Imbolc and Revising My Sacred Calendar

Sacred PathOn this unusual solitary Sunday I found myself in in a noontime twilight when I yearned to fill fruitful hours with reading and writing and meditation but instead wandered between rooms, giving a few minutes to a novel before remembering I had left a cup of tea steeping in the kitchen a half hour before. Though I often resist the wisdom that tells me to pull on some boots and get outside, I looked out to the melting snow and realized that I had to leave my cocoon.

I was tempting nature to glitter through its bleak February palette with unmistakable manifestations of the divine even as I consciously settled for the mundane beauty that is a false spring: forty degree sunlight air hanging over mud and snow that will invariably freeze in a few short hours. Really, this is how I gaze upon life much of the time – resigning myself to reality but coloring it all with a sense of hope I am sometimes unwilling to admit. As you will see from the picture above, this ended up being a much more sacred journey than I might have expected; it seems that there in fact must have been some magic delighting in the sunshine.

Gradually I was able to release the expectation of revelation and even stopped chanting the vaguely frenetic mantra that was intended to shape this tramp through the woods into a productive walking meditation. I pulled back the layers of ego until I was simply a woman on a path on a warm winter day. Soon, I started noticing sounds beyond those of the crunching ice and the squelching muck beneath my galoshes. I pitied myself and the wonder of the earth for a while; our perfect communion was marred by distant shots from the gun club and the low hiss of the thruway – destructive neighbors that I so rarely acknowledged. For a time I let these impostors excuse my neglect of the natural world: being outside barely worth it when any signs of wildlife that hadn’t been hunted or pushed into oblivion by human incursion were drowned out by all that human noise. But eventually even those pretexts melted away as I watched blue jays chase one another from birch to birch and realized that the little movements at the corner of my vision were due to an underbrush alive with busy squirrels. All of my intentions of really being present in nature were forgotten in the act of actually being there.

Everything I “should” have been thinking about melted away under the flame unmediated experience. My thoughts turned to flowing wax that was free to drip through my consciousness to form new shapes, loosed from their old forms and patterns. Finally my sense were opening wider so that I remembered to take a deep breath of the sweet fresh air. It tasted just a little like spring, and I remembered that in Ireland the weather had seemed to turn at the first of February in celebration of Imbolc.Brigid

That is when I stopped to stare dumbly into the middle distance. It was February third and I had not even thought of the festival of Imbolc, Brigid’s Day. For so many years the feast of goddess/saint whose image I had worn around my neck had been deeply important to me, marked by rituals both public and private. I remember so clearly the first Brigid’s Day of the millennium when I hung my cloak out in the damp Galway night so she could pass by and bless it.

What does it mean that I had been thinking of how to make Lent more meaningful but had not remembered what I had always considered what I thought to be the most important day of the Celtic year? I have been so disconnected from the relationship of time and nature that I don’t even know if Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow (just Googled it, he did). As I began walking again I marveled at strange new focus my awareness has taken – Catholic traditions treasured over pagan rites? Who was I? I mourned a bit for all it seems I have forgotten.

But then I realized how artificial our calendars are, how arbitrary our scheduled holy days. Certainly the winter solstice is a moment in time, but unless you are standing in the inner chamber at Newgrange how can you know for sure? When celebrating Brigid’s qualities such as fire and home and healing and poetry, does the divine care if we are off by a day or two? After all, time has proven to be a plastic thing when we remember that the Church imposed December 25 upon the newborn Jesus.

After that walk through a wintertime awakening, I am feeling graced with a deep peace to realize that I remembered Brigid not Bandiabecause I turned the page on the calendar, but because I heard the whisper of the earth.

A Dash of Epic Myth in the Workday

Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. Magic chariot, 1969, lithograph on Swiftbrook paper, 54 x 38 cmThe Táin Bó Cuailnge is the great Irish epic that describes devastating episodes of battle instigated by what is essentially a lovers’ quarrel: Queen Medb and her husband Aillil set to comparing their riches in bed one night; in an effort to match her husband’s fortunes, Medb stages a raid on neighboring Ulster to snatch one particular bull. The amount of individuals ready for a good fight prove that they are clashing over more than a couple and their cows, but that is another topic entirely.

The events in the tale lead to the naming of many aspects of the land, so it seems only right that the story should be “earthy” in every respect. One of my favorite professors always used to say that Irish myth “out moderned the modern” and one of the many ways these stories do that is by proving our Victorian-inspired sensibilities really are recent constructs; legends like these endured long enough to be written down because they were made of all of the stuff of life including passion and revenge and cowardice and more than a few bodily fluids.

