traffic. I look at the sky, because no matter where you are there is sky. If you insist on doing ritual in a cave or a cellar, there’s still sky outside before you enter that space. Sun or moon, rain or shine, the sky brings nature to the most urban of spaces. It can permeate into our indoor rituals, even.

I breathe slowly. I notice what it’s like to be in my body, in this place. I feel out my body reactions to the space. I look for beauty and inspiration, for hope, but I do not ignore anything that is tough for me – the cutting down of trees, the dead things, the absences and the silences. Often at this point I become aware of the absence of great hooves, and recognise that I will not see aurochs.

This kind of transition can be developed by working with a single object, holding it, meditating on it and connecting with it. Improvised altars made from found objects, including human detritus, can be part of the engagement process. Making mandalas, or sculptures out of found items, or just gathering twigs for the fire all help us to be present and part of the place. In recognising the sacredness of the smallest things, the magic of the living, breathing world, we transition. We step out of the ordinary mindset that sees nature as something to use and place as backdrop, and we step into the world of life and detail, and from there, ritual is a lot easier and flows more readily.

Sacred submission

Deity orientated religions often talk about submission to the divine, or the will of the divine as being the goal of spiritual practice. Religious activities are designed to attune the believer, and enable them to submit to the will of their deity. Paganism isn’t always so submission orientated, many prefer to stand before their gods, but we have these threads too.

Sacred submission isn’t an event. It’s not something you do once and then are all sorted. Submission to deity, to a belief system, to a way of living, is a day to day, moment to moment sort of process involving every choice and action in a person’s life. It is the ongoing nature of it that makes it so powerful; the constant, conscious submission of personal desires to a higher goal. I don’t follow that path, but I can entirely respect it.

Submission is a gift. It is a gift we may offer to deity, or to a partner, or to a cause. The problems start when the flow is in the other direction. Submission should be an act of gifting from one who submits, not forced on them by someone with more power. If you are making someone act in accordance with your religious rules, or making them perform acts that you want, in no way are they submitting. They may be coerced into going along, but this is a whole other thing, and it tends to be very toxic, and very abusive not only of its victims, but of the ideas that have been subverted.

For a spiritual path to be meaningful, it has to be chosen. Anything we do in fear, under duress and threat of violence, is not being given freely. If there is no gifting, there is no spiritual power. There is no spiritual depth and value in what is done, you just go through the motions to stay alive. From the outside, it isn’t always easy to tell who is giving freely, and who is forced to conform – the veiling of women provides a wealth of examples of both. Veiling by choice is a powerful act of dedication. Veiling out of necessity is an affront.

You can’t force gifts out of someone. They cease to be gifts and become the fruits of conquest. An act of submission, is an act of gifting, and needs valuing as such. It should flow from love and be an expression of love. To demand submission is to be a tyrant, and there is no love if the submission is not gifted.

Holding spaces, sacred and otherwise

In formal ritual, we’re automatically conscious of the making and holding of sacred space. We think we craft a deliberate space, with intent, and we usually work together as a circle to make that happen. However, in every aspect of our lives we are holding space for people in less conscious ways.

What we’re able to do can be shaped by what the people around us hold space for. At the most basic level, things like whether we are allowed to help, allowed to speak, allowed to act, informs who we can be in a situation. In highly constructed environments – schools, workplaces, more organised social groupings – the boundaries around who can do what can be tightly held.

Where we have consensus about the holding of space, we get a culture. Most of us are significantly shaped by what our cultures consider acceptable. How we dress, speak and move, what we aspire to be and feel the need to own and how we spend much of our time is culturally informed. That culture is made up of each one of us helping hold the space in a certain way. Encouraging some things, discouraging others, making some actions easy and others impossible. Most of the time, most of us do that entirely without thought.

We can hold space for each other in very deliberate ways, if we are conscious of what we are doing. How conscious are our ritual circles? Are we defaulting to what we think religion looks like, or are we inventing a space that does just what we need it to do? In ritual circle we give each other permission to talk to the land and sky in a way that would be unthinkable in other contexts. Some ritual circles give everyone permission to speak, and some do not. Some ritual spaces invite raw emotional expressions and others encourage us to be dignified and stick with the script.

It is worth trying to take a mental step back from what we do, to consider the spaces we hold for each other. What do we permit in others, what are we quietly refusing? How are we constructing the spaces we share with other people? What kind of culture are we contributing to?

I’ve been struck of late, just how powerful it is to be in spaces where I feel acceptable and also by what happens when I in turn offer messages of welcome and encouragement to people who are around me. Groups where exchanges of praise and encouragement are normal are very supportive spaces to be in. Places where we watch each other mistrustfully and jump on the smallest mistakes are nerve wracking and exhausting. It’s odd how many spaces are quick to jump on small errors and entirely tolerant of the bullying behaviour of those who do the jumping. I see that online, especially. All too often, ‘correcting’ trivial mistakes and reasonable differences is treated as more important than being respectful or compassionate. Who do we become, when we step into circles such as these?

