Monday, July 30, 2007

A Little Lammas Message

I found yesterday's meeting for worship really satisfying. I had one message for the meeting that felt just great to deliver, and pretty much from the moment I sat down, I felt really carried along by something very strong and good.

Both the message that was for the meeting for worship, and the one that was not (which I'm sharing here)had a theme of trusting in Spirit. The image that Liz Opp wrote about recently, of the difference between entering meeting through the door for "Meeting for Worship" and that for the "Meeting for Good Ideas" kept coming back to me, as did the question of how much (or little) we manage to look to the experience of corporate worship--that the Spirit may be working in someone unexpected, across the room from us, and how important it is not to assume that "if I don't do it, it won't get done," when it comes to vocal ministry in a Quaker context.

But it wasn't until last night, as I heard my friend Beth telling the assembled families at her Lammas potluck the story of John Barleycorn that I realized that the message that had not been for the meeting was a Lammas message. It's about the hidden workings of Spirit--but not just about that in the case of vocal ministry.

As I had been sitting in worship, my mind on ministry, the image of my fermenter kept rising in my mind, each time with real life in it. (I find that messages often begin as images for me.)

I'm a home brewer--a practice I began for the sake of making libations that were a bit more sacred than if I'd merely run off to the store and bought myself a commercially distributed bottle of beer or wine for use in circle. And, of course, the life cycle of grain is part of the sacred rhythms of the Pagan wheel of the year; brewing beer lets me participate in that wheel about as much as a city-dweller can.

Brewing beer, for the uninitiated, is a bit like making tea, at least to start. You soak a bunch of roasted grains long enough to loosen up the sugars in them, then "sparge" them with lots and lots of hot water poured through them, like boiling water through tea. Add hops for a brief boil at the end of the process, and then cool the whole thing down to a temperature low enough not to scald and kill off the magic ingredient: the yeast.

The recent dark and fragrant brew, now called the "wort" is carefully poured out into a fermenter: a santized container which will get closed up tight to shield the developing beer from wild yeasts and bacteria that might spoil the beer. The fermenter is topped off with a vapor lock that allows gasses to escape, but keeps out microorganisms--it's usually a kind of complicated-looking plastic u-tube, with water in the bottom of the bend. As gasses escape the fermenter, they bubble up through the water, making a pleasant (to a brewer, at least) blorbling sound.

Now, the tricky bit about brewing beer is that so many things can, in theory, go wrong. The yeast, for instance, may be too old to germinate in the wort, or the wort perhaps was still too hot when you pitched in the yeast. Or, if you leave the wort uncovered our outside the fermenter too long, it might become invaded by unhelpful microorganisms, that will turn the brew into expensive vinegar instead of tasty porter, stout, or ale. And, finally, depending on how hot or cold the ambient temperature is, you can get a "stuck" fermentation, in which the yeast does not flourish and do its thing, turning wort into beer. If a fermentation is stuck long enough, wild yeasts and microorganisms can, in theory, out-compete the brewer's yeast, and produce nasty off-flavors in the beer.

So the time between pitching the yeast and sealing up the fermenter, and the first welcome blorbles of escaping CO2 from the fermenting wort is a nervous time.

This, it came to me, is like our silent waiting worship in Quaker meeting.

It is hard to trust that something unseen, and initially so small, whether yeast or Spirit, can accomplish as large and complex a task as we ask of it. When brewing beer, it's hard to fight the temptation to keep peeking under the lid of the fermenter, especially if time is passing and there are, as yet, no cheerful noises coming from it. And, in a collected meeting for worship, it's hard to trust that somewhere in this meeting, spirit is working invisibly on someone, becoming ready to transform a very ordinary group of men and women into a gathered experience of Spirit.

But it is. We've got to trust in that invisible essence and wait. No peeking--no "helping" Spirit along with intellectualized "good idea" messages of our own. And we've got to trust that, even if it takes a while to get started, start it will.

I once brewed the most astonishing maple syrup stout. But, though I'd brewed early in the day, there was no cheerful noise coming from that fermenter by bedtime, nor when I awoke, anxiously, in the night. Maple syrup is expensive! What a disaster to have such a beer go wrong! It was very hard to wait, and very hard to sleep.

When I got up the next morning, I still couldn't hear that distinctive blorbling, but when I went out to the kitchen, I discovered why: sometime in the night, the fermentation had kicked in with such a vengeance that it had simply blown the lid right off my fermenter! A gooey, slurpy mess of sweet brown foam had erupted from beneath the lid, frothed down it's sides, and even spattered the walls. It was everywhere! (I have since learned to leave a little extra shoulder room--air space--in the fermenter when I brew that particular beer. Saves on the need to repaint the walls...)

I stuck the lid back on, cleaned up as best as I could, and settled in contentedly to listen to the blurb...blurb...blurble of happy yeast making happy beer. That particular beer went on to become locally famous--maybe the best I ever brewed.

Christians speak of the leaven in the loaf, and I've nothing against a good loaf, either. But there's something so completely magical, about the transformation of grain and water into a good, dark glass of homebrew. We wait, we trust, and that tiny, invisible presence of yeast makes miracles. It works in beer. It works with patient waiting in Quaker worship. Perhaps it works within the heart of every listening human. (Earth + Spirit + Trusting Patience = Miracle of Life Renewed?)

So, whether you take yours as stout, ale or pils, as barley-beer or bread, here's to Little Sir John, the life that's in the earth...and to the strong and secret power of the yeast, the Spirit bursting forth in the dark.

Lammas Blessings, all.


Image of glass fermenter courtesy of Wikipedia entry.

