Wow, I think this is the first weekend since Mother’s Day that I haven’t spent at least part of the time either reading something for the ADF Clergy Training Program or writing something for it. I have a few months before I need to submit the next two courses as part of my personal schedule, and it’ll be a few weeks ’til I manage to get the books I need through interlibrary loan anyway. I guess I’ll just have to read that lesbian comic strip compilation I mentioned earlier. (And good news for those who care, both of the courses I submitted last weekend have been approved. Eight down, four to go for First Circle.)
Jumping from the topic of good academic books and books that are fun to read, my thoughts turn to a book that is neither. Earlier this week someone posted to one of the ADF mailing lists that a third book in Douglas Monroe’s “Merlin” series was being published. This wasn’t a huge surprise to me, as I’m pretty sure I saw somewhere online a few years ago that he intended to do a third one. Not that the lack of surprised came with a lack of sadness. Having been my Grove’s official phone and e-mail contact for over ten years, I know all too well how many people come to us thinking that we’re Druids just like in that Druid book that they read. (The cleverer ones work out that this may not be the case when they see that we have actual, y’know, women in the Grove, some of them officers.) Happily, at least a few of them politely ask what I think of the book, and when I tell them about its inaccuracies and that it has little to do with our practices or those of the Ancients, they say, “Oh thank god, I thought it was just me.”
For those not familiar with the work, ADF founder Isaac Bonewits’ web site has a decent summary and debunking of it. (Ceisiwr Serith wrote up an excellent point-by-point list of the inaccuracies it has, but he doesn’t seem to have put it on his Web site anywhere that I can find it, and I won’t pass along someone else’s material without their permission.) I’ve not read the whole thing through, but I have read portions of it, and if I really thought that this was what Druids did, I’d rather be a Wiccan. Or a Buddhist. Or more likely I’d just call myself a Neo-Hellene. I’d rather spend five minutes explaining to every single person I meet what that means, than try to explain why women have no magical energy of their own and must drain energy from men to do spellwork.
(As an aside, yes, I’ve heard the rumor that Monroe was convicted of statutory rape against teenaged boys. Sadly, I can’t find a link to any current info about this online. If it’s true, then yes, I think that’s awful. But whenever possible, criticizing a work should be about the work itself rather than the author’s personal life. I think there’s plenty of bad stuff in 21LoM to talk about without citing court records, and anyway, if I refused to read the works of anyone who was a pederast, how many ancient Greek authors would I need to disregard? But I will admit that hearing about this did put the whole “men generate magical energy and women don’t” chapter of 21LoM into a new context for me. And may I add, (retching noise).)
So when this new book was brought up on that mailing list, some people did make the argument that often comes up, that just because the “authentic Druid practices” that the book cites were made up in the 19th century doesn’t make them spiritually invalid. And ADF Clergy person though I be, I have to agree with that basic sentiment. There are plenty of religious and other traditions based on flimsier evidence than that, and ultimately what we find satisfying or comforting in a religion is personal, maybe the most intensely personal thing we believe. I won’t complain about someone using this book for their own spiritual practices if they find that it works for them – well, actually, I will a little. A spiritual path that has that much disdain for women isn’t much of a spiritual path. But if you’re a man and you really don’t ever intend to have a meaningful relationship with a woman in this lifetime, hey, knock yourself out. There are worse things that you could be doing with your time. The better solution would be for Druids from ADF and other groups to write better books and get them out there. (And yay to our Arch Druid Skip Ellison for having written some, now if only we can get them onto as many shelves as Llewellyn can!)
Ultimately, then, how do I feel about these books and the man who wrote them? I can only answer that by relaying the story of a young man who came to our Grove’s Lughnasadh festival in 2002. This was the last year that we held it at the Emrich Conference Center and it was a big four-day deal. The young man – let’s call him “Frank” for the purposes of this story, he’s a nice kid and I don’t want to embarrass him, not to mention I do take clergy confidentiality issues seriously – came with his mother because he was all excited about Druids, and he paid us a membership fee that weekend and told us he was going to come to as many of our events as he could. And as often happens in these cases, he never came back. The over-enthusiastic ones seldom do. I did send him a few e-mails to see if he was all right, but he never responded. Ah well. Part of a Senior Druid’s life is dealing with the fact that not everyone belongs in your Grove. So life went on.
A few years later, with no warning, Frank sent me an email saying he really needed to meet me in person to discuss something. (This is the bit that I can’t discuss in detail for confidentiality reasons, but since it has to do with a teenaged boy, you can probably assume that there’s a teenaged girl involved in any big perceived moral quandary.) So we met, he asked how the Grove had been managing since last we talked, and I asked him what Druid things he’d been doing. He said that right after that Lughnasadh, he signed up for Douglas Monroe’s e-mail list, and decided that that was more what he was looking for. Fair enough. If that kind of Druidry was really what Frank wanted, SLG was never going to be the place that he would find it. So after sharing my own thoughts on the issues at hand, I asked him if he’d talked to Mr. Monroe about his problem. Well, yes, he had asked him about it on the phone, and Monroe had flat out refused to talk to him about it. “Wait a minute”, I thought to myself. “The leader of a Druid group can’t answer one of his own student’s questions about girls?” The snarky voice in my head made a comment about pederasts being the last people to ask about girl problems, especially when you’re one of the cute young boys hanging on their every word. (And yes, “the snarky voice in my head” is also known as “the voice inside my head”.) So in the absence of any moral/ethical input from Monroe, Frank came running back to me, because I’m a clergyperson and I actually try to help people with stuff like this, instead of acting like I know everything the ancient Druids did and then not being able to deal with real life. (I still occasionally ponder whether I’m the metaphoric “wife” or the metaphoric “mistress” in this particular scenario. Probably the wife.)
So in the end, whether Iolo Morganwg was on to something when he made up those ancient Welsh texts, whether the Britons had a cool recipe for soup made from a New World plant, whether all women are black widows, none of that matters to me as much as my one indirect encounter with Douglas Monroe. Any spiritual tradition that leaves its devoted practitioners in the lurch when a real problem comes along is no spiritual practice that I want to be involved with. Knowing that my Grovemates and ADF will at least try to help me when the going gets rough means more to me than all the tea in China. Or all the pumpkin blossom soup in Wales!
Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF