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Monthly Archives: April 2008

Late Spring in Minnesota

I know that people always baulk at the idea that April is “late” spring when, in Minnesota the flowers have hardly even begun to come up. But that is just the way it is in spring here. We don’t usually start gardening in earnest until after Bealtaine on May 1st. Last weekend, the family and I drove up to Duluth for the annual meeting of the Grand Lodge of Minnesota Masons. The Grand Lodge oversees and works together with all of the chartered Masonic lodges in any given state. This was the first time I had attended a Grand Lodge Communication (as they are called) and it was quite splendid. I cannot say that the convention center in Duluth was aesthetically very conducive to masonic pomp and circumstance, but nevertheless it went well.

We drove up in a blizzard. Sarah drove, thank you very much, as I would not have been able to stand up if I had done it. We followed a snow plow at 25 mph for an hour or so, and then the plow turned off and we went through patches of drifted snow and clear spots of just wind until , finally we topped the hillside overlooking Duluth and Lake Superior. It is a sublime view at all times but with the wind and snow whipping over the rim and the lake green and churning with huge whitecaps, it was spectacular.

I can sum up Grand Lodge this way. Physically it was torture, sitting for hours on uncomfortable chairs listening to introductions, speeches, and reports. But spiritually it was very nutritious and I came away quickly forgetting the physical discomforts and with a renewed fascination with the Craft. My interest is on many levels, as I’ve intimated in these pages. It is a further part of my spiritual quest for Light, not replacing Druidry by any means but branching out further into the historical roots of modern druidry and the Western mysteries. It also provides a way to make friends with chaps who have similar interests, and practice public speaking, and practice acting in some official capacity and negotiation all the rough edges of working with other people. I have no desire to create my own druid order — I think we have quite enough of them already — but I am very intrigued by the historical evolution of Freemasonry as an institution. The system of Grand Lodge issuing charters to lodges and superintending the ritual work is quite interesting. Masons are very concerned about traditions and doing ritual properly and preserving the exact words of the rituals. This is a vestige of a time when such things were orally transmitted. They still are in Masonry, even though most of the words are readily available in books and electronic formats. Druids, for the most part, are not interested in uniformity or preserving old formulas, but are rather engaged in a creative process.

It is quite possible that in another two centuries, should druid orders continue to develop that they will become more conservative and develop a kind of idolotry of the text. Masons are criticized (by other Masons) for learning their rituals and lectures by rote but not understanding their meaning deeply enough. That, to the extent it is true, is because the rituals and lectures are not fully embraced for their educational value. Memorization and recitation are taken as the goal. It’s a very old-school way of approaching education that was based on the idea that if someone memorized something and could recite it, then they knew it. All schools used to operate this way in the period when Freemasonry got its start (or at any rate the start of its modern form).

Today we approach learning in a more flexible way, relying on literacy and easy access to information (especially in the last few decades as the worldwide web has emerged in every middle-class home). Memorization is almost a lost art, replaced by the art of keyboarding and googling. (What would George Washington or Goethe have said to those new verbs?)

I attended one very fun breakout session at the Grand Communication for lodge education. As the Lodge Education Officer (L.E.O.) for Lake Harriet Lodge, No. 277. I picked up some good ideas and it was just fun to be in a room full of other men engaged in the same quest — trying to figure out how to make masonic education fun and interesting to the brothers. It is strange to think about this aspect in relation to druidry since most druids are very eager to learn and druidry is both a matter of study and a matter of hands-on engagement with the natural world and the spiritual world. As chancellor of Avalon Center, I am trying to build a structure that can meet the desire for knowledge and experience in the druidic and bardic arts. But I have no resources to draw upon yet.

Freemasonry, on the other hand has a history of growth in the 19th and 20th century that saw great and beautiful temples and lodge buildings erected and large sums of money collected. Masonry teaches, in addition to the search for personal moral improvement and understanding, the virtue of charity and it is a curious conjunction of historical events that has led Masonic lodges to focus almost exclusively on charitable giving, even to the exclusion of seeing that every brother understands the rituals and teachings of the order. It reminds me of that period in the Middle Ages prior to the Protestant Reformation when Catholic priests and monks sometimes did not even understand Latin. They just memorized the rituals and spoke them and acted them out.

