Grace is the Time, is the Place, is the Motion

On Sunday night I went for a walk with my beloved in the beautiful evening light. The rain had cleared, and the low summer sun was illuminating everything in a lovely dreamy gold. The sort of light that makes everything look as if it is lit from within. And because everything was freshly washed, it all looked brighter. The scent of roses and mock-orange filled the air, and the birds were singing. The trees hung over the path and formed a tunnel of green leaves.

At moments like that, when divinity shines within all things, I feel reconnected, refreshed, renewed. You might call it a moment of grace.

Grass Illuminated by the Setting Sun. Photo by MemoryCatcher. CC0 Public Domain.

Grass illuminated by the setting Sun. Photo by MemoryCatcher on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain.

Reclaiming Grace

Can we reclaim the word “grace” from its Christian connotations? Certainly. Grace means something to be thankful for, something that is praiseworthy, desirable, elegant, right, and fitting.

grace (n.) late 12c., “God’s unmerited favor, love, or help,” from Old French grace “pardon, divine grace, mercy; favor, thanks; elegance, virtue” (12c., Modern French grâce), from Latin gratia “favor, esteem, regard; pleasing quality, good will, gratitude” (source of Italian grazia, Spanish gracia; in Church use translating Greek kharisma), from gratus “pleasing, agreeable,” from PIE *gwreto-, suffixed form of root *gwere (3) “to favor” (source also of Sanskrit grnati “sings, praises, announces,” Lithuanian giriu “to praise, celebrate,” Avestan gar “to praise”).

Sense of “virtue” is early 14c., that of “beauty of form or movement, pleasing quality” is mid-14c. In classical sense, “one of the three sister goddesses (Latin Gratiæ, Greek Kharites), bestowers of beauty and charm,” it is first recorded in English 1579 in Spenser. In music, “an embellishment not essential to the melody or harmony,” 1650s. As the name of the short prayer that is said before or after a meal (early 13c.; until 16c. usually graces) it has a sense of “gratitude.” As a title of honor, c. 1500.

The etymology of the word grace includes Greek charisma:

charisma (n.) “gift of leadership, power of authority,” c. 1930, from German, used in this sense by Max Weber (1864-1920) in “Wirtschaft u. Gesellschaft” (1922), from Greek kharisma “favor, divine gift,” from kharizesthai “to show favor to,” from kharis “grace, beauty, kindness” (Charis was the name of one of the three attendants of Aphrodite) related to khairein “to rejoice at,” from PIE root *gher- (5) “to desire, like” (see hortatory). More mundane sense of “personal charm” recorded by 1959.

Earlier, the word had been used in English with a sense of “grace, talent from God” (1875), directly from Latinized Greek; and in the form charism (plural charismata) it is attested with this sense in English from 1640s. Middle English, meanwhile, had karisme “spiritual gift, divine grace” (c. 1500).

And Charis was one of the three attendants of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. These attendants were known as the Three Graces:

In Greek mythology, a Charis (/ˈkrɪs/; Greek: Χάρις, pronounced [kʰáris]) or Grace is one of three or more minor goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility, together known as the Charites /ˈkærtz/ (Χάριτες [kʰáritɛːs]) or Graces. The usual list, from youngest to oldest is Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the “Graces”. In some variants, Charis was one of the Graces and was not the singular form of their name.

Grace is also related to renewal and a sense of being right with the world and the divine. It isn’t on a list of ancient Roman virtues – the nearest concept is Laetitia, meaning “Joy, Gladness, The celebration of thanksgiving, often of the resolution of crisis.” I could certainly settle for Laetitia as a name for the feeling I was having.

But I am reassured by the idea that the Three Graces or Charites were definitely pagan. Among the Lacedaemonians, there were two Graces, Cleta (“Sound” or “Renowned”) and Phaenna (“Light” or “Bright”). The fact that a feeling of grace can be created by harmonious sounds and soothing light makes these names seem particularly apt. Splendor, Good Cheer, and Mirth also seem apt descriptors. And the more modern meaning of elegance and harmony also fits in with these ancient concepts of grace. I can think of several people whom I think of as being graceful in the way they interact with others.

So I think we can reclaim the word grace to mean the beauty and harmony and radiance of Nature and the feelings of awe and gratitude, wonder and joy and healing evoked by that beauty.

And we need these moments of blessing and grace to rest and renew when the magic runs out, when we are heartbroken by senseless slaughter, when sections of the Pagan community are being disappointing about gender.

 

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On Poetry: A Conversation

by Sarah Sadie and Yvonne Aburrow

Sarah and Yvonne decided to write a different kind of blogpost – a conversation. Since we are both poets, we had a conversation about poetry.

Seagrass

Seagrass by ADD on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain

Yvonne: For me, a poem starts to build up like a pressure inside me, and then it bursts like a bubble and I get the first few lines and start writing, and then it all comes out in a big rush. Later, I start to refine it, rearranging the lines here and there – but most of my editing is pretty light after the first rush.
What’s your experience?

Sarah: This is what I love about conversations–my process is almost completely different from yours! For me, I will sense a moment–almost like a scent or texture to the day, the hour, that brushes my skin like a spider web…and I have to try to catch at whatever that moment is, put it down on the page in language. It really does feel like having a seventh or eighth sense, in a way. A poem can be just one of those–or sometimes it is a series or combination, that I build over time ,editing lines, switching stanzas around. I work it along for a number of days or weeks…and when I can’t take it any further (Plath: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to”) I set the draft aside for a couple of months. By the time I pull it out I’ve mostly forgotten it and the fresh reading shows me where the trouble spots, the faultlines are.

Do you try to write poetry regularly, to keep yourself searching for that sense of “pressure” or do you wait for it to come to you?

Yvonne: That’s a fascinating process. I often write small pieces of prose in response to the beauty I see all around me, and I suppose those could get turned into poems, and I think that’s my “poetic eye” responding to the world. I used to write poetry more frequently – but lately I’ve been more focused on writing prose. I once wrote a poem about my process where I likened it to the bends – bubbles rising from the depths. Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is.

I do write poetry for ritual and that tends to be more “written to order” (and create spoken poetry extempore in ritual) but even that has waned of late. Maybe I should stop waiting for it to come to me, and seek out the Muse a bit more actively. I have a fairly strong image of my muse – a dark man who lives in a cave (probably also my animus).

Do you feel that you have a Muse?

Sarah: Before I answer that question… 😉

I really like the word you use above : response. Because poetry (by extension, any art) is a response, it is part of a conversation between the writer and the larger world–and just writing that I realize how much our writing is a form of listening. And we have a response-ability that can grow, shift, change as we do over the years. When you say “Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is” I shout YES–with two new books out this year, I feel I’ve tapped out a bit. Need to open to the next thing.

A book of poems feels like an album to me–Prince’s death (and Bowie’s, before that) have me thinking about similarities between how I feel about creating a book and how they created albums. There are the individual songs, and then there is the overall vision–the sum is greater than the individual parts. Beyonce’s Lemonade is an immediate contemporary example as well. (btw, isn’t it fascinating how people are picking up on the polytheist content of Lemonade).

