The Sword of Paracelsus: Access Denied, Part 1

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September.

To anybody of an even slightly imaginative or otherworldly bent, perhaps the least enchanting, least picturesque time of the year in Santa Piedra.

September in Santa Piedra is intensely normal.  Everything is out in the open.  The light is clear.  The air is free of swirling mists.  The sun shines bravely from morning till night, its yellow beams splintering off the great Rock and sparkling over the wave-tips of the Inlet.  The shops along Front Street stand neatly in a row, brightly colored, sharply outlined, undeniably real in the afternoon glare.  The sky is blue, the beach is white, the cliffside caves lie open to the probing fingers of the sunlight.  Gone are the shadows and secrets that lurked beneath the fogs of spring and summer.

Morgan felt all of this keenly as he came slogging through the shallow surf at the foot of La Punta Lira, a long blue bundle tucked tightly under his right arm.  Somehow he knew—he could smell it in the air and taste it on his tongue—that the magic of May and June had departed with the mists.  He had no idea how to get it back, and he wasn’t sure he could make his plan work without it.  But he was convinced he had to try.

Pausing in the ankle-deep water, he shoved a strand of straw-colored hair out of his eyes and squinted up at the black hole gaping down at him from the base of the cliff.  He could feel his heart thumping beneath his ribs.  He could taste the salt of his own sweat mingling with the salt of the damp sea air.  Rubbing his nose with a briny knuckle, he glanced back through the slanting sunlight at the amber glow lying upon the town on the far side of the bay.  Then, tightening his grip on the blue bundle, he marched up over the strand, his red tennis shoes squelching with sea water as he went.

She knows something about my father, he said to himself as the pebbles crunched noisily beneath his feet.  ‘He was taken.’  And she knows where.

Morgan, of course, had never been of a particularly otherworldly turn of mind.  For him, September had always been a season of discontent chiefly because school was in session again.  School still played a big part in the shaping of his mood.  But in another way things were different this year.  This year he was looking at his situation from an altered point of view.  It’s hard not to be otherworldly when you’ve had a glimpse of another world.

Trudging up to the mouth of the cave, he stooped down and peered inside.  Yes.  This was the place.  La Cueva de los Manos, the Cave of the Hands—his best friend Eny’s secret retreat, her private “laughing place,” her home away from home.  He knew it by the ancient painting on the inner wall, the work of artists who had plied their trade four thousand years before his time:  a cloud of ruddy hand-prints pressed upon the dark gray stone in rust-red ochre—hundreds of human hands reaching towards the cavern ceiling with long, thin fingers like tongues of living flame.

Eny had actually been to that other world.  By her own account, she had entered it through an opening at the back side of this very cave.  Descending through tendrils and coils of light—or so the story went—she had found her way into a marvelous land under the ground where she had lived with dwarves, encountered giants, sojourned among fairy folk, and fled from a dark enchantress.

As for Morgan, he believed it.  Practical and worldly as he was, he could no longer doubt that what she said was true.  He had, after all, seen the giants himself.  Quite apart from his own plans and purposes, he had been caught up in a whirlwind of enchantments and paranormal adventures.  He, too, had played a role in the unfolding of uncanny events.  And so, for him, blind unbelief was not an option.

Standing there at the mouth the cave, he cast his mind back over the things he had witnessed in the time of the summer mists.  Angels on the stairway and flying ships in the air.  The catastrophic battle for Lia Fail, the fabled Stone of Destiny.  The fall of the tower of St. Halistan’s church.  The seizure and abduction of the Stone.  Morgan knew that the strange woman who called herself Madame Medea had taken it.  He knew that she had fled with it into the depths of that other world, a place Eny called the Sidhe.  It was to find a way into that world and to hunt down that inscrutable woman that he had come to this hole in the cliff at the edge of the western sea.  This, he believed, was his destiny.  And he was determined to fulfill it.

She knows something about my father, he muttered again as he ducked inside the cave and stood on the threshold, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light.  When he could see clearly, he cast his gaze from one side of the chamber to the other, carefully scanning the cavern walls.  No opening was discernible.

Hoisting up his bundle, he stepped to the face of the rock and pressed his fingertips against the fingers of the painted hands.  The moment he touched them he felt a tingle like an electric charge run up his spine.  The hair stood up on the back of his neck.  Now we’re getting somewhere! he thought.  