Image of O'Dell Imperial Stout courtesy of Brew Cast Net.

Used under Creative Commons license 2.5.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Maine Woods and Simplicity

I'm in Maine for the rest of the week, and though the wonders of technology have made it as far as the beautiful lake where I'm visiting my folks, the only Internet access is dialup. Dialup which is so slow that I literally cannot use my web-based email--with patience, I can open an email and read it, but I believe I could paddle the length of the lake and back before I'd be able to get the "reply to" feature to open and load.

So here I am, having to face how used to feeling busy and important I am, and how little able to slow down and just be I've become. No high-speed Internet! No email! What a scandal! Oh dear oh dear, however shall I live?

More slowly, and that's clearly the trouble. Having been here for less than 48 hours, I'm already itching to gear up--surf my favorite blogs, leave "insightful" comments everywhere, keep up a lively stream of email correspondence (again, so, so insightful!)and top it off with a trip downtown to cruise used bookstores, a couple of long phone conversations with friends, and an hour or two at the local roller skating rink, skating to pop music with a spinning disco ball overhead.

Instead, I'm stuck here in paradise, with Dickens' Bleak House, Barclay's Apology, my drop spindles, a generous hammock, a shining lake, and the call of loons. All winter long I whined about needing time to just sit. Time to sit, to read, to think, to be...

Now I've got it, and where am I? Here in the cabin, trying to force my way back into the virtual world of non-stop instant access through a rusty old dial-up modem and a creaking antique computer. What does that say about who I've let myself become?

So--I'm gonna go outside and play, now. With real dirt and real rocks and real water. I'm gonna take a paddle, take a walk, take a swim, or just plain take a nap. I know in my head that people move too fast, and have forgotten to leave spaces in our lives for things like lapping waves and the sounds of hummingbird wings. Perhaps I can take advantage of the frustration of being bereft of my DSL, and know someplace stronger and deeper than my head how to be Simple again--at least for a couple of days.

Right. The lake awaits. See you this weekend, all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez

All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

Are you married? Are you well married? If you are, perhaps you can understand what I’m not going to be able to explain, though I’m bound to try.

It doesn't matter how I write about the process of ending my first marriage and beginning my second; I'm going to come off badly. And some of that is merited: I made a promise to my first husband, and I did not keep it. The cynical way of putting it would be to say that I found someone I liked better, and I left my husband for another man. That’s not false, exactly. But it makes it sound cavalier and unfeeling, and it wasn't that.

So I could tell you about the pain of it, and how, despite the fact that it was my decision to end my marriage, and despite the strength of Peter's and my love for one another, I experienced more deep grief and depression at that time in my life than perhaps I ever will again--unless Peter should die before me.

I could talk about howling aloud so hard in anger and sadness that I stripped my vocal cords raw, and could not speak for almost two weeks. I could tell you that it was the only time in my life I’ve lost weight without trying—because I simply could not eat or swallow.

I could tell you about the time, tucked close in Peter's warm arms, when he proposed going shopping for an engagement ring for me... and I sobbed and sobbed, that a milestone which should be so uncomplicatedly glad, for him if not for me, was so tarnished by sadness.

Sharing the fact of my own pain, though, sounds like making excuses. And that’s a distortion, too. I’m not justifying my decisions here. I understand that the fact that it hurt doesn’t change that these were my choices, made freely, and made knowing I was causing pain to others, too, who had no choice about it. I didn’t end my marriage lightly or thoughtlessly. But it was I who ended it, eyes open to the fact that I was hurting others.

Hurting others…. I could omit certain things from my tale, or spin them, so you would take away a more favorable picture of me. I could let you assume that my first husband was a bad person--for years, people who knew me only after my divorce would be surprised, meeting him, to discover he was basically a nice guy.

I could pretend that I don't remember my daughter grieving for him for years after we separated, or how, when we would drive home together after her weekend-long visits to his house, she would sometimes wail for an hour or more for the Daddy she knew she was going to miss.

I’m not interested in whitewashing myself, though. And, in any case, with or without the omissions, I don't think there's a way to convey the truth as I lived it. How it hurt, how it brought me joy, and how I am not able to regret it in the least.

I know it’s hopeless. I know I’m not up to the task of telling this part of the story clearly. But I want to explain to you about that first kiss—my first kiss with Peter, not some goddess’s, but the one I was there for in full. I want to explain to you about going out for coffee after the first time we made love, and how my whole self was trembling on the inside, while the outside of me calmly sipped coffee from a paper cup.

I want to tell you about standing on the bridge over the Mill River, looking down into the cold swirls of snow and black water, and making our vows to one another even before I had separated from my husband. I want to tell you how it felt to open Peter's love letters—about the one that had a tracing of the outline of his hand—or to steal an afternoon in scorching July, curled up on the fold-out couch that was my bed in the tiny apartment where I lived after the separation.

I want to tell you about the first time Peter and my daughter met, and how hard we tried to keep our passion from showing in front of others who might be hurt by it (my daughter, my parents, coven-mates, friends--in case of a divorce, you learn just how many people really have a stake in what is not just a bond between two people) and how difficult that was. Not to kiss… not to hold hands… not to look at one another too lovingly or too long. We did try.

We chose the theme song to The Addams Family as our wedding recessional, partly because, by that time, we had created a complex, multi-generational group house of friends and family that felt as odd and outside the box as the Addams Family... but mainly because, like Gomez and Morticia, what we felt for one another seemed to us so over-the-top, so baroque and extreme in its intensity.

That's one part of who we are.

