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Struggling Faith

Digital artist journal page created by Connla Freyjason for Iaconagraphy using our Imramma page kit, available by clicking this image. (Link opens in new tab)

Faith.  It’s a word that often gets looked down upon in traditional Heathen circles, yet it is something with which we all struggle, regardless of our chosen spiritual path in life.  Many modern Heathens sneer down their noses at it, saying that as a concept it smacks of someone’s “Christian upbringing”, yet it can be found scattered throughout the Eddas and Sagas, and when we do not feel it coloring our daily lives, we tend to become listless beings; we suddenly feel lost. In fact, one of the most frequently posed conundrums that I encounter is this one:

How does one get out of a “faith rut”?

I personally believe that the number one reason that we fall into “faith ruts” in the first place is due to how we have come to define the concept of faith.  That overriding definition of the concept is also intrinsically bound up with that tendency for people to sneer down their noses at it in certain circles, because the primary word we find linked with faith is belief.  This leads us down the garden path to that ages-old issue of the dreaded blind faith: adhering to something without any true understanding, perception, or discrimination.  But faith is not belief: it’s more than that.

In Pagan and Catholic circles, faith also tends to become bound up with action or doing: when one is not routinely performing the actions of one’s chosen spiritual path, one feels that they have somehow lost faith, and fallen into a “faith rut”.  Such actions might include attending Mass regularly or saying the rosary, if one is Catholic, or attending rituals and doing workings, if one is Pagan.  For those of us on a Norse Path, these actions include offering blot, working with the runes, or perhaps performing galdr.  But faith is not action or doing: it’s more than that, too.

Faith is the simple, pervading presence of hope.

Unfortunately, hope is another word that we tend to misdefine in our society:

Hope:  to want something to happen or be true; to desire with expectation of fulfillment

Basically, we confuse the concept of hope with wishing.  There are deeper definitions of the word, however, which ring closer to the truth of it, as a concept:

Hope:  to cherish with anticipation; to expect with confidence; trustreliance

I find it quite telling that those last two words–trust and reliance–are listed as the archaic definition of hope.  No wonder so many people are out here falling into “faith ruts”, when we’ve lost the very meaning, not only of the word faith, but of that which is at its core: hope!

The five keys to hope are italicized in that last definition:

  • cherish
  • anticipation
  • confidence
  • trust
  • reliance

We tend to think of the word cherish when thinking of loved ones and pets: it has become, not unlike faith and hope, a somewhat sappy thing, drained of its original meaning.  What it ultimately means, however, is to hold something constantly in your mind and heart with esteem.  Things which are cherished are not only loved, they are also respected.  They become ultimate to us.  What does that mean, to “become ultimate”? It means that those things become fundamental to the basis of our very existence:  they are of central importance, defining and supporting our total concept of how the world and the universe actually work to a degree that we would feel lost without them.  Which is why, when we lose the concept of the word cherish and at the same time have nothing in life that we actively do cherish, we begin to fall into a “faith rut”.

But according to that definition of hope back there, we not only cherish, we do so with anticipation.  Anticipation is the act of looking forward with pleasurable expectation: it looks for the best in things, rather than the worst.  Looking forward which focuses on the worst outlook is the antithesis of anticipation. We have a word for that, too. We call it dread!  Cherishing with anticipation is how we can look out the window today, and see trees covered in ice, and think “My Gods, that’s beautiful”, instead of “holy crap, we’re gonna lose power and I’m gonna freeze to death”.  The first thought is cherishing with anticipation–it focuses on the best, rather than the worst–while the latter thought is cherishing with dread.  Cherishing with dread instead of anticipation is another way in which we begin to fall into a “faith rut”.

