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A Rune for Samhain

Over the past year, my friend Darcy Blahut and I have been continuing to work away on our “prairie rune” project. Starting from a bioregional adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc, or rune alphabet poem, we have been sharing reflections in poetry and prose as a way of gently unfolding some of the spiritual-cultural-linguistic mysteries hidden within each rune.
As the year-wheel turns through Samhain into the dark half of the year, and the season of the beloved dead is upon us, I thought I would offer our take on “mann” … the rune of death and life.

Mann: Human

Each person, in joy, is dear to their kin,
though all depart one from another;
for the divine doom of Life
is that the poor flesh must rest in the Earth.

Just days ago, I dug a small grave in the backyard and buried our young kitten. Panther was vibrant, naughty, and full of life; he feared nothing, but perhaps should have respected the growl of the neighbours’ dog a wee bit more. Though he was only with us for a few months, Panther had made a place for himself in our family, and my heart hurt dearly in his early departure from us.


Though the rune of Mann refers obviously to the human creature, as an animist I believe that personhood extends far beyond homo sapiens, and embraces kith and kin of fur and feather, and all our relations. Mann speaks of the joy of belonging, and the sharp grief of death. The Old English original points toward the “will of the Lord” as the agency of doom, but I tend to view it as a bit less fatalistic, and certainly less vindictive. We all know that in this dispensation of the world, life and death are intimately and necessarily intertwined. Human or otherkind, the poor flesh must indeed come to rest in the earth. Somehow, the bitter pangs of death, and the departure of one from another, make the joy of life and companionship so much more sweet. As age sets in, we hopefully learn to value more dearly the gift of our kin.


Scripture puts it best in the faithful realism of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3: 1-4). The mysteries of Mann, of life and death, of joy and grief, are woven deeply in the tapestry of our souls. And as I tossed the final spadefuls of soil on Panther’s cold corpse, my heart intoned the words of the funeral liturgy: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. . . yet even at the grave, we make our hymn: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Amen.”

******************************


Mann? And joyous mann? at that.
What are we, if not questioning?—
our Mind an ever-growing spring
from the cold earth.


Though do not question happiness,
or peace which from between neighbours grows,
our tongues for the birds—
windsome the song of us—clouds,
suffering and grief:


That yes—we do—but know not why;
that no—we do not suffer it alone.


And so, whether glad or not—our tidings bring;
we are gift the same, and from Her—
hearts and brows, heavy as stone—sing.


We sing until that smallest crack at dawn finds solace,
then begin again.

A new chapter

For so many of us, it has been a long wild ride since the pandemic started. 2020 has seen rapid change in ways beyond our imagining a year ago. I hope you are all doing well, and taking care of each other, in the midst of it all. The Rune of Sophia reminds us constantly, and consistently, that God gathers Her children in Love, no matter what is going on in our lives. We are never alone.

I don’t know what your life is looking like, but mine is in the midst of a radical transformation, full of grief and promise simultaneously. For the past seven years or so, our family has made its home in the beauty of Largo Farm, an off-the-grid homestead on the shores of a northern Saskatchewan lake. It has been so good, and we have learned so much over those years. But things change … life shifts, and cycles of growth and death assert themselves. So next year, we will be leaving the farm, and heading back to Saskatoon, where I have taken on a new role as the Recruitment Officer for St. Andrew’s College. St. Andrew’s is an awesome school, with deep roots in the social gospel traditions of the United Church of Canada. It is the place where, twenty-five years ago, I cut my teeth on feminist theology, liberation, theology, ecological theology, and more. It is an Affirming Ministry, which means that it is enthusiastically welcoming of folks of all sexual orientations and gender identities, racialized backgrounds, and the spectrum of abilities. It is a great place to be, and I’m happy to be returning to Saskatoon, to the United Church, and to St. Andrew’s.

Now, I know that a lot of you have a deep and abiding interest in theology/thealogy and various forms of green spirituality. Sophians of all colours of the rainbow would find something of interest at St. Andrew’s, and if there is any way I can be of service in my new role as recruitment officer (or Godscout, as I call it), please let me know. I would love to be able to welcome you, even from a great distance, into the world of theological education. Just send me a note, either at greenpriest@hotmail.ca or at shawn.sanfordbeck@usask.ca

In the meantime, for your delectation, there’s this fun video, where I talk a bit about my hopes for the College.

