• Michael Martin

silk screen print by Alejandra Villegas
Simone Weil

People often ask me what my “spiritual practice” is like. It’s a weird notion, when I think about it. Because I don’t think of it as something on the side, an a la carte indulgence for the leisure class, or for people with more leisure time than I’ve ever had. American Buddhists seem particularly interested in one’s “practice,” and a kind of judgmentalism often accompanies the inquiry. In that way, a “spiritual practice” becomes another idol of middle class consumerism, kind of like flaunting a tan in January by trips to Florida or California or Hawaii was in the seventies and eighties. “Check out my disposable income!”

It’s also the case with those with the leisure to indulge in various forms of “retreat.” Now, I like the idea of a retreat, but, for me anyway, leaving my life to focus on “inner spiritual work” suggests only a kind of selfishness. I would surely feel overwhelming guilt for gifting myself with such spiritual “me time.” All the tasks I would leave to my wife or my children, just so I can, quite literally, retreat.

Don’t get me wrong, prayer and contemplation are central to my life—but only because they are part of my life and not something superadded as a bourgeois indicator of status, if only to myself.

In my twenties, like many people, I tried out various meditative disciplines—a half hour of meditation each morning before heading to work, for example, or following various instructive paths in search of the possession of some kind of spirituality. Before we were married, my wife and I used to visit the church of the now defunct Duns Scotus Friary in Southfield, Michigan to pray the rosary and sit still for a while—it was a beautiful Romanesque building with an incredibly beautiful rose window and an imposing walnut carving of the Virgin standing before it.

But then we had children. Lots of them. And a farm. And animals.

For a while, I used to carry a pocket-sized edition of The Way of the Pilgrim, and I was intrigued by the message of the book, taken from 1 Thessalonians 5, to “pray without ceasing.” I like this idea. I also bought the Philokalia as a way to get into the secret of prayer. I also read Thomas a’ Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Ultimately, they only served to discourage me. Then I realized what the problem was.

The problem wasn’t with me. The problem is that I was turning to men who were neither married nor had children for spiritual advice—rather an affliction in Christianity and to Christians, I think. Their answer was to turn the world into a monastery. What a horrible cultural project. As Vladimir Solovyov—also unmarried and childless—observed, Christ sent the Apostles into the world, not into the desert. I know a lot of people are convinced that monastic principles applied to life in the world, even family life, offer the key to Christian living (Yo, Ephraimites!), but that model also offers the kind of spiritual keeping-up-with-the-Joneses ethos I saw with the Buddhists, the same implied spiritual snobbery, and, even if it didn’t, is unsustainable for a family for very long.

So, in my social context of family and in my varied worklife—the farm, teaching, editing, writing—I try to keep things as simple as possible—and as contemplative as possible. As I’ve written before, the rosary is a kind of anchor in my spiritual life, though praying it is not some regulated, every-day-at-the-same-time deal. Often I pray the rosary in the middle of the night, after our English shepherd Sparrow wakes me up to go outside and I can’t fall right back to sleep. Sometimes I pray it while driving, or in my deer blind in the autumn, or by the beehives in summer.

I wake Professor Martin up every day at 3:00 a.m., which is why I am so tired.

Another useful approach, that I’ve found at least, is that offered by the anonymously written medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing which recommends simplicity as method. In contemplation, the Cloud author recommends, besides the traditional prayers of the Church, to pray without words, or at least with as few as possible:

And if they be in words, as they be but seldom, then be they but in full few words; ye, and in ever fewer the better. Ye, and if it be but a little word of a syllable, methinks it better than of two and more according to the work of the spirit.” [1]

But perhaps the most helpful guide I have found in leading a prayerful life while still in the world has been one of my patron saints, the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil—who also had neither spouse nor children. For Weil, the entire secret to the spiritual life resides in attention. Her prescription is something available to anyone, even schoolchildren, as she writes in the essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired with we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to prepare it.” [2]

She sees this happen even in the mundane school tasks of working out an algebra problem or translating from Latin or Greek:

it does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so…. Without our knowing or feeling it, the apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer.” [3]

Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.

In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.” [4]

And, of course, attention is not only for children, as Weil writes in the essay “Attention and Will”:

Attention unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our minds towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man and the only extreme attention is religious. The amount of creative genius in any period is strictly in proportion to the amount of extreme attention and thus of authentic religion at that period.” [5]

And, finally, in “Human Personality,” Weil speaks most directly: “The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention is love.” [6]

This is my primary answer to the question “What is your spiritual practice?” I try to pay attention—to my farm, its plants and animals, waters and woods; to what I’m reading, what I’m writing; and to the people in my life. I can’t maintain that level of attention all the time, but it is the still spot to which I always try to return. It may not be very glamorous, but it’s sustainable. And you don’t need to have a “spiritual father” or “spiritual mother” to do it. It is also the essence of Sophiology.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (TEAMS, 1997), 65. I have modernized the spelling.

2. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Crauford (Harper, 1951), 62.

3. Ibid., 58.

4. Ibid., 63.

5. The Simone Weil Reader, ed. Siân Miles (Grove Press, 1986), 212.

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  • Michael Martin

The Lord of Misrule

I spent much of the Holy Nights revisiting a brace of books I haven’t read for decades, Jessie L. Weston’s anthropological excavation of the Grail literature, From Ritual to Romance, and the book that inspired it, James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Toward the end of Advent I watched (most of) director David Lowery’s The Green Knight (it stinks), and I write about the Grail in my most recent book, Sophia in Exile. In addition, I’ve taught college courses on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur and on the Holy Grail as a cultural icon (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, The Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with the Grail, John Boorman’s Excalibur, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, Monty Python and the Holy Grail—none of which stink—and so forth), so I have considerable personal experience and investment in this mythos and its intertwining with folklore, folk magic, literature, and religion. But why did it come back to haunt me now, like a literary Jacob Marley shaking its bookish chains at me in The Age of the Crown known as Corona?

Then it dawned on me: the last (first) time I read these works was during my first Saturn return (when Saturn finds its way back to the place where it was at one’s birth—about 29 years or so). Well, here I am at my second Saturn return (do the math). As any astrologer would tell you, a Saturn return is, in general, NOT FUN, and Covid aside, it still has not been a fun year. But it hasn’t been all bad. On the other hand, this all occurred to me during what used to be the ancient Roman time of the Saturnalia. I love coincidence.

I first started reading Frazer and Weston after my initial encounter with T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Wasteland. Eliot (who, incidentally died 27 years ago today—darned close to a Saturn cycle)drew on both works for his poem. He published the poem in 1922, having recently undergone both his first Saturn return (he was born in 1888) and lived through the horrors of World War I. We have also been moving through a sort of Wasteland, a time when, as Eliot describes in the poem:

He who was living is now dead We who were living are now dying With a little patience

At this time of the year, at least where I live, death is everywhere. Nothing grows. We exist between in-breath and out-breath at the still point. We require regeneration.

Regeneration, among other things, is precisely what happens at the celebration of Twelfth Night. My family celebrates it every year, complete with poetry and song, wassail and cake, the election of the King of the Bean, and chalking the door in anticipation of the arrival of the Three Kings (who arrive on Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, of course). William Shakespeare, at the request of Elizabeth I, wrote his play Twelfth Night, or What You Will, to be performed at the royal Twelfth Night festivities in 1601/02. The play is a subtle representation of figures and notions of the celebration of the festival—a veritable feast of fools, it features a cadre of motley fools, a butler who assumes himself elevated to royalty, and a brother who (seemingly) returns from the dead, not to mention a wealth of extraordinary (though often melancholy) songs Shakespeare wrote for his clown Robert Armin to sing (trivia: when I was a Waldorf teacher and directed the play, I wrote tunes for Shakespeare’s words—so I can officially say the two of us were collaborators. One example from my treatment, recorded with Corktown Popes, can be found below).

According to both Frazer and Weston, such rituals as the election of the King of the Bean, are remnants of earlier agricultural rituals which tied the vitality of a god or king (or god-king) to the fertility of plants, animals, and humans. As Frazer, connecting Twelfth Night to the Roman Saturnalia, writes,

We have seen that in Italy, Spain, and France, that is, in the countries where the influence of Rome has been deepest and most lasting, a conspicuous feature of the Carnival is a burlesque figure personifying the festive season, which after a short career of glory and dissipation is publicly shot, burnt, or otherwise destroyed, to the feigned grief or genuine delight of the populace. If the view here suggested of the Carnival is correct, this grotesque personage is no other than a direct successor of the old King of the Saturnalia, the master of the revels, the real man who personated Saturn and, when the revels were over, suffered a real death in his assumed character. The King of the Bean on Twelfth Night and the medieval Bishop of Fools, Abbott of Unreason, or Lord of Misrule are figures of the same sort and may have had a similar origin.” [1]

Rene Girard’s theory of the scapegoat was deeply influenced by his reading of Frazer. I’m not exactly sure the symbolic sacrifice was really grounded in ritual murder—I think the ancients could handle metaphor—nevertheless, it makes for some fascinating speculation and forays into theory. This sacrifice motif is treated in the camp classic of British B-horror, 1973’s The Wicker Man, which ends with the immolation of a nosy and Puritanical police officer. But the film is an otherwise wonderful treasure chest of British folklore and folk-magic custom. My middle child (the middle of nine, poor boy) saw the film a while ago. When I asked him what he thought, he said, “It’s basically our house...but without the human sacrifice.” Progress!

