Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Yen for Zen

By John M Morris, Ph.D.

I was introduced to Zen Buddhism as a theological student in Berkeley, California, many years ago. Since then I've drifted into Inca Shamanism, Starhawk's eclectic witchcraft, trance drumming, and much else, but I've recently returned to Zen as a way of discovering a deeper spirit than anything found in the doctrinal religions.

My first teacher in Zen was Alan Watts, in San Francisco, whose radio addresses on KPFA, his classes, and his lectures at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples opened the door to a new way of defining a non doctrinal formm of religious practices.

Watts, a former Anglican priest, had his own take on Zen, making it muuch more attractive to most of us than a complex Oriental curiosity.

Not far away there was another huge church with thousands of people shouting "amen" to a relevant sermon.

Zen is much quieter, of course. We are invited to meditate in silence, blocking out the noise and confusion around us. Zen invites us to ignore theology, those doctrines that divide us, and to come to terms with the vast emptiness at the heart of this churning world.

I remember at one time, when I was studying for a doctorate in philosophy, wondering at the way in which a philosophical puzzle could breed hundreds of pages of charges and counter-charges, leaving the original problem unsolved. Surely the many religious disputes going on around us are no better. "Does a dog have Buddhia nature?" Answer: "Woof woof."

Intense meditation has the effect of clearing the mind. Eventually there comes the moment of satori, a moment when our day-to-day problems are not solved but are left behind. As one great mystic, William Blake, put it, "When the doors of perception are cleansed, we shall see everything as it is, infinite." Or my favorite, Walt Whitman: "When I heard the learn'd astronomer" with his many calculations, I left the lecture hall and "looked with simple silence at the stars."

Like Thoreau, who wanted to "settle myself, and sink my feet downward, through the mud and slush of time" until he finds solid earth under his feet, and can say "this is reality and no mistake," Zen is looking for the reality that lies under the mud and slush of ordinary perception. But for the Zen master, Thoreau is perhaps as far as any of us from discovering the reality of this world.

When you read a collection of Zen meditations, you may find it confusing, since there is no doctrine here, no set of "teachings." For the Zen student is alone in the world. Each person is a seeker. It is that constant seeking for a truth that is before your eyes that makes Zen a companion for your journey that goes deeper and deeper into reality that we can find only for ourselves, but only as the seeking is something that we undertake with full commitment. Zen is not for a lazy person.

Unlike many religious traditions, Zen has no doctrine, no rules, no specific practices. Instead it is a way of goiing beyond all rigid belief systems, coming to terms with their underlying reality.

One way of clearning the mind of its thousand distractions is the koan, a simple riddle or story that has no real answer. "If two hands clapping make a slapping sound, what does one hand clapping sound like?" Of course there is no answer, and that is the point. Most of our philosophical and religious problems are those with no answers that make any sense.

Our First Ritual

by John M Morris, Ph.D.

We held our first Pagan ritual in the basement of the old Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor in 1950. This was before Starhawk, and the other founders of American Witchcraft were even born, so we were pretty much on our own. The only useful reference book that I could find was a battered copy of an older text, now discredited, by Margaret Murray, Witchcraft in Western Europe, which attempted to reconstruct the ancient witchcraft rituals in England. It was out of these obsolete rituals that I devised our own ritual.

One of the first obstacles was finding a Priestess, who would be lying naked on the altar, definitely a requirement for reconstructing an authentic Pagan ritual. The most likely candidate flatly refused to appear before the congregation without any clothes on, and after a good deal of debate, one of our friends reluctantly agreed to make her a robe, out of an old pillowcase. He painted a few obscene symbols on it, and it worked out very well.

For myself, I volunteered to preach the sermon. Now, as far as we know, there were no sermons at the classical witchcraft gatherings, but we didn't know that, so I devised rather a noisy address to deliver during our Pagan ritual. I've forgotten most of it, but it seems to have been a diatribe against our non-Pagan neighbors, who, as we imagined it, were persecuting us, and forcing us to hold our rituals in the basement, "our masses in the cold, cold ground."

Our little proto-coven went on to hold other rituals, but none seem to have been as impressive as this one. Other leaders have appeared, and hundreds of books have been written, but contemporary witches have never produced anything more dramatic than our first ritual, in the dark, candle-lit basement of that little church.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Book review:

By John M. Morris, PhD.

Andrew McCall The Medieval Underworld New York: Barnes & Noble (reprint), 1993. 319 pp., n.p.

This classic study, first published in 1979, pictures the incredible chaos that swept through Europe in the late Middle Ages, as the older Catholic paradigms were collapsing and wave after wave of craziness were taking their place. McCall introduces us to the world of prostitutes, homosexuals, religious heretics, Jews, and sorcerers and witches that appeared in great waves during the Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries in Europe, horrifying the church fathers and attracting great crowds, only to end up on the gallows or the chopping block.

My primary interest was in the sorcerers and witches, who were savagely attacked by the powers that be, and often driven out of the cities or sent to the executioners, although many were able to live fairly peaceful lives through this period. McCall's descriptions of the witches are quite different from those pictured in one of my favorite texts, "The Witch Cult in Western Europe," now sadly discredited and largely forgotten (I loaned my copy to a friend, who has since disappeared with it). In this earlier study, witches are pictured as joyously gathering in their covens to celebrate the sabbats and the esbats, keeping cats, toads, and other animals as pets, and, most importantly, acting as healers and comforters in their communities.

