Monday, October 4, 2010

Musings on Sacrifice

The Druid Network application took some five years, and from the sounds of it a lot if that time was devoted to answering questions from the Charity Commission about Druid beliefs and practices. While questions of historical sacrifices (human or animal) have sometimes been a sticking point in conversations about contemporary Druidry, it would appear the Commission only touched on the subject in weighing the potential harm a group could cause against the good it does - something they must examine with any group applying for religious status. Their report quotes this passage from the Constitution of The Druid Network:

"While sacrifice is a core notion within most world spiritual traditions, within Druidry it is confused by historical accounts of the killing of both human and animal victims. No such practice is deemed acceptable within modern Druidry. What is sacrificed within the tradition today is that which we value most highly in life and hold to with most passion: time, security, certainty, comfort, convenience, ignorance, and the like. Indeed, most Druidic sacrifice is expressed through work that benefits the wider community and the planet as a whole, such as environmental volunteering, ethical consumerism, spiritual education, dissemination of information, caring for family and community (notably children, the sick, the elderly and dying) and creative expression."

Back in my teaching days I made it a point of looking at the word "sacrifice" with each new group of students, because tales of ancient human sacrifices are sometimes held up by those who would condemn practitioners of neo-pagan religion. The root of the word "sacrifice" is the Latin verb facere, which like the French verb faire can be translated "to make" or "to do." The other part of the word comes from sacra, "sacred rites," which in turn comes from sacer, "sacred."

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives an intermediate form of the word: sacrificus, "performing priestly functions or sacrifices." The combination of the two parts of the word also conveys a sense of making something sacred. In this broader sense, sacrifice is to turn any common action into a ritual or a sacred act. Think of a Japanese tea ceremony, in which every movement is done with heightened awareness and in which the simple act of preparing tea becomes a ritual. It is often the intent with which we perform an act, and the care that we take in carrying it out, that make of it a ritual.

Similarly, the desire to give of oneself and the care taken to benefit another can make of any common action a sacrifice. It is true that on a neo-pagan path the things we sacrifice are often those things humans tend to fear losing: certainty, comfort, convenience. Such is the way of a spiritual path that relies on individual experience of the divine rather than revealed wisdom. Such is also the way of any path that emphasizes service or stewardship of the earth. Pagans have no monopoly on hardship.

But there can be joy in sacrifice too, as is evidenced in the mentions of activities such as caring for a family and creative expression. It is in these acts that we learn how much returns to us when we give of ourselves. There is a transformation involved in those acts that are true sacrifices, a moment when the little piece I carve out of myself is for the first time just outside my grasp. It hovers for a moment and then it flies away, but many times it will return to me and I will recognize it even though its form has changed. Sacrifice has the potential to change the giver and the gift, and often to change the recipient too. It is much more than hardship, more than just making a conscientious effort to do the right thing. It is an act of creation, an act of birthing forth, an act of making.

The Druid Network Granted Status by the Charity Commission

"Druidry has been recognized as an official religion in Britain for the first time, thousands of years after its adherents first worshipped in this country," reads the first line of a news story about a decision of the Charity Commission for England and Wales to an application of The Druid Network. The group, founded by neo-pagan Druid and Author Emma Restall Orr, will now benefit from a charitable tax status. Its standing as a religious body has also been confirmed.

The decision is the result of a process that spanned more than four years. It involved in-depth questioning of the applicants about their beliefs and practices, as well as the services they provide to the community. Druids in England are perhaps best known for organizing Midsummer rituals at locations such as Stonehenge, but The Druid Network also provides services to individuals and small groups. These include ministry in hospitals and prisons, and rites of passage for such occasions as the birth of a child or retirement from the work force.


(Photo: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Echoes of a Not So Familiar Past

We pagans are the "country dwellers," the people of the earth, who in times of old were rooted to the places our ancestors had dwelt for generation upon generation. Not so anymore. And in truth, the people of my land have been migrating for several hundred years - sometimes over great distances and across oceans, sometimes between towns or regions within this "new land." My children have ancestors who arrived in Canada before it was even properly called by that name, but counting from the arrival of others they are second- or third-generation Canadians.

