Tag Archives: Temple

Sacred Space: Finger Bones

My hands ache.

I am acutely aware of the weight and shape of every bone in my hand.

I can feel the tendons stretching and relaxing as my fingertips dance over the keyboard to write these words.  The movements, subtle though there are, carry their own slight discomfort to the pain centers of my brain.

The tenderness is unfamiliar, and irritating, and strangely welcome.

It means that I’ve actually been working.

***

These posts, in my Sacred Space series, are supposed to chronicle my efforts at building a small private temple on my property.

The tree, which I mean to carve, stands untouched.  The ground where the fire pit will eventually go, the fountain and small reflecting pool, the spiral walkways…,

It’s all still a grassy patch of nothing in particular.

The plans are there, but the time, and the will to begin, remain elusive.

***

I took half of the month of May away from my job.

Beltane was celebrated with fire and feast and a flurry of creative exertion, as I broke ground on a new workshop in the backyard.

There was digging, and then backfilling, and leveling.  Lumber and nails were unloaded and then transformed into floor and walls, and eventually many-jointed trusses arched overhead like the bones of some terrible beast.

I took a break from my job to do work, to build a place where I hope to do even more work.

And that probably seems just a little insane, in a world where vacation time is ideally spent in some sort of leisure activity – or even better, inactivity.

But while the job I go to every day puts bread on the table, it lacks true satisfaction.  I spend most of my time creating nothing, adding nothing of substance to the sum of my time on this planet.  I find, instead, that true satisfaction comes about when channeling an idea through the body and forcing it to take shape in the material world.

***

So I haven’t built my temple yet, but my workshop is almost done.

And maybe that’s not so bad, because I think a workshop is a sacred space in its own right.

The stories that my ancestors have passed down, about the gods we worship, tell us that they were not only masters of warfare, and magic, and healing.  The greatest of the gods, the ones who were heroes among their own immortal folk, were the masters of every art and craft.

At the woodworking bench, at the forge, at the loom and the wheel, wielding hammer and saw, and torch and trowel…, through hand and heart the very energy of creation is focused in the places where we make the things that will last beyond our fleeting lives.

We reshape the world in our image.

How better to honor the gods of our fathers?

***

My hands ache – and that is as it should be.

A hammer is scarred by every nail it strikes.

That is the sacrifice we make to change the world.

Even the bones in our hands can be a sacred space!

Lace your fingers together.

Do you remember the rhyme?

“Here is the church…here is the steeple…,”

This is the eleventh post in this wandering series, following the thoughts, planning and eventual construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Sacred Space: Sacristy

In every Catholic Church there is a special room, hidden somewhere out of sight, where the tools of the Mass are kept.  There is a rack where the priests vestments are hung, and cabinets which are used to store the various tools of the Mass: the paten and chalice, ciborium and censor.

In some churches, the Sacristy is equipped with a special sink which drains into the earth instead of into the sewers.  This sink is used to clean the vessels used during the rite of Communion, it being important that no part of the body or blood of their savior, having been washed away, should come into contact with human waste.  This is a part of the sacrament that no one sees, but is every bit as important as all the pomp and circumstance of the Mass.

If the true drama of the church takes place at the altar, before the eyes of the attendant faithful, we may think of the Sacristy as the backstage, a space both sacred and utilitarian, dedicated to the mundane needs of the priest and the fulfillment of his office.

While I grew up in the Church, I could never believe in the miracle it all hinged upon.

The rituals however, the mechanics of it all, these things were always fascinating to me.

I suppose some of the other christian churches must have Sacristies of their own, but I have observed that the further removed a denomination is from its Roman roots, the less likely it is to believe that an object can be imbued with holiness.  In these churches where the pulpit has replaced the holy altar, the robes are simply robes, and the weird little glass dixie-cups that they serve grape juice in are just weird little glass dixie-cups.

If a church like that has a Sacristy at all, surely would be in name only.

Of course, I could easily be wrong on that point.  I happily admit that my knowledge of that end of the Christian spectrum is somewhat lacking, and I am sure that someone among my friends or readers will correct me if I have muddled the details.

Still, it seems to me that if you believe that the tools of ritual are blessed, you must need a sanctified space in which to store them and to prepare them for use.

If you do not believe, or if the nature of your belief is such that you have no place for tools or ritual, the need for such a space is equally absent.

But what happens at the other end of that spectrum?  What if your belief is that everything has a living and sacred spirit, that every rock and tree, that the air we breath and the soil beneath our feet, is all of it inspirited, all humming with power and presence?

If all the word’s a stage, where do we hide all the props and costumes when they’re not in use?

 

As usual, we’ve got it backward.

“Nature is My Church” is a popular saying among pagans.

There are lots of variations of this sentiment, but it is almost always coupled an image of some pure wilderness setting, the idea being that the majesty of the forest canopy or the wind carved arches of desert stone are the pagan equivalent of a cathedrals walls.

And while I freely admit that many of my most deeply spiritual experiences, come from moments spent in a wilderness setting, I don’t think that this is what that phrase means, or what it should mean.

We have worked so hard, as a species, to compartmentalize our world and our lives.  “Nature,” we think of as a place apart from home and from work.  It is another place we might choose to go, instead of the mall or the gym.  Maybe we make daily visits to the jogging trail at the nearby city park, or we could save up our money for that once in a lifetime chance to gather the family head ‘cross country, basking in the majesty of some National Park.

But ‘going’ to church is what the Christians do.

Nature isn’t a place, and it is not a thing.

