Review of “Nature Mystics” by Rebecca Beattie

NatureMysticsThis week I read ‘Nature Mystics – The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism’ by Rebecca Beattie. Nature Mystics discusses a varied group of writers: John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W.B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J.R.R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. The author asserts the work of these ten writers contributed to the cultural environment that allowed Modern Paganism to develop throughout the twentieth century.
With the exception of John Keats, all of these writers lived in the industrial age. The disparity between the man-made world and their love of nature, seemed to have sparked these extraordinary creative minds to seek out alternative ways of looking at the world and led them to explore different visions of experiencing life and love. Different as they are, they are bound by their vivid imagery of the natural world, its mysteries and our distinctly human position in it.
I like writers biographies, as they reveal certain things about the why of their work, and leave other questions unanswered. Extraordinary writers are of course shaped by their place in the world, but not defined. Understanding their background makes it easier to pinpoint at their uniqueness.
What struck me about the female writers in this group is the lack of acclaim they received in their lifetime and beyond. I had never even heard of a few of the female writers, whereas I read at least something either inside or outside of school by all the male writers. My personal favourite in this group, however controversial, is D.H. Lawrence. What I love about him -among other things- is the sexuality in his work: untamed, raw imagery of womanhood and manhood. I find the author’s inclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien debatable, as he was a devout Catholic throughout his life. Yet the author makes a strong case why he should be included. More than any of the other writers, his works of fantasy kindled the interest of the masses in the actual mythology of northern and western Europe. Did I miss anyone? Of course. “Nature Mystics” is an exploration, not a course book, and without a doubt many other authors could be perceived as having influenced the development of Modern Paganism. The poetry of Walt Whitman, for instance, has a distinct Pagan feel to me, even though he self-identified as religious sceptic.
If you are looking to loose yourself in literature this summer, Nature Mystics is a good guide to discover writers who are perhaps new to you. It might also be an invitation to get reacquainted with well known authors and read their works in a different light.

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The thin line

A new poem for Gods and Radicals

GODS & RADICALS

girlinthegardenI walk a thin line that leads past the woods
A dusty path few friends will take
I will emerge from among the leaves
Only, alone, when I need to. Locusts and honey
For the woman in second-hand jeans
The sackcloth and ashes of the 2010’s.

Awkward knowledge comes in instalments
With every new fact I pay with peace of mind.
The clothes I wear, the shoes, leather or oil
Crude is the currency of my innocuous existence.
I strip myself of pleasures until joy unsold rests
On the stack of my debt, a fraction lower.

Force-fed with oil and blood every day
My dearest and I sell our hands and hearts
And hide at night in dreams of another way.
While our souls fly under the canopy,
The machine mindlessly steals our years
We stay put for our boy and our girl.

For their existence we choose to walk…

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Whatever

flowerTo bask among your rays, lethal but diluted
Until my bones are baked and skin is scorched
Is to fall fully into temporary grace.

At times you are distant, I am beyond your reach
A fallow field is my heart and my garden
And it is a winter’s longing you teach.

How I love your gentle touch. Your kiss stirs us,
The woods hum with longing for themselves
You are the man of many lovers

One of many mistresses I am, unfolded
In a string of billions of years, I wither
In a blink of your own demise.

After you burn up and fade
Light the universe with a pale candle
To rest the soul of earth in a frosty memory.

For whatever lives forever.

The wrath of trees

butterfly

Passing through the woods on an overcast day
No glaring rays outshone the glorious greens
Deeper into the green I treaded outside the hum
Of people that are doing their job.

I had presumed to own the woods today.
Yet old wounds upon the barks made them see
In beady suspicion, I stood spellbound
Under the wrath of a hundred hissing trees.

What is your business, they hollered as one
I am the vampire that comes to draw your blood
In exile I linger and now I am here
In the copse the council forgot.

Do not ask what we can do for you
We have done quite enough already.