Take care, fellow Sophians, and blessed be.

I’m no expert in Tarot – not by a long shot – but I’ve always had a particular fondness for card number IX, the Hermit. This iconic image of an old, hooded man, staff in one hand and lantern in the other, resonates with me on a very deep level. Folks who know me well would not be surprised by this at all. Indeed, one of my best friends recently encouraged me (only half in jest) to offer my skills as a consultant in hermitting, in this new age of social distancing and self-isolation. Apparently, we are all be asked to become hermits for the time being, and many people find that exceedingly challenging.

As Covid-19 sweeps through the global population, everyone except essential workers are being told in no uncertain terms to go home and stay there. Front line health-care staff and other service providers are already feeling exhausted by the demands of this pandemic, and the rest of us feel vaguely overwhelmed by the fact that we can really do nothing except stay home. Of course, there are many interesting new ways being developed, mainly online, for people to stay connected and keep working. Churches, libraries, and other community centres are empty, but their staff are working hard to provide their ministries and services in novel ways.

This is great, and I have no doubt that this odd situation will bear the fruit of creativity and devoted, even heroic, public service for the sake of the common good.

But in the midst of all our activity, I hope we do not lose the other opportunity being presented to us: the invitation to go within. To embrace stillness and silence, and dive deep. To learn how to connect with the Hermit who lives in each of us. In a recent online message, Philip Carr-Gomm (the current chosen chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids) encouraged us to use this time to practice the spiritual discipline of the retreat. As Ostara unfolds, and Lent deepens, religious leaders of many traditions encourage us to go within and meditate, pray, and send healing energy to the world around us. That type of work is invisible; it is done on the inner planes, in the dark and quiet times of stillness. It can’t be tracked or quantified, and often we never get outer confirmation that our spells and prayers have “worked”. But this is the true vocation of the Hermit: to be alone, to go within, to lean on the staff of divine support, and to shine the light of the Spirit into the depths of the world around us.

As this pandemic unfolds, may each of us embrace the Hermit within, for the sake of the common good.

Blodmonath

Under the beautiful crisp clear light of the full moon, our extended farm community gathered together for the “saining of the beasts”. In our talking circle, we reflected on the realities of the Samhain season, specifically in relation to the animals of the farm. I gave a bit of history concerning the old Scottish custom of saining (blessing) the herds as they come back from the summer pastures into the closer confines of the homestead. I spoke as well about the AngloSaxon word for this Novembry season: blodmonath. The month of blood. This was the time when the culling of the animals would happen, depending on the size of the herd, the amount of hay stored for winter fodder, and the number of (human) mouths to feed in the community. So this early winter season was paradoxically a time of both saining and slaughter, blessing and butchering.
For us, as for our ancestors, this is still the reality of a small scale, subsistence, off-grid farming life. As members of our community processed from the chickens, to the sheep, to the pigs, to the cows, chanting blessings under the moon, we knew that some of these wonderful “more-than-human” persons would soon be filling our freezers and our stewpots.
Saining and slaughter: that is the reality of embracing blodmonath in a spirit of deep respect. May it be so for your people as well. Blessed be.

Creating History

This past weekend, at Knox-Metropolitan United Church in Regina, Saskatchewan, history was made. It was, I believe, the first time that a traditional Christian church publicly hosted an event specifically around ChristoPaganism. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this has happened before, anywhere. There have been a (very) few gatherings for Christian-Pagan dialogue, but nothing that has brought Pagans and Christians together to explore the bi-spiritual path of ChristoPaganism, within the walls of a church.
I am so thankful for Pastor Cam Fraser and the congregation of Knox-Met for taking a chance, in a very public manner, to invite me to offer this introduction to ChristoPaganism. And I’m equally grateful for the individual Christians, Pagans, and spiritual seekers who gathered together to learn, to share, to pray, and even to do ritual together.
For me, ChristoPaganism is a very significant spiritual path, as it continues the long hard process of reconciling two religious traditions which have been in conflict with each other in the Western cultural stream for at least 2000 years. In the course of that conflict, a deep and painful split in our psyche and in the culture as a whole has done tremendous damage to Mother Earth, to Indigenous peoples, to women and queer folk, and to our own hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits. My continual prayer is that ChristoPaganism, even as a small (but growing) movement, might help lead the way into a profound spiritual-cultural transformation.
For those interested, here are the topics we covered this past weekend (and there is also a good CBC radio interview here:

