Wisdom seems to be one of those nebulous terms that everyone understands but no one can quite define. However, most definitions overlap at ‘accumulated knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to reason through a situation and make a rational decision.’
Probably the least effective definition of wisdom I found came from the Merriam Webster dictionary, which defines wisdom as, “Accumulated philosophic or scientific learning.” While this definition makes sense if one reasons that wisdom is a priestly function, possessed only by those who spend their time in study, it fails to account for the wisdom of, for instance, a hard-working grandmother who has lived long enough and raised enough children to understand the hearts and minds of people.
My grandmother, who recently joined my other Ancestors, had this wisdom. She taught elementary school for more than twenty years, raised three children and four stepchildren, and oversaw the lives of a dozen grandchildren. She had the ability to look at her past and analyze her decisions rationally. She understood why people do what they do. Based on her experience, she advised me to develop self-knowledge and pursue my dreams before making permanent decisions about my life.
I don’t think of myself as wise, but I can look back over my life and see myself coming closer. In my past, I’ve made life decisions rashly, as a reaction to things that have happened to me. That’s nearly the opposite of the dedicant handbook’s definition, which emphasizes good judgment through rational analysis. However, since then, I’ve learned not to make reactionary decisions and to consider my options rationally.
Wisdom is, in the end, the application of accumulated knowledge—be it a farmer’s knowledge of the seasons or a Catholic priest’s knowledge of sacred texts—to a situation, consideration of options, and the pursuit action based on that clear, thoughtful observation.
The dedicant handbook defines piety as “correct observance of ritual and social traditions; the maintenance of the agreements, both personal and societal, that we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty.” Meanwhile, the American Heritage Diction defines piety as, “The state or quality of being pious, especially, (a) Religious devotion and reverence.”
To me, piety is not just going through the motions: it is keeping faith in your heart, mind, and actions. This applies to all religions, not just the Old Ways.
Both the definitions I’ve listed above focus on action rather than belief, but, to me, belief is an important part of piety. The third dictionary definition of piety, after all, is “a position held conventionally or hypocritically.” To avoid the hypocritical definition, one must truly believe in the meaning behind actions and not just pursue them for the sake of appearances.
However, I believe action should follow belief to achieve true piety. If one “believes” we should honor the Gods on the High Days, but doesn’t act on that belief, that is not piety, or it is piety in the negative definition. On the other side of the coin, attending rituals just for the party afterward is not pious, either. Intent matters.
The most pious man I know is a member of Black Bear Grove. He lives his faith every day in all aspects of his life. The earth truly is his mother, and he offers her reverence with all that he does. He does not embark lightly on ritual or prayer, but he upholds the Old Ways steadfastly and with a true commitment to a life of devotion.
I consider myself a pious person, too, though I don’t think I quite match my grove-mate’s devotion. I pray and/or make offerings daily, tend to Brighid’s fire during my shifts as best I can, and celebrate all High Days.
Piety is a process, not a quality. One must act and believe every day to live a pious life. My favorite definition of piety, which I have to include because I love it so much, comes from Susan Reed’s Nine Virtues Bead Devotional: “This day, may I never forget my duties to you all and may I joyfully serve you.”
I think it’s the joyful servitude that makes this definition work for me: We love, therefore we serve with a glad heart.
The dedicant handbook defines vision as “the ability to broaden one’s perspective to have a greater understanding of our place/role in the cosmos, relating to the past, present, and future.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines vision as “unusual competence in discernment or perception; intelligent foresight: (for example) a leader of vision.”
Another important aspect of vision that neither I nor the two other definitions of vision have addressed is creative vision, the ability to a piece of artwork or writing and its effects on the world before its creation. This type of vision is a microcosm of the larger definition of vision: one must draw on one’s past experiences and imaginings to visualize a new piece of creative work. As an artist and novelist, this aspect of vision is vital to me.
One visionary who captures several definitions of vision discussed above is writer, artist, scholar, and conservationist Beatrix Potter. Potter had the vision to look beyond social conventions and submit her artistic and academic work to publishers even though publication by women was uncommon and frowned upon. She also had the vision to look at past uses of land in the Lake District and to hypothesize what might happen to that land if continual development and deforestation occurred. Because of that vision, she advocated conservation in order to preserve the land for future generations.
Vision is not just a virtue for leaders, priests, or artists. Though I identify as an artist, I apply vision to other aspects of my life. When my car was totaled last fall, I chose not to replace it. Although in the immediate present, it is inconvenient at times not to have a car, but in the long run it is better for me (financially) and for the environment if I refrain from putting one more destructive car into the world. Careful analysis of both the past and the future allowed me to make this decision.
The dedicant handbook defines courage as “the ability to act appropriately in the face of danger.”
I find this definition somewhat limiting. Danger is not the only situation that requires courage: often, one needs courage most in the least dangerous situations. I hate to quote a contemporary fictional character, but, as Albus Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”
The American Heritage Dictionary definies courage as “the state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.”