Who are we, what is our heritage? French? Celtic? Germanic? Canadian? Québecois? How we describe ourselves is perhaps a question best left to Elvis Gratton! A classmate of mine once said she felt anglophones in Quebec were like the Heinz57 of genealogy. It may be so.

When we hear the call of the gods, which ones do we hear? Those of the lands our people once inhabited, or of the lands they passed through on their way here? Do we hear the deities of this land that once belonged to other peoples, or maybe those of faraway places our people only visited in their dreams?

Certainly for many of us, there is a stirring deep within when we hear the music of bodhran and of bagpipe. The music of the ancient Celts, like the old Québecois folk music, never fails to get my toes tapping.

Many years ago I was introduced to Alan Stivell's Renaissance of the Celtic Harp. Some years later I learned to appreciate the songs of Manau - a rarity for me, as I am not generally a fan of rap. If you are familiar with Manau's "La tribu de Dana" you will perhaps recognize the melody of this earlier piece performed by Stivell. Perhaps it will call to you, and you will hear the echoes of a faraway place - long ago and not so familiar, yet somehow a part of you too.

For more on the song, sung in the language of Breton, check out this post at the Celtic Music Fan. It includes the lyrics and a general outline of what the song means.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Religion as Selective: Relegere vs Religare

For many years we taught, as do many contemporary scholars, that the word religion derives from the Latin religare, a word derived from the root LIG- (through ligus, "binding".) Religion then, was a binding back with the divine.

We had known that there was a connection with words like neglect (or rather with its opposite) but perhaps the concept of binding back again was particularly attractive to those of us who have had the infamous experience of "coming home." And so we tended to overlook another possible derivation of the world "religion":  the one that is linked to the root LEG- or sometimes LIG- (through the Greek lego, logos, logas.)

The sense of these words is not only to gather together, to care for or to set things in order, but also to speak and to repeat. Certainly, Cicero emphasizes both the concept of careful selection or gathering, and that of retracing one's steps or re-reading something of value:
For religion has been distinguished from superstition not only by philosophers but by our ancestors. Persons who spent whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure that their children should out-live them were termed "superstitious" (from supersies, a survivor), and the word later acquired a wider application. Those on the other hand who carefully reviewed and so to speak retraced all the lore of ritual were called "religious" from relegere (to retrace or re-read), like "elegant" from eligere (to select), "diligent" from diligere (to care for), "intelligent" from intellegere (to understand); for all these words contain the same sense of "picking out" (legere) that is present in "religious." Hence "superstitious" and "religious" came to be terms of censure and approval respectively.

~ Cicero, De natura deorum (45 B.C.E.)

The quote is from Liber Secundus, which represents the view of the Stoics. The complete text (all three books) is embedded below, thanks to the folks at the Internet Archive.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Seeing the Shades of Grey

Ne nuis pas à ton voisin.
Ceci bien compris, fais ce qu'il te plaît.
~ Les Aventures du Roi Pausole, Pierre Louÿs

As I prepare for a discussion on pagan ethics, I am searching out relevant hypertexts that might add to the materials already in my possession. One such text that drew my attention was "Harm None" by Marta Garcia at Old Ways.

Discussions of the Rede are plentiful, whether online or at events in the community. What I really appreciated about this one is that it talks about the Wiccan Rede as an ethical compass for all actions, and not just those of a magical or spiritual nature.