Nature is a force, and like gravity (or Facebook), it’s pretty much everywhere.

The trackless miles of old-growth forests are no more or less a part of nature than a few blades of grass, peeking up from a crack in the sidewalk.

Grass in Stone

We don’t go to nature.  Nature finds its way to us, always, crashing through whatever feeble barriers we might like to erect against it.  If nature is our church, then that’s the whole of it.

The world is OUR temple.

But does it feel that way?

Probably not.

If you are anything like me, what you feel, most of the time, is a great weight pressing you down, threatening to suffocate you beneath the endless minutia of the every day.

Oh, we can break through it from time to time.

We can steal a few moments of meditation.  We can light the fires on the special days, breathing  in the smoke, and feeling our lungs clear like we were bursting up from a deep dive.  We can calm our minds with a walk in the sunshine, or the rain, or beneath the light of the moon.

But these are fragmentary moments, and when they pass, we’ll still have to deal with pressure that comes along with the day to day grind of existence.  And most people call this “life”.

But I’ve found another word for it.

 

I call it Sacristy.

All the world is a Sacred Space, all of it, but we have made of it a storeroom.

We have, all around us, the tools of worship, but we seldom take them up.

Instead, we tuck them away in their special cubbies, lest they become misplaced.

Our spiritual selves we leave hanging on a rack, waiting for those ever so special occasions when we’ll slip them on and take ‘em for a twirl.

A couple thousand years ago a new religion, born of an unlikely marriage between a messianic cult and the religious methodology of ancient Rome, began to sweep across the land.  With its arrival the gods were banished from our day to day tasks, and the spirits of field and forest were ignored and eventually forgotten.

Because religion became a separate entity unto itself, and everything beyond the cathedral walls, profane.

And here we are, those of us who are working to resurrect the old ways, still burdened by this terrible idea: church is a place we go, religion is a thing we do, and most of our lives are spent backstage, just waiting for the next scene.

I work, and I pay my bills, and the list of things that need to be done just keeps piling up, and not the least bit of progress on the little temple that I’ve sworn to build behind my house.

Because where would I find the time, or the energy, or the money for materials, when everything else needs doing first?

It has become emblematic for me, my little temple project, of a much bigger problem.

A little more every day, I grow tired of living in the Sacristy.

****

This is the tenth post in this series, following the thoughts, planning, and (I hope), the eventual construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Sacred Space: Healing Wounds

Robins arrived this morning, and they came by the hundreds.

I heard them before I woke, a cacophony of chirping song, seeping into my dreams, drawing me steadily toward wakefulness.  When I stepped out of the door and into the backyard they were sweeping too and fro from tree to ground and back again, foraging for breakfast.

Breakfast…, just the thought of it had my stomach rumbling.  But rather than turning back toward the kitchen, I made my way down the steps, and sat crosslegged on the landing, facing out into the yard, and watched the airborne circus for just a bit.

This, I should point out, is a change.

Up until two days ago, I’d been avoiding the backyard altogether.

Oh, I’d set a bowl out for the cat, but then it was right back inside.

And it has been that way for months, truth be told.

One of the things that drew me to purchase this particular house was the great oak tree which stood at the center of the backyard, itself surrounded on all sides by a thick canopy of overhanging limbs.  This yard was a secluded haven which quieted the surrounding neighborhood bustle, while speaking in a voice all its own.

If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you may remember that the character of this sanctuary has changed dramatically in the intervening years.

The central oak died some two and a half years ago now.

In May of 2014, I wrote in the first of these Sacred Space posts, about my intention to incorporate the remains of that great tree into a shrine or small temple, in an effort to win back the spiritual center of the yard which was lost when the tree finally died.

A year later, with only the most rudimentary plans in place, calamity struck.

Due to my own failed stewardship, the yard had become overgrown and a major cutback was demanded by the city.  The aftermath was, and still is, hard for me to look at.  My secluded haven was no more.

Worse yet was the wounded feeling of the land beneath my feet.

I’ve always been one to feel the deeper currents of a place, but the voices I’d become so accustomed to were gone, replaced by something more like a cringing animal, withdrawing from any contact for fear of further hurts.

And even as I tried to sooth the insult to the spirits of that place, one of my neighbors began hassling me, demanding that I cut down the rest of the trees which ran along our fence line.  Claiming that they posed a danger of falling into her yard, and that they were interfering with the new privacy fence she wished to erect on her side of our chainlink boundary.

When I demurred, said neighbor arranged to have someone cut two of those trees down without my approval, reaching over our common fence to cut down two healthy trees on my side of the property line, and leaving the toppled remains stretched out across my yard.

When I discovered this, I shoved them back over the fence, along with an angry note explaining that any further trespass would lead to legal action.  Words were bandied about, and a long stalemate has ensued.

And so I’ve avoided the backyard.  Partly to avoid further conflict with the neighbors.  But mostly because it still hurts to see it and feel it in this condition.

I thought it would be better at night, when I couldn’t see all the damage, but it’s actually worse.

The same neighbor with whom I have been in conflict, apparently believes in 24/7 illumination of every square inch of her yard.  There are no less than seven security lights illuminating an area barely a tenth of an acre in size, and with the brush and trees so throughly cleared away, my former sanctuary is, by night,  awash in a halogen glare.

It hasn’t felt like my yard at all.

Which brings us to Friday afternoon.

It was an unseasonably warm and sunny day, and I’d forced myself out into the yard to do some cleanup work.  Just hauling some branches, leftover from the great purge, into a new pile a little farther from the house, and hanging up a couple new bird feeders I’d bought.

