The festivals of the Wheel of the Year are the foundation of spiritual practice for many Pagans. After almost twelve years of the turning of that Wheel in my own life, I am still discovering fresh perspective on each of these seasonal celebrations. We can initially favour certain festivals over others, perhaps because the themes of such reflect something of our own personalities and life experience. However the joy of this beautiful, elegant system is that ultimately it encourages us to strive towards wholeness, integrating the lessons and wisdom of the entire Wheel within our beings.
I think perhaps I am a bit of a Samhain gal by nature. Fascinated by the shadows and the power of transformation, my life journey has also brought me into contact with the issues of death and release many times. However, it is not healthy for any of us to become stuck in one season of being; life cannot thrive in a perpetual autumn (or for that matter perpetual summer!). The Wheel teaches us to engage with the changing face of nature and the flow of our own lives, reaching deep into the season of any moment to grasp it essence, seeing its manifestation both in the world outside and deep within us.
Here in the Northern hemisphere, we have just celebrated the Summer Solstice. It has taken me many years to really grasp this particular festival. I understood it intellectually and enjoyed the celebrations that I shared; however, the deeper meaning eluded me emotionally until a couple of years ago.
Although the Solstice signals the longest day – and therefore the beginning of the slow descent back into the darker days – it is a festival of blessings, pleasure and fullness. The Divine Union of Beltane is now united in wholeness, those complimentary and interwoven energies of the Goddess and God building to a peak. At the solstice, the blessings that this union produces are all around us; life swells into the sensual abundance of summer; the earth’s blossoms, colours and perfumes vivid and plentiful.
I like to think of the Goddess at this time as the Mother of Sweetness, the ecstasy of the earth, who opens us to her joy and fulfilment, brightening our cells with the strength of her love and pleasure. Here on the Island I see her as the rich red earth – the fertile ground of my being – the explosion of life, colour and joy that, if I let it, can enrapture my senses and feed my being. The Mother of Sweetness on this beautiful Island is the heady scent of honeysuckle and rose; the cool peace of forests; the exhilarating skies of downland; a field of poppies and corn chamomile. She is the vital rains, lush rivers and wetland teeming with life; the deep wells and springs. The hem of her gown is the ocean that encircles the Wight, its salt water cleansing and healing our deepest wounds. The Mother of Sweetness is the keeper of the abundant and overflowing chalice of life that renews and nourishes, and her cup is the place within us that can never run dry. Each animal and plant, each drop of water, each clod of earth is radiant with her spirit.
The God is the delight of our creative power, opening us to the energy and inspiration that enables us to live our time here fruitfully; as Father of the Solstice sun, his heat makes fertile the body of the Goddess; his light sparkling upon her surfaces and energising her depths. He is the sun to her moon; the fire to her water. Together they nourish, nurture and bring all life to fruition. From the chalice of the Goddess all blessing abundantly pour, each one shining with the God’s golden spirit.
We can be blinkered to the blessings around us. There are times for all of us when our own emotional turmoil or confusion dulls our vision; perhaps we are hurting or grieving and this is making it difficult for us to feel that our lives are full. That’s ok too. The Wheel teaches us that all things pass. It is helpful to check in with ourselves regularly in order to gauge which season is moving through our lives, trying to honour these as best we can. However, there are times in our day to day living when we can forget to show gratitude for the blessings that we each possess. The summer solstice reminds us about the deep connection between gratitude and our ability to experience joy and happiness. These qualities radiate from within; they are not found in circumstance itself or received from external forces as we sometimes mistakenly assume. Certainly there are events and relationships that bring us joy and happiness, but our ability to benefit from these is largely dependent upon our inner state; if we constantly focus on a perceived lack, we fail to recognise the good things that come our way. More importantly, we cannot afford to rely on these external influences for our continued joy; their transience is a reality for all of us. Happiness can appear to be so elusive because we shape it into a future event, one that is always just in or out of reach. We can also fear our own capacity for joy, limiting it via guilt or a lack of self-worth. The ways of self-sabotage are many in life. The Summer Solstice can remind us of the simple pleasure of being fully present in the moment. The equation is actually quite a simple one: the more gratefully aware we are of our blessings, the happier we feel in ourselves.
