A Pagan carol… for Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah…

This is a first draft, and too long, (and as yet untitled), but I had to post it on Christmas Eve. (And now, I am setting up for Hanukkah. Before I hopefully make it to Midnight Mass. Seriously!)

What is this Star
that sits on the horizon in the east?
That burns in eyes of pilgrims from a distant land
who loved a thousand gods,
but, captivated, still left everything to follow this one Light.

What is this Star,
that flares across the sky in westward trace?
Solar wildfire obsessing three magicians
(who know their astrological events,
their Leo Rising from their Sagittarius),
who seek mysteries yet unilluminated.

What is this Star
that breaks my heart with calling me,
Once every year, away from your dark mountain?
Your face is veiled, my Lady, and I cannot see an end to night.

What is this Light?
Brought into great stone buildings made brilliant with candlelight,
Brought out in dazzling colours to streets that never sat in sacred dark.
And beyond, illuminating the eternal flame.
And what does this child mean, who blazes in the midst of it?

And you, Lady –
You are not the Light to kill this darkness.
You’re the drawing deeper into it,
The blackness in the heart of it,
The calm within the storm of it.
Nor are you the Way out of this wilderness –
You are the getting lost upon the hill of it,
The terror in the night of it,
The long walk to the dawn of it.
No fisherman will walk on water in the search for you
(though he that drowns may find you in the final wave).
And you will not turn over tables in the temple courts,
(our own injustices and consequences will be ours),
And you will not be born among us
(will not redeem us from the monsters that we have become).
You are not the light to kill this Darkness –
You are the Mystery it carries in its heart.

…And yet there is this Star.

So let me go, my Lady, just for one night,
To retread a childhood path to this one Light,
to leave the temple of a thousand gods
to seek the One.
Let me join a caravan that navigates by starlight,
to go with them to places where I once before
sang promises of peace and love and light
(although soon smouldering and all burnt out).
Let me seek a blazing child,
who, for one night, is lost in the wild dark places too,
sleeping in the straw.

And if he will not let me come inside the stable
Then I will sit with shepherds on the hillsides,
feel an early morning desert wind,
listen to an angel’s song,
and sit in celestial rays.
In the seeking there will still be Light.

So, Lady, send me with a message for a foreign god –
who hosts his guest with such welcoming fire in the hearth –
and I will tell him I belong to wilderness,
and it will always call me back to you.
You know I can’t stay long in well-lit places,
will not linger late in temples built of stone,
shut out from Solstice dawn and Beltane fire.
There are wanderers in the desert,
there are souls lost on the hillside,
there are lonely spirits waiting in the gloom,
seeking not a Light to kill the darkness
but your labyrinth path into the heart of it.

So I will seek this Star tonight,
but leave my soul at the wild altar of a wilder goddess –
And she will call me home to mountainsides
when I have had enough of Light.

– Leithin Cluan, Christmas Eve 2016

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(Pt 2:) My Polytheism

There’s a beautiful trend happening. People are writing about their polytheisms, people whose polytheistic practices are diverse, varied, multiple, weird, different from what we’re told (recently) that polytheism ‘should’ be. (See Jack’s post here, and Kiya’s post here, and the wonderful My Polytheism blog which is collecting a lot of this writing – and I hear that Jolene Poseidonae wants more people to contribute to it!)

Like a lot of these brilliant writers, I have been really concerned by the gatekeeping and crypto-fascist stuff coming out of those who would paint themselves as ‘leaders’ of polytheism. As though it were a cult and they were the gurus. As though it were a singular religion, with rules that we all share, and which they can write.

For me, part of this mess has been positive. My Lady is pointing me at the roots of modern cultural polytheisms – roots which are mostly nationalistic and fascist, if we are completely honest – and asking me if that’s what I want to be part of, even as it moves beyond that. For that history will always be with it. I’m thinking about that, and it may take some time. These things can be transformed, She says – but is that the Work you want to do?