In McCall's study, however, witches are accused of cursing their neighbors out of spite, and are put on trial for heresy. Punishments were varied but often included horrible tortures, with their forced confessions to hideous deeds, and execution of the alleged witches. McCall's book, however, helps to put the witch trials into some kind of focus, since the witches were only one group to be attacked during those fanatical centuries. I would hope that our own century will be better. It could hardly be worse.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Book Review

by John M Morris, Ph.D.

Robin Wood The Robin Wood Tarot: The Book. Dearborn (MI): A Livingtree Book, 1998. 248 pp, n.p.

After nearly ten years, this remains my favorite introduction to the tarot. A very personal account of the history and use of the tarot cards, it provides a personal look at the way in which Robin created each of the 78 beautiful cards that make up her deck.

Somehow, I'd never got around to reading the detailed history of the tarot, or some of the interpretations of each of the cards, so that this has been a week of discovery for me. And it's been exciting. First, we learn something of the history of these mysterious cards, and then we learn that historical accounts of the tarot are mostly fictions, made up by a series of authors who were more interested in their own fantacies than in historical research.

But then we find that it doesn't really matter. What matters is the meanings that you as a reader or a client find in the strange pictures on the cards. But Robin doesn't spend her time speculating on these meanings. Instead, she tells us about her own inspirations that have led to each of the illustrations. For example, the Magician is a smiling man, strong and capable, with symbols of his strength and craft. Your job as a reader is to find how those symbols apply to your client's problems, and how he or she can build decisions for a meaningful life.

I have the feeling that reading have been too tightly tied to the Rider-Waite-Smith decks, which are far too popular, but nevertheless have become standard. I'd hope that you'll use Robin's wonderful deck for at least some of your readings. You may find it, as I did, far more full of insights than any of the other decks you may find.

Book Review

by John M Morris, Ph.D.
Elizabeth Barrette Composing Magic: How to Create Magical Spells, Rituals, Blessings, Chants, and Prayers Franklin Hills (NJ): New Page Books, 2007. 240 pp., $14.99.
Here, at last, is a guidebook for all of us that are called upon to create some kind of magical working, whether in a formal ritual or in a private ceremony. Barrette's approach is inclusive, meaning that there is no single "tradition" that she is following, but rather the broad path that we sometimes call "spirituality," the path that is never restricted to a single set of relligious beliefs.

For those that have never written poetry, this is a particularly useful guide, in the preparation of poetic approaches and appeals to spiritual forces around us. We so rarely hear poetry in our rituals these days, and we need some help in writing it. Barrette tends to use traditional poetic forms, but these can inspire us to write in looser, unrhymed verse, if we want to. One chapter, "Creating Colorful Chants," was full of fun things to do with your own rituals. "Bestowing Beautiful Blessings" gave hints for these specialized forms. Finally, there were some suggestions for getting your work published. Commercial publishing is highly competitive, meaning that you may find it difficult or impossible to interest a commercial publisher. But there's no harm in trying.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Our Annual Packos Pilgrimage

This article was composed by Misti and uploaded by Rod, it also appears on our family blog.

Every October 31, we make our annual pilgrimage to Tony Packos in Toledo.

You remember Tony Packos? In the M.A.S.H. television series, Corporal Klinger mentioned it often. It's a Hungarian restaurant, and Klinger waxed eloquent about their hot-dogs. We stopped in the first time because we were in the neighborhood and we wondered whether it would live up to the hype. It didn't. It's OK -- pretty mediocre, but not outright bad. But it is an adult oriented restaurant.

So every October 31, we go there. Mostly because it's an hour away in Toledo, making it easier to be busy and out of the way of the "festivities" we don't want to expose ourselves to between 6pm and 9pm. We darken the house, close the gates for the only time all year, and drive for an hour, eat for an hour in a restauramt that blessedly seems to have fogotten what date it is, and then drive home for an hour, arriving home after the last of the revellers has gone home to bed or out to the bars.

Why all the effort? As witches, aren't we supposed to love Halloween?

Well, a lot of witches do love it, but frankly, Rod and I don't enjoy Halloween at all. I find the whole thing disturbing and somewhat offensive. I don't particularly mind that people who see it differently than I do want to celebrate, especially now that they've stopped trying to insist that I have to play, too. But I really want no part of it, myself.

Like so many other holidays, Halloween started out as a pre-Christian celebration. The Celts called it Samhain, and it was the celebration of the final harvest and of death. When the Christian church entered the scene, they preferred to call the day All Saints Day or "Hallowed evening". But the the notion of dead folks wandering around wasn't so easy to quash, and the church had to find a way to deal with it. The combination of fear and misunderstanding between very different cultures left us with a mish-mash of ideas, none of which make a lot of sense when thrown together out of context.

The celebration of the final harvest and the honoring of the the dearly departed has morphed into a candy-fest featuring horrific images of death and highly fantasized images of magic and witchcraft.