Without breaking the connection between his skin and the cool, damp surface of the rock, he followed the wall back into the furthest corner of the cavern.  At length he came to a place where the dripping ceiling sloped down to meet the floor in a hollow space behind two squat boulders.  A spark of recognition flashed through his brain.

Yes, he thought, recounting the details of Eny’s narrative for the hundredth time.  This has to be the spot where she found the tunnel of light.  It fits the description exactly!  But whatever Eny’s experience may have been on that spring day so long ago, he could discover no trace of any such passage now.

Slumping against the wall, he passed a weary hand over his forehead.  If only Eny were here now!  She could explain the next step.  He was sure she would be able to show him the way.  But Eny, too, was gone.  Gone with the enchantment.  Gone with Lia Fail.  Gone with the ever-elusive mystery of summer’s shrouding fogs.

Well, then.  He’d just have to try another tack.  He certainly wasn’t going to give up now.  This dead-end was not going to stop him—not if he had anything to say about it.  Experience had taught him better.  That’s why, keenly mindful of the many times his hopes and dreams had fallen flat, he’d come armed with a backup strategy.  He had one more trick up his sleeve, a plan he’d been revolving in his mind all summer long.  He’d thought about it long and hard, but it had taken him until now to drum up the courage to put it to the test.

(To be continued…)

 

The Sword of Paracelsus: First Journal Entry

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Day 30

 

Thirty white lines scrawled on the black and dripping wall.  Thirty days and counting.  So long, by my reckoning (and without these scratches I would long ago have lost all track of time) have I languished in this watery tomb.

 Thirty times through the orbed splendor of the rolling astrum has the sun, unseen by me, pursued his endless journey, a perpetual fixity in perpetual motion.  Even now, I suppose, he must be shining in the glad Somewhere beyond both Underworld and Overworld, riding high above the impenetrable heap of rock over my head. 

It must be so.  But what does it matter?  I mark the passage of time by the renewal of my bread and water alone.  Neither cloud nor sky, moon nor star can pierce the dimness of my dungeon.  Thirty days have I lain hidden from the light of the outside world.      

I knew it would go hard with me when I refused her demands.  I had no idea how hard.  I never imagined how far she would go to wring the secret from me.  Perhaps things would have gone differently if I’d taken a different tack.  Perhaps. 

Even now the memory of that last night looms before me.  I see myself standing at the window.  I watch the white hand of mist overspread the moony sky.  I remember how it shaded from gray to black as it blotted out the stars and burst into my study.

When next I knew anything at all, I was lying in this pit, calling upon my wife and child.  They did not answer.  For days my only comfort lay in summoning up the image of their faces.  Now I can no longer bring it to mind.                 

As I write, there is a scrabbling behind the damp wall-stones in the corner.  Something vile scuttles across the grimy, stinking floor.  The tin plate rattles at my side.  The Something makes off with the last of my daily ration—a moldy biscuit and a rancid bacon rind.  I shrug my shoulders and curse the darkness.  What more can I do?  My tears were all cried out long ago.        

Maria Prophetissa!  That’s what she called herself in the beginning.  I told her how my investigations into the meanings of words had led me into a quest for all knowledge.  She said I could achieve nothing until I grasped the inner essences and properties of things.  She assured me that once I had gained such knowledge—which she alone could give—I would be a true artist, a full-fledged mage.  I believed her. 

Besides the vermin, hunger is my only companion.  It gnaws my belly even as the rats gnaw my food.  I am shattered like a broken reed.  I am pressed down and poured out like water.  The deeps surround me.  My head is wrapped in sorrows.  It is she who has reduced me to this state.   

Maria Prophetissa.  Of course it was a lie.  By the time I realized it, I had gone too far.  And yet, here in the darkness, I begin to see that I have not lost quite everything.  In this black hole I have been granted at least one small glimmer of light.  I know now that the promises I swallowed were hollow and vain.  And that in itself is something.  That in itself is a morsel of bitter but incontestable truth.   

Here in this prison, where the sun never shines, I have come at last to know her as she is.  I have found her out.  I have discovered her true name. 

It is not Maria Prophetissa.  Neither is it Medea. 

It is Anand.  It is Raven.  It is the Daughter of Ernmas.

It is Morrigu.    

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A Place to Stand

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Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is across from Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land of Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the South, and the plain of the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.

                        (Deuteronomy 34:1, 2)

    

                    … Now look down

                      and see how far the heavens have revolved.

