The Weekly Owl

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Monthly Archives: February 2008

A Weird Day

What else do I call it?  I spent much of the morning running errands and then came home to find another student application to Avalon Center.  I have very mixed feelings about what to do with these applications, considering the state of the Center.  I do not want to misrepresent what we have here, and yet I do not want to turn away eager students.  This one came from California at least, which is a little less strange that the last which came from Ghana.  That African student seemed to imagine that I could send him a letter that would allow him to leave his country.

The things you never expect.  This is why teachers started selling their labor to large institutions with lots of money and full-time fundraisers.

I’ve been checking my e-mail today for signs of life from some people to whom I sent queries yesterday and no luck.  A wand client sent a note to check in and then sent another note in which he pointed out that his rush order was supposed to be done and in the mail this week.  I had made a note to myself that was a month off!


Sometimes I feel like just closing shop at Bardwood and giving up the whole carving business.  I can’t run it like a “proper” business partly because I am doing it in such a small amount of my shared time, and partly because enchantment cannot be rushed.  I dislike selling wands to people if I feel they are being ordered as mere toys or commodities — more “stuff”.  Usually I do feel my clients are sincere, but in the rare cases when someone has been disappointed for one reason or another (I can think of about three cases), I feel so terrible.  All I can offer is a refund, and to take the wand back to give it a different home.

Add to this my unpredictable health and the many days of work I lose to that problem, and it really isn’t a business as customers usually expect.  People want to order things online and get immediate gratification — or at least some sort of ETA on their order.  I feel that even in a good spell I make my clients wait what must be a maddening length of time.

I have been getting a fair amount of writing done and now I feel that all of that positive feeling has gone by the wayside because of this mistake.  I just knew that it was too good to be true.  My memory predictably fails me.  I wish I had an apprentice who could help me here with the box making and bag making at least.  But I don’t.

Sigh.  Well, back to the apple branch.


Thoughts on the Master Architect Degree

I’ve been going through all of the degress of the Lodge of Perfection in the Scottish Rite, re-reading Rex. R. Hutchens book A Bridge to Light as part of the Guthrie College of the Consistory study program.  I would like to write some short commentaries of my own on each of the degrees, and this is one attempt.  The degree titled Grand Master Architect is the 12th degree in the Lodge of Perfection.  I am bound by my vows not to personally reveal the contents of the ritual drama, which makes it a bit hard to write about it.  Suffice to say that the teachings include the idea of a Master Architect being chosen for his superior skill and wisdom to direct and govern a group of builders.  We look at the tools used by architects as we did in the Blue Lodge degrees with the tools of the operative stone mason.  Some of the architects tools have been replaced in the past generation by CAD programs that draw and calculate for the architect.  I tend to think, however convenient and efficient, it is not the same as using the hand tools — protracter, rule, sector, compasses, parallel ruler.  We were even shown a sliderule.  I remember my dad, who was an engineer, having a slide rule in his desk.  I liked to play with it as a boy, but never learned how to use it.

Tools make great symbols.  Like the alchemist’s use of chemical apparatus and processes as metaphors for the perfection of the soul, the tools of an architect can be taken not for their actual uses in designing buildings but instead a metaphors within the larger extended metaphor of soul-building.  Not only do we want to chip off our rough edges and fit ourselves as perfect stones for the use of the Builder; we also must learn to design our own souls, to create the plan of our life, to create the plan of who we want to be.

Masonry takes it as axiomatic that there is a Great Builder or Great Architect of the Universe.  For simplcity we call this entity God, but the word is so widely used in religious contexts that we need to be careful not to imply that we are talking about the god of any single religious faith or tradition.  What we mean, as Masons, is that there is an entity who is like a Great Architect, a Grandmaster Builder, who plans, designs, and then constructs the universe.  Not just the “natural world” outside of us, but us too.  We are part of the natural world and so designed, created, and constructed by this Being.  The drawback of such metaphors is that they imply that our souls are something separate from the created part, but they are not.  We are not material automatons into which God breathed life.  We are not clay pots made by a potter.  We are material and spiritual beings which God has made out of himself.

Mason’s think of God as a benevolent loving and wise Father.  That is only natural in a fraternity which emphasizes brotherhood.  It’s all men, after all.  But the idea of God creating us and the whole universe out of himself is much easier to undertand if we think of God as a Great Mother.  Mothers, after all, bring forth from their own bodies a new being that is separate yet dependant upon her love and the nourishment of her body.  The Mother takes substance and life from herself to make this new being.  If God is a Father, we may well ask, where does he plant his sperm?  The metaphor breaks down.  Of course, God is like both a father and a mother, self-generating and self-fertilizing.  The metaphor of human sex roles and human sexuality falls apart in the universality of God.  So, I prefer to think of God as both Father and Mother.

But is this Deity an architect?  Neither fathers nor mothers plan their children, after all.  They might try to plan their lives for them, but human parents hardly ever succeed at that sort of control.  Are we talking about “intelligent design” when we speak of a Great Architect?  Well, not exactly.  Because, again, the metaphor of the architect breaks down because it is rooted in our object and subject way of speaking.  God is beyond objects and subjects and when he plans the Universe he is planning a part of himself, something that is both born from him (or her) but also remains part of the Divine.  In a spiritual sense we can see this truth even in our own offspring or our own parents.  We are separate beings but we always have that tie to our ancestors and our children.  The sharing of genes, the sharing of stories, customs, money, habits — a thousand things connect us across generations, no matter how much we may want to think we are rebelling as teenagers.  We always remain the child of our mother and father.

