Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Art of Ritual

I started down my Pagan Path back in 1986, when I initiated into a Wiccan tradition. The concepts of being closer, more in touch, more connected with the Natural world were strong attractors for me. Some of the concepts of God and Goddess were difficult to completely comprehend, even with my own personal research into the Greek Gods and Goddesses. But the chasm to leap over wasn’t that wide, so it was a part of Wicca I understood well. Ritual, on the other hand, was an area I approached with great trepidation. This was completely unfamiliar territory – being a part of a ritual ceremony, playing a role, memorizing lines that just sounded odd to me. And to be honest, there wasn’t that much out there to help me, aside from my new coven-mates – most of whom I could barely remember their names. Damn, I really wish that Rachel Patterson‘s book, “The Art of Ritual” had been available then!

I love Moon Books, and their authors are folks that I tend to read a lot. I picked up this book because it approached an area that I still have issues with – thirty years down the Path. Most of my rituals are impromptu, and utilize very few of the “tools” that a lot of ritual ceremonies seem to. In fact, the only tool I typically seem to have on-hand is my staff. It doubles as a walking aid, as well as an impromptu weapon if the need arises. So when the Awen grabs a hold of me and has me calling Quarters and casting a circle, my gestures are punctuated by my staff. Most of the typical tools that most people associate with ritual are essentially foreign to me. Guess what?  There’s a chapter about that in this book! And the materials are explained very well, without going into ad-nauseum detail. While some of the descriptives are aimed towards a Wicca-centric knowledge-base, Rachel does a wonderful job of writing this in a manner that doesn’t have that overarching feel.

Then there’s the section about ritual preparation, as well as very well explained examples of some of the phrasing that is seemingly commonplace. What I wouldn’t give to jump into a TARDIS with this book in hand when I was first learning ritual concepts in my infant steps within Wicca. It would have saved many an awkward moment for me, not knowing if I was asking a stupid question about the way something was said. This would have been complete gold for me at that time. So I am envious of those newbies taking their first steps within Paganism with a handy guide such as this.

There’s also a detailed look at the Elements and the roles that each play within a basic ritual concept, as well as some conversation on energy working, calling the Gods and Goddesses, and preparing one’s mental frame of mind. The second part of the book focuses on an explanation of various types of rituals, the concepts behind each, as well as some advice on how to prepare one’s self for rituals. But that’s not all…. The section on ritual planning, in my opinion is worth double the price of the book, in my opinion.

Again, I wish that I had some of this written somewhere that I could have studied and worked with in my early steps on my Pagan Path. Instead, I am envious of those that will have this resource available to them, and will be happy that I will too. Even if it may be thirty years into my steps to where I am now. I can only hope that through my study at this late point on my own Path, that I will become a better ritualist – not only as a solo Pagan, but also in the future when I get the chance to work with groups. Rachel, thank you for writing this gem.

Review: The Path of Paganism – John Beckett

Before I get going too far, I do have to note – I know John in real life. I am also an avid reader of his blog. And while both of these provide some degree of prejudice when it comes to reviewing his book, I like to think I am capable of being more than just a raging fanboy. With that noted here at the onset, let’s take a voyage into The Path of Paganism.

First off, the cover depicts a forested scene, where a part of the upcoming pathway seems to be lit from the sun above. After reading this book, its apparent that this is an appropriate image for what John has written. We all travel a path through the forests of our lives. Occasionally, we come across something – music, books, lectures, experiences – that illuminate the Path for a moment. We cross through those moments of light, feeling the warmth and depth of the light in comparison to the denser parts of the forest where the same light struggles to penetrate to the floor below. This book, I believe, will be a moment where the light penetrates to the forest floor for many of those that read it, and take meaning and experience from it.

This book is a 101 Paganism book, but then again – its not. Instead of endless pages on the same rote concepts of the Wheel of the Year, how to perform ritual, or ways to meditate – John provides a bit more. Steps beyond those positions. Granted, in some of the instances, John does revert back to basic-level explanation to get the reader to a point where the next steps can be taken, thus my 101-sticker application. However, once that context has been exposed, and provided appropriate explanation, the next steps are taken on ground that is far more solid than it would have been without the lead-in.

