Friday, May 25, 2012

The Return of Circle of Stones

Back in the early 1990s, when I was researching and working out some of my thoughts on what is now called Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (CR), I wrote a book for our community. Tadgh MacCrossan's The Sacred Cauldron had been released by Llewellyn in 1991, but its focus was Gaulish and I felt that it modeled itself entirely too heavily on Vedic practice, as well as having other issues with the content. It was better than the pseudo-Wiccan "Celtic" material that was being published at the time but, in my mind, only barely.

A Circle of Stones: Journeys and Meditations for Modern Celts was published in 1995, with a Gaelic focus, and derived its material from the extant Irish and Scottish texts. I wasn't trying to provide an all-encompassing answer for the CR community, but I did want to offer an actual practice for people to work with and a few thoughts on expanding that in a more general way. I had a friend do the layout for the book and pasted in the art myself, along with making the cover, with a glue stick and a ruler, as you had to back then if you didn't have a lot of money for a desktop publishing program. I was surprised by very positive reviews and the warm reception my book received upon its release. Even more surprising to me has been its durability over the years. People recommended it to friends and, once my publisher Eschaton closed its doors, people kept looking for it used. I've seen it on Amazon for upwards of $80, which I always thought was a ludicrous amount to charge for a book that originally only cost $10.

Over the years, I've learned a great deal and I've come to feel that Circle of Stones reflects a place I was in nearly twenty years ago. As I've told many people, if I were going to write the book today, it would have been a very different work. I wasn't interested in rewriting it. Every author has to eventually let go of a project, and that time had passed for me a long time ago. I don't want to spend my life rewriting my first book. Yet people continued to request it, so I put it up on my website as a PDF file and it has been selling steadily -- a copy or two a month, usually -- ever since. That, however, was not what a lot of folks wanted.

I understand the desire for something to hold in your hand. Electronic books hold very little appeal for me, and I know it's the same for a lot of other people. Eventually, I was persuaded to reprint Circle of Stones through Immanion/Megalithica, the publishers of my book Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom. I didn't want to rewrite the book, but there were some things that I really could not let pass. I got some help correcting the Gaelic and Irish in the book, added a new preface and new and much improved pronunciation guide, and I hope to have Caera (who did the pronunciation guide) record a sound file of the prayers in the book for those who want it. I did some grammatical and other minor corrections and sent it off.

Yesterday, the second edition of Circle of Stones was released into the wild.

I'm very pleased with the cover art, and feel at least a little better about the content than I did. I consider it more of a historical document, if you will, than a reflection of the majority of my beliefs and practices today. I certainly feel that Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom is a far superior work, but I can understand why people like this one, as it offers some very basic, hands on practices that anyone can do. It's a useful introduction to CR cosmologies. A lot of folks have very fond memories of the first edition.

You can now purchase the second edition of A Circle of Stones from my publisher. It's also available from Amazon. Due to the publication of the new edition, I'll be removing the links for purchasing the PDF of the first edition from my website, The Preserving Shrine and it will no longer be available. I'm very grateful to everyone who has supported me over the years, and who has purchased the book either in its dead tree format, or as a PDF. Without your interest and encouragement, I would not be here now, writing and publishing for our communities.

As most of you are no doubt aware, I'll be going to Ireland (and the Isle of Man, Brittany, and points beyond) this summer on a Brigid pilgrimage through July and August. When I return, I intend to begin working on my next book, which I will be on Brigid and flamekeeping. It's a practice I have been involved with through Daughters of the Flame, maintained by Mael Brigde, since 1993, and through a CR-focused group called Brigid's Irregulars (no current website), which inspired the origin of the liturgy that I use. (There is a button on the sidebar if you would like to make a donation to help with some of my costs after the Ireland portion of the trip.)

Thank you, everyone, for all you have done for me over the years, reading my work and buying my books. I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate it.

Go raibh maith agaibh!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mandragora has been released!

Today's post brought my contributor's copy of Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis, from Scarlet Imprint.

The book contains two of my poems, Lost Text and On the Origin of Dreams, as well as my essay Burying the Poet: Brigid, Poetry, and the Visionary in Gaelic Poetic Traditions. It's also filled to the brim with the works of other Pagan and esoteric poets, including several of my friends, whose work is a joy to read.

This anthology is about twice the size of Datura, whose companion volume this is. I've been eagerly awaiting this volume and can't wait to dive in and read everyone's work. It's available in both hardbound and trade paper, so it's available to folks who don't have the money for the beautiful hardbound volume.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What's the point?

A couple of weeks ago, Teo Bishop wrote a blog post entitled What is the Point of Your Religion? over on Patheos. He asks the questions:

Why do we do what we do? What does our tradition provide us in the way of making the world we live in, the communities we build, the people that we care for, better? More importantly, how does it inform our capacity to love, our ability to experience joy, or, for that matter, our willingness to stand with the full spectrum of human experience? Is our religion pacifying us, or challenging us to go deeper?