 (Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXVII, ll.77-78; tr.   John Ciardi)

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How do we get back on the Pilgrim Path? That’s the million dollar question. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of question that allows for simple, easy answers; and to complicate matters even further, it’s entirely possible that the solution may turn out to be one thing for you and something else entirely for me.

Let’s not become discouraged on that account. After all, “difficult” isn’t the same thing as “impossible.” A complex problem isn’t for that reason an insoluble problem. At the very least we can draw up a plan and give it an earnest try.

In the “Pilgrim Path” entries that follow we will attempt, through a series of reflections on the hidden values of a “peregrinatory” life, to re-capture that elusive Something that Jacques Ellul, out of sheer aversion to the word “Christianity,” preferred to designate as “X”. We will experiment with a method of sloughing off the accretions of culture and the troublesome baggage of the past. We will make it our aim to lay hold of the sweet kernel that lies sleeping within the time-hardened husk. By these means we will seek to uncover anew the essence of Christ-following in its original, unadulterated, unsubverted form.

Our task will be to explore what it means To Be A Pilgrim: to follow the Master faithfully and single-mindedly, to live and work and make a positive contribution not by grasping for power or asserting ownership and control, but by “passing through” the world as humble, unassuming, service-minded strangers and sojourners.

To do this we need perspective – a place to stand somewhere outside of and away from everything we normally take for granted. To see clearly, to attain a bird’s-eye view, to gaze abroad without restraint, we have to get out of the narrow ghetto of our own “contemporary” world. At least for the moment, we must attempt to forget “what’s happening now” and breathe a different atmosphere.

The goal is to see ourselves, the human community, the world, and God Himself through different eyes: the eyes of people whose assumptions, presumptions, and entire frame of reference are not only distinct from but even foreign to our own. This is the splash of cold water in the face that’s so desperately required today. After all, if you can’t see the forest for the trees, there’s only one thing to do: get out of the forest.

But how? That’s the practical problem.

Some manage to get the job done by traveling widely, living abroad, and developing a truly “multicultural” outlook. They deserve our admiration and respect. The difficulty, of course, is that this option isn’t open to everybody. It may be attainable only by a favored few.

The other alternative is to take a trip of a different kind and spend some time rubbing elbows with the denizens of the past. But here we come up against an even more formidable obstacle. Mr. H. G. Wells to the contrary, nobody has yet found a way to build a working Time Machine.

Or have they?

Prosperous Puritans

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         I am well aware that the Church must inevitably be a social structure, otherwise it would not exist.  But in so far as it is a social structure, it belongs to the Prince of this world …

Simone Weil, Waiting For God, Letter II

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In the western world, it has become all too easy to profess loyalty to an organization called the Church and subscribe to a doctrinal system labeled Christianity while simultaneously living by a set of assumptions directly opposed to the values of the Pilgrim life.  Not only is this possible:  on the whole, it has been the story of the Church as an institution for the past twenty centuries.  And the Church has followed this course most readily whenever Christians have found themselves in a position of prosperity, ease, alliance, and comfortable affiliation with the surrounding culture and the powers that be.

Puritan preacher John Owen saw it happen in 17th century England.  Prior to the English Civil War, the Puritans had been an ostracized and persecuted minority.  Following that conflict, they experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune.  With the overthrow of Charles I, they became the Ruling Party.  They dominated Parliament and controlled the British government under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell.  Naturally, this was a good thing for their pocketbooks, their public policy agenda, and their temporal securities.  Economically, materially, and politically they were sitting on top of the world.  But Owen understood all too well what they had lost:

“He that should see the prevailing party of these nations, many of those in rule, power, favour, with all their adherents, and remember that they were a colony of Puritans,—whose habitation was “in a low place,” as the prophet speaks of the city of God,—translated by a high hand to the mountains they now possess, cannot but wonder how soon they have forgot the customs, manners, ways, of their own old people, and are cast into the mould of them that went before them in the places whereunto they are translated.” 

(Of Temptation, Chapter III)

“Prosperity,” concluded Owen, “hath slain the foolish and wounded the wise.”  The Church of his day had taken the bait.  It had exchanged the values of the Pilgrim Path for the glitter of dominion and success.