I was troubled, however, by the example used to illustrate the mundane application of the Rede. It is unquestionably a realistic situation, and one that could be faced by any of us in some form or another. What bothers me is that the author only saw two possible actions, and rather than looking for the best possible outcome in a sensitive situation, she found herself instead looking at choosing what she felt was the lesser of two evils:
Recently, I had to decide whether or not to report a co-worker to the higher ups. This person had, in my view, been verbally abusive to a child in a pediatric unit of a nursing home. I had to decide what the lesser of two evils would be:
  1. The co-worker losing their job in these hard economic times,
  2. Allowing for the children we work with to continue to be verbally abused
Did I want this person to lose their job, knowing full well that the economy is bad and jobs are hard to find? No. But if I chose not to report this incident so that the co-worker could keep their job, then I would be allowing their behavior to continue within the unit. Did I want such behavior to continue amongst children? No. Part of my and everyone’s job within the unit is to protect the children. I chose to report what I had witnessed.
One of the recurring themes in the neo-pagan community is that of a religion without converts, because we are simply "coming home" to a place we never really left. In reality, though, becoming pagan is a journey that sometimes involves learning to leave behind certain preconceived notions in order to be able to function with the tools and the current we have chosen as our own.

Many pagans who were raised in North America continue to cling to a dualistic worldview, long after they have divested themselves of most other aspects of western morality. This mentality emphasizes polarities such as good vs evil, wrong vs right, us vs them. It tends to limit our ability to conceive of possible actions or solutions to a problem. It can also create an adversarial atmosphere, in which the assumption is that only one person's interests can be served in any given situation.

The ultimate consequence of this way of thinking can often be that we seek to determine who will triumph, and we rush to align ourselves with that party in order to avoid injury to ourselves. To some extent that's just human nature, but let's not try to pass it off as ethical behaviour.

It's self-preservation, not morality.

"But if I chose not to report this incident so that the co-worker could keep their job, then I would be allowing their behavior to continue within the unit." What's happening here? Is the author taking responsibility for her own actions? She wasn't the person who acted inappropriately. Why is she responsible for what happened?

The fact is, she's not. She may be seizing control of the situation, but what she is doing isn't taking responsibility. Taking responsibility when we see a wrong doesn't just mean preventing it from recurring; it also means taking steps to address the damage already done. By reporting the colleague, she skips right over the responsibility part and goes straight to seeing that the colleague is punished. I see very little difference between that and an eight-year-old tattling on her sister.

"This person had, in my view, been verbally abusive to a child in a pediatric unit of a nursing home." So we're not talking about a legal definition of abuse, or even a policy specific to that particular workplace. We're talking about a personal opinion of what is right and what is wrong.

"Part of my . . . job within the unit is to protect the children." How does she do that? Apparently not by intervening at the moment of the incident in order to minimize the negative impact of what was said, nor by informing the parents - who had every right to know if there was a genuine incidence of abuse. She does not question her colleague, call her on her behaviour, or attempt to ascertain if the incident was provoked by some sort of distress for which she could offer support or assistance. The only two possibilities she sees are to ignore the behaviour or to report it.

I see no morality there, no compassion for either child or colleague. Just a need to side with the right. "Management investigated the situation," she tells us. Her employers, "chose not to allow this person back in the building and the co-worker proceeded to retire." Again in this statement, I see no positive actions taken on behalf of the child or his family. I see no attempts on behalf of the management to address what had sparked the incident, in hopes of preventing it with future employees. It sounds like they did the same thing the author chose to do: they covered their own backside.

 So what makes it ethical to side with the employer over the colleague? What about this situation benefits any child? This is not a question of morality. It's a question of minimizing liability and doing damage control. It's an ethical farce.

Since many neo-pagans also embrace the concept of karma, let's think what kind of karma a choice like the one above will bring. With one staff member terminated for abuse, the rest will need to be extra vigilant. Everyone will dread the moment when they lose their temper with a child. They will need to beware of someone walking by a room and taking a snippet of conversation so completely out of context as to make it appear they too are being abusive. Anyone could be the next to suffer the fate of their "retired" colleague.

And will those children have gained anything at all from the loss of staff members who, in these difficult economic times, the nursing home may simply choose not to replace? What will the fate of the children be when staff numbers are cut, and those who are left to care for them must do even more with less time. Rather than taking a high moral ground, our author could easily be creating the perfect conditions for even more abuse to take place.

Yes, there is an element of the extreme to the scenario I offer. But I am addressing an audience whose members by and large accept the existence of such things like magic and the Butterfly Effect. This is but one possible future, given the circumstances described by our author.

