Rekindling the Fire

Imbolc Shrine

Imbolc Shrine

It’s been a while since I have seriously and consistently celebrated the festivals of the Wheel of the Year. For almost twenty years, these seasonal festivals have been the foundation of my spiritual practice but this recent period, with all its attending difficulties, has found me only sporadically writing and performing rituals for them.

After so many years of orientating myself through the honouring of these seasonal changes, it has been strange to let them go for a while. In the past, the qualities and themes of each season played an enormous part in my well-being. Through joyful times, they enriched my life and when life presented its inevitable struggles, I found the wisdom of the Wheel a huge help in getting through.

As the grief took hold of me, I stopped hearing and seeing the wisdom. The sense of spiritual connection that I had once felt crumbled in the face of the overwhelming loss that I was experiencing; the spiritual meaning that had once felt so deep and nourishing now appeared shallow and brittle.

persephone 2

When our spiritual survival kit stops working and there is nothing to replace it, we can suddenly feel ourselves resident in a psychological wasteland. The wasteland is an interesting place; it is a bleak and shadowed landscape, lifeless and featureless. It exists in parallel to normal life and those caught behind its veil can continue to witness life going on around them and yet cannot see its colours, or fully feel its sensations. It is as if we gaze at life through darkened glass. We can feel that we are in life but not of it. It’s a painful place to be.

It takes courage to function without any spiritual scaffolding but I have come to believe that this process is actually a very important part of all of our spiritual journeys. There are many stories and myths that tell of a descent to the Underworld. I have written here before about my love of the goddess Persephone. Her tale articulates so well the experience of being catapulted into the wasteland by painful change in our lives. Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld by the God of Death is an archetypal experience. We will all find ourselves in such a position at some point in our life when we lose something precious to us – a loved one; our health or any other loss that shakes us to our core.  When faced with such devastating change, we are compelled to take that journey to the land of the shades, and whilst there, we will encounter our hopelessness, cynicism and nihilism. It can feel like crying out into a void, hoping to hear an answer to our prayers but receiving only silence or echo.

We might fear that we are trapped in this grey place forever but gradually, and with faltering, meandering steps, we find our way back to the light. The darkness will always remain a part of us but somehow we will now understand its inherent wisdom. It changes us but it doesn’t have to destroy us.

I have just celebrated Imbolc. I wrote a ritual for it – my first in months. I threw myself in to decorating my shrine in honour of the season, making it pretty and decorating it with things that spoke of the first stirrings of spring.

Bride by Jane Brideson

Bride by Jane Brideson

Imbolc is strongly associated with the Celtic Goddess Brighid. She is a goddess of fire. At this time of the year she is the light that warms the soil and brings it to life; she is also the purifying and transformative flame that burns away all that no longer serves us and keeps us chained to the past. She is a matron of midwifery and as such is connected not only with physical birth but with helping us to birth new ways to be. When we are stuck and stagnant, her fiery energy brings movement – she is the rekindling; that glorious moment when we feel the life and hope within us returning.

Brighid has long been one of my special deities. I honoured and worked with her for many years but in these recent times of upheaval, she has felt very distant. Brighid was a core deity for me, so it was a surprise to sense my relationship with her slip away. I had started to feel that Brighid and I had lost touch for good but this last week, particularly since my Imbolc ritual, I have felt her presence growing.

This reconnection has undoubtedly been triggered by the realisation that I need to let go of some things I have been holding on to. When we are in the wasteland, the past calls to us; all that we have lost resides in our memories. Reaching out to the past is a natural response to grief; all that is lost to us returns in those moments of remembering. It is a way of coping with loss and honouring what we grieve but we cannot stay in this place for ever – we must come to the place of letting go. This process takes a long time – months, years even – there is no timetable that we can follow; these things unfold at their own pace, but we must all return to the surface – Persephone can’t stay in the Underworld forever or spring will never return.

This last month I have been able to take a step back and see just how much I have been clinging to the past, so much so that the current blessings of my life are being missed. Key to reclaiming the present is acceptance – beneath the heavy weight of anger and impotence that loss brings, awaits our acceptance. Acceptance is compassionate and patient and will wait for as long as we need to discover it within us.  It is an extraordinary moment when we begin to feel its effect upon us, as I have this past week.