We are now grappling with a similar temptation.  For hundreds of years the Christian community in the west – a community that began two millennia ago as a band of unpropertied sojourners and transients – has maintained strong vested interests in the structures of the kosmos.  Today those interests appear to be slipping from our grasp.  With each successive court battle, with each new piece of legislation, our hold upon the centers of influence seems to be waning.  And as our mastery over the system declines and a sense of panic sets in, the impulse to seize the reins – to “reclaim our rights” and “take back the culture” – becomes increasingly urgent.  In many instances it eclipses every other concern.  We have forgotten what it means to live in the world as a colony of disinterested Pilgrims.

Somehow or other, we’ve got to get back on the right road.

 

 

Moonset

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I watched the full moon set behind a hill:

Its circle lightly rested on the crest,

Then dipped its disc beneath the brown earth’s brow

And swiftly slipped away to take its rest.

 

The sun arose and roused himself and shook

A shower of sudden light, a blinding spray

Of fresh-cut morning thunder from his mane;

Hillsides flared green and yellow fingers lay

 

Across their velvet flanks, and ran in streams

Of gold and golden green, uphill, against

All natural law, until they touched the peaks

And leaped across the greening fields unfenced.

 

The mustard and the lupine jumped for joy

In the muster of the light.   A blackbird chimed

A silver note from each black, barren tree

And chortled as the sun began to climb.

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Kingdom and Kosmos

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               Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like                 graves which are not seen, and the men who walk over them are not            aware of them.

                                                                                (Luke 11:44)

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Values are of primary importance to anyone who wants to walk the Pilgrim Path.  The entire business of going on pilgrimage can be boiled down to a simple question of eschewing one set of values and embracing another.  It’s not complicated.  There are really only two choices.

On the one hand there are the values of the kosmos:  that closely ordered, tightly structured, time-honored complex of principles and techniques that constitute the working basis of the world-system.  On the other hand there are the values of the Spirit:  the living, breathing, fermenting stuff of God’s dynamic, invasive, in-breaking kingdom.

These two sets of values are like mirror images.  On almost every level, the one is the inverse of the other.  They don’t cooperate.  They can’t blend or mix.  Like the darks and lights in a photographic impression, where the one is, the other is not.  They are in fact at enmity:  for it is the very nature and purpose of the kingdom to subvert and explode the kosmos, just as the stone cut from the mountain crushed the iron, the clay, the bronze, and the gold of Nebuchadnezzar’s idol.

To be a pilgrim is to forsake the one and follow the other.

What makes this tricky is the often deceptive relationship between external and internal.  As we’ve already established, it’s what’s inside that counts.  Because a genuine estimate of worth can be such a subtle, elusive, invisible, non-cognitive thing, it’s not unusual for one set of values to be “carried by” or concealed within the outward forms of the other.  When this happens, the same individual’s honest gut reflexes and conscious intellectual commitments can end up at odds with each other.  Awkward, to be sure, but not necessarily uncomfortable.  Quite the contrary in most cases.

That’s because the person in question generally has no conception of what is going on inside him.  As a result, he finds it easy to affirm one proposition while leaning with all his weight upon its contrary.  He may, for example, withdraw from society and adopt the trappings and lifestyle of a humble ascetic because, in his heart of hearts, he wants to make a name for himself.  Or he may sacrifice his life in service to the poorest of the poor precisely as a means of seeking power, position, and influence.

When this is done intentionally, we call it hypocrisy.

Far more frequently, it’s the outworking of a deep, unseen, and sub-conscious choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Green Isle of the West

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 Delightful is that land beyond all dreams,

    There all the year the fruit is on the tree.

 Nor pain nor sickness knows the dweller there,

    Death nor decay come near him never more.

 

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Uncanny tales are told of the birth and lineage of Oisin, son of Fionn MacCumhail; for it is said that his mother, Saba, was of the people of the Sidhe.  But stranger yet is the story of his going from this world.

It was of a summer’s morning when Oisin, warrior, poet, and chief of Ireland’s bards, went to hunt by the shores of Lough Lena with his father and his father’s men, that bold band of heroes known as the Fianna.

Searching after game, Fionn became aware of a dark spot in the mist.  As he watched, the shadow grew and assumed the form of an approaching rider.  Then a window opened in the haze and a bright figure emerged:  a lovely golden-haired maiden on a tall white horse.  On her head she wore a circlet of gleaming gold, and in her hand she held a blossoming hawthorn branch.

“Do you know who I am, Fionn son of Cumhail?” she said, riding straight up to the Fianna.