Understanding the nature of deity

The short answer would be, that I don’t – but as that’s not much of a blog post, let’s keep poking about! My sense of what deity is and whether there really is any varies from one day to the next. There are days when my rational inclinations leave me with a more atheistic perspective. The universe is complete unto itself. I can go from there to a feeling that the sacred force in the universe, is the universe itself and that we are all part of a growing consciousness. However, the scale of that is so daunting and impersonal that it’s not unlike having no gods at all.

I do however have this unshakable sense of the sacred, that stays with me on my most questioning, uncertain and atheistic days. It comes as a response to land and ancestry, to experiences in the moment and is informed by a sense of wonder. There are several personified deities associated with the land I live on, so I have a sense of them as both forms in the landscape and historical presences.  But as distinct consciousnesses with intentions and powers… I really don’t know.

I am aware that many Pagans experience deity as discrete individuals with whom it is possible to interact. The sense of deity as something anthropomorphic and human orientated, interested in our concerns and able to interact with us in ways that make sense… makes more sense with some deities than others. Many of the figures in ancient pantheons come across as being human-like – very much gods of the tribe. However, the gods of nature, or the possibility of the divine in nature clearly isn’t going to be so innately human-centric. Gods of earth, sky, seasons, gods of storm and sun seem very unavailable to me. I might experience them, but I do not feel much hope of understanding them or sharing with them in reliable ways.

This blog over at Corvid’s viewpoint has had me pondering though. If consciousness begets physical reality, and not the other way round… then what might that consciousness be? My small consciousness clearly isn’t creating much reality. In the warp and weft of existence, perhaps the gods are the underlying threads onto which the rest of reality is woven. Perhaps the gods are the loom, or the wool. I like craft metaphors such as this.

I still have no idea how reality works. No matter how much pondering I do, I will not come to a place of certainty, because my uncertainty is one of the few things I’m a bit dogmatic about. Other people may know… I do not.

Honouring the inspiration

Inspired by Talis Kimberly, I find myself thinking about how we manage the flows of creativity, and what constitutes an honourable response to inspiration. For some, the awen is hard won, and the finding of ideas is a difficult process. For others, awen is a constant fountain of possibility. I suspect most of us move about between those two points, depending on other variables in our lives.

If you believe in the awen as a sacred force, then when inspiration comes, it does so as a divine gift, as a moment of significance, a spiritual engagement with the universe. To ignore that (as Talis pointed out on facebook yesterday) is a kind of blasphemy. Awen does not arrive to be a fleeting amusement or an opportunity to feel smug about how clever we are. It arrives with purpose, and to do something.

But, to do what?

Over the years I’ve found that those original flashes of inspiration are very seldom the whole. It’s like a door opening a crack. Often there then follows a process in which I have to work out how to open that door a bit further so that whatever wants to come through, comes through. Simply taking the first moment of inspiration and writing a song, a poem or a short story would be leaving the door just that crack open and never finding out where it went. This is all very personal, other people will work in other ways.

While I work in all kinds of forms, fiction and non-fiction, from tiny haikus through to epic novel series attempts, the novel was always my form of preference. Novels are not just one good idea. They are lots of ideas. The first flash of possibility isn’t going to turn into a novel all by itself. I have to wait, to seek more, to give the first ideas time to ferment and grow. Sometimes they wither away instead, and while that’s not a comfortable process, I’ve come to find it inevitable.

For me, the process of working with the awen involves quite a lot of time just sitting with it, being with the ideas and the possibilities until I start to see lines of connection between them. Taking the raw clay of an idea and playing with it to see if it might turn into a teapot or a really nice urn. Taking the sparks of inspiration and seeing if I can light a fire big enough to burn down half of my old ideas, and boil a kettle while I’m at it.

What I have seen, plenty of times along the way are people who do not take their inspiration forward. Folk who will devote hours to reimagining political systems, but who won’t put that anywhere more than a couple of people can see it, and would never muddy their hands with actual politics. People who imagine writing novels, but never put pen to paper. But then, for the greater part these have also been people who have never considered the idea of inspiration as inherently sacred. I should not, I know, judge too harshly, but it frustrates me nonetheless.

We only get this one life in any way we can be wholly certain about. Why wander round in a cloud of daydreams but never do anything to manifest the ideas that come to you?

Sacred Sexuality

In many religions, sex is a dirty word. Sexual activity is only tolerated in carefully defined relationships (ie heterosexual marriage) and for the purposes of reproduction. I can’t begin to imagine what this does to a person who buys into it. The human body, in its capacity for sensuality, affection, physical love and pleasure is a thing of wonder. It must be awful to live in a body that you think is shameful and dirty, with urges your religion tells you are sinful.

Mainstream culture seems to have come up with a backlash to repressive attitudes, which consists of turning sex into yet another cheap commodity. It’s still sordid, still filthy. The way adverts sexualise everything, the availability of images of all kinds, the exposed breasts that feature on page three… this doesn’t feel like a healthy and empowering attitude to sex either. It’s just another thing you can get with enough money and the right consumer goods, to be thrown away afterwards like the other disposable commodities in your life.