For my Imbolc ritual I felt the strong urge to offer up my recent past to Brighid’s healing fire, handing it over to her with trust and faith that nothing is truly lost but merely transformed into something new. I made a commitment to myself to embrace the tender stirrings of healing and renewal happening within me and in doing so, I have felt Brighid’s protective, joyful and empowering presence growing inside me.

Snowdrop by Amy Weiss

Snowdrop by Amy Weiss

A month ago I could never have envisaged this shift happening but the gift of acceptance has laid down its thread of light to guide me back from the wasteland. The wasteland is not the enemy, or a punishment –it is, in fact, a place of healing although it can feel the opposite when we wrestle with our pain. The wasteland is the dark, cold, wet soil of winter waiting patiently for the warming light to stir it. The rekindling has come; the frozen earth cracked open by a tender snowdrop.

 

 

 

 

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…

The Green Man and the Lily Cross

Over the Easter weekend, the trees have begun to unfurl their buds in earnest, the woodlands and hedgerows turning that wonderful, vibrant green that heralds the year’s blossoming. As a Pagan, Easter still holds meaning for me. It is hard not to make the rather obvious connection between the resurrection of Christ and the renewing of the natural world in spring, after all, this process is a living reality all around us, a joyous transformation that vividly articulates the mysteries of regeneration and hope.

 

Christ as a kind of Green Man does not need a massive leap of the imagination to consider; many Pagans – and a few Christians too – have already made the link, and here on the Island we have a beautiful mediaeval church mural that seems to express something of this notion. Of course, the mural’s original symbolism would have been very different to that of my modern Pagan perspective, but no less meaningful I think.

 

The mural is in the beautiful village church of Godshill. Godshill is the Island’s chocolate box village, with quaint little thatched cottages; the church itself is the most photographed on the Island, perched high above the village on the hill that gives this place its name.

 

There is a legend attached to the building of the church, one which is identical to that of Alfriston Church in East Sussex. Both are built on distinctive mounds/hills and are originally believed to have been home to pre-Christian Pagan sites of worship.  The name Godshill is thought to mean ‘hill of the idol’, the said hill standing rather incongruously above the flat village. The view from its summit of the surrounding downland is stunningly beautiful; it’s a place that feels ancient and curiously separate from the constant stream of tourists down in the village.

 

The legend goes that the Christian missionaries that built the church, began its foundations on a level piece of land a mile or so south of the present position. On three successive nights, the stones were uprooted and moved to the hill by mysterious forces. Each time the builders would take the stones back to their chosen site, only to find them moved once again to the hill the following morning. After the third time, they took the hint and built the church on the hill, believing this to be God’s choice. More likely is that Christians used the Pagan site, just as they had in other places as a means of conversion. The Island itself took a while to become Christian, being the last Pagan stronghold in England. This link between the Pagan and Christian religious worship on this extraordinary hill gives the mural an added depth for me.

 

The mural shows Christ crucified on a flowering Lily. The Lily has three main branches, another three shooting off from each of these. Christ’s sacrifice reflects that of the Green Man’s. As vegetation God, the Green Man offers his own body that others may live and flourish; he is grown up, cut down and reborn in the yearly cycle of his living and dying, and the deeper mysteries of his sacrifice bring hope and the possibility for renewal for all beings. Like Christ’s story, we find in the Green Man’s mythic and actual cycles both our own cyclical and eternal natures.

 

Many argue about the Green Man’s origins. For me he symbolises a modern understanding –  inspired by those mysterious mediaeval images – of the verdant, green world that sustains us. The medieval symbolism is lost to us – we can only speculate –  and so the symbolism develops and changes, just as our culture and perceptions of life move on. The Lily Cross mural is unique and speaks, I suspect, to both Christians and Pagans alike, and never more so than at this glorious time of year.

The Lily Cross, Godshill.

The Lily Cross, Godshill.

Of Redwoods and Renewal

‘Nature often offers metaphors more elegant than any we can manufacture, and Muir Woods is no exception. Redwoods have evolved to turn disaster into opportunity. In these coastal forests, death produces life.’   Hope Edelman Motherless Daughters’

Along the roadside of the ornamental Rhinefield Drive in the New Forest is the ‘Tall Trees Trail’. Here you can wander through the vast Douglas firs. Unlike the majority of their kind who – betrayed by the profitable straightness of their trunks – are felled long before their time, these trees have been left to discover their true height. In the midst of English oak and beech has sprung up a little of the prehistoric, incongruously placed just feet away from passing cars. It is difficult not to be deeply moved by these beautiful trees; they stir a dimly felt primal memory of ancient forests, evoking feelings of both familiarity and strangeness.