Another part of who we are lies in a memory of Peter playing me a tape of Steeleye Span—“Thomas the Rhymer"—and how I cried. I cried because he understood. The same music was in him as in me, and the same magic, and the same love of the Old Gods.

My first husband loved me in spite of my spirituality. Peter loves me because of it. It turns out that there really is a big difference between "tolerance" and love, and it was Peter who taught me that. Becoming Pagan had felt like coming home. But loving Peter Bishop has been my home, for sixteen years now.

Marrying Peter Bishop is the truest thing I've ever done. And I just can't say it any clearer than that.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Naked for a Sign

This one's not part of my spiritual journey series, though it reflects on it to some extent...

Yesterday, in meeting for worship, one of our members described having had pointed out to her, on a recent tour of Salem, Massachusetts, the site where a Puritan-era Quaker had chosen to "go naked for a sign"--as a testimony against Puritanism, presumably. That member then asked us, in a quiet, powerful voice, how we make our lives speak.

After settling back into worship, a series of related messages came through. I'll report only on those that spoke to me strongly:

In our modern world, how do we choose words to make ourselves "naked" and vulnerable to one another, and how do we choose words to separate us from one another, to hide us, and to make us safe?

If we must have a name for ourselves as a people, why not "pacifists"?

The practice of "going naked for a sign" goes back to Isaiah, Ch. 20, where Isaiah was directed to do so by God, as a sign not to rely on the things of mankind, but only on God.

Names are like clothes.

And finally, my mind kept running back to a thought I'd been having ever since I learned of the disruption by right-wing Christians of the Senate chamber, because a Hindu had delivered the opening prayer.

The Hindu priest, Rajan Zed, gave this prayer:
Let us pray. We meditate on the transcendental Glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the Heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.

Lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us.

May the Senators strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world, performing their duties with the welfare of others always in mind, because by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. May they work carefully and wisely, guided by compassion and without thought for themselves.

United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be as one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord.

The reason given for the disruption was that the Senate chamber "was violated by a false Hindu god," through Zed's prayer.

Oh, really? The God that "is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the Heaven," is a false God? Not one that Christians would recognize? Because, you see, that God sounds an awful lot like the one the Christians and other Quakers I sit with in worship on First Days appear to love. That God sounds an awful lot like what I experience within Quaker worship myself, and have experienced in moments of deep communion with the Lady. What, precisely, makes this God a false one?

Ah. No name brand. This one does not come clothed in the familiar words, "Jesus," and "God" (said in unaccented American English).

It occurs to me that "God"--if, by this, we mean the supreme uniting spirit of the universe, as most Christians seem to--is very unlikely ever to have awakened one morning and said to Herself, "Hey--I'm suddenly inspired to name myself. I'll begin with a sound that, once I create/give birth to humans, will become their letter 'G'... add a sound that their tongues will render 'ahw', and finally add a sort of a stop sound, a dental for their as-yet-undesigned teeth to make... I know! A letter 'D' sound. G-O-D! That's me! Name me in any language but good ol' American English, and you're getting it wrong. 'Allah,' will be wrong, 'Sophia,' will be wrong, 'Dryghten', will be wrong, 'Bramah' will be wrong..."

Where did this name brand language for deity come from? What nonsense to suppose mere labels, whether Jesus or God or Kumquat-in-the-Sky, contain the essence of so great a spirit. What nonsense to weigh the mere fact of Hindu ideas and nomenclature against the sentiment given in Zed's prayer, and, based on the clothes we humans impose upon our spirits, declare Zed's God "false."

It's not just nonsense, I've been thinking. It's idolatry. Not the real, juicy, bowing down before stones and trees sort of idolatry which, as a Pagan, I can utterly respect. Nope, it's the kind even I, a heathen to the bone, am against: relying on the things of mankind rather than those of God. It is clinging to the reassuring and deceiving clothing of names, when God has instructed us to "go naked for a sign."

Here's the reflection on my spiritual journey series, and I promise I will keep it brief: I have been told that I'm brave for being so candid in sharing my spiritual journey here. I am trying to be as truthful and open as I can, though some of what I write is not, I know, very flattering to me.

I'm trying, I think, to trust in the things of Spirit. To the extent that I am able, I'm trying, perhaps, to go naked for a sign.

Just perhaps.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss

All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

I wish I could convey the essence of a small Pagan gathering, like the one the Church of the Sacred Earth hosted the Samhain of that year. Combining the best features of an elementary school sleepover, a college dormitory bull session, and a Thanksgiving dinner in a large, boisterous family, weekend-long retreats like that are one of my favorite aspects of Pagan life.

Picture, please, a woodstove popping vigorously in one corner of a ramshackle farmhouse. Music plays in the background--maybe a a track from the Libana album, A Circle is Cast--and there is a babble of happy, animated voices coming from every room. Over the kitchen table, heads are bent over a sketchbook filled with drawings taken from dreams. On the living room rug, five or six different Tarot decks are spread out across the floor, and their virtues and flaws are being eagerly discussed. On the stairs, in the hallway, and in a little knot by the kitchen sink, Shamanism is compared with Druidry, issues of two or three Pagan zines are passed from hand to hand, and a new chant is sung in soft, sweet voices. Suddenly the door opens in a draft of cold air, and the Tarot decks and artwork are laid down for yet another round of welcoming hugs and introductions.

There were somewhere between fifteen and thirty of us crowding the little farmhouse, and though there were lots of new faces, everyone knew someone already, and everyone knew stories about people they were meeting for the first time. The atmosphere was lively, contented, and curious. Pagans are, as a group, very, very good at establishing a warm and intimate sense of community, and, in some ways, that weekend retreat marked the zenith of that sense of connection and love among us.