A strange angle to take on The Táin, I know, but it is a valid one in light of the discussion, or, well truth be told, “pissing contest” that I engaged in over the subject of Irish myth and language today. Pardon me for putting it like that, I don’t quite have the brashness of Medb to say that without apology, but putting it any other way seems a disservice to this metaphor I am trying to construct. I was introduced to an eager, newly minted PhD who has just joined the faculty. As always, I was introduced with a mention of my own credentials. In such situations I tend to smile mutely, caught between shrugging off Irish Studies as a lovely little phase and fumbling around for an vaguely related arcane witticism in a faltering attempt to flatter myself. By the end of the conversation today, I felt like a fraud hiding for behind knowledge I half remembered, nodding sagely as this lovely seeming woman compared the difficulty of translating medieval Irish to the Norse.

In the car on the way home I cranked up the Decemberists’ EP The Táin and felt a little less ridiculous about the conversation. I had not spoken my truth exactly, but I certainly had permission to talk about Irish myth since it was clearly still a part of my life – in this case it was blasted with heavy guitar and bizarre circus music.

One of the hardest things about working in academia at the same time that I pursue knowledge that is not necessarily wrapped in a scholarly, footnoted package is that one often feels robbed of the ability to speak about issues she cares about with any real authority. I know that subjects co-opted by college and university departments tend to become sanitized or problematized ghosts – how many people would recognize themselves as described by anthropology or folklore or ethnic studies faculty?

The exchange today gave me a new appreciation for the enduring versatility of myth, the ways these origin stories can color so many lives in different ways. They can be fireside diversion or fodder for a professional career, respected tales of a people’s genesis or wisdom imparting vignettes. When I lived and breathed the words and history of Ireland these stories were all about illuminated manuscripts and goddesses and warrior queens who could be read as precursors to the feminist age. Freed of the thesis scribbling imperative, they can take on a new life for me, something much closer perhaps, to their original intention.

Artwork by Louis le Brocquy as it appears in Thomas Kinsella’s 1969 version of The Táin.Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. Cúchulainn mounting into his chariot, 1969

Believing, Questioning, Knowing

PEI goldI risk echoing Edie Brickell and getting choked by shallow waters before I get too deep on this post, but I was struck by what must be a rather elementary epiphany.

The only way I can get through house cleaning is with some podcast or another blasting louder than the sounds of running water in the sink; last night I was listening to James Finley talk about Meister Eckhart on Caroline Myss’s website. Finley was once a Trappist Monk who studied with Thomas Merton and is now a psychotherapist; Meister Eckhardt was a 13th century mystic and theologian.

The problem with cleaning with a spiritual soundtrack is that I can only really absorb 15% of what is being said, but the rest of the time is generally spent getting inspired by one particular idea and then running with it. This time, I was taken by the fact that I was listening to quotes from a medieval scholar while chopping vegetables, opposed to singing off key to an Alison Krauss song or catching up with the NPR news I have been ignoring lately. One of the most fascinating things about my fascination with matters of the spirit is the fascination itself (get that?). I am constantly left to wonder what draws me to meditate and study these discourses on the soul when it would be so much simpler to stick with fiction and watch a little more tv. Part of me is perfectly contented to know that faith is an integral part of me, in the same way that I have red hair and love animals. But the aspect of me that is never quiet, that must interrogate everything around her needs a response to those who cannot comprehend “because I just believe, that’s why.” And frankly, there are times when I need an explanation of sorts for my own questioning heart.

Certainly atheism seems to be a bit of a fad right now, and I have to admit I have read none of the best sellers on the topic; there is too much to read about what people actually believe to spend time on what they do not at this point (I’m sick of all this definition by negation these days anyway: “we’re the good people because we are not like them, the bad people”). So this is just the first breath of an epiphany that might stand as a response to those who seem to imply that faith in a Universal Being is mark of weakness, of a lack of self reliance or reason. This little revelation of mine is not informed by any systematic knowledge of theology, so it might be painfully obvious and been said a million times, but it is something that has suddenly become clear to me.

Countless multitudes believe in a higher power, in a universal being, in a creator. Even if, on the off chance, this faith held across so many traditions is just a ubiquitous myth, a global bedtime story that keeps us from panicking in the face of the void, couldn’t it be that this collective belief, this shared essence, is the Divine itself? “God” as we call her could just be the unity of all beings that springs from the very act of contemplating the sacred, in seeking a higher power. Shared belief (across creed and country) and the energy it creates is in itself something to believe in.

But beyond all of these examinations, “I just know” is both the final answer and the beginning of endless questions.

