About Wren

Wren has been active in the NeoPagan community since 1979. As an avid festival participant, she conducted classes and workshops in Keltrian Druidism and related subjects, utilizing the disciplines of Bard, Seer and Druid. Wren also served three consecutive terms as president of the Henge from 1997 to 2003, and then as vice-president from 2003 to 2009. She is in the Ring of the Oak and a member of the Council of Elders. In her “spare” time, she enjoys tending her large collection of houseplants, playing with her three cats and the company of her beloved husband. She also makes it a point to travel to remote quarries and dig for elusive gemstones to have cut and set into jewelry.

Breaking the Rules, Part 1 – Elder Wren’s Response

Disclaimer: These are my opinions and come from the perspective of someone who has actively served the Henge of Keltria for over twenty-five years. I was a member of the original Keltrian Grove, and co-leader of subsequent Groves as Tony and I moved across the country. I’ve also served as President and Vice-President of the Henge. I do not speak for Elder Tony or Elder Karl. However, it would be irresponsible of me to allow so much misinformation to be published without comment.

Jenne raises a few good questions for the Council of Elders to address, and we will. The Elders are responsible for guiding the theological and spiritual direction of the Henge of Keltria. Only the Council of Elders is empowered to alter Keltrian theology and practice if such actions are necessary and deemed beneficial to the Henge as its members. These elected Elders also are the only ones authorized to make appropriate adjustments if general societal changes warrant action, and again, only if those actions are in the best spiritual interest of The Henge of Keltria. That said, the Council of Elders can't answer questions that no-one asks. We are approachable people who are willing to answer questions and offer practical advice. All it takes is an email to any one of us or all three. No-one is ever abandoned to "struggle with the rules" alone.

Jenne's editorial refers to the Book of Ritual, but doesn't mention the Book of Keltria except in passing as "…other Keltrian texts." The former is a manual for performing Keltrian rituals that was never meant to stand alone. The latter explains Keltrian theology in detail and the reasoning behind it. What began as an overhaul of our correspondence course in 2000, evolved into the Book of Keltria. Individual correspondence course lessons were updated and dovetailed into chapters. We published this book to accommodate people who were curious about us, but not interested in working with a mentor and doing the required course work.

The Book of Keltria is the product of fifteen years of serious research, debate and personal sacrifices made by a team of dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the Keltrian tradition. Sure, historical blanks needed to be filled and gaps bridged, but always with careful consideration and accepted scholarship. By popular demand, a chapter was added that chronicles the history of our church. This chapter gives an honest account of what we did right as well as what we did wrong. Some of our sincere efforts backfired magnificently. The Book of Keltria is required reading for anyone who seeks to follow the Keltrian path.

The Book of Keltria provides detailed explanations of what we do and why we do it. For example: Why do we celebrate Bilé who is not a member of the Tuatha dé Danann? Truth be told, the founders weren't completely satisfied with this choice, so they felt it was necessary to look outside of our chosen pantheon. Bilé wasn't, isn't and will never be promoted as an Irish god. In fact, one of the assignments in the new Keltrian Course of Further Study is to research old Irish mythology and present a better candidate. It's quite possible that another, more appropriate deity could be found in which case, the Council of Elders would consider making a change in Keltrian theology. This is not unprecedented. In the past, swift alterations have been made when newer sources indicated that previously accepted scholarship is proven to be in error. Rest assured, there certainly is no "unverified personal gnosis" involved. That said, any adaptations would become universal for all Keltrians.

However, one important aspect of our church's foundation must be taken into consideration before irrationally tossing Bilé out with the bathwater. Acknowledgment of the four phases of human life is an original Keltrian concept and the basis of our founders' choices of which matrons and patrons to celebrate. Bilé and his association with Beltane were selected to represent the unencumbered young man sowing his wild oats before assuming the responsibilities of fatherhood. Where in the old Irish mythology is the story that portrays Nuada Silver-hand in this light? Likewise, Aine is a finest-kind sun goddess, but is she a mother goddess? The English translation of "Tuatha dé Danann" is "tribe or people of Danu" so we often refer to ourselves as "the children of Danu." She cannot be arbitrarily replaced. Chapter 2 of the Book of Keltria addresses the importance of the four phases of life in Keltrian theology and Chapter 4 discusses whom we celebrate and why. No individual ever has the right to make unsupported, unilateral changes in Keltrian theology. If they do, then in my opinion, they are not practicing Keltrian Druidism and, therefore they are not Keltrian Druids.

