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Fire and Drums

A reflection by Donald Griffin, originally published in the Penman Review


I can see them, the dancers, over there in the distance. Men and women whirl around the fire their silhouettes mimicking every movement upon the lighted canyon wall behind them. Drum beats reverberate through the cool crisp night air, like a thousand hearts beating and pumping life out into the cosmos. A primal and ageless ritual. The fire’s long fingers stretch out into the night sky. Embers flutter about like glowing moths. Like a frightened animal, lurking in the deep shadows, I keep my distance.

I have traveled the span of the universe to be here. Yet—I hesitate—for all the fear that is in me causes my long hard journey to seem but a worthless venture.

Human bodies sway with the rhythms of life. With ecstatic force many hands fall upon the drum skins. The ancient spirit awakens within all who dance. Their spirit, much like the fire, is set ablaze with wild abandon.

Yet, I stand in these cold shadows. The silent specter beside me. Always beside me. To join this circle is why I have come here tonight, but I am frozen in place with feet made of stone. The specter’s cold lifeless hand rests upon my shoulder.  I tremble not knowing how to let go. To open my heart when it is clasped firmly shut. Will they wound me like so many others have done before? I yearn to join them.

These insecurities inside of me, they grip me, I cannot free myself of them. I desire to join this dance of life, to feel that fire burn within me, to feel the beat of the drum within my own heart, to join and to be threaded together with all my brothers and sisters in this ancient dance. If they see who I really am though? All my sins laid bare… I cannot.

Some dancers have taken notice of me. I see heads turn my way, shadows dance and play upon their faces. Some gesture and invite me in. The drumming continues and the beat runs through me. A thought darts across my mind, I am not worthy to join them. If they knew this horrible darkness inside of me, this sickness, would they still be so inviting?

Like a cancer, my wounds fester inside of me. How I long to cast all this darkness off like an old heavy cloak that has worn out its usefulness. My silent companion stands beside me and whispers in my ear, “You’re no good, you’re not like them, you don’t belong here, go back to where you came from.” Yes, I think to myself, you are right, I don’t belong here. My specter is pleased at this.

In the quiet stillness, another voice whispers to me. From the groundless depths of my being the voice comes to light upon my consciousness, “You do belong here, you are called to this freedom, there is healing inside that circle, you must step forward and join the dance.” This voice is calm, quiet and reassuring, so much quieter than this specter who stands beside me hissing in my ear.

Have I traveled so far only to stop here, just a few steps away from the dance? The battle within me rages and the armies of mind and heart fight a bloody war that none can see.

This is a war that has been fought since the day I first awoke. The last battle is being waged. Mind and heart, duality of the battlefield. All the thoughts that tell me how worthless, insecure, and unwanted I am. This army of my mind seems to have all the strength, and often overwhelms the warrior within my heart. There are days when the heart rises up, declaring its worth and value, letting me know that I am a beloved son, granting me precious moments that feed me hope.

The battle rages on. I feel so alone. There seems to be no one out there who can see this in me, no one who can help me. Silently, I cry out for help, but no one seems to care. The battle is lost and hope turns and flees from me. Desperation, panic, fright, nowhere to run, I am but a shell of myself. Who am I?

The dance continues, and the fire in the circle burns hotter, the drumming is intensifying, the people shout with a primal voice, a shout from their very depths. For me however, I am drowning in my fear, the specter beside me has me firmly in its grip. So cold. Darkness swallows me. Even as I slide down into death, time seems to stand still, breathless, I notice the myriads of stars above me. They look down on me, they seem to empathize with me and with my plight. Their light is strangely comforting; they have been with me for so long. Little rays of light that pierce this darkness of mine.

It is then that one from the circle turns around and looks straight at me. He looks me in the eyes. Even from such a great distance it seems as if he is staring straight into the furthest reaches of my soul. There is love, tenderness, and compassion in his gaze. There is an invitation there. He takes a step towards me. He leaves the circle of dancing light and comes into the shadows towards me.

