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The Spirituality of the Land Conference - Caitlin Matthews

by Michael Maxwell Steer

Meeting others on the same path is always rewarding. Additionally so when meeting a group whose collective assumptions, discoveries and conclusions you can compare with your own. Having long been conscious myself of the spiritual characteristics of different landscapes, to find myself among others of similar sensitivity was an affirmatory and at times moving experience.

The speakers at this conference in Oriel College Oxford included the organiser, Prof Arthur Versluis (U Michigan) on Entering the mysteries - living sacred sites in N America and W Europe, John Carey on Deep memory and the power of place in early Ireland and John Matthews on the Green Man.

But of all the talks it was Caitlin Matthews' The place of true abiding: healing the ancestral communion with the land that spoke most strongly to me. She explained how the place of our birth imprints a psychic resonance on us as clearly as the microbial DNA that is found in our teeth and bones. Thus, for her, the quest for where /what /to whom one belongs ('the place of true abiding') has to begin with taking account of the physical and psychic nature of the terrain, the flora, fauna, water and earth as well as parents and society we first encounter. Un-/consciously, we will in one way or another be driven by attempts to replicate this throuout our lives; and therefore it is importantly to reengage with and reconcile these experiences before we can move on to redefine ourselves in different contexts.

I might add that one can see the relevance of this approach to the ideas that inform astrology – regardless of whether or not one accepts their validity.

Matthews said that we derive knowledge of our place in the worlds from more than human ancestry. All the organic beings within our birth habitat are elements in the perpetual choir whose song stands outside time yet is heard within us. Analog TV sets used to require adjustment of vertical and horizontal hold. Here, the horizontal hold is provided by the totality of place, while the vertical hold comes from knowing the 'ancestral current' of which we are a tributary, as she put it.

We are called to strike a balance between the place where we are now – the place that is calling to us – and our origins. Becoming whole involves reentering and reconciling these nested realities.

History is not a pyramid or an ever-extending road; it is a circle or cycle in which we are brought back to intersecting points with our past by many life events, not least our Saturn Return every 28 years. She noted that exiles seek to replicate their native cultural context wherever they end up, because it is throu a sense of the restoration of place that psychic wholeness is recovered.

It's as if we need this in the same way that salmon and other migratory species are drawn back to their origins in order to become fertile and so transmit their essence to the future. In consequence of which, certain places have an indefinable depth for us. It may also be that we carry within us ancestral memories which have been subconsciously transmitted to us, and which we re-cognise despite not having encountered them before. Caves and other natural de-/formations become powerful entry points in the outer world by which we can enter inner experience. Who you walk with alters what you see.

When we reach the place of true abiding it has an authenticity that stands outside time, like a scholar immersed in study /a parent immersed in her child /a musician immersed in performance, or a child immersed in a game. Time and space fold in on themselves and we become lost in wonder and enter into communion with the otherness of the experience.  Finding this 'place of our true abiding' cancels the sense of exile.

Caitlin's most beautiful thought was 'we are the gift our ancestors give our children.'