But the Diety, we presume (or interpret), has even more continuity with the creations of the Divine Mind.  Plans, blueprints, drawings and notes, calculations, visions — all combine as part of the creation itself.  They are in the building, the temple. That is to say, Divine Providence, Wisdom, and skill are built into our souls.  Albert Pike, in his lecture for the twelfth degree calls our attention to the amazing potentials that are part of human beings.  Unlike all other animals, we have the capacity to learn and plan, to teach our children, and to pass on our knowledge, so that each generation knows more than the last.  This accumulation of knowledge and technique (or technology) sets us utterly apart from even our nearest ape cousins.  The brotherhood of man (and sisterhood of women) possesses the ability to use complex tools like those used by the architect and stonemason, to build magnificent works.  The metaphorical Temple is Civilization as a whole.  It is also our individual souls.  It is also the web of social relationships and moral customs we create together collectively.

Not only is God an architect, but so is each of us.  We are the architects of our own lives and our own culture because it is part of God’s nature to teach.  He doesn’t simply control us like puppets.  He teaches us to control oursleves and enables us to do so through hard work.   We learn to subdue our passions and impulses to achieve great things — to build something out of our lives.  Those among us who do not subdue their passions end up making a mess of their lives sooner or later. This is what the Biblical writers and the preachers mean by “sin and ruin.”

“Sin” simply means error.  It doesn’t mean “breaking the law” or “being disobedient to God” much less “being disobedient to bishops and kings.”  It means making mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  Part of human life is coping with our own mistakes and the embarrassment and disappointment that results from them.  Workers in the quarries of life can make mistakes and they do not have grievous consequences.  We can fix a stone that has been shaped incorrectly.  But if the architect makes a mistake, then there is real trouble.  And this is the lesson of the Master Architect degree.  We are not only apprentices, fellowcrafts in the quarries, or even master masons capable of laying stones to a plan.  We are planners.  If we do not plan our lives and seek to employ our souls to seek out the plans of the Divine Architect, we are likely to build a ruin, not a temple.

So we see, in the allegory of the Temples of Jerusalem.  Solomon built the perfect and sublime Temple, yet his own decadence and his enemies ultimately sacked it and tore it down. Even Solomon makes mistakes.  Then we see the poor Hebrews hauled off to Babylon as slaves return to their homeland and set about rebuilding a new temple.  Well, that one eventually was destroyed too, and the next.  What is the lesson here?  Stay home and stop trying to build temples?

One of the parallel myths that used to play more of a part in Masonic symbolism (until they got worried about outsiders thinking they were being too “pagan”) was the legend of the Tower of Babel.  Old Nimrod was represented as a “pagan” which is to say that he was not Jewish.  But the people helping him build his great tower were, according to the legend, the Noachites, the decendents of Noah who survived the Deluge.  The Noachites could not exactly be considered Hebrews. Their history had diverged along time before Abraham.  And yet, they shared the same connection to God that every descendent of Adam and Eve did. This is the literary context of our symbolism.  I do not mean to say that I take the stories of Genesis to be a record of historical facts.  They are myths, stories we (or in this case the ancient Hebrews) tell each other to give meaning to our lives.  The meaning behind the story of Adam and Eve as the primal parents is that we are all related to each other, we are all members of a great family.  That’s the truth in the story.  It doesn’t need to be interpreted literally.  If we say we descended from ancient apelike beings, it amounts to the same thing — we are all related and part of a great family.  It’s just a little bit better story if the parents of this family are humans instead of hypothetical ancestors reconstructed by paleontologists.

Yet, brotherhood and sisterhood are only a part of this puzzle and the Master Architect degree of the Scottish Rite aims to draw our attention to another wonderful truth.  That is, that we are also all capable of planning our lives and living together through the combinations of our plans in harmony and progress, each generation achieving greater wonders than the one before.  The next generation is going to have to be smarter than the one before in order to survive.  That is very clear today when the sheer weight of the human species is threatening to overturn the carrying capacity of the Earth.

To subdue our passions, we say, as Masons.  What does that mean exactly?  To keep our tempers?  To temper our lust?  Oh, much more than that.  Certainly anger and lust are constant problems for human beings, but we have a lot of passions and appetites and it is not so much any particular passion that we need to control as simply cultivating that God-given ability we humans have to govern ourselves.  I don’t mean to govern each other.  I mean to govern ourselves, to wisely refrain from actions that will lead to bad consequences later.  Certain actions, such as murder, robbery, lies, or running after another man’s wife — these almost always lead to trouble — “ruin” as they say.  Our temple falls apart.  Whatever life we might have built for ourselves, if we inspire the anger, vengeance, and hatred of our brothers, we won’t survive long.  Humans need each other.  We need to be part of a family, a brotherhood and sisterhood.  We do not need to be part of groups that cannot control their passions — that’s tribalism.  That sort of brotherhood is a perversion of the truth.  It is a mistake.  We need to individual draw the circle of the compass around our behavior and recognize that we will cause a ruination of ourselves and others if we go outside those bounds.  Not because God is a Great Policeman in the sky who will send thunderbolts to reap revenge.  No, Pike has it right when he suggests that Providence will bring about the ruin of the sinner, as it were, by natural law.  God doesn’t need to judge you and condemn you for murder or adultery — the acts will have natural consequences that you will be unable to escape.  You might escape for a little while, but be haunted by guilt.  Your fantasies of power or love will fall apart and crumble in your hands.