The conjuction of historical events was first of all the rise of Anti-Masonry in 19th century America. The infamous Morgan Affair in which a member of one New York lodge threatened to publish the rituals of the fraternity and subsequently disappeared under suspicious circumstances, led to an uproar against the Masons. A political party emerged running on a platform that consisted of nothing other than insisting that Masons had too much power and were abusing it. Because Mr. Morgan was never found, and no one was convicted of his murder, it was assumed that the judges had been Masons and had acted unjustly. If this had been the case, it would have demonstrated a serious lack of understanding of the principles of Freemasonry on the part of those involved. However, there is no evidence this this is what truly happened. In American society (as perhaps in most) truth doesn’t matter so much as appearances, and the result was that the Morgan Affair and the Anti-Mason Party cast so much mud as Freemasonry, implying that it was a subversive old boys network, that lodges closed all over the country, especially in New York state where the incident had occurred. People are afraid of “secret societies” and this fear has dogged Freemasonry from its beginnings in the 1700s. Nobody likes a subculture with its own rituals and secrets and rites of initiation.

It seems to me that Christian culture in the 1800s was especially smug and sure of itself and believed that it was right and everyone else was wrong and strange religious-sounding mumbo-jumbo was suspect. But the fact is that prior to the Morgan Affair Freemasonry had been entirely accepted and hugely popular among men in all classes. It was a fraternity that spanned religious and political differences, which of course annoyed the leaders of political parties and religions, all of which are based on the notion that they are right and the opposition should be converted or destroyed.

So, in the mid-19th century Freemasonry retracted. When it re-emerged a few decades later it was hailed as a public-minded service organization devoted to raising money for charitable causes, such as hospitals. As a public-relations campaign it was right on the mark. Who can be suspicious of a fraternity that gives away so much money to hospitals for children or cancer research? Nothing looks better than philanthropy, and there is no question that giving money for such causes makes men feel good about themselves. Masonry became not a society of spiritual seeking and free-thought so much as a society of good works.

The Gilded Age and even the period of the world wars in the 20th century was a boom time for Masonry. Nearly every town in America had its lodge. Brotherhood was big. Strangely, considering its doctrine of tolerance, Freemasonry has remained largely segregated until recent times. Prince Hall Masonry was begun as a black branch of Freemasonry and today is largely recognized and praised by the predominantly white lodges except in a few states where racial prejudices still linger. After World War II, Masonry entered another slump. This time it seems to be mostly the fault of television and a suburban culture that no longer valued getting out with the boys in lodge. Bowling was more popular among the baby-boom generation than a morals-based organization like the Masons, which perhaps seemed old-fashioned.

During the 50s and 60s when we all thought we were going to colonize space and have flying cars, chaps didn’t join the Masons, at least not in the U.S. The result was that today as the WWII soldiers are passing on, we are encountering a decline in lodge membership. This is all quite the opposite for druidry where druid groves and orders are just being discovered by men and women ranging from young to middle-aged.

There are some major structural and philosophical differences between the Freemasons and the Druids. Perhaps the most obvious is that druids are not secretive about their work. To get the full study course with OBOD you have to join the order and pay for the courses, but you do not have any dues to pay and the Chosen Chief and other members of the order publish pretty widely describing the sort of druidry they practice. Apart from a formal study course, there is nothing to keep secret because apart from that there is no uniformity in pratice, even within OBOD. Individual groves and seed-groups are completely autonomous. They are not chartered by a Grand Grove, so there is, in effect no hierarchical structure of authority.