Because you see, my gods are not particularly bothered how I worship them and what I call myself. And my ancestors definitely aren’t. It’s for you, they whisper, and I, barely hearing them, shake my head like I were brushing off flies, and pour out my offerings on shrines that Irish gods never had, and that they certainly don’t have now. And what paltry offerings they are – whiskey and mead and scraps of food.

And they don’t mind – it’s what I need. And I believe they appreciate those little offerings, paltry as they are. But there’s a sense that, when I’m ready, there are far bigger things waiting for me outside the four walls of the room that houses my shrines to the beings of Light that dwell in the secret places of the land. And far, far bigger things waiting for me beyond the four walls of my current ways of thinking and doing and worshipping.

My gods do not live in any shrine inspired by modern polytheism. No offering of whiskey is enough for them, and no trinkets that remind me of them could ever fill the deep, dark spaces they have made in my heart.

Then what do you want? I ask, perturbed, frustrated.

You, whispers Beara, my dark Lady, whom I had the gall to name myself, whose tales I have twisted as she has led me to, in whom I have found a depth of chaos and justice that no constructs of ‘ancient lore’ can describe. For it can only be found in the places she dwells – in the wind in the trees, at the seashore in a storm, on a wild island, on the mountain. And in the deepest pool of chaos, beneath the Tree.

Anything (and everything) you want, says Dovinia, ancestress-goddess who crosses divides between land and people, and finds me lost, somewhere in the depths between.

The Adventure, winks Manannan mac Lir, who does not care if I put the accents on the right places in his name, for all names and stories could only ever be an echo of the sound of the sea on the rocks in a mighty storm – and a wry, friendly fisherman watching from the shore in a bright yellow hat, so easy to miss in the heavy rain. He offered me a box once and asked if I wanted to open it. I’m not sure I’ve even cracked the lid yet.

They ask me to challenge the deepest parts of myself that do not want to offer hospitality to the stranger (or wants to fetishise them* until my hospitality is far more about me than about them). The parts of me that withdraw into tribal instincts – where what is mine must stay pure and unsullied by others, and what is yours must be mine if I think it is good, and condemned as alien and wrong if I do not. The parts of me that are racist, colonialist, internally and externally disablist, internally and externally homophobic, transphobic, classist, elitist… the list goes on. The parts of me that secretly like that most of my gods are Irish and that I rarely venture out to meet others. That I rarely look beyond my little boxes. That I call myself a thing and ignore how it oppresses others. Because to look at that oppression is difficult, and may involve Work that I’m just too tired to do. (The parts of myself that use ‘I’m too tired’ as an excuse far, far too often.) They call me to challenge all these things in me, for only then can I even begin to challenge them in others.

This is my offering.

They ask me to give all of myself to a cause without end, from the depths of my frustration and pain, in disability campaigning that alienates me from my community – and leaves me deeply hurt, unsure if I should go on with such work that makes people stand against me, vocally, if very boringly. But I will, because order needs chaos, rising up from the dark pool beneath the Tree, or nothing ever changes. And Beara nods, and approves – but only long enough to ask for more.

This is my offering.

And they ask me to do the most simple things, that are the most difficult. Continuing to show up, even in the too-bright, scorching days of a summer ruled by Balor, where my world and my mind feels like it is falling apart. Keeping going, when the doctors are unkind and unhelpful, when the university administration is neglectful to the point of my desperation, when the mountain of work is terrifying to look up at. To keep pulling out that next transcript to analyse, Cuchullain-like (but with no super-strength to help). To accept the many gifts that They give me. To believe my spouse loves me. To keep lighting the candle on the shrine – because that is what I need, and my need is great.

This is my offering.

My polytheism is social justice. My polytheism is critical theory. My polytheism is Hannah Arendt and bell hooks and Sara Ahmed and Robert McRuer and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson and Sharon Betcher and Nancy Eiesland. My polytheism is stories – sharing the stories of those who are not heard, because my privilege means my voice is louder, and this is what I can do. My polytheism is research into disability and Christianity, that I have never walked away from in six long years, through circumstances having forced me to attend three universities, all of which have made it very hard to work as a disabled student – because I made a commitment, and because the stories of my participants need to be told. My polytheism is hospitality, keeping my vows, showing up, and really trying hard not to raid the cattle of others.My polytheism is the modern stories that inspire me that I am afraid others will laugh at, and so I relegate my feelings about those to other places, and pretend I am not inspired by Buffy and Angel and X-Men and Night Vale and a reimagined Narnia where a queen calls to me. My polytheism is not even sure it’s all that different from monotheism, some days, when the voice of the One whispers through and in the voices of the Many. My polytheism simply is, a belief in many gods, because many gods made themselves known to me. And oh, how they made themselves known!