That lesson is taught through the degrees which precede the 12th.  So, by the time the Mason reaches the Master Architect’s degree, his Masonic forefathers (also brothers) are trying to teach the next lesson.  You need to not only set the boundaries of your actions with the compass of moral fortitude but, having done so, you are capable of so much more!  You are capable of aspiring to the greater good of the architect, to emulate the Creator himself by setting out a plan of action that will build a good life.  A life that will bring love and joy to yourself and others.  A life in the “pursuit of happiness” as Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence.   That pursuit of happiness depends upon first subduing your passions, living by the square and the plumb and setting the boundaries of your moral compass.  But the circle, as the 12th degree teaches, has a center and its circumference is actually infinite if they represent “the circle of God’s attributes.”  Put more plainly, if we choose to emulate God’s attributes, then the circle of our actions becomes infinite.  We are no longer confined within the boundary set to subdue our passions, but have realized in doing so the plan of the Great Architect, which is that we humans have an almost limitless capacity to be creative, to solve problems, to help each other, and to do good in the world.

Some magical and New Age traditions have promulgated the idea that “we are all gods.”  It’s a statement that can be too easily misunderstood.  It doesn’t mean that we should strive for omnipotence and do whatever we want in the name of being gods.  The wise men who pointed to our godlike nature understand that it is so only when the selfishness and short-sightedness of the animal nature is quelled and mastered.  Chimpanzees are not good architects.  It is possible that the writers of Genesis had this in mind.  Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden are a bit like apes.  Eve, bless her, cannot resist her appetite for the fruit.  It’s not all bad, tough, because although humans lose their innocence, they also stop being apes and start realizing Knoweldge, that thing that sets us apart.  Not just language, tool-using, or symbolic communication, but the ability to accumulate and pass on knowledge.  Eve, so the story tells us, can’t curb her passions, but the underlying lesson is that it turns out for the good because she ate of the tree of the knoweldge of good and evil and so began the long moral journey of humankind.  Thanks Mother Eve.

Eve means Life.  Adam means Clay.  So, if we believe in the human spirit, the life that strives for good, then we ought to pay more atention to Eve.  The serpent might have been a trickster trying to get Adam and Eve thrown out of the garden, as is the usual interpretation, or it may be that he was the symbol of wisdom, that trick of nature that caused humans to step away from their ape ancestors and become something far more full of possibilities and wonder.  First the realization of good and evil, and then the invention of the compass, the square, the rule, the plumb and level.  And eventually, all the tools of the Master Architect who by directing and teaching others can create a whole civilization, not just shelter for a night, but shelter for all the creative impulses of art, religion, music, mathematics, literature, poetry, law, politics and philosophy.  The art of the Master Architect lays forth the plan that shelters and makes possible all other human achievement.  He represents the plan-making ability of humankind itself.  To set aside short-term gratifications for long-term goals and complex visions of possible futures.

Go plan your life.

Owl /|\

Wicca and Freemasonry

I just acquired a DVD ROM of the Internet Sacred Texts Archive and for the first time am reading the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. This is, as I understand it, reliably reproduced from Gardner’s own rituals. What is immediately striking to anyone who has been initiated as a Freemason are the obvious borrowings from Masonic initiations. Gardner was a Mason of some sort, I believe. I recently read that Aleister Crowley was a Mason too, although initiated in a German lodge not recognized by the Grand Lodge of England.

It is no wonder that the Wiccan rituals have so much power and the appearance of antiquity, given that they derive some parts directly from Freemasonry, and of course it should come as no surprise that none of Gardner’s female followers would recognize the borrowings because of how Masonic rituals are kept secret.

But here are some of the obvious similarities which anyone can discover who reads the Masonic initiation work in its various published forms such as Lester’s Look to the East.

  • use of the expression “cable tow” for the cord wrapped around the candidate as a sign of his obligation
  • the verbal form of the obligations to never reveal the secrets of “the Craft”
  • use of the term “the Craft”
  • the expression “sublime degree”
  • the giving of “working tools” by the master to the candidate

Now, although these borrowings make a Masonic inspiration obvious (unless we are to postulate that the freemasons borrowed from the Witches and elaborated in their own way), the differences are also very telling.

For example, there is an unstated assumption in the rites that I gather not from the text at hand but from other sources, that the participants are all naked. Obviously that is far from the practice of freemasons who are as often as not in a suit and tie or evening clothes. The candidates are presented in a peculiar form of dress which aims to simulate a state of being poor, blind, and desitute, and in a liminal space (neither naked for clad).  Gardner seems to embrace the nakedness rather than the symbolism of the liminal.  He takes “naked” literally.  It is also, I presume, symbolic, but the risk of combining literalism and symbolism is that there will be too much emphasis on the former.  This is, to my mind, the mistake some Christian sects have made too (as well as probably sects of nearly all religions.)  For example, taking martyrdom literally.

The aspect of Gardnerian ritual that stands out most obviously is all the kissing. The “magus” who officiates is presumably male — presumably Gardner himself in the beginning. This gives us a picture of a (probably older) male magus tying up a naked woman, kissing her up and down her body, and scourging her. Even if the scourging were to be done in a symbolic way, so as not to inflict actual pain, this would be kinky enough. However, from a ritual standpoint, if the issue of the ritual is that pain is part of life and learning, then to refrain from inflicting any pain in the scourging would be counterproductive. The sado-masochistic and erotic qualities of the ritual are obvious. The magus is himself tied up by the candidate and scourged 120 lashes at one point.


