Tuesday, November 30, 2010


And so at 5pm every day, Simcox runs a magnifying glass over hundreds of containers of caterpillars, which are barely 2mm long. ‘This is very, very laborious,’ he says, but he still manages to identify caterpillars ready for release with barely a second glance. ‘People say, “How do you know that?”’ he smiles. ‘A wasted life, really.’
-- from “Butterflies: Out of the Blue,” by Patrick Barkham (guardian.co.uk)

The next stop on our tour of the virtues is Devotion, defined by the American Heritage dictionary as “ardent, often selfless affection and dedication, as to a person or principle.” When I think about Devotion, my mind often creeps back to childhood stories of the Catholic saints and the sometimes odd, even extreme, behaviors they exhibited to show their Devotion to God. Saint Mary Magdalene, for example, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair.

Speaking of Christian traditions: I have only found Devotion per se listed among one of them, the twelve Knightly Virtues of the Order of St. John. Some say Devotion is a version of Pure Heart, one of the Christian Beatitudes mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. We have already visited related virtues in non-Christian cultures, however, such as the Roman personal virtue of Disciplina. The Buddhist virtue Right Concentration, known in the Theravadan lineage as Samma Samadhi, also relates to Devotion. If we limit Devotion to spiritual pursuits, the Hindus prize Bhakti Yoga (Devotion to God) as a version of it. I’d also argue that the Huna principle of Makia (Focus), which we will visit in a month’s time, reflects an aspect of Devotion. Another lies in the Prussian virtue of Pflichtbewusstsein (Sense of Duty).  

And in most traditions, including Wiccan, "Devotion" can also describe one's daily spiritual practice, such as meditation, prayer, or raising energy.

Harkening back to Self-Possession and Emerson’s keys (link), we’re going to find today's gate to Devotion through two human beings, in this case a pair of English scientists: Jeremy Thomas and David Simcox. Their painstaking work has brought a rare species of English butterfly, the Large Blue (Phengaris arion), back from extinction.

A hundred years ago, the Large Blue butterfly flew over the wides swathes of the English countryside. As with so many species, it declined due to the loss of habitat. A singularly mysterious (and as it turns out, rather bizarre) life cycle stymied the conservationists fight to preserve it. The caterpillars just disappear for awhile, then return to form their chrysalises, emerge, and fly off to start the cycle over.

Jeremy Thomas
David Simcox
England declared the Large Blue extinct in 1979, but remnant populations survived in Scandinavia. Over the following ten years, Jeremy Thomas, professor of ecology at Oxford, solved the mystery of out how it could survive. David Simcox, a conservation biologist, then drove to an island in Sweden, collected some eggs, and released caterpillars in Devon and Somerset, 26 years ago.

The Large Blue once again flutters over a small portion of its original territory, but it requires continued midwifery. To return the insect to its native grounds in the beautiful Cotswolds region, where it has not flown in 50 years, Dr. Simcox must awaken at 6am every day in the summer to hand-raise hundreds of the fragile caterpillars. He then distributes them, one by one, over suitable landscape. Each egg hatches on a thyme leaf, and then the caterpillar drops to the ground.

The caterpillars next secrete a form of honeydew attractive to certain ants (Myrmica sabuleti), who carry them down to their underground chambers and tend to them with a certain... Devotion. (Hmm!) After a total of 10 months, much spent in hibernation, the Large Blue larva transforms into a winged adult and emerges to the surface world. (The tending of the caterpillars by the ants may seem bizarre, but no more so than, say, the washing of your savior’s feet with your tears and hair...)

Likewise, while they no doubt would scoff at a comparison to Mary the Foot Washer, I think the efforts of these scientists to solve the puzzle of the Large Blue and bring it back to England are a perfect illustration of Devotion. Dr. Simcox’ remark about a “wasted life” shows not a small bit of Humility in addition to Devotion (both of these, no doubt, made manifest through great Self-Possession...) This virtue involves a good deal of Surrender to something greater than oneself--a theme we touched on back at Abiding. In Devotion, the ego dissolves.

Today, think about someone in your own life who harnesses great Passion, Concentration, and Effort in service to something that deeply matters to them. How do they inspire you? What causes or people warrant your own Devotion?

May we see the gates of Devotion, and perhaps make a home there. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010


I really don't know what I think until I get that sentence down.
--Joan Didion, Seattle Times, Nov. 18, 2005

Tomorrow is the birthday of Clive Staples Lewis, author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and dozens of other works of fantasy, science fiction, and Christian philosophy. His biography traces a path from a “received” Protestant tradition in his childhood years, to atheism in his youth, to Catholicism in his mature years. Lewis’ struggle with religious belief--or the lack of it--as spelled out in his prolific and colorful writing, inspires today’s celebration of the Chinese virtue of Xin-xin (Faith).

“Xin-xin,” sometimes spelled Xinxin or Hsin-hsin, is most commonly translated by English writers as “Faith” or “Trust,” but also as “Believing,” “Confidence,” or even “Truth-telling.”  The root word xin has an exhiliarating potpourri of meanings, detailed by the imprisoned Chinese scholar and dissident Hu Shigen (whose story we will profile later on TTV). Hu himself explains:

An American student asked me, “Teacher, what does ‘Xin’ mean?”
I shot a look at “Xin,” and answered with a easy smile:
“It’s just your word letter in English. The left side is a person, and the right side is the character ‘speak,’ so combined it means ‘a person speaks.’ Writing a letter, of course, is speaking with a pen on paper.”

In other words, xin means “epistle.” But Hu goes on to tell his increasingly-baffled student that xin also can mean “believe” (as in, “I don’t believe you”) as well as “religious faith.” And it has at least four more meanings, Hu adds: “One is in the sense of ‘signal’ and ‘information;’ another is in the sense of a creed; the third trustworthiness, credit – both of course related to trust; and last, as it’s used in the phrases ‘wag one’s tongue too freely,’ ‘pick up something easily and casually,’ ‘walk aimlessly,’ ‘write at will’ – all of which mean roughly ‘do as you like.’ ” Hu finishes by saying that Xin-xin, in turn, could be translated into English as “Confidence.”

So, a word whose root has connotations of “writing,” (with an implication that if we write something, we must believe it), but also notions of “belief” and “confidence.” All of these meanings shine forth from the story of Lewis. How did a man who as a youth denied the existence of God, wind up one of greatest 20th century fantasy authors and lay apologists for Christianity?

I find a lot to like about C.S. Lewis, born to English parents in Northern Ireland. When he was four years old, his dog Jacksie was killed by a car, and C.S. announced to everyone that he was taking his dog’s name--and was known to his family as “Jack” forever after. (As a dog person, I confess, right there, he’s won me over!) As a child, Lewis loved stories of animals, especially Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit stories. Later, as an early teen, he read the Icelandic sagas and stories of Northern heroes, which he felt revealed the beauty of nature. (Sounds like a primitive Neopagan to me! And if he’d been born 50 years later, who knows?...)  

After going off to Oxford, he then entered World War I. He survived, but buried one of his best friends, Paddy Moore, whose family Lewis looked after from then on. After Paddy’s death, Lewis began his long, slow crawl back to religious Faith, and eventually to Christianity per se. Two major events propelled Lewis along this path. First, he encountered the writing of 19th century Scottish fantasist George MacDonald (whose story The Golden Key, by the way, served as the structural myth for this year’s California Witchcamp). He also became friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, who shared his delight in the old stories of Scandinavia. Exchanges with Tolkien played a role in Lewis’ return to Belief, first to simple theism, and then, as he approached 30, to formal Christianity.

When I asked my twin, Kael, which of Lewis’ books best related to the virtue of Xin-xin, he cited The Great Divorce. In this semi-autobiographical story, modeled after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a young man, who has committed suicide over a badly-ended love affair, travels by bus through a grey city that is an obvious metaphor for Hell. He and his companions meet the spirits of people they knew in life, who explain it is possible to leave the grey city for Heaven--a much brighter, joyful, and more substantial place. Despite the Hope of exit, most of the passengers give transparently self-deceptive excuses as to why they cannot leave the grey city.   

As Kael explained it, “The point of The Great Divorce is that people remain in Hell because they choose not to embrace Truth. Their fear keeps them prisoner.”

Which, for any Seeker on the path--be they Christian, Buddhist, Witch, or Humanist--sums up the task before us.

As a student of the virtues, I find Lewis interesting for his Belief that in Nature one can find laws of morality--which he perceives as echoes of Divine Intent. As Kathryn Lindskoog and G. F. Ellwood explain in an essay about Lewis,

Natural Law shows that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. However... Natural law obliges us to do the straight thing regardless of the pain, danger or difficulty involved. Natural Law is hard.

No one doing the hard work of their path could quibble with this; the path to Self-Knowledge seems at once simple and yet almost impossible. Facing our Truth can be more frightening than facing a Lion.

Speaking of which: Some Pagans dislike Lewis’ Narnia stories for being what they see as thinly-veiled Christian catechisms that demonize Witches (the main villain in the stories being Jadis, the White Witch). But it’s more complicated than this. Narnia, in fact, contains loads of Pagan Gods and Goddesses, including Bacchus, Pomona, and Silenus; many Dryads, Naiads, Nymphs; a very impressive River God; and the Gods of a hostile country neighboring Narnia, Calormen. In The Four Loves, which I am reading now, Lewis implies that such entities are in constant communion with the Divine, and so are expressions of such. (Putting on my Buddhist hat--colored yellow, since I’m Gelugpa-- I’d say this jibes with Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, which accepts the existence many Gods and Goddesses but points out that Karma, like gravity, rules them all.)

