Spring has come, and over the last month I’ve been going out-of-doors as much as my schedule permits, wandering and seeking out new experiences in Nature as well as in my Imagination. It is time for “Emergence,” for breaking with our Winter-long practice of “Enclosure.”
Tonight is Eostre; an old Pagan name for the night of the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox—and I long for a night hike! To be out in the light of the Full Moon is a naturalistic experience that I’ve long valued; it is linked symbolically with the source of creative Inspiration and with Poetic Praxis—the creation of stories and poetry out of living dreamed scenarios. As I wait for the skies to clear and the Moon to rise this evening, I find myself reflecting on the nature of ‘wandering’ from a spiritual and philosophic point of view.
The themes of journey, quest and ‘perpetual wandering’ have long been found in human literature, music and art. They complement and augment the themes of dwelling, homesteading and the idea that we find meaning in places where one’s family or one’s ‘people’ have lived for a long time. These are all spiritual themes, having to do with deep rooted experiences of our species. To explore them is to discover touchstones of more personal disciplines, such as “Enclosure” and “Emergence” (which I have discussed in earlier blogs).
Ever since our species first appeared on the evolutionary stage, about 200,000 years ago, we have been prone to both stability and being on the move. Groups of early Homo sapiens obviously stayed near where their ancestors had lived, while others left Africa in waves and spread out, eventually coming to in-dwell every habitable ecosystem on the planet. Humans have both been a ‘homesteading’ species, establishing villages and towns and other kinds of community, as well as a ‘journeying’ species; never staying in one place for very long. We settle in a place. We live there for a time; perhaps for mny generations—and then we move on, seeking ‘greener pastures.’
I think the tendency to establish a ‘home’ and to create communities is just as typical of our species as is the wandering, journeying, questing tendency. The one must always be balanced against the other. During the Winter, when I'm more or less housebound, I focus on the themes of dwelling and sojourning; caring for the ‘hearth,’ wherever I am dwelling, as well as nurturing the idea of 'the hearth of my own heart'—which I carry with me when out on the hoof, walking, wandering and wayfaring. Once Spring comes, and I am free to leave my ‘Hut of Dwelling’ and go out on the hoof more or less at will, I turn to meditations on the themes connected to wandering. I’ve found these themes in secular as well as sacred literature; I have meditated on them in the context of Celtic myths and the lyrics of contemporary music, as well as in the Bible and in the writings of mystics from various traditions.
In Celtic myth and literature, the journey theme is ubiquitous, being developed and embellished in various ways, practical and spiritual, according to the need or inspiration of the storyteller and his or her audience. The Pagan Celts were often on the move, seeking a new home; oft because of population and environmental pressures, but just as often because of a ‘roving’ spirit that was written into their spiritual sensibilities through centuries of life-experience.
As the Celtic tribes, moving westward across Europe in the late 1st millennium BCE, reached the Atlantic, their wandering was brought up against an awe-inspiring horizon; the Atlantic Ocean. Over the next few genertions, many wanderers -- with the gleam of inspiration in their eyes -- took to the sea, leaving villages and farms, venturing out across the waters to islands and even further destinations. It is thought that some Celtic questers may even have reached the shores of Nova Scotia. Though the majority of Celts finally settled down on the western fringes of Europe, the idea of the journey remained strong, becoming internalized as well as localized; it became a matter of playing out various symbolic scenarios for a range of spiritual and mystical purposes.
Individuals seeking spiritual renewal, wisdom or healing oft went on purposeful journeys – called immrama or peregrinatio – that set them on a course wending them – with luck and discipline – toward some desired spiritual goal. These journeys could be internal and imagined or else undertaken as wanderings to actual sacred locales in the landscapes in which they dwelt. Some of these wanderers went a short ways to visit a local nemeton, dolmen or cairn, eventually returning home, while others left on quests, only to return many months or years later, if at all. Many of these questers were never heard from again!
There were three ‘classes’ of journey in the Celtic world. There were pilgrimages, which established a definite destination, and that were usually undertaken over the course of a few days to a few weeks or months. Then there were quests, which were motivated by some deeper need. The quest would inspire the seeker to travel beyond the horizons of the familiar, and would put them in the path of possibly perilous experiences. Quests were sometimes mapped out as a series of ‘tasks’ which needed to be performed, or as a search for some lost sacred object (e.g., the Grail Quest; a story with deep affinities to Celtic myths). Finally, there was “perpetual wandering,” which was a state of life or perhaps a “vocation” that a person chose willingly. The wanderer would leave home, seeking wisdom or perhaps redemption, never expecting – much less intending – to return home again. In the Celtic Church, there were wandering saints whose vocation was ministry to whomever they met along their wandering way. They would journey from one place to another, living off their own labor, local hospitality and devout offerings. In Latin, this state was known as peregrinatio.
Though often well-planned, a person going off a-journeying was wise not expect to end up where they intended to be! Wandering has a random factor in it, and it is for this reason that pilgrimages and quests, at least, were supposed to be planned out ahead of time. A ‘map’ or ‘itinerary’ is necessary to keep the journeyer from wandering off into oblivion. Discipline is necessary in order to make some progress toward the desired end. Yet all the discipline and planning in the world cannot insure arrival at your destination. Life is often a series of accidental encounters and unanticipated events! Yet to set out responsibly, one needs to at least ‘intend’ to reach some specified goal. Even the person on peregrinatio has a goal; but it is achieved in transit—to experience what one finds and minister to whomever needs help along the way.
The theme of wandering in Celtic spirituality gives us incentive to undertake the journey; but to be intentional about it. The adept Celtic wanderer would have instructed you, "Do not let yourself be blown about haplessly by the forces at work around you! Chart a path, as best you can, and go forth upon it! Accept wisdom wherever you find it!" As Spring comes once again, and I wander out, moving from Enclosure into Emergence as my primary seasonal motif, I take this advice as a rune for my own experience. We must make choices that will edify and inspire ourselves and those whose lives we influence. We must move forward into the future as pathers seeking wisdom’s touchstones and runes. To go with intent is more fruitful than to be tossed about by the forces buffeting us on all sides. This applies to taking an afternoon or night hike as much as it does to the living of life in general.
There are ‘sacred’ sites in the natural landscapes wherein I usually walk. There is the “Bridge of Meditation” down in the gulch in the wood closest town. There is the stone spring out at the State Park east of town, and then there are the various waterfalls I’ve found in my wanderings, both larger and smaller ones, that I like to frequent. All of these sites and more make for good day-journeys; earthen pilgrimages that lead me out; there and back home again. Finally, there are more distant destinations, pilgrimages to which are necessarily more potentially refreshing and even revelatory because less often frequented. [I think of Mc Connells Mill State Park!] If I go for a night hike, this has to be especially well planned, as going about in the woods in the dark is an easy way to get lost, not to mention injured! I will have to see what adventures the advent of dusk may suggest to me tonight_
In any case, blessed be!
May the Pookah visit you on this Full Moon night, and leave you eggs of wisdom!
Copyright 2011 by Montague Whitsel
[An earlier version of this blog was published at my now defunct author website in April 2008]