Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Pascal's crisis

Samhain, and the whole winter season, is a time for reflecting on existential issues, and confronting - even submitting to - periods of nullity, nihilism and despair. Blaise Pascal (1623-62), the French mathematician and philosopher, described this feeling rather wonderfully. I find myself asking if this passage should become part of our Winter Solstice liturgy.

'I do not know who put me in the world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself. I am in a terrible ignorance about everything. I do not know what my body is, or my senses, or my soul, or even that part of me which thinks what I am saying, which reflects on itself and everything but knows itself no better than anything else. I see the terrifying spaces of the universe enclosing me, and I find myself attached to one corner of this expanse without knowing why I have been placed here rather than there, or why the life alloted to me should be assinged to this moment rather than to another in all the eternity that preceeded and which follows me. I see only an infinity on every side, enclosing me like an atom or a shadow that vanishes in an instant.'

Monday, 5 November 2007


It has been curious not doing a Samhain ritual this year. My grove has always pulled the stops out for Samhain, and I'm feeling the lack of the yearly excitement as we all dress in black and go deep into the dark, frosty woods early in November. The trees drip with moisture and the smell of smoke and leafmould hangs on the air. (We normally sing the Dead Can Dance song performed on the video above.) Amid the piles of rotting leaves, we sink into what Angela Carter described as 'nearly, but not quite, the saddest time of the year.'

And it is sad. I sometimes feel the Druidic emphasis on darkness doesn't quite ring true, at least not for me: yes, it is rich, yes, it is voluptuously inspiring, velvety, exquisite, all those other words which get tokenistically overused. Not yet at that time of winter, in late December or early January, when the cold rings like a bell and the fields are like locked rooms, Samhain has a heavy, emotional feeling. The season bears a weight of grief.

This year, I decorated my altar with red and yellow leaves, the last of the scarlet dahlias from the garden, and twisted black branches. I collected little golden apples, and have piled them up with some rabbit bones. The ikon of Brighid is swathed in black cloth (to honour the Gaelic goddess of winter, the Cailleach, whose name means 'Veiled One', and who is a kind of wintery alter ego of Brighid.) There are photos of my ancestors: I treasure one of my great, great-grandmother, Elizabeth McRae, whose is standing holding my great-grandmother as a babe in arms in a back garden of turned earth. I looked out at the earth I have just turned in my new garden and thought of her. I burned some sage from the garden, lit the candles and stood by the open back door looking up and the stars through the trees. The squealing of rockets and the bangs of fireworks made the night sound like a flock of shrieking gulls had been disturbed by mortar attacks. But in the flat, silence reigned.

I put on Lisa Gerrard's last album and let myself fade into it; the freezing night air, the candlelight, the smoke, the stars. I had a little cry. I thought of all the suffering in the world: maudlin, I know, but at least it cut through my ingrained compassion fatigue. It tenderises the heart. I recited to myself part of the liturgy that Justine and I had cobbled together from Carol Ann Duffy for our Samhain ritual:

Learn from the winter trees,
the way they kiss and throw away their leaves
and hold their stricken faces in their hands
and turn to ice;
winter flays them to the bone.
We are sinking into darkness,
we are sailing through the night.
For man and woman,
the days turn into years
and the body is a grave filling up with time.
We are drowning.
All that rescues us is love.

And then I sat in darkness and let the cold wash in. Welcome, winter.

Friday, 21 September 2007


Prayer, by Carol Ann Duffy

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre

Sunday, 9 September 2007


The so-called 'Angel with the Golden Hair': a Russian icon, from the Novgorod school, mid to late 12th century. Keep looking. It's a deeply strange and beautiful image.


It has gradually become a conviction of Justine and myself that casting spells cannot be considered the activity of a mature personality. A big part of our problem with Paganism derived from the importance placed on magic, or even, God help us, 'magick'. It's the element of Paganism that leaves us most mystifed, I think, though Justine may disagree.

