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.

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