Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mabon at Cedarlight

Our visit to Cedarlight Grove was not only my first Druid style High Day ritual - it was very close to my first public neopagan ritual of any sort.  While I've identified as pagan for several years now, I've always been solitary and, for the most part, closeted.  So, I was both highly curious and excited, and a little bit intimidated and shy about going.  I had very little idea of what to expect, or how welcome strangers would be.

I needn't have worried, though - when we arrived, bearing stuffed grape leaves as our contribution to the pot luck, we were greeted warmly by several people, helpfully shown where important things like the bathroom and kitchen were, and otherwise made to feel as if we were welcome and a part of things.

Cedarlight Grove occupies a suburban plot in Baltimore - there is a wooded grove of mature trees in the back yard, and the house is warm and inviting, with a variety of themed altars scattered around, along with multiple seating areas both inside and out.

Not too long after we arrived, Crystal, Cedarlight's Senior Druid, rounded everyone up for pre-ritual briefing, which I found to be incredibly helpful - the order of the ritual was gone over, with everyone confirming who would be doing what, as well as explanations of what each portion was about.  Chants and songs that would be used were gone over, so that we had an opportunity to practice them ahead of time, and warnings about the terrain and environment outside in the Grove were given.  By the end of the briefing, I felt much more confident and comfortable, with only some bit of uncertainty about the protocol for offering sacrifices - and that proved to be the only portion of the ritual itself that had me confused, as I'll explain.

We walked outside, and over a small footbridge where we were able to purify ourselves with sage that was burning in a small cast iron cauldron. We walked beyond and found seats arranged in a circle around a central tree flanked by a fire pit to the left and an inground pond surrounded by rocks and plants on the right - this arrangement created the Fire-Tree-Water Cosmos favored by ADF.

In front of the tree was an altar with a variety of objects and offerings on it, and behind us, outside the circle of chairs, was another smallish table loaded with various sacrificial offerings people have brought in.  We laid the jar of milk and trio of incense sticks we'd brought on this second table, and waited for the ritual to begin.

Until now I'd only read the ADF style rituals and, frankly, had had a difficult time mentally turning away from the four elements and circle style ritual - but as soon as this began, it all made complete and coherent sense to me.

One part I was really not sure about was handling the Outdwellers - rather than creating a circle that encloses the ritual within protective space, ADF handles spirits and beings that don't belong at the ritual, or who might disrupt it, by giving them offerings of food and ale and shiny things, placing it outside the grove in order to keep them busy.  I found this part to be one of the most meaningful portions of the celebration - we were asked to think about those things that were distracting us today, whether it be bad moods, or mishaps, or whatever - and what came to my mind was my RA, which often makes sitting uncomfortable and hard to ignore, and the mosquitoes, which were driving me slighly crazy.  With great fanfare, one of the men carried a plate full of goodies and a bottle of ale outside the ritual space, and then snuck back in quietly - both amusing and visually compelling.  Now, it may be that the rest of the ritual was simply so interesting that I forgot my little aches and stings, but the simple truth is that however it happened, I was pain free and the bites on my ankles that had been making me nuts stopped itching at all until the next morning.

So... I am sold on that way of handling things.

There were call and response style praise prayers, attention paid to the Gatekeeper (Epona), to the Ancestors, the Nature spirits, and the Shining Ones.  The god and goddess there as special patrons were of the Gaulish pantheon - and I am not (yet) very familiar with either one: Teutates, which if I understood properly, handles order and ritual, and Nementona, goddess of the grove, so an Earth Goddess.

At multiple points, we were encouraged to bring up our offerings to each of these, and this is where it got confusing, as I think we offered ours at the wrong point.  Actually, I think we didn't bring nearly enough, and we'll make sure to not make that mistake again.  I am not sure if this was our own ignorance at fault or if it could have been explained more, but that was the only real confusion I felt.

At a certain point, 'praise offerings' were also made, with people playing an instrument, or dancing, or singing, or simply speaking, as an offering to the gods.  An omen was drawn to ask if the offerings had been accepted, and we were told they wanted more singing - so we all sang a few chants and songs, and were told the offerings had been accepted.

An omen was then drawn with a message about letting go of conflict and the need for healing, and by then it was full dark, and very peaceful.

When the ritual was over, we headed inside to share in the pot luck - and I was very happy to notice that there wasn't a quick bustle to get home.  People ate, talked, laughed a lot and everywhere on the lot, inside and outside, there were clusters of people sharing time together.  To me, that is the primary sign of a good healthy group.