My polytheism is nothing like yours. And that’s OK. It’s good. It’s beautiful.

Now please – tell me about yours?

(Don’t worry – part 3, on disability, miasma and polytheism, is still on the way… :) )

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Image: ‘Bright Flame’ shrine. Images of Brighid and Our Lady Breaker of Chains, with flowers (from my garden) and candles, plus memorial and inspirational items.

*Currently reading Sara Ahmed on the fetishisation of the stranger. I recommend it.

Cultural Goats

Inspired by Kiya’s post on a reflection she gave at her UU church today, here’s what I did at my Unitarian church today…

The theme at New Unity this month has been ‘culture’. Instead of delivering a reflection on the subject, this week the minister asked if the congregation would be willing to share things from their own cultures and those that have influenced them. And how we shared: stories, poetry, reflections, songs. From poems that gazed into the death-stare of Kali, through traditional Irish folk songs, via reflections by Egyptian feminists, past freestyling on Greek-British culture, and onto a gorgeous rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, culture was brought home as something many-varied, colourful, and deeply embedded in us. Afterwards, friends and I fell into talking about queer culture over coffee. So many cultures. So much richness of belonging.

This is what I read in the service. If anyone hasn’t overheard me and Shai talking about the ‘goats’, you will at some point. Three months after I met Shai, I became suddenly, surprisingly and distressingly ill. Sometime around then, Shai told me this story, a Jewish Eastern European one. It has been constantly referred to in our home ever since. This is my interpretation of the story.

A man lived in a small, very crowded house with his wife, his in-laws, six children and a dog.

One day he couldn’t take it anymore. The noise, mess and stress were too much for him. In desperation, he went to see his Rabbi, who was known to be a very wise man.

“Rabbi,” the man said, “You have GOT to help me. There are so many of us in our little house. I can’t cope with the crowdedness and the noise and the mess and the stress anymore. What do I do about this situation?”


The wise Rabbi pondered this for a moment. Then he said to the man, “Do you have a goat?”

Confused, the man replied, “Yes, Rabbi. We have quite a busy farm and I have two goats.”
 
“Then take the goats,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man duly went home, got his goats, and brought them into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” said the man, “it’s terrible! We have even less space than before, and the goat is breaking everything, and there’s goat mess on the floor, and the children are very unhappy. How is this meant to have helped?”
 
The Rabbi thought for a moment. “Do you have a cow?”
 
“Well… yes,” said the man. “I have a cow.”
 
“OK,” said the Rabbi. “Bring the cow into the house with you.”
 
“Bring the cow… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man obediently went home, got his cow, and brought it into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” he said. “This is horrific! The goats and the cow are taking up so much space that we barely have anywhere to sleep anymore! They are fighting and they’re in the way and their mess is all over everything.”
 
“Tell me,” said the Rabbi, “do you have any chickens?”
 
“Yes, Rabbi,” said the man resignedly, “I have chickens.”
 
“Then take the chickens,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house. With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats and the cow?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later the man returned. He looked exhausted.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi,” he said, “I officially cannot cope anymore. The goats and cow are trying to kill each other. The chickens are flapping around making noise all day and all night. We have nowhere to sleep, nowhere to eat, we’re now having to do most things outside, and their mess is everywhere. What are you doing to me?”
 
“Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now. Take the chickens, and the cow, and the goats, and put them back outside. And come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later, the man came back. He looked rested and happy. “Rabbi,” he said, “you have no idea how much better it is now. There is space again. It is quiet again. It is clean again! What a relief.
 