“And how should I be knowing that?” answered Fionn.

“I am Niamh of the Golden Hair, daughter of the king of Tir-Na-nOg, the Land of Youth in the Green Isle of the West.  I have come a long way to find you.”

“There was little need,” said Fionn.  “What is it you want?”

She smiled.  “The love of your son.”  Then, turning to the young man, she said, “Will you come with me, Oisin, to my father’s country?”

Oisin could not speak.  Without so much as a glance at his father, he took her hand and swung up into the saddle behind her.  Then, as the Fianna watched, Niamh shook the bridle, wheeled the horse about, and dashed away.

It was the last time Fionn ever saw his son alive on earth.

 

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Ever since Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden, their children and heirs have been wishing and hoping, working and striving, pouring out their hearts in an effort to find a way back to the Garden.  Somewhere, they are sure, there must be a homeland more perfectly suited to their longings and conformed to the inner landscape of their souls.  Indeed, they half remember it in dreams … and in the stories they tell.

Celtic lore tells of a verdant spot beyond the boundaries of this world, a place where time is not, where joys never end, and where youth, health, and abundant life fill every crack and cranny of the soul to overflowing.  It is called the Green Isle of the West.

In the haunting tale of Oisin and Niamh, a Person from that Green Isle – that Wood Beyond the World, that Well at the World’s End – emerges out of the eternal mist and invites a bewildered mortal to come away with her to a land of heartbreaking beauty and everlasting life.  When presented with this opportunity, Oisin – son of Ireland’s greatest hero, Fionn MacCumhail, and chief of the poets of Erin – never hesitates.  Eagerly he responds to the call of his otherworldly wooer.  His eyes fixed upon hers, he forsakes his father, leaves his friends behind, and ventures into the West with the golden-haired girl.

Who can blame him?

There is a Green Island in the West.  And though, since the shape of the world was changed, it has slipped below the horizon of human sight, we can and will reach it if, like Oisin, we respond to the call of the One who has come forth from that Isle to bid us return with Him.

He stands at the door and knocks.

 

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(Adapted from The Stone of Destiny and God of the Fairy Tale

The Transmutation of Jacob Boehme

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“I did not climb up into the Godhead, neither can so mean a man as I am do it; but the Godhead climbed up in me, and revealed such to me out of His love, which otherwise I would have had to leave it quite alone in my half-dead fleshly birth.”

(Jacob Boehme, Aurora, VIII, 7)

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Four years prior to the birth of John Bunyan, a shoemaker named Jacob Boehme died in the village of Goerlitz, Germany.  Throughout his adult life Boehme had supported his wife and children by laboring at a rough and dingy workbench.  But he was more than a cobbler; for as Alexander Whyte observes, “While working with his hands, Jacob Boehme’s whole life was spent in the deepest and the most original thought; in piercing visions of God and of nature; in prayer, in praise, and in love to God and man.”

Under the spell of Paracelsus, Boehme had in his youth taken a keen interest in alchemy.  But in his maturer years, disillusioned with what he came to regard as the groundless claims of the science of transformation, he began increasingly to attach a spiritual and eternal significance to its conceptual framework.  In the process his outlook altered radically; yet when speaking of this profound inward change, he naturally reverted to the language he knew best – the argot of the old spagyric art.

There was a difference, however.  For now when he referred to the Philosopher’s Stone, Boehme no longer envisioned a magical catalyst possessing the power to turn one substance into another.  Instead, he understood the Stone as an image of the New Birth.  And so it happened that Jacob Boehme, shoemaker and alchemist, abandoned his efforts to transform lead into gold and exchanged them for a quest to be transformed in the inner man.

In the story of The Sword of Paracelsus, Morgan’s father, John Izaak, finds himself compelled to follow a similar quest.  This part of the tale is, admittedly, wrapped in shadow.  Yet as it unfolds, one thing becomes sufficiently clear:  it is largely under the influence of Jacob Boehme that Izaak has set out upon his journey – inspired, we may imagine, by passages like the following:

“The eternal fire is magical, and a spirit, and dies not.  It is the same fire as a dying, yet there is no dying, but an entrance into another source, that is, out of a painful desire into a love-desire …”

(The Signature of All Things)

“For man’s happiness consists in this, that he has in him a true desire after God; for out of the desire springs the love.  And the love tinctures the death and darkness, that it is again capable of the divine sunshine.”

