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Taurus, Keeper of the ValleyVenus enters Taurus tomorrow morning, where she will stay for a little less than a month, leaving for Gemini on May 24.

Venus rules Taurus, so she is very alive and very much in her element here. With Venus in Taurus, we are drawn to all things beautiful, pleasurable, and sensual. Spring is in full blossom this month, and the days are becoming long and warm, although we are still far from the oppressive heat of summer.

Venus may encourage a certain hedonism at this time: self-control is not one of her virtues, especially when she is in a roll that comes so easily to her. Rich foods, fine wine, beautiful, comfortable clothes, sensual love-making – these are all appetizing and enticing during this “spring fever” time. For those of us who live in our heads or are driven to accomplish things, these desires may create some confusion or distraction. For those at home in their bodies, however, it is a welcome revel heralding in the light half of the year, just in time for Beltane.

Today, most people think of Venus as a love goddess, inextricably associated with romance and partnership. This is closer to her expression in Libra, which is about interaction, communication, flirtation, and interpersonal harmony. In Taurus, Venus is more earthy. It’s less about connection between people and more about the pleasures of the senses. Right now, a chocolate dessert hits the spot as well as (or better than) sweet conversation over dinner.

Venus also has a strongly nurturing, almost maternal side when in Taurus. She wants to make sure everyone is comfortable, and that no one’s needs are neglected. The food, the clothing, the hugs and caresses, are all ways of taking care of ourselves and others. In Venus’s world, the earth is abundant with everything we need – warm sunlight, soft grass, sweet flowers, fresh food, shelter, and companionship. She is the beautiful bearer of this cornucopia of delights, and she shines in that role.

I hardly need to give advice on how to work with Venus in Taurus this month, as I expect most of us are doing it already: taking time to enjoy the delights of spring and appreciate the pleasures of the senses.

GnosticismGnosticism is an ancient belief system whose basic tenets seem to reappear in many different times and cultures. Gnostics hold that this world is essentially a prison for the spirit. In Gnostic forms of Christianity, for example, the creator god of the Bible is interpreted as an evil demiurge, who built the world to trap us; the real God is on a higher plane entirely, and Christ is our connection to him, providing the possibility of reuniting the trapped spark of spirit within us with its divine source.

For gnostics, our physical bodies are also of the material world, and part of the evil snare that traps us here. Gnostics, therefore, sometimes tend toward asceticism. Although full-blown gnosticism was rejected by the early Christian church, it did leave its mark on the development of Christianity. The notion that material pleasures are sinful, and that life should be about preparing one’s immortal soul for a heavenly afterlife, has a decidedly gnostic ring to it.

The basic gnostic ideas are also present in some eastern religions. In many forms of Hinduism, for example, the material world is deemed to be an illusion (maya) that binds us down karmically and delays or prevents our liberation from the wheel of reincarnation.

Gnostic ideas are also woven into popular culture. The movie The Matrix presents a quintessentially gnostic view of the world, with the ancient gnostic mythos updated into a high-tech futuristic dystopia. The “new age” or metaphysical community, while not tied down to any detailed doctrinal system, nevertheless frequently plays with gnostic ideas, to a greater or lesser degree.

The relationship between modern Paganism and gnosticism is a complex one. On the one hand, many of our metaphysical ideas and magical practices derive from the Western mystery tradition and forms of occultism connected with it. This tradition has always had a heavily gnostic coloring. The “great work” of alchemy and high magic, returning the self to its divine source, comes straight from the gnostic-influenced Neoplatonists of the Hellenistic era. Some Pagans have a spiritual practice involving eastern-style meditation designed to lift consciousness out of an ego-bound and body-bound mode. Many of us would not take issue with the bumper sticker that says “I am a spiritual being having a physical experience.”

On the other hand, I think the core sensibility of modern Paganism is anti-gnostic. We feel at home in this world, and we revel in the physical experience of it. We feel at home with the plants and animals, with the changing weather and the strong earth beneath our feet. We love the pleasures of the body, and embrace sexuality as sacred. For most Pagans, the divine is not a distant light we must struggle to reunite with, but rather is as near as our own breath and flesh.

For myself, I find some gnostic ideas to be enriching. It is good to occasionally step out of my immediate experience and see it as mere “clothing” over a more universal spiritual reality. There is wisdom to be gained by transcending the details of physical life. For me, though, such transcendence is a tool, not an end in itself. It means little to me until I return and engage this life once again, enjoying its pleasures and making the most of my time here. Although I think there is a spark of spirit in each of us that is not bound to this earthly existence, I do not see the earth as a prison or an evil to be denied. Rather, experiencing this world is the great joy and calling of the spirit, it is what I am about.

Green RisottoShould Pagans be vegetarian? It’s a question that comes up with some regularity in Pagan circles, and opinions vary widely, as they do among Pagans on virtually anything.

Some look back with fondness on the habits of our Celtic and Germanic predecessors, for whom serious feasting always included beer or mead, rowdy song and dance, and plenty of meat (on the bone, with knives being the only utensil likely to be employed from time to time). Others are more drawn to gentler ways of living, and would prefer not to harm any living thing.

Wiccans and many other Pagans honor the spirit of the Wiccan Rede: an it harm none, do what you will. And few of us would limit “none” to mean “no member of the species Homo sapiens“; most of us are firmly devoted to the idea that all beings, not just humans, are alive with spirit and are more like us than unlike us. Thus, for those who follow the Rede, the question is whether killing animals for food can be reconciled with our core ethical principles at all, or under what circumstances.