The disposition of offerings can be a dilemma for urbanites and suburbanites who are unable to conduct rituals outdoors with a sacred fire. Fire is the force that transforms offerings into a state that our Gods and Goddesses can easily receive. When Tony and I led a Grove in suburban Atlanta, circumstances dictated that we hold our rituals indoors, so we collected offerings in a fresh paper bag and burned them later. If we were planning to attend a festival, we waited for that event. If not, we placed them in our backyard brazier after the Feast. The theological reason for burning offerings is important to us, but how important is it to Keltrian practice? I can't answer this question myself, so the subject is on the agenda for the next Council of Elders meeting.

Whether to use one or two chalices in ritual is another subject that the Council will debate. I have my reasons for using two – one for the matron and one for the patron. Although, I will say that if one chalice is used, it should be filled with spring water for its purity, not personal preference. Use a paten – especially when doing outdoor rituals - to assure that no winged protein commits suicide in what you plan to put in your mouth.

As I read "Breaking the Rules…," the phrase "Keltrian beliefs" caught my eye. The word "belief" appears in outdated Keltrian publications; however, the revamp of the old correspondence course provided an opportunity to review what was working in the Keltrian tradition and what was not. The Council of Elders dropped the term "belief" from Keltrian theology for several solid reasons. For one thing, "belief" as a condition of spiritual participation is a form of mind control. We do not dictate dogma and never have. There is also the consideration that relying on "belief" is often used as an excuse for not taking responsibility for choices of behavior and subsequent consequences. After lengthily considerations such as these, the Council of Elders substituted the word "hallmark" because it is defined as a principle or standard that describes a code of ethics rather than a list of what Keltrians should think – i.e. believe. Our hallmarks are calls to action rather than marching orders.

I also took a close look at two paragraphs that apparently are intended to support Jenne's argument for unilateral augmentation of Keltrian thought and practices. Her idea is that it's "appropriate" to reinterpret old Irish "lore/myths/scholarly materials" and make subsequent changes. When she points out that there is "great room for interpretation" of scholarly speculations and archeological finds. My mind immediately flashed to David Macaulay's book, Motel of the Mysteries. In USA, in the year 4022, a group of archeologists uncover a no-tell motel. They quickly determined that TVs were altars because there were bodies in front of them. They also determined that toothbrushes were ceremonial earrings, and a toilet seat was obviously part of a high priest's regalia and worn around the neck. Even bathtub plugs were meaningful artifacts. Sounds silly, doesn't it? It does to me, too.

Hallmark 9 describes our dedication to accepting new, proven scholarship even if it means changing core practices. In the end, and above all else, new knowledge is only adopted if it's sensible and enhances Keltrian Druidism. Only the Council of Elders can approve and implement alterations. Hallmark 9 also acknowledges that ancient, present and future Druids were, are and will be vastly different. Although, all three would have profound experiences when encountering a giant sequoia for the first time. Even so, how they describe their reactions would be very different. Jenne goes on to point out that religious practices change, which is also addressed by this Hallmark. A viable church must respond in relevant ways to the needs of its membership, and Keltria pledges to do this. Both the issues of scholarship and cultural/personal evolution are already covered by this Hallmark, and procedures are set in place to address them. I don't understand why Jenne mentions these subjects as if we have never considered them.

Jenne lists several "downsides" to practicing Keltrian Druidism although these impress me as simple excuses for not going "by the book." Quite frankly, I see little in her article that doesn't have a common-sense solution. Keltrian practices are adaptable in many ways to accommodate circumstance, location and health issues. In the case of alcoholism or being underage, as I mentioned before, spring water is the best substitution for mead. When practicing in a place where candles are banned due to safety concerns, battery operated ones are quite convincing when it comes to creating the ambiance necessary for a ritual frame of mind. Hand-sickles are available for under ten dollars in hardware stores. When it's not possible to use a sickle, such as in a public park, or for that matter any Keltrian rite, a hand cupped to form a sickle shape works just fine. The sickle is a hallow and cannot be replaced to perform Keltrian consecrations, nor can the branch. Our Keltrian in Singapore described the danger in procuring a fresh Sacrificial Branch for each Feast observance, so she picked up a fallen branch. Even so, she was nervous about making that a practice because it could be misconstrued by local authorities followed by dire consequences. When asked, we suggested that she decorate the branch she had with ribbons and trinkets appropriate for the season and re-use it. All it takes is a little creative thinking and transformative magick – another subject discussed in the Book of Keltria – to practice Keltrian Druidism. If no viable solution for an obstacle presents itself, email the Henge office and ask an Elder. We're always willing to look for an answer that is within the realm of Keltrian theology and practice.

