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Archive for the ‘Spiritual Practice’ Category

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Part One: I Come of Age
Part Two: I Go to College

Part Three: Death and the Televangelist

During and after college I became apathetic to religion. Even the fascination I’d had for exploring beliefs regardless of whether I embraced them faded to the background. I had grappled with a conundrum with Christianity that I couldn’t resolve, and I’d looked down the other roads that I was aware of and hadn’t seen much that drew me. I could have become Jewish except there was still that “Chosen People” problem and the question of what about everybody else? I could have become Baha’i, except it was just too foreign for me to tackle at that time in my life, and had no community to speak of around it where I was.

So I put my energy into developing my burgeoning journalism career and building my first social structure as a young adult. The year I graduated college I moved twice, first to a small town about 500 miles from home, and then to a small city very close to my hometown – about an hour away.

I didn’t attend any religious services, and tried to deflect the subject when my worried parents would bring it up. Instead, I lost some weight and started dating actively in my new home city, working in a profession that came with a built in requirement of socializing. I had a few girlfriends in those early years, none serious; I developed some good (at the time) male friends for other social activities, and put my attention on developing my professional skills and building a reputation at the newspaper where I worked.

Then came the first really hard punch that life had dealt me: My father suffered a major heart attack, barely survived it, and then declined with worsening congestive heart failure until he died at the age of 52. I was 25. I had lost three grandparents to death at that point, but my grandfathers had died when I was so young I barely understood what was happening, and my paternal grandmother had been such a mean and nasty woman that her death – in her late 70s – didn’t seem like such a bad thing to me. (That may sound horrible but it’s really how I felt.)

My father and I were not as close as I wish we had been. We simply didn’t really understand each other. He came of age in rural Alabama in the post-WWII years, learned computer programming in the National Guard at a time when the field was still nascent, and made a good career working for the government, but he was always a country boy at heart, Alabama twang and all. But I was only 10 when we moved to Florida, and I grew up in a mid-sized city with more ethnic and cultural diversity than his upbringing had offered (it doesn’t seem like all that much diversity now that I’ve lived near D.C. For so long, but by comparison, it was.). I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, developed an affinity for science and a fondness for books, science fiction and rock music.

So by the time I was 25, striving for an independent identity, sharing (I thought) little in common with him, we simply barely knew each other as adults. When he died, of course, any chance of ever being closer died with him, and that is something I still regret.

My grieving process took some time to unspool. I did it in moments, a little at a time, over a period of months. It was 11 months later, January 1990, that the flu knocked me off my feet for four days.

It was the sickest I had ever been for any reason. I remember it well, laid out on the couch in my apartment, barely enough strength to work the TV remote. And during that time, the only thing I could put on TV that brought me any comfort was … the religion channel.

I don’t remember which televangelist it was, but it was one of the well-known ones of the time. The words brought my childhood back to me, evoking memories of the churches we’d gone to when I was very young, and one my father had served as pastor under a program the United Methodist Church had to allow lay members to serve as pastors for small rural churches, under some kind of supervision.

The specific content of the message was nothing remarkable, the reliable message of sin and salvation. But the music and the cadence and my weakened state and my residual grief and sense of guilt for not having tried to be closer to my dad all came together and led me to a renewed desire to find faith of some kind.

When I recovered from the illness I talked to my mother about this and learned that our church in Pensacola – which I had never liked because it was about the most unspiritual place ever – had a new minister, a young man with a different kind of zeal than any of the ineffectual pastors who had been there when I was going. I took a deep breath and agreed to meet with him.

Next: The Return

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I’ve memorized the basic steps of the Sphere of Protection that Greer teaches in his Druid Magic Handbook. It’s a fairly elaborate set of steps — the elemental cross, formed with visualization, vocalization and body movement, followed by the invoking and banishing of air, fire, water and earth and the invoking (no banishing) of three spirit levels — spirit below, spirit above, spirit within. These also involve vocalization, movement and visualization. The final piece, the circulation of light, is all visualization.

The SOP forms the foundation of the things taught in the remainder of the book, so he advises learning it to the point you can do it smoothly from memory before moving on.

This morning I completed it and, feeling pretty confident I had it down, I performed an ogham draw on the question: Am I ready to move on in my study of magic?

I use a tarot program on the computer as I don’t have a set of phyiscal ogham sticks or cards yet, and you can tailor the percentage of cards that come up reversed. I have it set at 20 percent — and all three fews came up reversed. As I began to read the possible interpretation meanings I found that all three of them can easily be read as pertaining to lapses in developing skills … inconsistent practice, not understanding the full picture … essentially, past, present and future were all pointing to NO … I am not yet ready to advance.

Several past readings where I’ve asked a more open-ended question have yielded signs of a transition or growth to deeper levels in the future following a present of things being less clear. Asking this particular question evoked a very different result.