Weston connects the death of the King to the death and resurrection of St. George in the Mummer’s Play, often performed at Twelfth Night—a theme also found in the medieval tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. I like the connection of the flourishing of the land to the vitality of the king, especially as a literary device, and I love the way this is illustrated through the Grail romances in the image of the Fisher King and in Boorman’s Excalibur (more profoundly influenced by Weston than even his alleged source, Malory), but I think Frazer and Weston both miss the significance of resurrection in this mythos. Coming back from the dead—and not a replacement by a substitute (rather a Robin, the Hooded Man or Doctor Who approach to things), as if contract negotiations didn’t work out—is the key that unlocks the magical door here. And this is what makes these stories so profoundly Christian and fit to be connected with the feast of Twelfth Night.

I love the combination of the holy, the mythic, the folkloric, and the atmosphere of conviviality and carnival that colors the Christmas season—but why twelve days? I’m not sure anybody really knows, lost as these traditions are in the mists of time and observation. Nevertheless, one would not need to dig too deeply to see the correlations between the Twelve Days, the months of the year, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the twelve Apostles—not to mention the twelve signs of the zodiac (and don’t even get me started on the mysterious connection between Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter and the woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years). Number symbolism is very important in the Christian tradition.

So raise a glass this Twelfth Night; have a slice of cake. Maybe you’ll get the bean. Maybe the Green Knight will pay a visit. Enjoy your resurrection.

And so, in conclusion, I can think of no better envoi than that of Robert Herrick, my patron saint and Lord of Misrule Emeritus:


NOW, now the mirth comes

With the cake full of plums,

Where bean's the king of the sport here;

Beside we must know,

The pea also

Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,

This night as ye use,

Who shall for the present delight here,

Be a king by the lot,

And who shall not

Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make

Joy-sops with the cake;

And let not a man then be seen here,

Who unurg'd will not drink

To the base from the brink

A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown a bowl full

With gentle lamb's wool:

Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,

With store of ale too;

And thus ye must do

To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king

And queen wassailing:

And though with ale ye be whet here,

Yet part from hence

As free from offence

As when ye innocent met here.

An episode from great BBC documentary series Tudor Monastery Farm

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, abridged edition (New York, 1927), 586.

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  • Michael Martin

I have a lot of books. Though I’ve never taken an inventory, my library probably totals in the low thousands, everything from farming to mead making and distilling, literature and literary criticism, arts and crafts, science, biography, theology, philosophy, psychology, history, not to mention many obscure works on magic, alchemy, astrology, and other esoteric subjects. I wrote my dissertation on a number of poets, mystics, and alchemists—John Donne, Henry Vaughan and his alchemist identical twin Thomas, Jane Lead, Sir Kenelm Digby, and John Dee—so there’s my excuse.

Recently, I was interviewed by the very generous Piers Kaniuka for his Youtube channel, Resistance Recovery. We were scheduled to discuss my latest book, Sophia in Exile, but we also spent a good chunk of our conversation talking about the various manifestations of Romanticism—in the 18th century and with the hippies in the 20th, for example—and the Occult Revival and the Celtic Twilight movements of the 19th century came up as an example of resistance to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the technocracies of its time.

When Marygrove College, where I used to work as a professor of English, philosophy, and religious studies, announced it would close at the end of the semester, the library started selling off its collection at 10 cents a piece. Tempt me not, Satan! I did my best to clear the joint. I loaded up on all kinds of books in my various disciplines. Among books by the great Continental philosophers and medieval mystics and theologians, I scored C.G. Jung’s Collected Works (though one volume is in absentia) and the 10-volume set of Donne’s Sermons—that was a good thing, too, because all of my notes from my dissertation research on the sermons were still inscribed in the margins. Don’t judge me: it was obviously all part of God’s plan. I meant to grab the collected works of Sigmund Freud, but the last day of the semester was a snow day and school was closed. I still have nightmares about it.

