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Beating the Bounds

In medieval England, before the reformation, there existed in many parishes a powerful spiritual practice called “beating the bounds”. Toward the end of the the Easter season, in rogationtide, members of the community would spend a day walking the borders of their parish (a parish is a geographical territory, mapped out by the church but used also for civil boundary measurements). The parish priest would lead the people, singing hymns, saying prayers, sprinkling holy water, and “beating” the boundary line with walking sticks as they perambulated the area. The purpose of this somewhat odd annual ritual was twofold: it was a reminder to the people of what the actual parish boundaries were (maps were a bit iffy in those days), and it drove out any evil spirits which might have accrued over the long winter.
This spring, our own farm community tried it out!  Our purposes however, were a little different. Rather than driving out any lingering demons (who don’t come around here anyways!), we walked the farm’s boundaries in order to get to know the land better. We walked and prayed our appreciation and our love for the land and all her creatures, and as we beat the bounds, we sent our blessings into the earth. At each corner of the farmland, we buried a fragment of blessed bread (which had been grown, harvested, milled, and baked right at home!) and said this adaptation of the old Anglo-Saxon Aecerbot charm:
O Holy Mother Earth,
May our Creator, and the spirits herein, let this land grow and thrive,
increase and strengthen with tall stems and fine crops.
May this sacred land be protected from harm and warded against all ills.
And may this gift of bread and blessed water seal the peace between us.
Amen.
The entire walking ritual took us almost three hours, but it was worth it! The crocuses were in full bloom, the trees and grasses were starting to green up, the sun was warm and the wind was cool. A perfect, magical, blessed evening.
Upon our return to the homestead gardens, we took the soil we had collected from the four corners, blended it together with the remaining bread and holy water, and dug it into the earth. The beating of the bounds complete, we finished with the ancient collect of rogation:
Almighty and merciful God,
from whom cometh every good and perfect gift:
bless, we beseech thee, the labours of thy people,
and cause the Earth to bring forth her fruits abundantly in their season,
that we may with grateful hearts
give thanks to thee for thy providence,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.
And that’s how Christian Druids roll. Blessed be.

 

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Runic Reflections

Long have I been fascinated by the runes. Recently, my good friend Darcy Blahut and I decided to work together on a joint writing project. Darcy is an accomplished poet, so I invited him to write a poem inspired on each rune verse and my own reflection on that particular rune. I expect that this project will take a year or so, but wanted to share our first effort … feoh. Enjoy!

Feoh: Cattle

Cattle are comfort for everyone.
Yet each of us must share our wealth freely,
if we wish to gain honour in the sight of the Creator.

This first rune of the futhorc gifts us with a snapshot of the Anglo-Saxon concept of wealth. In concord with so many other ancient cultures, the Anglo-Saxon economy was based on livestock, and in particular domestic cattle. Cattle could be eaten, milked, traded, herded, rustled. They were a source of meat, dairy, bone, horn, hide, and many other necessary products. But as the rune poem hints, cattle were also a source of comfort, and not just because they were a measure of wealth.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to milk a gentle cow in the warmth of a sturdy barn while a snowstorm rages outside, you will know the comfort of feoh. It is a mistake to look at cattle as economic units, as if they simply “stand for” an abstract concept of monetary value. Our ancestors knew that their wealth depended on living beings. From milk to meat to marrow, wealth was embedded in relationships – relationships with the cattle and fields, and relationships with other human people.

Much more obvious in the rune poem is the conviction that wealth is not to be hoarded. The source of wealth is the Creator, and to “gain honour” from the Creator, wealth needs to be shared freely. For indigenous cultures, from the ancient Anglo-Saxon to the contemporary Cree or Metis, generosity is the true basis of the tribal economy. Wealth is meant to be shared.

What is your wealth right now, and what are you doing with it?

The bloodmonth is cold,
fingers rigid to the blade.
Though supple once your hand,
your neck crooked in an honest day’s labour,
locked firm against my frame. Ribs,
the strong pines of a proud house;
unshaken your name,
yet bent low to honour the birth of me.

