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GLASTONBURY, England — As the wheel of the year turns and Samhain draws ever nearer, many people’s thoughts are turning to death, release, and endings.The Harvest is gathered; the nights grow long; the weather turns damp and cold. Some would argue that this is summer in Britain.
There are some people who can easily embody the energy of a particular time, and John Awen, a Druid based in Glastonbury, Somerset, embodies the energy of Samhain perfectly.Awen’s life has been a reflection of the phoenix rising from the flames – not once but many times. He had his hopes of a military career dashed. He descended into drug abuse and crime, before suffering a near-fatal stabbing that served as a catalyst for change. Having grown into his spiritual path, Awen learned that, as a consequence of his previous life, he now has an incurable heart condition.
But ever positive and living in the moment, Awen believes the only way is up – and he has now realised another childhood ambition by becoming a published writer.
Awen’s latest offering, Baby Naming Day, is an exploration of the tradition of naming including, but not limited to, baby names. He said: “It’s a metaphysical look on how we name, what we name, popular names, gender-less names, then culminating with ceremonies around the world and given a descriptive on naming ceremonies today and devising ceremonies.”
He added, “Names are important – there’s a great power in names.”
The book comes not long after his first major published work, Journey to the Summerlands: Pagan Death and Rebirth. This is a Druidic take on a subject Awen knows intimately. Born in 1969 with a urine infection and underdeveloped lungs, Awen spent his first four months in an incubator.
“I’ve been battling to stay alive since I was born,” he said. “My parents were told I probably wouldn’t make it – yet here I am.”
Awen became interested in Druidry at a young age. Sent off to weekly Sunday school at seven, he began asking difficult questions. “After a while I was just ignored by the teachers, even though I had my hand up all the time. In the end I just bunked off and started going to the woods and asking my questions there.”
Awen’s world was turned upside down when he was involved in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19. “From the age of three I wanted to be a soldier. That was all I wanted to do. I’d been accepted into the army at 19, and shortly after I had the accident that shattered which my ankle. It was plated and pinned and I was on crutches for 18 months. I couldn’t join after that. I felt like I’d been dealt a bum hand.”
Despite his intention on being a soldier, it would seem that fate was already working through him to make herself known. As he explained, the one time that he was actually asked what he wanted to be as adult, he didn’t answer soldier. “I said ‘I want to write books!’ ” He was only seven at the time.
This early spark of the awen, however, was to lie dormant for years. Lacking direction, he drifted “from dead-end job to dead-end job.” He started using cannabis and amphetamines, and explained: “My addictive personality kicked in, after a while I didn’t just want to be buying it, I wanted to be selling it as well.”This period in Awen’s life was also punctuated with stints in prison for driving offences.
Then in 1997, his life turned again, when he discovered heroin. The following 10 years were a cycle of drug use, petty crime, and prison. He also suffered three heart attacks. Awen laughs: “I’ve crossed over so many times I’ve lost count!”
This cycle was finally broken in 2007 during an aggravated robbery in which he, once again, nearly lost his life. Awen said, “I felt someone punch me in the back and I fell to the ground. I was on my way to score some gear [slang for ‘heroin’] with my mate and had a wad of notes in my back pocket.
“I felt my pocket being touched, someone ran past me, and I knew I’d been robbed. I cried out in pain and said ‘What was that?’ My friend said ‘Hang on John, you’re in trouble here.’ I’d been stabbed in the back three times.”
The brutal incident proved to be a turning point in his life. Awen said: “As I lay there I was floating above my body, feeling warm, and content, and I thought ‘Right, I’m happy with this.’ Then something, some gear cog, just clicked into place and said, ‘There’s more to life than this.’ I don’t remember anything else for several days – I’d been rushed into hospital and had a full blood transfusion. I discharged myself a few weeks later and within two months I was off methadone and clean of all illicit drugs.”
This near-death event marked a rebirth. “When that gear cog kicked in, that was it,” Awen explained. And, it was one little sentence that he took refuge in over the subsequent months as he became substance free. There’s more to life than this.
During this change, Awen returned to his childhood sanctuary of the woods and nature. “After 11 to 12 years of not having to think much, my mind was like a tap that was totally, totally turned on. I started asking questions again, people didn’t seem to have any answers. I started walking again and asking questions, and getting them answered.
“I also started reading, I knew I felt a connection to the universe, to the land, the moon, the sun, the stars all of it. I knew about the word Pagan. I started researching the different beliefs, traditions and faiths and Druidry ticked all the boxes.
But I needed to put my own take on it. Any tradition is not about adhering to someone else’s indoctrinations and allowing them to have power over you. What you believe in and what that becomes should be a state of heart. If you can balance your body and allow your mind and body to feel the same, then that resonates on a much deeper spiritual level.”It is this hard-won balance and perspective that informs Awen’s work. However, death was not finished with him yet. He worked for a time in the funeral trade, experiencing death as it happened to others.
“I’ve been through the whole lot of it, I’ve comforted people as they’ve come to terms with the passing of a loved one, I washed and cleaned up bodies, I’ve lowered coffins into the ground and tended bodies in the burning rooms at the crematorium.
“I’ve been with people as they’ve transitioned over and seen their lives expire and I’ve supported and comforted. Even with animals as well, so it’s been a massive part of my life.”
However, it is another, more intimate knowledge of death that informed Awen’s best-known offering, Journey to the Summerlands: Pagan Death and Rebirth. Since 2015, Awen has been living with the knowledge that he has a heart condition that could stop it from working at any moment. Doctors have told him there is no treatment for his condition and every day is a blessing. It is this finality, his acceptance of this condition, that led him to write Journey to the Summerlands.
Ironically, it is this wisdom that has birthed him as an author. Journey to the Summerlands is the book in which he shares his unique, intimate perspective of death and rebirth. Awen’s life is a testament to this concept, literally and metaphorically.
He said: “My aim is to enable others to reach an understanding of the afterlife. What we’re aiming to do on all of our journeys is to know everything. Everything is there to shape and mould us. What I find important is creating a state of heart, which in turn creates a state of mind.”
Despite his condition, Awen is incredibly upbeat and at peace with life. Next March will see the publication of his fourth book, titled Ancestors.
Awen reiterated, “Ever since the age of three I wanted to be a soldier, but the one time I was asked as a child aged 7, what I wanted to be when I grew up, ‘I said I want to write books!’”
He has embraced his past and sees it as an integral part of his journey. “There’s been prison, there’s been shoplifting, there’s been all sorts of things that are part and parcel of who I am today, but it was my path and I don’t have any regrets.”
Then he added, “I have had regrets in the past, but now I’m happy with who I am. I’m comfortable in my own skin. I know who I am; I know what I’ve done and I know what I’d like to achieve. I’m a million-piece jigsaw and if I take one little piece away from that jigsaw, the picture isn’t complete. After 47 years of constantly bloody fighting, this is the best place I’ve been.”