https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-205-saskatchewan-weekend/clip/15741072-hes-a-christian-priest….-and-a-pagan-druid

 
Friday Oct 18, 7:30 – 9pm   Public Lecture   The Blended Chalice: ChristoPaganism as a Spiritual Path    Speaking from his own experience, Rev. Shawn will describe and analyze the phenomenon of bi-spirituality in contemporary society.  Locating Christian Druidry and ChristoPaganism within the larger framework of liberal Protestantism and the revival of multiple NeoPaganisms, Shawn will explore the blessings and challenges of weaving together two spiritual traditions which have been alienated and hostile for centuries.  Q & A to follow.

Saturday Oct 19, 10am – noon    Workshop     Sophia and the Spirits   Building on his previous work in the field of Christian Animism, Rev. Shawn will lead participants through conversation, meditation, and practices designed to heighten our awareness of the multitude of spiritual neighbours we have within Creation.  We will work as well with the Rune of Sophia: “God is Love, and Her Body is all Creation.  She is a Tree of Life, who gathers Her children in Love.”

Saturday Oct 19, 2 – 4pm    Workshop   Just Druid It!   Green Priestcraft and the Chaplaincy of Creation   Contemporary Druids have sometimes been described as “priests and priestesses of nature”.  What might that look like in our context, for Pagans and Christians alike?  This workshop will outline some concrete and practical steps to beginning a spiritual ministry of care for the places in which we live.  Bring your love for the land, your love for the plant and animal people around you, and your desire to heal and bless Mother Earth and all our relations.

Saturday Oct 19,  4pm     Open Ceremony    (to be held in the park next door, if weather permits)   Come join the circle of a Christian Druid grove, for an hour of sharing, singing, and praying for our beloved planet.   All are welcome !

As we enter the season of Lammastide, my eyes are drawn daily to the beautiful crop of oats growing in our garden.  The heads are filling out and passing through their milky stage. The tall stalks have survived storm winds and hail, and within weeks the grain will harden and it will be time to put in the sickle.
In the spring, we began the sowing of this crop by gently and prayerfully burying the oat-doll which we made from the final cut of last season’s harvest. She held the spirit of the oats throughout the winter, hanging on our wall, a reminder of the continuity of life in its cycles. After several months of good summer growth, the work of harvest will begin again. My goodwife and I will cut the stalks, bind and stook them, thresh them, winnow them, and clean the oats, all by hand. It is a labour intensive process, providing our breakfast porridge throughout the year. At some point in the harvest, I will inevitably curse this whole idea of “back to the land living”, with its stupid valorization of physical work. But in truth, it is a very good life.
Though oats are not barley, I can’t help but be reminded of the ballad of John Barleycorn at this point in the year-wheel. In many ways, I can relate to poor John. Yes, technically I am one of the threshermen, who will kill and crush Sir Barleycorn. But on a deeper level, I am also Barleycorn himself. I am the stalk which must yield to the crescent blade. I am the head of grain which must submit to the harshness of life, as well as its sweet joys. As the song proclaims, “John Barleycorn must die”. And so must I, this “small i” which dies to make room for the vast and cosmic “I” of the life-giving Life.
Or, as another Barleycorn once put it: “Verily, I say unto you, unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But dying, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Loaf-mass blessings be upon you all.