The Annual Assembly of OBOD is simply a gathering of the members of many groves and seed groups and the only “business” is the business of ritual and meditation together and celebration of our mutual friendship as bards, ovates, and druids. There are no speeches, no committee reports, no election of officers, and as far as I could tell very little “politics” as a result. Yet if anything the Chosen Chief of OBOD, Philip Carr-Gomm, is more exciting to meet and talk to than a grandmaster. One feels that Philip was really chosen to fulfil his role, not by himself or by politics, but by being called. He received a calling from the past Chosen Chief, after he had been long in the Summerlands. This makes his calling more like that of the Dalai Lama — not a reincarnation, but a passing of the spiritual torch.

Philip is remarkable for his ability to avoid being an autocrat. Magical orders are full of stories of leaders who felt their calling so strongly that they wanted to control everything in their organization. Not necessarily out of pure egoism but out of a powerful wellspring of creativity and zeal. Philip is more low key, recognizing that the role has assumed mystic proportions as the order has grown in members, especially those far away who have never met him in person. At its core, in England, the order remains fundamentally a group of friends working together to carry on the legacy of the old Brotherhood of the Universal Bond and creatively build upon those foundations, changing and moving with the times.

And that is another major difference between druids and masons. The latter cling to traditions and resist modernizing. Hence, the grandmaster’s rallying cry of “Relevancy!” But druids seem to be innately relevant. They appeal to all those persons who have felt the call of Nature and the cries of our wounded planet. Druidry is immediately relevant to the ecological crisis of our times and offers a solution in the form of a spiritual life based in Nature and linked to the sacred grove. It is a very different direction to the sort of religion that worships invisible and indescribable Creator-gods in elaborate temples or church buildings created by human art and money. Druids need nothing to practice their spiritual rituals except the beauty of nature, even in as small a form as a simple home altar bearing symbols of the four elements and a candle flame. In truth, they need no outer trappings whatsoever, though as in most spiritual schools, symbolic trappings are useful to create a certain state of mind, especially for the beginner.

A third major difference, and I think this has something to do with “relevance” too, is that druidry hearkens to folk tales from Celtic cultures. These are cultures that were almost entirely destroyed by the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. These waves of conquerers tried to expunge the language and beliefs and stories of the peoples of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. They converted practically all of Gaul and Iberia (formerly Celtic lands) into Romanized and Christianized cultures. The result is that today we are very interested in restoring and rebuilding those nearly lost cultures, especially people who have descended from the Gauls, Gaels, Britons, and Celts of these various regions and tribes.

Indeed the parallel to the Twelve Tribes of the Jews and the diaspora is interesting. Undoubtedly it is a pattern often repeated in the history of human migrations and conquests. Humans have still not managed to outgrow that envious desire to take away the lands of their neighbors, or to migrate to new lands of opportunity. But the Celtic Renaissance and the Druid Renaissance are strong new shoots in Western culture and while they do not have to be “anti-Christian” they do carry within them the understanding of our age that Christian kings and emperors have done some pretty reprehensible things in the past and that the claim that monotheism is superior to polytheism is essentially a claim warranted only be chauvinism. The conquerors claiming that their theological ideas are “superior” and “right” because they have successfully made war upon the polytheists and overthrown them. It is the old notion of Might Makes Right. I think that Hitler pretty much put that notion to bed. We have seen in the 20th century that Might does not make Right, but the winners of wars will always insist that it does. “God was on our side” they will say, because they won.

For many people today, that sort of religiosity and self-congratulation is repugnant. Educated people who have studied history and the humantities, archaeology and anthropology, tend to realize that every culture has value and that the question of right and wrong is not decided by trail by combat. Trial by combat was one of those horrible medieval Christian notions that believed that if you wanted to prove who was lying and who was telling the truth, you just placed the question before God and then went at it with swords and lances and God would help the just man. We still have a vestige of that notion in the expression “let the better man win”. This idea that might makes right, that superior strength makes a man or a nation morally superior and their religious ideas “true” is ingrained in the way masculinity is constructed in the West. After all, it was Constantine’s use of Christ and the cross in battle, and his success, which was the turning point for the domination of Christianity. It was like magic. My god is stronger than your god. It is the same childish sentiment expressed on the playing field when two boys argue over whose dad can beat up the other’s.