Our major objection to Halloween as it's celebrated now start with the whole problem of the glorification of violence and the desecration of death's sacred nature. This time of year is indeed focused on death, just as spring is focused on birth. We honour the entire cycle of life, including death. Making one part of the cycle (birth) "sacred" and another (death) "scary" seems wrong. Add to that the "devils night" antics and the destruction of property that seems to have taken root in this time of year and the whole thing becomes pretty repulsive.

We also don't like the idea of children being fed on pounds and pounds of sugar. Yep, it's their parents call, and we honor that. But we don't want to poison your children and "healthy" treats will be thrown away, so we'll just opt out, thanks. (We have at least one friend who offers books to the children who come to her door -- and that is a great idea! If we ever get past our other objections, that's probably something we'll adopt.)

The idea of begging from strangers isn't a really great model to give kids, either. We prefer that our child be raised to be a contributor because in the end, that will make him much happier. If this was a once a year phenomenon it might pass muster, but name a single day of the year for which the children aren't conditioned to expect to be indulged ...

Then there's the commercialization problem -- people spend hundreds of dollars on this non-event every year! Hundreds of dollars for two hours of revelry on a holiday that has lost any real significance. It's insane!

What about the costumes? Those, I just don't understand. I think playing dress-up is great, but why limit it to once a year? And why focus on someone else's idea of a good costume, when there is a whole world of good ideas outside the costume shops? I have one friend whose children dress in costume on any day they wish -- now *that* is fun and imaginative! Jack hasn't shown any particular interest in costumes so far, but if he ever does, he won't be limited to this one day a year.

Rod adds to this list his objection to the appeasing of the spirit world with gifts, the trivializing of magic, and the typecasting of witchcraft and the supernatural as something perhaps frightening, or evil, but most definitely "other".

No we are not Disney Witches, nor even a Hogwarts graduates. This godawful trivialization, distortion, and commercialization of death and magic is something we just don't want to be a part of. So, we're going to enjoy our journey to Tony Packos.

See y'all tomorrow, when some semblance of sanity has returned.

Monday, October 01, 2007

We have met the enemy

"There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Hamlet's words (or were they Horatio's?) have always been a challenge to us to explore the unknown. Like the tousands of plants and animals that were unknown when I was a kid, or the dozens of "new" elements that never made it into the periodic tables when I was a student. New nations keep appearing, so that the globe I once had in my living room is completely out of date, with few places in the world we're slowly learning to accept today.

I once had a small dinosaur family, tiny plastic creatures that I loved: Tyrannosaurus Rex -- I called him "Tyranny" and took him on adventures with me, along with Brontosaurus, Diplodicus, and all their friends, who were friends of mine, too.

One recent book, "Memoires of a Monster Hunter" by Nick Redfern (New Page Books, 2007) in pop-scientist style, tells of the author's attempts to locate such critters as the Loch Ness monster, or "the terrifying chimpaberra, a razor clawed, glowing eyed beast that is part giant bat and part vampire," and so on and so on. Unfortunately, the book is mostly about his treks into the wilderness and his adventures there.

Frankly, I've found it more fun to visit the real-life animals at Wolf Creek, where the big, very personable wolves are quite shy, particularly around men, but always alert and curious, protective of one another, and quite harmless to humans, although they see dogs as competitors for their territory.

Humans have a long history of destruction, far more devastating to our world heritage than anything less than the incredible planetary collision that destroyed the dinosaurs. We are at the center of a planetary disaster. Unfortunately Redfern's book shows little concern for the real disasters ahead. As Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

John M. Morris

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rune Magic: The Celtic runes as a tool for personal transformation

Deon Dolphin Rune Magic: The Celtic runes as a tool for personal transformation Van Nuys (CA): Newcastle Publishing, 1987. 149 pp., $9.95.

At one time, all I knew about the runes was an obscure line in Poe's The Bells, where a chorus of demons is tolling "bells, bells, bells, in a sort of Runic rhyme ... " or something like that. Poe probably chose the line for the sound effects, rather that for any great interest in the Rune themselves. But we can use the runes as a form of divination, or character analysis, or whatever mystical meaning we want to read into them.

This classic text is only one of dozens of "explanations" of the runes, intended to provide beginners (like you and me) with the tools we need for readings for ourselves and our friends. After some preliminary background information, the author plunges into a series of actual interpretations of varioous patterns in the runes. Drawn or engraved in small stones, shells, or other objects they are cast into a set of three circles, preferably drawn on a specially marked cloth. (Of course, there are probably as many ways of casting the runes as there are people reading them, but this way is the one that the author describes.)

Depending on their positions in the circles, the runes can be interpreted for the client to show his or her character, decisions to be made, possible future happenings, or whatever else comes to their attention. The markings on the runes vary, according to the specific tradition that they represent, and the number of runes can be as many as fifteen, meaning that the reading will depend on the specific set of stones that are being consulted.

For those that are looking for an alternative to the familiar occult tools many of us use, this book will provide an introduction to another way of performing readings.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

The urge to "kill" the teacher?

My old friend and HP, Wayland Raven often tells his students that "there is no needs to kill the teacher. When it's time to move on, move on in peace".

