John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara and the Mystery of Friendship

children of lir
Children of Lir, by John Duncan. The Children of Lir spent 900 years cursed as swans, healing and consoling the people of Ireland with their song. Image from The Athenaeum.

This year I was fortunate to come across the written works of the Irish poet and theologian, John O’Donohue. O’Dononhue’s first book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom expounds on the Irish concept of an anam cara, or “soul friend,” a spiritual mentor of the early Irish church. In his analysis, O’Donohue examines how  the theory of an anam cara might be applied to contemporary life for spiritual development. Additionally, O’Donohue draws upon the syncretism of paganism and Christianity within Ireland to tell parables about the anam cara, which appealed to me as an Irish-American deepening her work with ancestral magic. I find Anam Cara to be among the more thoughtful treatises within the self-help genre. Its framework allows for compassionate healing, without falling into the trap of hyper-individualism often represented in New Age literature. Anam Cara is a guide for how to be a good friend, and its central theme is worth exploring as a model for living in this world.

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The Importance of Context in Applying Positive-Mind Mechanics

Buon Tring
Annihilation of the Montagnard village, Buon Tring, during the Vietnam War. From ICRC Archives.

Often when I encounter theories about positive-mind mechanics (such as Law of Attraction) arguments generally fall into two camps: the argument that every thought creates our reality or a rejection of the theory entirely. I fall somewhere in the middle. I do think that our mind plays an intimate role in how we experience physical reality, but I don’t believe it is the only influence. The natural environment and cultural contexts in which we were born teach us how to interpret and value reality. Likewise, the languages we speak give us the vocabulary in which to express our thoughts. And not all words or ideas are translatable across languages. Thoughtfully speaking about positive-mind mechanics can be challenging in New Age circles due to the eagerness of most practitioners to oversimplify social disparities in modern life, without acknowledging the historical and cultural contexts from which they stem. I want to expand on this by exploring why social context is important, the role of constructivism in creating personal meaning, and how applying contextual analysis can ethically craft a life desired of living.

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Orientalism: New Age’s Barrier to Inclusivity

The Snake Charmer

“The Snake Charmer” by Jean-Léon_Gerome, Courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

 

In recent months I’ve become increasingly aware of how often people within New Age feel privileged to justify racism. There is a pervasive belief in New Age that marginalized peoples want to experience marginalization, because their soul consciously embodied into that experience in this lifetime.[i]  This line of reasoning compounded with a goal to “center in one’s truth” is an open invitation for upholding white privilege. Too many times I have witnessed white folks within New Age gaslight people of color for “talking from their ego” when it comes to calling out racist behavior.  Even I have been accused of egotism when addressing it.

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Performing the Rite of the Five Seals, or How I Spent Christmas Vacation

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The Annunciation, Gerard David, Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ritual is work. That’s what I learned in 2018 from my teacher Ylva Mara Radziszewski in their healing craft program available through Crow Song Healing Arts at the Cunning Crow Apothecary in Seattle. The two year program trains magical practitioners from various traditions to be spiritual counselors, applying magic as medicine. In my own Northern European heritage, this is akin to the cunning folk of centuries past. In 2018 I completed the first year of the program, a foundational course for decolonizing magic and reclaiming a practitioner’s connection to it. The healing craft program (aka witch school) concludes each year with a two-day initiation ceremony. Students give a presentation of some form that embodies what they’ve learned about themselves and their magic, and it was within this context that I found myself reclaiming and performing on myself the Rite of the Five Seals of Sethian Gnosticism.

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The Gnostic Witch’s Rite of the Five Seals

 

 

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The Baptism of Christ from a set of the Passion, Unknown Weaver, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Rite of the Five Seals is a baptism of Sethian Gnosticsm intended to activate the Christ consciousness of the initiate. I developed this interpretation of the ritual as part of my completion of the first year of a two-year healing craft program taught by Crow Song Healing Arts. You can read about that process here.

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Intellectual Integrity in New Age

center of labyrinth
At the center of a labyrinth

It seems fitting that the first entry for this blog should address the reason why I have decided to start it in the first place. I am a public historian. For the past seven years I have worked in history museums, curating exhibits and developing public programs. These days I spend less time conducting research and more time teaching methodology and critical thinking. I am also a self-described gnostic who was raised in the New Age movement. More specifically, I was raised in a New Thought household and attended “church” at a Center for Spiritual Living. Over the years I have incorporated other philosophies into my own cosmology – theosophy, Gnosticism, Neopaganism, and ancestral magic. I don’t hide my occult interests, but I’m also aware of the reputation that New Age culture has of being shallow and anti-intellectual. I think to an extent that this reputation is justifiable, and yet I still actively incorporate these philosophies into my own life. And so, I began to reflect on what it is like to navigate between the world of professional research and the transcendent experiences of daily spiritual practice and ritual.

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