I'm looking so forward to going back again for Samhain - hopefully a little better armed with knowledge, now that the initial shyness of entering a new group is passed.  And this time, we're bringing along an interested friend from our UU congregation.  All in all, this was a very happy experience that stayed with me over the next couple of days.

An interesting thing on that - the next morning, we went to church at Davies.  UUs use a flaming chalice for their religious symbol and as I was sitting there waiting for things to start I noticed something intriguing.  At that back of our altar space, there is a large, vibrantly colored painting of the World Tree, leaves falling like yods, birds nestling in the branches, roots burrowing down into the earth.  To the left was our flaming chalice.  And to the right - a bowl of water ringed with pebbles - our "Joys and Sorrows Pond", where people can share their joys and sorrows with the congregation and leave a pebble in the pond.  The three artifacts created the same Fire-Tree-Water Cosmos we'd experienced the night before.  I took that as a blessing and confirmation that this is the right path for right now.

Before I end this I want to talk about one thing about the Mabon ritual I wasn't very comfortable with, and I'm still working out how I feel about it - there is much call and response, "Huzzah!" and "Hail the Gods!" - and that part was great, lots of energy.  But that same bluntness was used when making requests of the gods, inviting them to join, etc, and each time I had a minor flinching reaction.  I don't use that sort of demanding tone - "Hear us! Bless us!" - to people I love... I am not sure why I'd want to use that tone with deities or spirits that I respect enough to want to talk to.  This is something I need an explanation for - or to work it out somehow.  But meanwhile, each time, I winced and mumbled 'please?'

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mabon 2011 -- First Ritual

This entry chronicles my first ADF ritual, only it wasn't actually the first. I attended Imbolc 2008 at CedarLight Grove in Baltimore, but then I got sidetracked and didn't keep up with my study or go back. Until now.

CedarLight drew a large group for the Autumn equinox, Mabon. They held the rite on Saturday, Sept. 24, starting at 6:30, about a half-hour before full dark. The grove's Senior Druid Crystal G led the ritual, assisted by several other members.

The ritual took place outdoors, and the grove is based in a small house in the middle of a residential neighborhood, so there were some occasional distractions -- barking dogs, voices in neighboring yards or the street -- but nothing that disrupted the flow of events. There was a bonfire, a well permanently installed in the ground, and a living ash tree, forming a triangle with the altar space inside the triangle. The deities invoked for this rite were from the Gaulish pantheon: Teutates, Nementona and Epona as the gatekeeper. I've been studying some on the Irish and Welsh deities, but the Gaulish pantheon is mostly unknown to me.

The ritual began with a responsive reading, followed by an opening prayer and honoring of the Earth, a statement of purpose and the formal establishing of the recreation of the cosmos. A chant for the group ended that opening section. Then a member stood to recite a bit of the lore of the season and another placed an offering well away from the group for the outsiders.

My companion and I noticed that mosquito activity went down remarkably after the outsiders were placated. The rest of the ritual unfolded according to the ADF core order of ritual, and everything went smoothly.

The theme of the ritual was thanksgiving -- for the bounty of the second harvest and, by extension, for jobs, homes and other blessings. A good number of people offered words of gratitude and offerings in appreciation.

That did bring up the one point of confusion for me as a newcomer. I had brought an offering of milk for Epona, and precisely when to offer it was unclear. People stepped up to the altar to place offerings during the invocation of Teutates, and then people came with individual offerings one at a time for the aforementioned offerings of praises. I put the milk there during the invocation, as that's what I saw others doing, and then I wasn't sure that had been the right time. But it was a simple matter of watching and learning -- I'll know better next time how to plan for offerings.

The woman who read the oracle was using her own system, with coins depicting kinds of horses (including unicorns.) The message she relayed to us was that this is a time to let go of things, to heal, and specifically to let go of ongoing conflicts with family members.

As this was the first ADF ritual I have attended in quite a long time, it was almost like the very first. What impressed me the most about it was the structure and flow of the order. When you read the Core Order on the page, it's hard to envision it in reality. When you experience it, it becomes clear that it forms the structure of a serious religious service that is part of a living tradition. I do think I'm fortunate to have an active and apparently thriving grove nearby though, as I'm not sure I would have had that kind of experience had I tried to do it alone or with my partner , especially lacking any experience in doing so.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn

The Autumn Equinox occurs this year on Friday, September 23rd, at 5:05 am EDT, for those that like to be astronomically precise.  I grew up thinking of Equinoxes and Solstices being on the 21st, and according to the ADF Dedicant literature, those are the 'official' dates for them, as well.  Rather like observing Martin Luther King Day on a Monday rather than actually on his birthday.

