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Avalon Rising

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February 2008
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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.

– OWL

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