In a scene in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, a soldier of Calormen, Emeth, tells Aslan (the Divine Lion that is the Christ analog for Narnia) that he has spent his life pursuing Tash, the main Deity of his land. Aslan replies, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” Almost identical words are spoken in The Great Divorce to the hero by his guide, the spirit of George MacDonald. To Lewis, Emeth’s sincere prayers, albeit to a different Deity, were just as valid as a Narnian’s to Aslan.

Was Lewis’, then, actually a Universalist? Yes, and no. No doubt being raised in the sectarian violence of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lewis had great appreciation of the literally diabolical (“dividing”) effects that differences of religious Faith produce. While Lewis did hold Belief in Christ as the representation of the Divine Truth, he did not claim, based on the story of Emeth from his Narnia books, that people of other traditions could not also connect with this Truth, which has both Benevolence and Ferocity ("He is not a tame Lion.") You can argue Lewis showed strong chauvinism towards Christianity, and he did.

I think Lewis “smells wrong” to Neopagans because he embraces the Divine in Transcendence, while Neopagans typically embrace the Divine in Immanence. For me, there is no better metaphor illustrating this difference than alternate versions of the hymn “Through All the World Below,” sung in its Quaker version here:

At the end of San Francisco’s Spiral Dance each Samhain, the choir sings this same song after the Cone is released. In the second stanza, the Christian version often goes “His springing waters rise/Fountains flow, rivers run/The mist that veils the sky hides the sun.” The Reclaiming version, on the other hand, starts, “She’s springing, waters rise...” The Divine doesn’t preside over (“trans”=“over”) the waters--She is within the waters (“im-” = “in”). And just as in quantum mechanics light can be explained sometimes as a particle, sometimes as a wave, with the ineffable Truth being neither, the Divine can be described as Transcendence and Immanence both. Probably, ultimately, it is neither, but that’s the best our small monkey brains can do.

If I had to dissect Xin-xin or Faith into underlying critical roots, I’d say two virtues must contribute in large and equal parts. One is Humility as to our ultimate ignorance--the Wonder we touched on in a prior post. Courage to move forward on our path despite this ignorance makes up the other, as touched on partly in past essays on Týr (Courage) and Honor.

Do you write or journal as part of your personal practice? What insights have you gained as to the nature of your underlying Belief this way? How did it leave you with Confidence? Can you relate to Lewis as his life wandered between Belief, non-belief, and Belief?

May we see the gates of Xin-xin, and perhaps make a home there.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


The language of friendship is not words but meanings.
--Henry David Thoreau

Today is American Thanksgiving, and even the youngest schoolchild knows the story we tell, about how four centuries ago the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together for a feast at Plymouth Colony. In a state of Gratitude, the settlers thanked God for their blessings, and thanked the Wôpanâak (or Wampanoag), the people living in the area, whose Generosity and Wisdom allowed the Pilgrims to survive their first year.

In truth, there’s absolutely no record of such a feast happening until 20 years after the Pilgrims’ arrival. Given how badly things turned out for the Wôpanâak over the ensuing 300+ years, it’s no wonder many Native Americans to this day describe this date as a National Day of Mourning.

The true and all-too-human story of the encounter between the English settlers of Plymouth and the Wôpanâak of Patuxet (the name of the village that originally stood there) holds richer lessons in survival, savagery, and (surprise!) Compassion and mutual aide than any made-up feel-good myth. It even offers us a hefty helping of irony to plop down on our dinner plate, next to the stuffing, squash, and pumpkin pie (and turkey, for you non-vegetarians). The telling culminates in the present-day story of a certified genius, Jessie Little Doe Baird, who has through the Wôpanâak Language Revitalization Project resurrected the long-dead Wôpanâak language, thanks in part to the works of an (also long-dead) Pilgrim missionary. For this reason, we mark today with the group virtue of Uhutu (Speaking to Each Other).   

At the time that the settlers accidentally (?) arrived in Massachusetts, the Wôpanâak Nation had already lived through their worst decade ever. They had suffered attacks from the north by the Micmacs, who had just finished vanquishing the Penobscots. The Pequot, meanwhile, were taking over territory to the west. More importantly, a bacterial illness (possibly plague or leptospirosis, believed contracted from earlier contacts with French traders) had wiped out an estimated ninety percent (!) of the Wôpanâak Nation. The stresses caused inter-tribal rivalries, with the tribe living near Plymouth, headed by a sachem (chief) named Massasoit, having to cede territory to a more dominant Wôpanâak tribe, the Narragansett.  