I learned a great solstice lesson from an animal that I actually have quite an ambiguous relationship with. I have always been rather afraid of bulls. Being a keen walker, I encounter them often. Farmers seem to take great glee in placing them in fields with footpaths. We are told that when they are with the herd they will ignore people. Having seen a man cycling across a field full of cows being chased by a bull, I am not so trusting of this assumption!
With most things we fear, there is often an equal fascination. The very same qualities that alarm me about bulls – their awesome physical power, inscrutability (can you tell what a bull is thinking?) and strength – have a powerful draw for me too. They are quite extraordinary and beautiful but they get my heart seriously pumping, my flight response on red alert.
Just before the summer solstice, our first year on the Island, I had the opportunity to come face to face with my fear. We were making our way back after a nice walk along the narrow woodland path at the north base of Tennyson Down. There is a steep, wooded climb to one side and a fence closely running along on the other. He appeared suddenly – a large, muscular black bull. His bulk took up the entire path and he was plodding with an unstoppable determination towards us. I was genuinely terrified. My instinct was to try and climb the steep wooded bank but within a couple of feet I was caught up in brambles, unable to move any further. He passed me on his steady climb up the path, so close to me I could hear his laboured snorting and the heaviness of his breathe. I was so afraid I couldn’t look at him, praying that he would just pass, which of course he did. I knew that he could only get so far before he met the impassable ‘kissing’ gate. I started to frantically shoo everyone down along the path, fearing his return. Within a few paces we were stopped by an old lady with her dog. She asked us if we had seen a lone dog on our walk – some holiday makers had lost theirs and having to return to the mainland without finding it, this kind lady had promised to continue the search for them. By this stage the bull had started to bellow, obviously having met the gate that prevented further passage through. Soon he would turn and come back down. His gut churning bellow was like the gates of Hades opening; a noise of knee trembling proportions. I tried to explain to the lady that there was a bull on the path (could she not hear him?!?) but she either didn’t seem to be listening or was totally unconcerned. When I finally got through to her, she asked me if the bull was black. At last! Yes!! ‘Oh’ she replied ‘he’s no trouble’.
I will never forget the sight of this tiny, frail old lady in her pink beret, wondering off merrily into the path of the beast from the abyss. For her, the bull was a ‘sweetie’ and I felt rather silly stood there with the cold taste of fear in my mouth, fighting an overwhelming desire to run.
Safely ensconced in the pub with a welcome pint, I relaxed enough to feel rather pleased about my close encounter with the bull. Moving to the Island after such difficult times, I had realised how crisis addicted I had become. As an antidote, I was making a conscious effort to embrace the abundance of this new life that I had been gifted with. It felt ungracious to respond any other way. I had made the decision to psychologically lay down my arms, take my focus away from the pain and struggle and reconnect to my joy. How apt that I should meet face to face with this great symbol of the life force and its awesome fertility and plenty, just as I was taking the plunge to tentatively trust life again. My lovely black bull seemed to be saying ‘Hey! I am life in all its awesome wonder and power – time to face me – no turning back, deal with me!’ Without doubt, my fear of him – of his potentially destructive power – says a great deal about my own fear of life’s ability to inflict pain, and yet, life is so full of blessings too – abundantly full (those enormous balls swinging between his legs let you know just how much!). We can’t let fear stop us from living.
My bull taught me that life is many things; it brings us sorrow, loss and pain along the way, even danger and fear, but we should never allow these to blind us to the gifts we receive; to the sheer delight that living can bring. To say a daily prayer of thanks enables each of us to open more fully to life’s abundance; in gratitude there is power and the strength to weather any season.