Further along the trail is a grassy ride that ventures deeper into the woodland. A little way in from the road, standing like giant sentinels on either side of the track, are two redwoods. They are the tallest trees in the Forest and yet are still very young. Unlike the deep rutted thickness of the Douglas fir, the bark of the redwood is delicate. Such a thin skin belies the tree’s strength, and hidden beneath its papery exterior, its own unique powers of reproduction reside:

In the redwood ecosystem, buds for future trees are contained in pods called burls, tough brown knobs that cling to the bark of the mother tree. When the mother tree is logged, blown over, or destroyed by fire –when, in other words, she dies – the trauma stimulates the burls growth hormones. The seeds release and trees sprout around her, creating the circle of daughters. The daughter trees grow by absorbing the sunlight their mother cedes to them when she dies. And they get the moisture and nutrients their need from their mother’s root system, which remains intact underground even after her leaves die. Although the daughters exist independently of their mother above ground, they continue to draw sustenance from her underneath.

The above quote is taken from Hope Edelman’s book Motherless Daughters. In it she deals with childhood bereavement, specifically daughters who lose mothers.  Edelman, whilst out walking, had come across a charred stump of redwood surrounded by a circle of young trees.  She discovered that park rangers call these groupings the ‘family circle’.  For Edelman, who lost her own mother as a teenager, the invisible but strongly felt presence of her mother’s life and death had led her to conclude that  ‘Her presence influenced who I was, and her absence influences who I am. Our lives are shaped as much by those who leave us as they are by those who stay.’

 

When I first discovered the New Forest trees, my thoughts were drawn to Edelman’s redwood metaphor. My own mother died when I was thirteen; that charred stump of redwood surrounded by her offspring struck me as a poignant and touching image.  That invisible root system that entwines the lives of our psyches with that of a mother lost, can trigger a long journey, one that can be a taut struggle between wanting to hold on and wanting to let go; an inner battle to find a sense of one’s own autonomy and destiny, one that isn’t only linked to that original, momentous loss. Seeing those enormous redwoods and firs, given the space and freedom to become their true shape and size, stirred a great deal in me. And yet seeds grow where they fall, so many factors aiding or impeding that growth. We are one in a long line of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, the bonds of which (or lack of) will shape our own experiences in ways we may only be partially conscious of, if at all.

 

It didn’t surprise me to learn that mother loss had been a common theme in my family. My great grandmother Lydia had abandoned her seven children, never to return; my great aunt Rose died at 104 still refusing to speak of her mother, the hurt and betrayal of that loss undiminished after almost a century. My grandmother and her siblings went on to lose their step mother in child birth too. After the loss of two mothers, my grandmother became pregnant whilst in service and was forced to give up her own child to adoption. My own immediate family struggled to recover from my mother’s death. My sister’s early and tragic passing has left a legacy of loss for her children too. When I began to look at my family history, it was hard not to feel a part of an ongoing collective striving; unresolved loss from the past was attempting,  by repeated patterns, to find its peace in the present, and if not then, through lives yet to come.

 

Families seem to have their own collective themes and challenges. As each of us are born and live, perhaps we are presented with opportunities to redeem the pain of the past, not just for ourselves but for all those who have gone before us and those that will follow. Our collective family narratives are powerful, and each of us is subject to their influence, to a greater or lesser extent. For some, being caught up in the unfolding patterns of an ongoing family dynamic can be confusing and deeply wounding, but I have come to believe that there is always the potential for healing, even at the heart of the most entrenched familial patterns. There is a fine balance struck, knowing that you are part of a group narrative that will have profound effects on your life and acknowledging that you are also an individual with your own life to lead. In honouring our own path, by finding our true shape and height, we can reweave the patterns; inject new life and perspective into our family story. It would seem that we are both forest and tree.

 

Nestled into the vast trunk of one of the New Forest redwoods, the span of my life seems remarkably short, as seemingly insubstantial as the fibrous red bark that I rest against, and yet this tree feels so solid, so strong…It has the power to bring forth new life from its own death. Below the surface of our lives, deep beneath our singular and collective skins, those tough little burls await their moment; out of the deepest sadness and loss they come to life.

 

 

Maria and New Forest Redwood

Maria and New Forest Redwood