The problem with trying to take on responsibility for the actions of another is, we simply don't know where that choice will lead. In the great majority of cases it is far better to choose to act morally ourselves, and to encourage those around us to do the same, than to take on the actions of another.

As pagans we like to pride ourselves on how tolerant and accepting we are, how we can celebrate a rainbow of diverse lifestyles and paths without passing judgement. So why cling to a black and white morality?

Learn to see the shades of grey. Learn to see all the hues of the moral rainbow, and all the options they represent. Embrace the infinite realities that are open to you.

Think outside the box.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Prayer for Isaac Bonewits

We've been very private about our practice in the last decade or so, which has meant I'm pretty much out of the loop when it comes to new publications and authors, news of well known pagans, and so on. I did happen to go to Isaac & Phaedra Bonewits' web site a while ago, so I knew he had been ill with cancer. I discovered today that Isaac is nearing the end of this life.

I won't make any pretense of saying I know Isaac and his family. I met him once at a fest, many years ago. I took a workshop with Deborah Lipp, the mother of his son. I read his book Real Magic, as so many of us have.

So no special connection here, and no insider knowledge on what is going on with Isaac. I read the news on Isaac & Phaedra's Facebook page. His siblings are apparently travelling to be with him at the end. I pray they will reach him in time to say the kind of goodbyes they want to say.

My heart goes out to all those who are touched by Isaac's battle with cancer, and I pray his transition from this life to the next one will be a peaceful one.

Magic or Lies?

Magick is the art of causing changes in consciousness in conformity with the Will.
- Dion Fortune
My dentist has a little ritual she does with the kids she sees. The first time my daughter had to have a filling done, the dentist told her she would use some "Harry Potter magic" to help make the cavity go away. While she applied the topical gel and then injected the Novacaine, she and her assistant chanted an incantation. In order for the magic to work, my daughter had to close her eyes and to repeat the chant in her head.

We were at the dentist again last week, and since my daughter is getting old enough to begin to doubt in things like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and Harry Potter magic that can take away a cavity, the dentist asked me if she should still use her magic spell. I told her she should. I figured if it still worked for my daughter, why not? If it didn't work, no harm done.

Odin the Wanderer (Georg von Rosen, 1886)
Odin is linked by some people
to the archetype of Santa Claus
"It's a lie," said the dentist."But it's only a little one."

I understood what she meant, but I don't happen to agree. I can see no lie in what she does for the children she treats.

My dentist was trained at Université de Montréal, where the school of dentistry is known for its pioneering in teaching prospective dentists to use psychology to help patients relax and to ease any discomfort they may have. When I sit in that same chair, the things she says to me are not so very different from what she tells my kids. She reminds me to sit comfortably, to close my eyes, and to focus on breathing through my nose.

OK, so there's no incantation and she makes no attempt to hide the syringe of Novacaine from me. But other than that, she follows pretty much the same procedure for children and for adults. She speaks in a soft, relaxing voice. At the beginning of every visit she takes time for small talk about the weather, family, common interests - anything at all really, just so long as we chat and have time to ease into our hour together. I've had very similar conversations before beginning a circle. It's all part of establishing the right atmosphere, and entering the right frame of mind for the work ahead.

My daughter later confided in me that she knew about the needle, but she didn't object to the chanting of the spell. She explained that the first time she hadn't said the words in her head when she was told to. "Alakazam, boom, boom!" may seem a little outlandish to her these days, but it does work. She felt pain when she didn't repeat the incantation to herself, so the dentist gave her a moment to relax and reminded her to say the words silently in her head the next time. And of course, she had no pain that time!

We discussed this on the way home. I asked her if she thought the magic words helped, and she thought they had. So I told her she should remember that for the next time.

It's perfectly fine for her to question and to test. The experience at the dentist's office taught her that, while she may have known about the needle the dentist was trying to hide, there was still merit in the rest of the ritual. It relieved her pain, even though she knew what she (and the dentist!) thought was the secret.

Sometimes in life, the things we think are a big deal really aren't. And things we think are trivial, turn out to be much more useful than we could have expected.