Hope is the Note

'Tree of Wishes' by Montserrat

 

I sorrow not though the world is wrapped in sleep

I sorrow not though the icy winds blast

I sorrow not though the snow falls hard and deep

I sorrow not this too shall soon be past

                                                                                    Scott Cunningham

The most poignant quality of the Winter Solstice festival is hope; a little spark of brightness at the darkest moment. No matter what our beliefs may be, hope is something we all endeavour to hold on to; being without hope feels deathly. But what is it that enables us to feel this most cherished of states even when all around us might suggest that our hope is merely an act of self-delusion?

A couple of Solstices back, we were in Tintagel in Cornwall. We had walked up to St Madron’s, the little church on the cliff. Once inside, I had lit some of the candles next to the beautiful Mary statue and sat contemplating the light that now filled the stillness of that simple space. The wind roared outside but the thick stone walls – so often buffeted by the fierce winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean – enclosed and held us. In the dusk, with the weather groaning and heaving outside and the candle light warming the greying light, I felt the most extraordinary peace. I felt safe, as safe and peaceful as the occasional times of sleeping in my mother’s bed as a child, an event that – like no other – made me feel that nothing would or could harm me. A couple of days later, we found ourselves back in St Madron’s on another windy night, listening to beautiful choral music; the voice of the powerful winds circling the building and the voices of the choir that filled its inner space, moved me to tears that night.

There is a beautiful modern altar window in St Madron’s that depicts the sun and moon and the changing of the seasons but there are also smaller, older windows that personify ‘faith’, ‘charity’ and, of course, ‘hope’. They seemed very apt standing before them at midwinter, knowing that the coldest weather was yet to come. So what is at the heart of these qualities that we might derive some wisdom and guidance from? It is true that we can be hopeful in happy times, when life is going well but hope really comes into its own when we ourselves are being buffeted by the fierceness of living; floored and wrong footed by the strength of it and the seeming powerlessness of our actions. Faith, hope and charity seem like such quaint Victorian concepts but on deeper inspection, they are all guiding lights in the darkest times.

For me ‘faith’ is not blind acceptance of dogma regardless of appropriateness; faith is about trusting in the direction that life and one’s spiritual journey will take you – it is actually a perpetual process of losing and regaining one’s faith and trust, moving into those moments of hopelessness that we might touch upon the mystery of Grace in our lives. Grace’s impact works best when all hope seems to be lost. Charity is not only about a duty of generosity to others, it is also about retaining an open heart, a generosity towards life itself; it is an unclenching of the spirit and an eagerness to share ourselves authentically; to step beyond our own fears, obsessions and self-preoccupations to truly be able to give of ourselves, to others and to the world, and in doing so, be willing and trusting enough to receive. In these ways, Charity and Faith feed and bolster our Hope; they give us the evidence that life and people are essentially good, that there is indeed much to be hopeful about.

However, there will be moments when we feel so low that hope appears lost. We need to sit and be, allow that darkness to enfold us like those meter thick walls in Cornish churches; let that enfolding take the brunt of stormy weather whilst we sit silently and wait for the light to slowly grow. Have you ever noticed that when we light a candle at night in an unlit room and focus on its flame, the periphery of our vision is filled with the darkness; this darkness – like those sturdy walls of St Madron’s Church – can enclose and support us; it is not the place where hope dies; it is the fertile and mysterious void where hope is born. Out of the darkness comes light and this is the simple and powerful message of the Winter Solstice. At this place of apparent lack, we find a small, still moment of Grace, sparking into being. Both Pagans and Christians symbolise this moment with the birth of a child – never a more appropriate image.

I started by asking what it is that enables us to hope beyond hope. I think it is because we know what it is to experience love – whether being loved, cherished and protected by our mothers or other loved ones or guardians, friends, lovers or children; we loving in return, knowing how extraordinary a feeling that is. Even if we are totally alone in the world and even if love feels utterly lost to us, the memory of love is powerful; the essence of love is everywhere, in the beauty of the natural world and in the simple gestures of human living whether it be the acknowledgement of self gifted by the passing smile of a stranger or any of the countless little things that fill our day with meaning.

I wish for you a Solstice filled with love and the sure knowledge that the sun will always rise again. I wish also that you might discover, time and again, that Hope is the clear, bright note of the heart and soul, struck in the still darkness, its sound rippling out through the blackness to call you home.