The Rabbi smiled. “Then go home,” he said, “and enjoy the wonderful life you have with your family. And remember, if it ever gets too much – there could always be a goat living with you.”

 

There were a few goats in my house as I walked around Camden after church, getting some meanness about my scooter from fellow Camdonians, and thinking about the very hard week I’ve had of defending my stance on disability and access. But then there was tea and trees and work in Regents’ Park, and the goats were out of the house. For a little while. Everything can always wait until tomorrow.

 

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Regents Canal, where it meets the bridge at Regents Park, Camden, London

31 Days of Offerings – Day 23-26: Shying Away from The Great Offering

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I have the gall to whine at a goddess about my difficulties resolving concepts of ‘Pagan’ and concerns about many, many of the practices of that community, and to wonder whether my strategy from here on in should be silence.

And my Lady, who has called me to tell her stories and speak her name, came to me as a mighty giantess walking along the shore of Oileán Baoi in the early dawn, the hills of her island rising dark and strange behind her, the cold and death and rebirth of a coming November blowing the first winds of a storm across the dark water.

The shores of Oileán Baoi, island of the goddess now known as Cailleach Bhearra

The shores of Oileán Baoi, island associated with the goddess now known as Cailleach Bhearra

And she said…

Do you think you are a daughter of a queen? Are you from the tribe of great, remembered gods, their stories preserved by monks and monarchs? Do you speak of the chiefs and kings in your lineage, the castles your family lived in, the great wars they fought in, the great deeds they did?

No. You run with the wild spirits of the most isolated, sidelined, liminal land in Ireland, with its poorest, most marginalized of people. You do not boast of ancestors with kingly lineage. You speak of the horrific suffering of your people: the good, very ordinary farmers, victims of famine and war and oppression, those whose backs were broken as the great, remembered men of Ireland climbed over them to reach their powerful place, and ate their food, and whose names they did not remember. Of the soldiers who fought the great wars the great myths tell tale of, whose deeds are ascribed to other, greater men, and whose names are not remembered. Of the women who watched their many, many children die, in famine and pestilence and at the brutal hands of English landlords, and carried on, whose names are not remembered. Of the road through the mountains that you love, that was built to carry food in one direction and bring coffins back, carrying the bodies of those whose names are not remembered.

And even their stories are forgotten.

The memorial to famine victims at the top of the Healy Pass, the road through the mountains between Cork and Kerry. Once called the Kerry Pass, re-named for the first president of the Irish Free State. Photo: Sludge G (CC).

Memorial to famine victims at the top of the Healy Pass, the road through the mountains between Cork and Kerry. Once called the Kerry Pass, re-named for first president of Irish Free State. Photo: Sludge G. (CC).

And this is the way you chose to walk.

Then how dare you be embarrassed of the name you choose call yourself or the community you choose to draw around you?

And how dare you be ashamed of a goddess whose stories are so deeply buried in the landscape that few remember her name? When few know of her sacred sites, or the stories of her cow and her lobster and her harvest, or have heard the songs the mountains sing in whispers about her? When many roll her lazily into the stories of her more renowned sisters, and forget the name of the One she is married to, and forget her island, and her mountainous country, and her dark shores? When so many do not remember her name?

You are here to tell the unheard tales. The tales of the oppressed, those whom society crushes beneath their endless, vicious race to the top. The stories of the desperate, the despairing, the dying, the lost. The many who serve the few. Whose names are not remembered.

Then open your mouth and speak.

The long dark is coming, and my picture of a dark figure plunging a staff into the ground needs to move into the living room. It is not a picture of Her. And yet it is.

And her name will be remembered, by those who choose to listen for it.

Summer Harvests

It was Lammas at Druid Camp.

Alone, I would usually choose to celebrate Lughnasadh – the festival of Tailtu who created agriculture, of Lugh who prevents the death of the crops and brings the harvest. Summer games and competition and high-energy feats of challenge and pride, in honour of a proud, accomplished god.

But we were together, and it was Lammas.

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The wheat of the Lammas harvest that we were surrounded by at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

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Community-witnessed handfasting at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Druidry is very much a community-based tradition. If alone I am a Gaelic polytheist with Brythonic leanings, together with these friends I am a Druid in a community of Druids. And only communities can reap a good harvest.