But, as always, this bald statement of mine requires qualification, and the ways in which magic(k) is conceptualised within Paganism differ considerably. At worst, it is a manipulative, self-aggradising spiritual technology, based very largely on chronic self-delusion, and those who practise it often tend to have some very nasty power issues. In this form, it's a bit like spiritual hacking: a way for geeks to go behind the scenes, round the back, under the radar, in order to achieve some selfish end.

But at best, as the work of luminous writers like Rae Beth makes clear, magic is a kind of embodied prayer, entirely compatible with the concept of petitionary prayer within other religions. It's something done in humility, on behalf of others, in openess to the divine generosity, which grants the request or not. It's not something that the practitioner does by themselves. I don't mean to be doctrinaire here, but it's clear, at least to me, that Pagan thinking about magic and prayer is all over the place.

* * *

There are various schools of thought about how magic works (putting aside, for the moment, the brisk objection that it doesn't.) The least sophisticated view is that represented by, say, Janet and Stuart Farrar in Ye Olde Wiccan mode.* According to this view, magic is an inherent force within human beings, which can 'raised', by chanting, dancing, sex, visualisation, etc., and 'channelled' by will-power towards particular desired goals, through the use of ritual objects such as charms, coloured candles, and the like.

If this was true, if it was really true, that with simple household objects and a few herbs wonderful results could be achieved, because a mysterious power unknown to science resides in the human body (easily activiated by reading a £6.49 book) no one would be fat, and no one would be lonely. We would simply all be calling ourselves SylverFaerieDancer, shutting the curtains, and sticking a needle through a coloured candle, in the full expectation that we'd then be more able to hold off the Chelsea buns or could expect Mr or Ms Right to troll round the corner in the imminent future.

Freud, despite many peculiar ideas, had the useful concept of the 'Reality Principle'. It needs rigorous application here.

A more sophisticated view might be that of Starhawk, a highly intelligent woman who is true to her Jewish roots in her mixture of practicality and prophetic witness. Aleister Crowley coined the axiom of ritual magic, that "Magic is the Science and Art of causing change to occur in accordance with the Will"; this alerts the reader at once that Crowley was a sub-Neitzschean third-rate nerd, addled on smack and deluding himself that his Dungeons & Dragons hallucinations represented some daemonic psychic reality. Dion Fortune adapted Crowley's dictum to read: 'Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will', which Starhawk has retained and built on. The difference is vital: instead of the quasi-scientific assertion of a hidden, manipulable system behind the manifest universe, Fortune recognised that it is only ourselves which we can change. In books such as Dreaming the Dark, Starhawk fused this (ancient) insight with political and environmental activism, daring people to change their consciousness to envision radically more just ways of being-in-the-world. If this is magic, it's a long way from the Farrars' concept thereof.

The English Hedgewitch Rae Beth, who is in my opinion one of the only genuine and profound mystics among Wiccan writers, goes further. She recognises that ultimately magic must collapse into prayer, because human beings, and all creation, are radically dependent on the immanent and transcendent divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. She refers to the divine as 'Goddess and God', in classic Wiccan fashion, but in terms with which the 13th century Hindu saint Jnaneshwar would have been quite familiar.

Though she preserves the usual impedimenta of magic - candles, cords, herbs, and so on - she is quite conscious that all power for transformation ultimately comes from the divine, and that the only magic worth doing is that which aligns us with the divine will for healing, peace, and justice. Otherwise, we would be like fish in an aquarium on the back of a lorry headed north: no matter how hard the fish were to try to swim south, they would never get anywhere. For Rae Beth, magic is ultimately both a discipline of meditation, and a method of deepening mystical communion. Her writings glow with a sense of the divine's unimaginable wisdom. In its inerradicable sense of awe and gratitude, her magic is not self-aggrandisement, but self-abandonment. Thus, ultimately, it is prayer.