What both approaches have in common is a total lack of respect: For the self, the other, and for sex. I’ve had far too much first-hand experience of this one. There are too many people out there for whom another human being is just a warm means to gratification. Something to use and discard. A way to scratch an itch. The desire to get a physical release without having to be vulnerable, emotionally engaged and therefore able to be hurt, is a terrible thing. The desire not to know what the other person feels or needs, tuning that out to make selfish wants the only consideration, is in itself a denigration of sex.

We might talk about consent, but based on personal experience I think a lot of people don’t really know what that means. I didn’t. Coercion is not consent. Fear and bribery do not lead to consent. Ignorance of intention, intoxication or unconsciousness are not consent. How unconnected with a person do we have to be, not to know, confidently, whether they want this or not? But if we don’t talk about it, or don’t want to be told to stop, we won’t know. One in three women will be raped, at some time in their lives, and most likely by someone they knew.

We tend to still think of sex as something a man does to a woman, missing out all the other available combinations, and assuming a one sided balance of power. How many songs and quotes go ‘make love to you’ and how many say ‘make love with you’? Or similar. It is a world of difference. Whether you get to be a passive receiver of someone else’s frustrations, or actively engaged in a process between two (or possibly more) people makes a lot of odds. Whether you can speak about feelings, needs and responses, or have your behaviour constrained in some way. Whether you come to sex as an equal, or as a commodity.

Sacred sensuality begins with respect. It embraces vulnerability. A person not willing to get their soul naked really should think twice about taking their pants off. If all you want is a quick physical release, no strings attached, there are ways of sorting that out by yourself without inflicting it on someone else. If you enter a situation with another person, it should be all about the sharing, of whatever you end up doing between you.

Druids talk a lot about relationship. We talk about honour. We’re pro freedom of expression, and diversity. These are ideas that need to be in the world, to counter the long history of sexual repression and to counter the equally destructive mainstream response. Too often still, our culture treats women purely as sexual objects, with our sexual attractiveness the only thing granted any importance. We do it to our sporting heroines, our female politicians, actresses… anyone in the public eye. It’s not enough that a woman be good, clever or talented, she must also present as sexually appealing. I’m very tired of it. Until we stop assuming that women should be viewed as sex objects, that statistical probability of rape will stay with us. There needs to be change.

A sacred space

I think spirit is in all things, so am wary about ways of thinking that suggest anywhere could be ‘unsacred’. However, the kinds of relationships we have with spaces will inform how spiritual we feel in them. There are places that are more sacred, I think. I like cathedrals for the atmosphere of love and reverence built up over centuries. I love Avebury for the same reasons. I struggle to feel a sense of sacred connection on garage forecourts, in crowded shopping centres and on traffic islands. That’s as much about how I am interacting with the space as anything else.

One of the features of the boat, is that we do not have a permanent bed. Narrow boats being six feet wide, double beds are tricky. Permanent single beds pose no problems, but our solution rolls back and forth on a daily basis. Most of the time, the bed is not a bed. It creates practical issues around illness, and means if I want to go to bed early, the chaps have to as well. We’ve managed this with no trouble at all over the last two years, but the arrangement was making me feel sad. It has taken me most of the time we’ve been here to figure out why this is.

Most of my more private spiritual activity happens in bed. The things that are most important in my private practice, and the things I hold most sacred; dreaming, prayer, meditation and making love are all bed based. Certainly, prayer and meditation don’t have to be, but my preference has always been to work along the edges of sleep at the start and end of each day. A bed that is not always a bed, is not able to hold that space in the same way. I can’t decorate it, or support aesthetically what I’m doing. I can’t retreat to it at need because most of the time, the bed does not exist as a bed. I’m starting to realise how much I need a bed as a permanent structure.

A bed should be a place of peace, rest and trust. It should be a happy place. Warm, comforting, relaxing, secure. That’s one area of anxiety I’ve largely dealt with. Going to bed is a happy thing now, not a fearful thing. I look back at my history and wonder how on earth I tolerated some aspects of my past. But then, a sleep deprived person does not think too well, and I endured years of not being allowed to sleep when I needed to. I don’t wake up to panic attacks all the time now, and I don’t have nightmares every night – I’m down to maybe once or twice a week, which is bearable. There is less fear in me, and this bed is a good place.

Sacred places do not have to be altars and temples, self-announcing in terms of their use. We might look to nature for our inspiration, for groves to gather in and spaces to love. However, there is nature in so much that we are and do. The kitchen and the hearth are no less places of connection with scope for sacred relationship. The bathtub may be your place of prayer and contemplation. These days the centre of the home seems to be the sofa and the television, which does not lend itself to a sense of sacred relationship. The sofa and the spinning wheel would though, or any other kind of craft space. Going out in search of nature is important, but seeing how nature is with us all the time, in everything we do, also matters.

Where are you at your most spiritual? What gives you a sense of connection? If we want a spirituality that is part of life, not a bit set aside, then places of doing and living will also be our sacred spaces.