I think the inclusion of fear and vicissitudes is an important distinction: we must have courage to face any kind of change, adversity, or even the judgment of others. Often, we must have courage to act on our vision, because doing so often requires us to act contrary to the expectations of others who do not see as far into the future. Plus, a wider definition does not limit courage to a warrior class. Instead, it attributes courage to anyone who faces adversity without wavering.
My future mother-in-law is courageous. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. The week she was diagnosed, she had the resolution and the strength-of-character to withhold the news of her cancer from her son and me because it was the same week that my grandmother was dying: she wanted to protect us from more bad news until we were ready to handle it. She faces the constant adversities, pains, and humiliations that come with cancer treatment with grace and optimism. A less courageous person might bemoan their fate, but Mary accepts her illness and battles toward health without doubt.
Although I am not always wise about choosing the appropriate action, I do think of myself as a courageous person. I will stand up and do what is right for myself, despite what others tell me is expected. As a news reporter, I pursued stories in downtown Oakland where, as a privileged white girl, I was a disliked minority. I was resolute because I believed the people I was writing about needed to have their story told.
Integrity, to me, is honor and the fortitude to uphold one’s beliefs, values, and promises. This is a vitally important virtue, because it holds one to the other virtues and to one’s path. Without integrity, the other virtues would have no meaning, because one would have no incentive to live by them.
The dedicant handbook defines integrity as “honor; being trustworthy to oneself and to others, involving oath-keeping, honesty, fairness, respect, self-confidence.” I think this is a good definition, and far more complete than the American Heritage Dictionary definition of it as “steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code.”
To the Celts, integrity meant keeping an oath, with life and death at stake. Irish mythological hero Cú Chulainn demonstrates integrity many times in myths and his development as the protector of Ulster. As a child, after killing Culann’s faithful watchdog, Cú Chulainn took on the dog’s duties to replace the animal he killed, and took his name from that guardianship (Rees 247). This shows integrity because he had to correct his mistake and abide by the action he took. Later, he takes integrity to an extreme level when he “cannot evade his duty to compel [a] stranger to reveal his identity” and kills his own son “for the honour of Ulster” (Rees 61-62).
While I cannot demonstrate quite that level of integrity in my life, I do consider myself an honorable, truthful person. As a newspaper reporter, I could not bring myself to use information I had not rightfully obtained, such as conversations I overheard or documents I saw left by accident on a desk—this is part of why I no longer work as a reporter! If I could not get information honestly, I would not print it.
The dedicant handbook defines perseverance as “drive; the motivation to pursue goals even when that pursuit becomes difficult,” while the American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “steady persistence in adhering to a course of action, a belief, or a purpose; steadfastness.”
Both of these are good definitions, I think, but the handbook definition includes perseverance even in the face of adversity. Motivation is easy to maintain when one does not face resistance, but to remain steadfast in the face of adversity requires courage and integrity, as well. This is just one instance of how all of the virtues tie together. Perseverance, like integrity, contributes to and upholds the other virtues.
One of my best friends has shown perseverance in the pursuit of her dreams. She wants to be a travel writer, even though her very domineering parents want her to be a pharmacist. Instead of changing her dreams and her life plan to please her parents, she applied to journalism school and works almost full-time to support herself in pursuing her goals. She was never belligerent in her perseverance, but quietly and firmly persistent. It’s especially impressive because she was raised in a culture where women are supposed to be submissive to the men in their lives, but she did not let that stop her.
I do feel I have exhibited perseverance in my life. It took me a long time to learn to stand up for myself, but I have learned. I am pursuing my dream of being a novelist, in spite of receiving little encouragement from my family, and I must remember that perseverance is a virtue when I start searching for representation and publication later this year.
Perseverance is important because so many other virtues require it. We must have integrity to live by the virtues, but we must persevere to be courageous, to act on our vision, and to maintain piety in a minority religion. Although perseverance can become stubbornness if taken too far, I think it is better to tend toward stubbornness than toward timidity, because timidity rarely leads to greatness or even to accomplishment.
On its face, hospitality refers to generosity toward a guest. The dedicant handbook defines hospitality as “acting both as a gracious host and an appreciative guest, involving benevolence, friendliness, humor, and the honoring of ‘a gift for a gift,’” while The American Heritage Dictionary defines hospitality as “cordial and generous reception of or disposition toward guests.”
The DP handbook definition is much more thorough, but to me hospitality extends far beyond the doorstep. We should be hospitable in our time and lives, welcoming both fellow mortals and the Kindreds into every moment, giving graciously of our attention and ourselves, and, to quote “the Golden Rule,” treating others as we ourselves wish to be treated.
Why, though? We are guests on this planet, and, as karma tells us, we tend to give back what we give. Likewise, by welcoming others into our lives, we welcome the blessings they may bring. Although not everyone will act as a hospitable guest, we cannot receive blessing without offering it in our own turn.
My future husband has taught me hospitality in its simplest form. No one crosses our doorstep without being offered food, drink, and a place to rest. Further, he sees no debt between friends—he assumes that any gift we give to our friends will be returned threefold over the course of the friendship. It’s not that he expects gifts from others; he just knows that friends give to one another freely. Although I never thought of hospitality this frankly before I met him, I now uphold this principle in all of my relationships.