* * *

I quote now from Donald Spoto's beautiful In Silence: Why We Pray, on this subject.

Without doubt, petition at prayer is a topic often poorly understood - not only because of magical tendencies, and our attempts to manipulate or bribe God, but also because of a false opposition we tend to presume exists between human and divine intent. That divergence is due to the subtle, unspoken notion that submission to God's will means disaster for us, or at least some unpleasantness...At the root of this misperception is a lack of trust - of faith itself - in God's unimaginable and infinite mercy, and the lingering anxiety that He may not, after all, be Love straight through.

This sort of thinking...leads by a direct route to a wholly false idea of prayer. The practical result of such spiritual malfunction is 'prayers' that are not really prayers at all. - not expressions of longing for God and what harmonizes our existence with His, but rather examples of unattractive designs on destiny. Hence we pray to win a lottery, or to be rid of a meddlesome person in our life, or to control someone (by brute power or romantic ardor, for example) or to be spared the ordinary lot of the human condition.


But prayer is not a means of escape from the ordinary lot of physical and emotional life, which necessarily inolves experiences of dimishment, darkness and dying. In fact prayer is rarely the solution to any problem at all. We do not pray for utilitarian or functional or financial reasons, nor because prayer can produce beneficial results. We pray to know more deeply
Whose we are; from that awareness derives everything we genuinely neeed in this life.

Donald Spoto, In Silence: Why We Pray, pp. 75-6.

*Note the Amazon review by 'OakRaven', referring approvingly to the Farrar's 'Spells and How They Work' as a useful guide to 'SpellCraeft' [sic]. Blergh.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Wild Geese

Still on the 'nature of mind', this beautiful poem by Mary Oliver never fails to blow me away. I first discovered it not long after my (now) ex-husband and I separated, and it pulled me through some very dark times. Not overtly 'spiritual' but stunning all the same.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Nature of Mind

Bo and I have been talking a lot recently about how, as 'post pagans', ritual fits into our lives. I love ritual; sadly it's often the only chance I get to spend any real time out in nature. Feeding the ducks or walking in the woods with my 5 year old son is sacred in its own way, but, not surprisingly, there isn't any time for being able to sit silently and just let nature in. Ritual gives me a sense of connection and direction I just haven't found in any other spiritual practice. (I must put a note in here to say, at the risk of sounding like a terrible old snob, I am talking about good ritual, filled with poetry, music and silence - see Bo's other blog for examples of how this isn't done). Ritual is often connected with pagan practice, and we do still meet whenever possible at the natural turning points of the year (equinoxes, solstices, and the ones in between), and with other members of our little group we still mark the circle by calling quarters, though we no longer call specific deities. I have been questioning that now I no longer label myself as a druid and certainly my daily prayers and practice aren't recognisable as pagan, then where does ritual fit into my life?

Tibetan Buddhist teachings talk of the 'nature of mind'; this is our inner most essence that is not touched by change or death. It is immune to the thoughts, plots, desires and emotion that we experience in our daily lives - the part of the mind Buddists call sem. It is our true essence, what others might think of as our soul or God within us.

Buddhists believe that at our death when all our wordly illusions fall away this boundless, 'sky-like' nature of our mind is revealed. However they also believe that under some circumstances glimpses of our nature of mind may be seen. Sogyal Rinpoche describes it "just as clouds can be shifted by a strong gust of wind to reveal the shining sun and wide open sky so some inspiration may uncover for us glimpses of this nature of mind". This is the understanding found in the heart of all religions -that there is a fundamental truth and that this life is an opportunity to recognise it and evolve. What the sufis would describe in terms of the hidden essence, the process of becoming a Lover and allowing the rest of your life to be burnt away by Love.