We all (his students at the time) nodded sagely and tut-tutted about people being so rude when they leave a group. Truly, most of us were quite sure we would never want to leave such a warm, loving group and such a good teacher. And then, one by one, it came to be our turn to move on. Some moved on in peace. Some left amid shouting and rancor.

I have watched it happen to other friends and acquaintances, too. People who seemed very close, all of a sudden were full of fault finding and anger. Why does this happen? Why is it so hard to move on in peace when the time comes, without feeling the need to "kill" our spiritual teachers?

I think a part of it is the way we come to recognize people who have something to teach us. It's rather like falling in love, really. We see someone who seems uncommonly wise and astonishingly "together". We want to be near this person and learn what they know. We come to rely on the maturity and wisdom we perceive from them, whether through formal lesson or as living examples. These are the people we look up to. Just as in falling in love, though, we tend not to notice immediately the more "human" qualities and clay feet.

But it is our own perception of who a person is, our perception what she or he stands for, the part of his or her life that speaks to our own, that makes them stand out for us as teachers. In our desire to feed our own souls, we reshape the teacher into the person we need him or her to be and what we perceive may bear little resemblance to human to whom we attach these perceptions.

As we learn more of life’s most valuable lessons through them, teachers rise in our esteem. We be come more and more deeply attached to our perception of what the teacher represents and any indications that they may not be what we think they are cause momentary confusion, but are quickly dismissed.

Sooner or later, though, the day comes, (sooner if the teacher has done his or her job properly), when our need for the teacher diminishes. It is in that twilight of the teacher/student relationship that we begin to see the "flaws" of the teacher in the harsh light of day. It happens in love relationships, too. It doesn't have to mean the end of the relationship, if both parties are sufficiently mature. It does, however, mean that there is a fundamental change taking place. Either from "infatuation" to "mature love" or from student and teacher to respectful, amicable equals. The student eventually learns that the teacher was thoroughly human all along, but that momentary perception of the "perfect model" had us blinded to the flaws for a while, so that we would strive harder and further to reach our own spiritual goals.

When we begin to notice our teacher's flaws, the teacher may, indeed, be teaching us one last "lesson" by reflecting our own weaknesses back to us. We would do well to examine those aspects of ourselves that reflect what is most irritating about our teacher.

The mature student accepts that the illusion was his or her own and, though momentarily disappointed in the reality, expresses only gratitude for the time the teacher has spent and the lessons taught and learned. The mature teacher accepts that his or her work is complete in this relationship and gracefully accepts the students thanks without expectation.

In any case, we know the time has come to look further afield for inspiration and so, we start all over again.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Book Review: Ghost Stories

by John M Morris

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by stories of the occult, ranging from Ouija boards to tales of prophecies found in the Great Pyramid, encouraged by my mother's stories of ghosts she had discovered in an old house they'd once lived in. I tried to be sophisticated enough to ignore stories like these, but they must have stayed with me anyway. A recent book has recalled this earlier fascination with ghosts, fairies, and goodness knows what else, inhabiting the world of the supernatural.
John Kachuba's Ghosthunters is full of stories of encounters with ghostly presences, often scary, and always unexpected. The author has made a full-time job of lectures on ghosts, as well as explorations of haunted houses and other mysterious places. If you've ever had any doubts about the reality of ghosts, these tales will be enough to convince you otherwise.

At the same time, I'll have to admit that these encounters seem awfully trivial. There are no chests of gold dubloons, no secret jewel boxes, nothing of value discovered. I was reminded mostly of the search for Visitors from Outer Space, where there have been hundreds of encounters, but, sadly, nothing that really mattered. In any case, you may want to read a dozen ghost stories, which are here told, with many flourishes, as a way to get to sleep on a dark and windy night.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Review: The Secret Teachings of the Tao Te Ching by JM Morris

Mantak Chia and Tao Huang The Secret Teachings of the Tao Te Ching Rochester (VT): Destiny Books, 2005. 246 pp., $16.95.

Taoism may qualify as one of the world's oldest religions, dating back some 2,500 years, to the teachings of Lao-Tse, who summarized his teachings in short, pithy aphorisms, and who taught a religion without dogma, based more on direct, personal experience than on religious doctrines. It is particularly refreshing at a time when religion is relying on rigid doctrines that we thought the world had outgrown.

Again and again, Lao-Tse is looking beyond doctrine and dogma to find the essential core of the religious experience. Words are always misleading: "The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao," and, as religious leaders have repeatedly discovered, reciting words and doctrines will get us nowhere. "Logic and sermons will never convince," as Whitman says: "The chill of the night strikes deeper into my soul." Yes, Whitman would probably qualify as a Taoist, as would many of the prophets we have loved.

I would advise against studying the first half of this new text before you plunge into the second half, which contains the core of Taoist teachings. The initial chapters may be of interest to those of you who think in terms of exotic exercises (please don't ask me to give the details!) rather then spiritual searching. But the detailed quotations from the Tao Te Ching, together with the commentaries, which make up the second half of this book, are well worth exploring.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Love, by John Morris

I was watching a film clip, on an obscure Internet site, with an affectionate interlude between a dog and a cat, both of them enjoying the other's warmth. The kitty was licking the dog's face at one point, and the dog was gently hugging the cat. They were obviously very much in love.