I recognize that following the Keltrian tradition can be a challenge, but this is not a negative aspect. Jenne mentions the lack of land, but that isn't a downside - it's a reality of life for most of us. Outdoors is the gold standard, but not always an option. I'll wager that most of us conduct our rituals indoors for reasons that are beyond our control. For many Keltrians, a separate ritual room is a luxury. I've seen cupboards that function as altars when indoor space is at a premium. I've also had to move furniture to make enough room to hold rites, and then put it all back again. Most physical challenges can be accommodated when it comes to performing our rites. Although, when I consider the hypothetical celebrant with an incense allergy, I have no simple solution. I do have to ask, though, why would someone attend a church that considers the use of incense an integral part of their observances? Let's say this person decided to be a Catholic. Would she approach the priest and ask him to ban the use of incense? Probably not. Why then, hypothetically, would it be acceptable to leave it out of Keltrian practices? It's not. Incense is essential for receiving the blessings of the Gods and Goddesses of our tribe. Even if a celebrant performs a Keltrian ritual alone, incense burning must be a part of it otherwise it's not a Keltrian rite. There are solid theological reasons for every element of our observances and these are explained in the Book of Keltria. The bottom line is that if health issues or other circumstances prevent performance of our rituals, then Keltrian Druidism is not the right path to pursue.

A person who doesn't follow the Keltrian ritual format and/or whose behavior is in direct opposition to the Keltrian Hallmarks and bylaws is not practicing Keltrian Druidism. Twenty years ago, we were contacted by some people who wanted to join Keltria. We were pleased about that - it's rare to have an established group want to join; however, after further communication, we were told no, they didn't want to do Keltrian ritual. They already had their chosen deities and rituals. They just thought the name was really cool and wanted to use it. We respectfully turned down their request but admired their honesty. More recently, I accepted a student who was pushing hard for initiation. He swore up and down that he read our book, understood the contents, and no, he had no questions. That struck me as odd and I doubted his word when he seemed to be unaware of rudimentary Keltrian theology and practices. He also balked at taking our course because of the required work involved. Eventually, he admitted that he wanted to combine Keltrian Druidism with a Christian sect that was his first allegiance. I had no choice but to say no, and he evaporated.

Modification of the Keltrian ritual format is never "necessary." A "modified" ritual may not be "inferior" as Jenne points out, but it's certainly not Keltrian. Jenne's choice of a title for her article is……..unfortunate. The word "rules" is synonymous with "hallmarks," which are the core of Keltria's theology and practice. There are plenty of opportunities for creativity and self-expression within Keltria without "breaking the rules." The purpose of the Book of Keltria is to strengthen spiritual relationships with other Keltrians by sharing a common practice. Dismantling Keltria's core practices and hallmarks for convenience or personal preference effectively breaks the heart of Keltrian Druidism. If celebrants are encouraged to whimsically satisfy their sensitivities and sensibilities, eventually we will have nothing in common to keep our far-flung tribe together – the Henge of Keltria will cease to exist.

Jenne describes going "by the book" as another negative aspect of what we do and poses a question: "You've read the lore and continue to practice – and come to different conclusions than listed in the official texts. Are you still a Keltrian?" My response: No. Keltria fosters freethinking and provides a framework for self-exploration and growth. This is the essence of Hallmark 8. It never occurred to me that someone would take liberties with what we have carefully crafted over years of trial and error. If a person is not thriving within the Keltrian system, we have ordained clergy who will listen and offer suggestions. When members come to different conclusions after serious study, it's not "perfectly appropriate" to alter established theology and practices. It is appropriate to contact the Council of Elders and discuss why a change is warranted.

I filled out a registration form for a festival recently. One of the lines was this: Do you have any food allergies (NOT dislikes). This came to the forefront of my mind as I read Jenne's essay. Eliminating elements of the Keltrian ritual outline because they are inconvenient or making other changes for personal preference is not an option. Picking and choosing what is attractive in any spiritual practice and leaving out what isn't dilutes the tradition and dishonors it. The Henge of Keltria is a religious order, not an umbrella group for members to do what they will in Keltria's name. I fought very hard for that distinction.

