Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Filidecht is a path not just of contemplation but of action. It's important to remember this as we walk along the path. Like everyone else, I have to keep reminding myself sometimes, but beyond daily practice this spiritual path demands action in other ways as well. As a solitary practitioner I know that I often face a sense of emptiness when I contemplate the thought of a ritual alone, particularly given that the major festivals are primarily oriented toward families and social occasions -- feasting doesn't have quite the same panache when approached alone, certainly.

Yet it is action that makes a spiritual path a practice. There's no point in a path if no feet follow it, and path implies necessary motion. It helps to remind myself that what I'm doing is not just for myself, but for the deithe agus an-deithe as well, for the deities and the spirits with whom I share my life and whom I serve. Even if I'm the only physical body at the feast, I still have company in the form of deities, ancestors, land spirits, helping spirits. They deserve my recognition and my offerings and it is for them that I perform the actions of any given ritual.

To go through the physical work of preparing the food mindfully, laying out the altar, setting out the offerings, speaking sacred words aloud; it is this that marks a spiritual practice. Belief has some importance to me, absolutely. But practice is a primary part of what distinguishes a spiritual path from a passing fancy. No matter how splendid one's words or how high one's thoughts, if there is no action then there is no proof that those words or thoughts genuinely mean anything outside of one's own head. Ritual enacted, the actual cultivation and practice of our virtues, bringing one's life into physical harmony with community and environment, and acting mindfully in each moment are all necessary parts of creating a life that is poetic. 

I know it's too easy to slip into complacency, too easy to make excuses of being too busy, too tired, too unprepared. And with CR there is so often no real pattern set to follow for personal, solitary ritual. Even groups often face challenges of what to do together if everyone follows different deities or works within different Celtic cultures. Yet the act of taking up the cup of welcome, of offering each person a taste of the drink that is shared with the Gods, is an excellent place to start. Pouring out a libation to the beings who are to be honored, speaking words aloud and calling upon their names, telling the stories of their deeds -- this is ritual.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


An article from the New York Times titled Can You Become a Creature of New Habit addresses something that I think is very important in the practice of filidecht, and in spiritual practice generally. The article speaks of creating new habits as a method for cultivating and maintaining creativity, particularly as we get older, when our minds might begin to fall prey to Alzheimers and other diseases or problems that affect the memory.

In a quote from the article, author Dawna Markova states, "The first thing needed for innovation is a fascination with wonder." The mind of filidecht is about that fascination with wonder. It's a poetic need in the human soul, an identification with the ever-shifting, always miraculous kaleidoscope of the universe in its glory. 

Filidecht demands that we create habits of exploration. We explore language through poetry and meditation. We explore the world around us through wilderness vigil. We explore culture through song and storytelling and ritual. Imbas comes through openness and receptivity to change and it is cultivated through the development of new habits -- new rituals, new ways of thinking, new points of view based in the understandings of Gaelic language and culture. 

Daily ritual practices help open and set new patterns and new habits. Such things require both discipline and generosity to oneself. We're human and as we develop these new habits and patterns we'll inevitably muck things up from time to time. The key is, like riding a bicycle, to get back up and get back on when you've fallen off.

To many Pagans, discipline is a dirty word. Yet discipline is a part of magic. No one would expect a martial artist to develop perfection of form without discipline. A fili's poems take on beauty in shape and sound with the exercise of discipline. Staying at things, doing them again and again until a habit is grounded in the mind and body, is a necessary part of filidecht and of all deep spiritual practice. Habit is essential to creating ways of doing things that become effortless through knowledge and repetition.

When the basics of practice are felt in the body, the mind can be freed to explore new dimensions and new points of view, giving the fili a place to stand that can serve as the springboard for journeys of exploration within the Otherworlds or for doing serious work in this one. Ritual habits and knowledge of lore can be a buffer zone of safety when we encounter new things. They give us an understanding of the potential behavior and expectation of Otherworldly beings. They ensure that we'll do things properly even if we're distracted, because our bodies know what to do even if the mind is engaged elsewhere. The development of steady ritual habit and pattern in order to create freedom of action may sound paradoxical, yet even the freest improvisational jazz musician needs to know the basics of musical form and function. 

Cultivate new habits of ritual and beauty. Set yourself free.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


One of the things that I encounter a lot in my practice is uncertainty. Filidecht as a formal modern CR practice is still being created and the hints about its place as a mystic and magical practice in the past are few and far between. We have bits and pieces but those pieces need to be examined pretty carefully as, even though we can see some of the ways the filid operated, we can't be certain of exactly how rituals were done or what was said.

With material like the Cauldron of Poesy text, we have some statements about cauldrons in the body and what they do, and we can infer about where they were situated. But when it comes to actual operations and getting those cauldrons to do what they're supposed to, the only thing we can really do is look at comparable systems from other cultures and do some experimentation. Will what I come up with be exactly what the pre-Christian practitioners of the art were doing? No. Will it have the same or similar results? Well, if it results in imbas as an upwelling of poetic inspiration and magical and spiritual power or enlightenment, then yes, I think the results are similar to what was intended. And if it works then this is the direction in which we should be moving.

Within CR there are a lot of branches that people find of interest. Within any given culture you're going to find householder paths, warrior paths, magical paths, healing paths, storytelling paths, and more. And each of the various Celtic cultures adds another layer onto that complexity. You're much more in luck if, for instance, your interest lies in Irish material about household traditions than if it lies in the deities and practices of Gaul. It will be much harder to understand and reconstruct Gaulish practices because of the lack of easily available material. There is no extant Gaulish literature that describes deities and myths. Most of what is known is from archaeological sources, with a few inscriptions on altars or on spell tablets. A little more is added from references to Gaulish people by Greek or Roman writings. 

A lot of Irish household tradition has survived into modern folk practice, though very much changed and buried within Christianity. It is by no means a fully realized polytheistic Pagan practice at this point, but it's a good and necessary basis to grow from. For Irish Pagan mystical and spiritual practices the material is rather less plentiful and so more has to be reconstructed or created by reference to other things. It's regrettable, but it's how things are.

So what's a person without a lot of sources to do? Here's where our uncertainties lie, and this is where a lot of people get discouraged. But comparative work helps in many cases. Nearby cultures can be examined, of course, and the field of Indo-European studies has a lot of useful material. Offerings are a practice common to every culture I've ever heard of, so that's always a good place to start -- and the archaeological record often provides fairly good material on what kinds of objects and foods were offered by any individual culture or people in a given area.

But ultimately the words of our practice will always need to be our own. We can base them on material in sources like the Carmina Gadelica, but that text, wonderful as it is, doesn't cover all contingencies or address every circumstance for which we might need a ritual text. And if filidecht is about the creation of poetry, then always using someone else's words is a violation of that tradition.

We know that the tarbhfeis ritual of Ireland involved a fili who was surrounded by four people chanting truth spells, but we have no idea what the words of those spells were. We don't know if the same one was used each time, or if they were extemporaneous compositions created by each of the chanters. Imbas is what helps us to create appropriate words for situations like these and experimentation can tell us if those words work or not. We can't know until we try it.

Practice is about what works. We can theorize all we want, but until we commit something to physical ritual, until we commit words to speech, theory is all that we'll have. Uncertainty can be frightening, but it can also be fertile. In a practice involving extemporaneous poetry we won't know the words until we speak them. Without the uncertainty there's no room for spontaneity, which is the heart of poetry created in the moment. The words come out on our breath -- anál -- and vanish into the universe. We look at what happens to see if there is an effect. And we note what happens (or what doesn't) and try again.

There's no escape from uncertainty, but we can embrace it and make it a friend.