Just Three Breaths – My Practice

“Like milk and its whiteness, the diamond and its lustre… [the] Divine Mother and Brahman are one.” (full passage)

When Andrew Harvey first quoted this bit of wisdom from the nineteenth century Indian saint Ramakrishna I had my first introduction to the intertwined nature of transcendence and immanence. I began to realize that the adoration of the Goddess did not preclude God and that, in fact, the two faces of the divine are inextricably bound to one another.

For whatever reason, these metaphors made sense to me almost immediately, as if they were elucidating something I had always known but never understood. Brahman is the supreme spirit in Hinduism, the unchanging heavenly power associated with the transcendent Father God. The Mother is the energy that dances through us and all of creation, the universal love of the heavens in action upon the earth. All that we know is the union of these two aspects of God.

At the conference at which I first heard these ideas everyone was high on potential spiritual power (both real and imagined), yet there was a palpable sense of worry because people did not know how these feelings would translate back at home in reality. I think this little practice that I cobbled together from the ideas I gathered that weekend is my response to the concern that I would forget the resonance of such words. It is informed both by Harvey’s description of the divine and Caroline Myss’s journey into the soul, Saint Teresa of Avila’s interior castle.

* * *

After closing my eyes I search around to find my center for a little while until I remember yet again that only in stillness can one find that peaceful place of silence within. When I have stopped struggling with my own mind, I can just experience what it is to be for a few moments until a breath that seems to come from the earth itself begins to fill me. It is the power of the Mother, the earthy glory of the Goddess that I have identified with for so long, but here there are no rules or separations, just the wash of creation and growth itself. It is green, it is gold, it is the rich black of fertile soil. I pull this breath up and all the way through my body, filling with the Mother’s love and then release it, letting this energy flow back into the universe.

The second breath comes from above, the transcendent essence that arches over us all. It is the peace that lifts me out of my body to a place of complete freedom. There all human definitions of God might fade away so that the power that is the Absolute can wash the ego away. It is white and silver, it is cool and warm all at once. I pull this breath down through mind and heart, down and down to root the heavenly in my feet, and then release it, letting this energy flow back into the universe.

Finally there is the breath of synthesis that pulls every facet of creation into my own soul. It comes from every side, it is the very air around me. It is every color, texture, scent, taste. The beautiful mixes even with the horrible because to be truly present is to recognize all threads in the tapestry of this life. With this inhalation I realize my place in this incredible universe, this constant interplay of the divine with itself, of the sacred with the material. Rather than retreating from the world because I find solace in the spirit, I am driven to delight in all that is so that I can see the spiritual in everything.

Om Tat Sat

Discovering the Space Beyond the Silence

Long Beach treeMany months ago, before this whole unfurling of epiphanies began in earnest, I was rocked with uncertainties over something or other, or probably about everything, more likely. I read my tarot cards, I stared beseechingly up to the sky, I read a text about the Goddess that was full of footnotes. I just felt like I was trapped in the maelstrom of my own psychology.

There have been a few times in my life when a voice outside of all that I know has spoken to me. Once, it said “he’s not the one.” (I could regret not listening to that one, but the two years of kidding myself in the particular relationship that followed got me here, with someone who actually is “the one.”) This particular day in question, I heard as clear as the winter air outside my windowpane “Why don’t you ask the Goddess?” In my journal I simply wrote: SILENCE.

Ask the Goddess? I’m sorry, but I really wouldn’t want to trouble her, and there would be so many candles to light, and really, what is there to say that I have not already shouted a million times into the inside of my own skull? It was at that moment I realized the relative emptiness of the self-proscribed path I had chosen to study. And by “study” I do not mean in the way that one studies Talmud or even tea leaves, but in the way that one studies the periodic table or Shakespeare. I was reasonably certain there would be a test (not of the type that gets you through a set of heavenly gates or anything, more like the sort that proves you are intelligent and witty in a bar).

I want to wrap that lost version of myself in the enveloping soul I have discovered has always been here. I want to make sure that the me from last year understands that she can ask the Goddess whatever she needs to, and if she wants, she doesn’t even have to assign a gender to the divine.

Why do I write a post about something as intimate as the understanding that, when I address an entity outside myself, I feel like there is a sensitive power in the universe? This is not the sort of declaration I feel particularly comfortable with and I don’t think I am trying to vaunt my own spiritual development as another thing I have “achieved” (at least I hope I am a little better at transcending my ego). In part, it must be that this quiet realization that barely resides in the world of the explicable means that, when confronted with the chaos that is waking up in the morning, I find there is a force beyond the void of my own fear and questions. If I am to continue spiraling through epiphanies and trying to pin them to page, I must establish this new sense of something greater as my truth. The path I am beginning to travel now is still determined by instinct, and luck, and what I hope are occasional flashes of authentic vision, but that emptiness, that silence, is a memory as I begin to try to understand the hum that is the energy that binds us all.