Lammas & the Mundus Imaginalis
When I think of Lammas tide,
I think of one tearing the first loaf of the harvest,
a move from scarcity to abundance.
I think of the crops, the rain falling on blackened soil,
Fields, trees, the thicket, green on green,
From the highlands, to Suffolk’s Coast and Heaths,
From Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’, and even further afield, my thoughts
migrate to the god-haunted Central sea,
Or to the peaks of Snowdonia,
and from there to the very shore of Galilee.
I think of the multiplicity that I’ve trod; the purple heather,
gravely paths up mountains, and the running, living water.
I think of the rhythms of creation, the rising and falling…
I think of the glory which inhabits nature, that inexplicable force, and I think of my own task as I increasingly see it here in this Meeting House, to be an ambassador for that plane beyond this world of illusion, that realm within the depths of the self, the mundus imaginalis. And my uplifting task to grope around for the words to express something of that realm, that I myself have only but momentarily beheld, as through a “dusky transparency” as this morning’s sage - George William Russell - expresses it. He was an Irish mystic, and poet, who I have only just discovered this week, and yet his words I have felt a resonance to. I haven’t been able to put him down. Because I think this task, to express or inspire some form of spiritual realization, is greatly aided through the telling of stories, fairy tales, and poetry, which George Russell understood better than most. It’s aided by these forms, because what we speak of is not something that can be grasped within the rational confines of the mind – it requires an invocation of a quality that lies between the words, or behind the word, an intuited feeling, images painted in the mind’s eye, which say more than any mere concept can say, however eloquently expressed.
We’ve heard a section already from George Russell’s book, ‘Song and its Fountains’, and I’m going to read a bit more, so that you can get a better sense of it…
… “By the magic of that music which so rose
within me the universe seemed to reel away
from me, and to be remote and unsubstantial
as the most distant nebulae, and for some
minutes I was able to re-create within myself
the musical movement of the power, and
could stay the soul upon the high uplands.
But it quickly vanished as a dream might go
after our waking, and try as I might I could
not recall it again. But for a moment I
understood what power might be in sound
It made me understand a little of those mystics
who speak of travelling
up a Jacob’s Ladder of Sound to the Logos,
the fountain of all melody. I found later
if meditation on the Spirit is prolonged
and profound enough,
we enter on a state where our being is musical,
not a music heard without but felt within as if
the soul itself had become music,
or had drawn nigh to
the ray of the Logos, the Master Singer,
and was for that instant part of its multitudinous song.
While “By the Margin of the Great Deep”
was being conceived I felt that
music in my being before the words were
swept together, a state akin to that I experienced
waking in dream when I followed
in their descending order the phases from
deep own-being through images or symbols
to their last echo in words.
I held these
memories with others akin to them, hoping
that at last I might understand the psyche
and come to some mastery of the hidden
powers. I do not think we shall ever come
to truth otherwise than by such gropings in
the cave of the soul, when with shut eyes
we are in a dim illuminated darkness, and
seek through transient transparencies to peer
into the profundities of being. It is the
most exciting of all adventures, the exploration
of the psyche, even though the windows
out of which we gaze are soon darkened
for us by our own bodily emanations. Yet
there are enchanted moments when we have
vision, however distant, of the divinities who
uphold the universe. It is true we are at an
immense distance from their greatness, and
see them as a shepherd boy far away among
his hills might see the glittering of the army
of a great king, and he is awed by the majesty
and bows low at the vision of greatness,
and dreams over it when the army is past
and he turns to his humble task with his
sheep. So remotely is it I have apprehended
splendours overshadowing my insignificance.
They stand over all of us. I think if we
chose the least inspiring among those we
know, one seeming not at all puissant or
entitled to respect, and could know of the
immortal powers which uphold the frailty
of his being, his darkened life would seem
to the imagination to move in a blaze of
George Russell, here, expresses what I would like to, but better than I have managed. The most exciting adventure – the exploration of the psyche. The music not heard, the soul which has become music.