At the end of each section, John provides small statements of food-for-thought, or even questions for you to spend time on. Some of these have even made it into my daily journal entries, and were the stepping stones to even deeper questions that I posited to myself. For me, these ending aspects provided an entire cache of intellectual and spiritual fodder that I will be working my way through for quite some time. Or, as I said to myself when I realized I had seven pages of hand-written questions to work through:  “Thanks John. Just what I needed. More stuff to write about.” But I am kidding. All of that writing helps me work through concepts and issues in my mind that I had never thought of before. And I am grateful to have the chance to do so now and into the future. For that’s how I grow. Writing and thinking and doing and experiencing.

Writing and thinking and doing and experiencing. Well, if you were looking for a summative phrase for John’s book, this might be it. The material in the book is about more than just reading though. Its about doing. Its about experiencing. And sitting back and reading is only the measure of opening the door. Utilize what’s written there, take on the suggestions he sets forth, and improvise when he feel comfortable enough. In short, experience it, for real.

So, if you’re new to Paganism, this is not a bad starting place – though the concepts might be better handled if you read other books first, and then turned back here immediately afterwards. Just to have a good base to work from. If you are not new to Paganism, give the book a read. You never know, you might find something different to muse over. You may see things in a different light. And after all, that’s really what this book seems to be written towards:  seeing things on that Path with a different light. Hence, the gorgeous book cover.

In my opinion, biased as it may be, get it. Read it. Try it. Experience the world around you through some of the suggestions contained within its pages. Think about the concepts. Ask questions about those concepts with your friends. Discuss. Talk with others. Experience it together.

Time Stand Still – More Than Just a Rush Documentary

Last night, I trekked over to the Dallas suburb of Frisco to take in “Time Stand Still”, a documentary about the last tour of the band Rush. Between the physical ailments of guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart, this past tour is likely the band’s last one. The footage to the documentary not only took in the band’s point of view, but also that of their tour management, the people that work behind the scenes for the band, the fans who come to the concerts, and that of some of their contemporaries. The entire show will come out on DVD later this month, and I will purchase a physical copy so I can watch again and again. But there was certainly a lot to process throughout the entire documentary.

Just about everyone is aware that I am a Grateful Dead fanatic. Literally, I have several gigs of music and concert video of the Grateful Dead and the many incarnations that have come about. The Dead have been a constant backdrop to many writing sessions. Their music inspires me to write my feelings, forge my thoughts against the anvil of the world around me. But I also have nearly as much Rush music and videos in my collection as well.

Where the Grateful Dead were a link to the past, Rush has always been a link to the present. This trio has always been a part of my musical lexicon. And much like the day that Jerry Garcia passed away, the closing of this last touring chapter of Rush is just as difficult to process. Peart’s lyrics have always played a huge part within my concept of spirituality. Not because I got spiritual essence from the lyrics, but because he eloquently stated a lot of what I feel. For instance, “Tai Shan”:

Clouds surrounded the summit
The wind blew strong and cold
Among the silent temples
And the writing carved in gold
Somewhere in my instincts
The primitive took hold
I stood at the top of the mountain
And China sang to me
In the peaceful haze of harvest time
A song of eternity

I have never experienced climbing to the summit of Tai Shan. But I have experienced that moment of calm and serenity looking down into the valley between the mountains in Glacier National Park. The misty clouds were above and below me. And standing there, on the side of a narrow road on a near cliff face, my fear of heights was overcome by how peaceful everything felt. If I could be a bird of some sort, this would be the valley that I gravitated to. And I could definitely feel the primitive aspect of myself as a human being coming forth. The feeling that the world around me was completely connected to me, and I to that same environment. Yes, to me that connectedness is not only an aspect of the sacred, it is also an aspect of the primal – instincts that we, as the human race, have taken the time to purge from our instinctive nature. Suppressing it deeper, so that we can feel separated from Nature rather than a primal aspect of it. The song Tai Shan did not help me to realize this. Study, meditation, and time brought me there. Joanna van der Hoeven deserves far more credit for assisting me in getting to that realization through her writings than Peart’s lyrics for this song. Peart only formulated what I had been thinking into a string of cogent words and utilized them in a song to describe his experience of ascending the 7,000 steps.