Following the Keltrian path is meant to be spiritually fulfilling, not easy. If the Keltrian experience is found lacking, cutting and pasting deities and ritual elements to suit personal preferences is not the answer. We encourage our members to evolve spiritually and recognize the possibility that they may outgrow our practices and theology over time. So be it. I often say, "Let's walk the Keltrian path together as we honor, revere and celebrate our Triad. If the time of parting comes, let us do so in peace and as friends."

Birds and Squirrels

Birds and Squirrels

by Wren

Photo of Wren Taylor

Secretary Wren

Birds are effective eavesdroppers and stunning gossips.  Squirrels play practical jokes and tell shaggy dog stories. The twain usually get along fine in a suburban backyard.  The squirrels enjoy showing off knowing they have the attention of the birds, and the birds try to decode the squirrel jokes to pass on no matter how tattered in the retelling.

My first ritual of the day is to sit next to the backyard pond under the black cherry tree slurping a lukewarm coffee-like substance.  This is where I get my first news of the day.  I don’t understand the squirrel jokes either, but I enjoy the fact that they think they’re funny and how they revel in the recounting.  The birds let me know who is in the neighborhood and what they think of them.  They also share their assessment of the current weather conditions – and more often, than not - their opinions of the squirrels.

One morning was different; the yard was unusually quiet. I didn’t think too much of it, although it had my attention. Within a few minutes, a squirrel came screaming – literally and figuratively – across the tall weathered wooden fence that separates two suburban yards. Hot on his tail was an angry robin looking more like a fighter jet than a bird with wings swept back in attack mode. That was odd; they are usually good neighbors.  Then it happened again; this time it was a different squirrel and a screaming bluejay.  What was going on here? Oh. Eggs.

By this time, my beloved had joined me, so I said, “Negotiations have broken down, and are irreparable.” He responded with his usual “uh-huh”, which means, “yes, Dear, I hear you speaking, but I’m not really listening.”  I heard myself, though, and it got me to thinking. A pebble had been dropped in the pond of my mind causing concentric ripples.

Isn’t that just like the One Percent that has the Ninety-nine Per centers so angry?  The former apparently believe they are entitled to all of the eggs.  Hang on a sec. Isn’t that like the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington?  Both the Democrats and Republicans don’t want to share any eggs, and squawk loudly each accusing the other side of treachery and trespass.  Hold on here. Isn’t this like countries that invade each other for reasons of resources or ideology?  Whoa. These were not new realizations, of course; however, I had not thought of it in terms of eggs in a nest nor nest eggs.

As a Keltrian Druid, my values and worldview is encompassed in the Beliefs of Keltrian Druidism. Looking closely at theses thirteen statements, I found seven that applied to my line of morning musing. Not every belief applies to all situations, but in this case, when considering how neighbors near and far choose whether to get along or not for creative problem solving culminating in mutually beneficial results, certain tenets do come to my mind. I will explore one for each scenario.

In the case of the One Per-centers, my simplified perception is that while the bail out money may have been repaid in most cases, the spirit of the rescue was that the Ninety-nine Per-centers would see some benefit from the government loans. Instead, displays of greed and focus on corporate profits were the results.  Keltrian Belief #8 applies to this situation, which states: We believe that morality is a matter of personal conviction based upon self-respect and respect for others.  To my thinking, greed is a character flaw, which demonstrates lack of self-respect. Likewise, refusing to do the right thing by easing the burden on the public’s cash flow is disrespectful of these individuals whose tax money saved the day. To me this is tantamount to egg stealing.

Turning to Washington politics, Keltrian Belief #10 comes to mind.  This Belief proclaims in part: We believe in the relative nature of all things, that nothing is absolute…  My impression is that the “us against them” attitude, which appears to emphasize beating the other guys rather than acting in general public interest. This attitude of “my way or the highway” politics has cost us hard working moderates in the House and the Senate who find their hands tied and time wasted when absolutes thrust a stick into the wheel of constructive compromise.  In this case, there are plenty of eggs to share, but special interests are unwilling.