My dad can whip your dad. My god can whip your god. It happened in polytheistic cultures too, I suspect, but it was not so easy to do when you had many gods and goddesses, and more likely than not they were borrowed from your neighbors anyway. Kings have always been father-figures too, the archetypal pater familias of a people. But when you make an invisible god carry that archetype and pronounce him “Allmighty” then you get something psychologically very powerful.

In America today (especially because of the ridiculous political debates and speeches going on right now), you hear all these appeals to “people of Faith”. These are, I suppose distinct from people who think for themselves. But what is really meant by that phrase is simply people who believe in the Christian God. Even in such a pluralistic society where practically all world religions are represented among American citizens, Christians dominate and use phrases such as “people of faith” to refer to all the different Christian (and perhaps Jewish) sects, but really are not, for the most part referring to anyone outside of Christianity. They can’t by the premises of their religious dogmas. Their religion is founded on a belief that the Bible is literal history and the only true guide to faith. Liberal Christians may admit that every religion has merit and should be respected, but that requires a difficult sort of mental leap. The Bible is the true guide to understanding God and life, and so is the Koran, the Bhagivad Gita, the I Ching, etc. Freemasonry falls into this world of the Faithful because it uses the Holy Bible and refers to Solomon’s Temple and many other biblical stories as parables.

For some, of course, learning the stories of the ancient Jewish scriptures and the Christian orthodox canon is relevant. But for many today it is not. It is no more relevant that studying the ancient religious and historical writings of any other culture. It is no more relevant that making a close study of the Analects of Confucius or the Chronicles of Froissart. The world is full of obscure old texts that tell partial truths from particular points of view. It is full of old texts that contain interesting bits of wisdom. But it is also full of oral traditions of tribal peoples who have not written down their stories into sacred books. They did not create civilizations and priesthoods to guard the uniformity and continuity of ritual forms or sacred myths.

Educated people will look at Freemasonry as either a strange anachronism that has failed to adapt to the current state of knowledge about ancient and medieval culture, or they will view it as a legitimate mystery school that accepts the stories of the bible and its own legendary history as mythically true, not literally true. Still, it remains steeped in Christianity. The Scottish Rite of Freemasonry casts a wider net and is critical of any religion that claims to have a monopoly on truth and wisdom. But I am afraid for most Scottish Rite masons, the information in the degree rituals is largely lost in obscurity. There can hardly be one in fifty “Masters of the Royal Secret” who have the time or skills to read deeply into Egyptian and Zoroastrian and Vedic religious systems or their thought. Fewer still, who will study Cabala or astrology to understand the elaborate system of symbolism found there. Fewer still who will seriously study alchemy.

Now, the same might be said of druids. Few will deeply study the Celtic myths, and fewer still will study comparative religion to see the connections between Celtic cultures and the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. But they are nevertheless, not shackled to Christianity as a privileged world view.

I have noticed that at some point American Freemasonry diverged from British Masonry and instead of referring to the book on the altar as the Volume of Sacred Law, they substituted “The Holy Bible”. It is understood that each candidate may chose what book to put on the altar to swear his oaths upon, but in the lectures of the ritual, it is referred to explicitly as “The Holy Bible”. Now, the liberal-minded mason can interpret this broadly, ignoring the overt reference to the Christian Bible, and say that the words “Holy Bible” in the lectures must be taken symbolically. The word “bible” comes from the Greek word for book; so, “Holy Bible” literally means “holy book.”