Meanwhile, we'll actually be observing it on Saturday, the 24th, because when it comes to public rituals, weekends work out much better because fewer people will be working and unable to attend.

So... happy Mabon, Harvest Feast, First Day of Autumn, Autumn Equinox, or however you call it and whenever this week you observe it.

Cooler day and chilly nights have been heralding its arrival here for the past couple of weeks.  Lots of rain and overcast skies giving way to brilliant crisp blue, and brightly colored leaves keep appearing on the ground even though there is just a tiny bit of color appearing in the trees so far.  I'm starting to speculate how I might give my little collection of potted herbs a fair chance of survival once the cold sets in and I have to provide sun and a bit of fresh air from inside the house - I am no good at houseplants, but I've noticed that the ones that live get a little bit of breeze on a regular basis.

In my private, simple manner of observing the Autumn Equinox, it has always seemed to me to be a very domestic turn of season - we begin to put away the summer clothes, and bring out a few sweaters and heavier pieces.  Meals shift from salads and grilled items designed to keep the house from overheating to soups and stews that simmer slowly, warming the house and filling the air with comforting odors that suggest that all is well.

I want to decorate - laying out dried corn and pumpkins and gourds and acorns.  I want to find a hook on which to hang my apple wreath from the front door.

Mabon for me is firstly about FOOD.  It is a harvest feast - a bountiful time celebrating the ripeness of crops tended with care and now ready to eat, and to store away for winter.  It's a time when the temperature is cool enough to can for later eating and sharing.  So much of our decor right now is the food itself, as well as other plant based icons, from acorns and leaves, to corn husk dolls and scarecrows, along with the crows themselves, which will take pre-eminence shortly, once the harvest is all in.

It is also about COLOR - fiery reds and golds and yellows and browns, as if the green of summer must go up in flame before dying out in the winter.  All this color helps us keep warm as the days go blustery and make it sheer pleasure to walk, kicking leaves, and pulling sweaters close around us like a hug.

There are some myths associated with this time of year - the one I am most familiar with is that of Ceres and Persephone, and the earth mother's grief and outrage at the loss of her daughter to Hades causing her to stop growing, plunging the world into death and cold, mirroring her daughter's ascent into the land of the dead, only to find all these plants not dead, but merely dormant, just as Persephone rises to life again in the spring.

But  I have a hard time seeing all this blaze of color and scent and ripeness as any sort of grief when it seems like such an extravagant reveling of abundance, so I think of that story coming a bit later, as the last leaves have fallen from the trees and the last vegetables brought in from the garden, leaving barren stalks and stems.

I very much hope Autumn stays with us a long time this year. 

I'm looking forward to this weekend's Grove celebration, and while I've read sample rituals, I've not yet mentally turned my mind toward ADF style rituals and away from generically Wiccan-styled patterns.  I am most looking forward to simply experiencing it rather than reading about it, as I think that is what it's going to take for me to instinctively 'get' it.

They're having a potluck after, and I'll be making Stuffed Grape Leaves - rather than strictly Greek style, I decided to follow this recipe, which uses dried fruits and nuts as well as rice, making it all a nice homage to Autumn. Yum!

Newbies in the Grove

This Saturday we plan to travel to Baltimore (about an hour's drive) to take part in the Autumn Equinox observance at CedarLight Grove. I attended one ritual there a few years ago, but then dropped off the ADF path. It'll be Lynda's first time.

The Autumn Equinox has marked the start of my favorite time of year for many years. I love the Autumn, when the heat of summer has broken and the deep cold of winter not yet come. The smells and colors of nature are especially intense, and the touches of chill in the air are reminders of the cycles of nature. Granted the start of every new season is marked by changes in temperature and colors, but there's something intangible that's different about Autumn.

We're looking forward to meeting the people at the grove. We had a rune reading this weekend at Sacred Circle, and one of the aspects the reader saw was the coming of a new social circle into our lives. We're guessing this is it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My 1st Oath and Challenges

This was a challenging milestone for me - I have advanced rheumatoid arthritis, and since the week before Hurricane Irene, I've been flaring.  That means not only a lot of pain and immobility, but exhaustion, 'brain fog', and a growing sense of discouragement.

And that is why we were a day late - I was not ready, and the very idea of pushing to get ready made me want to find a deep hole to hide in.

But, a few extra hours to get myself in a better frame of mind made a big difference.  A little debrief on our ritual - it was simple, intentionally, but I do think we needed to plan better and even though it's just the two of us, it needs to be handled as a group ritual in the sense that we need to clearly know who is doing what.  There was a bit of fumbling, things that didn't quite come together, but in spite of all that, it felt meaningful and a good start!  Next month, we'll do better.