It reminded me of lessons I learned long ago in a theological school, in which the religious tradition has made a sharp distinction among erotic love, parental love, and brotherly love, as though these were quite different sorts of human experience. Erotic love, with Venus or Aphrodote as its matron Goddess, has always been the most exciting, but also the most dangerous, to the extent that some religions have called it "sin":
"Oh, do not tell the priest our plight, for he would call it sin! For we
have been in the woods all night, a-conjuring summer in,"

in the words of Kipling's wonderful song, "Oak and ash and thorn." And, we can only mourn at the triumph,

"Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean, and the world has grown gray with thy

in the words of one of my favorite poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne. We are slowly emerging out of that gray world, thanks to the warmth that Aphrodite has brought, full of light and color and love.

Motherly and fatherly love is quite different. It is the warmth that the kitty and doggy showed. In pictures from Wolf Creek Habitat, down in Southern Indiana (visit them at www.nighthowls7.com -- they're wonderful!), we could see the daddy and mommy wolf waiting, patiently and hungrily, as four ravenous little cubs were feasting on a deer carcass. The parents were hungry, too, but they were waiting for the babies to have their meal first. This is what parents do. This is the fierce protective behavior that keeps the worst predators away from the children. This is the angry search of the Goddess Isis for the baby Horus, and which is the fierce, protective binding that holds the family together.

Finally, there is the generous, brotherly or sisterly love that we sometimes find in warm, even heroic acts, like those that kept police, firemen, and many others searching through the ruins of the World Trade Center. Many of these men and women died, and others were left with lingering breathing problems, because of smoke and dust inhalation. More recently, miners were searching, apparently in vain, for some of their comrades trapped underground. Firefighters have been attempting to contain the many fires raging in our forests. This kind of heroism is an expression of another sort of love, that truly holds civilization together.

There are many species and subspecies of love, but these three are the traditional varieties. Love is central to our religion, based as it is on "perfect love and perfect trust." Without love, there would be nothing left. With it, we rejoice in the light of day

Friday, August 03, 2007

Love and Death Across a Chasm

Love and Death Across a Chasm
by Misti Anslin Delaney

The death of a loved one is always devastating, no matter how prepared we think we are. It's made even more difficult when that love was carefully built and nurtured across the chasm of cultural differences.

That was the case between my father and me. Dad was very conservative; a devout, and perhaps even fundamentalist, Roman Catholic with a very old world view of women and our place in the world. I am pretty liberal and, of course, I am a witch. I have a very different view than my father's of the place of women in the world. This caused untold trouble and tension between us throughout my childhood and young womanhood, even before the religious thing.

As we both grew older and more tolerant, we realized that each of us wanted a better, closer relationship, I with the only father I'll ever have, and he with his only daughter. So, slowly and carefully, we built a suspension bridge of tolerance and love, shared views on those few areas on which we could agree and our shared devotion to family, across the chasm between our worlds. Periodically we would crawl tentatively out onto that bridge to meet in the middle, clinging precariously to what security we could find there.

We had both come to trust that bridge in the decade since our first tentative attempts to build it, and so it was that we met there almost daily in long telephone conversations about everything and, mostly, nothing. It was there that he said "goodbye" in the weeks before he died. It was subtle, and I'm not sure he knew he was leaving ... but things were different somehow. My father, who had visited me only twice in the 22 years since I left home, when he happened to be in the neighborhood, and who had not attended either of my weddings, suddenly started to make plans to come to my home to put air conditioners in my windows. (Not something I had planned to do.)

When, within a week of making those plans, he became too ill to travel, he sent me the first and only "surprise gift for no special reason" that he ever sent to me. It was small -- a bag of mesquite chips for our barbecues, because I had mentioned that they're a bit expensive up here -- but it was a gift specifically for me from my Dad.

The day after I received them, I received word that he had died suddenly.

I think the hardest part of my father's death was venturing out onto that precarious bridge alone, to cross back over into his world one last time for his funeral. I found myself very much alone in my father's world—welcome, but a stranger with strange views. I was surrounded by family and friends remarkable in their devotion to one another and to their God.

Although my mother and brothers know who I am, everyone else around us assumed that I shared my family's devotion to my father's faith. Since I didn't think religious arguments were going to help anyone through that difficult time, I elected to keep my own counsel for the nine days I was there.

Psychologists say that when a parent dies, we have a tendency to question everything about our lives. When our lives are a secret to the people we've grown up with, I think it redoubles the effect. My first challenge was figuring out what one does when one is a very visible participant in a religious ceremony where everyone assumes we share the faith, but we don't.

It seemed to me that even if my 25 years away hadn't removed any possibility of pretending I was a Catholic, to pretend now would serve only to make a farce of my family's faith. But to act like a complete alien to my mother's faith would be disrespectful and would hurt her deeply. So, I compromised. I sat, stood, and kneeled as the ceremony required and kept my head respectfully bent, but I was silent during the prayers.