So many people that I loved were there. My covenmates, Kirk and Doug, of course. Harold and Lindy, whose home we were in, and the many members of their coven and study group, flourishing in spite of how remote and rural their community was. Peter had driven all the way up from his home in Western Massachusetts, and Brian had come from his home near Boston.

I was there to act as the priestess; for the first time, I was going to draw down in a ritual for a larger group than my own small coven. Brian was going to draw down the spirit of the Caribou, his totem animal, Kirk was going to draw down the Horned God, and I was going to draw down the Goddess as the Lady of Summer, preparing to leave the land until the return of spring.

When we finally spread out our wall-to-wall sleeping bags across the floor--I rolled mine out at the landing at the top of the stairs, literally the last shred of floor space not covered in linoleum or other sleepers--I felt fully and deeply enfolded by a community I loved, and absolutely determined to serve them well in ritual the next day.

Drawing down the Moon (or Sun, as the corresponding ritual for men is known) is a practice I have never ceased to wrestle with, and my feelings and understandings have evolved a good deal over time. This, however, is how I understood matters then.

Lindy, the only woman I had ever worked with on this aspect of Wiccan practice, set the bar high: I don't know that I have ever seen a priestess carry the spirit of the Goddess in ritual as powerfully as Lindy did. She was someone who naturally tranced very deeply; it was sometimes necessary to assign a watcher for her, to make certain she did not accidentally stray too close to the bonfire, for example, or to bring her food if her blood sugar fell dramatically after a ritual. She also not infrequently experienced trance amnesia--she might not remember at all what happened from the point of the invocation on. There was a numen and a gravitas to her ritual work that were easy to admire. My aim was to approach the quality of her work, not through direct imitation, but through working to acheive as deep a level of trance in ritual* as I possibly could.

I knew sleep deprivation tended to deepen trance for me--luckily, as I don't think I got more than two or three hours sleep, at most, that night. Emotional stress could do so (and Afagddu had neatly taken care of that for me) as could ritual cues like incense, candlelight, woodsmoke, or the sound of drums. And hunger helped, too--it did not distract me, but opened me up. Therefore, I had resolved to fast the day of the ritual.

Perhaps if I'd mentioned that to Lindy the night before, she would not have begun Saturday by cooking batch after batch of homemade pumpkin doughnuts.

We gathered in Lindy's kitchen in a big ring of mismatched chairs, and held the annual church business meeting there as Lindy fried up and passed around huge platters of doughnuts. (I lost count after six dozen.) And, though business meetings are nobody's idea of a good time, that one was unusually friendly and efficient. We finished around noon, and had the next three or four hours before we would start over to Thea House, a small Catholic retreat center nearby which had agreed to rent us their cabins and fields for the night.

The day had some of the same atmosphere as Thanksgiving Day before the turkey is ready or all of the guests have arrived. It felt like the part of a holiday that's all about waiting, like "the night before some festival/To an impatient child that hath new robes/And may not wear them." It was a curiously empty day, but also crammed full with expectancy.

We spent the day in a variety of ways. I seem to remember Peter and Lindy in solemn conference, discussing the nature of the gods. Kirk and I discovered that, not only had no one brought any ritual wine, but there was nowhere nearby that sold alcohol at all. Harold told us the story of the dry doe, whose life he had taken to provide the venison we would share in sacrament at our ritual that night, and the available drummers passed the time rehearsing drum beats to use that evening.

At one point, Lindy showed me the mountain of firewood she and Harold would be needing to get through the icy northern winter. At another, Harold took a group of us down the road, to his family's house, where (over his objections) they ran a sort of roadside zoo, which included a partially tame mountain lion Harold had helped to raise from a cub. With his encouragement, I reached through the bars of her cage. Reasoning that the worst that would happen might be the loss of some fingers, I brought my hand close for her to smell... and then petted the side of her head. She nuzzled her jaw against my hand, just as a kitten might, and I could hardly breathe for the wonder of it.

There was time for Peter and me to walk together that afternoon, arm in arm down the path that led into the deep woods behind Harold and Lindy's home. Lindy had told me a story of an encounter she had with a stag (the god Herne?) in those woods during a blizzard the previous winter; Peter and I discussed Herne and our ideas about him, about the gods in general, and what we thought They might want from us. "To grow," Peter suggested, "so that we will be more interesting company." We agreed that it was almost certainly, for Them as for us, all about the relationships... And when I got cold, Peter, so much taller than I am, wrapped his long, green cloak over and around my shoulders, too, as we continued walking.

When we returned, the chaos of packing up had begun.

All those sleeping bags, paper shopping bags filled with potluck food--casseroles and loaves of bread and cakes and cheese and butter--all those Tarot decks and drums and cloaks and robes and wands, athames, antler or crescent moon crowns, silver jewelry and bottles of essential oils... all those things now needed to be bundled up and transferred to the next fleet of cars, ready to move farther down the road to the site of that night's ritual. Our line of aging cars made its way across the flat, black, darkening farmlands around us to where a little cluster of houses set among a few trees marked our destination: Thea House.

The rest of the crew set to work: cooking, setting up the altar and ritual space, pulling out ritual tools, setting up makeshift beds for the night, and so on. But Lindy and I were a small island of quiet in the midst of all the bustle. There was one--and only one--bath at the retreat center, and it was not usually available to guests, but reserved for the nuns who kept the site. Lindy, however, had negotiated for us to use it, and she ran me a bath, and filled it with herbs and oils to help me prepare for the ritual.