(Ibid.)

“He that will not seek thereby a new man born in God, and apply himself diligently thereto, let him not meddle with my writings.  I have not written anything for such a seeker, and also he shall not be able to apprehend our meaning fundamentally though he strives never so much about it, unless he enters into the resignation in Christ.  For the way is childlike, plain and easy.”

(Ibid.)

“Awaken in me the fire of Your great love.  Ignite it, O Lord, so that my soul and mind may see these evil beasts and kill them by means of proper, true repentance and Your power.”

(The Way to Christ)

“If love dwelt not in trouble, it could have nothing to love.”

(The Supersensual Life)

 

This is the true alchemy as Jacob Boehme — and John Izaak — understood it.

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The Forest and The Trees

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The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–

Little we see in nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

(Wordsworth, Sonnet)

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Values.  You’ve heard the word before.  We all have — so often that nearly every trace of meaningful content has been sucked clean out of it.  There’s been endless talk about family values and American values, religious values and humanitarian values, conservative values and liberal values.  Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.

Values-conflicts are reputed to be at the core of the so-called “culture war.”  Assuming there is a culture war, this shouldn’t be surprising.  After all, people feel strongly about their values.  Never mind that very few can tell you what a “value” is.

Contrary to popular opinion, values are not beliefs, religious doctrines, philosophical tenets, or political positions.  A “value” is exactly what its name implies:  an estimation of worth.  It’s an assumption – usually an unexamined assumption – about reality.  It frequently has very little to do with careful analysis or conscious thought processes.  Quite often it’s absorbed by osmosis from the surrounding culture.  Think and believe what you will; your values are another question altogether.  They’re subconscious and reflexive.  They’re the “solid” stuff you grab for when the rug gets pulled out from under you.  They’re the refuge you seek when the house catches fire or the sky begins to fall.  They’re the ground floor, the bottom line.

In the 1870s the United States government did not hesitate to lie, cheat, steal, kill, break promises, disregard treaties, and destroy an entire culture simply in order to accommodate the overpowering lust of white Americans for Black Hills gold.  At the beginning of the trouble the Lakota, to whom the Black Hills had been sacred from time immemorial, found the whole thing amusing.  They couldn’t understand the European obsession with the “yellow metal.”  Sure, it was pretty.  But valuable?  They didn’t see how — the stuff was neither edible nor useful.  So they laughed at the white man’s folly.  But the joke fell flat when they found themselves forcibly driven from their ancestral lands by wave after wave of prospectors, settlers, and bluecoats.  The Sioux leaders hadn’t realized that something else lay hidden behind the glitter:  the promise of power and wealth.

That’s the way it works with values.  The metal, the coin, the currency is nothing in itself.  It can assume a wide variety of forms and be called by any number of names:  gold, silver, or brass; houses, cars, or lands; liberty, equality, fraternity; patriotism, democracy, team-spirit; Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity.  From a certain point of view, these words and the concepts they represent are mere arbitrary labels.  They’re neither here nor there.  In the final analysis, it’s what’s inside that counts – the elusive intangibles that lurk behind and beneath the “yellow metal.”

And that’s not always easy to discern.  For a value is usually something so elemental, so primeval, so visceral that you can hardly put a name on it.  It escapes your notice because it lies concealed within the thing you think you really want and cherish.  It’s like water to a fish.  It’s like the air in which we live and move and have our being.  It’s like the trees that can’t be seen for the forest.

Here, with this very basic realization, is where our pilgrim journey has to begin.

 

 

 

 

The Song of the Stone, Part Two

Sword & Stone 2 001

The Song of the Stone, Part Two

 

But Ernmas’ daughter, Morrigu,

Crafty Anand, cruel, untrue,

Took up the quarrel with princely Lugh

And rose in stormy mutiny

When Ith, with all the sons of Mil,

Came oversea to raze and kill,

And Ollamh made of Lia Fail

The exiled Stone of Destiny.

 

“It must depart,” he said.  “Its fate

Lies not with us.  I’ll not debate

The point with you.  Or soon or late,

To Inisfail it’s going:

Out past the twilight’s shimmering shore,

Out through the sunset’s glimmering door,

Where boiling oceans simmering pour

Down cliffs beyond all knowing.

 

“A thousand years of sorrowing,

A thousand troubles borrowing,

A thousand curses harrowing

We brought on all we cherish

When Gathelus, inflamed with greed,

Usurped the Stone to serve his need,

His wants to fill, his lusts to feed –

We right his wrong or perish.”