I’m a hopeless fuddy-duddy, I am sure. And it would violate my oaths of religious tolerance to make fun of such a religion. However, it does seem to me to have an almost inherent potential for emotional (if not indeed physical) abuse. Unlike masonic ritual, which is founded on brotherly love and trust, the “perfect love and perfect trust” of the Wiccan ritual hardly seems justified. Where there is a symbolic drama in masonic initiations, in the Gardnerian text the initiations have relatively little content. There are none of the lovely moral lectures or symbolic insights. It’s a clever adaptation to a non-Christian and even perhaps anti-Christian ethos (certainly designed to go counter to the conventional behavior of people outside the privacy of their bedrooms at any rate).

It ritualizes sado-masochistic eroticism instead of fidelity, wisdom, beauty, truth, and brotherly love, as freemasonry does. Is that a bad thing? I do not think I am prepared to say so in any categorical way, but I certainly would not wish to undergo such an initiation myself. To be sure, a coven founded in such rituals would be very tightly bound to each other because any members public reputation would be ruined if such behavior was revealed. So, the vows are taken seriously, I suspect, in ways different from those of the Masonic Craft.

In Freemasonry, there is nothing really shocking to be revealed. The only reason for keeping the content of the rituals a secret is to preserve the element of surprise for the candidate and to retain some institutional control on the content. Clandestine masonry is enough of a problem as it is, but the brotherly vows of secrecy are intended to mitigate against such things and keep the Craft united and lodges speaking to each other and permitting mutual visitation. That was rather the whole point of the operative masonic lodges — to keep the secrets of stonemasonry and sacred geometry within the fraternity or guild and to make sure that members of the guild could be recognized by secret signs.

I do not wish to cause offence to any witches for I have a great interest in witchcraft and believe there is a variety of it that is linked closely to the land and the good spirits of the cosmos. But I cannot personally see much of that in the Gardnerian initiation rituals. They seem utterly sensationalized, as if they were written by a fan of nudism and free love. Those beliefs are all well and good, for those who derive happiness in life from them and do not harm others in the process, but I cannot see using them as the basis for a religion. But then religions seem always to me to be sources of confusion. People take religious pronouncements too literally. They adopt a religion because they long for someone to reveal to them hidden truths that will make sense of the world.

I can certainly see that in a sexually repressed society and one essentially patriarchal that puts down women at every turn, the religion of Wicca might appeal very strongly to women as an alternative to patriarchal control, vilification, and repression. It is sort of like saying — “Well you call me a witch because I express my opinions, rival the intelligence and skill of men, and am open in my sexuality and sensuality. Fine! Then I shall call myself a Witch and make the most of it.”

I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s delightful novels about witches in his fantasy setting of Discworld. I just finished Lords and Ladies (loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and am now reading Wyrd Sisters (loosely based on Macbeth). In these books the old witches practice the sort of magic that I consider genuine and wholesome witchcraft and the author lampoons the younger witches who are so concerned about doing everything in a properly witchy way. Old Granny Weatherwax, the most powerful witch of them all, has no tolerance for young witch wannabees who go off dancing naked around the standing stones. Pratchett has a keen eye for irony and posturing and lampoons it while still allowing us to see that there is a grain of truth it it all. The old witch Nanny Ogg is far more sexual free than any of the very serious and Gothic young witches.

Well, for my part, I do not see “religion” only spiritual practices that seem right to me. I am not very interested in being part of an organized religion. Engaging in group ceremonies and feasts with my druid grove and my masonic lodge is quite enough for me. But I do not think I will ever be “converted” to any “faith” because I simply do not believe anyone has a monopoly on truth. I feel that wisdom lies in judging for yourself the quality of truth or falsehood in any spiritual practice or belief. Cultivate good judgment and wide knowledge and use your head. Too much religion calls upon the heart to “believe” and thereby receive some kind of reward — salvation, freedom, etc.

The heart is important, but can be very easily misled by those who wish to manipulate and control others. Likewise the head too. Only the balanced combination of the two leads to freedom and wisdom.


Avalon Rising

We have just celebrated Imbolc in the druidic calendar, a festival in honor of the Goddess Brighid, poet, healer, smith. She is the inspiration of creativity and transformation and so this Winter seasonal festival is dedicated to her in hope. She is the power who brings the spring, for which we are all hoping. The only vestige of this festival in mainstream America is Groundhog Day, which was imported from England where the creature in question was the hedgehog. The point of the little earth-dwelling animal is that it is coming out of its burrow to see if it is warm enough to start foraging about. In Britain and Ireland the Winters are considerably milder than in Minnesota, so Imbolc seems a somewhat forlorn hope for us. Even the vernal equinox finds us usually with snow on the ground and a few weeks before we might even see the first crocus.

But the theme of Imbolc is a good one. It is that creativity lies dormant in the earth and re-emerges. All life gestates in the womb of darkness and Mother Earth is indeed our mother. We are made from her body through our human mothers who eat the fruits of the Earth. Spring is gestating. Persephone is still in the Kingdom of Hades, but she will return and permit her mother Demeter to cast off her grief.