He was born, George William Russell, in 1867, in county Armagh, in Ulster. All of Ireland was under its enforced unification with the rest of the United Kingdom at that point. At a young age, Russell moved with his parents to Dublin. He studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he met his lifelong friend, W. B. Yeats, and along with Yeats, he had a lifelong interest in esoteric wisdom. While studying in Dublin, he read Madame Blavatsky’s work, and became a member of the theosophical society, and was even in correspondence with Blavatsky in the last few years of her life, when she was living in London.
At Lammas tide I think of…
The light and the dark, the death and the life…
I breath it in… Nature’s lectionary, which calls for our attention.
I think of wide-open landscapes, and the marshes of the fens,
Hot springs bursting into the air, vast waterfalls roaring,
Glow-worms twinkling, the aurora filling the sky,
the interconnected relationship of it all,
the kingfisher, the roe deer, and the red squirrel,
that remarkable harmony, that balance, that peace,
that joy, and that unity
which awakens our imagination, and our receptivity to things:
that gentle attention which is our worship, prayer, and devotion.
I was walking in the night, and not looking upon distant nebulae, but the familiar stars of our northern hemisphere. And I was thinking upon the first fruits of the harvest, of agriculture, of the eternal struggle of humanity to contend with nature, toiling in order to eat. And I looked upon the Plough constellation, and I read about it later, and I learned that although it is often referred to as a constellation (it follows common usage to do so), it was not actually classified as a constellation. It’s not one of the officially recognised eighty-eight; rather it is what is called an “asterism” – a popularly known pattern of stars.
Of course, for most of human history, humanity has been intimately bound to the turning of the agricultural year, which is why agricultural symbolism populates so much mythology. The Greco-Roman gods find their expression through the agriculture year, celebrations and religious ceremonies often follow that pattern as well, and even the night sky reflects that reality. Our ancestors drove their ploughs through the dirt by day, and at night looked into the sky, and even saw their plough above their heads. And would that not have seemed like a cosmic sign of approval to them, to those who toiled against (or rather with) nature, in that never-ceasing dance? The Plough constellation is also important, of course, in that it is the constellation which helps us locate the North Star, which again, is not very critical to us, but once upon a time would have been very much a matter of life and death, to a ship in some vast ocean. And talking of the north star, it reminds me of a scene in Tarantino’s movie ‘Django Unchained’: one of the characters has just freed a chain-line of black slaves in the Deep South, and then before heading off himself, says, “And in the odd chance there are any Astronomy aficionados amongst you, the North Star is... that one.”
In 1914 (which was the year Archduke Ferdinand was shot, triggering the first world war), George Russell designed and produced a flag known as the Starry Plough, which is the image you have on the front of the order of service. It was to be the new flag of the socialist Irish Republican movement. It invoked the ideas I’ve already mentioned, but all in relation to Ireland - Ireland’s agricultural roots, along with it being a prophetic hope for Ireland that they would move from the plough to the stars. From the dirt to destiny. If you look at the image you will also notice that the ploughshare is a sword, which is a reference to the verse in the Book of Isaiah, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” The usage of this imagery attests to George Russell’s pacifism, and his hope that Ireland would achieve home rule, and be able to self-govern in peace. Given this, two years later when James Connolly led the Irish Citizen Army to seize control of Dublin during the Easter Rising, George Russell did not approve. He wished home rule to be achieved democratically and peacefully. However, this did not stop Connolly and his Irish Citizen Army compatriots co-opting and rallying under Russel’s new flag (which they did) on that fateful Easter Monday.
What I like about this series of events, is that ultimately change was (at least) prompted by Russel’s rather idiosyncratic interest in the esoteric, and mythology, and theosophy, and poetry, and aesthetic beauty. Purely on the force of these ideas, change was brought into fruition. This is almost the definition of magic: you have an idea which is so powerful, it brings forth change in the universe, it interrupts the status quo. The cliché way of expressing this is ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, and yet perhaps just through sheer repetition, this aphorism has all but lost its potency. All we need is an idea. We waste so much time, all we need is an idea, and the mountain will be thrown into the sea.