You might not suspect it at first, but Druidry asks us to give up a lot.
I certainly didn’t expect it when I first began exploring this path way back in college. At the time, I looked on the spiritual work embraced by modern Paganism as an escape — a release and expansion of my creative work. I’d always pursued creative writing as a divine calling. But at last, I wanted to move beyond mere words, beyond the music of poetry that, as beautiful as it was, was still always pressed like dried flowers to the page. I wanted the tools to transform my life itself, body and heart, spirit and mind, into an engaged, living work of art.
Then I came across that quote by Ross Nichols: “Ritual is poetry in the realm of acts.” And I realized, yes, this is what I’d been searching for! The personal ritual, magic, meditation and prayer of Druidry offered me the tools I needed. I felt like a prisoner finding the metallic glint of the jail key buried in her half-eaten birthday cake.
I should have seen the inevitable coming. If poetry had taught me anything in all those years, it was about the tension and beauty of limits: those perfectly crafted lines and stanzas, the concise brute force of a few words juxtaposed. All that is not infinite has its limits, this is not a bad thing. It’s nature. Limitation is so often descried, equated with restriction and censorship; but limit is only the daughter of form, that’s all.
Druidry is, in part, about learning our own limits, celebrating our form and seeking out our boundaries, the edges of our sacred space, our nemeton. Without a sense of the beauty that resides in the liminal, along the edges of finite things, how can we know real intimacy? How will we know the lingering thrill of allowing others in, or reaching out tentatively beyond ourselves?
Druidry encourages us to listen to the Oran Mor, the Song of the World — to let its changing moods and rich complexities move us in turn. Music has form; a song has limits. It has scale and progression, it has shape and movement and moments of silence. When we sing together, our voices in tune, our bodies become vessels sharing a vibration in the most literal sense. We move together. We share an imperceptible boundary that buzzes and blurs.
Without limits, this movement is impossible. (Where would we be moving to, and how could we be growing?) Druidry teaches us to sing our soul’s song — to put the world to sleep for three nights, or provoke it into weeping or laughter — and to sing our spirit in harmony with others, with an attentive ear to the weaving, echoing melodies of the world.
Love, too, has its form, and therefore its limits.
Love — whether the “perfect love” of the Wiccan Rede or the “universal love” of Unitarian Universalism — asks us to give up a lot. If we love nature, the environment, the ecosystems of our world, we learn to move in sympathy with them, to find a center and gravity other than our own. If we sing with the trees and the earth, it becomes more difficult for us to callously waste and destroy. We share an edge, we feel the limits and needs of nature rubbing up against our own. We overlap. And we flinch as destruction “over there” sends ripples of regret and anguish reaching all the way to the “here” of our own deepest beings.
In love, limits are not “conditions” of restriction or rejection. They do not deny certain kinds of love to certain kinds of beings, nor do they negate or denigrate the self that loves. Instead, the natural limits of love — love as an activity, as a process of creation, as movement and form — make liminal experiences of intimacy and trust possible, and render meaningful our urge towards response-ability. In this sense, even as imperfect beings living in a less-than-ideal world, we have access to the infinite potential of condition-less love, capable in every moment of responding uniquely to each infinitely unique being.
But our edges blur, the shore shifts between every tide and tiny snails take up residence in our crevices and unseemly dark places. Love asks us to give up a lot — including our assumptions about what we, as isolated individuals, need to survive and how justified we are in taking it.
Maslow has his (in)famous “Hierarchy of Needs,” a pyramid built on survival, security, support, and respect. We human beings need food, water, shelter, air, sleep — we require basic physical conditions to be met, just to stay alive. And once we have these things? We want to know they will be there tomorrow, as well, and indefinitely into the future, or at least for a good long while. We need safety, stability.
When our physical bodies feel sated and safe, the pattern repeats again on a socio-psychological level: we need to feel as though we belong, to a family and a community, and that our emotional and intellectual selves will find nourishment here. And then we need to feel respected, productive and accomplished so that this support won’t suddenly be withdrawn or denied to us later. We need to feel confident, able to stride out into a world that not only loves us but respects us and accepts the gifts we have to offer.
Only after all of these things do we come to consider what Maslow calls “self-actualization”: creativity, imagination, contemplation and ethical activity. If we’re lucky. Some of us never get there. Why? Because this is, after all, a pyramid — the higher we want to go, the larger the base. The more productive and respected we want to be, the more community ties we must maintain, and so the more security and basic material needs we have to meet, for ourselves and others, before we feel ready to devote time to those “higher” pursuits. (A cynical person, which I sometimes am, might describe this as a “pay to play” model of self-actualization.) Some of us will spend lifetimes building out our base, putting one block next to another on the first two or three tiers, until we have a man-made plateau that stretches wide around us on all sides.
Meanwhile, the snails are at their work. Love is wearing us down, smoothing away everything jagged, everything that we thought was necessary but isn’t really.
Love, and Druidry, ask us to give up a lot. To give up willful or careless harm; to give up excessive consumption and energy waste; sometimes to give up the support and acceptance of a family or community that cannot understand our spirituality; in short, to give up many of the things that we’ve come to assume are fundamental to our survival.
Sometimes the “higher” we try to go, the more we seem to find the blocks of our life knocked out from under us. The work comes to seem less like the building of a Great Pyramid in a desert, and more like a precarious game of Jenga! in which our balance is our sanity, our spirit and our survival. How can we do it? How can we find it within ourselves to take the risk, to give up our assumptions and confront our fears?
Have you ever played Jenga!? I hope so. It’s fun-for-the-whole-family, as they say. The winning strategy of Jenga! is essentially this: move slowly, calmly, and with trust. Test each block, push it gently with the soft tip of your finger — some will be stubborn and load-bearing, but others will slide free easily, as if by magic. Not only this, but as the tower grows higher, its weight will shift and some of those blocks that seemed impossible to move before may suddenly cease to be so important.
In what I have just now decided to call “Ali’s Jenga! of Needs,” the spiritual life is much the same — we move cautiously, with baby-steps, giving up what we can afford and, with each surrender, we also build, we reach further, higher, deeper. Where we find frightening emptiness, we seek new centers of gravity, the edges of others we love. We weave them intimately into our lives and allow them to lend us balance and strength.
Furthermore: we create. We have no set number of blocks, we carve out our own. We not only build but we grow, and our own growth provides us with ever-new materials out of which to craft our lives. Eventually, perhaps, some of us might grow to become like those mystics and saints, living high in the mountains on tea and yogic discipline, or deep in a monastery subsisting on prayer and consecrated bread. For some, love will knock us off our feet, and we will suddenly find ourselves able to fly.
But for now, baby steps: movement, limit, form, celebration and imagination, creativity and praise… in perfect love and perfect trust.