Old habits die hard, I guess, because in the midst of these chores, I found myself wandering out into the greater yard.  I circled past the ramshackle gardening shed, past the trunk of the dead oak, and into the area beyond, now vacant of overgrowth…, or any growth really.

I circled back toward the house, intent on finishing with the brush pile, but just as quickly I was drawn back out into the back third of my property again.  And so I allowed myself to be drawn, circling round and round, drawn in new directions by new currents, until finally I was brought to a stop in what I believe must be the new spiritual center of the yard.

Almost eight yards ahead of me stood the great tree trunk where the center had stood, but in my minds eye I could see the sculpture of the horned god which will stand there, cloaked with ivy, rising up from the center of a spiral which curls around him and then outward, passing under my feet and away to the right and left to become two more spirals, one surrounding a fountain, the other…, a kiln?

The design of the temple space which has eluded me for almost two years came suddenly to mind and just as clear as day.  It was like a watching a flower bloom suddenly from the ashes of some terrible fire.  And for the first time in months I was excited to be in my backyard again.

nightbloom

Saturday, saw more cutting and sawing, moving and piling, but done with my (our?) purpose in mind, and with permission of the local spirits both asked and granted.

And then on Sunday morning the robins came and the yard seemed to be truly alive again for the first time in a long stretch of days.

****

This is the ninth post in this series, following my off-again on-again progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you with to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Sacred Space: Inside Out

I have visited many churches over the years.

Some of them have been modern and tidy, while others were old and ruined, all tumbled walls and ivy covered stones.  Some have been big majestic affairs, full of stained glass and flying buttresses.  Others have been of a smaller design, tiny cloisters for the meekest of hermits.

A few of these churches, I have known because of family or friends who worshipped there.

Most, I will admit, I have visited as curiosities, because I have a love of history and architecture, and the village church is so often the pivot upon which both of those interests turn.

There are some beautiful old churches out there that I’d still like to visit some day.  I know I’ll walk their grounds for hours if given the opportunity.

And then there are those things that look like repurposed convention centers, complete with giant video screens and stadium seating.  From the photos I’ve seen, they appear to have all the spiritual appeal of a shopping mall, only lacking the requisite Jamba-Juice and Cinnabon.

When we look at all these designs in aggregate, and when we subtract from them all the trimmings and flourish, all the stuff that is more about the audience than the rite for which the space was designed, what we are left with is this…,

Gallarus Oratory, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

Gallarus Oratory, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

No matter how high the vaulted ceiling or how magnificent the windows, we are still talking about an enclosed space, designed to place us at a remove from the physical world, and allowing only a single sliver of light, a single truth, to break through the darkness.

This is not a new idea, nor was it particularly unique to the Christians.

Roman and Egyptian temples, from whom the early Christians took many of their cues, were of a similar design.  The purpose being to create a house for the temple god, a sacred and enclosed space in which that being could manifest in physical form.

The early Christians, took this same idea and turned it on its head.  The design of the church is not intended to bring God to the people.  Those who go around today calling this or that church “gods house” would have been stoned in the streets for idolatry, back in the day.

No, the church is a closed box designed with the sole purpose of removing the worshippers from the distractions of the physical world.

Because the world, we must remember, is bad.

Okay, it’s not actually so much “bad” as it is unimportant.  The god of Abraham built the world so that he would have a place to put us.  But he did too good a job and we started worshipping trees and rocks and aardvarks and stuff, and Jehovah looked down upon his people and was like, “well crap!”

Actually, Saul of Tarsus puts it a bit more poetically…,

They exchanged God’s truth for a lie and worshipped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

— Romans 1:25

That would be one of the more famous lines from a letter written to the earliest Christian congregations of Rome, sometime in the middle of the 1st century of the common era.

It forms one small part of a general condemnation of all things Roman, and was intended as a warning to the freshly baptized, to avoid falling into old habits, surrounded as they were by impressive temples, communal baths, and the kind of debauchery that comes of a society which never discovered pants.

Now that all seems perfectly reasonable, as long as we accept that there is but the one God and that he created an entire universe that is billions of years old, infinitely vast, and filled with trillions of stars and galaxies, all with the sole purpose of housing us for a few thousand years while we spent our time looking at all the neat stuff daddy built and getting it totally wrong.

The only thing to do, in such a circumstance, is to shut ourselves up in a box and focus all of our attention on that one ray of light.  Make that light your truth in the darkness, and reject all that is worldly.

Or maybe you don’t.

Drombeg Stone Circle (also called The Druids Altar) in Co. Cork, Ireland.

Drombeg Stone Circle (also called The Druids Altar) in Co. Cork, Ireland.

I have visited many churches over the years.

But I have also walked in places where the ancient peoples understood that the entire landscape was their holy place, where they found the alignments of mountain and valley, the sun and moon, the rising of the stars and the changing of the seasons.  I have wandered through the fields of the gods and felt their breath in the wind and the beating of their mighty hearts in the vibrations of the earth under my feet.

The path to holiness does not lead to a darkened closet.  It leads us outside, where we can see, by the light of day, where we stand in the world.

****

This is the seventh post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

It has been a long while since there was an update in this series.

The truth is, there have been many reversals of late that have drawn my attention and resources elsewhere.  For instance, only a few weeks ago the water-lines under my house ruptured, and I’ve had to have the whole works replaced at considerable expense.  Now there are still the giant holes in my walls, where the plumbers had to run new lines, that are in need of repair.

It’s just one thing after another.