In the years that I was Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin, I also wrote poems to order and I found it–at that time in my writing life–a welcome challenge. The City gave awesome and random writing prompts (the rededication of a replica Statue of Liberty; a poem to introduce a political scientist who specializes in polling procedures; a poem for Obihiro, Japan among others)–and deadlines to boot!

Poems and spellwork are very closely related. Very, very closely, imo. So are poems and theology, for that matter.

As for my muse–yes, I have one. Also male (I would love to see an anthology of women (and men) writing about and to their male muses. It’s about time to balance the record on this). He is a reclusive character–I only catch glimpses once in a while. Just as often, I am writing to particular friends or family members–a poem sometimes (often) feels like an old-fashioned letter, to me.

I’m extremely restless with myself as a writer these days…to be a text artist in a visual age is not easy. I’m trying to understand where I go next–it feels very much like walking blind through thorns, at the moment.

What about you? Do you have a next writing project you’re launching into?

Yvonne: Yes, I’m currently working on a book about the inner work of witchcraft (that’s the working subtitle). There will be a fair amount about embodied spirituality and responding to Nature, as well as energy work, how the circle is a microcosm, visualisation, meditation, and so on.

I was interested by what you said about being a text writer in a visual age. I suppose we can take some comfort from the way that poetry is the most visual form of writing. I also know one poet who illustrates his work with photo-collages. And then there was Kahlil Gibran, who accompanied his poems with his own drawings. I was never quite sure how the drawing related to the poem, but it was interesting.

I completely agree that poetry is related to theology and magic; they use the same twilight mode of consciousness. Spells and ritual words often take the form of poetry – Doreen Valiente was very good at that. I wish people would study a little and find out about different meters and poetic devices such as assonance and the caesura though. And theology is sometimes poetic (and ought to be more often). Alison Leigh Lilly springs to mind as someone who writes poetic theology. I think also that poets, like comedians, see connections that others have missed. Both comedy and poetry are sacred arts, showing the world hidden connections and undercurrents.

Is that what you had in mind?

Sarah: Wasn’t it Victor Anderson who said that “White magic is poetry. Black magic is anything that works.” ? I agree completely that people who write spells and rituals as poetry would do well to study the craft–it is an aspect of craft like any other and the more adept you are, the stronger your ritual will be.

I also really like what Seamus Heaney wrote (I’m paraphrasing here and not doing it full justice, but the idea comes across): that a poem is like the paper bird we tape in the picture window–it’s not a real bird, but it causes the birds outside to veer their course. A poem isn’t “real life”–but it can cause us to swerve a bit. It has an effect. An impact.

It may be that poetry is as close to my religion as any recognized Pagan tradition. And I’m okay with that.

Great conversation–thank you!

Yvonne: Poetry as religion – I’ll drink to that! For me it is a sacred vocation, and one that no-one can take away from me. One is a witch in community, one has a job title conferred by an employer: but one can be a poet without approval or sanction from anyone else. Even a child writing their first poems may call themselves a poet. I love that.

And poetry as magic: definitely! A poem can transform your perspective and perceptions, it can be an incantation (did you ever hear Yeats reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree? It’s like he’s reading a spell), it can be an invocation to change the world.

How to Become a Naturalist

Pagans often say that we want to get in touch with Nature. But there are many among us who don’t know one tree species from another, or one flower from another. It’s all “oograh“.

I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, who pointed out lots of different flower species and taught me to identify flowers by their genus. So I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of wild flowers. If you didn’t have the luck to be brought up by a keen botanist, here’s how you can become one. My mother is also keen on birds. I like birds and am okay at identifying them – but they won’t stay still, which hampers the efforts of the amateur ornithologist.

Flowers and trees are easier to get started on than mushrooms, grasses, birds, or moths, because flowers and trees are easier to tell apart. Once you have got your eye in and learnt to identify flowers, you can move on to more advanced things like mushrooms, grasses, and birds.

The key to being a naturalist is observation of detail. How big is it? How many leaves does it have? What shape are they? How are they arranged on the stem? How many petals does it have? What are the stamens like? Does it have fruits or seed-pods? Florets or umbels?

Step 1 – learn a few common flower species, or make a list of the ones you know already. Find out whether any of them are part of the same family.

Step 2 – buy a really good flower field guide, with a botanical key. The key will help you to find the plant in the book by checking the number of petals, leaves, etc. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of parts of plants (stamen, pistil, umbel, floret, etc).

Step 3 – Riffle through the book and familiarise yourself with the different plant families, and where they are likely to be found. If you know that the Brassicaceae have four petals arranged in a cross shape around the centre of the flower, or that the Umbelliferae have big umbels (like an inside-out umbrella) it’s easier to get to the individual species by going to the section of the book that deals with that family.

A similar process to the above applies to learning bird species, moth and butterfly species, and tree species.

Why classify?

If you don’t learn the names and characteristics of plants, it is a lot harder to tell them apart. Associating the specific characteristics of a plant to its name (whether it’s the folk-name or the Latin name) anchors in your mind that it’s a distinct species. It’s the way the brain works.

Go for a walk

Walking is good for both body and soul, and a great way to be in Nature (and has zero environmental impact, unless you use a car to get there). I am very fortunate in being quite near the River Thames, which is awesome for nature walks. On Sunday, we found snake’s-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Snake’s head fritillaries. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Whenever you go for a walk, take your flower book and/or tree book with you. (There are probably apps for identifying things, but it’s nice to have an actual book.) Note down the species you see, and keep a nature journal. I have done this intermittently over the years, and it’s nice to read back over old entries. If you are not keen on writing, take photos, make drawings, or take a very small sample for pressing (but never pick the whole plant, and only take part of a plant if you can see at least 20 other good plants of the same kind).

One of the things I do is write “small beauties” posts and post them to Facebook and my other blog. These are descriptions of what I have seen whilst out and about – trees, birds, flowers, interesting clouds, people, boats, buildings. Writing these sharpens your powers of observation, and reading them later is a pleasant reminder of what you have seen.

I love going for a walk and really looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and landscape that I meet on the way. It’s how I relax. And it is really rewarding to be able identify flowers and birds and trees: it gives you a sense of achievement, sharpens your powers of observation, and means that you really engage with nature instead of just seeing it as a vague amorphous mass.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

White snake’s head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Folklore of plants

It’s also interesting and useful to find out about the folklore and herbal uses of plants. In the past, the witch was the village healer (according to legend, anyway), so it’s good to learn the folklore, symbolism, mythology, and medicinal uses of plants. I am not the world’s greatest herbalist, but I know a few things; and I am a pretty good botanist.

Recommended books

Most of these are about British natural history (because I live in Britain). If you have recommendations for North America, Europe, or Australia, please post them in the comments.

  • Collins British Wild Flower Guide – a really comprehensive guide to plant families and individual species. Really clear layout, very comprehensive, beautiful illustrations, and contains a botanical key.
  • Roger Phillips, Mushrooms – this is the definitive guide. Not a field guide, but well worth getting a copy anyway.

Folklore and natural history

Useful websites

Related posts

Pagan and Pantheist Tendencies in Unitarianism

Slide 1: Introduction

Many people think that the Pagan or Earth Spirit element in Unitarianism started around 1980 with the first Unitarian Universalist Pagan ritual, or with the foundation of CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) in America in 1986, or the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network in the UK, founded in 1990. In fact, it has its roots in some much earlier developments.

