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Truth, Strength, Fulfillment

Since it’s New Year’s Eve today, the subject of New Year’s resolutions is on my mind.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Partly, this is because the beginning of the Gregorian calendar just doesn’t mean all that much to me – I’m more tuned to earthly/astronomical events like Samhain and the Winter Solstice. Still, this is the calendar our society uses, and its end and beginning have meaning. The real reason I don’t make New Year’s resolutions is that I don’t believe in betting against myself.

You see, there’s something about New Year’s resolutions that seems to set them apart culturally from other kinds of commitments. I’m not clear why, but I’ve consistently observed that when people make New Year’s resolutions, they almost never carry them through. It seems common that people feel they’re doing well if they last till March or April before abandoning their resolutions for the year. After decades of watching friends and family lose steam on their resolutions and shrug them off by mid-year, I’ve come to perceive them as a form of self-cursing. It seems to me that folks I know are usually more effective at following through on any other commitment than a New Year’s resolution. I’m sure there are many exceptions to this, and I’ve observed some, but this still has been apparent to me as a pattern. We expect to break New Year’s resolutions.

That’s why I don’t like them. A commitment we expect to break is a form of self-cursing. When we back off from fully committing to a resolution, (“I’m resolving to do X this year, and this time I’m definitely sticking to it. For at least half the year!”) we are betting against ourselves, which means we lose the wager no matter what. Every time we do this, it weakens the will. It reinforces a view of ourselves that we aren’t up to completing a commitment, while telling ourselves it’s OK, it’s just a New Year’s resolution, everybody breaks them.

This is the way to eviscerate the will. What strengthens the will, and the whole force of honor in the being, is to never commit to something you can’t follow through on, and to always follow through on your commitments. Half-commitments, “I’ll do X this year, or at least as long as I can,” transmit the message to your soul, your Gods and anyone who saw you make the pledge, that you don’t have the will to stand for your commitments.

I am reminded of this, from the dialogue of St. Patrick with Caeilte, on the values that made the Fianna warriors strong.

“Who or what was it that maintained you so in your life?”
“Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues.”

–from Acallam na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Ancients), trans. O’Grady

Fulfillment in our tongues. That is, fulfillment of one’s word. This is what makes us strong. Every time we fulfill a commitment, we become stronger. Every time we fail one, we weaken ourselves.

Along similar lines, the Irish notion of commitment is reflected in the geis. The word geis is usually translated as ‘taboo’, but it is more than that; the concept incorporates taboo, commitment or oath, and blessing and cursing. We typically see geasa applied to heroic figures such as warriors, queens or kings – they are a reflection of heroic power, part of what makes the hero strong, but also containing their weakness. In an earlier post, I wrote this about the geis:

A geis is an obligation which is laid on a person, to which they must adhere. The heroic stories teach us that the keeping of a geis grants power; that its protection may be so great as to make the hero undefeatable. To break a geis engenders loss of power and protection, weakness, downfall. The deaths of the great heroes are brought about through clever means of forcing them to break a geis and thus render them merely human, vulnerable to wounding and defeat. The hidden truth here is that, conversely, a geis intact renders one more than human, for it is a magickal bond with the Otherworld, and while it is kept, it wraps one in a mantle of Otherworldly power.

In a way, any commitment or resolution we make is a form of geis. Whether we intend it as a magickal act or not, the act of committing oneself to a resolution of action places a bond on one’s honor.

Thus, the heroic tales teach us that coming under a geis or bond that we can’t fulfill is a recipe for weakness and downfall. Making resolutions we know ourselves unlikely to fulfill is self-cursing. On the other hand, if you can follow through on it, you have the strength of the Gods.

So what is the lesson for us regarding New Year’s resolutions? If you’re going to make one, treat it as a geis you’re laying on yourself, and make sure it’s achievable for you. Better yet, make your resolutions to someone else. Give your word to a friend, a kin-member, or one of your Gods. They will keep you honest in a way that is much harder to demand of yourself.

Or, do as I do: set an intention for the year on New Year’s eve, but set it as a commitment to a practice or priority, in a way that allows you flexibility to fulfill it. Last year, I set an intention for 2012 to devote myself to fighting practice and developing martial skills. I didn’t say, “I resolve to do spear practice every day,” because I’d have failed myself – life got in the way sometimes. I said, “I dedicate this year to developing martial skills.” And I did: I spent a few months studying Krav Maga, then shifted my focus to spear training and armored combat. I took breaks here and there, but when my focus lagged for a few weeks, I just had to remind myself of the priorities I had set for myself, and then I would return to my practice. By the fall, I had learned a great deal and had succeeded getting authorized for heavy combat in the SCA. The key for me was that my commitment wasn’t to specific actions – I made a commitment to prioritizing a practice.