So, the great tree stands limbless and ready for carving.  I have the basic design worked out and a small reference model in clay, which I am constantly fussing with.  At the moment, however, I haven’t the money to rent the scaffold I would need to reach the upper heights, nor the time and energy to do the actual work.

As for the area surrounding the tree…,

I am still thinking about that.  I walk the area nightly, trying to see how it all comes together in my head, and my vision is a little more clear now than it was just a few weeks ago.  But we’re still a long way off from a final design.

And I’m fine with that.

In the meantime, I continue to look at the sacred spaces of other traditions, looking for ideas and inspirations, as well as those things to avoid.  There is a buddhist temple near me that I’ve been meaning to visit for over a year now.  Maybe I’ll get a chance to do that soon.

Now then, I’ve spent too much time cooped up in the house writing this.

Time to step outside for a bit of fresh air and a visit with the gods.

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Sacred Space: By Design

I suppose one would have to say that the most important thing about progress reports is that there BE some progress to report.

In the case of my backyard shrine project, there has been precious little progress of any kind in these last couple months.  I had intended, by now, to have cleared away the space around the central tree trunk, to have mapped out the area, drawn up detailed layout designs, and to have at least begin the process of removing the excess limbs from the upper reaches of the tree.

However, it seems as if every time I set some time aside to work on this project, something else comes up to distract me, or the weather turns against me.  Just recently we had a nasty winds storm down here.  A straight-line wind, preceding a storm cell, blew through my neighborhood at speeds in excess of 80mph, felling entire trees in its wake.  The streets here are still lined with shattered limb and bough.  Several modest sized trees on my own property came down in the storm, and now I’ll have to find the time to clear them out of the way before I can even think about starting new projects.

It is disheartening, but I knew this project might prove itself beyond me.  I knew also that my own motivation would likely prove my greatest obstacle.

I have not given up yet.  Far from it!

Below you will see some preliminary sketch-work I’ve done, showing the dead tree as it currently stands and then some of my thoughts about how it ‘might’ look in the future.

Tree Concept Sketch

My current thinking has a raised, circular platform, around the trunk of the carved tree.  Immediately to the east of that circle and intersecting with it, a second circle, containing a reflecting pool and a raised fire bowl.  In this incarnation the whole thing lines up with sunrise on Samhain.

I am not even close to a final design for this yet.  Another idea incorporates the Celtic Triple-Spiral with three platforms of varied height providing which tie into the three realms (land, sea, sky).  A third (mostly rejected) idea involves a long arbor-like processional that spirals around the central carved tree trunk, which itself rises up from a circular pool of water.

None of these designs do a very good job of interacting with the other features of the yard and house, and it is important to me that the entire space seems to flow, rather than feeling forced.

And so more time at the drawing board is called for.  As is more time in the space itself, wandering around, feeling for the natural ebb and flow that has not quite vanished under the surface.

Time and attention are what this project needs, and both have been in short supply, with many other projects clamoring for attention.

And speaking of…,

You may remember, several weeks back now, that I mentioned a particularly powerful meditation experience, involving a certain sacred well, and Nuada of the Silver Hand.

Since awakening from the vision, I have been looking for a token to place on my home altar, to stand for the ‘fallen king’ who seems to have unexpectedly entered into my personal pantheon.  Thus far, I have found nothing that seems appropriate to the task, but a friend suggested to me that I should perhaps make my own, perhaps casting it out of pewter or some similar metal.

I have very limited experience in metal casting, but I am actually very excited by this idea and have been putting time into researching the methods, tools and materials involved.  I have also been working, in clay, on a preliminary sculpture that may form the basis of a mold in the future.

Nuada Hand Sculpt

It’s a tad crude as of yet.  I’m still trying to decide if I want to stick with just the symbolic silver hand, or work in a more anthropomorphic rendering of the deity himself, but it feels good to be sculpting something again.  When I work on things like this it feels as if something is waking up in me, some part of my inner landscape comes alive, which I have not wandered in what seems like ages.

Maybe these feelings are nothing more than happy accidents, or perhaps that comes to me by design.  In either case, the more I push back against the work-a-day existence that threatens to drown me in needless tedium, the more I try to shape the world around me into something better, the more human and alive I begin to feel.

****

This is the fifth post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Sacred Space: Off the Grid

In our heart of hearts, we seek the untamed places.

I believe that, somewhere deep inside each of us, there is a primal desire to break away from the human pack and run free through the underbrush of some imagined primordial wood.

And yet, despite that inner nature, we have been drawn, collectively, to remake the land in our own image.  After ages of effort, we gaze around us and imagine that we have successfully pushed the wilderness out and away, so that it exists in only the most remote of places.  We imagine ourselves to be safe and comfortable within our walls, warmed by the glow of our technology.

We are subsumed within ‘the Grid’, caught up within a network of roads, power lines, radio waves, and the uncountable bits of data which stream through us as we go about our busy lives.  We exist within ‘the Grid’.  We move along its pathways, perpetuating it through uncountable actions that are, to us, simply the basic stuff of living.

Drive home from work, no right on red, cook a meal, watch the news, wash the dishes, take a call, go to bed, turn off the light – we are living in the grid and it lives within us.

And yet, from time to time we seek escape.  That spark of wilderness endures within each of us, and it rebels against the constraints of civilization.  I suspect that we all feel it gnawing at us, from time to time, and for those of us who see the natural world as an expression of the divine, that drive to reconnect with the natural world may thunder through us with religious fervency.

