Retreat, day one: Divination and ritual
image enhanced from original: Libation scene, Greek red figure vase, c. 480 BC
Today is the first day of a seven-day Humanistic Pagan retreat. Each day I’ll concentrate on describing one or two key experiences or activities. Today I’ll talk about divination and ritual.
What do I need to see to make the most of tomorrow?, I quietly asked while shuffling the deck. Then I turned over a card from the Haindl Tarot. It was the Three of Wands: Virtue.
I find that tarot cards, far from telling the future, tell about the mind. The evocative cards spur a creative process. Associations leap as the mind interprets their meaning, and what results may reveal hitherto hidden thoughts and feelings, or generate new ones. Card selection is random, and each card is rich enough to apply to nearly any situation. The game of divination is essentially an exercise in lateral thinking.
The card that came up this time was the Three of Wands: Virtue. It suggests the power of character. My mind associated it with the virtues of willpower, creativity, and integrity which will help me respond productively to this retreat. With this image swirling in my mind, I went to sleep.
image enhanced from original by Hermann Haindl
I woke at dawn, leaving my fiance to sleep. Emerging from the bedroom, I went out and took in the pale blue sky from my third-story apartment window. I didn’t bother turning on the lights, but went straight to my statue of the goddess Isis.
In Egyptian myth, Isis is the archetypal mother and magician. Her husband Osiris is the murdered king and lord of the dead, and her son Horus, the young heir to the throne. She was identified with Demeter, Artemis, Io, and other goddesses of the Graeco-Roman world. I know her as the Veiled Lady from a dream-like experience in which she appeared as a woman with a white veil covering her face, glowing from within. When a wind lifted the veil, it revealed only more darkness beneath. This image fits an inscription on her temple at Sais, reported by Plutarch: “I am all that is, was, and shall be, and no mortal has yet lifted my veil.” Ever since, she has been my goddess, even as I withhold belief in the literal existence of gods. I have always been agnostic, and the dream image further confirmed me in that. After all, it suggests that the unknown is the unknown, and that is that. Try as you might to lift the veil of mystery, but all you shall find is more darkness beneath.
I knelt before the statue of Isis, knowing that she represented a part of me, my highest self, and that to kneel is not to submit but to honor that self. Ritual is connecting with deep parts of oneself or the world through dialogue with mythological forms. By communicating outwardly with the forms, one communicates inwardly with the parts of oneself that project onto those forms. I lit a candle, rang a bell three times, then chanted an Egyptian prayer of awakening I’d learned years before. I find chanting calms me, takes me outside my normal frame of reference, and puts me in touch with a voice deep inside. The Pavlovian associations built up over years of such chanting efficiently recall a contemplative state of mind. Today, it had that same effect. I found myself slipping into a calm, relaxed state of concentration in which words could flow from the heart. After chanting, I poured a libation of water into a cup before the statue. Libation is a kind of ritual, a form of offering common in Ancient Greek, Roman, and other Mediterranean cultures. It consists of the pouring out of a liquid, such as wine, honey, milk, or water, accompanied by a prayer to a deity, ancestor, or spirit. I spoke words to Isis, requesting that I might see what I need to see this week in order to overcome stress and recover my center. As I asked for wisdom and courage, I could feel the grip of stress loosening.
photo by B. T. Newberg, May 8, 2011
The value of divination and ritual
That morning I felt clear and open. Perhaps it was the excitement of a new experience. When my fiance came out and joined me for breakfast, I felt like I was genuinely turned toward her with both body and mind. Later I rode my bike to Minnehaha Falls, enjoying a strenuous but exhilarating ride. When I arrived, I cleaned up trash around the park for my good deed, and found a modest white stone to serve as the token I will carry for the week. It was a good start to the day. Soon, however, I grew uneasy. I had trouble feeling a connection with nature, and instead felt guilt for taking this time for myself. I’m on vacation, but somehow I still feel like I should be working. Irritation grew as the sunny weather turned gray, and the line for food at the park restaurant grew long. I came home feeling like I wasn’t really on retreat anymore. My previous habits of mind had resumed.
Last night’s tarot card had pointed at virtue. An association leaped to mind, reminding me that the quality of my retreat experience depends on my attitude, my virtues of character. Will I let myself get irritated and depressed, or will I notice these mental habits and change them for the better? This point was reinforced by the homework assigned by my therapist, a reading on self-talk and mental habits. Last night’s tarot card aligned with these very challenges of mind. It all stacked up to communicate an important lesson about attitude.
As I write this, it occurs to me that the lesson, though meaningful and true, is utterly cliche: “your experience is what you make of it.” If someone had simply told me that, I would have shrugged it off without a second thought (and probably with a cynical smirk). But instead of being told it, I experienced it. That is the value of divination, in my eyes. Through the powers of association and imagination, wisdom wells up from within. A voice speaks, and the experience is personal and meaningful. Forget fortune-telling – even if divination did have the power to tell the future, it would pale in comparison to the power of unlocking one’s inner voices.
The value of ritual is similar. Through the outward form of interacting with divine or spiritual entities, an inner voice is awakened. Perhaps the mind is hardwired to respond to ritual stimuli; a growing body of cognitive research suggests it does. In any case, it has been my experience that enacting ritual conduces to a contemplative state with therapeutic effects. Sometimes a lesson or insight is learned, other times it is simply a feeling. Either way, it is a valuable human experience.
In the end, it makes little difference whether divination tells the future or ritual contacts real-existing beings. A far more interesting question lies in the psychological effects of divination and ritual. Both offer benefits that help human beings realize their potential. By doing so, they help bring about a better, fuller human being.