It is a curious thing that the word “Holy” actually derives from the word in Germanic languages for Holly tree.  Presumably, this is because the holly tree was held to be sacred among the ancient Teutonic peoples and the Celts (See Wikipedia for the etymology).  As a druid, I find this interesting.  Holy comes from the sacred holly tree and bible from Byblos, the ancient Phoenecian city where we suppose the first books to have been made.  But even if we simply content ourselves with “holy book” as an abbreviation for “sacred volume of law” we are left with the idea of a book as the symbol of knowledge.  The phrase in the lecture of the first degree (not a secret) is “The Holy Bible is the rule and guide of faith.”  This can be taken by a Christian as a simple straightforward statement that the Christian Bible serves us as a guide to our faith.  But it can also be read differently if we take “is” to mean “symbolizes”.  In other words we take the statement as a metaphor.  The book on the altar symbolizes whatever rule and guide to faith we have.  Whatever, in other words, we use as a guide to belief and trust in matters spiritual.

Now, once this is understood, I think Masonry becomes more relevant to a non-Christian.  The problem, I fear, is that such an interpretation of the bible on the altar is not apparent when one is being initiated.  Anyone who is not a Christian would be asked if they wanted the Torah or the Koran or some other “holy book” on the altar.  For a druid this presents a difficulty.  For a druid the Book of Nature is the rule and guide of faith.  I myself toyed with the idea of swearing my obligations on Newton’s Principia Mathematica, but the fact is that as a druid, I do not revere any single book as THE holy book.  Perhaps a sprig of Holly would have been better as a symbol.  I myself decided that having been raised a Christian, the Christian Bible was serviceable as the symbol of that archetypal Volume of Sacred Law.

Still, I baulk slightly at the legalism implied.  The notion that God is the Great Lawgiver is one that has fallen out of Western culture and those that still cling to it are hearkening back to Judaism and the ancient Hebrew religion that was so unique among religions of its time because it revered a single, invisible God Almighty who manifested himself in a vast body of laws.  By one count I read, over 600 laws that a Jew was supposed to obey at every moment of his life.

Now, Christianity — or at least Lutheranism with which I was raised — claims that the old law was overthrown by the new law of God’s love.  The “law” of universal love trumps all those laws of purification and ceremonial cleanliness, sacrifices and so forth.  But the idea that the Deity gives us “laws” is still there and most Christians have the Ten Commandments drummed into them soundly.  The old Jewish stories of Moses and Solomon and so forth, are all taught as if they are literally true, which is what gets a lot of people in trouble because their kids realize that Santa Claus is a comforting mythic figure and if they have an ounce of reason in their heads they are bound to recognize that the Bible stories they were taught as children are much the same thing — comforting tales with a moral lesson.  For the Jews, I am sure, these stories are also comforting in that they tell the history of their people, but the Christian came to believe that they told the history of the whole world, and then in the 19th century that notion was exploded.

And more than 100 years later there are still many people in America and elsewhere who are clinging to the belief that these stories are literally facts, not legends and myths.  Maybe it is necessary for some people to insist that their own myths are “true” and the myths of other peoples are “only myths” (i.e., untrue).  But it seems to me that we would be much better off and more “relevant” to the current situation of humankind on Earth if we cast off the blinkers of the “true/false” test mentality.  Just yesterday, President G.W. Bush met with the Pope and they mutually congratulated each other on their ability to see the world in the frame of a true/false test.  There is a right and a wrong and we know what it is.  That is the litany that has caused so much war and strife in the world, so much torture, intolerance, and hatred.

The relevance of Freemasonry depeds on its ability to follow its founders in rejecting the simple notion of the true/false test.  Druidry does, I believe, embrace ambiguity and druids are taught (where they are taught at all) that morality is not a true/false test and truth in fact isn’t reducible even to “multiple choice”.  Real life, as opposed to the contrived knowledges of academia, seldom has a single correct answer.  What we need to be relevant and to teach well in today’s culture are essay tests.  And we must teach our pupils and children that true knowledge and true wisdom lie in thinking for ourselves, discovering for ourselves, and listing to the varying ideas of many other people.  Truth does not lie in repeating the same ideological or religious slogans over and over again.  Rote memorization is not a good way to instill understanding in a student or an aspirant to knowledge and Light.