She had also provided me with a robe to wear for the ritual. I don't even remember what I had originally planned to wear--some second-hand dress with a long hem and no particular style, I'm sure. However, unlike me, Lindy had a wonderful collection of ritual garb and jewelry; as a member of the SCA, Lindy had a definate sense of style. When she brought out the robe she had chosen, I had no words for what she was offering me. Not only was the robe beautiful, but it was one I had seen her creating over the course of many months. Made of an earthy brown wool, it was lavishly embroidered with Celtic knotwork and leaping stags. It had been, Lindy explained, her masterwork, and she had planned to be buried in it one day... but she wanted me to wear it. She wanted me to have it.

Needless to say, I have it still.

One oddity: Lindy stands about a full head shorter than I do. And, especially back then, our figures were very different--hers quite round both above and below a narrow waist, and mine essentially without a waist, and nowhere near as round in the hip. It did not seem possible that Lindy's robe would fit my body. But when I dropped it over my head, much to my surprise, if not Lindy's, it fitted me. Perfectly.

We could hear drums warming up outside. I took Lindy by the hand and asked her please, if she wouldn't do me one more favor?

I was really afraid of screwing up my role. I was afraid of making some mis-step, of not achieving trance, of... I'm not even sure what. But I really, really did not want to have the whole weight of priestessing that ritual on my shoulders. I asked Lindy to also draw down. Could she, quietly, privately, on standby as it were? Sort of a priestess or a goddess on call?

I think it probably warmed her to be asked. Though not a perfect person, Lindy could be absolutely gracious when asked for help. As I walked out to the finished barn where the ritual was to be held, she was drawing the symbol on her brow which marked her own preparation for ritual. I was reassured; she had agreed to "spot" my ritual work.

The ritual we had planned consisted of three parts, almost like the three acts of a play. First, after Kirk and I drew down, the Goddess and the God would bless the "wine" in a symbolic Great Rite. Then Brian would draw the spirit of the Caribou into his body, and a symbolic hunt would occur, in the form of a dance--drums in the background, Herne stalking His other self round and round the circle. When the Caribou had been "killed," the Goddess would say goodbye to the people assembled for the ritual, one by one, and then escort the spirit of the Caribou to the Underworld (otherwise known as just outside the barn) where Brian and I would return to our ordinary selves** and reenter the ritual to share in the sacred feast, the venison and grape-juice wine. Everyone would have a chance to interact with Herne as well as with the Goddess, and, after some time spent in song and storytelling, we would bring down the circle, thank the Gods, and go back into the main house for a big potluck feast.

I am not, like Lindy, someone who experiences trance amnesia during ritual. However, I have learned that my memory can become dreamlike and choppy for time in ritual. Some things I remember with great vividness, I remember the wine blessing--and it really didn't seem like grape juice when we were done. I remember the Caribou's dance--quiet drumbeats, the sound of bare feet against the floor, and an almost unbearable quiet tension. I remember the moment when the Caribou decided to yield to the God and the solemnity of it: a life given to feed life.

And I remember the faces of the celebrants, in a ring, as I moved from person to person to person, and the Lady gave words of condolence or encouragement or greeting to each person in turn, but even the day after the ritual, I remembered little or nothing of what She said.

And of course I remember the kiss.

The kiss... that changed everything for me. Because when I got to Peter, She spoke to him briefly (did She call him Herne's son? I think She did) and then kissed him. Right on the mouth. And moved on.

Let's talk about that kiss, shall we?

Observant readers will no doubt already know what I did not, at that point: that I was falling in love with Peter Bishop. You may wonder why I didn't know it myself. Remember, reader, you have the advantage, not merely of my skillful forshadowing as I have written this tale, but of knowing already that I am married to him today. What I knew was that I had a perfect and happy life, married to my high school sweetheart. Being in love with anyone else did not make sense, given that context. And it's always harder to know things that don't seem to make sense.

Nor did the kiss change that. On some level, I was disconcerted by it. But I was in ritual, and so I kept on rolling, until it was time for the Lady to leave the stage, and exit to where Brian (another more experienced ritualist than I) was waiting to help me "devoke" the Goddess--to ask Her to leave, so that I could return, as Cat, for the last part of the ritual. In other words, I had my hands full at that moment, and did not have the luxury of unpacking it.

But I've had lots and lots of time to think about it since, and, in hindsight, even as someone who is happily and securely married to the recipient of that kiss, I have a real problem with it.

It's just so convenient, isn't it? I "didn't know" I wanted Peter. It "wasn't me" who kissed him. The potential for abuse of that kind of thinking is overwhelming, and just swapping the genders of the participants is enough to make that clear. Imagine, please, a married male priest, and (let's make this as clear-cut as we can, shall we?) an unmarried and perhaps much younger female ritual goer. The God (or the priest and the God, or the priest pretending to be the God, in the worst thinkable scenario) plants a juicy one right on the sweet young thing's lips. What's she supposed to do? He's a God, right? If unwelcome, what recourse does she have?

Just how different was this incident from the one I'd just been through with Afagddu, anyway?

Peter says I am too harsh in how I describe the ethical problem here. He says that I frame the issue in terms of an abuse of power to justify the action, but I've never sought to justify my actions here; I've never claimed that the presence of a Goddess or the ritual context made it OK that I kissed him--that, instead, I've vigorously championed the idea that we are responsible for the Gods we choose to worship, and, by extension, for the acts They do with or within us in our rituals.