But this is what Rush has meant to me. Intelligent lyrics coupled to excellent musicianship. And as I watched the DVD, I listened to what everyone was describing about this band, as the trio marched towards their final concert date in Los Angeles. It was readily apparent that these people were also touched by their experiences with the band, particularly through the concerts that the band played. Many of the people were describing the number of times that they have been to a Rush concert. Fifty, Eighty, Ninety, One-hundred and eleven. And I felt envy for them. I have never seen the band live in person. But that does not lessen my connection to their music. That does not make me any less of a fan of their music. But seeing how these fans connected to one another through their concert experiences, I could see the invisible strands that tied them together as a community.

Yes, concert going fans made a community among themselves. They even created their own convention – Rushcon – which meets at one concert per year. These folks made the Los Angeles concert. After the show was over, you could see the emotions in their eyes. Something that they loved was coming to a close. And they were all going to need their own time to process. But their connections to one another had not changed. In fact, it had grown stronger. They had shared experiences of something that was not going to change. Something they could share between one another. I have seen that look before at the close of OBOD East Coast and Gulf Coast Gatherings.

Imbolc Retreat 2015 – photo by Amanda Godwin

Shared experience is a wondrous thing. I saw that after Shauna Aura Knight’s workshops at Pantheacon earlier this year. People walked out of the room knowing that they just experienced a wonderful, touching and compelling moment. Forged together, those shared experiences make people stronger. It links and binds them together as one. I enjoy most of my rituals alone. My shared experience is between myself and the Gods. I have attended a few of the Denton CUUPs public rituals, as well as one of the Imbolc Retreats that are graciously offered by the Hearthstone Grove (ADF). The connection that each of these groups have with their members is incredible to watch and experience. It is even more amazing to be a part of their rituals. Anyone out there nodding their head as they read this, understands what I am talking about. I am quite sure that anyone that has attended a Rush or Grateful Dead or Dead & Company concert show will be nodding their understanding as well.

Music brings us together. We sing, play musical instruments, and dance around campfires into the night. It is no different than a concert setting. Well, except for the fire. That’s never a good idea in an indoor arena setting. Every Rush song has its own energy, its own feel, or if you prefer – its own vibe. And if you pardon my over-stretching of the concept, each song can literally be considered a mini-ritual. “Red Sector A” has its own energy and feel. Compared to the very politically charged and angst-filled song “The Trees”, the energy is quicker, the feel is more akin to a run than it is to defiantly standing with a raised fist aimed at the corporate machine.

I entered into the theater, thinking that I would see something closer to a DVD. What I was treated to was an exploration of Rush – the band, their road crew, their fans, and their music. At the end, the entire showing was exactly what it should have been – a gift from the band to their fans. A piece of who Geddy, Alex and Neil are, seen through the lens of their perspective; and just who their fans are. The band and their management left the door open for the occasional live performance, or even the occasional recording. But there was a definitive moment of closure at the end. It had the feel of a “last goodbye” from the band. Lighthearted, uplifting, starkly open and honest; “Time Stand Still” is a tender hug and kiss from the band to the fans who buy their albums, fill the concert venues, and purchase the related books, poster and other materials.

 

Book Review: Creating Change Through Humanism

cover_final_web2Earlier this morning, I reviewed a book on interfaith dialogue – Celebrating Planet Earth. It was a delightful read on how people from diverse backgrounds and points of view can come together for a discussion, and locate common ground.  “Creating Change Through Humanism” by Roy Speckhardt, which I was reading at the same time – is nothing of the sort. However, before I get any further, let me make this one statement: the intended audience for this book is most assuredly not me. I am a very religious Pagan. Mr. Speckhardt is a very anti-theist individual. We will approach topics from a very different point of view.