“Expecting with confidence” is part of how the concept of hope gets confused with wishing: we tend to focus on the expecting part of that sentence, and ignore the confidence that comes after it wholesale.  We all go through life expecting things: I expect to be successful with my business, for example.  You might expect to win the lottery.  But when we add confidence into that equation, our feeble wishes get elevated into something far greater: they become hopes.  Now, confidence is defined as the feeling or belief that one can rely on something or someone–firm trust–and also as the feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.  When speaking about spirituality, somehow we tend to divorce those definitions from each other: too often, people arrive at a worldview wherein you have to choose whether to believe in a Higher Power (that first bit, that we can firmly trust and, therefore, rely on someone or something greater than ourselves), or to believe in one’s self.  But the definition is not an or statement, it’s an and statement!  True confidence, as a key to hope, requires that we do bothrely, and, therefore, firmly trust in a Higher Power while at the same time feeling self-assured, thanks to an appreciation of our own abilities and qualities.  When we treat the definition of confidence as an or statement, losing our appreciation of ourselves, and thereby coming to doubt ourselves, while focusing solely on that Higher Power part of the equation, once again, we begin to fall into a “faith rut”.

Which brings us finally to trust and reliance.  When we speak of that first word, we tend to think of it in an either/or fashion, because once again, we bind it to the concept of belief.  Trusting is what we do when we know something can be believed; when we know something is true.  As with every other bolded word in this blog post, the actual meaning of the word trust goes way, way deeper than that, however.  The deepest meaning of the word trust is to live without fear.  But how in the heck can we do that when the world is such a scary place?  Newsflash: the world has always been a scary place!  Our Ancestors unlocked the way to live without fear when they “discovered” something larger than solely themselves to rely upon.  Yes, I’m talking about a Higher Power!  What you choose to call that really makes zero difference to me; It all boils down to the same thing anyway.  That reliance, shockingly, also has zero to do with belief: whether you believe in Them or not matters not in the slightest; what matters is that you believe in you enough to be worthy of Them believing in you, too!  When we lose these definitions of trust and reliance, once again, we fall into the dreaded “faith rut”.

I didn’t figure all of this out just today, in an attempt to write a pithy blog post that might get all of you thinking and feeling and perhaps shopping while you’re here.  No, I figured all of this out quite slowly and painfully over the course of the past year, and I was forced to figure it all out because I did not simply stumble into a “faith rut”, I was pushed, ass over teakettle, into a faith chasm.  On December 23, 2015, our family dog died.  Two days before Christmas–her presents already bought and waiting to be put into her stocking–she succumbed to convulsions, and our family was shattered.  That may seem like a very small and insignificant thing: the death of the family dog.  Even to a dog-lover, that may seem like quite a tiny thing to qualify as the gateway to a faith chasm.  Yet, that’s what it was, for me.

You see, I prayed to practically every God I could think of to save her, not because I was going to miss the family dog, but because of what this was going to do to our family as a whole.  There is, after all, no pain in the world quite like grief at Christmas. And then I was expected to go sit in a pew and celebrate the birthday of one of those Gods, as if nothing had happened; as if my prayers had not been heard and yet gone unanswered.  The whole thing smacked of the most vile hypocrisy, and I wanted no further part in it, if that’s what religion entailed. Bingo: faith chasm.

I have come, over the course of the past year, to realize, however, that my plummet into the faith chasm had far less to do with the surface issue of losing our dog coupled with unanswered prayers than to do with my own misdefinition of what faith actually is, and, within that misdefinition, my mistranslation and utter lack of hope.  Hope was actually something I had lacked for a very long time at that point, it just took the death of the family dog to bring that sharply into focus.  The Gods were doing me a favor, but as is often the case, it certainly didn’t feel that way, at the time.

I found myself returning, again and again, to the most inexplicable of all sources for comfort: a passage from the Christian Bible.  I would sit, head in hands, when no one was looking, and cry my eyes out, and there would be those words, over and over, echoing like a broken record:

May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope! –Romans 15:13, The Message

Let me take the liberty of making that a bit more Pagan/Heidhrinn for those of you who are currently squirming in your seats:

May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your spiritual life, filled with the life-giving energy of inspiration, will brim over with hope!

I have spent the last year unlocking the secrets of that mantra and climbing out of my personal faith chasm.  The next six blog posts will follow me along on that journey, in an effort to help you climb out of your own.

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At Your Service: What Is Druid-Craft?