My oath, modified from the suggested ADF First Oath:

I, born Lynda F.. E........, before my partner and beloved Michael and those Gods and Goddesses, spirits of hearth and place, and my ancestors in blood and belief willing to act as witnesses, vow to devote the next year to examining and expressing my Pagan life as a seeker of the Old Ways and a worshiper of the Elder Gods and Goddesses.

With this holy oath, I set my foot upon the Druid's Way.

I vow to do my duty to society, my kin, friends and community by seeking virtue in my daily life. 

I vow to do my duty to the Gods and Goddesses and the spirits of hearth and place by regularly keeping the rites and works that call to me.

I vow to do my duty to myself by deepening my understanding of the Druid Way though study, contemplation and discipline, that I might fill my mind with the truth of the Elder Paths.

After the ritual, we shared some homemade mead and locally grown pear slices, and left a share - along with some milk and honeycomb - as an offering.  Just as we finished and put out the candles, the full moon broke through the circle of trees overhead into a small patch of clear sky and lit everything up for a moment before moving onward.

Our next step will be to prepare for Mabon - the Autumn Equinox.  We plan to celebrate with a public grove in Baltimore and I'm very excited about that!  We're fortunate to have a grove near enough to experience group rituals, which will help us get a feel for this.

One Day Late

Our first oaths were delayed by a day because we weren't prepared on the 12th. But on the 13th, we began our evening with a meal and tarot reading in honor of the full moon. Then, around midnight, we went outside and set up a makeshift altar on a card table and held a brief ritual. This was more elaborate than ADF requires for the first oaths, but we'd already decided to hold a small rite for each full moon, and the timing worked out well for combining the two.

We each read our oaths, and then we offered milk and honey to the gods and land spirits. Then we shared mead and a pear in honor of the harvest moon.

The text of my oath:

I, Michael, pledge to devote myself to the study of Druidry, to the keeping of its ways and to devotion to the Powers. With this holy oath, I set my foot upon the path and vow to pursue virtue,piety and study.

I vow to seek virtue in my life, to do right by my family, my friends and my community.

I vow to honor the ancestors, land spirits and elder gods, and to listen for them to speak to me.

I vow to pursue knowledge and understanding, through reading, study and interaction with those further along the road.

These things I swear to the gods, with my partner Lynda as my witness. So be it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

First Oath

The First Oath

The first oath is not a public one, nor is it meant to be a final commitment to anything beyond the study required for the Dedicant path. The Dedicant pledges to pursue the three core values of ADF Druidy: Virtue, piety and study. ADF offers a sample one which is fine, but I want to try to personalize mine some.

I've been working on writing my own for a couple of days, and this morning got it done. We're planning to speak these on Monday, Sept. 12, under the full moon. I will post the text after it's said.

This is the first really formal step on this path, the moment of commitment. It's exciting.

Over at our other blog, A Weed By The Wall, I've been writing a series called "My Pagan Soul." I'm trying to trace my spiritual evolution, from my upbringing as a Methodist, through periods of agnosticism alternating with efforts to return to the church, to finally having to admit that pagan ideas resonate with me much more than do Christian ones. Shaking that early formation is not easy (somehow, backing away from Christianity into agnosticism feels like much less of a discontinuity than turning from Christianity to paganism), and it's taken me a few years of wrestling to get to this point.

But I am here now and this oath will be my moment of embracing it fully.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rain Magic

Fire Lyte over at Inciting a Riot is putting out a communal call to all - witchy, prayers, senders of positive energy - to come together on Saturday to do some work on behalf of the draughts in Texas.  He's attached a rain spell of his own to the post for those who do not already have their own preferred methods.

Texas could sure use some water right now.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Why the Dedicant's Path?

We're using Rev. Michael Dangler's study guide to help put some structure around the ADF Dedicant manual. For the first week, after some introductory reading, he wants us to ponder some questions.   Sunday night, we sat in the backyard grilling some corn and chicken for dinner and had a conversation about these.

1. Why have you chosen to take the first steps on the Dedicant path?

M. I've been interested in Druidry for a while now, and even had joined ADF once before, in 2008, though I didn't get very far with it at the time. The reason I want to begin again is that I want a systematic approach to delving into a religious practice. As a UU, I get a good religious community and exposure to a breadth of theological opinions. From ADF, I hope for less breadth and more depth. I think the two together may be a good fit.