The Direct Path by Andrew Harvey demonstrates exercises and meditations from many different paths and religions, showing the underlying truth that connects them all. He recomends before starting any meditation to read a poem or piece of text that inspires and awakens awareness of God. To me, this is 'blowing the clouds away' to reveal the true nature of mind. Some of the times I have felt this most strongly has been in ritual with Bo. We have learned over the many years that we have been writing and practising ritual what type of poetry, text and music works for us to assist opening to that hidden essence. We have a full-moon ritual once a year during the June/July moon. This year, despite having both learned reems, the ritual, as they are often wont to do, took its own form, and we perfomed the whole thing in silence, with just some beautiful inspirational music to meditate to. It was probably one of the most powerful moments of my life, and there felt absolute connection between me, the summer night sky, the meadow we sat in, and the rabbit that came to sit with us and Bo. To me, that was definitely a moment of experiencing the nature of mind. Obviously Bo will have his own view on this, but I think it is this connection with God, the nature of mind, the hidden essence, that keeps us continuing to have a deep need for (good) ritual, despite being post pagans.

Songyal Rinpoche: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Andrew Harvey: The Direct Path

Friday, 24 August 2007

Azam Ali

Here is Azam Ali of Vas, looking very Mirabai-esque, in a decent updating of traditional Persian music (which is absolutely amazing). She often sings Sufi poetry, in both Urdu and Farsi.

Two songs in one video - an Orthodox hymn from the Levant and another, medieval, song which appears on Ali's Portals of Grace, but the name of which I cannot recall.

Thursday, 23 August 2007


Having quoted Rowan Williams earlier, I reproduce this poem, which means a great deal to me. Its simplicity, as always with Williams' poetry, hides great learning and tremendous psychological and spiritual subtlety. I hope to write something more about it soon.

Rublev is, of course, the famous Andrei Rublev, the greatest master of Russian icon-painting, who was born in the late 14th century. The poem is deeply bound to Rublev's miraculous icon of the Trinity, which shows the persons of the Trinity as angels seated at a table. It is in the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow.

* * *

Rublev, Rowan Williams, from The Poems of Rowan Williams

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

I said Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

These (god) are chromatic pains of flesh.
I said, I trust I make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

For ever. I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth

to the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.


One of my own particular loves is sacred music, and the absence of any such tradition in Paganism was a constant disappointment. Accordingly, I'm going to try to post links to various traditions of sacred music that I particularly love on this blog.

The example gven above is of Hindu dhrupad chant, with demonstations of particular ornamental techniques. At first listening, it may sound like a collection of twangs and blips, but in fact it is an immensely subtle - and ancient - form of sacred music, with its origin in samavedic chant. Sir John Tavener has written that he listens to dhrupad more than any other form of sacred music, and the influence of dhrupad's microtones, sober ecstasy, and immensely long melodic lines is obvious in his own compositions. It's best listened to by candlelight, but be warned that at points the performer, a descendant of the famous Dagar brothers, interrupts himself. First he demonstrates a technique in which the voice is used to imitate the sound of a stringed instrument with uncanny accuracy, and later performs an ecstatic riff which sounds like a kettle boiling over.

I suspect the chant given here may be in honour of Krishna (if I am right in picking up the word Nand, a tender name used of Krishna) but wiser readers must enlighten me.

Mirabai ( c.1498-1573)

Mirabai is the most reknowned poet/saint of India. She was reluctantly married at eighteen to the Prince of Mewar. Her husband died soon into their marriage leaving her free to dedicate herself to Krishna; this for Mira was her life purpose. She spent time in public temples (usually only visted by those from lower castes) and sang, danced and embraced with untouchables. In order to escape from her murderous in-laws, Mira, now in her early thirties, renounced her title and fled. She spent the rest of her life living in places sacred to Krishna, dedicating her poetry to him. She spoke out on the injustices of religion, politics and the caste system and was clearly a formidable intellect. Her poetry is often humourous, erotic and ecstatic, reflecting the estatic union she achieved with her God. Mira would often dance with and for Krishna, like many transcendant mystics. She spent the last few years of her life attending the destitute near the Ranchorji temple.