And so, when we are asked, by outsiders, about where we go to worship, many Pagans will speak of seeking the divine in wilderness settings.

“We don’t need buildings,” we explain to the simple folk, with a lofty air, “because Nature is our Church.”

Yeah, okay.

So let’s take a moment or two to consider ‘the Grid’.

If you’ve been following along with the other posts in this series, you know that I am working toward building a small shrine/temple space in my backyard to replace a large tree that died there.

I’ve spent a lot of time, over the last couple months walking around that yard, trying to envision the proper layout between the space around that tree, my home, and the other features of my property.  It occurred to me the other day, that a view from above would be handy, in this planning process, and so it was Google Maps to the rescue.

Home From Above

So, this is where I live.  This is a satellite image of my home with a few lines I’ve added after the fact, to more clearly mark the property lines.  If you look in the lower third of the lot you will clearly see the deceased tree I’ve told you about.

Looking at this image, the first thing I noticed, of course, was how small everything really is when viewed from a distance.  But as I pondered this unusual perspective, I began to think about ‘the Grid’, and about Nature, and Wilderness, and what those words really mean.  I began to discover some really beautiful things.

At first it was just a jumble of boundaries and borders; I had to expand my view a little to really see the beauty in it.

Property Grid

This is my neighborhood, its streets and property lines, spread out for several blocks around.  I traced these lines myself over a few hours, drawn from an image on that same website.

I can’t stop looking at it.  I get lost in the subtle twists and turns of it, the orderly asymmetry as it bends and folds over the contours of the natural landscape.  We drive through our neighborhoods and we think of them as artificial spaces which we have imposed upon the landscape.  I am forced to wonder if the bee thinks any differently about her hive.

Now let me adjust the filter a bit and we’ll take another look at that same neighborhood:

Canopy Grid Thermal

In this image, everything that is white is natural canopy – trees (mostly) and shrubs, and bushes, and even a hedge or two.  You’ll notice that well over 50% of the frame is filled with tree-cover.  Now look at that patch in the upper right corner of the image.  That is a bit of natural terrain left on the fringes of my neighborhood.  This part of Texas is scrub prairie and rolling hills, dotted here and there with trees.  But here we have a veritable forest and the happiest squirrels you have ever seen.

Why?

Because ‘The Grid’ makes forests!  People plant trees, and where they don’t, they build fences where birds rest and literally crap the seeds into the ground.

I was raised in the country, and most of the trees we had, sometimes vast stands of what seemed like primordial old-growth, were actually the result of some farmer’s fence, now long gone and overgrown by time and nature.

And since I’ve moved into town, I have seen more wildlife than I ever did in the country.

Now, this is not to say that pollution and urban sprawl and overcrowding are not problems, in need of our attention.  Nor would I claim that wilderness areas and indigenous species do not need our care and protection.

But to assume that we must escape ‘the Grid’ in order to commune with the natural world is blind arrogance.  We’re really not that good at having our way, and ‘the Grid’ has as much to do with nature as anything we’ve put together.

If we vanished tomorrow, most of our precious infrastructure would be absorbed back into the landscape within a hundred years – less than the blink of an eye in geologic terms.

Nature, is NOT our church.  Nature is the the expression of the divine upon the mortal world, and it surrounds us, wherever we are.  I know this is true because even as I sit here, in my artificial environment, doors and windows closed to the outside world, I hear an erratic tapping at the window nearest me.  I pull aside the curtain, and there is a tiny bird, shaped like a miniature Bluejay, clinging to the screen and tapping at it madly with his beak.

We look at each other for a moment, and then he flies into the bushes.  I come back to my typing, and he starts again.  I raise the curtain and with a flutter he is gone, only to return the moment I begin to lower the curtain again.  We keep at it and now two more birds (finches, I think) have joined in the game.  I need to get this post done, and these little birds are playing with me!  And now I’ve told you about them, and in their own feathered way, they have contributed to the grid.

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This is the fourth post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Religion, Sacred Space, Spiritual Journey

Sacred Space: Spirit in the Tree

My neighbors must think I’m crazy.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my backyard recently, staring up at the dead tree which stands at its center.  Every few days, I find myself walking in circles through the high grass (ugh, I really need to mow) and stopping at various points to look up into the barren branches.

After two or three orbits around the trunk of that old oak, I’ll head back inside and go about the business of the day.  The sun may set and rise again a few times before I return, to gaze again into those twisting limbs.

I am looking for the shapes that I know must be hiding under the bark.

I am looking for the spirit in the tree.

One face among the many that adorn the ‘Trinity Tree’ in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Dingle, Co. Kerry.  Carved by Juan Carlos Lizana Carreño.

One face among the many that adorn the ‘Trinity Tree’ in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Dingle, County Kerry. Carved by Juan Carlos Lizana Carreño.

In thinking about how we create a sacred space, it seems to me that part of the job of a temple or a shrine is to remove us from the everyday world of our mortal lives.  While the gods may walk among us as we go about our daily routine, we might never notice their presence because we are conditioned, over a lifetime, to expect only the ordinary.

Our ancestors believed that to experience the divine, we must enter into an altered state of awareness.  There are many means to do this, but the temple is the physical manifestation of that altered state.  The temple sets the mood, it removes us from the ordinary and offers us a glimpse of the otherworld where the gods reside.

Dingle Tree Friar

In my travels, I have encountered a few places that felt as if they were set apart from the world around them.  Most I have sought out, but a few I stumbled upon by accident.

Such was the case a few years ago while traveling along the western coast of Ireland.