Then there’s the state of world affairs. For this, I’ll turn to Belief #9, which says: We believe that evil is not a matter of inheritance, but of intent.  Why do we have wars?  All too often, I feel we are fed propaganda with a spoon, and told the other side is evil and must be stopped. It’s the get them before they get us mentality. When the layers of onionskin are peeled back one by one, it becomes apparent  - to me at least – that the real issues revolve around either coveting someone else’s eggs or fear of a race of people who have different customs and beliefs. An example comes to mind from a story that pops up from time to time on twenty-four hour news networks. Israel is concerned that Iran will unleash a nuclear attack directed at them. The best option is to attack first because the Iranians are evil. This may be sensationalized by the newsgroups that need to fill airtime, but lit stokes an opinion that is based in fear and not necessarily fact. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I believe that most people in the world are good if not misguided from time to time.  True evil is relatively rare. Good people make mistakes, which cause harm, but it is usually unintentional.  On the other hand, is it intentional evil to mislead others into acting on misinformation?

What does this mean to Keltrian Druids?  As intimately involved in our church as I am, Keltrian philosophies and practices are never very far from my mind. I wonder sometimes if this extends to our other members. Within the last year, two members on different occasions commented on how applying the Keltrian discipline of thinking in Triads, which is a uniquely Keltrian teaching, and conscious application of the thirteen Keltrian beliefs has benefited them in all aspects of their daily lives. I freely admit this brought a grin to my face. Overall, I believe Druids to be inherently practical people, who apply abstract philosophical concepts to mundane situations.

All of this being said, I don’t expect birds and squirrels to understand nor care about my musings. They are creatures of immediacy and have concerns regarding their own politics and survival issues. I thank and honor them for inspiring a fresh and simple perspective. Sometimes when situations seem too large to do anything about such as national and international issues, breaking them down to something as simple as egg stealing can possibly provide a path to solutions so each and every one of us can act using the thirteen Keltrian Beliefs as a guide.

Respectfully submitted,

Nota Bene:  If you are not familiar with the Keltrian discipline of thinking in Triads for problem solving, let me know and I will address it in another essay.

The Bard’s Path: The Last Lesson

The Last Lesson

by Wren Taylor

[Ed Note: This article was first published in Henge Happenings in Samhain 1999 and is reprinted here in remembrance.]

3:30 AM -- I sit bathed in the cold light of the conical copper lamp suspended over the glass topped kitchen table. This is the only light illuminated in this empty, old house. I sit on a wooden chair bundled in layers of pink flannel and a thick, peach colored terry cloth robe. My arms are wrapped tightly around my knees. Shivering, I listen to the barrage of ice and snow born out of the February storm. The maple trees sigh under the weight of the onslaught. I believe the storm is attempting to capture me and turn me into a pillar of ice. It would be so easy to do right now.

This old house of my youth has the unmistakable scent of having been shut and empty for many months, which it had since Mom and Dad moved into my old apartment over their machine shop.

Scattered before me on the table are the family’s old photo albums. As I absently flip the leaves, the house softly sings to me with the ghostly voices of holidays and birthdays past. I close my eyes, let my head fall back and listen to the squeals of laughter, voices raised in sibling competition and the soft murmurs of affection exchanged while tucking five children into their beds. I remember…

Unconsciously, I lift my fingers to my face to chase away an annoying itch and abruptly stop. His scent… His scent is on my fingers… It’s a combination of Corn Huskers Lotion and something else – something that is uniquely my “Da.” He quietly passed to the Otherworld just over an hour ago. I pull my fingers away from my face and study them under the circle of light. I think, “How odd…” Like lightening, my left brain engages and responds, “It’s not odd at all! He’s only been dead an hour. After all you did for him today of course they smell. Go wash your hands!” I ignore the practical advice and instead bring my hand back to my face. I close my eyes once more and review Greybeard’s last lesson to his children.

When the call came, it was not unexpected. I was in the fortunate position to drop everything and book the transcontinental flight. Greybeard, as we affectionately called him, was cognoscente and able to sit in his recliner for most of the first week. In a hoarse voice, he spoke excitedly of his anticipated adventure. He obviously enjoyed sending his children on treasure hunts to find specific items. He required particular pictures from the Hubbell telescope, CD’s of whale songs and various other items to help him illustrate what he expected to find on his journey. It was fun in a curious sort of way to march to his chair-side in triumph clutching the found treasures. He lavished praise on us as though we were small children although the gray was obvious on our own heads.