 

He turned away; she stormed and flew,

She raved and ranted, croaked and crew;

To Tory’s fastness she withdrew

Where giants keep the portals.

But Lia Fail passed out of Meath,

And Faerie slipped away beneath

The softness of the hills and heath,

Invisible to mortals.

 

And now she keeps her vigil keen

And rules the Sidhe as tyrant-queen,

Watching town and hill and green,

To all the world an Enemy;

Thus to and fro she sends her spies

And scans the earth with hungry eyes

Seeking desperately the prize –

The fabled the Stone of Destiny.

 

But if the ancient tales tell true,

The Fomor and the Morrigu

Must one day gnash their teeth and rue

The schemes of their devising;

For though at length they seize and bind it,

The Stone will crush them when they find it,

Leaving their shattered bones behind it,

Glorious in its rising.

 

As air beneath the water’s flow

Must bubble upward, even so

The heaven-born to heaven must go

To find a place of rest.

The Stone that fell from sky to earth

Cannot remain within the girth

Of narrow nature:  true to its birth,

It seeks the utmost West.

 

And there beyond the sea and sky,

Where hopes and fears and sorrows die

And cast-off dreams slip gently by

To join the day’s descending,

Shall Lia Fail pass into light

Of golden sun and silvery night,

Where children of the Second Sight

Discern the joy unending.

 

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To Be A Pilgrim

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But as a Pilgrim resolute, I took

Even with the chance equipment of that hour,

The road that pointed toward the chosen Vale.

            (William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book First)

***************************************************************

What does it mean to be a Pilgrim?

John Bunyan knew.

In 1677, Bunyan, a tinker, author, and preacher affiliated with one of the many “Non-Conformist” Christian groups then on the wrong side of the English law, was thrown into prison for a second time.  His first sojourn behind bars had dragged on for twelve years (1660–1672).  This subsequent incarceration was to last a mere six months – brief by comparison, but long enough for the prisoner to put the final touches on a bit of writing he’d begun while out on parole.

It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said, “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”  John Bunyan could have seconded the motion.  Outside the prison walls, he may never have found time to complete his little book.  Apart from the gross injustices that landed him in jail in the first place, he may never have stumbled upon the Pilgrim Path at all.  Indeed, had Bunyan been spared persecution at the hands of the governing authorities and the religious establishment of his day, the rest of us might easily have been deprived of one of the greatest spiritual classics of all time:  The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The Pilgrim’s Progress begins with a dramatic scene:  Christian, a burden on his back, his nose in a book, his eye on the Wicket Gate, fleeing from the City of Destruction.  “Life!  Life!” he cries as family, friends, and neighbors hurl abuses after him:  “Brain-sick fool!  Fantastical fellow!  Crazy-headed coxcomb!”  But Christian presses on – across the plain, through the Slough of Despond, and straight on to the entrance of the Narrow Way.

No reader can easily forget the picture Bunyan paints in this scene.  It’s a picture of a desperate man on a desperate journey:  a man with his face set like flint towards one thing and his back turned resolutely to another; a man caught between two poles, two opposites, two alternatives; two choices, two visions, two roads.

Our English word pilgrim is derived from the Latin peregrinus:  “stranger, wanderer, sojourner.”  A pilgrim in this sense is not a person with a big white collar, a floppy, broad-brimmed hat, or a pair of gold-buckled shoes.  Nor is he a patriotic mascot or a nationalistic symbol.  This pilgrim is an alien.  He’s a foreigner, a migrant, a transient.  He possesses neither an earthly country nor any of the rights, privileges, protections, and perquisites appertaining thereto.  Like the peregrine falcon, he ranges far and wide over the face of creation with no place to lay his head.  He has no home in this world, because this world is not his home.  He doesn’t fit because he doesn’t belong.

The early Irish saints – Fursey, for instance, apostle to East Anglia, or Aidan, abbot of Lindisfarne, or Columba, the one-time aristocrat who left his home in Donegal to found the monastery of Iona – used a Latin phrase to describe this way of life:  peregrinare pro Christo.  They saw themselves as men on a “journey” or a “peregrination” through this world.  They acted out of a deep conviction:  “No man can serve two masters.”  They understood that this type of pilgrimage is like a marriage:  it always involves leaving and cleaving.  It’s about shaking off one thing in order to lay hold of another.