Yes. But. Was there, perhaps, a kind of self-justification involved in this incident? Was I able to act on a wish I was unwilling to admit to myself at all, only because I'd set up a context where I could believe that "the Goddess made me do it"? Just how much did the water served that night taste of my pipes?*** It has always struck me as an important question. And I... don't...know... the answer.

If nothing else, I think I look pretty dishonest in that moment. So there it is: the case for the prosecution.

Here's the case for the defense.

Not only didn't I know--and I really, really did not know--that I was falling in love with this guy (yes, I was that dumb) but the kiss I experienced was not the kiss that he experienced. The kiss that I remembered was not the kiss that Peter got.

In our culture, it's not completely outrageous to kiss a friend or a family member. Generally, such kisses are on the cheek. This was, as I said, a kiss on the mouth. But the kiss that I witnessed or gave (take your pick, ladies and gentlemen) was, despite being a kiss on the lips, a kiss that would not have greatly startled my mother. A close friend would have blinked a bit, wondered if I'd been watching too many French movies, and forgotten all about it. It was, in a word, a friendly kiss. One second of kiss--maybe less.

That was not, however, the kiss that Peter got and my friends got to watch, which was long... and juicy... and (I blush to acknowledge) involved more than lips alone. His kiss was not a "friendly" kiss.

The ritual ended, the feast began. Best of all, the evening cleanup began, and just as with a good family Thanksgiving, the best part--the singing over dishwashing, put the cap on the whole night.

It was after breakfast the next morning that Peter asked if he could talk with me privately, and we made our way to the barn where the previous night's ritual had been held.

I remember the feeling of lassitude I had, after two nights in a row of minimal sleep, and I remember that, despite the pre-ritual bath I'd had the night before, I felt horribly sticky and sweaty and in need of a shower. I had no idea what Peter might want to talk to me about, but, given the easy intimacy we'd enjoyed in our conversations so far, I was happy to hear him out. We sprawled out on a set of floor pillows, me with a tired grin on my face.

When he began to talk though, I was taken aback.

"I know I said I'd like to come up and work with your coven sometimes," he began. "But I've changed my mind."

I blinked--I sat up. I took in the seriousness of his expression--and blinked some more. "Oh--uh." I could not figure out what was going on here. "Why? Is something wrong? Did I say or do something that offended you?"

"No..." he focused hard on the wall behind my head. "It's just--I don't want to be in a situation where there's uh--gender polarity with you again."

I was still not getting it, and a glance at my face told Peter he had to be clearer. Quietly, in tones of slight embarassment, he explained that he thought he was falling in love with me--clearly a bad idea.

Peter was falling in love with me? Peter was falling in love? With me?

No. No way! Couldn't be!

Wow. Peter was falling in love with me! I felt--well! Surprised! But really, really pleased.

I told him that I felt flattered. I think we talked about our friendship... Peter may have told me his philosophy of dating: "With the married ones, I don't even ask." We talked a little more, inconsequential things, mostly. And then he asked me never to kiss him again.

Oh. Oh, well... Okay.

Could I hug him goodbye? Yes. That was all right. So I did--a nice, no sexual-subtext, friendly hug, and we went off to pack up our bags and bundles, toss them into our separate vehicles, and head off into our normal daily lives.

Hours passed. Brian and Roxanne, riding with me, were keeping up a facinating discussion of Unitarian Universalist politics around Paganism, and of fallacies in Pagan discussions of the ancient world--topics that would normally have me rivetted. But, driving past flat field after flat field of upstate New York countryside, I could hardly take in a word they were saying.

I just kept replaying that goodbye hug, those astonishing words. "I think I'm falling in love with you."

It took me most of the ride home to recognize that I was falling in love with him, too. And all of a week before I broke my resolution to keep that knowledge to myself, and fired off the first in what would become a long, long exchange of love letters between us.

The kiss started it all, and it may have been me, or partly me, or not. I can make out a good case for that having been obliviousness. But that first letter... I knew what I was doing. I knew that no good could possibly come out of it for my marriage. And I did it anyway, and began the process of unraveling my married life.

*I no longer believe that depth of trance ensures validity of sacred possession. At that time, it was my belief that I would have the best chance of providing a clear channel for the Goddess to speak through me if I released as many inhibitions as I could and tranced as deeply as possible. Since that time, I have seen that depth of trance does not neccesarily imply anything about the ability of a priest or priestess to avoid contaminating the messages of the gods with their own subconsious wishes and expectations, and I have heard the story of more than one abuse of power incident to this practice. Partly as a result of my own experiences described in this post, I've become very wary about the traditional Wiccan practice of drawing down the Moon; I vastly prefer the Quaker practice of testing and sharing purely verbal messages in vocal ministry, in part because the responsiblity both for hearing the voice of the divine and for discerning spirits in meeting lies with the whole group, and not one fallible priest or priestess.

I'm not condemning the practice of drawing down the Moon overall, and I wouldn't absolutely rule out the possiblity of ever engaging in it again myself. But I do have deep concerns about it--not so much in terms of the nature of the Spirits carried--a fear I suspect some Christians would entertain--as because of fears about my own ability to maintain a high enough level of discernment and ethics to engage appropriately in this practice. I dread the liklihood of "miscarrying" the deity, to coin a phrase, and I strongly dislike the lack of checks and balances upon me, when I act as the sole priestess within a group... and I do suspect that I'm not the only HPs to find this aspect of the practice difficult and distressing.

