“For me there is no choice but to walk the journey of my life entirely dedicated to my spirituality, a journey that takes me along the cutting edge of my soul, ever wakeful, ever learning wonderstruck.” –Emma Restall Orr, Spirits of the Sacred Grove, preface.
Almost twenty years ago, Emma Restall Orr published, Spirits of the Sacred Grove, a remarkable first book that takes the reader on a vividly visceral walk around the circle of the year in-and-out of the shoes of a contemporary English Druid priestess. In Bardic fashion, she teaches through stories, alternating personal observations with relevant examples in her practice. Thanks to Orr’s skills as a writer, her richly descriptive detail and inner voice musings balance into a compelling narrative.
The daughter of a noted ornithologist/writer, Orr travelled extensively as child. Exceptionally sensitive from an early age, she freely experienced and interacted with the Otherworld. Exploring the interconnectedness she felt with nature led her to Earth-based spirituality, specifically British Druidry. Unfortunately, as it stood when she encountered it, organized Druidry existed as an academic reconstruction, rather than the mud, blood, and bone immersion into living relationship with nature that Orr knew.
At the 2012 Druid Network Conference on Animism, she explained, “I [was] seeking books and teachers of a Druidry that expressed what I felt Druidry was…The Druidry I kept coming across was very male oriented, it felt very abstract. It felt very thinking, conceptual … It really wasn’t earthy enough, wasn’t dirty enough for me, and having explored my own Druidry, I needed to write it down in order to really understand what it was that I was practicing, that I was feeling, that I was starting to believe.” She eventually worked for the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids and was Joint Chief of the British Druid Order for nearly ten years.
Spirits of the Sacred Grove pictures a year of her Druidic practice, from Samhain to Samhain. She explores the implications of each of the festivals during the Equinoxes and Cross-Quarter Days with a Bard’s catalogue of anecdotes, a Druid’s bag of visions, and a sensual Naturalist’s keen observation. Not a “how to,” or “recipe book,” Spirits of the Sacred Grove demonstrates a life lived interconnected with nature.
“No-Body,” the first Samhain chapter, includes the performance of a releasing ritual with her Grove, and thoughts on the origins of religious paths. “At Samhain, then, untying ourselves from the structure of the old, dismantling the framework, we enter a period where there is no framework – and so no limitations already laid down which need to be contended with. The scope of our potential is once again opened out to its fullest extent. There is the possibility of the most poignant sensation of freedom. Suddenly anything can happen.”
“The Womb” addresses Yule, and discusses ancestors, both blood and energetic. Thoughts on death, an afterlife, and implications of reincarnation, mix examples of shapeshifting, and shamanic journeying. “First Breath,” looks at Imbolc season, “Imbolc is a festival of thanksgiving for that abundance of sweet breastmilk that nurtures and nourishes us. For me, it is the gentlest of festivals, the most feminine, and veiled in crisp and misty white. It is a ceremony of quiet joy, of poetry and sweet laughter, little children and dawn’s rosy glow. We have emerged from the womb sanctuary, dark and rich with placental blood.”
She describes the season as a period of rebirthing from the dark primal womb of Samhain. Her warm and humorous telling of a student’s dawn initiation ritual follows, with further thoughts on initiatory processes. The chapter ends with lively ideas exploring relationship with polytheistic Deity.
The Spring Equinox features in “Nothing and Freedom.” Orr writes of the sacred circle and the meanings of the four directions, and their elements. She then takes the reader to a joyous menarche celebration. Deity is further explored, especially offerings, and a vision shared.
“Sex and Drive” references Beltane, a time she compares to adolescence: “Even now, with the sap rising strong in the forest, and the birds and the bees out there chirruping and buzzing, Beltane is a time of rich sexuality.” Sacred sexuality and the energetic polarities in relationship are commented upon, concluded with an eventful Beltane dance. A discussion of love and trust gives way to her search for the source of her hesitancy to take on a certain apprentice. Her thoughts on Animism and the energetic interconnectedness of everything anticipates her expansion on the subject, her 2012 book, “The Wakeful Worlds: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature.”
The chapter ends with one of the book’s most dramatic stories, as Orr describes her reactions to caring for a battered woman, and her way of processing her rage for the attacker. Her thoughts on shape-shifting yield this gem: “Yet remaining alert through a wider consciousness of worlds on many levels, while not requiring any to be so real it becomes rigid, and remaining aware of our responsibilities in each of those planes, it is possible to find the balance between release and control necessary for appropriate and powerful shape-shifting.”
“Doing What” talks about the positive aspects of embracing one’s power. She states, “I am a priestess. I work with the many layers of creation as I perceive it, with the gods and guides with whom I have a relationship, with those of the spirit world who would share and teach me. Essentially, my spirituality is entirely individual and exists outside any specific tradition or doctrine.”
She intimately shares her youthful spiritual searchings, and its discoveries. Of Druids, she says, “Druids are a people who are drawn with a profound love of the spirit of the land on which we live. It is not an ordinary love, but a love so intense it demands expression, through total respect, through reverence and devotion, craving connectedness and exquisite communication.”
A history of Celts, Druids and paganism ensues, demonstrating the fluidity within Druidry that allows it to adapt to its place and time with no loss of authenticity. She describes a beautiful ecumenical ecological summer Solstice ceremony officiated by Druids.
She turns to Lughnasdh in “Saying Yes,” and explores creativity and subtleties within the Bardic tradition. After reviewing the harvest festival, she intertwines the two with a vignette around such a seasonal celebration and the performance of a Bard. Relating to the season’s roots as a time for Sacred Wedding, the narrative turns to an amusing anecdote relating the tale of a couple interviewing Orr to perform their wedding ceremony, and a description of the rite.
In “Tides and Change,” Autumn Equinox and the inescapable truth of the final harvest come into view. Faith vs. belief vs. attitudes vs. assumptions come under examination, often as self limiting illusions. In this ceremonial circle, a circle of Elders, Orr describes her flight of inspiration while experiencing acute pain of an unknown origin. From a meditation on pain, she expresses the dilemma of so many empathic people: ”very often these sensitive people experience a great deal of pain themselves. A sensitivity which offers the ability to sense earth energy, auric imbalances, past lives and spirit presences can bring with it a sensitivity to food, pollution, barometric pressure and emotional disturbance that makes living in a busy world difficult to sustain. A great many highly sensitive Craft people, some of whom work actively in healing, are thrown by the tides of emotion around them, retaining their clarity but needing to cope with the effects their interactions are having on their own health.”
She goes on to demonstrate pain as an honer of perception. Her Druidry models the spectrum of emotion into seven levels, with pain the 6th and final threshold before freedom/bliss.
A childhood remembrance of a Caribbean water spirit by a cold ocean shore sends her into a vision that after twenty-five minutes leaves her shivering and wondering “at how badly I seem to balance the different worlds I live in, confusing realities, forgetting to care for the body I work in.”
Finally, “Exquisite Release” closes the circle. Another transformational Samhain, and we witness a menopausal woman joyfully burning and releasing outgrown symbols of her life in a Croning Rite. Orr’s exploration of serpent and dragon imageries also looks at a Druidic form of Kundalini.
Twenty years on, and Emma Restall Orr’s Spirits of the Sacred Grove remains a vivid and remarkable document of a woman’s spirituality permeating her life/consciousness. Saturated with the interconnectedness of animism, her stories and reflections of worldly and Otherworldly observations and experiences flow unselfconsciously across Land, Sea, and Sky. Poetically poignant and personal, Orr’s book still presents a compelling argument for her vision of experiential Druidry.
[Reviewed by Rex Butters.]