I thought I was doing OK -- until the priest, who had no doubt counseled my parents about how to handle their only daughter's falling away from the faith, make several cutting remarks about "faithless, hopeless pagans". The first time, I couldn't believe what I'd heard. The second he looked right at me as he made his remark.

How very little he knows about us.

Through the time I was with them, my immediate family was very, very welcoming and loving. Believe it or not, that caused my second dilemma. I had tried for many years to believe as they do and all my life I had felt like an outsider in my own birth family. I know with deep regret the pain my "falling away" caused both my parents.

After a few days of the loving and welcoming, and the constant salvation talk, I found myself wondering, if I tried again now, whether I might be able to "believe" this time. Not for myself, but for my mother and father. My return to their church would have made my father so happy, and it would still bring my mother and brothers great joy.

Cut off, as I was at this vulnerable time, from anyone who really understood what I believe and who shares my faith in the Goddess and the God and the wheel of time, the joy my faith brings me began to seem "silly" and unreal.

Prevented by my respect for my family's beliefs from sharing my real understanding of what had happened between my father and myself in those last weeks and my certainty that he would be back, perhaps in the baby who was to be born to my brother and his wife just 5 weeks after Dad's death, I began to question everything. It was very painful. I knew I didn't (and probably couldn't) believe as they do. I knew that religion isn't something you choose, like a party dress, to please someone else. But I also couldn't feel my own faith. I felt that all faith had been cut away from me, and that my soul was raw and bleeding.

Fortunately, I am a voracious reader on almost any topic, and I knew the effects of mourning could have on one's soul, so I was able to observe these feelings with a little objectivity. I resisted the urge to act on anything until I was home, in my own world.

When I left for home, my mother sent with me a huge basket of flowers that had been sent for my father's funeral. As I carried that glorious basket through airports, people would stop me to comment on them and ask about them. It gave me a chance to explain to complete strangers that my father was dead. Everyone I met that way was extremely kind and the flight attendants were attentive and caring on every flight. That was very comforting. This time, as I crossed that bridge my father and I had built together for the last time, I didn't feel quite so alone.

When I was finally home, I was still haunted by my feeling of having had all belief cut away from me. For weeks I wasn't able to perform ritual, either for my father, or for myself. In a sense, I felt he was always nearby and would be hurt and perhaps insulted to have his beliefs disregarded by my doing ritual for him. It made no logical sense. Since he's passed through the veil, he now knows better than any of us alive, what Truth is. His soul is unlikely to be as encumbered by prejudice as those of us who must understand with our frail, limited little human brains. But the feeling persisted; the effect, no doubt, of my own childish guilt at wanting to do something that Daddy wouldn't approve of. (I have a very active inner toddler.)

I reached out to all the wisest pagans I knew to ask for thoughts and reaffirmation. Many shared with me thoughts that brought me great comfort, and one especially wise soul shared with me a ritual that could respect both my father's beliefs and my own.

Gradually, as the moon waxed, I too, grew stronger. As the full moon approached, I gathered the supplies I needed for what I had to do. On the day after the full moon, I set up a memorial to my father on my altar. A photograph of the man he was; a white pillar candle that burned as long as anyone was in the house and awake; a beautiful little glass box containing a few of the mesquite chips that were his last gift to me; and the basket of now dried flowers from his funeral.

Each time I lit the candle, I told my father that I love him, and will miss him, but that it was now time to move on. I sent the energy of the burning candle to him to help him find his way into his next world, whether it be the heaven he so looked forward to, or a new life here.

On the next full moon, I will did a ritual alone, commending my father's soul to his God. I asked my spirit guides for support in learning to live without my father, in the middle of that bridge we'd built through the years from the tears and yearnings of two very different souls who wanted to love and understand.

©1998 Misti Anslin Delaney

Thursday, July 26, 2007

How To Churn Out Another Book -- a book review by John Morris

Elizabeth Barrette Composing Magic: How to Create Magical Spells, Rituals, Blessings, Chants and Prayers Franklin Lakes (NJ): New Page Books, 2007. 240 pp, $14.99.

Any of us who have been thrown, kicking and screaming, into the task of preparing and leading a ritual for one of our groups would appreciate a how-to book like this, with clear instructions on each of the many details that go into making an effective ceremony. This is one of the things we were taught back in theological schools, but there has been little available to the leaders of our contemporary magical groups. Elizabeth Barrette here attempts to fill this need with her new book, which may be the only instruction book yet produced to guide the neophyte practitioner.

If you read this book, I'd advise you to start with the last few chapters, which provide a number of hints for actually preparing a ritual outline and leading the ritual itself. There are also some hints for getting your bright, new ritual prepared for publication, and, with luck, actually publishing it.

Unfortunately, there is little warning to the would-be author about the very poor odds you face with any commercial publisher, who has already been faced with a flood of amateur authors eager to hit the high road to fame and fortune with their new book.

Elizabeth Barrette is at the other extreme, an author who has written many books and who is fairly well-assured that they will be snapped up by the publisher. But fame and fortune have their own dangers. In this case, Barrette has thrown together a variety of topics, many of which are only marginally relevant to the ritual writer.