Slide 2: Unitarians and ancient pagan ideas

A notable pagan thinker of late antiquity was Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who pleaded for religious tolerance for pagans in the face of Christian intolerance:

We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.

— Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402)

Paganism is generally tolerant of different viewpoints because most Pagans believe that everyone has their own unique path to walk, and that there is a vast array of deities. Unitarians are tolerant because they tend to believe that everyone’s experience is unique and different religions are different perspectives on the same underlying reality.

Slide 3: Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus (often regarded as the first Unitarian martyr) decided on the unity of God in part because he had been reading Hermetic texts, according to Earl Morse Wilbur, author of a history of Unitarianism in two volumes. The Hermetic texts were a loose compendium of Platonist and Neo-Platonist texts from late antiquity (the last days of the ancient pagan world). Some pagan thinkers of antiquity held that there was a divine unity.

Slide 4: Deism and Natural Religion (18th century)

Two key strands in Unitarian thought were Deism and Natural Religion.

Deism in the philosophy of religion is the standpoint that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that a supreme being created the universe. Further the term often implies that this supreme being does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe that is not to be altered by intervention in the affairs of human life. Deists believe in the existence of God without any reliance on revealed religion, religious authority or holy books. … Deism became more prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment — especially in Britain, France, United States and Ireland — mostly among those raised as Christians who found they could not believe in supernatural miracles or the inerrancy of scriptures, but who did believe in one God. The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophies, and it is generally believed that many of them were deists.

Most deists saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by “priests” who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.

According to this world view, over time “priests” had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and “mysteries” – irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the “mysteries” on faith and on the priests’ authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical “mysteries”, confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as “priestcraft”, a highly derogatory term.

Deists saw their mission as the stripping away of “priestcraft” and “mysteries” from religion, thereby restoring religion to its original, true condition – simple and rational. In many cases, they considered true, original Christianity to be the same as this original natural religion.

(Wikipedia)

The original, simple and rational religion was known as the Urreligion or natural religion.

Many early Unitarians were Deists (particularly the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence) and were accused by their contemporaries of atheism. Deists believed that religion was natural to humanity, and that God was accessible to reason. They looked for an original form of religion from which all current forms had decayed or evolved. Hence many of them were interested in ancient Greek religion, and also in Druidry, believing it to be a form of the ancient Hebrew religion which had been brought to Britain by the Phoenicians.

Slide 5: Iolo Morgannwg

Hence, when Unitarianism in Britain officially began, it was not long before it attracted the attention of one Iolo Morganwg, who had earlier written a huge collection of material for the nascent Druid movement, and went on to become a Unitarian minister and to write many of the hymns used in the Welsh Unitarian hymnbook. At that time ancient druidry was thought to have been a debased form of the Hebrew religion, brought to Britain by the Phoenicians, so it is hardly surprising that Morganwg became interested in Unitarianism. Nevertheless, the Druid movement of which he was one of the founders has evolved into the modern Pagan Druid movement.

Ronald Hutton’s comprehensive work on the druids shows that there was hardly any evidence of what the druids were like; the only evidence available was from Roman sources, but there was hardly enough there to reconstruct a religion that looked anything like druidry.

Druids did not generally identify themselves as Pagans until the early 20th century. Before that, druid orders had names like the Universal Bond, and their views were universalist rather than pagan, in other words, they believed that there was an essential element in every religion that was the same – a mystical core of religion.

Contemporary Druidry is part of the Pagan revival. Druid and Pagan beliefs range from non-theism to animism to (neo-)shamanism to duotheism (a god and a goddess) to monism to polytheism. Most Pagans feel a sense of connection to the land, the Earth, and/or Nature. A number of Druid orders are drawn to ancient sites because they feel connected to their builders and former users. Some Druids consider themselves to be the successors of the ancient druids described by Julius Caesar and others, often using arguments of dubious intellectual provenance, as we know almost nothing about what ancient druids did or believed.

A key theme in Druidry (particularly at the festival of Samhain) is the connection with ancestors, usually defined as including one’s personal kin, the people who once dwelled in the place one lives in (house, village, town, region), and spiritual kindred, that is, inspirers.

There are two main strands of Druidry, the countercultural (associated with road protests and similar events, and sometimes clouded by a reputation for public drunkeness) and the more retiringly ‘spiritual’ (who tend to be more middle class). There is much overlap between the two strands.

Druidry and the Pagan revival are very diverse and cannot be easily pigeonholed. Contemporary Pagans are drawn from a range of backgrounds and include some professionals and scientists.

Slide 6: Rammohun Roy

Another non-Christian who became interested in Unitarianism – and became in the process a major influence upon it – was Raja Rammohun Roy. He had had encounters with various Christian missionaries in India, but found their arguments unconvincing. Tired of Hindu stories of half-human half-deities, he was not minded to accept the divinity of Jesus, and argued that Jesus was human and not divine. He founded the Unitarian Society of Calcutta and the Brahmo Samaj (One God Society). He also translated the Upanishads and Vedas (Hindu scriptures) into English, and it was probably he who coined the word “Hindu”. He corresponded with Unitarians in Britain and eventually travelled here to ensure that the government did not repeal the law banning widow-burning, which he and others had campaigned so hard to abolish. Sadly he died here and is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetry in Bristol. His writings influenced many Unitarians.

Whilst he was in England, Roy toured the country and met many people of all walks of life, including George IV (whose coronation he attended) and Jeremy Bentham, who had Unitarian sympathies and many Unitarian friends. Roy presented three papers on the Revenue System of India, the Judicial System of India and the Material Condition of India to a committee of the House of Commons.

Religious and political thinkers sought him out to engage in spirited discussions, and Dissenting and Anglican clergymen vied with each other for the honor of his presence at their services. Prominent middle-class reformers were constantly at his side, their daughters or unmarried sisters often especially attentive to him. And, while in Manchester, a crowd of factory workers followed Rammohun about on his tour, the men and women insisting on shaking his hand or embracing him. (Zastoupil, 2002: 215)

He addressed the Unitarian annual meeting in London, and was invited to Bristol by the Reverend Lant Carpenter, where he stayed at Mary Carpenter’s home until his untimely death from meningitis on 27 September 1833. He was buried in Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol, and an annual service is held at his tomb, conducted by the Unitarian minister of Bristol. The Brahmo Samaj are regular attenders at this event.A statue of Rammohun Roy (paid for by the Indian government) was erected in central Bristol in 1997.

Roy’s visit also had political implications, in that there was some talk of him standing for Parliament, and his association with radical dissenters like the Unitarians was of considerable assistance in their agenda of reform and the disentanglement of church and state (Zastoupil, 2002: 220).

Roy’s deist views, his struggles with Hindu orthodoxy and debates with Baptist missionaries over the doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, and the fact that his family was said to have disowned him for his views, all resonated strongly with the Unitarians of the 1820s and 1830s, who faced persecution by the authorities (the 1689 Toleration Act was not extended to them), legal disputes over chapels and endowments, frequent blasphemy charges, and public objections to their involvement in politics and campaigning (Zastoupil, 2002: 230).

