This day marked the closing of a 3 year journey – one that for me extended my 1 year masters degree at Schumacher College into 4 wonderful and formative years.
At the end of the first year at Schumacher I remember reflecting that it had been an education true to the original meaning of university, which according to Matthew Fox, is a place to explore our relationship to the universe. Although Wild Wisdom School is not (yet) a university officially, it certainly is a university according to this original meaning. Our teacher – Sam Wernham – is a fantastic scholar and mystic who weaves together these two approaches to offer a way of studying that is packed with aliveness. If this were the education offered in mainstream institutions we would have a very wise society indeed. We can dream…
Prof Sam on the fizz
Captivated by hanging light bulbs
Back to the here and now (or rather to 3 weeks ago) – the day after its final study day, Wild Wisdom School celebrated its graduation day! Except we called it our community day – a day to celebrate our community and to honour the great journey we’ve taken together. If it were a traditional graduation day, we’d perhaps be wearing classic graduation hats and gowns and carrying important scrolls in hand. Clearly, this was not what our day looked like. Rather think summer hats, prosecco and a great big feast put on by Jan and Henry, who were our incredibly generous hosts for the day.
We did however have a ceremony – but forget long speeches and sore bottoms, and think instead a circle of joyful people on the grass around a fire pit. This is the basis of the Wild Wisdom collaborative ceremonies, which in the last year have very justly earned the title “ramshackle rituals”. Poems, songs, music, dance and a story weaved together the threads of our wisdom journey, and together we marked this ending and new beginning.
My contribution to our ramshackle ritual was the classic Mary Oliver poem ‘Wild Geese’. Her words speak to me of what our Wild Wisdom community is…
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
So, on I go to new pastures. The ending of Wild Wisdom School marks the ending of my journey in Devon, and the beginning of a new life in Scotland. I am so grateful for this incredible journey, and pray that the potent gold of the Wild Wisdom vessel travels far and wide – to energise spirits, engage minds and awaken hearts – and to remember our embodied belonging to the family of all things.
Who knows, maybe one day it really will have a graduation day with gowns an’ all.
Our final circle gathering took place on a sun drenched Saturday just before Midsummer’s Day. All around us, nature was bursting with beauty and fullness – completing the long journey from last year’s flower through seed-resting-in-the-darkness and on to new life and steady growth which burgeoned into abundance and sharing.
And for us, there was so much of the same experience. I was struck, as I listened to our shared wisdom, how far some people felt they had travelled over the 2-3 years together and how all of us felt we had changed in some way. Our gatherings had become a regular rhythm in our lives, creating a community and a space where we were able to say whatever needed to be said in a very special physical place (thanks and blessings to Juliette for her beautiful house and garden). And in that space, everything was welcomed: joy, excitement, fear, rage, despair, confusion, contentment, gratitude……… And as we learned to accept that knowledge and wisdom are both dark and bright, we opened up to the alchemy of transformation. In the heart of the storminess and mess, there is gold. And for many, that gold is prayer: praying for the greater good of everyone, not caving in, believing that Someone knows, that there is a greater reality, letting kindness emerge.
I realise that learning to embrace paradox is one of the biggest gifts that I am taking away from my time in Wild Wisdom School. It is a very lovely feeling to be able to say to myself “both…and” instead of “either…or”. Living with the tension of opposites is tough, but I have increasingly found it possible to reach a point of balance and in those moments, something else is born from the holding of the polarities: a feeling of peace, of wholeness and wonder. A glimpse of the Divine. And, together, we have encountered those opposites in many ways and many places. From the start of our travels in paleolithic times we found that those early peoples were not just focused on survival – there is evidence of wonder too. Ritual, community and art alongside hardship and death. We do not know what, if anything, they “worshipped” but as we travelled through time we saw how that sense of wonder evolved into different spiritual traditions, with myth and story interwoven through everything. I have learned so much from the myths and stories that Sam has shared with us over the years, and they have helped me find different ways to hold paradox: the descent into darkness is necessary for the return and transformation, willing sacrifice offers new hope, death allows for the possibility of rebirth, the ugly becomes beautiful when it’s accepted. And listening to my companions in the circle, I have learned too that there are many many ways to experience the stories, not just my way; and those experiences can be diametrically opposed and still both be true.