“It is not the world who is mute, but rather we who are deaf.”
Thus I wrote, several years back, in my book of Christian Animism. I meant it – really, I did – but more as a rhetorical flourish than a statement from experience. Now, the experience is kicking in.
It is humbling, as a Christian Druid, to be virtually incapable of understanding the beautiful chorus of voices speaking around me. I can hear them, yes – the birds, the coyotes, the squirrels, the winds, and the thunders – but I wish I could claim some degree of comprehension. Every day I walk in the woods, I visit the lake, I sit beside the small bay where the loons and the muskrats live out the stories of their lives. We co-habit this beautiful place, and I am happy to report that my relationship with this amazing ecosystem of wights is deepening. My prayers and blessings revolve around this small plot of Creation, this tiny tapestry in the vast Web of Wyrd.
And so I receive intimations, small hints of what is going on in their lives. But I do wish I could speak their languages, their multitude of tongues. Not only as the naturalist does, interpreting behaviour and signs and spoor, but more as the hermeneut, or the wizard, or the pastor. I want to hear the voices of their spirits, and the words of their hearts.
In the cycle of the Christian year, we have just entered the beautiful season of Pentecost. In the primary reading for the Feast we hear about the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. As She moves among them, like wind and fire, the Spirit gifts them with Wisdom, and they are enabled to speak and understand a vast diversity of languages. This is called the gift of tongues, and it is a beautiful and powerful gift indeed, breaking down walls of division and hostility. My hope and prayer for us in this new age of Sophia is that the Spirit will once again be poured out, and the gift of tongues will cross the boundary of species. As this happens, I continue to keep my heart open to all the human and more-than-human neighbours around me, and listen hard for the miracle of their voices.
Blessed be.

For the past three weeks, we’ve been involved in a lovely and intriguing process here on the farm. This particular season of the year brings a short period of weather where the nights fall below freezing and the days warm up in the spring thaw. This oscillation of temperature, combined with the changing patterns of sunlight, creates the conditions for sugar-laden sap to flow quickly in the trees. By tapping the trees and collecting this sap, we are able to enjoy the alchemy of maple syrup making. Here on the prairies we don’t have many of the big sugar maples of the eastern woodlands, but we do have Manitoba maples (sometimes called box elder, or even elf maple (!)) These maples are a little less prolific and less sweet in their sap production, but its still worthwhile to make the syrup.
Visiting the trees every day to gather the sap is a delight in and of itself. They are offering their lifeblood, not in dangerous quantities, but it still is a good reminder for me to thank them, and ask the Creator to bless them. Like so many things on the farm, syrup production is derived directly from the life of other persons … in this case, tree persons.
Now, if you’ve never made maple syrup before, you can be forgiven for assuming that the sap can be used straight out of the tree. In reality, maple sap is over 95% water. It has to be carefully boiled down, sedimented, strained, and finished. The ratio of sap to syrup is somewhere around 40:1, so there’s lots of evaporating to be done.
As our woodstove burns slowly throughout the days, the subtle smell of the syrup wafts through the kitchen. An eye has to be kept open, as you don’t want it to boil down too far and burn. There is a real magic to the process. The end result, after pails and pails of sap, is a mere handful of pint jars of liquid amber. But the small effort is worth it … this stuff is the real deal.
For some reason, syrup-making this spring resonated for me with the process of lent. This lenten season has had a similar alchemical effect upon me as the constant boiling of the woodstove upon our maple sap. By evaporating the excess liquid, the syrup appears. Likewise for me, by applying the fire of spiritual discipline, I have found that some of the superfluous issues of my life have simply evaporated, leaving behind the soul essence which I am looking for. Sedimentation and straining of unwanted mineral content from the syrup corresponds to the leaving behind of some unhelpful habits of my life. The sweet amber goodness remains.
Of course, the metaphor is not perfect, and the soul-process is not as concise as making syrup. I’m under no illusions that the clarity of my essence will remain untainted. That is why lent comes year after year, and not once and for all.
But for now I will rejoice … this Easter season there will be good maple syrup on the pancakes. And in my soul, the power of Resurrection with the turning of the Wheel. Blessed be.

As part of a small community living off the grid, I often find it enjoyable to try to describe our way of life to others. When I’m asked about our water situation, I usually quip that “yes, we have running water: I run to the lake and get water.”