Slide 7: Unitarians and Nature

Unitarians have often found Nature inspiring and viewed the Divine as immanent in Nature, perhaps drawing on Spinoza’s ideas of God as Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Slide 8: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge, the Romantic poet, was a Unitarian originally and preached in several Unitarian chapels. He also employed a lot of Nature imagery in his poems, and many of them were pantheist in tone.

He wrote about Liberty as a principle that ran through all Nature:

And there I felt thee!—on that sea-cliff’s verge,

Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,

Had made one murmur with the distant surge!

Yes, while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,

And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,

Possessing all things with intensest love,

O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.

He writes about God incarnate in humanity, and in Nature, in his poem, Religious Musings: a Desultory Poem. The influence of his Unitarian mentor Joseph Priestley is apparent in these lines:

‘Tis the sublime of man

Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves

Parts and proportions of one wondrous Whole!

This fraternises man, this constitutes

Our charities and bearings. But ’tis God

Diffused through all, that doth make all one whole . . .

James Martineau spoke for many other Unitarians when he included the works of Coleridge in a short listing of his personal ‘sacred guides’. And perhaps his famous view of the Incarnation could have been influenced by these Religious Musings.

“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.”

Slide 9: Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Transcendentalists

The most obvious way in which Unitarianism has influenced contemporary Paganism is through the Transcendentalists (a group of Unitarians from New England). Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began the Transcendentalist movement, had read the writings of Rammohun Roy, and was deeply influenced by them.

The Transcendentalists argued that true religion and spirituality transcend the dogmatic cultural forms of religion; they took their name from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The key players in the Transcendentalist movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden, an account of his attempt to return to Nature by living in a small hut by Walden Pond), and Bronson Alcott, educator and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.

Many of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas fed into modern Paganism; for example the idea of polarity (on which Emerson wrote an essay) is very important in Wicca; and the idea of retreating to a simple hut, as Thoreau did, influenced Ross Nicholls, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, to advocate retreating to a simple hut (perhaps he got the idea from the poem by WB Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, but that was inspired by Thoreau).

Emerson’s own writings were widely read, and he became friends with Walt Whitman, the gay poet of Nature, who corresponded with Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan socialist vegetarian whose writings were influential in the Pagan movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably because of the Transcendentalists that Paganism has so often been referred to as a “Nature religion” according to Chas Clifton, an American scholar of Pagan Studies. Most Pagans and many Unitarians believe that the Divine (or deities) is/are immanent in the world; an important prerequisite for treating the planet with respect.

Slide 10: Unitarians and the Goddess

Another very important idea in the contemporary Pagan revival, and for many Unitarians, is the worship of the Goddess or of Goddesses.

Unitarian feminists were vital in the process of exposing the patriarchal nature of religion. Names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of Theodore Parker’s congregation, who wrote The Woman’s Bible, and Frances Power Cobbe, who edited a 14 volume edition of his writings, are very important in feminist history.

  • The Goddess is immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother – this is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.

Before there was the Earth Spirit Network, there were the feminist theology activists in Unitarianism who campaigned for more inclusive language; they included Ann Peart.

Slide 11: Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker was a Transcendentalist minister who was shunned by the more conservative Unitarians in the Boston area, but eventually gathered a congregation of about 300 in an old theatre; they included Barbara Bodichon, feminist and later a Pre-Raphaelite artist; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a famous American Unitarian feminist. Parker was a noted campaigner against slavery; but he also often referred to God as a Mother, and believed that God is immanent.

Slide 12: Norbert Čapek 

Norbert Čapek also viewed the Divine as immanent in humanity, and wrote the famous and much-loved hymn, Mother Spirit, Father Spirit. He also designed the Flower Communion, which was a radical expression of what it meant to be Unitarian in a country occupied by the Nazis, and a celebration of individuality, as well as a form of communion that his congregation, many of whom had rejected conventional Christianity, could celebrate.

Slide 13: The flaming chalice

During the Second World War, the Unitarian Service Committee was rescuing Jews from the Nazis, and needed an official symbol to put in their passports to show that they were under the protection of the Unitarian Service Committee. Rev Charles Joy, the leader of the USC, commissioned Hans Deutsch to produce a symbol, and wrote to the General Assembly back in America, that it was like a Greek or Roman chalice.

Slide 14: Conclusion

So, pagan and pantheist ideas have been in circulation in Unitarianism since it began; they are not a recent introduction, but an integral part of Unitarian engagement with the world, because both Paganism and Unitarianism are world-affirming.

~ Yvonne Aburrow

Creative Commons Licence

From Natural Religion to Nature Religion: Pagan and Pantheist tendencies in Unitarianism by Yvonne Aburrow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 


Note on names: In the UK, the movement is called Unitarian and Free Christian (Unitarianism for short); in the USA, it is Unitarian Universalism, as a result of the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961; in Canada, it is Unitarianism.

A bubble of complacency

One of the things that enables me to function more-or-less effectively is the notion that bad things won’t happen to me. I call this “the bubble of complacency”. The bubble is a sense that all is well, life is generally benevolent, and other people do not actively wish one harm, and that the arc of history may be long, but it points towards justice. When bad things do happen to me, of course, the bubble gets popped, and I walk around all raw and unprotected. In 2010, I was in a car crash which was not my fault, and it was then that I first realised that the bubble existed, as the car crash popped it, very suddenly and abruptly. there was also a wonderful rush of relief at not having been killed in the car crash, during which I loved all my friends and family intensely, and even tiny mundane details of existence were intensely beautiful.

The following year, 2011, was really awful in a number of ways. I had an awful line manager, my relationship was on-again-off-again, I was planning to leave my job and start a course, but had no idea where I was going to live or how I would support myself during the course, and all the options I thought I had kept closing down. In November 2011, my beloved cat Harry died. I now realise that all those options closing down was actually the Universe trying to tell me that I was headed in the wrong direction, but it was painful at the time. My home, job, relationship, income, and spiritual journey were all in question. Normally it is pretty stressful if only one of those things is in doubt, but all of them at once was bad.

So, during 2012, my bubble of complacency started to reassert itself, living in Oxford, enjoying my job, and gradually getting everything together. I met my lovely partner in August of that year. But even in my bubble, I remained aware of social justice issues and tried to raise awareness of them.

In her excellent novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk talks about El Mundo Bueno (the good world) and El Mundo Malo (the bad world). Every situation has two possible outcomes, a good one  and a bad one. With our magic, prayer, and positive thinking, we constantly try to create the good world, the one where everything goes right. But every so often, we fall through the cracks into the bad world, the one where everything went wrong. My “bubble of complacency” is an attempt to keep walking in El Mundo Bueno.

“Doña Elena used to say that there was the Good Reality, El Mundo Bueno, literally the Good World, and the Bad Reality, El Mundo Malo, and they were always vying with each other. In the Good Reality you have a mild headache; in the Bad Reality you have a fatal brain disease. In the Good Reality, you catch hold of the rail as your foot slips; in the Bad Reality, you miss, slide down the stairs, and break your neck.