Likewise the dream of Avalon College is stirring again, thanks to my friend Darren who is working to keep it alive through its Wintery sleep. I told Avalon Center to Rest in Peace last Samhuinn and was not sure when it might be reborn. We still are not sure and are not going to rush it. Darren is, I think, more patient and methodical than I am. He’s a programmer. I’m a fantasy writer. In the latter job, you want to create worlds and are only limited by how long you can sit and write each day. Programming, by contrast, is a bit more like being an architect. And, of course, building a business or an organization is a bit like constructing an edifice. It takes planning, money, people, and time.

Darren and I had dinner the other night and a good talk about his proposal for Avalon Center. He wants to move us in the direction of learning from our experiences of the past two years. Among the things we’ve learned is that we are better off establishing a scholarly center first, rather than attempting to realize the whole dream of a druid college at once. The latter dream will require donations of land and a lot of money. Starting a college seriously, with a physical campus, is a very big and costly matter. It is one of the biggest barn-raisings any community ever does, establishing a college or university. Neopagans and druids have not even managed to established more than a handful of primary schools and those are all somewhat dubious from the standpoint of education as a whole.

However, we can be heartened by some examples, such as Naropa University built on Buddhist philosophy. But such institutions must start small. Without a billionaire benefactor to build us a campus and promote the business, we must work incrementally. I am hoping Darren may have more skill at recruiting staff members and delegating work because that is a key to creating a stable, reliable center. Even more important that having a physical building, having a core group of workers who can commit years of part-time voluntary labor to the cause is crucial.

I am learning a bit about that sort of organization from the Masons. Practically everything done in a lodge is done by volunteers. But in such an organization there are due-paying members. They are initiated and so inspired (one hopes) with some sense of loyalty to their lodge. Sadly, this is not entirely the case. The development of the appendant and condordant bodies such as Scottish Rite, York Rite, and the Shrine, all divide a Mason’s loyalties. And then some Masons join for reasons best known to themselves and never participate in the life of their lodge. I can’t understand that, except that something makes those brothers want to be part of the family but other demands in life prevent them from showing up at meetings.

Druidic studies might work like that too. There are already so many druid orders out there, many of which do not require dues at all, that I am skeptical about our ability to recruit members of Avalon Center who are willing to contribute a small, regular amount of money to support the organization and thereby gain the benefits of its programs, either free or at a discount. A Masonic lodge and Grand Lodge provide mostly free programs, or programs with small fees, and then charge dues to members. Some Masonic events are open to non-members (spouses and children mainly) but lodge meetings and degrees are restricted to members.

It might be possible for Avalon Center to follow that model to some extent. That is, we might offer certain programs, lectures, or even study courses free to members of the center. Since we are not at this point attempting to fit in to mainstream academia, we might even call our members “fellows” of the center. And we might take on other “research fellows” waiving their dues in exchange for one major research paper per year donated to the Center to be published.

All these ideas and models are percolating, stirring underground in the still-frozen earth. By spring perhaps we will have a new web site to launch and have managed to corral the Board of Governors long enough to give them specific assignments to go forth and network!

In May, I plan to give a talk at my lodge about Freemasonry and Druidry, looking at the historical links between the two “fraternal” traditions and then say a bit about Avalon Center too. If I can find the time to give that presentation in other venues that might help with our visibility. Marketing, as Darren remarked the other night, is about making as many people as possible aware that you exist. It is not, as some modern theories insist, about creating desire for your product. I believe the desire is there already, but it needs a “product” in the form of serious and open education in those subjects which until recently have always been treated as “esoteric.”

“Esoteric” means something that is confined to an inner circle of initiates or adepts. It is knowledge kept secret for one reason or another. There are some good reasons for the secrecy model. It is seldom about conspiracies or even a controlling power structure. In Freemasonry, which took the idea from the ancient mystery schools, keeping the content of each degree secret is part of the dramatic presentation. When knowledge is being presented dramatically, the experience will be spoiled if the candidate for initiation knows in advance what is going to happen.

In druidry, however, things are much more open. Even in Wicca, so much has been published that I suspect there is very little that is secret in that absolute sense. However, what we’ve learned is that having read the play does not necessarily spoil the performance if it is done well. There is nothing like going through an initiation rite, especially if you are blindfolded and tied up and must trust your would-be brothers. Of course it doesn’t work if the brothers are not trustworthy. If you have an organization that has admitted (or even been founded by) someone who is sadistic and power mad, then such rituals of helplessness and welcome can become hazing and psychologically damaging.

But all the more reason — to my mind — for knowing a bit about what you are doing before being thrust into the drama of it. I am reading Albert Pikes’s Scottish Rite versions of the first three degrees of Masonry and they are very interesting. The York Rite rituals might have been more “dramatic” and “shocking” in the 19th century too (or the Middle Ages, for all we known). But Pike’s rituals are so much more theatrical than those we perform today. For example, the blindfolded candidate is actually fought over by two groups of brothers, one that wants to throw him out and one that wants to pass him on through his trials. As in Mozart’s Magic Flute, the candidate goes through trials of earth, water, and fire. In the later case, he is shot at with a Victorian fire-thrower that blows hot air at him without (the notes make clear) actually burning him. At one point the candidate is shocked with a mild electric shock. Amazing! And how scary? But certainly it would make a strong impression.

I appreciate these dramatic touches and I appreciate the psychology of ritual. So, how does that work in an organization that is simply offering study courses? Will it work without the initations? Masonry has the opposite problem — loads of inititation ceremonies and dramatic degrees but struggling to carry on study of the content of those degrees afterwards. It is all left up to the individual Mason. There is a reason for that too: Masons are being taught to think for themselves and seek knoweldge (Light). They are not being “indoctrinated” into a system of beliefs. Druidry shares that aspect.