Spheres of involvement

How big are our worlds? This question came to my mind when I saw a tremendous amount of trash on the parking lot by the station on my way to work. The parking lot is scattered with McDonald’s debris and cigarette packages. There are plenty of bins by the way. I know who leaves it here, it’s the youngsters that hang around here on their scooters and with their cars at night. No one can blame them for making their own entertainment. There is precious little else for them to do here. But I do not get the littering. If you’d say something about it, they would probably grin in dismissal. Clearly, leaving their trash here, has nothing to do with them, at least, it seems they feel this way without even giving it another thought.
It would not enter my head to leave my trash like this. Not because I am such a wonderful, responsible person. But I was raised by my parents and a wider social circle not to do this, and as a result, I try to pass on this basic decency to my children. And indeed, as they are now, I can hardly imagine them leaving their junk on the streets and in the woods like this. Yet, maybe these kids may have had proper examples. The more interesting question is: Why do people do this? My thought is they do not feel any connection to that place, and to their wider environment. Maybe they perceive themselves as independent agents, interacting with other independent agents, with no connection to the world at large.
Even though I do not like the littering, I cannot blame them for feeling this way. Our society only cultivates a connection to the environment in toddlers and young schoolchildren. They do crafts according to the season and play outside, but after that their involvement to the world around them wanes and other things are considered more important. Only lucky people are raised to more than that, through their parents or other role models. It is impossible to feel responsibility for something you feel no connection to. This is a blatant and obvious example of just not caring, but you find this behaviour among grown-ups leading decent lives all the time, and I hate to come across it in myself at times.

How big is my world?

I asked myself that question this week, when I was thinking about this and something seemingly unrelated: the human tragedy on the Mediterranean Sea. I live in one of those rich countries, these people are trying to reach. And indeed, up until now, even though I am by no means wealthy, I have lived a life of great privilege here. Yet I also know the standard of living is dropping in small, but insidious ways. Safety nets crumble. Not all of these people can be taken in, in the long run. Can we, the Dutch, or the Europeans at large, be held accountable? It is true that in many geopolitical problems, the West has a great historic debt and involvement. Yet I find it highly undesirable that we welcome these people in large numbers to our country. Not because I do not wish them a fulfilling life, free of want. But admitting people in large numbers, discounts the basic human truth that there is only so much compassion and involvement to go around. When we admit people in smaller numbers, they are afforded a chance at least to blend in, to make a connection to our society and be woven into the fabric of human relations here. In larger numbers, I see a big problem with this development. A simple example: all people that are admitted into our country, have a right to a council house. Yet, in the village I live in, ordinary Dutch youngsters have to wait for years and years in their parent’s houses until they are allowed to rent a place. The lucky ones, with steady jobs and a good education, may be able to buy their own house at some point. But there are less and less steady jobs to go around, even for the well-educated. I’m confident the anger of disgruntled Dutch people will not direct itself at the nameless, faceless “system”, but newcomers will invariably become the scapegoat. They are the strangers that are not involved in our lives, so as a consequence, society does not feel a responsibility for them.