**This was the first and only time I ever asked the Goddess to leave on cue, because I learned better that very night. It's not that Rosie minded, at all; asked to leave, She did. But where, in other rituals, before or since, I had allowed that communion to fade it its own time, and had felt some level of sadness or lonliness when it was over, having Her leave--WOOOSH!--in a rush that way, felt awful. I got the shakes afterwards, and I was very grateful that Doug, who had worked with Lindy many times over the years, noticed how cold I was and brought me someone's thrown-off cloak to wrap myself up in. Drawing down is warm, and intimate, and joyful; shutting that flow off deliberately and suddenly turned out to be a lot like going from a cozy sauna into an ice bath...only with the cold on the inside, not the outside.

*** Henry Wilbur once said, "Messages in Quaker meeting are like water going through pipes, and sometimes the water tastes of the pipes!" (From Poley, Irvin C. and Poley, Ruth. Quaker Anecdotes. Pendle Hill, Wallingford, Pennsylvania,1946. Quoted at

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part V: Seven of Cups

All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

It is somewhat difficult for me to remember the main ritual of the Twilight Covening of 1990. I was only partly there for it...and partly I was in the Otherworld, riding on a big, black horse, curled safe and tight in Herne's warm cloak.

The main ritual of Twilight Covening is always a collaborative affair; clans work together to contribute various elements to it, and the ritual framework is always similar--a journey, a quest, in which the celebrant encounters challenges and overcomes fears and doubts in symbolic form, culminating in a central celebration, something very pretty, with firelight and drums and beautiful ritual props and costumes. I remember the bare bones of the ritual well enough... stumbling along in single-file with the members of my clan, blindfolded at certain times, and being given tokens of the horned god at the end of our communal quest. There was also an individual vigil involved, a period of silent waiting, blindfolded, curled up among tree roots on the forest floor, which was, for me, probably the most important part of the ritual, because it was there that I had most of the vivid inward experiences of Herne.

Of the symbolic challenges, I remember almost nothing. Of course--I'd had my challenge already, and it was much larger than those that were part of the ritual itself! I do remember that, during the blindfold vigil, as night was starting to set in, there were voices passing close to us where we lay still in the underbrush--other Pagans, pretty clearly sent out to be tempters, talking about how the whole ritual was over anyway, hadn't it been a bust, such a waste of time but there was hot fresh gingerbread in the dining hall, and they were all going right there to get some. My biggest concern at that moment was not to laugh out loud, so great were my feelings of joy and triumph.

Time passed. More ritual. We reassembled eventually at the central firepit, singing and invoking the horned god--as Herne, specifically. We sang:
Hoof and horn
Hoof and horn
All that die will be reborn.
Corn and grain
Corn and grain
All that falls shall rise again.

I've never done drugs or even much alcohol, so I have little to go on here, but I'd have to say that it was a lot like being very, very drunk, or very, very high. I've rarely felt that pumped up after ritual since (though, once after hearing some powerful vocal ministry at NEYM last year, I felt something very like it) and I wouldn't say I'd like to. But the surety, the certainty, that I was where I belonged, doing what I was meant to be doing... that was magnificent.

The God was invoked, into a tall, physically imposing priest from the EarthSpirit community*. I don't know if he was actively drawn down or not...but I do know that the God was there, at least for me. We formed a long, snaking line, and the ritual became a procession up to an archway of autumn oak branches. One after another, we met and were greeted by Herne, and presented with a Tarot card to embody the wisdom of winter"--something to take us through the coming months.

A hundred voices sang together, weaving into a round that rolled on and on:
Herne, horned one,
Hunter 'neath the Northern sun,
Watcher at the Gates of Winter,
Flame on the Wind.

My card, when it was put into my hand, was perfect. Seven of Cups. Dangerous choices.

Do you remember the feeling you had leaving school on the last day before summer vacation when you were eight years old? That is what I was feeling at that moment. Choices! Freedom! Victory! And the drumming began, and the glad dancing and conversations, and little crowds forming to go and enjoy that gingerbread that really was available, fresh and hot, in the dining hall down the hill.

But before the transition to celebration and feast had really begun, I turned around to find Afagddu standing right there beside me.

Before I could say a word, he was almost babbling, words tumbling over one another in a rush. "I'm sorry, I'm really sorry; I thought I was sorry before and I really was sorry but now I'm really really sorry because look what I got... THIS! And Afagaddu held out one shaking hand, with a Tarot card in it.

The Ten of Swords.

The God of the Hunt works fast. Holy crap.

Then came the freaky bit.

It doesn't happen often, but sometimes, when it's needed, priestesses talk about drawing down spontaneously--finding the Goddess suddenly just there and talking through them, no invocations needed. Well (taking a deep breath) right about then, Rosie more or less elbowed me out of the way, like an experienced driver taking over the wheel from a new one: a sort of non-verbal "Move over honey, let Me drive." Suddenly She was just there, and I was a passenger looking on.

And She reached out--
and She put Her hands on Afagddu's shoulders--

--And She pushed down--

And then Afaggdu was just kneeling there on the ground in front of me.

And then She bent over him, and I thought for one queasy moment She was going to kiss his forehead and I kind of wanted to get the hell out of there, but then She--

Drew a banishing pentacle on his forhead, helped him up, and sent him away.

What the hell???

Fortunately, Peter came walking up to me before I fell down. Well, OK--not literally. Probably not literally. But it was good to have someone standing next to me who seemed pleasantly, sturdily there, and who could guide me carefully down the steps and into the dining hall where there was light, and happy people, and food to eat. Grounding, yes--not just for beginners anymore. Right--let's ground, shall we?

Grounding: wrapping up all that Otherworld directness by bringing the self and the self's energy back to the body. I'd been doing it for ages. Hold a rock in the palms of your hands. Lie flat on your back and let the energy drain into the earth. Hug a tree. Visualize. Eat a meal (the heartier the better).