But initiation in druidry is not so much a dramatic ceremony put on by a lodge or grove for the candidate to usher him or her into membership. Initiation rituals are personal ceremonies designed to mark the person’s passage from a former state of ignorance into a new state of seeking knowledge, particualarly self-knowledge.

And it is that sort of ritual mark of passage that is missing in modern academia. Instead we have graduation ceremonies, with the result that the student doesn’t realize what he or she has been doing until it is over. Odd that we call graduation rites “commencement” and eliminate the “initiation.” They mean the same thing, but they mean “beginnings.” I’m guessing that somewhere in Christian society, the whole idea of initiations was condemned as too “pagan”. Sigh.

Well, rising from the dead is part of most mystery school initiations. It’s the central mystery. Life and the seasons of life. The life cycle. The immortality of the soul. So, Avalon Center is likely to rise again in a new form after its sleep, and will continue to transform. Growing an institution is very difficult. Making the attempt has given me great respect for entrepreneurs and those who sit in the boardrooms of giant corporations too. The more you have created and the longer you have been around, the more terrible are the prospects for collapse and dissolution.

Only community commitment can make schools last through many generations. If they were nothing but private enterprises they too would fold up and disappear and be bought up by other universities in the usual manner of big fish and small fish. If Avalon College is to endure the ages, it will eventually have to have that kind of community support.


On the Right and Left

In the U.S. we are awash in politics. In such a presidential election year as this, the mass media cannot talk about anything except political debates. The debates are not very good. The participants mostly use them for repeating slogans and “talking points” instead of actually thinking and demonstrating their ability to reason and their command of the facts on important matters. Some important matters are completely avoided — like, “Senator, if you were president, what would you do about global warming and climate change.”

What occurs to me in watching these so-called “debates” (dog and pony shows might be a better description) is how polarized our ideological thinking is. Partly this is a result of the unfortunate terminology that we have adopted: the Right and the Left. As long as political ideologies are named “Right” and “Left” they are going to be considered polar opposites, unreconcilable extremes on a spectrum. The politicians use rhetoric to manipulate their audience into various definitions of the party’s location on this imaginary spectrum of ideas. John McCain uses rhetoric to paint Mit Romney as a “liberal” and even a “Democrat” while critics of Hilary Clinton insist that she is just a “corportate conservative.” There is a widespread belief in the United States that Democrats and Republicans are basically the same because they both tend to support big corporations and “free trade” rather than “fair trade.”

While there is some truth to this perception, I feel it misses the fundamental philosophical problem. We the people are too ignorant of what ideologies are and how they work. Indeed, for a long time in America the word “ideology” was applied only to communists — those people labeled our “enemies.” Ideology was bad and un-American because it meant that you believed in a creed, a set of ideas, zealously rather than thinking for yourself. It was implied that the American Way is to think for yourself and not embrace a herd mentality. It was implied that having a two-party system rather than a single-party system (as in the Soviet Union or China) permits the citizens to think for themselves and be free of ideology.

Unfortunately this is not the case. Human beings, on the whole, do not like to think for themselves. Many do not have enough factual knowledge to make intelligent decisions about their beliefs. Not only have they never questioned the beliefs of their parents, but they do not even know where the ideology of their parents came from. Ideology is simply a set or system of beliefs. Like a religion, an ideology may be based on myths, legends, or scientific data. It may be based on economic theories, such as Marxism or the Capitalism of Adam Smith, or broader theories of economics such as Environmentalism which insists on taking into account the full range of consequences upon Nature (our “natural resources”) and health in any economic activity, whether agriculture or industrial manufacture.

Religions are a type of ideology, a collection of ideas and images, stories and beliefs, that are based particularly on stories about gods and spirits and our moral ideals of behavior, such feelings as love, compassion, forgiveness, devotion, duty, contentment, obedience. These abstract ideas based upon human feelings and behavior choices are the stuff of religious ideology. We do well to remember that religion is ideology because that will help us to recognize that ideology is not intrisically bad, but like most human systems is something which can be used for good or for mischief.

But our political systems (ideologies) have been rhetorically disconnnected from both religion and economics. Oh, yes, politicians allude to religion and economics, but they seldom question the premises or myths of the particular religion or economic ideology to which they allude. That is, for example, if a politician alludes to religion, it is most often implicitly Christianity because it is still the dominant religious ideology among our citizens, and certainly the oldest, riches, and best organized of the religions. Judaism runs it a close second and that is probably one of the causes of anti-semitism: the two religions are ideological competitors.

But the Republican Party (so-called) and the Democratic Party define themselves as occuping the “Right” and the “Left.” I didn’t understand this imagery myself until I studied the French Revolution in graduate school. The terms come from the Assembly of the People in France before the revolution in which the delegates were elected from the commoners, from the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy, and from the nobiity. Three parties, so to speak, though they were not thought of as “parties”. They were three classes of people, subjects of the French crown, not “citizens.” These interests were polarized into the commons versus the nobles. The nobles included the king, the titled land holders, and the princes of the Church, the bishops and other high officials. The ordinary parish priests and other ancillary religious men, like the friars, sided with the common people. The bourgeoisie, which is the French word for “burgers” or townspeople, also tended to side with the lower classes. Farmers and laborers, shopkeepers, servants, craftsmen, and even the wealthy merchants and traders formed an alliance and in the Assembly they sat on the left side of the chamber over which presided the king and his representatives. On the right side of the chamber (“across the aisle” as we say in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives) sat the delegates of the lords and the bishops.