That’s what it means to be a Pilgrim.

 

The Song of the Stone, Part One

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The Song of the Stone

 (From The Stone of Destiny)

 

Beyond the wall of sea and sky,

Where hopes and fears and sorrows die

And cast-off dreams slip gently by

To join the day’s descending,

An island green laughs in the light

Of golden sun and silvery night,

Unveiling to the Second Sight

A joy that’s never ending.

 

There, where the sun goes down to sleep

Below the cellars of the deep

And fairy folk and angels keep

A vigil o’er its fires;

Out past the waves, beyond the pale

Of Circling Stream, where white ships sail,

Under the shade of Inisfail

End all the heart’s desires.

 

A piece of heaven touched the ground

At Heaven’s Gate, where Jacob found

A Pillow Stone, and to the sound

Of Seraphs on the stair

He laid him down and watched his dreams

Fly up to where the starlight gleams;

But when he woke, those golden beams

Had vanished into air.

 

Bold Gathelus, King Cecrops’ son,

In Egypt’s land where rivers run

Stretched out his hand to seize the Stone

From Israel in Goshen.

With Scota, his betrothed bride,

He dragged it over deserts wide

To Spain, far over the heaving tide

Of the dividing ocean.

 

There on Brigantium’s sea-swept coast

He built a kingdom on the boast

That he must reign to uttermost

Who claimed as his possession

This ancient talisman of power;

But in a late and evil hour

An enemy flung down his tower:

He fled with his obsession.

 

Then over the deeps in ships they flew,

Gathelus’ Danaan crew,

Breaching boundaries old and new,

Seeking the final shore;

From Falias and Gorias

To Finias and Murias,

And last to Eire’s sea of grass

Beyond the great Muir Mor.

 

They landed on the mountain’s head

In clouds and smokes of fiery red

And filled the Fomor with a dread

Of all that’s bright and fair.

On Tara’s plain they set the Stone,

And over it they raised a throne,

That it might roar and shriek and moan

Beneath the king’s true heir …

 

(To be continued)

 

Definition and Usage

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pil-grim (pil’grim), n. [ME.pelegrim; OFr. *pelegrin (later pelerin, Pr. pelegrin); L. peregrinus, foreigner < pereger, one on a journey < per, through + ager, country; cf. PEREGRINE], 1. a wanderer; sojourner. 2. A person who travels to a shrine or holy place. 3. [P-], a member of the band of English Puritans who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.

(Webster’s)

 

“’And I shal apparaille me,’ quod Perkyn, ‘in pilgrims wise,

And wende with yow I wil til we fynde Treuthe.’“

 

“’Then I will dress as a pilgrim,’ said Piers, ‘and go with you till we find Truth.’”

(William Langland, Piers Plowman, Book VI; 1377)

 

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote …

Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages …”

 

“When April with his sweet showers has

Pierced the drought of March to the root …

Then people long to go on pilgrimages …”

(Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Prologue; 1386)

 

“Fulness to such a burden is

That go on pilgrimage;

Here little, and hereafter bliss,

Is best from age to age.”

(John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part II; 1684)

 

“But where content dwells, even a poor cottage is a kingly palace; and this happiness he had all his life long, not so much minding this world, as knowing he was here as a pilgrim and stranger, and had no tarrying city, but looking for one not made with hands, eternal in the highest heavens …”

(The Continuation of Mr. Bunyan’s Life, anonymous; 1692)

 

“By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life. My possessions comprise but some rusk in a knapsack on my back, and the Holy Bible on my bosom. That is all.”

(The Way of a Pilgrim, anonymous 19th century Russian)

 

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims* on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.”

(Hebrews 11:13, 14)

 

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims* of the Dispersion …”

(1 Peter 1:1)

 

* Greek parepidemos, temporary resident; refugee; one who lives among a people not his own.

 

Posting the First

 

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Dear Reader:

To any and all who chance to stumble upon this, the first of what I hope to be many future installments, my message today is simple:  “To every thing there is a season,” and “All good things come to him who waits.”

Quod scripsi scripsi, quod scribo scribo, et quod volo scribere scribam.   That which is past cannot be changed, and there is no telling what may be yet to come.

To those who are sufficiently interested to wonder what happens next, I can only say, “Patience.  Watch, wait, and observe.”

Many things that have not emerged may yet be in the making …