Your knees, as mine, wet as when
I first let flesh to the warm fist,
both foot and hoof scratching at the ground
till knuckles got their bearing
and set rhythm to relief.
tin-tin tin-tin under the pail’s rim,
silvered by light through barn window,
Half-opened its retinal finding, our breath
visible on sweet-smelling cud.

Wealth is giving. This the first lesson.
And prescience—how we are fed by blessing.
But your fingers, I know, are not without strife.
And your table, your childrens’,
theirs as they grow, who
from inside I nourish and sustain.
It is I who become them, and in becoming honour.

So close this memory now, my reluctance
to move toward charity,
though thank now the hand over me
for having eased my path,
you who sung idylls at my side,
and led me, my twin young,
into meadowing.

In my recent Tapestry interview, I spent a few moments addressing the question of the relationship between magic and prayer. Since then, I’ve had several interesting conversations pursuing this particular question, and it reminded me of a short posting which I published years ago, in conversation with Adelina St. Clair, author of The Path of a Christian Witch. I’m re-posting that short essay here, and I’d love to hear from others about your thoughts on this topic.


One of the reasons I’m interested in this question of the relationship between magic and prayer, is that as a pastor and theologian, I often hear people talking about intercessory prayer saying something like well, it isn’t magic you know. To me, it seems like that sort of statement misses the point of both magic and prayer. But it reveals that for many people (Christian and Pagan alike), intercessory prayer is about asking God to do something, and magic is making something happen praeternaturally, but without the direct assistance of God/dess.


The problem with this type of thinking is that it assumes that God is omnipotent, and that if a prayer is not answered, then it is not God’s will. And if a prayer is answered, then it is God’s will, and God causes it directly. All of this assumes that God can do whatever S/He wants in the universe … but I’m really not sure that this is a safe assumption (no matter how traditionally orthodox it sounds!) A more process-oriented theology of intercession reminds us that God, whether by nature or by choice, is at least somewhat limited in power in relation to the creation. Or another way of putting it is that God’s power IS love, and that love, even divine love, never works through coercion, but rather through persuasion. For whatever reason, God has chosen to share Her power with the rest of creation. In intercessory prayer, from this perspective, our conscious prayers, actions, and desires open up options for God’s Spirit to work in the world which would not have been available to God had we not prayed. Or in other words, God works through our prayers, as our prayers become available to Her.


For some people, this idea of God’s power being limited is simply too much to bear. Who wants to worship a God who is not all-powerful, who suffers and waits, and shares limitations in a way similar to ourselves? But if we take the teaching of the Incarnation and the mystery of the Cross seriously, we find revealed a God whose “power is made perfect in weakness”.
In this view of prayer, God is not “in control” in the way we typically think of omnipotence, but rather offers Her Spirit to us in a co-operative way, for the healing of the world.


In some ways, this view is much more compatable with certain progressive understandings of magic. It doesn’t fit with the image of the mage speaking words of power, commanding the spirit world to do his bidding (and thus taking the place of the omnipotent god). But rather it resonates with views of magic which, like Starhawk’s teachings, see magic primarily as energy and consciousness, weaving and working with the patterns of life and healing within a living, interconnected world. When the power of Love is invoked and drawn upon, this seems to me to be actually quite close to the reality of intercessory prayer just described … an intimate cooperation with the Divine Spirit for the benefit and healing of all creation.”