I’ve talked a lot lately about my life (and so have my “Graphics Elves”/”Spirit Guides”) as a Historical Reconstructionist Druid, but the truth is, when it comes to what we ultimately practice–and what we ultimately will be teaching you–that might more concisely be described as Druid-Craft.  Having a Welsh base, and practicing largely as a Dewin (a shamanic Druid practitioner of magick), my “particular brand of Druidry” is necessarily different from that practiced by other modern Historical Reconstructionists, such as those at ADF or OBOD.  The other major members of my mini-Grove (which is self-contained, pun-intended, since those “ranking officers of the Grove” come here and practice on this plane through me!) are a Bard and what we term in our Grove Rigfenneidh, which basically means “chief Fianna” (and, yes, that’s Irish, not Welsh; he is basically a Warrior-Bard-Dewin with fairly heavy Norse/Germanic/Teutonic leanings),  thus the entire tone of what we practice and what we teach tends to be not only Welsh Druidic, but also highly magick-based and magick-driven in its practice.

So what the heck is Druid-Craft, and is there any historical basis for such a critter?

As the Professor noted in the last blog entry, being a Welsh Historical Reconstructionist Druid is hard!  Unlike those with an Irish base, very little of our historical data is just “handed” to us: we have to do the digging ourselves.  This is largely due to the heavy-handedness of the Romantic Druids of the 18th century, who have caused most of the written materials we have, such as the Barddas, Mabinogion, and Hanes Taliesin, to be heavily called into question, insofar as any “historical Celticness” whatsoever.  So we have to become armchair archaeologists/anthropologists in order to find anything remotely resembling a truly “ancient” root to what we practice and believe.

We’ve done a lot of that over the past twenty years–“digging” into the ancient history of Wales, as armchair archaeologists/anthropologists–and in the process we’ve discovered some pretty interesting things about our ancient Welsh Ancestors-in-the-faith.  Firstly, most of the “Celtic overtones” of Welsh Mythology come to us circa 350BC from a group of migrating Irish Celts who settled in what is now Gwynedd, Wales.  These were the folk who eventually established Anglesey, the center of Druidry in the British Isles.  The other Celts in Wales–the Silures, Ordovices, and Demetae–were most likely migrants from the Halstatt Culture (so-named after their original homeland, in Austria).  These were what the Romans would’ve termed “Germanic Tribes”, which means exactly what it sounds like it implies: they shared a common cultural bond to the Norse/Germanic/Teutonic pantheon of deities.  Therefore, the ancient historical sources for Welsh Druidry become a combination of the Irish Celtic and the Norse/Germanic/Teutonic.

Most of the magickal practices we know about the ancient druids practicing come down to us either through the writings of their Roman contemporaries (such as Tacitus), or from evidence collected at archaeological sites, such as Penbryn and Cerrig-y-Drudion.  From these combined sources, we know that the Druids did, in fact, measure time (days, nights, weeks, months, etc.) by the phases of the moon (much like modern Pagans), reckoning “periods of time not in days but in nights; in celebrating birthdays, the first of the month, and the beginning of a year, they go on the principle that night comes first and is followed by day” (Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 58-52 BC).  A series of small ceremonial swords discovered in continental Europe and bearing lunar imagery on their hilts, when combined with the contemporary histories of Caesar and others, suggest that these blades may have been used in druid rituals which not only marked time, but may also have involved divination (wherein they used the blade and its symbols to somehow determine “lucky” or “unlucky” days).  Symbols similar to those found on these swords have been found on a series of spoons uncovered throughout Britain, but most notably at Penbryn, Wales.  These spoons are always found in pairs (when discovered amongst grave goods), and are marked with a four-fold division (a cross), and various differing inlays (which are suggested to represent moon phases).  Since one spoon has a hole in it, it has been suggested by archaeologists/anthropologists that these spoons were used in a form of divination, wherein water was poured through the hole, onto the other spoon which bears the cross (four-fold division). Which quadrant the water landed in would then designate the most auspicious quarter of the lunar month in which to do….whatever. When combined with descriptions of the tarbh feis among the Celts of Ireland (some of whom settled in Wales, remember), it becomes pretty obvious that divination, in one form or another, was very important to the Celts.