Anti-theist. Not Atheist. No, this book is definitely geared towards the individual who does not have a spiritual or religious bend to their nature. Furthermore, this book BARELY addresses the idea of creating change – unless that change is to drop whatever “superstitions and imaginary beliefs” you may have to embrace the anti-theist point of view. Outside of that, there’s some nods towards aiming towards a political recourse to effect change, but the author spends the other 99.5% of the book railing against the concepts of theology and religious belief.

Some of the credit for this shift in thinking is due to those we’re less inclined to thank. We’ve seen Religious Right leaders like Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed in the ’90’s, followed by right-wing politicos like Tom DeLay, Rick Santorum, and the anti-intellectual George W. Bush, followed by new creationist/intelligent design advocates like Ken Ham and Sarah Palin, followed by tea partiers like Rand Paul and Michelle Bachmann. Each of these people, by shoving their extreme beliefs in our faces at every turn, made a contribution to galvanizing our struggle for a more humanistic view.  (p. xi)

In this quote from the introduction, I notice that the author tends to lean towards holding up more extreme elements as the primary examples of the “enemy of the cause”. The reality is that most Christians (his primary target here) are not really like this particular loud, cartoonish examples. Each would believe that they are a leading element of ALL of Christianity but are really leaders of more radical, far louder, far smaller groupings of individuals who twist their own theology to accommodate their own personal hatred. Interestingly enough, the author also engages in an insult by referring to former President George W. Bush as an “anti-intellectualist” in order to add another glossy coat to his own thinly disguised point. Let’s be clear — these “pillars” that the author holds up as examples, are the same people that would have no compunction towards having me swinging from the end of a rope draped over a high tree branch. So I have no real interest in defending these particular people. However…this type of attack does nothing to bolster one’s argument — particularly when trying to hold yourself and your cause up as a shining example of “something better”.

The large majority of the book is a treatise on why Humanism and Anti-theism are what society should choose – complete with more thinly veiled insults and attacks against the Christian belief system in much the same manner. And that’s a shame. There are elements of Humanist thought that could be excellent vessels towards creating a more tolerant, and understanding society. In the end, the author chooses to utilize the book as an attack vehicle and as an odd Chick-like tract evangelizing his particular brand of non-belief. The title is certainly misleading in this regard. A real shame….

Rating:  one-half (reluctant) star out of five

Book Review: Celebrating Planet Earth

Celebrating Planet EarthI am a big fan of causes that cross faith lines. After all, we all live on this massive floating rock in space, there has to be something that we can all agree on — aside from killing one another in pointless battles over whose religion is right/wrong. The human race can certainly agree that pointless actions such as this are certainly the “vogue” moment in time. No, setting the sarcasm to the side, I have just finished an interesting title from Moon Books – Celebrating Planet Earth, a Pagan/Christian Conversation: First Steps in Interfaith Dialogue. Unlike many interfaith dialogue titles that I have come across, the point of this book is not to solve a problem and provide a conclusion that sets the steps towards a solution. Rather, the point – as I discerned it – was to seek that rarest of positions: common ground. And to achieve this, the individuals who are involved start by discussing the negative perceptions that each area of belief has towards the other. There’s no debate. There’s a lengthy discussion of how negative perceptions come about, an honest acknowledgement of where differences are, and an offering of where common ground can be achieved. Once this is established, a discussion of how each side of the discussion sees the environment is made.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this – for me – was that this took place in the physical sense. The event started as a face-to-face meeting/discussion between Druids and Christians in Somerset, UK. Then, the event was widened considerably to include more Pagans into the conversation. I certainly wish that I had been included in a discussion like this. As a book read, it was a very interesting, and compelling discussion. I can only imagine how dynamic it was when it happened in person!

I’m quite a bit biased when I say that this is definitely something to pick up and read. The topic – the natural aspect of this planet we all inhabit – is one that is near and dear to my own heart and beliefs. The idea – an interfaith conversation between Pagans and Christians in order to find common ground – is a concept that I have been championing for many years. Plus, there’s no debate held here. Each side acknowledges and understands that we have a role as a caretaker of our environment. Its the first steps of a dialogue – a conversation. And if I may be so bold to say – its not only rather ambitious, but also spot-on!