Advent … Yule … Midwinter … Christmas … whatever we choose to call it, this magical time of the turning year-wheel is essential spiritual fare for those of us living in northern climes. Of course, it is easy to start mumbling and moaning about the evils of consumer capitalism and the temptations of overconsumption (which is true!), but really, do we need another grinch? As for me, after a full year of fighting the man, I’m just about ready to kick back and enjoy the blessings of the feast. Bring on the twinkly lights, the Christmas carols, and a whole army of Santa’s elves … the ice-crystal magic never dies.
From a ChristoPagan perspective, Yuletide is one of the most interesting times of blended spirituality. Persian druids following a star, talking animals in a midnight manger, and a wild hunt-esque sled bringing presents to children around the globe all blend together with medieval carols, magnificat gospel narratives, and the Wyrd-made-flesh among us. What’s not to like?
But still, bring the cousins together, and it doesn’t take long for the arguments to begin. Christians stole Yule from the Heathens! No … the Wiccans reclaimed the greenery from the Victorian Anglicans! No … Santa is just Odin in disguise! And just you wait until Krampus shows up!
I’m a pastor, so I’m used to cantankerous religious squabbles. Sometimes I’m even mixed up right in the middle of them. But this is one that seems to me more than a little tiresome … and it gets so nasty so quickly. The battle over the Yule tree degenerates into an all-out shouting match between my two favourite families: the Christians and the Pagans.
But really, folks … does it have to be that way? A good, respectful, deep conversation about actual similarities and true differences is a gift that keeps on giving. But so often, what we fall for is a slugfest between straw men. As a Christian priest, I’m used to chastising my fellow believers when they make silly comparisons of Wiccans to satanists, and land-spirits to demons. But I must admit I’ve been quite surprised at the amount of this sort of ignorance that goes the other way as well. How many Pagans have gotten angry with me for being a ChristoPagan because they assume that all Christians are fundamentalists and believe every word of the bible to be literally true. Please! Most mainline churches (Anglican, Lutheran, United, etc) left that behind decades ago. We don’t have problems with evolution. We don’t think women should be barefoot and pregnant under male headship. We fight for gay rights, trans rights, Indigenous rights, women’s rights, refugees, the environment, and most of the stuff that Pagans do (or should do!) In other words, to my Pagan comrades: please don’t confuse me with a fundamentalist straw man! That’s just so inaccurate, and downright boring. Read up on some real theology instead, and let’s have a fruitful debate!
Or, we can forget the debate and share a horn of mead instead … Happy Yule and a very Merry Christmas to you all!

For the past half-decade, our family has been homesteading on an off-the-grid farm in Treaty 6 territory. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Canadian history, Treaty 6 refers to a particular regional relationship whereby land was shared (not ceded … a very important distinction) by the Indigenous Peoples with the Crown and its settlers. The treaty was made in the late 19th century, and still holds today, though it has been bent and broken numerous times by the colonial government. Today, our farm’s direct neighbours are the First Nations of Moosomin (Cree) and Saulteaux (Ojibwe), as well as many Metis folk in the near vicinity. For me, that means that when Samhain comes round on the Great Wheel, my mind turns to a very complicated ancestral inheritance.

As a Christian, and in particular as an Anglican priest, my genetic and spiritual ancestors were responsible for some pretty reprehensible mayhem in this part of the world. The residential schools were probably the worst of it, but racist colonialism has been an Anglican curse for several hundred years, and there’s still plenty of it to go around. In recent years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has delivered a mandate of 94 “Calls to Action” … concrete steps which can be taken by the Canadian government and other institutions (and individuals) to repent of the toxic legacy which has oppressed so many Indigenous people and torn our nation asunder. Several of these calls to action are directed specifically toward the churches which ran the residential schools. This one in particular has been haunting my conscience lately:

Call to Action #60: We call upon leaders of the church parties to the Settlement Agreement and all other faiths, in collaboration with Indigenous spiritual leaders, Survivors, schools of theology, seminaries, and other religious training centres, to develop and teach curriculum for all student clergy, and all clergy and staff who work in Aboriginal communities, on the need to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right, the history and legacy of residential schools and the roles of the church parties in that system, the history and legacy of religious conflict in Aboriginal families and communities, and the responsibility that churches have to mitigate such conflicts and prevent spiritual violence.

For decades, I’ve been convinced of the need for the church to truly attempt to understand and respect Indigenous spirituality. One of the reasons why I wrote my book on Christian Animism was to help Christians find a common language with Indigenous spiritualities which might help build a bridge. Over the years, the more I have worked on this “issue”, the more I have realized that I need to go WAY back in my own cultural heritage, back to the conversion period of my own Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Germanic ancestors. When our people were becoming Christian, what was going on? What parts of our culture(s) were being honoured and kept, and what parts were being demonized and suppressed? What happened to our gods? Were they offered the gospel as well (and what would that have looked like?), or were they consigned by church authorities to the nether regions of the spirit world? What happened to our runes, and to our life-ways of relating to the land, to Mother Earth and her various land-wights? These are real questions for me, not rhetorical ones. Christian scholars tend to present a fairly triumphalist view of the European conversion period, and NeoPagan writers have a tendency to suggest that this period is nothing more than violent cultural genocide. As a ChristoPagan practitioner with a very historical mind, I’m pretty sure that the conversion period was much more complex than either of these polarized views. Deep things happened, historically and in the spirit world, which have had huge impacts in world events ever since. I think that for healing and justice to happen, we need a much better understanding of the roots of our past.