A bleeding heart

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. For humans, it is often supposed to be around 150. Estimates from other scientists suggest it is higher, but never more than a few hundred. Of course, we are able to feel empathy and responsibility far beyond that number. We do identify for instance as being Dutch or European, and sometimes as human. But it is easier with people that do not look so different from ourselves and whose cultural habits we can relate too. I found myself questioning the size of my personal sphere of involvement. Well, that trash on the parking lot feels like my problem too. The fate of animals in the bio-industry feels like my problem too, which is why I am a vegetarian. I feel for the people drowning on the Mediterranean and perishing at the hands of IS. Yet, I am not able to care about everything all of the time. Some degree of selfishness and single-mindedness is pivotal to raising a family or achieving any kind of other goal. I have to care about my family first, than about others.
It is probably why contemplative religious like monks and nuns were supposed to renounce all natural bonds of family. This way, they emptied themselves so that God and the cares of the world could fill them up. Their prayers were for the world at large. Caring about everything all of the time is irreconcilable with an ordinary life like my own, though.
Yet I have a bleeding heart. My sensitivity to hurt in the wider world deeply affects my interactions with it. The thought of someone begging in the streets makes me less eager to visit a large city. I can only have a few friends, because friends mean I have to stay in touch and I need empty time, for my family, to do things that sustain me, just to stay sane. Experience taught me that this is the only way for me.
Some people have boundless hearts that can bleed but still sustain their own energy. I shamefully admit that I do not, and I am sorry to admit many people I know have even less. But we should never forget we are interconnected to the world at large, ans not shy away from the countless small acts in which we can make the world a better place. To cultivate a helicopter view of the world’s problems and the hurt that comes from it, is extremely uncomfortable but utterly necessary if we want it to change. How I am going to manifest this in my daily life, is a question I struggle to find an answer to.

Celebrating Planet Earth

Today is Earth Day, I understand. I would not have known if I had not been reading in the larger blogosphere, as it is not really a holiday here. What does Earth mean to us? Is Earth divine itself, an emanation or just a creation of the divine? For me, these questions are pivotal and mark one of the great differences between Pagans and Christians. I am very much a seeker hovering at the outskirts of Christianity, the City of God, if you will, but also drawn to the darker dense woods of Paganism. Spiritually, I feel I have no home, but I quite like to live at the edge of the forest. Maybe I get to taste the best of both worlds this way, although staunch advocates of either tradition would probably beg to differ. Regarding these questions, I read an interesting book this week.

Celebrating Planet Earth, a Pagan/Christian conversation

Celebrating Planet EarthThis book, edited by Denise Cush, came about as a result of an interfaith meeting in the U.K. last year and offers perspectives by Philip Carr-Gomm, Alison Eve Cudby, Denise Cush, Graham Harvey, Steve Hollinghurst, Simon Howell, Viannah Rain, Philip Shallcrass, Bruce Stanley, Tess Ward and Liz Williams. The book is divided into three sections. Section A deals with mutual fears and prejudices, section B discusses possibilities for co-operation and section C focuses on how art could aid understanding and commonality between these two faith groups.

Paganism and Christianity have, like many other faiths, a troubled history together. Theologically, these two traditions are very much at odds with each other. Even though I am not a great fan of theological debate, it should be an inevitable part of true interfaith meeting. There is no use pretending the gap is non-existent. Anyone in the twilight of these two traditions must acknowledge the towering presence or absence of Jesus. No matter how I choose to feel about Him, it is very clear what He Himself has said: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. This question, however, is not addressed in depth in this book. Yet it is important to remember that most of our ancestors had no problem whatsoever with syncretising and localising their Christianity with ancestor and nature veneration. They did not perceive a great divide between the two and bridged the gap by ritual, following a Christianised Wheel of the Year and in art. This is exactly where the two traditions do have a strong overlap. Both more or less indigenous to Europe (Western Christianity at least came of age here and has a lot of Pagan trimmings), there is common ground to be found in form and expression of the divine. The texts in this book offer a range of possibilities for common ritual and religious experience.

At the end of the book, editor Denise Cush takes stock of their meeting and these texts. She herself acknowledges the lack of theological debate and discussion, partly due to the fact that predominantly liberal and open-minded representatives tend to be involved in efforts like these. Her conclusion is called ‘Where next?’ and indeed this book might prove to be a starting point for a wider respectful exploration of difference and commonality. It seems many more people are struggling but finding ways to incorporate these two traditions that seem to be at odds, Paganism and Christianity, into their spirituality. Especially the emergence of the Forest Church, unknown to me before reading this book, was an eye-opener. If you are either looking for a rich perspective on how to practically integrate these traditions or if you are involved in interfaith work, Celebrating Planet Earth is a great anthology.