“We walk in the Good Reality as if we were treading the thin skin on warm milk. It’s always possible to break through and drown. …

“There is a hopeful side to Doña Elena’s teaching. … Even in El Mundo Malo, the Good Reality is always just on the other side of the surface of things. If you can learn to reach and pull yourself through, you can make miracles.” (Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, page 44)

But recently I have become aware that my “bubble of complacency” may actually be a bubble of white privilege. Part of white privilege is the ability to walk down the street without being suspected of a crime, to get a job based on one’s qualifications, to get a house without being discriminated against by the seller, the estate agent, or the person renting it to you. In short, these are actually rights that everybody should have access to. White privilege is also the inheritance of wealth and resources stolen from colonised countries and enslaved people – again, something that the descendants of those people should be entitled to, but are still denied, due to the lack of a will to offer or even discuss reparations.

The horrific shootings of far too many Black people in the US, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has made me aware that for Black people in the US, there can be no “bubble of complacency”. If you can’t walk down the street without fear of arrest or shooting for “walking while Black” – if you fear for the safety of your children when they leave the house – if you know you will be treated more harshly by law enforcement, and cannot get justice or equal treatment in any sphere – then El Mundo Malo  is always lurking just beneath the surface, ready to swallow you and all that you hold dear.

Here in the UK, I have become involved recently with two organisations, both of which have made me aware that my bubble of complacency is very much a privilege.

The first is Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary. They are a group that campaigns against institutional racism, in particular the indefinite detention of asylum seekers by the Home Office. They have campaigned (successfully, in several cases) against the deportation of LGBT asylum seekers back  to countries where being LGBT is illegal. They also campaign against the detention of other asylum seekers and people who have been imprisoned for very minor crimes who are under threat of deportation. One of the most egregious injustices that they have highlighted recently has been the death in custody of Pinakin Patel, a 33-year-old holiday-maker from India who was detained with his wife Bhavisha by the UKBA (UK Border Agency) on arrival in the UK for a holiday, on suspicion of coming here to look for work. Detaining innocent holiday-makers from India is deeply racist (assuming that they were lying about coming here on holiday, among other assumptions). Make no mistake: Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres are, in effect, concentration camps. Another very worthwhile campaign against them is Close Campsfield, which in addition to campaigning for the closure of the immigration detention centre just north of Oxford, has also organised conferences to try to raise awareness of these unjust and inhumane places. Britain is the only country in Europe which detains asylum seekers indefinitely.

Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre

Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre (photo by Yvonne Aburrow)

I have also been talking to other people about the issue of how badly asylum seekers and immigrants are treated in Britain, and have been met, for the most part, with indifference and in some cases, casual racism. The only people who get it are people who either come from elsewhere, or have partners or friends in the same situation.

If you read my recent post, Blue Beltane, you will see that El Mundo Malo was trying to break through into my world, as my partner was having visa issues. Thankfully, these have now been resolved, and he is back with me, in time for a belated Beltane celebration. But that situation heightened my awareness of other  people’s problems with visas and immigration.

The other organisation is the International Liberty Association, an organisation which has consistently campaigned for democracy and human rights in Iran and the Middle East, and which promotes a tolerant and egalitarian version of Islam, where women are recognised as equals and encouraged to take up leadership roles. 2700 of their members are currently trapped in a transit camp (called, somewhat ironically, Camp Liberty) near Baghdad airport. The forces of ISIL are closing in on one side, and the Iraqi forces on the other. Because they promote democracy and human rights, the Iranian regime wants to extradite them to Iran and execute them. The Iranian regime has already murdered thousands and thousands of people who campaigned for democracy and human rights. Last night I had the privilege of meeting some people who have recently been rescued from Camp Liberty. Brave, brave souls. These are people whose relatives have been murdered, who have been in constant fear of their lives from rocket attacks, arrest, torture, and imprisonment. They have never had the luxury of a bubble of complacency.

How can we, as Pagans, respond to all these horrific situations? Certainly not by retreating ever further into a cosy world of magical illusion, bickering over the right way to cast a circle, or what colour your candles should be. Rather, by engaging in the struggle for social justice, and promoting a vision of a world where all life is sacred.

Laura Bruno expresses it well:

…we live in a Both/And Universe. El Mundo Bueno and El Mundo Malo exist simultaneously, and we summon them by honoring or rejecting the sacred — in ourselves, in others and in the “world” at large. Every time we calm ourselves and remember (re-member … give new form and vessel to) the sacredness of Air, of Fire, of Water, of Earth and of Spirit, we pull ourselves back into the Good Reality.

Rhyd Wildermuth, Alley Valkyrie, T Thorn Coyle, Crystal Blanton and others have all been doing their best to promote a compassionate and engaged Paganism, one that connects deeply with the sacred, with the gods, and with the vision of a way of living that acknowledges that life is sacred. Rhyd and Alley in particular have correctly identified capitalism as the biggest threat to the flourishing of life. Why? Because capitalism disconnects the maker from the made, the worker from their work, and encourages the idle rich to make money from the labour of others. In the UK, the gap between rich and poor has become even wider during the Conservative administration and their austerity programme.

Wikipedia’s definition of capitalism glosses over the biggest problem, which is the extraction of profit by shareholders from the enterprise.

Capitalism is an economic system and a mode of production in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned. Such private firms and proprietorships are usually operated for profit, but may be operated as private nonprofit organizations.

Capitalism is not simply a market economy, where small traders make and sell their goods. It is the notion that a person who invests in a company, but does none of the actual work, is entitled to a share of the profits. The alternative to this (which has proven to be very viable and successful) is the co-operative, where every worker in the co-operative is a member and gets a share of the profits.

Pagan worldviews and visions – of what is sacred, of how we might live in harmony with the Earth and each other – are deeply important in showing what is possible. Pagans were among the first to argue that the Divine is both feminine and masculine. Now that view is widely acknowledged. Pagans were among the first to argue that Nature is sacred. Now that  view is more widely acknowledged. We also were among the first to welcome LGBT people to our circles and groups (though there are still issues with heterocentrism). Many Pagans (but not enough) are actively involved in the struggle against racism. We are often at or near the forefront of movements for social change. We can be agents of transformation, both in the struggle for social justice, and in the practice of magic to help bring about change. I would argue that showing up for demonstrations against injustices is a form of magic, in that it brings about a change in consciousness.

So, I aim to transform my “bubble of complacency” into an effort to bring about the manifestation of El Mundo Bueno for as many people as possible. Instead of luxuriating in my privilege, I intend to work  to extend that sense of comfort to as many people as possible.

The Enchanted, a beautiful article by Lia Hunter at Gods and Radicals expresses the contrast between a world of selfishness, greed, and exploitation and a world where everyone is valued, including the natural world. She writes:

We can cancel the terrible show and start writing and rehearsing, or even remembering one that does not eat our children and destroy mind, body, soul, Earth, and connection. It made us forget what community is, and what sacred means, but we can find them again. Some of us have already begun. Some of us in indigenous communities never lost them and can share them. There are paths strewn with fulfillment rather than endless hunger. We can find the paths with vital air to breathe, clean water to refresh, and solid ground to stand and circle with each other upon. Our ancestors knew them, walked them, danced them. Some continued to remember them throughout empire, despite the illusions of usurious capital and divine right of kings, and preserved markers for us in myth, symbol, and language. Nature, itself, contains markers and inspiration. Our home and kin are calling us.