Although the term hospitality may call to mind an image of a housewife in an apron baking dinner for her husband’s boss (or is that just my mental image?), hospitality extends to everyone in every role of their life. Any person can and should extend hospitality to other humans, to the spirits, the Gods, and our earth itself.
For me, the word that springs to mind when trying to define moderation is “balance,” which I think may be a broader, perhaps more useful term. The dedicant handbook defines moderation as, “cultivating one’s appetites so that one is neither a slave to them nor driven to ill health (mental or physical), through excess or deficiency.” The inclusion of “excess or deficiency” in that definition is part of what leads me to balance as a strong, defining word for the virtue.
In its first two definitions of the word, the American Heritage Dictionary defines moderation as, “being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme; not violent or subject to extremes; mild or calm; temperate.”
Although the term moderation and the dedicant handbook’s definition of the word may evoke thoughts of moderation in physical appetites, the term should apply to all aspects of life. Violence and warfare are good examples of how moderation applies to other aspects of life. While war and killing should not be desirable, violence is occasionally necessary for defense of one’s family or nation. Conversely, a person who picks fights over small affairs needs to exercise more moderation to keep from becoming a slave to her temper: she should seek balance, weighing the need for anger against the consequences of acting on it.
But why is moderation necessary? That is where the dedicant handbook is most illuminating: so that one is neither a slave to them nor driven to ill health (mental or physical), through excess or deficiency. Addictions or even thoughtless habits make us slaves to our bodies or unconscious impulses. Further, moderation allows us to temper the other virtues: courage without moderation may become recklessness, while hospitality without moderation may allow others to take advantage.
Moderation applies across all classes. A priest must exercise moderation in balancing his physical needs with his spiritual works, a warrior must balance violence against its consequences, and a craftsman must balance his work and physical needs with his wants and desires.
I struggle to achieve moderation. I am often impatient or overcome with a temporary mood, but if I moderated my emotions, I might achieve balance and not vacillate between extremes. I tend to make reactive decisions based on my extreme emotions, and those decisions are rarely wise. Although this essay is running a bit long, I’d like to end with a quote from Anne of Avonlea, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, which perfectly describes my own struggle for moderation:
“You’ll probably have a good many more and worse disappointments than that before you get through life,” said Marilla, who honestly thought she was making a comforting speech. “It seems to me, Anne, that you are never going to outgrow your fashion of setting your heart so on things and then crashing down into despair because you don’t get them.”
“I know I’m too much inclined that way,” agreed Anne ruefully. “When I think something nice is going to happen I seem to fly right up on the wings of anticipation; and then the first thing I realize I drop down to earth with a thud. But really, Marilla, the flying part IS glorious as long as it lasts… it’s like soaring through a sunset. I think it almost pays for the thud.”
“Well, maybe it does,” admitted Marilla. “I’d rather walk calmly along and do without both flying and thud. But everybody has her own way of living…”
Like many other new ADF members, I had an initial knee-jerk negative reaction to fertility. “What? They want me to make little baby druids? No way!” However, I realize that’s not what is actually meant by the dedicant handbook definition of “bounty of mind, body and spirit, involving creativity, production of objects, food, works of art, etc., an appreciation of the physical, sensual, nurturing.” This definition reaches beyond physical fertility into fertility of mind and soul.
The American Heritage Dictionary definition, “the condition, quality, or degree of being fertile,” begs the question, “What does ‘fertile’ mean?” The definitions of fertile include the biological meanings, the botanical meanings, the agriculture meanings, and one gem: “highly or continuously productive; prolific.” The last definition of fertile comes closest to my personal definition.
To me, fertility means the capability of prolific growth, creation, or productivity. An open mind is fertile because it is a place where new ideas may take root and sprout into great works. A hospitable heart is fertile because it welcomes new relationships and cultivates love. A questing spirit is fertile because it questions, seeks, and grows answers to the most primal questions.
When I think of fertility, the goddess Brigid and her holiday, Imbolc, spring to mind. This holiday “celebrates the female mystery of the germination of the seed, the spark of life, [and is] symbolic of fertility, impregnation, and the start of new spiritual life for the Earth and her inhabitants” (Ellison 112), and Brigid herself is associated with “learning, poetry, prophesying, and metal-working” and, of course, the eternal flame (Hutton 135). The new-lamb fertility celebration, the creative aspects of poetry and metal-working, and the life-giving light and warmth of fire all speak to me of fertility in all sense of the word.
I think of myself as fertile because my mind is a place where new ideas may grow. My work is creative, so my mind is constantly at work developing new plots, characters, themes, and prose. By taking classes and practicing new arts, I’m also working to gain new skills, which is itself another form of fertility.
Although I focus on creative aspects of fertility, it is not just a virtue of artists or craftsmen. Anyone who cultivates new ideas, relationships (mortal or spiritual), or experiences exhibits fertility, and without fertility, we might never learn or create. While the face-value definition for fertility (reproductive fertility) may put off those who do not consider the full definition of the word, I believe fertility is an important and irreplaceable virtue.