It’s really one of the most clear answers I’ve ever gotten from any form of divination.

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Part One

Part Two: I Go to College

I stopped going to church when my parents allowed me to, which was not until my late teens. I had developed a lot of skepticism about it. At first it was about Christian exclusivity. I could not understand why the God of the universe would reveal the truth about Himself to only one small nomadic tribe and let the rest of the world persist in error — even though the error meant they would be damned — and only relatively late in the game had Christ issue the Great Commission to  preach the gospel to all nations. By that point, all the other nations had well-established religions of their own, so that spreading the truth of God would first require persuading them to forsake what they considered normal and traditional.

This theological problem (I was not aware that Christian universalism even existed at the time), would have been enough to raise serious doubts, especially because I asked several ministers about it and got no answer more satisfying than “It’s a mystery, just have faith.” But my passion for science mingled with the theological conundrum and over a period of a few years, high school into early college, I came to consider myself agnostic.

I never lost my sense of reverence. Natural settings lost none of their power to move me to awe, and I always felt that there was some higher reality. The constraints of Christian orthodoxy chafed, but I didn’t know where to look for something to replace it with. I continued to read voraciously on religion, but mostly on variations of Semitic monotheism or Eastern religions. I also kept up reading on various esoteric occult topics, but neo-paganism never came to my attention. I was vaguely aware of Wicca, and not interested, but that was all.

I found myself living in the tension between extremes. I remember riding in the car with an acquaintance, listening to a recording of Jesus Christ Superstar on  a cassette tape, and my friend lustily joining the chant of “Crucify him!” The delight he took in calling for the execution was unsettling to me, and I thought the hostility to Christianity was unnecessary. But at other times I would be around devout believers trying to re-convert me and talking with a sense of certitude about their own correctness that was no less troubling and off-putting.

I was sympathetic to faith. A simple, unquestioning Christian faith was sustaining my grandmother as her health declined and she was forced to sell the small farm she’d built with my late grandfather and move to Florida to be near family. My father had a quiet strength that was built on a similar foundation, as did my mother. I didn’t share what they believed, but I saw no reason to tear it down, and I was not drawn to people who would do so. At the same time, I didn’t appreciate being expected or urged to accept Christian beliefs either, and pushed back against such efforts when I encountered them.

In my latter college years I interned as a reporter for the local newspaper, and took advantage of the requirement to develop a special report — from idea to finished articles — by profiling small minority religions around the region. I chose Baha’i and Mennonite, and Judaism. (My town had more than a thousand churches, but only two synagogues and no Baha’i centers.)

The ulterior motive should be clear; I was using the requirement of the internship as an opportunity to expand my spiritual search by meeting real adherents of these faiths, not just reading about them. The Mennonites didn’t appeal to me — even more morally strict than my own Methodism, the two Tony Randall lookalikes I interviewed came across as priggish and stuffy.

The Baha’i held more intrigue. I had stumbled across a book called A Thief in the Night that explained why Baha’i believe that the prophet Baha’u”llah, born in 1844, was the latest in the line of prophets that includes Jesus and Mohammed. Baha’i seemed at the time, and still does, a peaceful, universalistic religion. The group I met with were all nice, soft-spoken and intellectual. I might have gone back to their group after the assignment was done, but Judaism really captured my attention.

I interviewed the Rabbi of a Reform congregation, and felt an attraction. He presented the faith as a rich tapestry mingling history and myth, social ethics and cultural identity. The God of the Jews was the same God I’d grown up learning about, but Jesus was not his Son. The synagogue was beautiful and mysterious, decorated with arcane Hebrew lettering.

I was still turning all this over in my mind, but then I finished college, got a job hundreds of miles from home, endured it for a while, found work closer to home, developed new friends and a handful of romantic connections and put the spiritual quest on the back burner for a while. My friends were generally not religious, and as I was having a good time as a young, single man on his own for the first time, I put the questions aside.

For a while.

Next: Death and the Televangelist

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I Come of Age

For as long as I can remember, the natural world has been a source of fascination and awe for me. I had a telescope, and knew how to use it, before I was 10. I also had a microscope, and learned how to make swamp water in a jar, full of microbes to observe. I had a slide set with different kinds of blood, tiny seeds and spores and other such wonders. I spent many happy hours catching tadpoles out of the drainage ditches in the neighborhood, or putting fireflies (“lightning bugs” as we called them then) into a jar with air holes punched in the lid.

In some ways, this was just a typical snips-snails-puppy-dog-tails boyhood, but there was always a deeper undercurrent. I read voraciously from a young age, learning all my young mind could take in about astronomy, biology and paleontology. By the time I was old enough to take classes in these topics, I already knew much of what the teachers were telling me. (I would have been a scientist if higher math had not eluded my understanding.)