Meanwhile, the arriving Pilgrims were in no great shape, either. Contrary to popular perception, the Mayflower was no jolly band of fellow travelers--the religious Pilgrims made up a minority of the ship’s passengers (but may have controlled the leadership). Arriving four days before Christmas, the English faced starvation and exposure. (Having lived through several New England winters, let me tell you: They’re cold and wet!) They survived in part by ransacking caches of corn stowed by the Wôpanâak natives (who, by the way, frightened the rather xenophobic Pilgrims), and occasionally simply by robbing the homes of natives.

Massasoit saw in the scavenging Pilgrims both a social problem and an opportunity to make new allies. He sent forth an emissary, an English-speaking Wôpanâak man named Tisquantum (better known as Squanto). Tisquantum’s own harrowing story will await a future entry on TTV, but suffice to say, he was kidnapped in 1614 by an English sea captain, taken to Europe, sold as a slave, educated by Catholic priests, and eventually finagled to return to his homeland, only to find all his relations already killed by the aforementioned plague. Yet, despite such personal devastation, Tisquantum showed remarkable Self-Possession and Compassion. He taught the colonists how to plant the unfamiliar vegetables such as corn and squash, saving them from starvation.

In return, the Pilgrims supported Massasoit and eventually joined the Wôpanâak Nation making war against the Pequot (20 years later, in a conflict whose participants held an obvious mix of ulterior motives). (Apropos: In the 17th century, I’d say it was the outnumbered English settlers who served as pawns in the various tribal intrigues, and not the reverse, but that soon changed, of course.)

By the 1640s, the Wôpanâak continued to suffer huge setbacks from military losses, ongoing deaths from disease, and a new problem of alcoholism. Modern scholars believe the Wôpanâak suffered from anomie or societal post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have had disillusionment in their political and religious leaders, who had been unable to protect them from the storm of events into which history swept them. (See Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel for a more scholarly review.)

The English, meanwhile, whose towns grew in number, thrived. They founded schools to teach their language to the natives and convert them to Christianity. One of these missionaries was John Eliot, a 27-year-old Puritan minister who emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. Motivated by his desire to convert the various Algonquian Nations, he learned a version of Wôpanâak and then, working with native converts, translated the Bible into the language. Ultimately hundreds of copies of the “Eliot Bible” circulated, but many were destroyed during later conflicts between settlers and natives. Wôpanâak tribes drifted apart; their language slipped into quiet oblivion. By the end of the 1830s, Wôpanâak ceased to be spoken in North America.

Then, in 1992, a 28-year-old woman of the Mashpee tribe of the Wôpanâak Nation, Jessie Little Doe Baird, began to have visions. On one occasion, for three nights in a row, people she believed were her ancestors appeared to her in dreams, speaking in a language she did not understand. (Later translations revealed them to be telling her, “We are here!”) Little Doe began to tell other Wôpanâak about her visions, eventually founding the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.

Her quest took Little Doe to M.I.T., where the discovery of a rare copy of an Eliot Bible allowed her to expand the known vocabulary of Wôpanâak to over 10,000 words. After receiving her masters degree in 2000, Little Doe continued to write in and teach Wôpanâak to her nation. Hundreds of Wôpanâak people have taken language courses. A full telling of the story notes that

Baird is raising her three-year-old daughter, Mae Alice, to be bilingual, making her the first native speaker of Wôpanâak for seven generations. Teaching her people to speak and read Wôpanâak, she says, "is like taking care of your family."

On October 16, 2010, Jessie Little Doe Baird received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in acknowledgment of her work recovering the lost Wôpanâak language. Her accomplishment apparently fulfills a Wôpanâak prophecy that the language would disappear, only to return “when the people were ready to speak it again.”

I find it most ironic and beautiful that the sincere efforts of a young Puritan minister and cultural educator over three centuries ago crossed centuries to allow a similar young scholar in our own time to rescue her people’s native tongue. Like the seed corn given to the Pilgrims which allowed them to survive the winter, the Eliot Bible preserved Wôpanâak until Jessie Little Doe Baird could plant its knowledge and bring new life to her culture. A book, used in a culture’s near-annihilation, becomes its preserver. Yet more juicy paradoxes! Ah Bartleby! Ah, the irony!  

So, as we sit down to dinner with friends and relatives on this day of Gratitude, let’s remember the true Delight of the meal--gathering together to share the meanings of friendship, the “common language” that transcends the differences in our speech. Celebrate the marvel of Uhutu, the Wôpanâak word for “Speaking to Each Other.” Make a toast to Jessie Little Doe Baird, who showed Samā, Worshipful Listening, to the unfamiliar words of her own ancestors, and gave them Voice.

May we see the gates of Uhutu, and perhaps make a home there.

And Happy Thanksgiving!