He states a belief that "there has to be a greater purpose to our religious traditions than providing us with a sense of security, comfort, and personal or cultural validation."

Further along, he continues with the questions:

What is the point of your religion? What tools does it provide to you? Does it equip you for defense or for outreach? Does it lead you to question, or does it encourage you to rest in your knowing?

I suspect that most people are seeking purpose and connection. Most people walking a spiritual path will tend to use that path as a tool, possibly one of many, in that search. As always, I can only speak for myself, as a person who strives to practice filidecht within a CR community, and as someone who identifies very much with the geilt as the wounded outsider poet, seeking healing through art and isolation. In this context, community and isolation are not mutually exclusive states. The geilta pass from isolation into community and back into isolation, responding to need and circumstance.

Community and culture make connections possible. Within a reconstructionist movement, history is a centering point and the recovery of polytheist culture is a creative and expansive activity. Done properly - in my opinion, at least - a reconstructionist path recognizes and celebrates diversity without, as Teo suggests, a "need to squabble about whose deity is best, who’s laws are true, and who’s cosmology is most relevant." I fail to see how the acknowledgement of difference must perforce result in such struggles. Polytheism as a spiritual philosophy acknowledges multivalent realities, multiple deities, and the fact that different people will have relationships with different deities. A "need to squabble about whose deity is best" seems to me to be a remnant of the monotheism that so many of us grew up in, and which permeates western culture with the attitude that there can only be one "true" or "best" anything. We see it in monotheism, we see it in the belief in a singular soul-mate or "one true love," we see it in the idea that there is only one "right" model for family or for gender or for sexuality. It's a hard set of beliefs to shake off, but people do, to greater or lesser extents.

When I look at what the traditions I practice bring to the table in the way of helping make the world, community, and the people around me "better," I look at the effect art has. The fili has a duty to speak, to create poetry and to use words as praise and satire in an effort to bring things into balance, to correct flaws, to praise what is praiseworthy. The fili's work is to encourage the practice of virtuous behavior within the context of the good of the community, the improvement of the world, and the improvement of individual human lives. It is to acknowledge the beauty of sacred things. It is to call out violations of virtues when harm is done. As a path that is, as one of its roots, animist, community includes far more than just the human element; the environment and everything in it participates in that community. Particular places are sacred, associated with deities or expressing something numinous that may well be beyond human comprehension.

The geilt recognizes that culture and community can also harm. Humans in groups can be cruel and petty, and can harm and kill those who are more vulnerable. That cruelty and pettiness can destroy more than just other human beings - it can destroy ecosystems, cultures, species. Culture can be a nurturing parent, or it can be a selfish, bullying child, and it us up to all of us to see to it that culture is a nurturer, not a destroyer. Geilta use art as a tool to salvage something of a damaged self after culture and community have destroyed something in their souls.

The paths of the fili and the geilt urge us to look beyond the surface of things, to understand the weight of symbol and image. The idea of passing through the mist, of walking between worlds, is one of mental, emotional, and spiritual expansion. It enables a perception of links without having to perceive everything as undifferentiated. Language as poetry is a very powerful tool for conveying mysteries, for articulating what's wrong with the world and approaches to reparations and healing. Poetry allows language to approach things obliquely, to treat them with subtlety, to envision something new growing from the roots of something ancient.

Why do I do what I do? I think any artist would understand the sense of compulsion that drives creativity. So many writers and poets have spoken of the need to write, or they will die. Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, wrote, “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” This is why I do what I do, because I will die if I do not. I will vanish into a nothingness from which there is no possible escape. That my writing serves a community is a wonderful result of responding to that need, but it is the need itself that is at the heart of everything.

When we are doing what is right for us, doing that thing that our soul will wither and die without, it is likely that our community and our world will benefit from that in some way.

For you, Teo, I offer this quote, from the same source:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

I think it's important to recognize that the experience of comfort is not necessarily complacency. It may in fact be a necessary component of healing and of cooperation. I've lived in an absolute uncertainty of where I would be sleeping on any given night and not knowing where my next meal would come from - it is not particularly conducive to spiritual practice unless that uncertainty is deliberately chosen and embraced. Being forced into it by circumstance can destroy a person. Having enough safety and comfort to keep body and soul together is important. It isn't the only thing, but it is necessary. In a place where we feel some safety, we can learn and grow, we can be compassionate to ourselves, and thus develop our compassion for others. Different cultures, different spiritual paths may express these things in diverse ways, but unless we know there is the possibility of safety and comfort, most people cannot find it in themselves to go deeper. There must be a place of returning so that the risk is worthwhile.

As in all things, this is a process. It unfolds slowly, only rarely emerging in that flash of brilliant light. Even then, there has often been some subterranean motion that has led to that moment of imbas - the filid trained for up to twenty years to be able to experience it, to give them the ground from which to grow, the spring from which to draw water, the techniques used in the process of incubation.