The way Mira addresses Krishna is reminiscent of how many Sufi poets address Allah, with the tenderness and intimacy used to speak to a lover:

I Get Dizzy

I can't forget about love
for more than two seconds
I get dizzy if I think about anything
but the way you pant
in my ear.

I Want You To Have This

I want you to have this,
all the beauty in my eyes,
and the grace of my mouth
all the splendour of my strength,
all the wonder of the musk parts of my body,
for are we not talking about real love,
real love?

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Simone Weil

A wise insight from the extraordinary French mystic Simone Weil. She died of anorexia, but that is a bald way to describe a death in which others have found, with whatever justification, deep meaning. Rowan Williams wrote, in a poem in her voice, 'at least I can be light and hungry, hollowing my guts / till I'm a bone the sentenced god can whistle through.'

I have always loved the following bleak, profound statement of hers: The extreme affliction which overtakes human beings does not create human misery, it merely reveals it.

But that is not the axiom which I intended to quote. Instead, it was this which caught my attention:

Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else...A "synthesis" of religion implies a lower quality of attention.

Grapes ripen smiling at each other

The tart and hearty grapes, destined to ripen,
will at last become one in heart
by the breath of the masters of heart.
They will grow steadily to grapehood,
shedding duality and malice and strife.
Till in maturity, they rend their skins,
and become the mellow wine of union.

- Rumi

I love this. I am a 'tart and hearty grape', but sufism has began to ripen me. I have studied sufism for about a year now, and though I don't think I'll convert, I have found my daily prayer and meditation becoming infused with sufi practice. I feel I am on dodgy ground here, because I don't want to find myself shopping in the New Age spiritual supermarket, you know that pick'n'mix attitude to religion where you chose the bits that suit you, ignore the bits that don't, and end up with something truly meaningless. In sufism I have found something that was never apparent for me in Druidry, and that is submission to God in Love; and I think now that is what I will continue to search for in my own practice and whatever I happen to be studying at the time. Kabir Helminski says "it is not necessary to replace one religion or no religion with another, but to purify ourselves and our religion with Love".

I want to enter the fire of Love and become one with the fire. For me, at the moment, I feel this has more depth of meaning than searching for a convenient hook on which to hang my spirituality. We shall see ...

To the Creator through the Creation

At some point I need to sit down and write about where I am spiritually, and where I feel I'm headed. This blog has been rather strong on Orthodoxy lately, and there are other strands, especially Buddhism, which I need to speak about.

But here is an essay by Bishop Kallistos Ware, the Orthodox Bishop of Britain, which Yvonne has drawn my attention to. It's called 'Through Creation to the Creator', and it is very beautiful.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Litanie a la Vierge Noire

Justine told me yesterday that she had visited the Cathedral at Canterbury with her son, my godson. It was somewhere I used to pray a lot when I was at school. I'll leave her to write about it if she wishes, but thinking about that wonderful place brought this prayer forth from me. It's not what I say every time I kneel before that beautiful statue of the Black Virgin in the darkened, underground crypt, but it is the kind of imagery I use. I used to spend hours there, and I miss it.

* * *

Blessed Lady
And hidden treasure,

Black brightness
And star-enwoven bower,

Fragrance of myrrh
and dew of the sea,

From all who suffer,
Hide not thy face.

Most holy Mother,
gentled by candles
and soft smoke of prayers,
Here in this darkness,

Hide not thy face.


Become All Flame - The Desert Fathers

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'

* * *

Chant from a Georgian Monastery. Worth sticking with this...

And with female voices:

Monday, 20 August 2007


A deeply mysterious and mystical poem, this. Vaughan had a twin brother Thomas, an alchemist; both attended Jesus College, Oxford, where I write. I recently had the priviledge of handling some of Thomas Vaughan's own books.

Regeneration, Henry Vaughan (1622-1695).