As this man approaches me I can see a multitude of scars covering his body. He wears the garb of the natives. His chest is bear, his body is bronze, his beard is long, dark as night with grey streaks running through it. His hair is white as snow and falls to his shoulders like silk. He is aged and I can see he is worn with travel himself. His scars are numerous, but they are healed and smooth and glisten in the light of the fire. They make him look all the more beautiful. His eyes are like dark pearls, ageless, eternal, absolute compassion staring back at me. I can see that he understands me, he can see my fears, he knows my journey, for he too has stood where I now stand. I seem to know this intuitively.

This elder approaches me and joins me in my darkness. He has not said a word; he does not need to. His presence alone envelopes me in this darkness and comforts me. Who would leave that circle of celestial light to join me in the outer darkness? As he stands he wraps his strong arms around me discarding the strong grip of my specter’s skinless hands as if brushing off some dust, and love floods into my soul. It feels so good to be loved when I deserve nothing but contempt, or so my mind tells me. This man knows, he understands. We stand in this embrace and the love of a father envelops me and invites me in. With tears in my eyes, I accept.

After a moment, this wise man beckons me to follow him into the dance. With my bleeding wounds, and my tattered soul dragging behind me like old garments, I follow. My companion, the specter, stays behind melting into the shadows. As I get closer to the circle joy filled faces turn to welcome me. They part like graceful waters to make a space for me. The fire dances towards me, I can feel its warmth against my skin. The wounds of my soul invite the flames into it. I step into the circle.

The drum beats pierce my being with a force like I have never felt before. The fire leaps into my chest and races inside of me. Body arched straight, my wounds on fire, and I see each one of them with such depth and precision. I feel every single one of them as pain explodes within every fiber of my awareness. The pain starts to slowly fade. There is love and forgiveness, there is healing, and I am welcomed home. The wounds start mending, the bleeding stops, the infection that has plagued my soul for so long is gone, scabs form and then peel away. Where there was once festering wounds there is now beautiful scars. The drums beat, my heart flutters, my feet move, my primordial scream comes forth. I am threaded into the circle and I begin to whirl. My journey has come to an end. I am home. I am the fire, I am the drums, I am the heart beat that pours out life into the universe, I am in the dance, I am the dance.

I dance for eternity and time is no more. I look back out into the darkness and realize there are others standing out there in that cold darkness where I once stood. Their own specters standing beside them. With my heart full of love, I know that I too am called to leave the circle to set the captives free.

The Rites at 81: Initiation? You must be joking

I thought I was going to the Rites to help me over the transition from being a member of an educational structure, as I had been for the last 58 years (in different schools), and becoming an independent person. I had a nice image of being baptised into a new pattern of being. I thought I had done 'my stuff' and could now get on with something new. That was not what happened or at least not apparently.

The first jolt was when my council group chose me as their Stoker. That did not fit the image at all, it seemed more like going back to being a head teacher. I was shocked and felt inclined to refuse the offer but saw that it was what the group wanted and decided that it meant that I had to find a new way of being a leader. After all I do have some relevant skills and the fact that I am no longer in the institutional setting where I learned them does not mean I cannot use them. I think the group worked well but undoubtedly my personal success was on the third day. We were given guidance on what we should be doing in the day's session. It all sounded very sensible and appropriate so I began the session with asking everyone to say where they were – a normal check-in – and then intended to come in last with my interpretation of the ideas we had been given. Instead when the talking stick came round to me I held it in silence for a while and then passed it on. What followed was a deep and rich exchange far surpassing anything that my intended introduction would have been likely to stimulate. I do not suppose anyone noticed but for me it was fundamental and I can see that it could indeed lead to a new way of being – even if the route there is obscure and difficult.

The second surprise was on the wilderness day. I went there happily expecting to view my future life, ambitions and activity. That did not happen. I chose a nice Y shaped alder tree that had conveniently grown horizontally so that it provided three possible sitting places. So I settled down to enquire of my forbears who sat on the opposite branch what should happen next in my life. I am not normally in the habit of talking to the dead (or listening to them) but there was no doubt that that was what I was meant to do. After some comfortable conversations with my father, an aunt and a wonderful aged Quaker, I brought in my late wife (she died 19 years ago) thinking she would know me well enough to be able to be really helpful. She however had a different agenda and launched a tirade against me for all the ways I had failed her. She had always been forthright and nothing seemed to have changed! But she also had an innate sense of justice and we were able to work together on what were my failings and what were problems she brought from her home life. It took four hours and involved me removing my wedding ring, bringing in our family and going down on my knees – not exactly to her but in respect for the process of reconciliation. It was hugely moving – and still is (and utterly exhausting.)