Yes! We do not have to dance to the tune of war, austerity, destruction, greed, and selfishness. We can articulate a vision of a world of beauty and sacredness. We can build communities, friendships, and connections. We can work towards a world where all are equal, safe, and free. This is the sacred vision towards which our gods are calling us, which the whole of Nature is crying out for.

Stephen Fry, burrowing insects, and lions and tigers and bears

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses' skin and infests the horse's intestines.

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses’ skin and infests the horse’s intestines. (Wikipedia)

Recently, Stephen Fry was asked how he would respond if he met God. His response was entirely understandable within the context of Christian theology. If there is an all-powerful supernatural creator god, why does he/she/it allow hideous suffering like parasitic insects burrowing into the eyes of children? As Fry so aptly pointed out, who would worship such a god?

But what he has done is take Christian theology and turned it on its head, as so many atheists do. There is more to life than Christian theology. There is no supernatural creator god (as atheists have very ably demonstrated). That does not mean that the concepts of deity and deities are completely redundant, as a supernatural creator deity is only one possible mythological or theological construct.

Indeed, Fry went on to say that if he turned up at the gates of the afterlife and it turned out to be run by the Greek gods, he would have more respect for them, because they do not claim to be anything other than human in their appetites and capricious in their ways. I think even this is still too close to the idea of a creator (or creators), because the Greeks did not actually believe that the universe was created – and most ancient pagan creation myths actually acknowledged the existence of death and conflict as the very basis of the creative act (the killing of the giant Ymir in Norse myth in order to create the world, or the slaying of the dragon Tiamat by Marduk to make the earth, for example). But he is going along the right lines towards understanding the pagan worldview (both ancient and modern).

Yes, insects that burrow into children’s eyes are horrible, but they are neither evil nor good, they just are. They have their own agenda, like all other beings, and that agenda – finding something soft and squishy to lay their eggs in – happens to be massively in conflict with our agenda.

Right-wing Christians assume that humans are the pinnacle of  “creation” and that the world exists for our benefit. Atheists often turn this on its head and claim that the universe is hostile, but fail to notice that we are just one species among other species. The universe is neither 100% hostile, nor is it 100% benign. There is food that we can eat, and oxygen to breathe, and most of the time, the temperature is about right (until we screw it up by causing unprecedented climate change). But the fact that we exist at all, as oxygen-breathing animals, is at the expense of the organisms that existed on Earth before the atmosphere had oxygen in it – and there was a mass extinction of those non-oxygen-breathing organisms when oxygen entered the atmosphere. One animal’s beneficial environmental feature is another animal’s deeply hostile environmental feature.

The world was not created for our benefit – indeed, it was not created. The sooner humans realise this and stop behaving as if we own it, the better. There are other sentient beings who deserve our consideration – elephants, dolphins, whales – all intelligent and sensitive. And the other (supposedly lesser) animals also deserve our consideration. That doesn’t mean that I would not kill the insect that was trying to lay eggs in a human eye – but I recognise that the insect is not evil, it is just doing what comes naturally to it.

Neither atheists nor Christians seem to consider that we could only have evolved in the environment we are in (and that the the same applies to nasty insects). The environment in which we live is generally quite hospitable, but it also happens to be hospitable to some things that we consider unpleasant. Monty Python nailed it with their wonderful send-up of All Things Bright and Beautiful, aptly entitled All Things Dull and Ugly. (Listen to it on YouTube here.)

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.

Yep, the universe contains both “all things bright and beautiful”, and “all things sick and cancerous”. This means that any theology worth its salt must deal with this fact somehow. (To be fair to Christian theology, it kind of gets around this by explaining that the Devil put the nasty stuff there, because he’s spiteful – but obviously there is still a flaw because in order for this to happen, the Devil must be just as powerful as God, and then you get Manichaean dualism, which is not allowed in mainstream Christian theology.)

The universe just is, as it is. Not created, not hostile, not especially benevolent, but many diverse beings and species, each with their own imperative to survive and thrive, and some of those in harmony with our imperative to survive and thrive, some of them in conflict. We have to learn how to manage those conflicts, not blame them on an all-powerful supernatural creator (or creators). As Terry Pratchett wrote, “There’s no justice. There’s just us”, implying that we have to create our own justice.

Pagan theology deals with the fact of death and predators and icky parasites by taking the view that there are many beings (including deities and nature spirits), all with their own agendas, their own imperatives for survival, some of which may be in conflict with ours. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and sharks, and horrible insects, all have to eat, but we would rather they did not eat us. So, for the most part, we stay out of their way. Hurricanes emerge from the weather system and wreak havoc in their path, but this is an unfortunate fact of existence. Nature spirits also have their own agenda, and sometimes that aligns with ours, and sometimes it does not. That is why Icelanders take care not to demolish the dwellings of the huldu-folk (elves and trolls), and why British folklore advises against cutting down hawthorn trees, because the Fair Folk live there.

Pagan deities are not seen as all-powerful, but beings on their own journey, who may sometimes walk with us and help us. They are not there for our benefit, and we are not here for their benefit. Just as you make friends and forge alliances with other humans for companionship, or to further some collective goal like campaigning for social justice, the same applies to deities – we make alliances to further a common cause, or we make friends with them.

The universe contains both great beauty and great brutality (as Stephen Fry also acknowledged). You can’t ignore one and focus entirely on the other; they are both part of a complex picture. I recommend anyone who thinks that Nature is all fluffy bunnies and cuddly animals to spend a few hours on the Wikpedia category on parasitic insects. But for anyone who thinks that Nature is entirely hostile, go outside and bask in some warm sunshine, look at some nice trees recycling our exhaled carbon dioxide, and browse the list of edible foods that you can gather in the wild. And gaze up at the stars to be reminded of just how big the Universe is, and be thankful that you can behold such beauty, and reflect that you yourself are formed of atoms forged in the heart of a star.

Art, Agriculture, and Ancestors

Patheos Pagan is hosting a conversation about honoring the ancestors this month. I didn’t write anything for it, having no established practice to speak of. More truthfully, the whole concept challenges me.

The relatives I’ve lost (thankfully few) weren’t a very spiritual bunch. They lived deeply in this world. I honor them best by enjoying good food, good friends, and remembering to appreciate the small beauties of each passing day.

As for ancestors of the land, having just passed “Indigenous People’s Day” (which is still known as Columbus Day in much of the nation), I have at best uneasy relationship with this idea. Who am I to assume that the ancestors of this place called Wisconsin, called the USA, welcome my attempts to reconcile with them? They might well be furious—at the genocide and displacements of their people, at the ignorance with which we carved up and plowed into the land, at the disrespect we show to their descendants, even now, in how we treat both the peoples and the land. I would like to believe some sort of connection is possible, but I don’t think I’ve yet put in the work and time that would make this an honest effort. At best, I can bow my head, and promise to try to listen, to teach my children how to listen.

***

But there is a ritual pilgrimage my family makes in October each year.

