The spiritual minefield

“’Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought,’” said my son, reading out the daily inspirational quote he has delivered to his phone. “It says it is by Basho. Who’s he?”
“Seventeenth century Japanese poet.” It was a short answer, but enough for the question.
“Okay, Google,” he said with disgust. He was not using voice commands…that is one of the politer names he calls me.

It was a good quote though, when I had just been writing up another of our visits to an ancient sacred site. It summed up perfectly why these places matter so much to us and what it is we find there. We do not seek to return to an earlier time or belief system, but to move beyond the imposed and acquired dogma of our times. Somewhere, beyond both the beliefs of the ancients and our own, is the source of the questions mankind has asked of both his heart and the heavens; whatever path we have chosen to follow and in whatever era we have lived, ultimately our goal is the same.

The symbols we use, the stories we believe, or in which we have faith, all arose from a need to understand. We want to know about the origins of life and our planetary home, our place in the cosmos and the forces that shape all we know. We want to know why we are here, and what is the purpose of it all.

We have sought answers to how we should live and developed moral codes by which we are supposed to abide. Some are practical… if we must live as part of a community, then there are basic behaviours by which we abide. Other rules we have made and think of as universal, yet across time and culture, they too have changed and shifted their parameters so much, and so often, that mankind starts wars because we cannot agree on the basic details of how we ought to live. Or how our gods should behave.

At one point in history, gods could be vengeful, jealous, permissively polyamorous and sometimes downright vicious. Another era sees its gods…or at least their priests… exercising strict control over every aspect of their people, while yet another time sees the gods as loving, forgiving and nurturing. And sometimes, the same god, over the course of time, will run the gamut of all of the above.

Within their time and place, all these manifestations were acceptable to the populace. They filled a need that matched the era and culture… and when they ceased to fill it, new gods came in to supplant them. But the same questions remained.

There is knowledge to be had about our planet and solar system. We now know a great deal about how nature actually works. We can see brain activity and are busily engineering nano-robots to send into the body to fix its problems. The scope of human knowledge is vast, even if there is still far more to learn than we can know or imagine at this moment. But all these things are just facts.

The questions held in the recesses of the human heart and mind cannot be answered so simply and the answers must be found by each of us, in our own way and our own time. Only knowledge can be transmitted. Knowledge may point a way, but it cannot grant understanding, only show us what and where someone else sought and found their own answers.

And then there is the dichotomy of seeking and not-seeking. The only way we know how to find anything is to look for it, or stumble across it by accident. We are told by spiritual teachers and philosophers that we should seek and strive to grow… and told by just as many of them that we should neither seek nor strive, but just be. We are promised paradise if we adhere to one set of rules or another, and a thousand shades of torment if we choose the wrong path. And that path can be any or all of the ones who promised paradise in the first place.

Spirituality is a minefield. So, what is a seeker, especially when we are not supposed to seek, supposed to do?

Seek what they sought. Look beyond the stories to why they were told… beyond the dogma, the rules and conventions and listen for what sings to your heart. We may be too small to encompass the entire understanding of Creation, but we may get a glimpse that sheds enough light on our path to carry us forward. It matters little upon which path we begin, for once we have found a song of the soul that calls to us, the path chooses us and it lives in truth within us.

Drawing a dark veil…

“Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbot Mellitus, 6thC, on the conversion of Britain.

***

You have to admit, Pope Gregory was sneaky. The mission to bring the blessed isles of Britain into the Christian fold was not to be accomplished so much by conversion as subversion. To ‘convert’ means to turn in a new direction, to subvert means to destroy from below… and that, is pretty much, the definition of sneaky.

The instructions to the missionaries were clear… take and use the old sacred places for the new worship. The letter was quite detailed in how this should be done, but basically it meant allowing the people to celebrate the same festivals, in the way they had always done, and in the same places. The only difference wa that, while they were doing so, the clergy of the Church could gradually add a Christian gloss to the festivities. Many of the old gods were adopted as Christian saints and their stories rewritten accordingly, magical places were rendered ‘officially’ sacred by appropriating them for Christian myth and the symbolism of ancient festivals was reallocated to the Christian story.