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Shoots

I have been feeling massive inner changes with regard my spiritual direction of late and have recently made the decision to take a step back from our ritual group to give myself the space to know where it is I am going. Over the last ten years I have written many rituals for us and have loved sharing the companionship and understanding that the Wheel brings but it seems that something else is trying to take shape within me and I can feel myself reaching for it.

Obviously, the recent physical changes of my body are having an impact on the way I have been feeling about my direction in life, and in the thick of all this change, I feel caught between a gnawing stasis and the vague sense that I am on the verge of an opening, a widening out that I can’t fully articulate because it isn’t really clear to me at present. I have been having serious doubts about what or who it is on the end of my prayers – so unsettling after feeling a deep connection and nourishment all these years.

I have been deeply thankful for my Yoga practice amongst all this existential angst. My instincts have been to quieten myself, answering this powerful urge to centre, empty out and just be –no judgement, no expectation; with my body’s hormonal balance struggling to find equilibrium (although I feel hopeful that this is gradually happening), it has felt like the only sensible thing to do.

When we reach for the Divine, it can be tempting to confuse the system or tools with the thing itself. We can become overly attached to the form at the expense of the spirit of something. I have lived long enough to know that when the form becomes a shackle or a boundary that keeps other experiences or interpretations from touching us, then sooner or later something in us rebels. What I am feeling at the moment could be understood as a contraction, a loss of faith or belief, and yet, I suspect that this is being prompted by a deeper part of me – an unknown self that is prodding me towards growth and pushing me to open to a new perspective. So, perhaps this is expansion parading as contraction, or the pulling back of the bow string that the flight of the arrow can have the momentum it needs. Whatever it is, it feels like it might herald some profound changes and this both alarms and fascinates me.

I had forgotten about the pot of snowdrop bulbs from last year. They had been hidden amongst the other plants on the balcony. They had sat on my Imbolc shrine twelve months ago but the heat of the house was too much for them and I placed them outside where they appeared happier. I rarely venture out there in the colder months, checking on the other plants there from time to time. I am not sure why I suddenly saw them tucked away beneath the trailing ivy and was amazed that despite the lack of watering and my unwitting neglect, three green shoots were pushing their way through the soil. I thought how amazing that such a dry and barren environment could still produce those hopeful little shoots of new life. Life is irresistible.

Lighting the Inner Fire

Laurie woke me with a cup of tea and a smile this morning; I had slept the entire night through, uninterrupted, for the first time in days. I immediately felt something was different. I had been dreaming that I was being shown a river. It had obviously broken its banks, the sides crumbling and dislodged from the force but now the flow was receding, the level dropping considerably. A man was stood next to me telling me that I had almost been swept away but had kept my footing.

I didn’t bleed at all through the night – a first in almost two weeks – and today the flow has been very light, just like the river in my dream! I am not about to kick up my heels – I am a little wary of false dawns by now – but I feel something has shifted, my energy level is gradually rising and that dragging heaviness in my tummy is fading. I feel so much better but am a little scared to hope at the moment for fear of disappointment.

Each day the sun has been climbing a little higher in the sky and today it peeped over the roof of our neighbour’s house, flooding both bedrooms. I lay with it covering me and felt a tentative sense of relief, my edges softening. I can’t believe Imbolc is almost here. Thinking about all that this festival stands for – the tender new beginnings that it promises – despite my fear of setbacks, it’s hard not to feel a little jolt of hope within – hope for healing, for renewal, hope that not one of us is a lost cause, no matter what we might go through or struggle with.

I wrote a meditation for our Imbolc ritual last year. As I think about putting together stuff for this year’s ceremony, I got a little buzz of recognition when I read it through again. I include it here:

It is a cold, crisp night in the hours just before dawn. The starry sky arches it vast, twinkling darkness above you. You are sat upon the earth; the soil is hard and frozen; the grass glistening with frost. The land is silent and asleep. Your body and being are motionless, chilled and inert like the winter earth but you sense inside yourself a change and you know that you must prepare for its coming.

Draw your attention inward to the very centre of yourself; this place is the centre of the sacred circle of your being, and it is here that you will light the sacred fire; it is the spark of life; it is the fuelling heat at the centre of the planet; it is the burning sun at the heart of our galaxy; it is the fire of the smith that will magically melt and transform you; it is a candle flame of hope in the darkness.