It is worth noting that bishops and high church officials were often of noble birth, the sinecures of office in the Church having been given to the younger sons of lords for many centuries. Since in France primogeniture was the rule and law, only the eldest son could inherit the father’s estate. This meant that younger sons had to be provided with careers and incomes elsewhere and the hierarchy of the Roman Church had developed historically to fill this need as much as to provide spiritual leadership.

So, here is the root meaning of Left and Right politically. In the French Revolution (which followed the American Revolution chronologically), the Right supported the old regime, the organization of society into a wealthy upper class of landowners who ruled over a lower class of laborers. This upper class of lords was a privileged class. They were accountable to the king and to their peers, and to the Pope, but not to the People. The lower classes — townsfolk, farmers, traders, and craftsmen — were all subjects to the lords and could be abused, taxed, and manipulated by those lords just as if they were chattels, which is to say as if they were mere property, human resources to be disposed of and exploited for the noble and glorious purposes of the elite.

The Left was made up of these exploited peoples, including the comparatively rich burghers (the bourgeoisie). In the Russian Revolution, a century or more later, the bourgeoisie was seen to be extremely rich. In Russia the class system was even more acute than in 18th century France. The bourgeoisie of Russia was enormously wealthy and lived in luxury, and indeed derived their income from rents and land ownership as often as not. The Middle Class, as we call it in the United States, had become landlords, owning real estate that they rented out to others for profit. They also, in Russia, owned serfs. Serfs were workers who were practically slaves; they were tied to the land and treated like chattels. The nobles who owned the vast estates in Russia in the late 19th century were part of a complex hierarchy that was considered a service elite, nearly everyone occupying some role in the government, serving the Tsar who was an absolute monarch and head of the Church to boot.

So, we see that the Left has, for over 200 years represented the People, the “masses” as Marx called them. These are people who are, for the most part, unorganized. They are so exploited as laborers that they haven’t much time to get an education, let alone organize into political parties. Marx’s economic ideas led to the formation of trade union, or labor unions as they are called in the United States. This Left is led by intellectuals who are almost always of bourgeoise birth but who are rebelling against the upper class dominance. The Bourgoisie — which we might see today as the inhabitants of our skyscrapers and office cubicles — are fundamentally divided. They are not part of the ruling class, the lords of Church and State, but they sometimes are so wealthy that they enjoy comparable luxuries and actually aspire to become a member of the ruling elite.

Some of the Middle Class, in other words, is very well off with investments and real estate and full bank accounts and limitless credit. The petty-bourgoisie (petit-bourgoisie in French, which just means “little townsfolk”) are the shop keepers and folks who are not very rich but nevertheless distinguish themselves from common laborers and farmers, especially serfs. In America, these distinctions played out differntly. Partly this is because our revolution and our Republic pre-dates the work of Karl Marx. So, in the United States, the upper class broke away radically from the British monarchy and established itself not so much as a separate class, an elite, but as the top of a pyramid of landholders. From the owners of giant plantations and ranches to the homesteader with his family farm, the American cultural-economic system was considered a continuum. It was only after the industrial revolution and the abolition of slavery that the role of citizen was redefined. We are still in the process of that redefinition.

We were a country of landholders (men) who were citizens of a Republic and had the right to vote and hold office, and own slaves and keep women. There was a large serving class besides the slaves and there was, at the bottom of this hierarchy, the small landowners who didn’t do very well financially. In the cities there was a bourgoisie too, but these at first were seen as people who provided services for the landowners, and they owned land themselves if they could afford to do so. In the United States this citizenry produced by the Revolutionary War deliberately modeled itself upon the citizens of the Roman Republic and the ancient Athenian democracy. Demos (the people) and kratos (rule). Democracy was conceived as a political ideology in contrast to aristocracy (from aristos “the best” or as we might say in English “the people of quality”).

The revolutionaries in America, France, and later in Russia, all were rebelling against monarchy, especially the absolutism that had become the norm in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those monarchs who survived this cultural awakening of the bourgeoisie and the agrarian Left are the ones who reformed into constitutional monarchies, monarchies limited by the authority of the people expressed through their constituent assemblies, such as the British Parliament or the German Reichstag. In the United States, we didn’t have a king during this transition, and that put us in a unique position. We were the first post-colonial republic in the world and so identified with Republicanism. However, this Repbulicanism has nothing to do with the Grand Old Party, the so-called “Republican Party” that was founded in the time of Abraham Lincoln, who was that party’s first president.

Republicanism was originally the ideology of anti-monarchialism. It held forth the idea that a State could be run without a king, that a president could head the executive authority of the State and be elected by the People for a limited term of office. Now, this idea was not new. The Roman republic had its elected consuls, two officials who served as the heads of State as a team. Consuls were elected for a term of one year and so they did not hold extensive power.

Our choice of models was Greece or Rome and to a large extent we’ve been tacitly arguing over the choice ever since 1776.  The Roman Republic was ruled by an elite of landed nobles, the class of patricians and the class of equites, or knights.  The rest of the people, including slaves, might be represented but the power did not rest in them.  In ancient Athens, the ideal espoused was that all the people participated in democracy.  In practice this still excluded women and slaves and minors.  But Athenian democracy was less oligarchical than the Roman model.  The American model has always struggled between the power of the president and the power of the Congress.   Either these two branches of the government are in cahoots or at loggerheads, it seems.