Award, and still in bonds, one day
I stole abroad,
It was high-spring, and all the way
Primros'd, and hung with shade;
Yet, was it frost within,
And surly winds
Blasted my infant buds, and sin
Like clouds eclips'd my mind.


Storm'd thus; I straight perceiv'd my spring
Mere stage, and show,
My walk a monstrous, mountain's thing
Rough-cast with rocks, and snow;
And as a pilgrim's eye
Far from relief,
Measures the melancholy sky
Then drops, and rains for grief,


So sigh'd I upwards still, at last
'Twixt steps, and falls
I reach'd the pinnacle, where plac'd
I found a pair of scales,
I took them up and laid
In th'one late pains,
The other smoke, and pleasures weigh'd
But prov'd the heavier grains;


With that, some cried, Away; straight I
Obey'd, and led
Full east, a fair, fresh field could spy
Some call'd it Jacob's Bed;
A virgin-soil, which no
Rude feet ere trod,
Where (since he slept there,) only go
Prophets, and friends of God.


Here, I repos'd; but scarce well set,
A grove descried
Of stately height, whose branches met
And mixed on every side;
I entered, and once in
(Amaz'd to see't,)
Found all was chang'd, and a new spring
Did all my senses greet;


The unthrift sun shot vital gold
A thousand pieces,
And heaven its azure did unfold
Checker'd with snowy fleeces,
The air was all in spice
And every bush
A garland wore; thus fed my eyes
But all the ear lay hush.


Only a little fountain lent
Some use for ears,
And on the dumb shades language spent
The music of her tears;
I drew her near, and found
The cistern full
Of diverse stones, some bright, and round
Others ill'shap'd, and dull.


The first (pray mark,) as quick as light
Danc'd through the flood,
But, th'last more heavy than the night
Nail'd to the center stood;
I wonder'd much, but tir'd
At last with thought,
My restless eye that still desir'd
As strange an object brought;


It was a bank of flowers, where I descried
(Though 'twas mid'day,)
Some fast asleep, others broad-eyed
And taking in the ray,
Here musing long, I heard
A rushing wind
Which still increas'd, but whence it stirr'd
No where I could not find;


I turn'd me round, and to each shade
Dispatch'd an eye,
To see, if any leaf had made
Least motion, or reply,
But while I listening sought
My mind to ease
By knowing, where 'twas, or where not,
It whispered: Where I please.
Lord, then said I, On me one breath,
And let me die before my death!

Saturday, 18 August 2007


by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Die Sonette an Orpheus, translated by Don Patterson, Orpheus (Faber and , 2006).

Silent comrade of the distances,
Know that space dilates with your own breath;
ring out, as a bell into the Earth
from the dark rafters of its own high place -

then watch what feeds on you grown strong again.
Learn the transformations through and through:
what in your life has most tormented you?
If the water's sour, turn it into wine.

Our sense cannot fathom this night, so
be the meaning of their strange encounter;
at their crossing, be the radiant centre.

And should the world forget your name
say this to the still earth: I flow.
Say this to the quick stream: I am.

How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.

- Elaine Scarry


by Jacob Polley, from Little Gods (Picador, 2006)

Vessel of water, vessel of wind;
old yellow eye
lost in the fall, lost in the mind
where the other leaves lie
as leaf by leaf the trees go blind.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Andy Goldsworthy, Yellow elm leaves laid over a rock in low water (1991)


by Alice Oswald, from Woods, etc.

last night at the joint of dawn,
an owl’s call opened the darkness

miles away, more than a world beyond this room

and immediately I was in the woods again,
poised, seeing my eyes seen,
hearing my listening heard

under a huge tree improvised by fear

dead brush falling then a star
straight through to God
founded and fixed the wood

then out, until it touched the town’s lights,
an owl elsewhere swelled and questioned
twice, like you light lean and strike
two matches in the wind.