Well, actually that’s not exactly true. I generally walk slowly to and from the lake, pulling a sled filled with water pails behind me. My “running water” joke is a fun little one-liner, but the reality is that hauling water is, for me, simultaneously a daily routine of survival and a spiritual practice, rolled into one.

In the present season of the turning year-wheel, Christians observe the liturgical period of lent. Lent is an old word, derived from the Anglo-Saxon “lencten”, or what we might hear as “lengthen”. It basically means spring, as the days lengthen and the sun’s warming power is felt even throughout our snow-bound prairie landscape. As a season of the Church, lent is a deeply reflective time, reminiscent of Jesus’ vision quest in the Judean wilderness. It is a time for paring down, self-examination, and intensification of spiritual practice. So as a ChristoPagan, what does lent look like for me?

A major part of my lenten discipline this year (and yes, it can change from year to year) is to bring more attention, focus, and energy to my daily prayer routine. Since moving to the farm a number of years ago, I have tried to connect my prayer cycle to my chores. Every day there are certain things which need to be done: light the fire, haul the water, chop the wood, milk the cow. You get the idea. Without these daily chores, life literally falls apart. So rather than see these necessary tasks as a distraction from prayer, I have deliberately yoked them to my druidic devotions, so that my chores are now at the heart of my spiritual practice.

For example, as I pull the sled down the hill and over the snow-covered ice, I chant a creed which reminds me that “we are not alone, we live in God’s world … we are called to live in respect with Creation … in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us” (from A New Creed, United Church of Canada). As I approach the open water hole (chopped from the ice daily by my younger neighbour, thank God/dess!) I envision the Lady of our lake, the undine guardian spirit who tends the health and vitality of the water, and all the creatures who live in and from the lake. And then every day, I pause for a moment, kneeling at the ice hole and communing with the Lady, and invoking a prayer of blessing upon her in the name of the Creator, the Christ, and Sophia, the Holy Spirit.

Part of living ChristoPagan, and being a greenpriest in this particular time and place, involves doing the work of reconnecting my spirituality with my relationship to the Land. It is about rebuilding respectful friendships with the spirits and creatures who are my web of neighbours in this beautiful place. So as the days continue to “lencten”, I embrace this season of lent as a time to renew those relationships, in trust that our mutual life will flourish.

Blessed be.

A couple of nights ago, not long after Candlemas, I woke up at 4am with our farm animals on my mind. The fire was out, the wind was howling, and it was freaking cold even under the covers. Outside, the temperature had dropped to -40 degrees Celsius. Factor in the wind chill and it was close to -50. As I tried to get some warmth back into my toes, I began to worry about the animals outside. Our small herd of cattle, horses, and sheep are all well suited to northern climates, but this type of deep cold is hard on them. I said a prayer, and envisioned them blanketed by a protective warm layer of light and love. I added another Spirit-song for the dogs, and all the other wild creatures on and around the farmstead. I’m glad they are resilient, but I can’t help but feel concerned for all the wights abroad on a night such as that.

In his recent “Tea with a Druid” blogpost, OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm reminded us that Goddess / Saint Brigid is patroness, among other things, of farm work and cattle. I take great solace in this old teaching, especially in the depth of winter that is Imbolc on the Canadian prairies. Not for us the happy bloom of fragile snowdrops. Not for us the warming breezes of spring’s first gleam. Instead, a bone-chilling, spirit-crushing, unrelenting polar vortex of winter. So in the midst of this brutal weather, what can Imbolc mean?

For me, for now, I find hope in the changing light. Dawn comes sooner, and with it a hint of warmth for the animals, and for us. Spring, real spring, is still months away. But it will come. The Wheel will turn, and the ever-enduring animals will be enjoying green pasture and blessed warmth once again.

In the meantime, I continue to sing Brigid’s blessing on our herd, each time I go out to do the milking. May you and your herd be blessed as well, as we walk through the northern winter.

Mother Mary, bless my cow.
Holy Brigid, bless my cow.
Saints and angels, bless my cow,
O bless my cow.
God our Mother, bless my cow.
Good Lord Jesus, bless my cow.
Lady Wisdom, bless my cow,
O bless my cow.
Amen.