Upon arriving in the town of Dingle, in Co. Kerry, and checking into our Bed & Breakfast, the kindly Hostess of the establishment sat us down and offered us a number of suggestions as to what my girlfriend and I should see and do while touring the area.

Now I am very much the planner, when it comes to mapping out my explorations, but I do like to leave some room for chance encounters, and something that our Hostess said grabbed my attention.

“Oh, and you really must visit the Angel Trees!”

“Angel Trees?”

“Oh yes, they are like nothing you have ever seen.”

At the top of the Pilgrim Tree we see the pagan Ulster king, Suibhne, transformed into a birdlike creature by the holy magic of St. Ronan.

At the top of the Pilgrim Tree we see the pagan Ulster king, Suibhne, transformed into a birdlike creature by the holy magic of St. Ronan.

In the town of Dingle, in the west of Ireland, off a narrow street that seems more like an alleyway than something you would actually want to drive through, in the garden of a rectory that sits beside a rather pedestrian little church, there is a doorway to another world.

In this otherwise simple garden, stand a handful of tree-trunks, ash and oak, that are carved in such a way that standing among them I felt as if I had been transported somewhere else entirely.

The imagery, while Christian in theme, had a primitive, tribal nature to it, which seems quite out of place with the rather mundane surroundings.  And yet, while you might expect a certain dissonance between the trees and their surroundings, in my experience, the sculptures draw you in to their world, leaving the mortal realm far behind.

Here we see Saint Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the Christian Devil.

Here we see Saint Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the Christian Devil.

And now, several years later, as I gaze up into the branches of the dead oak behind my house, I am looking for the shapes that will have that same effect on those who see them.

When I first began planning this project I assumed that after limbing the tree and shortening the trunk, I would enclose in within some structure.  Yet, thinking back to those unexpected trees in Dingle, I realize how much more powerful it would be, to have an open air temple with that great carved trunk as its focal point.

And so I wander into my backyard at odd hours of the day.

I gaze upward, looking for the shapes that must be hiding under the bark.

I am looking for the spirit in the tree.

In this detail we see the Devil riding upon the shoulders of Death itself.

In this detail we see the Devil riding upon the shoulders of Death itself.

****

This is the third post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Filed under Art, Ireland, Photography, Religion, Sacred Space, Spiritual Journey, Travel

Sacred Space: My body is my temple

How do we create a sacred space?

We begin with what we have, of course.  Before stone or timber, before even the first shovel-full of dirt is turned, we begin with the first temple we ever knew.

We begin with the body.

Deep in the lore of many peoples, there are stories about how the world was made.  Some of those ancient tales speak of a great giant, a primordial spirit of selfish chaos, a tyrant put down by his own children.  His skin, they say, was stretched out of shape upon the sharpened skewers of his own bones.  He who would have consumed all, was made all, and the universe as we know it, built from his immortal flesh.

There are other stories, of course.  In some of these, we may find a great mother.  She is the mother of all life and however far we wander, we are never far from her.  The great hills are her breasts, the wind is her breath, and the distant horizon marks the subtle curve of her belly.  She who birthed all is likewise home to all, and the universe as we know it is shaped from her immortal flesh.

The people who told those stories wandered through a world which was, every fiber of it, divine.  The whole of the world was holy to them, and yet as they explored those uncharted places, they found tracts where the spirit was stronger, the land more alive.  The ancients gathered in these places.  They built temples and tombs and observatories, and in doing so, they focused the power which flowed there, bridging the gap perhaps, between the world we know, and the one which lie just outside our mortal grasp.

These were the first sacred spaces.

If you have read the first post in this series, you will know that I am endeavoring to design and build, either a small temple or a shrine, on the property behind my home.  It is a big project and there are many questions which I feel need to be answered before I can even ‘break ground’.

The first, and I think, most obvious of these questions is: ‘What is a temple?’.

And the answer, I have come to believe, is that a temple is, at its most fundamental level, an extension of the body.

Vitruvian Man

“My Body is My Temple.”

It is one of those catch phrases which you hear carelessly tossed around by yoga instructors and fitness gurus.  And in this modern western context, the expression represents a philosophy of focus upon the self.  In particular, it seems intended to promote a mindfulness on the health and wellbeing of body and mind.

Well, that’s a fine start, but I think we can do better.

Digging a little deeper, we see that this particular adage is actually paraphrased from the First Epistle to the Corinthians in the Christian Bible, where it reads like this…,

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

Now within this particular religious context, we are told that the human body is a house built for the Holy Spirit, which is, according to Christian tradition, one part of that Holy Trinity which makes up the godhead.  We are further admonished to treat the body as we would a physical temple: keeping it free from corruption and remaining reverent in its use.

The body then, according to Christian scripture, is a house for their god.  And while the specific words may have their origin in the Bible, it seems clear that the basic idea behind those words is far older.

The ancients, as we have seen, understood that the world around them was a physical manifestation of the gods they worshipped.  Throughout the homelands of my own ancestors, there are natural features, hills and rivers and rocky islands, that still carry the names of the deities of whom they were believed to form a part.

We mortal men move across the body of the land and it is the temple within which we worship.  But even as we move upon the land, the gods move within us.  We were not created in the image of the gods.  We look like them because we evolved in a world which is made of their flesh and bone.  The gods exist within us because we are part of them, and we have it within our power to sanctify that space and to invite them to be housed within our hearts and minds.

So why then, should we build temples at all?  What need have we to house the gods when we have the power to hold them within us?

For most of us Pagans and Polytheists, just hanging on at the spiritual fringes of society, the only temple we will ever know is the one we build within ourselves.  And for some, that may be enough.