It was in the dining hall that I discovered that I could not eat, and that the lights were too bright and the conversations too lively. I'm very glad that there were no "grounding police" on hand to attempt to force me to gag down a square of over-sweet gingerbread, however. My reality testing was fine (though I suppose my parents and some of my cowan friends might have questioned that) and I was increasingly comfortable in my own body. I just needed to come back gradually.

Sometimes, when you've been gone a long way away, it just takes a while to get back.

In fact, it would be weeks before I would be eating entirely normally, building up slowly from fruits filled with lots of water, to vegetables, simple grains and starches, proteins... Something like coming back after a long illness, gently. I think I might have managed some cider or a mouthful of fruit at that point, and then Peter very kindly took me for a long walk along the lake shore to talk about our separate ritual experiences. Just moving was good, not to mention talking quietly with a friend.

He told me that he'd glimpsed Afagddu with me from across the circle, and had been standing ready to intervene, until he saw that I clearly had things under control--what on earth had I been doing?

I explained. We walked more, and talked about Peter's life and mine--his past Twilight Covenings probably; his grandmother, whose health was failing; friends of his who were also at that year's event. I don't remember anymore, and neither does he. I do remember sitting on a bench next to him, feeling sleepy and contented, watching mists rising in ghostly tendrils over the lake. Perhaps an hour later he gave me a cookie--a Keebler elf cookie, as I remember--and, after a bit more conversation, he headed off in his own direction.

I was sorry to see him go, and I felt a pang of lonliness for a moment... and then, suddenly, the night seemed very tender and kind around me, and I thought, well, Peter is Herne's priest, but Herne Himself is right here. And I strolled past campfires and lit up buildings, listening to forest noises and laughter over the lake, and, at last, the sound of one of my cabinmates, playing the classical guitar.

It was Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, which has always been one of my favorite pieces. I stood in the shadows for a few minutes, just listening. It felt like a love song, from the god of the hunt to me.

When I finally went to bed, I felt entirely blessed, completely at peace.

The peace lasted a while--the whole long drive home, in fact. But, once home, I had to turn and face the music. Having immediate help and support from gods was terrific, of course... but, it turns out, it didn't get the job of healing done for me.

Perhaps it sounds odd, to those who have never experienced anything similar; perhaps it sounds odd to those who have experienced things that were far worse. But I was showing all the signs and symptoms of someone who had just experienced a traumatic shock. The experience with Afagddu had come at a moment of unusual openness and vulnerability, and maybe that was why it left such an impression... but for whatever reason, it did leave quite an impression.

I was in pain--physical pain--quite often. The back problems I have today began in those few weeks. The muscles along my spine, and especially near the heart and sexual chakras, were a tight, bunched-up, gnarly mess. (Go figure.)

Worse than that--I'd been through an experience that was tremendously important to me, and I needed to talk about it. But whenever I tried, my body temperature would plummet, my teeth would chatter, and I would be fighting spasms in my back, just trying to get the words out. The same thing happened whenever I tried to set pen to paper. I did; the journal entry I wrote on that one weekend alone is about twenty pages long. But I could write only in short bursts, and then I'd have to stop, wrap up warm, and drink something hot.

Friends and covenmates were as supportive as they knew how to be. Within a day of my return, I'd told Kirk and Amy (newest member of the coven and Kirk's future wife) about my weekend. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of their living room, and having to tell them explicitly to please bring me a blanket so I wouldn't shiver; could I have some hot tea? and, please hug me now... It was hard for all of us (true Yankees that we were and are) but they were right there with me.

Brian, passing through my neighborhood one day, stopped at my house to trade backrubs with me, and if I couldn't explain to him how hard it was for me to give comfort in return for receiving it, that was not his fault--I didn't know how to tell him how awful I felt. Doug and Kirk both cleared time for long, supportive phone calls and lunches with me when we could get time away from work, and the male members of the Church of the Sacred Earth pooled their resources and created for me both a ritual to affirm my right to safety in my body, and an athame to symbolize it. Lindy, the closest thing I had to a High Priestess of my own, gave support and counsel, and comissioned the creation of a beautiful scabbard for that new athame. Everyone did what they knew how to do. And it all helped--though none of it was a quick fix for what ailed me. It was just a very difficult time in my life.

In retrospect, the fact that I was getting so much more support from my friends than from my husband was probably not a good sign for my marriage.

(To Be Continued)

*For EarthSpirit fans everywhere, yes, it was Moose.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Intermission and Apology

Jan Hoffman says to give messages without preamble or apology, and that's a good discipline, but I'm finding it impossible here... So please bear with me, ladies and gentlemen, while I ask you to bear with me.

Apologies on the long delay for the next post in my spiritual journey series... (If it's not too much hubris to imagine anyone out there cares about that!) Part IV is definately the toughest part to write about: so many things happened in such a short span of time, and continue to be important to who I have become. It's particularly personal material, and some of it still a tad painful. But mostly, I'm really hoping to bring the series in under the length of St. Augustine's Confessions (helping myself to Marshall's humorous analogy) and this one is tough to edit.

It's also hard to balance self-revelation with privacy, and plain speaking with a desire not to have some of the more difficult aspects of the story used against the Pagan community... I'm just feeling a need to season this one very, very carefully. (Quite a contrast to my usual slap-dash style...)

And thanks to the (to you all) mostly invisible Peter for his assistance as an editor. If I manage to get this installment out in a readable form somewhat shorter than the average Steven King novel, it will be owing to his loving assistance.
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