Too Much Pig, artist: Brian Sobaski

Too Much Pig, artist: Brian Sobaski

Traveling about an hour up the road, the town of Reedsburg, Wisconsin serves as host to a ten-day Fermentation Festival, celebrating all things fermented, from compost to chocolate to kimchi to beer. And as part of this celebration, each year arising out of the farm fields in a 50-mile loop, the Farm Art DTour.

People come from as far away as the Twin Cities and Chicago to drive the loop, stopping at the installations—some of them by professional artists, others by the farm families that own the land, local 4H groups, and some pop ups from local artisans and neighbors. We move as pilgrims through the rural landscape, stopping at each station to read, consider, pause, interact, take pictures, try the food.

Red bandanas, traditional, strung and draped (prayer flags?) in native burr oak.

Red bandanas, traditional, strung and draped (prayer flags?) in native burr oak.

It’s always a profound experience for me to see so many people spend a day visiting art of all kinds, driving through the autumn fields. The DTour ties together agriculture, culture, art, food, history and land. This year, the very first stop was a new sign with this text:

 

Wanąğomįk cinąk

The native inhabitants of this area were called Winnebago by the neighboring Sauk and Fox tribes. In 1993 the tribe reclaimed their original name of Ho-chunk, or “People of the Sacred Language.” Reedsburg has long held a respected place in the history of the Ho-chunk. In the winter of 1893 the citizens of Reedsburg stood up to the US Government military in order to protect the Ho-chunk from the decimation of the forced removal from their homelands. Due to the large number of church-sponsored cemeteries or final resting places located in Reedsburg, the Ho-chunk refer to the city as Wanagomjk cinak, or land of cemeteries.

 

The words washed over me like cool water, reminding me that history is always more complex than the stories we learn (no matter which stories we learn). That in every generation, peoples can work together in spite—or even because of—their differences. That respect and appreciation can grow anywhere. Maybe, just maybe, keeping in mind this piece of local history, I can begin to find my way to connecting with the ancestors of this place in a way that is respectful to them and honest to myself.

A Call to Beauty, artist: Mary Dickey

A Call to Beauty, artist: Mary Dickey

We drove on. Soon we came to a spiral labyrinth mowed into the corn, with signs along the way reminding us to “still your lips” “open your ears” “quiet your mind” “listen to the land…”

Listening Labyrinth

Listening Labyrinth

when we reached the center of this contemplative journey, there were stairs leading up to a platform that allowed us to see over the cornstalks, the view expanded in front of us to embrace the landscape. The metaphor was unmistakable.

One of my favorite aspects of the DTour is that it forces one to see the land, agriculture, and culture, anew. If this is art:

 

Invasive Species, artist: Isabelle Garbani

Invasive Species, artist: Isabelle Garbani

 

Sylvan Chapel, artist: Peter Krsko

Sylvan Chapel, artist: Peter Krsko

What about this?

 

Tractors, photo R. Busse

Tractors, photo R. Busse

And what about this?

 

Cemetery, photo R. Busse

Cemetery, photo R. Busse

How we find food, prepare it, share it, and how we honor our dead…these things may vary from generation to generation, from one culture to another, one region to another, but… we all do procure and share food together, and we all do honor our dead.

 

By the time we finished the loop and headed for home, we had enjoyed pork and sauerkraut sandwiches, Asian-inspired potstickers (including a macaroni-and-cheese version–this is Wisconsin, after all), fermented salsa, local chocolates. I felt my connection to this place reaffirmed and reframed—by returning to the land with a reverential attitude, I already begin to connect to the ancestors of this place, and in doing so, I reconnect more deeply to my own humanity.

Wealth, photo R. Busse

Wealth, photo R. Busse

 

With thanks to my husband, Reed Busse, for the photographs. My daughter insists that I use some of hers as well. Alas, she missed my deadline…so expect to see more DTour shots in upcoming essays. 

Joy at the Breakfast Table

I went out to my favorite trail to run again, Pheasant Branch in Middleton, a three mile loop that takes me through both the prairies and the woodlands of Southern Wisconsin. I know every turn and twist, which helps me see the minute changes from week to week as the seasons progress.

This connection to a specific place, as well as the running, grounds me.

shutterstock_169203356

shutterstock.com

A week ago, three sandhill cranes flew right over my head, belling their prehistoric music, maybe on their way to find the bigger flock they’ll migrate with. I don’t believe in coincidence. The card for JOY in my tarot deck shows three cranes dancing, and my jogged mind said to me, You better write about this.

Joy in the parents with their now-grown chick, headed back to join their community. What is more archetypal than that?

 ***

Not every dance a family does is quite so joyful. My oldest is thirteen now and suddenly my used-to-be-morning child is slugging pretty hard into his bed. No matter that his alarm goes off at 5:30, the past couple of mornings he’s tumbled downstairs, scarfed breakfast…and needed a ride to school because he missed the bus and it’s too late to walk.

“This is your problem to solve,” I holler up at him. “I’m not going to drive you to school every day.”

“I’ll skip breakfast!” he yells from upstairs. “I’ll skip lunch! I deserve to be punished!!”

Change is hard for my kid.

 

There’s the savvy old saying, You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. This is pretty practical advice for parents. Unless you give birth to a mule.

My kid is something of a mule. When he gets thirsty, I know from long experience I can’t lead him to the water. He’ll just balk. Instead, I have to nod my head casually and say, “I hear tell there’s water over thataway.”

I’d like to solve all his problems for him…but he resists that, and I know deep down he is right to resist it. He’s gotta figure it out for himself. Each of us does. My job may be, more or less, to keep a little space clear at home to give him the place and the quiet he needs to become himself in the world.

 ***

I’ve been sitting on this essay for a week, because there’s something about it that felt unfinished, half-realized. And I think, reading it over again, that it’s right here, in the acknowledgment of my own limits. This strange little piece is not just about one mother and son relationship. Maybe this is the best we can do for each other, ever: to keep a little space clear in all our relations to allow family, friends, colleagues, to be and become themselves. I can’t solve your grief. I can’t tell you how to fix your life. I can’t know you, ever, fully. But I can give you room. And I can help to define the boundaries of that space by listening closely, deeply, to your voice.  

 

If we could look at each other and promise, You can be yourself with me, it’s okay, what a gift that would be. What a revolution.

  ***

While I was driving my kid over to school, he said angrily, “Maybe I need to start setting my alarm for 3 a.m.”

“Well you know,” I said, eyes remaining on the road, “I don’t think the alarm is working. Maybe it’s already set too early.”

“Hey–yeah,” he said. Sometimes there’s grace. Sometimes a person is receptive to a new idea. We’ll see how it goes tonight.

 

 ***

Meanwhile, after the kids have gone to school I light a candle
and search out Wayland in my notebooks.

He’s reading a copy of The Anvil’s Ring and says absently,
Did you know they’re still trying to figure out
the Ulfbehrt swords?
He chuckles, shaking his head.

Hey, I say. I could use a little direction here.
This hasn’t been an easy season.

But I should know better by now.

He doesn’t even look up, just smiles to himself.
I hear there’s water over yonder. If
you’re thirsty. Follow those cranes.

 

***

One week later…my son walked to school this morning, and was probably late getting there. He’ll figure it out. Yesterday the three cranes were closer to the trail when I jogged by. You’re still here, I said. The tallest one looked at me. Of course. You haven’t published that essay yet.

shutterstock_147328601

shutterstock.com

 

 

 

Moving Beyond “Environmentalism”

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.


“Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed?” the prompt asks us to consider.

I don’t even know what “Pagan” environmentalism is.

But the question is moot. The “isms” can be thrown away. The world is alive and aware and we are part of it. The world is not dying, but it is possible that we, along with so many other species, are.

Traditional environmentalism will tell you that agriculture in the Midwest in the 19-20th centuries destroyed the great prairie ecosystem. But there is another story, from another culture, that says the prairie is waiting, just under the surface, and will come back when our relation to the land changes.

What does that mean?

**

Each morning I go down to my office and share a cup of coffee with whatever gods and spirits the day will bring my way, whichever wights the night has left me. Now, you can laugh (and I’m quite sure some of my friends and family do, yes) at the thought of me slopping a couple of tablespoons of coffee into a mug each morning in my office. What’s it gonna get you? What is it for? Nothing happens.  That is missing the point. Through our gift, we acknowledge we have already received, simply by being alive, being present, being part of the pattern.  Through our gift, we weave ourselves a little more deeply into that pattern. We establish connection, relation.

So nothing is supposed to “happen” (except hopefully the coffee wakes me up).

Gift economies have been found the world over. The European settlers misinterpreted the Native Americans’ pattern of gift giving in early contact and hence the offensive and mistaken term “Indian giver” came into being. For that matter, we (for I am descended from those settlers and am planted firmly in this culture) also misheard and misunderstood “potlatch”—a feast where wealth is given away and honor accrued through the giving—turning it into “potluck,” at best a church supper and at worst “luck of the draw.”

We misunderstand the nature of religious offerings if we mistake what is a gift economy for a notion of simple reciprocity or a “prosperity gospel.”  This gift economy emphasizes establishing and maintaining good relation. It’s also about passing the gift forward.

**

We brought our culture with us… and we were curiously un-curious about the cultures already here—plant, animal, human — for far too long.

We’re still curiously un-curious in how we approach our place in the world. The failure of environmentalism, Pagan-identified or not, as far as I can tell, is—it has not been radical enough. We have understood ourselves as humans as somehow separate and separated from the environment—it is our specifically human footprint  upon a passive and receptive “nature” that traditional environmentalism addresses. If we can “lessen our impact” we can save the world.

I am not interested in saving this world—I don’t even know what that would mean, outside of me trying to protect my privileged lifestyle, which given the reality of most peoples across the globe I have no right to do. I do hope that humans will survive this wave of extinctions because I have a soft spot for our species. But I’m convinced in order to survive our relation to the land must change. We must listen harder, respond more thoughtfully and also more immediately.

The world is alive and aware and we are part of it. The world is not dying, but it is possible that we, along with so many other species, are. “In the midst of life we are in death. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Given this reality, what does it mean to pay the gift forward now?

I say: in the midst of death we are in life—let’s not forget that. We can honor our beloved dead and mourn extinctions personal and monumental, but our allegiance in the gift economy is to the living and those to come.  Listen, grow. Stay flexible. Recognize what symbiotic relationships you are part of, what permacultures you participate in. Play your role. Nurture those around you, be they human, plant, animal, mineral, other.

We must remember our places. We must remember ourselves within these places. What would it be to acknowledge and embrace our own immersion in the land, and our own vulnerability? As someone who is more an indoor than outdoor person, what I’m saying here challenges me. I’m not advocating for some nostalgic back-to-the-land movement. So what do I think must happen?

I don’t have any easy or quick answers tonight, but somewhat vaguely, I can say: the word “pagan” for me is not a question of believing one thing or another. And it’s not a set of practices or rituals. If it’s anything at all, “pagan” signifies  an altered orientation to the world we inhabit. Who  do you listen to and for? Are you willing to attune yourself to river bend? To the passerine? This summer’s rampant Queen Anne’s lace?

We are in life, meshed, snared, scared and dancing still, and have a responsibility to act like it.

A Theology of Trees and Fractals

June, and my yard is full of leaves again. I’ve been thinking about trees, about forests, dense and wild and other. It’s funny but I can’t think about forests without thinking about the branching paths we take through them, or maybe, the paths that lead us deep into the heartwood. Any forest is a labyrinth, a fractal pattern, complex at every level. Choose a path.

***

I’m reading a book from 1997 on ergodic literature, Cybertext by Espen J. Aarseth. “Ergodic” looks like the gods might be hiding in the text, but Aarseth states the word“derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” Unlike a traditional novel or movie, in ergodic literature, narrative is interrupted and the reader must make active choices when the paths fork. The easiest example might be Choose Your Own Adventure books, which I devoured as a kid. Interactive games are obvious examples. The Tarot deck is another. Ergodic literature is wildly fun, juicy, and completely intense all at once:

“you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed.”

Every day we wake up is Choose Your Own Adventure, wildwood, labyrinth, if we have the eyes to see. I live on the border of grassland and woodland, in Southern Wisconsin. Or: I live in deep forest, the same deep forest we all wander through, that most of us have forgotten. Choose your reality; both are true.

***

Trees catch the wind and give it voice. Words catch at thought. These words like twiggy fingers snag on ghosts and gods. I read over my journals and weave dream and shadow together, stitch that cloth to noon o’clock until everything is weightless, suspended in blue.

The house swings up through ash trees,
to hang in light-scalloped air and interstice,
a lacework net of leaf and gap exactly
like a well-told joke that dangles us
over the pit of the true strange…

***

Sometimes I think of myself as a guide of sorts—

A guide? You? Wayland laughs.
No, I think not—a translator, maybe.

***

Choose a path. We have three large and lyrical ash trees in our yard. Someday not too far off they will all three die from the emerald ash borers now found in Dane county. In one of them, we’ve started hanging bird houses, round little doors peeking out among the green, darts of color and touches of whimsy. I know a woman who tucks her poems into an old birdhouse in her garage. Sandwiched between generations and caring for multiple relatives, she has no time to revise or send work out into the world, and she has no space in her house to call her own. I look at my birdhouse tree, the multiple doorways. Maybe I will start to poke my poems into those apertures, just as I poke them into these essays. Maybe I will shred them and let the birds weave them into their nests, along with my hair and the straw I never spin into gold. Offerings.

***

…Just like a joke,
the crack of alarm gives way to laughter’s gasp.
No one told us this was the day
our possessions would go weightless,
our footsteps sound across suddenly taller floors.

***

Paper comes from trees. All the leafy, dream-soaked notebooks I have written my way through—are my words worth the death of the trees it took to house them? They’d better be.

Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level…

–Italo Calvino

(The gods are not even hiding.)

***

Is mine a theology of the Wildwood? Or is it a theology of poems? Of fractals?

Same thing. He’s reading over my shoulder.
Sometimes the Adventure chooses you.

***

“Work” and “path” may be how we locate our gods. Love is work. Poems are work. Living well is work. Asking the big questions and staying ready for the answers is work. Work worth doing. Halfway through the writing of this, I look up from my screen and realize how much of the art in my house features trees. Abstract, realistic, partial or completely representational, trees have been with me a long time, I guess.

 

In my parents’ house, the walls are covered with birds.