Standing at the centre of you inner sacred circle, you see the tinder and dry wood of your life, ready to be lit, and in their lighting you know that the heat of this fire will bring a change in the land, will bring the first tender signs of new life and renewal, of growing strength.

Become aware of your solar plexus. There is a flame that always burns here. Take some of this perpetual flame upon your finger and now light the wood at the centre of your inner circle from it. At first it glows only beneath the dark wood. Blow upon it the breath of your ideas and inspiration. As you do this, the flames begin to grow until the fire lights up the darkness.

You find yourself back beneath the vast starry sky, upon the frosty, frozen earth, but now you are aware that there is a glow at the centre of your being. Feel its warmth and light spread out through your chest, down your pelvis, into your legs and feet; feel it moving up through your shoulders, down your arms and into your hands and fingers, up through your neck and into your head, until your whole body is filled with its golden heat and light. You are radiant in the darkness. Stay here in this moment for a while –take note of the feelings and images that rise…

Your attention moves from the inner glow to the land around where you sit. You gaze down at the once frozen soil beneath. The frost has melted into life giving moisture, droplets hanging from the blades of green, and through the earth a carpet of snowdrops rises, drinking in the life giving melt, strengthening themselves in the warmth of your glow. As if by magic you watch their brave green shoots pierce through, their delicate, white blossoms unfurl and hang in gentle bells of white. You have lit the fires of passion within and the land responds with the first tender signs of a new beginning. Pause for a moment; take note of all you feel and see…You gaze at the horizon; along the line of the land, a slim strip of the sky begins to lighten…the dawn will soon be here…

Hope and the Maiden Moon

Early evening, as the light began to fade, I stood in Borthwood Copse at Queen’s Bower on the Isle of Wight. This ancient woodland is home to sturdy old oaks with deep rutted bark and branches that curl and twist into the distinctive, crimped appearance of long-lived trees.   At the heart of the Copse is also a beautiful beech cathedral: a spacious grove of elegant trees whose aging trunks have not so much thickened as soared. There is a noticeable abundance of holly, the green conspicuous amongst so much winter bareness.

Standing upon a deep drift of leaves, the antlered mesh of oaks above me, I watched the crescent moon brighten as the darkness deepened. The evening star, Venus, kept close company, its white brilliance framed by the forest canopy.

Walking back along the green lane, down towards the wetlands in the valley, the golden layer of light in the west was tightly pressed against the horizon, weighed down by a bank of cloud; the world took on an otherworldly light, sung into being by a blackbird.

Crossing the boardwalk across the water meadows, I entered the steep woodland enclosure of Alverstone Mead, a haven for red squirrel. By now the darkness had fallen. I love being in the woods as night comes. I feel safe; enclosed and contained in a world that – despite my inadequate senses – feels welcoming and known. Walking along the ledge of the path – aware of the ground falling sharply away on one side and rising on the other – I felt, just briefly, that I could navigate anything life sent me.

Walking down from the Mead towards the old railway path that cuts through the Yar River valley, I noticed the watery channels that meander through the fields, catching the last dim light of day. I was drawn back in my mind to the night before New Year’s Eve, the first time I had caught a glimpse of this month’s new moon. It was another breathtaking evening, the sky clear and coloured in pastilles; the slender curve of the moon and Venus set low above the downs, greying with mist. Each month, whenever I catch sight of the Maiden Moon for the first time, I say a prayer of thankfulness for her gift of courage and freedom, for her reminder that all things can begin again. That fragile crescent never fails to fill me with joy and hope.

As the Middle East rages, and upheaval and suffering are played out all around our planet -inexorably it seems- it felt apt for the New Moon to fall around the New Year. As arbitrary as these markings of time might be, there is still some power in them, and there seems to me to be a great poignancy in the new moons of winter. When life appears caught in stasis, the tender light of a maiden moon never lets us forget that the possibilities of change present themselves to us all. We have to be vigilant, looking in all the right places, paying some attention to timing also. So often I miss her first appearance because I forget to look for her, or cloud might obscure her presence.  In our forgetfulness, in the sometimes overwhelming demands of living, it is easy to lose sight of faith and hope.

Stood in the magical half light of Borthwood, brought sharply into the present – into my body and being- by the bitter cold, and with the moon grinning down upon me, I said a prayer of hope for this bright, sliver of a new born year.