So, we started our day with a meditation which reminded us of the fourfold way of knowing on which our practice has been based. The body and the natural world, and the wisdom that comes from both; the psyche, listening to the wisdom that emerges from how we feel about things, and from our memories and thoughts; the witness capacity, stepping aside, stepping back, getting out of our own way; and the Divine, the ground of all being, the wisdom that comes when we ask “what would You have me learn in this moment?”. All of our meditations have been beautiful, and this was no exception. As one of our community said afterwards, these have been opportunities over time to organise the purple blobs of the mind into a pattern.
Then we shifted our energy from the internal to the external and turned our thoughts to magick. Sam asked us what the word meant and what images came to mind. Inevitably we had magicians, witches, fairies, Merlin, Hogwarts, stardust and black arts……but when we settled down to listen to some of the history/herstory of magick, it became very clear that it was a deeply respected tradition for many years and was seen as a normal occupation for educated people, that was held within a Christian tradition. Queen Elizabeth had a magical advisor, John Dee, and magick that was in the service of God was seen as perfectly acceptable. When Henry VIII brought in the first Witchcraft Act in England, in 1542, it was specifically against demonic and destructive magick, not all magick. There are many definitions of magick, but let’s settle for: “The art and science of magick causing changes in matter and at a subtle level by altering states of consciousness”.
We all know about the period, about 200 years, of persecution of people accused of practising magick, and in that time some 50,000 people were tortured and executed across Europe, about 80% of them women. Of that number, only about 500 were in the UK, probably because Henry VIII’s Act was very specific about demonic magick. Tempted though I am to dwell on the reasons underpinning the persecution of so many women, that is a subject in itself and not for today.
Magick has never gone away. In Britain, it moved on through Freemasonry (another fascinating subject)and then, like so many esoteric traditions, it moved underground as rational science took centre stage. There were many occult and esoteric schools, most of them fairly secretive to outsiders: the Rosicrucians and Order of the Golden Dawn are two of the better known, and later The Society of the Inner Light (founded by Dion Fortune) and Servants of the Light (founded by WE Butler and Gareth Knight). They drew on alchemy, astrology, Free Masonry, Kabbalah, and often Christianity and their focus was on self-transformation.
In the 20th Century Gerald Gardner started the Wicca movement, bringing an incredible focus on the natural world, and Ross Nichols founded the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. They created the Eightfold nature of the year, drawing on ancient folklore and Christian traditions, and it is widely used today by many different groups and individuals. I think they would be surprised (as I was) to know just how recent a “truth” this is!
We broke at this stage for our customary bring and share lunch, which was the usual riot of colours and flavours, and for relaxed conversations in and out of the sunshine.
This was followed by our quiet time, a period of digestion at many levels, and a chance for companionable and contemplative silence. When we gathered once again, Sam led us thought a wonderful magick ritual. Not unlike a guided meditation, this was inner work and an invitation to change and growth through imagery and the union of our own conscious and intuitive processes.
And then our final wisdom pot, our last time of sharing as this group in this sacred space. We decided not to have one of our Ramshackle Rituals to end the day as we would be meeting for a final end of year celebration the next day, and would have an opportunity then. Listening to our closing reflections, I am once more struck by the differences held lovingly in our circle, and how everything really is made welcome in this amazing community. We spoke of stillness beneath an ash tree, of contentment, of grief, the certainty of being wrapped up in angel wings and the unknowingness of new beginnings.We asked “What can I harvest as well as emptying myself?”.
And I am straight back to paradox. I know that I need both to harvest the fruits of wisdom from this 3 year journey and empty myself as an invitation to future possibilities; to stand in stillness and to move on; to feel the joy of our circle and the sorrow that it no longer exists in external form. And the lessons from our short exploration of magick? That it is both Christian and pagan…..and that is absolutely ok. The split is within us. The world would be a kinder, safer place if we could heal the split that leads to “we vs. others” and “I’m right therefore you must be wrong”. I am learning every day to be less judgemental, to be aware of conflicts in my own heart and mind, and to hold paradox with a little more ease and grace.
So as I end my last blog, I would like to thank my travelling companions for their company over the 3 years. The work we have done matters. And the work that each of us will take back into our everyday world matters too: every prayer, every meditation, every moment of mindfulness, each loving thought, all our explorations on our different spiritual paths – it is all sacred work, and that work is desperately needed by our world today. I feel very privileged and full of gratitude to Sam, and to us all.
