In his volume “Barddas”, the 18th century author (amongst other things), Edward Williams, to many better known as Iolo Morganwg, lists several versions of a prayer that since has become a standard element in rites of Druids and Druid orders, and is also uttered at the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales. Whether Iolo Morganwg came up with the prayer himself, or it is older and stems from his vast collections of Welsh poetic material is of no relevance here. Only that it exists and that it has been used for about two hundred years shall matter for this article.
As we are remembering and honoring the departed during this time of year in the Northern hemisphere – some of us celebrating this quarter day as ‘Samhain’ while others may use a different name for their festivities – I would like to contemplate the first four lines of the prayer as they relate to death and the process of grieving.
Grant, O spirit, thy protection,
And in protection strength,
And in strength understanding,
And in understanding knowledge […]
When we lose a loved-one to death, our system is in shock. No matter if we actually experience our family member or friend’s spirit’s transition into the realm of the dead, and the parting of their consciousness from the material body, or if we have gotten that dreaded phone-call informing us of the passing of a loved-one – it is always the shock of separation that hits us first.
And more often than not, the first thing we do nowadays is following the dictate of the world we live in that tells us that first and foremost we need to know why. We want to know what happened. We employ coroners and pathologists to explain to us what physical condition brought an end to the symbiosis of body and spirit, especially when this happened suddenly and untimely. With surviving family members we discuss the lifestyle of the departed, hoping that we find some clue for his or her dying. Somehow we cling on the logic that our knowledge of the reason helps us understand why this death happened. And we feel as though we gain some kind of strength when we understand the circumstances of someone’s death, and with this strength we may think ourselves shielded, protected, from the onslaught of grief.
Knowledge – understanding – strength – protection.
Clearly, this is exactly the reverse sequence from what is suggested in the prayer, and one may think, ‘Well, then the prayer is not relevant for this particular situation, does not apply in cases of death and grief.’
Yet, when I sat back in my favorite chair recently and – faced with such a situation of a sudden and unexpected death of a family member – contemplated the relevance of the prayer in this situation, I came to a different conclusion. Maybe the prayer actually suggests the more beneficial order. Maybe it reminds us what we could do rather than submitting to the mechanisms of the typical, modern approach.
What if – when you witness, or learn of, the parting of a loved-one – your first step would not be to discuss what brought on death, but instead to call upon your spirit guides, your deities, or simply upon the power of Magic. You could do that quite consciously. Take a moment, invoke the God or Goddess you feel would be the strongest support in this moment; draw a circle around yourself and invite whatever spirit you feel grants you the most protection in this particular situation; call upon the powers of the directions. These are just suggestions. It is really about doing whatever you usually do to conjure energy of protection, about that being the first step before you take off on your quest of “knowing why?”.
At some point in the early grieving process, when the fog begins to lift and your numbness towards the rest of the world slowly subsides, you could again, in a ritual of sorts, call upon the protection of your spirits, but this time to meditate on the meaning of the cycle of life and death. Just that, nothing in particular, but very much with the goal to understand the importance of death for life itself. Kristoffer Hughes, being not only a Druid, but also a coroner and therefore having dedicated his life to death and our understanding of it, and also head of the Anglesey Druid Order, explains that in detail in his book “The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying, and Bereavement” (order here). A good example (from this book) for what you could meditate about is that our lives actually depend on constant death and regeneration of the cells in our bodies. In this very sense, we die and regenerate approximately every seven years, which means essentially that you are not the same person, biologically, that you were seven years ago (I am at the beginning of the eighth cycle of this process already). This is not only a fun fact, but extremely important for our survival. Because we not only need fresh cells, but when cells decide to not partake in this process, to not die to make room for new ones, it means we have cancer. Then, when our cells don’t die, we are actually at a risk of dying entirely. Things like this, and even more so contemplating the spiritual aspects of dying (e.g. where do our spirits go?) make good meditation topics to deepen our understanding of death.
Now, armored with your spirit guides or gods’ protection, strengthened by their or your own Magic, and after having gained more understanding about death, you are ready to go on the quest of knowledge. Now you are much better equipped to take the autopsy or pathologist’s report to hand and learn about what was the biological cause for your beloved’s death; what brought them there. And you may feel that the impact of the knowledge you gain from these insights is not as shattering as it might have been when you were exposed to it without protection, strength, and understanding.
So, wherever this prayer comes from, whether it is “only” two centuries old or much older, it is effectively thoughtful guidance for many situations in life. And also in death.