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Black Elk

The Purpose of Spirituality and Religion

November 29th, 2008

How can we respond to the problems we see in the world – of war, suffering and environmental degradation?

Do we have to choose between either denial or despair?

There’s a third way, neither denying the sadness nor getting submerged in it.

Instead allowing awareness of it, feeling it deeply, grieving it, and digging deep

– to find an anchorage.

An anchorage in Nature – in tangible Nature out there and in our own inner Nature.

One way to do this is to find the Gateways between these two Natures. Where do they meet?

This idea of ‘Gateways’ between the realms is central to the spiritual path. Each tradition will speak about this in different ways – as an example, in the Jain tradition the 24 great teachers are known as Tirthankaras, which means ‘Ford-makers’ – suggesting they help create a bridge/ford/gateway between this and the Otherworld, between normal consciousness and a spiritualised consciousness, between outer Nature and our Inner Natures. The founder of the Baha’i religion was known as ‘the Bab’ which means ‘gate’. In Druidry, natural features or deliberately placed stones or trees form magical gateways that can help us access other realities. I’m reminded of this whenever I visit our local sacred site – the ‘Long Man of Wilmington’, a giant outline of a human being on a hillside who seems to be creating a gateway for us, reminding us of Novalis’ statement that ‘Visible and invisible, two worlds meet in man.’ This idea is strongly evident in shamanism in the process whereby the shaman makes journeys into the Otherworld to bring back healing, or knowledge that will help in the manifest world.

All these things – teachers, teachings, sacred places, practices such as ritual and meditation – have as their purpose the creation and maintenance of gateways so that there can be traffic, commerce, connection – a flow – between the worlds. And in this period of instability they take on an increasing importance as anchor points that can help us to avoid falling into either despair or denial.

10 Responses to “The Purpose of Spirituality and Religion”

  1. So we have to face our destiny, our fate, with open eyes, open minds and open hands and put in practice what is evident.
    (BTW in classical Rome the High Priest was called the Pontifex Maximus which translates also to something like “” great builder of bridges”)

  2. Phillip, I always enjoy your insight. I have, for many years, maintained my own “anchor” in the natural world. Near my home is a wonderful old hollow oak. Many is the time I have traveled to this tree I have since named “Merlin”. 🙂 It has provided a powerful energy both to ground myself as well as travel to the other worlds. Here’s hoping your autumntime is going well and looking forward to Yuletide!

  3. I’m going to focus my comments on more of the third way aspect of your post but will get back to anchors by the end:-) If it seems like this is precanned, its because I had been thinking of writing a journal entry on flow between worlds and had a number of half-thoughts going.

    This piece reminds me of three things that I have been thinking about delving into more detail. The third way you refer to reminds me of the road to Elfland of True Thomas. It, being neither abnegation or satiation but something wholly different. A green connection to our Other kindred.

    The second thing that this reminds me of is Fiona MacLeod’s Orchil prose poem. Wherein the two extremes of the loom -sprouting and rotting are mediated by the third way – the weft of eternal beauty that mediates the two extremes.

    The third thing it reminds me of is the peculiar magic of flow through gates. Like RJ Stewart’s Merlin tale in “Magical Tales.” (and Doris Lessing’s “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five.” And , an unpublished ritual of Orion Foxwood.)

    What has struck me recently is that the flow is through us. We do not just open gates, but we actively open ourselves to energies and beings and then route energies and intentions, much changed, on to their destination. This journal article on understanding deity explains a bit more of what I mean by that-

    So, I see each of us becoming that third thing – a bit fey in some ways but still ourselves – as the vehicle to make those connections.


  4. Thank you for this post. I was listening to someone talk last night about how we should focus only on the positive and this rang so ‘wrongly’ in my ears that I found myself feeling frustrated. I can’t ignore what feels wrong, what needs grieving. The places where we are broken deserve tender loving care, and that doesn’t come from ignoring it. I love the image of having an anchorage in nature. I love that you acknowledge that there is a place between denial and despair.

  5. What you write about the flow between the worlds feels very important to me – a back and forth exchanging of energies, rather than the one way traffic of us being scared and praying for rescue. I like what David writes about ‘actively opening ourselves’ – I agree with you, ‘Body as Gateway’ is a fascinating idea, and suggests that we can ’embody’ something of that energy that we are striving to build a connection with via our spiritual journeys. I personally feel that connection most easily when I am out in Nature, and at those moments, I am struck by that sense of exchange, particularly with landscape. There are places that resonate deeply with me and I am always amazed by a strong sense that something in the landsacpe ‘recognises’ us – this has led me to believe that relationship – an open exchange of energies between the different elements of ourselves, each other and our environment – is key to getting through these troubling times.There is healing in the flow. I also like the ‘opening’ idea because it suggests that the otherworld isn’t over there (wherever that is!) but all around and deep within, infusing everything; it’s just a matter of widening our perception; of creating space for it to inhabit our understanding; of feeling its energy interwoven within our being.

  6. This reminded me of a theme that appeared in my life; think globally, act locally. I’d been reading a book on the problems of the world and getting a bit overwhelmed by the thought of it. I couldn’t possibly resolve all of this.

    I had been doing well in thinking globally but I am only one small being compared to all the problems in the world, not God or Superman. And this is where I learnt the balance of acting locally.

    It is useful to know what’s going on in the world. I build up a vision of the world, which I can then “condense” into my life where I can only respond to the vision at the level in which I’m capable of responding.

    I myself am the gateway between thinking globally and acting locally. Through my thinking the world speaks to me. Through my actions I speak to the world.

  7. What has struck me recently is that the flow is through us.

    A few years ago I gave a short talk on different ways of interpreting the symbolism of the Green Man. My final interpretation (and the only one that didn’t come from somewhere else) was to look at the Green Man as representing our potential selves, if we can ever achieve a true relationship of equality with the rest of the natural world. May it someday be so.

  8. Gateways and bridges, beautiful stuff. Thanks for sharing everybody.

    Ourselves as gateways…I also see this with the thought of us being the bridge between the ethic and the world. Treegod wrote about a reflection of this.

    Executivepagan, your idea of the meaning of the Green Man is a great one, Thank you, I will remember it.


  9. I’ve been particularly sensitive to some collective suffering and other emotions, it seems, so this post is a wonderful affirmation of how to stay balanced. Thank you.

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