Finding my way back through the tangles of interpretation is an ongoing challenge. But reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and perhaps reconciliation between Christians and NeoPagans as well, is a task … even a vocation … which is worth the time. Our ancestors are calling us to make things right, to make a new start. This is a path of Life which has marked me as its own. Any help along the way is appreciated!

Borrowings…

I hope it gives offence to no one, but here is a ChristoPagan version of the Charge of the Goddess. I’ve adapted it from Starhawk’s adaption of Ms. Valiente’s original, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

Listen to the words of the Great Green Spirit, Who of old was called Sophia, Ruah, Lady Wisdom, and many other names:

Whenever you have need of anything, once a month, and best it be when the moon is full, you shall gather in grove and adore the Spirit of Me Who is Queen of all the Wise.

You shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that you be free you shall be transparent and open, one to another.

Sing, feast, dance, make music, and celebrate love, all in My Presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the Spirit and Mine also is joy on earth.

For My law is love is unto all beings. Mine is the mystery that opens the gate of heaven, Mine is the bread of life and the cup of blessing, the holy grail of immortality.

I give the knowledge of Eternity, and beyond death I give peace and freedom and reunion with those that have gone before.

Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things and My love is poured out upon the earth.

Hear the words of Sophia, the dust of Whose feet are the hosts of Heaven, whose body encircles the universe:

I Who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars and the mysteries of the waters,

I call upon your soul to arise and come unto me.

For I am the soul of nature that gives life to the universe.

From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return.

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

And you who seek to know Me, know that the seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.

For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am That which is attained at the end of desire.

It may come as a surprise to some that such a hallowed Wiccan text would be deeply meaningful to a Christian. Of course, the careful reader will notice that I have made a few small changes, tweaking the thealogy slightly, but by and large the prayer stands on its own. As a ChristoPagan, I have borrowed this liturgical gem for my own devotional use, but I do so because there are so many aspects of the Charge which sound familiar to me from my own tradition. Listen:

I, the fiery Life of Divine Wisdom,

I ignite the beauty of the plains, I sparkle the waters,

I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars,

with Wisdom I order All rightly, and above all I determine Truth.

I am the One whose praise echoes on high.

I adorn all the Earth.

I am the Breath that nourishes all things green.

I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.

I feed the purest streams … I am the yearning for good.

(Hildegard von Bingen)

And also this:

For Godde hath given me certain knowledge of the things that are, namely:

to know how the world was made, and the operation of the elements,

the beginning, ending, and midst of the times,

the alterations of the turning of the sun, and the change of seasons,

the circuits of years, and the positions of stars,

the natures of living creatures, and the natures of wild beasts,

the thoughts of spirits, and the reasonings of humans,

the diversities of plants, and the virtues of roots.

And all such things as are either secret or manifest, them I know

For Sophia, which is the worker of all things, taught me.

(Wisdom of Solomon)

Do these sound familiar? Are there echoes of the Charge of the Goddess here? Methinks it is so.

The Source of Wisdom is One, but Her streams are many… I hope we can drink deeply together!

Christ and the gods

My youngest son Robin (age 8) was recently accepted to be part of a kid’s advisory group for a well-known national youth magazine. Lots of fun! One of Robin’s first tasks was to send in some possible questions for a “you asked” column. Some of his questions were pretty normal: how does a chameleon change colours? how many bricks would it take to build a life-sized Lego person? Solid questions! He also generated this question: what proof do we have that any gods exist?

Now, Robin is a baptized Christian, in a solid Anglican household. He knows about God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. But he’s also pretty curious and passionate about the gods. The Greek gods are his favourite pantheon, but he also digs the Roman gods, and the Egyptian gods, and the Norse gods. For a young boy, nothing out of the ordinary. All my kids have been reading Rick Riordan’s stuff for a long time, and they love it. Riordan makes the various ancient deities feel very contemporary, and there is plenty of solid mythological detail lacing the stories. So it comes as no surprise to me that when Robin asks about divine “proof”, he’s wondering not only about the God of his own faith, but also about the gods (and demigods and various magical creatures and spirit beings) of other religions.

