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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.

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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.

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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.

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Reconciliation is a huge task, a deep responsibility, a seven-generation work of covenant renewal. Reconciliation involves decolonization and reparation. It calls for a massive act, or series of acts, of confession and (hopefully) forgiveness. There are no short cuts, and nothing can replace the sheer hard work of re-building broken relationships. Reconciliation is a key aspect of the Great Work of our time.
As an Anglican priest, I’ve been involved in reconciliation and justice work during my entire ministry. I worked as an inner-city chaplain on the streets of Saskatoon. I acted as a church representative in the alternative dispute resolution hearings for residential school survivors, and offered the words of apology on behalf of the church many times over. I sat, mute and numb, in the memorial feast for young Colten Boushie as his community grieved at Red Pheasant. And I know that countless others, in and out of the church, Indigenous folks, settlers, and newcomers, are all doing whatever they can to bring about a new reality of right relationships in our land.
But even so, something seems to be missing.
In ceremonies and in workshops across the land, people (Indigenous people, mostly) are talking about the ancestors and the spirits. In sweat lodges and in longhouses, in resistance camps and out on the land, the spirits and the ancestors are mentioned in prayer, over and over again.
What are Christians to make of this?
Unfortunately, I think that most settler Christians have no idea what to make of this, even though the relationship with the spirit world is at the heart of Indigenous spirituality. Of course, there are many types of Christian theology and various Christian responses to the idea of the spirit world. Liberal Christians tend to hear the phrase “spirits and ancestors” as a mythologized way of simply talking about the Spirit. Catholic Christians (Roman and otherwise) might assume that folks are talking about the saints and the angels. Evangelical and charismatic Christians often fall into the trap of demonizing these realities, which is what the earlier missionaries did as well. And secular folks simply ignore talk about “spirits and ancestors” as another form of religious gobbledygook. (And yes, gobbledygook is a technical term.)
Here’s what I think though: I think that the spirits and the ancestors are absolutely fundamental to many, if not most, Indigenous cultures here on Turtle Island and around the globe. I think that if settler and newcomer cultural groups cannot understand what Indigenous people mean by “spirits and ancestors”, we will be left with a yawning gap in communication. And ultimately, I have a strong intuition that our various processes of reconciliation will remain stymied unless we (Christians) are able to express our contrition and apology, not only to residential school survivors, not only to those who experience oppression from ongoing structures of racism and colonialism, but also to the ancestors and to the spirits of the land. Our churches’ missionary histories cannot be understood without coming to terms with our intentional demonization and/or dismissal of the spirits who were, and are, so important to the First Peoples of this land.
It is time for us to apologize, in spiritual ceremony, honestly and directly to the spirits and the ancestors.
I know that for many Christians, this idea will be challenging on many levels. And I also know that it is a complex issue especially for Indigenous Christians. The missionaries instilled deep fear of the spirits, and demonized Indigenous spiritual practices in ways we are only beginning to understand.
So let’s talk about it. Let’s wrestle with it. This conversation, I believe, belongs to the heart of our ongoing journey toward reconciliation and healing, with each other, with the land, and yes, with the spirits and the ancestors: all our relations.
(Thanks to KAIROS Canada, who originally published this article at https://www.kairoscanada.org/spirited-reflection-ancestors-spirits-reconciliation )

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Oats in the Snow

So the snows have come, with the oats yet to harvest. A month still before Samhain, but the Wheel seems to be turning early. My forearms are covered with tiny scratches from the straw, as I pound the oat sheaves into the darkness of their threshing casket. I had hoped for another few weeks of mellow fall weather before the winter sets in, but often the actual seasons of life don’t match the liturgical calendar of feasts and fasts, worship and work, as the moons wax and wane.
That’s ok. It used to bother me a bit, but after a half-decade now of living off grid on our old-fashioned farm, I have come to enjoy the reflections which are born in the tension between the symbolic and the real. What does it mean that the snowflakes are falling in Lammas-tide? Is it a sign that I’ve taken my ease for too long, putting off until tomorrow what should have been done yesterday? Is it a gentle reminder that the sabbath eschaton of the dark-half of the year is often prefigured, even pre-echoed, in the waning of the light-half? That the root-tip of the yin is buried within the full-flower of the yang? As I harvest our years’ worth of oatmeal, sown in the spring with yesteryear’s corn-queen, these and many more oracular hints occur to me.
But at the end of the day, the weather is a goddess all her own. What I make of her comings and goings is up to me, but her reality extends above and beyond my small sphere of concern. And if this is so with the spirit of the seasons, how much moreso with the Creator of us all?
In the end, only Providence endures…

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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.

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