But what about those other two political terms — Liberal and Conservative.

Republicans paint themselves as “conservatives” which in my mind is simply bogus.  There is nothing conservative about the Republican party.  The only things they seem interested in conserving are private wealth and personal privilege.  In this sense they are right-wing.  If they could bring back aristocracy overtly they probably would.  But a presumptive aristocracy of the rich (plutocracy) and concentration of power into the hands of a few families (oligarchy) are close enough.  The ridiculous absurdity of the G.O.P. (Grand Old Party) is that they are not even “republicans”.  They would happily destroy the republic in order to more firmly establish the “freedom” of the wealthy patricians in the United States.

Many among the bourgeoisie support this party because they keep hold of the dream of becoming members of the country club.  Their goal in life is to amass personal wealth and so they side with those who place the preservation of personal and family wealth above everything else.  They will even support this party when it goes against their interests.  For example, when the G.O.P. opposes universal health care or social security.

The party has also been shrewd in co-oping certain hot-button emotional issues such as the anti-abortion stance and anti-gay stance which appeals to citizens whose beliefs do not extend beyond the traditional doctrines of various intolerant sects of Christianity.  The G.O.P. uses fear to draw in these voter to support their power.  The working class folk of rural America have nothing to gain from the G.O.P. holding power except lip service to so-called “Christian” attitudes about traditonal patriarchal values and customs.  Hatred of homosexuality, hatred of anyone who is different, hatred of imagination or logic or critical thinking or diversity of opinion.  As often as not, such voters also hold racist, anti-semite, and other such ideas about “enemies”.  The G.O.P. has capitalized (literally) on this mentality of fear by exploiting the bogeyman of “international terror”.  It could be a phrase taken directly and deliberately from the antisemitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.   Indeed, the G.O.P. seems to be using that document along with Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four as their master strategic plans.

Hold up the bogeyman of terrorism and fear and conspiracy theories the “Liberals” are trying to turn your sons gay, and you can mobilize quite a few votes in America.  It is a sad commentary on the American citizenry.

So, what about Liberal?  Right-wing rhetoric uses the word more often than the Left and demonizes it in bizarre ways.  Liberalism is actually a centrist ideology.  It is founded in the simple idea that it is in the interests of the affluent citizens to help out their poorer compatriots.  If for no other reason than because it averts rebellion and revolution.  Liberalism was developed as a political ideology in order to prevent more radical movements such as communism and fascism to gain a hold on the minds of the oppressed and exploited classes.  So, we hear complaints from the “far left” in America that the Democratic Party is not substantially different from the G.O.P. because its politicians tend to support the interests of corporations and employers.  This is a distortion when it comes from the Left or the Right.  You can identify a centrist ideology because it will be attacked by both extremes.

The Right calls Liberals “fascists” which is a complete abuse of the term.  Fascists are ultra-right-wing.  There is nothing “liberal” about them.  What the Right-wing pundits mean to imply is that Liberals approach the ideas espoused by socialists in wanting government involvement in some key services — such as utilities and healthcare.  They want the government to be used as a democratic body to curb the excesses of private industry and private privilege.  The Right-wing elitists call this “fascism” mainly to evote a knee-jerk emotional response in the ignorant, but also because they think that any government that interferes with their private wealth and property or aims to regulate or restrict commerce in any way is tantamount to totalitarianism or dictatorship.  The claim is manifestly preposterous and logically unsupportable, but then the Right seldom appeals to reason.

And this is another big difference between Liberal and Conservative.  The so-called Conservative wishes to keep everything the same, or return it to the 19th century or earlier when business was unregulated.  Child labor, even slavery would be consistent with such an ideology of undisturbed capitalism.  But they can hardly use those as selling points, so instead they build their public political platform upon obfuscation and tricks, appealing to emotions.  If you vote Liberal you vote for killing babies, letting gays get married, and undermining religion, they will say.  We must conserve the American Way of Life against its Enemies!!

Liberals seldom stoop to such emotional tactics, which is one of their problems as a political force.  Arguably the more extreme liberals even help the Conservatives of the Right by raising complicated issues and moral questions that go beyond conventional religious dogmas, and so drive the frightened fish into the nets of the Right Wing.

It is no wonder that Americans are utterly confused about their politics.  The Democratic Party stands for Liberalism and the rule of the people through their representative government, the Congress.  The G.O.P. disguises its own desire for absolute power by calling itself “Republican” even though it has nothing to do with protecting a republican form of government.  Indeed the word has been almost entirely divested of its original meaning and co-opted by the Right so that rather than being radical and revolutionary, republicanism now is thought to mean “conservative.”

Conservative is a positive term.  We do well to conserve those customs and ideals which make our nation noble.  But we also do well to let go of things that were mistakes or have outlived their utility.  Things like slavery and racism, sexism, antisemitism.  These were not good ideals, even though they have been part of the American Way for centuries.  Bigotry, chauvinism, jingoism — also not things I would wish to conserve.  But do the so-called “conservatives” in America every talk about conserving our virtues and our political diversity and liberty as a society?  No, they pretty much just want to preserve their own liberty at the expense of everyone else’s.

Alas, my brother!

Well, we can hope for a change in the wind.



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