Truth be told, I have some sympathy with several different perspectives on the issue. I do believe in a life that seeks to avoid harm to myself and others, and animals are certainly included in that (as are plants as well). I think the fact that the slaughter happens “invisibly”, far away behind the pristine scenes of the supermarket counter, makes it easy for many people to eat meat who could not, with a clear heart, do the necessary killing themselves. As Pagans (or as ethical persons of any persuasion), it seems we are obliged to be informed about the true ramifications of our choices. When I lived in England twenty years ago, the local butcher shop had carcasses hanging on hooks out front, unskinned. I think they made more vegetarians among the university students there than they made customers. There was, at least, a kind of honesty to that – something that might do suburban meat consumers in the US some good.

And, if one somehow gets past the gruesomeness of killing animals, there remain serious ecological and economic issues. The reliance on animals for food is extraordinarily wasteful and damaging to the planet. It takes something like 10 times the resources to produce a pound of meat than it does to produce a pound of grain or vegetables. Most of the grain farmed today goes to feed animals for slaughter, not to feed people directly. When you start to contemplate the wastefulness of this – not just the land, but the water, the fossil fuels used to run the operations, and the pollution produced – it becomes hard to see meat eating as a wise and responsible choice. Most Pagans claim to be quite concerned about what we are doing to the Earth, whom we regard as mother and goddess. We buy carbon credits, hybrid cars, reuse our shopping bags, compost our kitchen waste, and so on. These are all important steps, but if you work the numbers, eating meat undoes all the good we achieve with these Earth-friendly practices.

On the other hand, I find myself out of step with the hard-core animal rights culture. For me, one of the lessons of the Pagan faith is that death is a natural part of life, and that we are all connected in an ecological and spiritual web, whose many strands include creatures becoming food for other creatures. I don’t believe that what the coyote does to the rabbit is immoral. I don’t believe animals (or people, for that matter) have some sort of abstract “right” to remove themselves from nature’s great system of life and death, which is sometimes violent. For me, rights are a legal concept created to solve certain problems between humans living in competitive societies; they are not some great underlying moral directive.

Instead, I find myself more in sympathy with indigenous cultures around the world, whose people subsist mostly on plant foods, but who supplement their diet with meat from hunting. When only rudimentary technology is used, a human hunter becomes something like a coyote after a rabbit. Such cultures live in close enough contact with the plants and animals they use for food that they respect them and know the spirit that lives in them. It is very different from the callous, numb consumerism that dictates eating habits in developed countries.

If I lived in the pre-industrial world of the Pagans of long ago, I might be inclined to eat meat from a hunt, on a fest day, with the spirit of both the hunter and the prey animal very much alive in the moment of the act, and honored.

But I don’t. I live in a world where meat doesn’t come from a contest between predator and prey that honors the spirit and prowess of both creatures. I live in a world where meat comes from breeding animals and subjecting them to lives of suffering, for no other reason than to serve the casual gluttony of a civilization that has lost its sense of connection with all other living things, and lost its respect for the Earth that is the source of all life.

So, should Pagans be vegetarian? I do believe it is a personal choice. My way of looking at it is not the only valid one. We can all live better lives than we do, in some area or another, and I don’t judge the priorities of others in that regard. I will say, however, that if being Pagan has anything at all to do with honoring the spirit in other living things and honoring the sacredness of the Earth, then eating meat is not something Pagans can simply take for granted, as followers of so many other traditions do. It should be a point of concern and reflection for each of us.

Andy Goldsworthy leavesWe rented Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides this weekend, having missed it when it was in theatres a few years back. I was immediately and deeply moved by what unfolded on the screen as I watched.

Here’s a short excerpt on Youtube:

Goldsworthy is an artist who works in and with natural environments. He assembles things he finds in a place – stones, leaves, branches, blocks of ice – virtually anything – into sculptures that have a strangely organic quality to them. The works are often ephemeral; the forces of nature melt, scatter, or cover them.

Goldsworthy is a soft-spoken Scot with an innate sensitivity to the energies of the natural world. He works with the natural materials he uses, understanding their forms, structures, and properties and following their lead. This resonates with me. I’ve always imagined making a garden in this way, by gently enhancing and following what was already there in the land and its creatures. I’ve learned to do that, somewhat, over the decades. Goldsworthy, though, inspires me to take it to a different level, to play with patterns in nature wherever I find myself.

Goldsworthy, it seems to me, has a deeply Pagan sensibility (by whatever name it may be called). The natural world is both his inspiration and his medium. It nourishes him, and he becomes a vehicle for nature’s self-expression. And he understands that to work with nature is to surrender to time. Everything he makes, he makes with the knowledge that it will dissolve and return back to its source. Perhaps his rock walls, arches, and cairns are more permanent by human standards, but they are still made with their return in mind, it seems; they are just more slow, more patient, in their transformation.

I would like to own a copy of this film, to share with friends and to renew my spirit from time to time.

When I first found the Pagan path, I was overwhelmed by the difference it made in my approach to life. I described it as going along the grain, living with the natural patterns of the world rather than struggling against them. I’ve never seen a better visual expression of that feeling than in Goldsworthy’s work.

For me, Rivers and Tides is a deeply spiritual film posing as an art documentary. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

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