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Druid Gospel Music and Coming Home

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July 2008
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For some reason (Sunday, I suppose) there is a theme of Gospel music on the radio today.  Christa Tippet on “Speaking of Faith” interviewed a famous Gospel singer about the music of the African American experience and now on “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor the Hopeful Gospel Quartet is singing a song titled “When I Get Home, I’m Gonna Be Satisfied.”  I love Gospel music, but the Christian and Biblical basis of it have never appealed to my heart.  I do not disrespect anyone who embraces the Biblical stories as their life’s myths but I myself have come to embrace and resonate with other myths.

However, it is interesting to consider the themes of Gospel music.  It is a branch of the Christian cultural tree that emphasizes “going home” as the central theme and hope.  It appeals particularly to people in slavery or in poverty, those who feel trapped by the circumstances and evils of this world.  It is a spiritual impulse to look to the next world and to consider it “home.”  This is something that in fact a great many of today’s pagan folk share with many Christians – the longing for the Otherworlds.  I am not sure our ancient Celtic ancestors did feel that longing.  Many of the old tales seem to regard the Otherworld with a certain amount of fear. However beautiful and enchanting, however much it may seem like paradise, the Celtic Otherworlds are often places of danger and even entrapment.  However, today’s pagan Celts and Teutons (in America at least) are influenced by intervening centuries of Christianity to look at the Summerlands or the Otherworlds as places of rest and reunion with one’s dead loved ones.

We know that in days of yore the warriors looked upon the Otherworld as a place of warrior feasting – endless battles with friends and worthy enemies in which at the end of the day all the “dead” were resurrected to join the winners in the feast.  We can recognize in this picture the play of boys.  It is playing at war for the joy of winning and even the joy of losing when one is defeated by true skill.  But it is not a matter of hatred and killing and trying to take over other people’s lands, or even raiding their cattle herds.  It is a simple boyish pleasure.  So, the Otherworld may be perhaps described as that imaginal world in which all of our desires for the simple pleasures of life can be fulfilled.  In the Christian Gospel tradition, the pleasure emphasized is singing and making music, talking to loved one’s, loving one’s neighbors in a world without jealousy and competition, and more than anythng, talking to Jesus face to face.

The song to which I just listened expressed the desire to sit down and talk to Elijah and Abraham and all the other Biblical patriarchs. I found that interesting.  Not only the Savior himself, but all the other great main characters of the books of the Bible are people the singer wants to meet.  How often we play the game of asking, Who would you like to have dinner with from history? What famous great person of the past would you most like to be able to talk to?  Those persons who make the Bible the center of their mythic imaginal lives naturally want to visit the characters in their favorite book.  Likewise, I wonder if a druid Gospel music would not explore in song the joy and thrill of meeting famous characters from druid myths and legends.  I am not sure I would want to meet Cuchullain.  A bit like meeting Superman.  But if I were a woman…  Still, that old line from “The Incredible Hulk” applies to Cuchullain: “Don’t make me angry.  You would not like me when I’m angry.”

Now, for me, it is Arianrhod, Cerridwen, Brighid, and Rhiannon that I would most love to meet.  Being a druid, not a warrior, the Goddesses appeal to me more.  But certainly among my choices for a nice intimate talk would also be Gwydion, Math, and Manawyddan, Nuada, Ogma, and Oengus Og.  And of course, Taliessin and the enchanter Merlin.  There is really a great potential for Gospel music.  The word “gospel” comes from the Old English for “good word.”  It is literally “Good Spell” Music.  So, why not develop our own druidic sort of such a wonderful form of expression. We have it too in our marvelous folk singers.  Damh the Bard and Hugin the Bard, among many other wonderful musicians of the druid and neopagan movement.  We are too young for our music to have become “traditional.”  It won’t develop naturally into a cultural tradition until a few generations have passed, all singing the songs to their children.  And therein lies one problem.  In the iPod generation, we have little troubadour robots to sing to our children and that is not quite the same as the family or the granny getting the little one’s together to sing to them and with them and teach them the songs.  We internalize the songs by learning them.  Just listening isn’t enough to get them inside our heads so that they become part of our unconscious mind, our soul.