Here are a couple more examples of good ways to set intentions for the new year, instead of making half-assed New Year’s resolutions:

 

And here is my blessing for you: May you be sustained this year through the truth in your heart, the strength of your body, and the fulfillment of your word!

 

Martial artist Kim Falconer

 

Rising up

Then the Morrigan the daughter of Ernmas came, and she was strengthening the Tuatha De to fight the battle resolutely and fiercely. She then chanted the following poem:

“Kings arise to the battle! . . . “


Immediately afterwards the battle broke, and the Fomoire were driven to the sea.

from the Second Battle of Mag Tuired

On sunday night I had the privilege of working with a kickass team of ritualists to create the Morrigan devotional ritual at PantheaCon. I came away sore from pushing myself to the limits of my stamina, with a voice a little hoarse from screaming. And feeling gratitude for the courage of the many individuals who chose to join us in answering Her call.

In the dreamlike flashes of my memories of the ritual, a few images and sensations stand forth. I remember being profoundly overshadowed even before the invocation began. I remember being able to acutely feel the pounding of the myriad hearts as a sensation in my own body, something like the way a great pounding sound too deep to be audible is sensed as a massive vibration in one’s bones. I remember feeling the massing of armies in the movement of the many bodies round the space. I remember when the taking of oaths began, feeling Her devouring them as a starving creature might swallow meat, as though I could taste the life force contained in each one.

I saw the Hero’s Light shuddering round the faces and brows of some there who were moved by Her spirit, saw their souls rise up within them, answering the call.

This ritual represented a new threshold in my relationship with the Morrigan. The first decade of my devotion to Her was observed almost exclusively in intimate coven rituals or private practice. It has only been in the last five years or so that I began working as Her priestess in a broader public context, but until now the largest group in which I had channeled Her had been around 40 people at an open Samhain ritual. So to bring Her to an overflowing convention ballroom of 500 people was unprecedented for me. I will admit that I felt some hesitation about letting Her fully come through in the chaotic, zany environment of the convention. I did it in spite of that because I sensed a particular urgency, a tugging in Her presence during the recent months that said this needed to happen. As we went through the final planning and preparation for this ritual, I felt Her hungering for the big energy of the host. I sense that in these later days, there are few enough moments when human beings gather in the hundreds to chant Her name, let alone the thousands who perhaps once did.

I cannot help musing on the timing of this working. While we were massed in that ballroom raging and chanting, “RISE UP! RISE!” folk all across the Middle East and North Africa were, and still are, rising up to fight for their liberation. This is not to imply that our little ritual has any causal connection to the uprisings. I think rather what I am sensing is that the insistence with which the Morrigan has been pushing me to share my devotional work with Her beyond the sphere of private practice and into a broader public venue, is in some way connected to the urgency of the times in which we live. Perhaps She feels that the world needs Her especially now.

I have since found myself thinking on the taking of oaths – there is something very powerful about the act. An oath takes the continuous gradual path of the spiritual life and sets into it a gateway, a threshold separating the road ahead from all that has come before. We challenge ourselves to dare the threshold. We speak our oath in the presence of our Gods and our companions so that there can be no turning back; the gate closes on what has gone before. Once spoken, an oath cannot be undone. It binds us to our own will and to the future we have committed to. We now must rise up and find the power within ourselves to fulfill that oath.

The keeping of an oath grants strength. An oath is much like that thing known in Celtic lore as a geis, generally translated as ‘taboo’ or ‘prohibition’. A geis is an obligation which is laid on a person, to which they must adhere. The heroic stories teach us that the keeping of a geis grants power; that its protection may be so great as to make the hero undefeatable. To break a geis engenders loss of power and protection, weakness, downfall. The deaths of the great heroes are brought about through clever means of forcing them to break a geis and thus render them merely human, vulnerable to wounding and defeat. The hidden truth here is that, conversely, a geis intact renders one more than human, for it is a magickal bond with the Otherworld, and while it is kept, it wraps one in a mantle of Otherworldly power. And what is an oath but a geis taken under free will? In oath-taking, we rise to meet the destiny that is laid on us; and in return, as we keep the oath we rise up in greater strength and power.

So to those who took the oath: you have taken a geis from the Morrigan. Guard it well and your honorable name in the Otherworld will make you great in all the worlds. The strength of the kept oath will sustain you. In the words of Cáilte: “I am persuaded that these three things will sustain me in my life: the truth always maintained in my heart, strength of my arms for the honor of my deeds, and in always keeping my word.”