And it wasn’t just knowledge, it was wonder. Whether I was contemplating the expanse of the ocean or the depths of space, the structure of a crystal or the veins in a leaf, it was always with an acute awareness of the near-eternity around me. I would stand on the beach and wonder what my surroundings looked like 100,000 years ago, knowing that the ocean itself probably looked very much the same. Or I would look up at a star and think about how many light-years away it was, and what had not happened in human history when the light I was seeing left the source. (If you look at Rigel, the bright blue star below Orion’s belt, the light hitting your eye was generated around the time Richard the Lionhearted ruled England. On the other hand, the light coming from Sirius, the bright blue star in Canis Major, started its lightspeed journey to Earth while Mark Zuckerberg was getting ready to launch Facebook.) I would watch the changing of the seasons (such as they were in Florida) with the awareness that this cycle had been happening since long before I was around to see it, and would continue long after I was gone.

I haunted the libraries at my schools, devouring science and science fiction books. Later on, in my teenage years, possibly propelled by the close relationship of science fiction, horror and fantasy, I developed an interest in esoterica. I began to read about the occult, got some Tarot cards and learned (in a very basic way) how to use them, and read about ghosts and UFOs and Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle. I didn’t see a conflict between strictly rational science and the paranormal topics because I always suspected the universe was a place where almost anything could be possible — even the things that science would seem to exclude. And for a good number of years I had memorized the Dewey Decimal numbers for astronomy, biology and esoterica.

That was one side of my boyhood life. The other side was the United Methodist Church. I went from infancy on the insistence of my parents, and came up learning Protestant Christian doctrine as just the way things are. As I grew older, into teenage years, I lost interest and was going to church only because I was required to. As a child, I believed it as a child; as a teenager I was apathetic. And it was around that time that I developed a third intellectual obsession: religion. It gradually dawned on me that there were religions other than Christianity and, as I was not much interested in Christianity and yet profoundly awestruck by pretty much everything around me that came from nature — something I now consider an inherent spiritual sense, though I didn’t have words for it at that time –I started to wonder if some other way of thinking about the divine might suit me better.

The trouble was, I had no idea what other ways there were. Aside from a few other flavors of Christianity and its parent, Judaism, I had little idea what else there was. So n the years between adolescence and adulthood, I added some more Dewey Decimal numbers to my list — comparative religions.

Next: I Go to College

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I’ve been working with the Sphere of Protection, a ritual in John Michael Greer’s Druid Magic Handbook. The basic components are a series of gestures and visualizations that include invoking air, fire, earth and water.

JMG advises learning it step by step, adding pieces one at a time until you can do it all from memory.

When I first added the invoking of air, doing the SoP in the morning, the wind kicked up that night and a large tree limb that had been dangling by a thread for the past nine months came down harmlessly. (Had the wind been strong enough out of the southeast it would have hit the house and probably done some damage.)

Coincidence? Maybe. But the limb’s been in high winds a good number of times since the storm in August of last year that first broke it. Why pick that moment to finally fall? On the other hand, I’m a novice and it was the first time working with air, so dare I connect a significant effect to a first try?

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I’m starting to learn divination with ogham, the “tree alphabet” used in modern Druid magic and ritual. I know tarot reasonably well but ogham is more obscure. Like runes, ogham symbols — called “fews” — are abstract, so there’s no ability to draw inferences from the picture on a tarot card. The interpretations come from learning the meanings of the symbol, its assoications with specific trees and elements and other nuances that come only from practice and memory.

So I’m totally a beginner with it. This morning’s reading was just the second one I’ve done. Nevertheless, I thought it offered me a good insight. Here it is, copied directly from my journal. (“JMG” means John Michael Greer; the three-few draw and the basic meanings I’m using come from his books on Druidry.)

Question: What do I need to keep in mind today?

Ray of Knowledge (influences from the past): Fearn reversed:
JMG: Willful blindness, refusal to listen to advice. Arrogance and a lack of insight. You are out of your depth.

Ray of Peace (my position in the situation): Muin:
JMG: Inspiration and prophecy. Community. The influence of spiritual factors on the situation. Unexpected truths. Freedom from limits and restrictions.

Ray of Power (future influences and opportunites for change): Tinne reversed:
JMG: Inadequate strength or skill. The possibility of defeat. Lack of direction and balance. You need to build your strength and understand the nature of the opposition.

I take this as a warning against moving too fast or without heeding guidance. It could (and probably does) apply to learning Druidry and magic, and also to crafts, gardening, conservation. In the present, I have the benefit of inspiration, community and open-mindedness. But in the past I have blundered through things without seeking or hearing counsel, and it is still a future possibility that I might do so here. Today I need to keep in mind the importance of building strength (and knowledge), and understanding the nature of the challenges before me.

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