Many people have turned their backs on Christianity because of its intolerance, inflexibility, its basis in patriarchal sexism, its sordid history, or simply its lack of constructive answers to the questions of life today in the 21st century.  We ask ourselves, how can we save the natural world from destruction at the hands of our civilized industrialism.  Secular business and science tries to suggest that new technology is always the answer to every problem.  But the old “new technology” of internal combustion engines run on oil are what has placed us in this situation.  Similarly, the old tried and true religion idea that Christianity is destined to take over the world because it is the One True Religion, appears now to be the very cause of so much of our present crisis.  The clash with Islam (the other One True Faith) is part of our present world.  The destruction of the natural world and the ecology of the earth by commercial exploitation and a value system of expansionism is may be laid at the feet of the Christian mentality of conquest too.  I don’t know if Christianity can be said to have originated the idea of conquest, conversion, and exploitation, but it certainly has supported it.  The doctrine of Might Makes Right (which is so utterly contrary to the teachings of Jesus) has been promulgated by Christians and extended from war into commerce.  Commercial conquest and exploitation of forests and land to the point of ecological collapse has been justified by the idea that “God wills it”.

Well, manifest destiny and the ideology of infinite growth and infinite expansion of markets (dependent upon infinite expansionof the population) are all myths that have been exposed as pretty dumb ideas, short-sighted and self-destructive.  But we have political parties, think tanks, and corporations still devoted to these “values.”

Druids, by contrast, are devoted to values such as “respect nature” and “respect your fellow human beings.”  Respect what other people belief about spiritual matters and try to understand their point of view rather than arguing with them about it (some druids are not very good at this one).  Love not only your neighbor, but the trees, animals, and plants, the land the waters and the air and stars.  The Sun symbolizes not only the light of knowledge and seeing but also the warmth of love and the heat of joy.

The Moon symbolizes peace, change, and gentleness, the subtle beautiful light in the night that is our unconscious mind, our dreams, and intuitions.  The sacred is not to be found in churches and temples, but in all of nature.  That includes in the loving touch of a spouse, a mother, a father, or a child.  It includes our embodied selves, not just some invisible, intangible “soul” that we need to “save.”  Christianity was built on a dichotomy between the body and soul and druidry is not.  Druidry sees body and soul as one whole.  Yet, so steeped in the patterns of thought in Christianity, English does not even have a good word for this whole.  We struggle towards it when we speak of “mind-body medicine” today.  For my part I get around the problem by using the word “soul” to denote the whole including spirit and body.  I say spirit rather than “mind” but take them to be synonymous.  The soul is embodied spirit.  That makes “saving your soul” something quite different than it is in Christian terms.  So many have turned their backs on Christianity because of its hatred of the body and its refusal to accept human sexuality as it is.  All but the most liberal churches still struggle to make sexuality conform to “laws” and prohibitions supposedly handed down by God.  Anyone who cannot accept that idea is given no choice but to cease practicing Christianity and attending church ritual.

For those Christianity has rejected in these ways, druidry can be very appealing.  It can be your religion if you wish, but has no religious authorities to tell you what to believe.  Or it can simply be a spiritual practice or a philosophy of life for a secularist who does not like to think in terms of spirits and life beyond the grave.  For some it is comforting to believe in an immortal spirit indwelling in our temporal existence.  For others it is more comforting to believe that when biological life is over, it is over.  Druidry can accomodate either of these outlooks on life, and content itself with not-knowing all the answers.  Druidry is a spiritual philosophy that includes gnosis (inner knowledge or inspiration) and agnosis (the ability to say, we simply don’t know the answer).  This is quite different from other religions which advertise themselves as having all the answers and providing a comprehensive set of rules which, if followed, will lead to a happier life.  One size fits all.

Many ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams would probably agree that they do not have all the answers really, but the religions generally are presented as a source of answers.  I don’t think druidry does that. It is more like masonry, presenting itself as a source of tools used for the seeking of, and crafting of, our own answers.  It is the essay question text approach.

I’ve spent two days writing this article and it continues cold and gray here in Minneapolis.  Late Spring moving slowly toward early summer.  May you be blessed with enough rain and not too much.

— Owl

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