And I thought back to two weeks before, in Ireland with my mother and grandmother, spending most of our time with cousins and other family. I didn’t get much time with the land, with Beara. I did more important things. My harvest was community.

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The view across the hills and down to the sea from the vantage point of my family farmhouse, dating back to my great-grandparents and still at the centre of a small farm worked by my cousins. Beara Peninsula.

I return to posts from American Pagans about rejecting Lughnasadh (by which, in this case, the writer actually means Lammas) because “most Pagans live in the US” (EXCUSE ME?!), the assertion from some corners that modern polytheism is better than modern Paganism, and other culturally imperialist rubbish that starts to bring me down. British Paganism and British Druidry are a minority voice online. Most Americans don’t know about the beautifully non-hierarchical, deeply rooted-in-our-land, strongly community-focused practice that draws from many streams of modern Paganism and other spiritualities that is modern British druidry. The loud voices shouting about their recent conferences, and whose hotel was better, know nothing about the week we spent in a field, overlooking the river of Sabrina and the ancient barrows across the hill, surrounded by sheep, having to build our own community from the ground up (and make it accessible to as many people as possible!), where the success is all the sweeter for how every person contributes in their own way. They don’t know about the talent (that Eisteddfod!), the strength, the love, the mutual acceptance and help and support, the critical thought, and the plain hard work that can bring 200+ very diverse druids together in a field and have them, by the end, become a coherent spiritual community complete with regular dramatic rituals and dances and fires and drinking of mead and telling of stories. So many stories.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

And that started me thinking about stories, and how the One Reality we all inhabit can be so very different from so many different perspectives. “We don’t need Lughnasadh,” announces someone who sees one side of the story. On the other side of the world, Lammas is the theme for 200 druids in a field surrounded by wheat. The sun at its height but showing the first signs of waning towards its long sleep. Our carefree summers making their way, like a slowly-winding labyrinth, towards Samhain and darkness and change. At the height of summer there is the seed of winter. At the height of life there is the seed of death. That’s what our harvest, here on this insignificant island where modern Paganism was birthed, is all about.

And that’s what our very different stories are all about, too. “I was right, you know, and he was wrong.” Except that right and wrong are forever relative. As a friend of mine said today: “We are all scumbags. We are all saints.” We may want to play the innocent hurt victim or the evil villain – depending on where our self-esteem might be today – but these are stereotypes, archetypes that aren’t useful beyond a certain point. I don’t worship the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, because these are useful illustrative archetypes, but not necessarily the stories by which I want to live my life. I am neither the villain nor the victim. I am neither the Druid nor the Christian. I am neither the daughter nor the wife. I am neither the sociologist nor the poet nor the seer nor the Gaelic polytheist nor the Pagan nor the wheelchair user nor the stranger nor the friend. I am all these things and more. Truth is bigger than we can imagine.

I am the universe emerging into consciousness, beginning to understand itself. (To slightly misquote Babylon 5.) And how much more am I than stereotypes and archetypes, as a result? I won’t reduce myself or others to one-dimensional pictures. I am stardust, as complex as the winds and as simple as the rain, the sacred legacy of my ancestors, the sacred ancestor of those who come after me.

This is the harvest that I reap.

Happy Lughnasadh. Happy Lammas. May summer and harvest festivals be celebrated forever, the wisdom of our forebears integrated into our new stories. We need the old and we need the new. We need all the sides of the story.

Hail, Lugh! Hail, ancestors!

New Blog: on Stories

wood-between-worlds-victoria-thorndaleI’m exploring the Sacred Story a lot in my spirituality at the moment. The power of stories and myths, both ancient and modern. Including the Christian Story. Since I suspect a lot of readers won’t want to be bothered with spirituality of that particular kind, I’m going to be talking about these things on a new blog. It’s called Lampposts and Other Light. Do feel free to follow me over there.

Druidry stuff will still go here – I’m not going away! :)

Wishing you peace and a good day, my friends.