Most unfortunate is a long section, taking a third of the book, on how to writer poetry,
together with page after page of well-known poems, mostly aging poetry from the well-known poets of the distant past. There is no hint of the exciting new work that appears in such journals as Poetry or American Poetry Review, where contemporary poets often experiment with many new forms, happily discarding most of the rules that we learned in college classes many years ago.
Sadly, too, when Barrette includes two or three of her own poems as examples, the results are pretty miserable.

When you're faced with the job of preparing a ritual, then, it's certainly best to begin with what you know and love, concentrating on sharing this love with your own group, what we used to call the Beloved Community.

JMM 7/25/2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Meditation for late summer -- John Morris

Meditation for late summer
by John Morris

The summer flowers are here in full play: bright colors, unlike the pastelsl of spring or the purples of fall. Brown leaves from the sycamores, but the maples and oaks are green, tributes to the Green Man and to the green life around us.

A pair of robins built their nest last year on top of my burglar alarm box on the side of my house. Today they are gone, but their whole family has been off searching for worms and seeds in my yard. A bunny comes hopping along, and the birds fly noisily into trees. In one of our dark corners, a scruffy cat, imagining that he's back in the wilderness. Everyone is living his own small life, watching out for others, but every other species is competing, definitely to be acknowledged and avoided if necessary. ...

Although we can sing "Welcome sweet springtime, We greet thee in song," our greeting to summer is likely to be more subdued. We're not likely to be jumping about like spring chickens, and we're much more likely to be sitting hens or lazy roosters simply enjoying the sun's warmth on our feathers, waiting for the eggs to hatch or the grass to turn brown in the summer heat.

What do we do with these lazy days of summer? We can lie in the grass, we can wait to feel the grass growing under us, we can wait wait wait 'til the cows come home, knowing they return to the lovely nest of the summer.

For our lunch we take only what the earth brings to us, tomatoes ripening and softening in the sun, lettuce crisp and fresh out of the garden, carrots that we pull up just before lunch, a zucchini, bright green and raw, with its bitter skin intact. No need for a recipe today. The sun is working his magical cookery for us. We're having freshly baked bread full of coarsely ground wheat and fragrant with honey. All of these are among the pleasures of summer.

It is a time to relax, to soak up the sun, to play jokes on the squirrels as they take our peanuts to their own secret hiding places in the lawn. It is a time for feasting and rejoicing.

It is late summer.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Not-So-Broken Tradition

A Not-So-Broken Tradition
By Misti Anslin Delaney and Wayland Raven

Modern Wicca is blessed with not one, but two heritages.

There is our spiritual heritage, including influences from the deep and mystic past that we have adopted and adapted; and our literal heritage, which began when Gerald Gardner synthesized the traditions of Dorothy Clutterbuck and her New Forest Witches with the rituals and rites of the Masonic Order. To deny or downplay either of these heritages would be a mistake, because it denies the richness of our religion.

Our Spiritual Lineage

Virtually no member of modern Wicca can honesty lay claim to an unbroken tradition going back hundreds of years.

Although it is true that there have been Family Tradition or "famtrad" witches of one sort or another through most of history, no two families practiced in the same way and, for many of them, the traditions were just that--pragmatic
family traditions that had nothing to do with religion. They used magick because magick worked. Gram taught Mom, who taught daughter, who taught granddaughter but in many cases their magick had little to do with their spiritual life.

Yes, there have been cultures where magick was an intrinsic part of the spiritual life of the people. But magick has also been an intrinsic part of the mundane culture of some peoples; it has been seen as something in which everyone participated, and without participation, one had no official place in society.

It is the "matter of fact" approach to magick that gives the ancient cultures such immense spiritual clout. Unfortunately those cultures have been overrun time and time again, and other than the words left to us in history (and those often written by the aggressors) we have lost much of the knowledge these people had.

For the most part we are recreating what we can of this knowledge as best we can, based on family lore, cultural tradition divorced from its spiritual roots, and from writings of the conquerors about the "quaint and superstitious customs" of their victims.

Any direct information we have from these cultures was carried forward, not from father to son and mother to daughter, but through successive incarnations, as souls carried accumulated wisdom from one lifetime to another, to be tapped, used, and built upon. To deny that and lay claim to a long unbroken history for the modern Craft that exists primarily in folklore and myth, is to deny one of our greatest strengths.

Older simply doesn't mean more sacred. One of the greatest strengths of the modern Wiccan religion is that it is a synthesis, begun by Gerald Gardner and continued over the last 70 years, of the best of spiritual wisdom throughout time and across the planet.

We have spiritual ancestry in ancient Egypt, in the Celtic lands, in mainland Europe, in pre-European invasion Americas, in every land and in every time. Because of when and where we were born, we have experienced the influences of and synthesized the best from all manner of religions; of Hinduism, of Buddhism, and yes, even of Judaism and Christianity.

We can call spiritual Mother or Father the first hominid to pick up a stone, see its similarity to human form, and create from it a figure we later came to call the Acheulian Goddess. We can lay claim to the spiritual lineage of Saint Francis of Assisi, who saw the face of his God in nature and her creatures. We can lay claim to heritage from the men and women killed at Salem and during the Inquisitions throughout Europe, e/ven as we acknowledge that many, if not most of those killed were probably not witches in any sense of the word/. We can look to Biddy Early, who defended her community from the cruelty of wealthy landowners, and to the current Dalai Lama, purveyor of some of the greatest wisdom of our time, as sources of inspiration.