On Sunday 19th March, Wild Wisdom School transported its learning vessel to the Russian Orthodox Church in Totnes; the Community of St Antony & St Elias. This was our field trip following on from the day we shared together around the themes of Iconoclasm and Reformation. These refer to particular periods in Church history; the inner themes to which they reflect are the themes of splitting and healing, or breaking and mending. The Orthodox Church, with its many different parts – the Russian Orthodox being one – carries one of the oldest forms of Christianity that we have available to us today. This was our reason for attending their Sunday Eucharist, in the hope to come as close as possible to the early Church, prior to the many splits. What we didn’t anticipate was that we would also be invited very authentically and personally into the experience of Christianity’s splits alongside an act that provided healing and mending of the divided relationship.
This Russian Orthodox church is contained within the beautiful home of the Very Revd Benedict Ramsden, who was leading the service today. We walked through the front door and turned right to find a small room, with walls painted purple and decked with icons, which had been converted into a chapel, or as Father Benedict called it, a temple. There are no pews – only a few seats around the sides – since it is traditional in this church to stand if you are able to. I walked over to a space near a bench against the wall, fearing that I wasn’t capable of standing for 2 hours, despite being “young and fit”. I was surprised to find, however, that it wasn’t as much of a struggle as I had anticipated. In fact, none of it was. I was expecting to have to try hard to feel the spiritual connection, to find meaning for myself in the words and motions, to keep myself from slumping bored against the wall. I did put energy into not slumping – keeping my mind and body present and practicing an open-hearted awareness, as I do in all church services I attend. But, unlike Anglican services where I am often wrestling with the medieval words, I found that I could simply rest in the devotional space created by this community. In this resting place I found I didn’t have feelings of like or dislike in response to the words spoken, the stories told or the rituals performed. I felt swept up into the worship of this community and bathed in the gold painted longings of union and integration. I felt the purity of the longing captured in icons, chants and rituals carried in prayerful hands to this moment through millennia, infusing worship today just as they did in the early church.
We stood in this small chapel with Father Benedict and two other clergy in front, sometimes facing in the same direction as the congregation and sometimes turning to face us. Father Benedict would sing prayers, and these would then be responded to by another member of clergy at the back. The effect of this for me was that of a vessel, perhaps a ship, sailing the seas towards union with God. The prayerful presence of each member of the church felt essential in the movement of this ship, each with an oar to paddle us through the waters. We stood amongst these well practiced oars-people, invited into their way of praying, and even given an oar when possible.
There were two significant moments in the service where oars were passed to us. One was during the sung Lord’s Prayer – a prayer which unites Christians across division. Knowing this, Father Benedict made simple hand gestures to enable us to sing this prayer to the same tune they sing it, thus acknowledging and celebrating what we do still share. The other was during the Eucharist, where he chose to pause the order of prayer and speak to something that would normally go ignored. In the Orthodox Church, as in the Catholic Church, it is unlawful to offer communion to anyone who is not a member of this church, regardless of being a member of another church. Father Benedict spoke to the pain of this exclusion, both for those unable to receive and for those unable to give. He spoke directly to the split that this is a manifestation of; to the pain of the split, but also to his personal belief that God wants this split to be honoured since we are not yet ready to unite. We are not ready to unite because we confuse unity with uniformity. We do not know what true union means, and therefore we must remain separate.
However, in what I perceived to be an act of healing while honouring the split, Father Benedict invited us to participate in the ritual in a different way. We were invited to walk up to the altar and kiss the chalice from which the sacraments were given, and then walk to the side and take bread and wine which had been blessed and would be given out to the community. I was moved to tears by this authentic and creative offering, in which he honoured the tradition and yet reached out to us in fellowship.
The sermon Father Benedict shared with us was about lent, which I learned means ‘spring’ in Old English. He pointed to the daffodils outside and said that lent is about joy, not severity and abstinence, which is how it is often perceived. It is a time to clear space, to cleanse and to purify, so that the buds of spring can find their way to the surface, and the joy of this blossoming can be celebrated. On Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after 3 days of darkness, just as the darkness of winter gives way to the brightness of spring.
I left the church feeling so full of gratitude for this experience; an experience of splitting and healing, and a doorway into my journey of lent…
Sam and Kengo foraging in the wilds of Dartington
Flowering primrose, enjoyed by human and non-human foragers alike