As a ChristoPagan, I’m deeply intrigued by Robin’s question. I’m thoroughly interested in trying to imagine and articulate the relationship between the Triune One which our family worships as Christians, and the various other deities who have been (and still are) worshipped throughout the world. Of course, various answers to this question have been posed. Rigorous monotheists have shrilly insisted that all other gods and goddesses are just demons in disguise, to be avoided at all cost. Vigorous polytheists have responded that the deity of Christians, Jews, and Muslims is simply one god among many, and that “he” should mind his own divine business rather than getting up everyone else’s nose. The Jungians wish we could demythologize the whole discussion just a wee bit. And of course the atheists are just plain tired of all of it.

So what might a ChristoPagan response to this question be? Of course, there are as many different ChristoPagan responses as there are ChristoPagans, but for me personally, here are a few thoughts. Firstly, even though the biblical scriptures and monotheistic traditions tend to default into a crude and often violent polemic stance against “idolatry”, there are other voices within Judaism and Christianity (and I’m assuming Islam as well, though I don’t know that tradition deeply enough to comment) which have a different take on “the gods”. Within the psalms, for instance, there are multiple references to the God of gods, and the “council of the gods”. These references are often interpreted metaphorically, but if they are taken as they stand, they seem to refer to a whole host of divine or semi-divine beings who have a role to play in the governance of the universe. Jump to the new testament, in the epistle of Paul to the Galatians for instance, and you have reference to the powers and elemental spirits who play a similar role for the Gentiles as the Torah plays for the Jews; these spirits are basically guardians and tutors for the human nations. While worship of them is extremely problematic, these spiritual beings are presented as part of God’s good creation, appointed to lead all the various cultures and peoples (other than Israel) to a knowledge of the Creator, and finally to a saving knowledge of Christ. Paul’s argument is complicated, of course, by his Jewish prejudice against the gods of other nations, but I think that he is basically building on an older tradition which sees the divine council as responsible in some mysterious way for the Gentile nations of the earth.

Biblical theologian Walter Wink has done a wonderful job of unpacking the language of “powers and principalities” which we find in the scriptures, and opens it up to a much more useful and complex discourse than the gods=demons rhetoric. Basically, from Wink’s perspective, the gods are real, the gods (like humans) are created good, they are fallen, and they are being redeemed. In short, they are woven into created universe by the Triune Uncreated Creator, and have their own part to play in relation to the ultimate destiny of said universe.

As I encounter more perspectives from the “hard polytheism” communities within NeoPaganism, especially from Heathen thinkers, it strikes me how much their gods and goddesses are seen to be stronger, wiser, and older versions of ourselves. Deities are not perceived as eternal; rather, they have a beginning and an end. They are a part of the wider spatio-temporal reality of the cosmos. What is eternal (perhaps) is Wyrd itself. For me, as a ChristoPagan, I can’t help but be reminded of Christ as the Incarnate Wyrd. Like Tolkien, my own spiritual imagination is illuminated with a vision of godlike beings surrounding the throne of the Creator, each garnering strength and wisdom from Sophia, the Queen of Heaven, the Spirit poured out giving life to the whole creation. Tolkien calls this the Flame of Anor, or the Secret and Undying Flame. His vision, outlined in the Ainulindale and the Valaquenta (which should probably be treated as sacred lore by ChristoPagans), sees the Ainur and Valar as angelic beings, who function as the divine council does within the psalmic scriptures.

As more NeoPagans shift toward polytheistic relationships and practices, I will be interested to see how polytheist thealogy evolves. What is the nature of these gods and goddesses? How do they relate to each other? How do they relate to Wyrd / Great Mystery / Eru / the One? And ultimately, is there a different form of relationship and devotion appropriate to the Uncreated, than toward the created forces and powers?

Robin and I will be working on these questions together for quite some time! And regardless of the provisional insights we come to, we will continue to worship the One who dwells in the midst of angels, and archangels, and the whole company of heaven and earth. Blessed be Her Name.