While I don’t use fancy swords or spoons (or regularly slaughter cattle and eat stew, as in the tarbh feis), my daily ritual observances do rely quite heavily on divination (as can be seen from the fact that I’m also a Professional Tarot Counselor), and our High Day Rites include a section of ritual wherein we use modern means of divination (such as Tarot) to receive “feedback” from Deity.  These ancient Welsh spoons and the Irish observance of the tarbh feis also lend themselves to the practice of kitchen witchery, which is very much part of the practice of the Dewin (shamanic druid practitioner of magick).

From other archaeological sites (such as that at Hounslow, Middlesex) we know that totem animals were also profoundly important to the ancient Celts. This is further echoed in the extant myths which remain, both from the Irish source material, and from later Welsh translations, in such stories as that of Math ap Mathonwy, Gwydion, and Gilfaethwy, as well as that of Cerridwen and Gwionn Bach, and in many stories from the Irish Fenian Cycle.  Small effigies of animals have been found among grave goods at many sites, most often depicting images of pigs/boars, dogs, deer, and horses.  These specific animals also figure prominently in extant mythology (even that which has been called into historical question, such as the Mabinogion), as again in the tale of Math ap Mathonwy, that of Cerridwen and Gwionn Bach, and, again, also in the Fenian Cycle of Ireland.  Because of this, totem animals, and our relationships to and with them, also figure prominently in my practice of Druid-Craft.

Sacrifice is also an important part of my practice and belief system, as it was for the ancient Celts, based on both contemporary accounts and archaeological evidence. Sites of “ritual deposition”–the depositing of “perfectly good treasures” into lakes, rivers, and peat bogs, as a “gift for the gods”–have been found throughout Britain and continental Europe, and the contemporary accounts of the Romans (if they are to be believed) even speak of human and animal sacrifices (there is also archaeological evidence for both).  The sacrifice of a modern Druid, however, doesn’t involve blood; it involves soul, instead. It is a far more internal thing, and, therefore, is often even more symbolic and esoteric.

The divinatory, shamanic, and sacrificial practices of the ancient Celts are almost perfectly mirrored among the Norse/Germanic/Teutonic peoples (which makes sense, given the historical term “Germanic Tribes” coined by Caesar, and also given the “birthplace of modern Celtic Culture”: Halstatt).  We see this shamanic element expressed especially in the description of the tarbh feis in Ireland, but we also see it mirrored in the mention of seidh in Norse/Germanic/Teutonic source materials (such as the Eddas and Sagas), once again providing something like a “magickal bridge” between the two cultures.  My own practice of “shamanic mediumship” has kinship to things practiced historically within both cultures (if we are to consider them disparate cultures at all, in fact, when it all comes down to brass tacks, as we say in the South).

At its most basic, then, Druid-Craft might be described as a profoundly shamanic path which focuses heavily on divination, magick (particularly herbal magick, magick involving divination, and kitchen witchery), and places a great emphasis spiritually on the concept and practice of sacrifice.  It isn’t a “go to Church on Sunday” sort of religion; by that, I mean it isn’t something one does only on designated days or in designated places or at designated times, but is, instead, something that permeates every waking moment of my life.  That can make it incredibly difficult to teach as a practice: I mean, how does one teach something that has become so natural to your life that you barely even realize anymore when you are doing it and when you are not?  To put it in incredibly mundane terms, it’s like trying to remember one’s own phone number.  You all know how hard that is to do, right? I mean, how often do you call yourself?  When something is so much a part of the natural fiber of your being that it comes as naturally as breathing, it becomes a bit difficult to find the starting point of that “breath” so that you can teach it to someone else. But I intend to try!

If this article has piqued your interest in possibly learning Druid-Craft, I would beg a precious moment of your time, and ask you to please fill out this short survey for me.  Don’t forget to also join my mailing list, as I teach quite a lot for free in my weekly newsletters (and there is also a free e-book on beginning magick available for download at sign-up). I am very excited to finally be able to share this decades-long journey (and all of the research that went into it!) with others and can’t wait to go on this journey with you, together!