L.  Honestly, I've always been a bit leery about joining anything - so something is definitely altering for me this year when I've joined (happily) both our local UU congregation and ADF as a year long commitment to the Dedicant's path.  I can't deny that having someone on the path with me helps me make that choice, but I also am feeling an increased desire to develop an actual religious practice.  Oddly, the Adult Religious Education ("Sunday School") class we've been taking this summer really motivated me to look for some sort of concrete religious practice, so UU and ADF are playing nicely together so far.

2. Is this a step on your path or will it become the path itself?

M. Hard to say. I'm not sure I fully understand the question. But tentatively I will say it is a step.

L.  I am deliberately saying "I don't know yet."  I see one of the goals of this path being to answer this question.  But I also don't think it's a step OR the path but more the terrain and scenery that surrounds the path we're already on, if that makes any sense.

3. What do you expect to learn?

M. On the surface, the answer is obvious: I expect to learn the theory and practice of ADF Druidry. But in addition to that, I expect to learn how it feels to walk a pagan path for a long period, something I've not done before.

L. I've regarded myself as pagan for several years now, but without ever solidly trying to define what that means to me.  I expect to have some committed time to read mindfully a few books I might otherwise have not chosen at a purely recreational level, and to learn better discipline about actually carrying out acts of piety, and also more about the Druid variety of neo-pagan thinking, which I think will provide some good balance with the more Wiccan-style paganism that is most commonly available.

4. What would you like to get out of this journey?

M. A sense of whether or not this is a path I want to continue growing within.

L.  I agree - you'd mentioned regarding it as an exploratory study, and I think that's the way I see it too.  I expect to gain  some solid grounding in understanding and practice, and again, discipline in a religious practice - even if at the end of this I decide Druidry is not for me, I want to take that much away with me, and that makes it entirely worth the time spent!

5. Do you know where this path will take you?
M. Not at all. Which is part of the intrigue.

L. Nope, me neither - and again, deliberately leaving that an open question, but I'm eager to see where it leads!

6. If you have just joined ADF, why have you chosen to work on this immediately?

M. As I said above, this is both new and three years delayed. But as I have just rejoined, I'll say because it's the structured study that most appeals to me. Why would I delay?

L. For me, the ability to enter into this course of study is why I chose to join ADF. 

7. Does it look hard or easy? Which requirements look hard and which look easy?

M. It looks challenging. It is a lot of new ways of thinking to settle into, along with a significant amount of reading. But it doesn't look overwhelming.

L. Challenging, for sure - challenging to my internal procrastinator, and I welcome that challenge.  The material looks like it provides enough 'stretch' to come out at the other end having grown quite a bit, but not so hard it feels like a painful slog.  The harder parts for me are where it gets into actually writing ritual... I never had, and the idea is intimidating, so I look forward to pushing myself there.  There will also be some challenge around holiday times, where we are likely to have a lot of visiting family members that make make it difficult to stick to any path other than keeping the dishes washed.  But we're accounting for that and will just add time as needed to make up for busy periods.

8. Do you have doubts, concerns or questions that you need to ask about?

M: About the program itself, no. About whether it will ultimately prove to be the path I stay with, sure, but since I'm just on the front doorstep at this point, that's to be expected.

L.  My only real concern was (I am less concerned after looking over the material than I was even a week ago) whether or not this is a separate path than what I've been on, and if I'd be needing to set aside understandings that are important to me for the duration - I tend to be Goddess centered.  But what I'm seeing here is that Druidry offers plenty of room for that, while giving fair time to the Gods as well, and I look forward to acquainting myself to that aspect of deity.

I'm sure we'll have plenty of questions as we go, though.

The Cauldron Born

... We call to the powers of Earth, Sea and Sky,
Of Dragon and Faerie and Shades of the night,
We calls to our ancestors of blood and bone,
Of womb and tomb, and standing stone.

... Lady stir your Cauldron well,
Chant your words and sing your spell,
Deep within the darkened hall,
Hear the Goddess Ceridwen call.
Come and taste of the Cauldron's Brew,
And magic she will give to you,
You will dance in the eye of the storm,
You're Ceridwen's Children,
The Cauldron Born!.

~ from The Cauldron Born, Damh the Bard

A new blog for a new project - we are Michael and Lynda, life partners and best friends.  We are Universalist Unitarian pagans, and we've recently joined Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) and will be working through their Dedicant's Path (Our Druidry) for the next year or so.  A part of the training involves keeping a journal, and we've decided to keep one together, here online to help us both with accountability.

The title is from Damh the Bard's song of the same name - if you're not familiar with it, I highly recommend spending some time with his music - fun and inspiring stuff!