But the answer to the question “why?” is in the phrase itself.

“My Body is My Temple.”

My temple.  Not yours, not ours.  Just mine.

Our ancestors gathered together within the sacred spaces, the temples, tombs, shrines and observatories, because human beings have an inborn need for shared experience.

We have grown too comfortable in our solitude, and it gains us but little.

Alone we contribute nothing.

Together we become powerful.

And the temples will be, as they have always been, where we go to share.

I wonder if it is only coincidence that when we gather into large groups we are often called ‘a body’.

****

This is the second post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

 

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Filed under Mythology, Nature, Religion, Sacred Space, The Gods

Sacred Space: Barren Branches

It has been almost exactly twelve years since I moved into my little house in Fort Worth.

I had been house hunting, off and on, for about a year, when I found it.  In that time I had driven my realtor to distraction, turning away from one house after another that seemed to meet the qualifications I had listed for her, but did not appeal to me on some deeper level.  There were always practical reasons, of course: I didn’t like the street, the roof looked like it might need a re-shingling, unsightly cracks in the walkways around the house.  One place even had carpeting in the kitchen!  Who does that?!

The truth is, I fully expected that any place I bought would require some vigorous remodeling, and any of those blemishes could have been dealt with in good time.  These were the “practical” excuses, which I could express out loud, in leu of the real reason for all these rejections…, none of these houses spoke to me.

At one point, I nearly put a deposit down on a house a few blocks away from where I currently live.  I stopped myself at the last minute, when I realized that I was doing it because I was upset with myself for being unable to settle on something, and because I could feel the exasperation coming off of my realtor in waves.

I don’t like being an unreasonable person, and it WAS a perfectly serviceable little house, with a nice big porch and very tall ceilings.

Did I mention the carpeting in the kitchen?

Well sure, I could have torn the carpeting out and put in some nice tile, but that seemed like a lot of work for a house that didn’t have anything to say for itself.

So I gave it a pass.

“Okay, so why don’t you look at the listings on the web again and if you see something that you really like, just give me a call and we’ll take a look.”

Translation: “Stop wasting my time.”

So, back to the real-estate listings I went, and almost right away I spotted this cute little white house that hadn’t been there on my previous searches.  The price was right and the square footage looked good, but I almost didn’t call because I was afraid it might be another dud.

Sure enough, there were some cracks over a few of the interior doorways, along with wretched blue carpeting (replete with cigarette burns), and a ghastly drop-ceiling in the den (converted garage).  On the other hand, I liked the odd layout of the place, the 1950’s style kitchen was charming, and the street seemed quiet and friendly.

Then, we stepped through the back door and into the yard beyond and I was sold.  The entire thing was enclosed within a leafy canopy.  Oak, hackberry, and mesquite trees arched from either side of the yard creating a shady avenue, at the center of which stood a massive oak.

No matter where I walked in that yard, I couldn’t pull my eyes away from that tree for long.  We wandered back inside, to give the house another walkthrough, and I noticed how the bedroom and kitchen windows both gave excellent views of the backyard and the dominate tree at its center.

The tree, the yard, the house…, they spoke to me, and all the little problems that would have caused me to keep looking, had it been any other house, became projects that I would get to eventually.

Needless to say, I bought the house.

That was twelve years ago.

I’ve spent a lot of the intervening years dealing with maintenance problems and remodeling projects that never seem to end.  I’ve just spent the last two weeks away from work, trying to get caught up on some of those projects and frankly, I am bone-tired.

There have been moments when I’ve regretted buying this place, when it seems to fight my maintenance efforts with every fiber of it’s woody frame and I imagine just walking away and calling it done.  I tell myself that every homeowner has such moments, now and then.

Eventually, after the house and I have spent a few days glaring silently at each other from our respective corners, we come to a suitable accommodation.

I roam from corner to corner, looking not at walls and ceiling but at potential character.  Day becomes night, the world grows dark and cool, and I can hear that deep old voice speaking to me again.

When I hear that voice, I am often moved to wander the backyard, feeling the ebb and flow of the ground beneath me, and making my way out to that great oak in the center of the yard.  I stand there, near its trunk, and I stare up into the dark cloud spreading above me.

Or so it used to be.

Now there are only barren branches and the darkened sky above.

Barren Oak

The tree died last year.

I’d watched it diminishing for the last five years.

They were little changes at first: greater than normal scarring in the bark, a thinning in the shape of the leaves, less fullness in the density of the overarching canopy.  I’d spent enough time under that tree to know when it wasn’t feeling well.

It was the spiritual center of my property, after all.

It was the heart of my sacred space.

And it was finished off, in the end, by long drought and a hard winter.

After that, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hear the land at all.  The voice is still there, of course, only muted and unfocused.  The landscape has changed and the center cannot hold.

So now we come to it.

Throughout the years, my sacred spaces have always been ones that I found, usually, but not always, in some expression of the natural environment.

On the other hand, in my travels I have encountered many places that have been ‘made’ sacred by the mind and hand of men, places where the energy and voice of the land have been focused into an almost tangible force.  How is this achieved, and can it be done in a place that has lost a vital element in the spiritual equation that made it powerful in the first place?

I don’t know, but I intend to find out.

My goal it to build a small temple space around the trunk of that perished oak.  I will cut away the limbs, strip away the bark, and shape the wood underneath.  I hope that the roots that still lie there can be used to draw that space back into focus.  It’s a major undertaking, both physically and otherwise, and the exact form and functionality of the space, still elude me.