Rating: Five enthusiastic stars out of five!

Book Review – Druidry and Meditation (Nimue Brown)

19251333Druidry and Meditation — Nimue Brown
Published 2012 by John Hunt Publishing/Moon Books
ISBN: 1780990286
ISBN13: 9781780990286
ASIN: B00719WGTQ

I meditate. Quite frequently, in fact. Its my way of finding my center when life tosses me an unexpected curve ball. Its my way of de-stressing after 45 minutes to an hour or more in traffic. Its my way of connecting to the world around me. Its my way of communing with the Gods and the Spirits of the Land. Meditation is a useful tool for me.

I also follow a personal Spiritual Path of Druidry. So Nimue’s book was of interest to me. I was not sure what I was expecting. A self-help book? A how-to on Druidry? A how-to on Meditation? What I found was a very useful tome on how to approach meditative techniques from a perspective of Druidry.As Nimue points out several times in the book, Meditation techniques are different for each individual. For instance, I do my very best meditations when I am walking in the forest. Not sitting, but actively moving. For others, sitting in the classic lotus position works best. And so on. But taking a Nature-based approach requires some fine tuning of the mind, and the attitude prior to starting. Nimue presents a wonderful approach to the inner Sacred Grove, as well as a splendid chapter on facilitating group ritual – which requires a far different mindset and approach. She also adds some wonderful little exercises in the book that I think are wonderful starting points for those interested in meditation techniques, but unsure of how to start.

Review: Talking to Spirits

The first time I ever heard of an “Unverified Personal Gnosis” or UPG, I was responding to a post on John Beckett‘s blog. After a little back and forth, I realized I needed to get to know a bit more about the term, as well as the underlying definitions – especially since it seemed to apply directly to me. Some short searching on Amazon’s website turned up the title: “Talking to the Spirits: Personal Gnosis in Pagan Religion” by Kenaz Filan & Raven Kaldera. The price was affordable as a Kindle book, so I downloaded it. And it sat on my reader for nearly a year before I finally started reading it.

The first two chapters satisfied my desire to understand the definitions surrounding the area of Personal Gnosis, as well as showcasing some of the differences between Verified and Unverified PG. But shortly after this, the book took a massive turn into the area of overkill. Concepts were presented which revolve around the area of VPG and UPG, particularly in trying to determine what was “real” and “correct” concerning the area of verification. Adding to this was the endless parade of material from other people on the various topics. I’m quite sure that this works for other folks, but for me it was quite the distraction. In fact, the material did nothing to answer questions, and only raised the question of why the authors had chosen to write the book this way. Until I came to the very last chapter of the book.

The Rocky Road to Intrafaith Dialogue” was honestly the meat that I needed to get. One particular passage has now been added to my little book of quotes:

Discussion involves an exchange of ideas and discourse about their ramifications. It may get intense, even heated at times, but this is fine so long as everyone remains respectful and the questions focus on ideas rather than individuals. Smiling, nodding, and saying “Everyone’s truths are true for them, and every belief is just as good as every other belief” is not interfaith discussion. Rather, it is a way of avoiding questions about the substance and foundation of your beliefs and about the level of your commitment. Instead of sparking conversation, it shuts it down or reduces it to polite superficialities.

This one little passage has me rethinking a particular part of the way I approach discussions about my beliefs with others. That the focus could be narrowed or widened as necessary. And its statements like this – throughout the book – which had me reading at a pace far slower than I am accustomed to. It took me nearly two months to finish reading this book. I kept putting it down, and thinking about what had just been presented to me.

If you are looking for a book that will not only challenge the way you think about beliefs of others, as well as challenge the way you approach discussing that particular touchy area of individual life – this is definitely the book for you. If you are wanting to find out more about the concept of Personal Gnosis, as well as understanding the differences between verified and unverified PG — this is definitely a good starting point. While others may appreciate the infusion of other perspectives from various individuals – I thought the book would have been far better without these interspersed throughout the chapters. Instead, I would have preferred these to have been confined to an Addendum of some sort, but that’s my personal preference.