We discussed his funeral and he declared that it would be a Viking funeral. (That old coot! All of these years, he told me he was a Southern Baptist when he really was “one of us”…) My mind immediately flashed to the local environmental group. I dubiously questioned whether we would be allowed to launch a burning boat with him on it from the town dock. The compromise was a model Viking boat to hold his ashes. It was decided that the small boat would be launched in the brook that runs beside the building. He liked that idea. I suggested that since he had not realized his life long dream of punting on the Thames, the boat could be retrieved and I could take him with me when I travel to Stonehenge some day. All kidding aside, he liked that idea very much, too. He asked me to do a “Brunehilda” for him at his “party.” Slowly I said "suuuure", but would he mind if we waited for the warmer weather? I pointed out that the breastplate would be a killer in the sub-zero temperatures. He chuckled and said fine, fine with a sparkle in his old tired eyes.

He said he was having too much fun at the party to leave, but then, he was so very, very tired. Even so, I admired his cheerful attitude and sense of humor. In a somber moment, Greybeard did extract a solemn promise that under no circumstances would he be transported to the hospital. I couldn’t blame him for that, however, the red Do Not Resuscitate order on the Hospice paper work gave me an indescribable shiver. He required around the clock care, but I was honored to be a part of it.

Reciting William Henley’s Invictus, he went to his bed for the final time. His last spoken words were, “Love, love, love.” This was Greybeard’s last lesson to his children.

[amazon_link id="B0043GX3EC" target="_blank" ]INVICTUS[/amazon_link]
by William Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods my be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud:
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

[Ed note: Invictus is also available on MP3]
[amazon_image id="B005K99U02" link="true" target="_blank" size="medium" ]Invictus (by William Ernest Henley)[/amazon_image]

From the Vice-President – Beltaine 2009

by Wren Taylor

Oath -- Noun (pl. oaths)

Vice-President Wren

Vice-President Wren

1.   A solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding ones future action or behavior: they took an oath of allegiance to the king.
a.   A sworn declaration that one will tell the truth, esp. in a court of law.
2. A profane or offensive expression used to express anger or other strong    emotions.

Last issue’s musings on inaugurations and initiations led me down the path to consider oaths. Both experiences usually require an oath. When the words of an expected oath are known beforehand, does the candidate actually weigh them and consider whether or not she or he can truly deliver what is being promised? Or since the root of the word, auguare  - to augur, indicates that the outcome is open to interpretation, does that mean that the words spoken in an oath are also open to interpretation?

When I think of the presidents that have served so far in my lifetime stretching back to Eisenhower, I wonder whether phrases such as “faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States” or “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” is open to the interpretation of the individual. When those men spoke these words, were they thinking the same thing? Probably not. Nor do I expect my own connotation to be the same.

Granted, when a candidate for initiation comes to the place where an oath is required, that person usually has little or no idea what is involved. We don’t make a habit of offering scripts of the ritual prior to the event.  Even so, I have never seen anyone choose not to take an oath and halt the ritual. Looking back at my own initiatory experience, I can’t say that I was in enough of a cognitive state of mind to comprehend the details of what was happening around me and to me. Are oaths extracted during stress or duress binding? Even if the candidate is there of their own free will and has prepared for the experience?

This leads me to wonder whether people go through the motions and speak the words required to get what they think they want. Like notches on the bedpost, I’ve seen folks attempt to collect initiations like trophies. When confronted as to why this is a good thing to do, the person usually shrugs and points to an honest if not misguided quest for knowledge. I have to wonder whether any of the oaths taken in said pursuit pose any contradictions. Not only that, but if the intention is honorable as in the thirst for knowledge, is it okay to promise whatever is required to achieve that end?

Here’s another thought:  Are you freed from an oath if it was taken so long ago that you don’t remember the particulars? One warm and lazy afternoon, I was engaged in casual conversation with an initiate of a different tradition. As we sat in the grass, he toyed with a bug and a twig. As you can guess, this activity ended with the bug’s demise. Even though it had been over a decade since his initiation, I witnessed his oath to not knowingly cause harm to the living. Did he forget? Do bugs not count? Should he have been cognizant enough in that moment to stop the proceedings and say, “Hey, y’know, I’m not certain I can make that promise.” How is it that a priestess of a different tradition remembers so long and so well, and the initiate does not?