So what happened for me on the Rites was much more of a rebalancing of the past than any sort of blueprint for the future and if there is an excuse for writing this other than the helpful process of recall and re-expressing it would be to suggest that perhaps for someone as old as me that is a valid and valuable thing to do. It certainly felt good to me and there is the opportunity for it to provide a foundation which will lead me into whatever further development may be round the corner.

[Contributed by Jim G., 2015]

Digging in Perth : An invitation to men

Three years ago I carried out a burial on an anonymous Perthshire mountainside. With my bare hands I dug out a hole in the dirt and placed into the earth an item that represented a pain I had been carrying for over twenty years. As I refilled this grave, I asked God for peace and also grace that this wound could somehow transform me. I performed this spontaneous act four days into a Men's Rites of Passage in Scotland.

My journey to Perth had begun a few years' previously, when I encountered Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr at the Greenbelt Festival. He immediately struck me as a wise, older man. His words, particularly about male spirituality, had a strong resonance with me. Richard Rohr developed Men's Rites of Passage (MROP) as a response to what he saw as Western Christianity's poor track record in preparing boys to become men. Through extensive travel and research, Rohr observed that throughout history, communities around the world have devised ceremonies and rituals to honour the transition from boyhood to manhood. He concluded that the purpose behind most of these ceremonies was to help young men “die” to their younger sense of self, and find a mature, deeply rooted and honest sense of their true manhood. It is Rohr's observation that in the West we have lost almost all meaningful rituals and are instead increasingly addicted to consumption, acquisition and demonstrating our worth and power.

Encountering Rohr corresponded with a period in my life when I was in great spiritual desolation. A painful experience of church collapsing and what seemed like a losing battle with depression and anxiety had left me surrounded by a heavy darkness and turmoil. I felt like a hiker lost and disorientated in the hills. Many of the securities that I had previously relied upon were no longer present. I was deeply dissatisfied with my life and uncertain about how to find my way again.

So it was with trepedation that I took the boat from Northern Ireland to Scotland for the MROP and for five days joined with sixty other men of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, sexualities, backgrounds, nationalities and faith / no faith traditions for what was the most inspiring 5 days of my life.

As you read this, I imagine that you, as I did, have already formed an opinion and perception of what this event was like. Disregard it. Prior to going, the thought of macho spirituality repulsed me. I had seen mens initiatives in churches where subtle denegration of females took place. Where machismo, endurance and strength were esteemed over the values of honesty and weakness. You won't find this on a MROP. Instead, what I found was a beautiful, mindful and responsively crafted programme of drumming, fire, silence, wilderness, spiritual teaching and earthy ritual that I guarantee you will never find in a church.

With the support of wise men who had made the journey before us, we were held in a safe space in which we were encouraged to be vulnerable and share our emotions. This enabled us to make a thorough examination of our lives and its priorities. Being encouraged to drop the usual roles we play and masks we wear: be it hospital consultant, air steward, photographer, bishop, partner and father, we learned that all of us men share a commonality in our weakness. We found the painful aspects of our stories echoed in the narratives of others. We shared stories of being rejected, excluded, wounded and put down. There were tears; but this was no meeting of the “pass the kleenex club.” There was also laughter, wonderful conversation and shenanigans.

There was no “road to Damascus” experience for me in Scotland. No one waved a magic wand to 'fix me'. However, I returned back home a little less lost, with my map slightly more orientated. Although the old stumbling block from twenty years ago still trips me up occasionally, I get some relief knowing that I buried it in an unmarked grave, in a far-off place and I don’t have to let it dominate my life.

(Thanks to JW for this contribution)

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