Oh, and I have no working time frame.

There are projects inside the house that demand my attention in both time and resources.  The ‘Sacred Space’ project is one that will be long in coming but never, I think, far from my thoughts.

In the coming months I will be visiting various other spaces, and re-examining those I have visited already.  I want to see what I can learn from them, how they were built, how they exist within the landscape, and how I can apply those things to the shrine I will eventually build in my backyard.

Along the way, I intend to do a lot of “thinking out loud” and I’ll be doing that thinking here with a series of blog posts labeled ‘Sacred Space’.  You can probably expect one of these to show up every month or so.  I hope you don’t mind.

And if anyone has any suggestions or ideas on the topic, I would love to hear them.  Please, comment away.

Can we build sacred space?

“Facts are the barren branches on which we hang the dear, obscuring foliage of our dreams.”

— Natalie Babbitt, Kneeknock Rise

Maybe so, but dreamers have been known to build some pretty incredible things.

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Filed under About this Blog, Modern Life, Nature, Sacred Space, Spiritual Journey

Private Practice?

What do we want?

It’s a question that I’ve been asking for a long time, though not quite so directly.

Usually, I prefer a more oblique approach, poking around the edges of things, looking for those forgotten connections that so often lead us to the unspoken questions we should be asking ourselves…,

Who am I?

Who are we?

What do we want?

Yet, however much I may enjoy the scenic route, sometimes it’s liberating to just come right out and ask the damned questions and see where the answers take us.

“We are a religious movement that embraces plurality, and most often, polytheism, so we tend to reject easy binary dualisms, but there does seem to be an often unasked question hanging over many of our debates lately: what do we collectively want? Do we want to be part of the West’s religious institutional structure with churches, libraries, and schools, or do we want to be unpredictable, wild, and outside of traditional society’s norms?”

—Jason Pitzl-Waters • The Wild Hunt • January 11, 2014

In his piece, (which I highly recommend reading), Jason frames the question as a distinction between western culture and counter-culture.  On one side we are shown the trappings of acceptance within the modern religious community (churches, schools, legal protection) and on the other side is set the free-spirited, build-it-yourself nature that embodies much of the modern Pagan spiritual movement.

It is an interesting, if not entirely fair, way to present the argument.

Expressed within this framework, it presupposes that the Pagan movement is a counter-culture phenomena, and not, as I have always seen it, a means of self-correction within a society gone wrong.  When we refer to ourselves in this context, as “outside the acceptable norms”, do we not lend support to those who wish nothing more than to cast us in the roll of misfits and troublemakers.

And frankly, I don’t understand how Paganism can be a “counter-culture movement” when the whole laundry list of ‘establishment’ credentials (schools, libraries, legal protections) that we are presented with, were invented by polytheists, within pagan societies.

Big Scary Institution

It would do us well to remember that, just a couple thousand years ago, it was the Christians who were the “hairy hippies”, hanging on at the fringes of society.

I don’t believe we become “sell-outs” by wanting the things that are ours by right.

But do ‘we’ want them?

And who is ‘we’?

While reading through the reader comments at the end of Jason’s post, I counted a number of different perspectives.

There were, happily, those who, like myself, seem to hunger for the far-off days to come, when the polytheistic traditions rise out of the shadows to find equal standing with the monotheistic faiths.  We’d like to see temples and clergy and schools dedicated to the gods, and we don’t fear that having these things will rob us of the freedom to worship as individuals in whatever manner we are called to do so.

Others were fixated on the all too practical questions of how to institutionalize without losing the spontaneity of the local group-dynamic or the dreams of the mad-mystics.

Some rankled, as I do, at the application of the “counter-cultural” label.  While others seem unsure if the term has any real meaning in this day and age.

It was an interesting discussion, to be sure, and I wished I had found it earlier, while it was still ongoing.

There was one perspective however that was mostly absent.

It’s all too easy to overlook the (I fear) silent majority who just want to be left alone.

I’ve met so many people over the years for whom Paganism (in whatever form) is a refuge from a hurtful and unsympathetic religious orthodoxy.  These folks want nothing to do with temples or clergy, which, in their experience come hand-in-hand with dogma, and orthodoxy and painful memories.

I have deep sympathy for these folks.  Really I do.

I count a number of them among my friends.

And yet…,

I want more.

I want more for my gods.  I wan’t more for us.

I want to see a culture where we can celebrate our religious diversity openly, without fear or condemnation.

As important as I think it is to provide a healing space for the spiritually abused, I firmly believe that if we were more visible, more open, more ‘institutional’, the people who need us could find us sooner, perhaps even before the damage was done.

I imagine what would happen if all the energy we devote to hiding from the dominant culture (and I think it takes far more energy than most would realize) was directed instead toward mending our society and renewing the ecological balance before our hopes for survival are taken completely out of our hands.

Jason was not wrong when he said that we need to decide “collectively” what it is we want.  If the Pagan community can set aside its differences and work toward real growth, we can accomplish great things together.

Or, we can just keep doing what we’ve been doing: our own thing.  We can keep our private practice, eschewing organization, and institution, and the compromise that must always occur when people start to work together.  We live and we die and we pass nothing on to those who come after  – except of course the same broken culture we were so determined to hide ourselves away from.

I don’t know about you, but I think I’m done with the “solitary” thing.

Private practice may provide a false sense of security, but it gives nothing back.

It is time to start building things.

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Filed under Culture, Interfaith, Modern Life, Philosophy, Religion, Spiritual Journey