The interesting idea for me is that of creating a genre of bardic song that develops a similar theme to that central theme of the African American “Spiritual” – that is, the theme of “going home.”  Druids, on the whole, (if one can generalize) belief in a cyclic existence, one in which “life after death” involves passing on to a new life in another body, not a definitive ending to physical existence, as in Christianity.  In the Christian faith, there is “life after death” but it is a spiritual, purified life in “Heaven” a kind of paradisal realm outside space and time.  The scientific pedants who sneer at the Christian mythos by saying that Heaven cannot possibly being located “in the sky” do not understand poetic language.  Nor, alas, do they understand how little they understand.  They think that people of faith are speaking the same language of science which they themselves speak.  It may all seem like English, but it is a completely different discourse.  Within the English language, “speaking of faith” is a matter of poetical, imaginal, and fantastical utterance.  So, when someone says they look forward to “going to Heaven and meeting Jesus face to face,” they are not talking nonsense;  they are talking the discourse of the soul.

Those people who reject “faith” and poetry in order to (as they see it) be closer to truth and reality, have deprived themselves of one of the great powers of the human creature: Imagination.  Of course, skeptics of this sort cannot really escape from their own imaginative powers, nor from their own inner gods and demons.  Indeed, the demon Scepticus is one of their guiding lights.  He’s a Trickster and loves to make people say things that will sound simply naive and foolish to their audience.  All the better if the dedicant to Scepticus will utter these arrogant and self-assured denunciations of the spiritual life of the imagination in a tone of condescension and pity.  “Ah, the poor ignorant Christians, or the sad foolish fluffy-bunny pagans with their credulous beliefs,” the Skeptic will say.  He sits, proud in his throne wielding the Scepter of Scepticus, believing himself to be emperor of all Reality, calm and satisfied and confident that he has solved all the silly problems of the world by embracing materialism, science, and that bright God Scepticus.

Now, of course, I am engaging in gentle satire myself.  Satire is good if it can hold up a mirror to people who have made a mistake in their thinking or behavior.  There is a word for people who do not have faith – infidels.  But that has rather a bad connotation since the crusades when warriors were encouraged to go off and murder infidels.  People who do not have faith (or who repress it in themselves) are not bad people.  They are just normal people.  Scepticus is an important and good god.  He isn’t “The Devil” as some Christians seem to believe.  He keeps us from taking our fanciful myths literally and thereby misunderstanding them.  He keeps us from blindly accepting the stories of others as facts when they may be simply myths or fictions designed to contain and convey truths.  For “truth” is not the same as “fact.”  Facts do not, contrary to the platitude, “speak for themselves.”  Facts, to the extent that they may be said to exist independently of human minds observing them, are always interpreted by the human reason, imagination, and within the limitations of particular languages.  We speak for facts, just as the Lorax spoke for the trees.

Truth, on the other hand, is the meaning we make out of things.  We observe our inner life, we communicate with others about their inner life, we observe the world on the other side of our eyes and senses.  We may also have communication with divinities or “spirits” who we cannot explain or describe with the discourses of science.  All these experiences become part of our songs and in them we find the kernels of Truth.  Science and modern education have promulgated the notion that there is only One Truth.  There is only One Correct Answer for every question on the Test.  Life is not like that – at least not for most of us.  A few people may have the temperament to place their faith and credulity in the idea that statements are either True or False.  But it takes a strong will to ignore all the evidence of experience that will stubbornly refuse to fit that neat paradigm of reality.  So, for the person of faith (whatever faith it may be) who is not a dedicant of the god Scepticus, reality is a more slippery fish and we must find meaning, or rather make our own meanings and truths out of the raw materials given to us by circumstances (or God, or Nature, or whomever you like to imagine gifts coming from).

Gospel singing for the druid must be not so much about a single truth or a single end to life, or “going home” in a permanent sense.  But rather perhaps about “going home” in order to get a truer perspective on the life we have just completed.  Our body dead and worn out, the spirit or mind of the soul carries on to new life because it was never bound by the temporal body.  Our attention rested in that particular space for some length of duration, but the source of our attention, our spiritual being, was never really imprisoned in the mortal clay.  It might have felt imprisoned, but in the bigger reality, each spirit exists beyond our human conceptions of space and time.  So, “going home” means returning to a broader, less myopic view of ourselves and others, a broader and deeper understand and sense of the cosmos.  I like the idea of expressing this in terms of sitting down to dinner or a glass of wine with Brighid or Arianrhod or Bran the Blessed.  Though the idea scares me, I could even look forward to sitting and talking to the Morrigan and the Cailleach.