Gregory was right. The people were soon turned to the new religion.

They may have neither noticed nor cared; when you worship God made manifest in Nature, the names and stories of the gods matter less than natural and cosmic force they represent… and Britain already had a long history of accepting ‘foreign’ gods into the pantheon. The new Jesus-god was little different from many who had come and gone before, after all. Miraculous births abound in religious history, across the globe and throughout the ages. Gods who walk the earth as men are not uncommon, nor are the gods who come to teach. Saviour gods and sacrificed gods were ten a penny, and Jesus was not the first to be hung upon a tree.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Gregory must have been well aware of this ready acceptance of new gods into the pagan fold. Throw in a few incentives…and eternal life isn’t bad for starters… add a dash of hellfire and brimstone to put the fear of God into the laggards, put learning, healing, economic and political power into the hands of the priests, and he was right; within a generation or two, the conversion was pretty much complete. The old gods faded into myth and their altars were forgotten…or repurposed.

But, let’s be honest, Gregory was not exactly the first to bring Britain to Christianity, whatever his letter might suggest. The process had been going on for quite some time. There were already Christians in Britain before the Romans left in 410AD. The very earliest missionaries, according to the legends, had arrived much earlier than that, when Joseph of Arimathea had come to Glastonbury, bringing with him relics of Jesus’ life and mission, and founding the first Christian oratory there. Joseph, according to the Bible, was the man who asked Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus’ body from the Cross… so, if the legends are true, then Christianity came to these shores within a few years of the Crucifixion.

Celtic Christianity, which carried a greater love and respect for the natural world, was already firmly entrenched in these isles before Gregory wrote to Mellitus. The last pagan warrior-king was Penda of Mercia…and he died in 655AD. So it was not so much Christianity that Gregory wanted to bring to the land, but Roman Christianity. be that as it may, after the Synod of Whitby in 664, Britain was officially under the sway of the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual landscape was confined to the churches and chapels.

For those who seek a greater understanding of our spiritual past, Britain is particularly rich in archaeological remains dating back thousands of years. There are over a thousand stone circles, innumerable barrows and many other ancient monuments to baffle, intrigue and illuminate the seeker. Sacred sites continue to document the evolution of belief throughout the Roman Occupation, then you hit what was known as the Dark Ages (until political correctness renamed it the Early Medieval period) and nothing much remains except the imported Norse and Saxon gods and the earliest beginnings of the Church. The lines between them blur as the one blends with the other and our original spiritual story sinks further into myth… and the seeker is left with the task of unpicking the resulting tangle.

Unfortunately for Pope Gregory, his directive had an unexpected result. By building his churches on sites of a far more ancient sanctity than the sanction of Christianity, many of those sites were preserved. We not only know where they were, they are still there.

There are barrows in churchyards, ancient yews, once held sacred, still cast their shadows on holy ground, sacred springs run beneath foundations and local saints with strange names and even stranger stories leave a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow.

And follow them we do, finding mysteries and motes of ancient light as we delve into the origins of belief. Why do we search? What can such ancient beliefs offer us, and how do they relate to the modern world? You have only to look at the political evolution of ‘official’ faith to see how murky the waters can be and how the minds and hearts of a nation can be quietly subverted.

But somewhere beyond all the chicanery, beyond dogma, beyond all organised religion, when we reconnect to our ancestors, we touch a time when the questions we still ask today were first being explored. Their world was simpler… everything was either sacred or magical, or both. There were spirits in stone and tree, there was healing in the waters. Everything was seen as connected. Animals, even the hunted, were held in reverence and the green and growing land was the body of a goddess. Nature was the self-expression of divinity and mankind no more than a part of that expression. With humankind seemingly determined to despoil and destroy our home, I believe that perspective to be more than relevant today.