The previous example involved an adult. What about children? My earliest memories of school include the Pledge of Allegiance. Most adults can’t help but giggle at the cuteness quotient of a six-year-old mangling the words. Can a child fathom the meaning of this oath?

I don’t recall receiving an explanation; it was part of the morning routine. We participated with no thought involved. Teacher said we had to do it. Am I to be held accountable for this oath spoken in front of countless witnesses countless times without fair understanding? I will also admit, that by the time I entered high school, it never occurred to me to question the words nor the practice. In this day and age, I have heard of some parents objecting to the Pledge of Allegiance, and their children being allowed to sit quietly while the others participate.

That being said, can an oath be undone when enlightenment or evolution alter a person’s heart? If a person arrives at the point where there are clear and valid objections to the concepts behind an oath, can it be broken?

Now let’s go back in time prior to the women’s liberation movement and look at wedding vows. These were usually prescribed by the denomination. Writing your own vows, which constitutes an oath, was rare if not unheard of back in the day. I shudder to think how many women readily agreed to “obey” and “’til death do us part”.  In fact, I shudder when I recall how my thankfully long-gone lover hissed the word “death” as he spoke his wedding vows. Is it oath-breaking if the bride becomes the battered wife, and leaves to save her life?

Given the divorce statistics, there are many broken oaths out there. For as many church weddings that I have attended, I’ve never been to one where the oaths have been undone. Some how, it doesn’t feel right to leave all of that energy floating around out there ungrounded. Can or should an oath be broken when a situation changes?  Can or should another oath be taken to cancel the first one? Do you tough it out hoping things will straighten out eventually? What if someone’s life is in danger? A bug’s? Yours?

Also consider the Hippocratic Oath. It is my understanding that this is no longer required in all cases, but set that aside for a moment in the spirit of discussion. The “do no harm” clause is cause for ethical debate.

Let’s say we have a premed student, who in the beginning is adamantly against abortion and assisted suicide. In this case, the student understands that the Hippocratic Oath will be required to graduate and work as a doctor. The average number of years invested in becoming a doctor is roughly twelve. A person can do a lot of growing and changing in that amount of time not to mention the amount of debt incurred in procuring the education.

Let’s say that the life experiences of our student brought about a reversal in thinking regarding both issues. Here we are looking at graduation day and directly into the maw of a huge debt. The generally accepted interpretation of “do no harm” is that abortions and assisted suicides are harmful. Does our student cross fingers behind the back and take the oath anyway to pursue a life’s passion and be in a better position to pay off the debts? Does our student recognize that this is an oath that cannot be honored, pick up a shovel and join a construction crew?

Here’s another scenario:  Loose Lips Sink Ships. It’s relatively common knowledge that many initiatory oaths contain passages wherein it is sworn that initiates’ names and other personal information will not be divulged. This is because people practicing some alternative religions have lost jobs or homes or even had children taken away from them. The pages of history are filled with tales of even worse consequences.

Picture Chatty Cathy, who took such an oath, but in the interest of name-dropping, shared oath-bound information freely. The excuse was, “I didn’t mean to do it! I wasn’t thinking!” If the intention to break an oath is not there, is it oath breaking? Is oath breaking due to negligence pardonable? The damage is still done.

My mother-in-law needed a new computer, but her husband was being uncooperative. In a playful spirit, I composed an oath for him to take stating that he would indeed help her acquire the machine of her dreams. Even though it was all in good fun with a purpose, I was serious and so was he. Laughing, he raised his hand, spoke the words, then point blank told me that it wasn’t the first oath he would break and wouldn’t be the last. Scoundrel that he was, I have to admit that he was being forthright and honest. More honest than some oath-breakers I have experienced.

Are oaths a matter of personal integrity no matter who witnesses them? Is there such a thing as Oath Police? Should there be? Can an oath be enforced if it is coerced? Can an oath be taken back? Private or public, an oath has something that sets it apart from an informal utterance. Has that gone by the wayside today? Is it okay to conveniently forget when the drama has passed? What if someone unintentionally breaks an oath? What if that oath breaking causes harm to another? Serious harm? Are oaths open to interpretation? By whom?

The English language being confounding as it is, I think it rather curious that the definition of “oath” also includes a negative usage. The Oxford English Dictionary offers: an appeal made lightly …….a careless use of the name of God or something sacred.  Call me a cynic, but the words “lightly” and “careless” really hit me as the norm.