After all, those chats are what we druids do.  We learn to leave our mortal clay where it is and move our attention to the Otherworlds and speak with those very figures.  Every time a druid meditates it may be a “little death” as the metaphysical poets used to say about sex.  We are brought outside of ourselves, our bodies, outside of the ordinary “house” we make for ourselves.  The ego, the persona, and our ordinary lives are ways to protect ourselves from getting lost.  We couldn’t manage to stay focused in our bodies and in the particular space we have chose to occupy if we did not create these constructed mental boundaries within our being.  We would be at the mercy of the Elements, without a shelter.  The ego and the ordinary personality it builds up around it are like a cozy wigwam to protect us from the storms and cold outside that could easily blow one away or freeze one’s corporeal bodies to the point where it would be useless.

The Gospel music of Christianity is so comforting for those who embrace the Biblical mythos.  It’s a nice contained world that you are heading to.  Going home. Not going on an adventure, mind you, but going home.  Coming into port after a storm-tossed voyage of discovery.  Christian preachers sometimes look at life on Earth as a testing time, followed by the Eternity of peace and respite in Heaven.  The test is sometimes seen as the challenge to make ourselves good men and women, to help and love our neighbors, to forgive our enemies.  Sometimes, the test is reduced to simply a flash of enlightenment in which one says with utter conviction, “I accept Jesus as my personal Savior.”  Poof!  That’s all it takes.  You’ve done what you needed to do.  And saying those words (and meaning it) will cause all the other love and good behavior to follow naturally.  Well, that ‘s the best case scenario.  Few Christians are so naive as to believe it is easy.  Faith has to be maintained like a fire.  You don’t just switch it on like a light bulb, you have to nurture it, build it, and guard it against wind and rain.

Druids know that too.  The difference is that there is not single “Savior” to bring this enlightenment. Any of the divinities might do so.  Indeed, a tree might do so.  Seeing a deer in the forest might be the source of that flash of enlightenment.  Life is full of salvation for druids.  It doesn’t mean studying the Bible or any other book, nor even embracing any particular mythos.  There is no formula in druidry for enlightenment.  But those who have walked ahead on the path through the forest, may offer guidance and clues.  I don’t mean simply human “elders” in a druid or wiccan tradition.  I mean the our inner guides.  Whether we imagine them to be other people speaking through our heads, or whether we see them with visions, or whether we relate to them as complexes of our personal and collective unconscious mind – doesn’t matter.  The guides are there.  Most often they are called “spirit guides.”  Some Christians worry that such folk are “demons” leading us astray.  It might help them to understand if we told them that spirit guides are much more like guardian angels.  Christians do not seem to have trouble telling their guardian angels from the Devil and his minions, so I don’t know why they think druids should have a harder time making that distinction.  But a certain amount of training as in a good druid order such as the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, prepares one by developing the judgment with which to assess the denizens of the Otherworld.  There are tricksters and mischief-makers.  But on the whole nobody is completely evil and malicious.  Still, you don’t want to invite an Otherworld being into your head or house if it is filled with hatred toward you or Humanity in general.  It is only common sense.  On the other hand, the dictum of Jesus to “love thy neighbor” is a good one and love will often disarm those being wielding the sword of hate.

Music and singing are as important to the Bardic Way as they are to the African American culture and, I should think, all tribal cultures.  The tribe, the clan, and the family are all woven together with songs.  The Good Spells of Druidry might yet be written by our bards to celebrate our own sense of hope for the future, a homecoming, a returning that does not involve getting a golden harp and sitting at the feet of the sky god so much as returning to the loving embrace of Mother Earth in our present lives as well as in a hoped-for afterlife.  Our lives are not divided into before and after death.  They are a continuity of birth and rebirth, so that we are always coming home.  The moment of death is always a moment of salvation for druids, not because we are “saved from our sins” but because whatever mistakes we have made in one life, we have another one to look forward to, another existence in which the divinities will teach us how to be better people.  Quite literally our souls are saved when the old worn-out packaging, our bodies must finally be cast aside into the compost heap.

Some druids do not believe in reincarnation, and that is fine.  The first tenet of Druidry is “Don’t believe something just because someone else told you to believe it.”  You have to experience life for yourself.  Get out and experience it.  You can read books and listen to stories and the talking of wise elders or inspired youngsters but ultimately you must experience your own life for yourself and that is the only Druid Way.  That is, in fact, the Druid Good Word, the Good Spell.  Druids can conceive of the Afterlife any way they want.  Indeed, Christian druids may well go for the golden harps and the long talks with Jesus.  Maybe they will also hope to meet Taliessin too and to sit with all their ancestors playing music in sessions of fiddle, harp, bodhran, and pipes.  The theme of “coming home” is interesting in another way too because I have heard so many fellow druids say that discovering druidry as a faith and a way felt like coming home – here and now, in this world and across the worlds.


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