I have a number of collector’s items, though I used to have more. In my twenties I collected rare books. Let’s call it an investment strategy. Times were hard financially early in my marriage, however, so I ended up selling a lot of the books so we could buy stuff like, you know, food. But I still have a few treasures. I have first editions of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism and W.B. Yeats’s A Vision and I have a collection of The Spectator from 1714 that I picked up twenty years ago in a junk shop in, I think, Niagara Falls, Ontario or someplace thereabouts.

But one of the more curious books I own is one I picked up at Marygrove for a dime. The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse was almost an afterthought. I write about poetry and mysticism, so I grabbed it as one might grab a candy bar at the grocery store checkout line. Impulse item. It sat on the shelf for a couple of years. Then I read it. Wow.

The book starts out, surprisingly, not with Cædmon, but with an incantation:


I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,

I am the wave of the ocean,

I am the murmur of the billows,

I am the ox of the seven combats,

I am the vulture upon the rocks,

I am the beam of the sun,

I am the fairest of plants,

I am the wild boar in valour,

I am the salmon in the water,

I am a lake in the plain,

I am a word of science,

I am the point of a lance in battle,

I am the God who creates in the head the fire.

Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?

Who announces the ages of the moon?

Who teaches the place where couches the sun?


Actually, Cædmon never appears. Which is odd.

The book, which was published in 1921, features many of the poets one would expect: Southwell, the Metaphysicals, Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley (no Keats), Cardinal Newman, the Brownings, Tennyson, Whitman, George MacDonald, both Dante and Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, Francis Thompson, G.K. Chesterton, and John Masefield. It also includes some lesser known poets, such as the Roman Catholic nun Augusta Theodosia Drane, the Pre-Raphaelite Arthur W. E. O’Shaughnessy, Yeats’s one-time love interest Katherine Tynan, and the great Canadian poet Bliss Carman. But then it gets really weird.

The big surprise (for me, anyway) was to find so many poets of the Occult Revival and the Celtic Twilight included. I expected Yeats of course—though he only gets two poems! This was, to be sure, before his late flowering and some of his strongest poems, such as “The Second Coming,” “Lapis Lazuli,” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Here he is represented by “The Rose of Battle” and “To the Secret Rose.” Also included are Yeats’s countryman, the visionary, poet, and social reformer Æ (George Russell) and Yeats’s co-editor of Blake, Edmond Ellis. Alongside these more conventional poets, however, were some real eye-openers.

The collection includes three poems by the (almost entirely unknown today) mystical Freemason W. L. Wilmshurst and work by esoteric historian A.E. Waite, not to mention offerings from William Sharp (also known under the nom de plume Fiona Macleod), the spiritualist Elsa Barker, the Irish pantheist Edmond Holmes, the aforementioned Evelyn Underhill, as well as—wait for it—the magician and all-round naughty person Aleister Crowley—who gets more space than Yeats!

This all kind of blew me away—this was the Oxford University Press, after all. So I checked into the editors, D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.F. Lee. Both, it turns out, were members of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—which kind of shatters Oxford’s reputation for propriety and decorum. But this explains many of the others included in the collection—Yeats, Sharp, Underhill, Waite, Wilmshurst, and (I think Barker)—were also members of the Golden Dawn. And in the same lodge! Not much else is known about Nicholson, he seems to have been independently wealthy, but Lee was an Anglican priest.

Still, how did these guys swing the editing gig? The plot, as they say, here thickens. As I discovered, a young editor then at the Oxford University Press hired the editors for the job. His name: Charles Williams. That’s right: the Inkling—but the edgy Inkling. Williams, not surprisingly, also belonged to the Golden Dawn for a period, so The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse then becomes a kind of in-group project, the Esoteric Squad, so to speak.

Another interesting tidbit: Late in the book, which moves chronologically, in the section in which the Golden Dawn poets appear, two poems attributed to “Anonymous” appear. Usually in these kinds of collections, the anonymous poems appear in the beginning, derived as they are from “the dark backward and abysm of time” in which names often become lost to us. These two poems, “At the Feet of Isis” and “A Ballade of the Centre,” then are curiously placed and curiously attributed. I haven’t been able to find any scholarly evidence yet, but my money says they belong to none other than Charles Williams himself. Here’s the closing stanza of “At the Feet of Isis,” chock full of sophianicity:

Her feet are in the darkness, but Her face

Is in high Heav’n—all Truth inhabits there;

All Knowledge and all Peace, and perfect grace,

And in the wonder of Her joy they share

Who, blindly clinging to Her feet erstwhile,

Obtained the priceless gift—the vision of Her smile.

Tell me this isn’t by the same guy who wrote The Figure of Beatrice.

Amazing what a dime can purchase nowadays.

Not in the book: but it should be!

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

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