Are they our literal, linear ancestors? No. They're not. We have no idea what our hominid predecessor actually thought about the stone figure he or she found, enhanced, carried, and dropped on the planes of Berekhat Ram (in the modern-day Golan Heights region) somewhere between 232,000 and 800,000 years ago. Strong similarities to the much more "manufactured" Goddess of Willendorf of 30,000 years ago in what is now Germany suggest that it was important, but we can only imagine now about its meaning to its originator.

Saint Francis saw the face of his patriarchal, mono-deity in nature. The men and women who died in Salem and at the hands of the Inquisition mostly thought of themselves as Christian. And surely the Dalai Lama would call himself as Buddhist, not pagan or Wiccan.

And yet, whether we acknowledge it or not, each of these has had an influence on Wicca as we know it. And so they are our spiritual ancestors.

Our Historical Lineage

And what of our linear, literal ancestors in Wicca?

While some would lay claim to Old Dorothy, (Gardner's Dorothy Clutterbuck) truly, our religion began somewhere between 1939 and 1954 when Gerald Gardner began to synthesize what he had learned from the New Forest Witches with what he had learned of High Magick and ritual from the Masonic Order. It is difficult for historians to agree on how much of Gardner's Witchcraft was made up or co-opted from other mystic and secret societies, and how much may have come from his association with a person he called Dorothy Clutterbuck, who he said was part of a New Forest coven, and one of his first teachers. Dorothy was the person Gerald credited with initiating him into Witchcraft, though for a time her existence was in question.

The religion--if indeed it was a religion, and not a purely a magickal Craft--that Old Dorothy taught to her initiate, Gerald, was the mother of modern Wicca, but it wasn't the same religion. In 1954 Gardner's new religion was introduced in his book, "Witchcraft Today." That Gardner's book was a synthesis of knowledge and wisdom from several sources and not a literal writing of the oral traditions of one famtrad does not lessen the genius of this work. While it may have contained historical fantasy as a backdrop and a rationalization, Gardner was in the process of giving birth to a new religion a religion that has fed the needs of the 21st century. Over the last half century, Wicca has blossomed and grown, stood the test of time, and has thrived during a period when many other, older religions would seem to be in their death throes.

That's nothing we need to cover over, and nothing for which we need to make rationalizations!

Let us, then, embrace both our lineages and celebrate them.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"The Secret" -in the balance

I finally had a look at “the Secret” the other day, and was somewhat underwhelmed. Billed as a thread of knowledge that has permeated the great minds of philosophy and science, you can imagine my let-down to be greeted by “Norman Vincent Peale meets the Celestine Prophecy”.

I think the thing that undoes it for me is that they give one-line quotes from some of the greatest minds in Western and Eastern thought without doing a single scrap of work to establish the source of the quote, let alone what it meant within its original context.

In other words, they quote great minds in the same manner that an evangelist might quote scripture, and like the evangelist, our “teachers” expect to be taken at their word.

In short, it is academically lazy and chock-a-block full of positive thinking pep talk. I had hoped that the authors might have attempted to string their affirmations together with something more enlightening than “great achievers are deeply focussed on their goals.”

On the positive side, the “law of attraction” they espouse actually has a lot of merit. It is the principle wherein we tend to manifest whatever is foremost in our thoughts. Visual cues take precedence over academic ones, and the intensity of “belief” takes precedence over empty repetition. We are conditioned to find negative thoughts more believable than positive ones, and with a bit of deliberate thought, we can reverse that trend and change our lives. Its pretty basic really, but we do need to be told, so I guess this presentation does that much.

In my experience, the “law of attraction” is one of several metaphysical laws that can be studied in depth by any student of the great metaphysical and religious disciplines. It is only “secret” because we tend to be intellectually lazy. I find it ironic that the post-modern era and the “information age” are co-existent with a pandemic that is best characterized by intellectual sloth. “The Secret” is actually hidden in plain sight.

Affirmation is a useful tool in good hands, but like any tool it leaves itself open to abuse. If you don’t use it properly, it won’t work well. Affirmation and visualization should be used as part of a larger metaphysical model, lest the hapless practitioner visualize and affirm their way into abject misery, a principle simply summed up by the old adage “be careful what you wish for”.

For $4.95, the refresher course in affirmation is probably good value for money. Certainly the information us useful to those who have never encountered the concept.

My only real criticism of the presentation is that it is overly materialistic in its emphasis, which says a great deal more about its sponsors and its target audience, than it does about the quality of information it carries.

One would hope that the “teachers of the secret” take their students through a broader metaphysical training than the one they espouse in the presentation.

There is a free viewing here if you, like me, are simply curious about what these folks are peddling.

In summary, intellectually lazy and materialistic in focus, but nevertheless a reasonable refresher course in “the law of attraction” that is better taken as part of your greater metaphysical model than as a stand-alone.

Take Care