The Christians and the Pagans Sit Together Round the Cradle

Moira’s christening is set for next June.

Just three years ago, one of the many reasons we refused to marry in the Church was the requirement that we at least promise to raise our children in “the one true faith,” but those concerns faded last month when I took pleasure in asking my grandfather if we could have the baptism at his church.

Boughs of our Christmas tree are bending under the weight of a choir and a half of angels.  Our living room is decorated with not one, but two nativity scenes.

The trappings of the season, just to be expected in the homes of even casual believers to be sure.  But for me, the angels are there to represent the little girl who has been deemed our “Angel Baby.”  The figurines of the Holy Family are representative as much of the Christmas story as they are our new little family.  Images that are incontrovertibly Christian have essentially been co-opted to fit the shape of our family and our lives.

Do we all do this to a degree?  Finding our home in a religion, in a set of beliefs, in a path of any sort because they add depth or help to make sense of our experiences?

A year ago when I wrote in this space nearly every day, I often sounded like a lapsed Catholic working her way back to the fold.  After attending a nightmarish Easter mass celebrated by a priest who used the pulpit to wag a sanctimoniously admonishing finger at the unusually full pews, that crest of interest in my childhood religion receded once again.  I resumed my safe distance from the religion I have ignored or actively renounced for nearly half my life.

During my pregnancy, I had a few isolated pockets of spiritual lucidity (the rest was a bit of a fog in which I felt completely unable to organize my closet enough to get dressed, never mind my thoughts enough to write coherently) and in that time I felt much more drawn to the powers of a universal Mother than the specifics of Christianity.

Moira will be counted amongst the Catholic branch of flock to please our families and to mark her arrival with a ritual, even if it is not exactly the ritual I believe best marks initiation into this life.  Because I intend to raise her with a respect for all faiths and the curiosity to find whatever path to Spirit calls her by name, I have a couple of options.  I could leave her to be a religious tabula rasa with no ties to a specific faith and let her make all of the decisions when she is ready.  Or, I could  give her the same start that her father and I had and allow that to be one step along a journey that could bring her closer to the teachings of Rome or just be one ceremony among many in a seeker’s life.

Like superimposing the trinity of my own little family onto the family in that manger 2000 years ago, I am sculpting the Catholic traditions to suit my own needs.  I am Catholic enough to feel a little bit guilty about bringing Moira to an altar to have promises of single minded devotion to one version of God made upon her behalf.  I am still a little sad that a tradition as rich as this one is still not “enough” to satisfy my spiritual inclinations, but I think teaching her to find the Divine in all beings and help cultivate in her a true sense of compassion for all the world with counterbalance these little transgressions against a creed that is not my own.

My first departure from Catholicism was through paganism, which was the most rebellious, individualistic path I could imagine.  Now, I know that the two are far from antithetical and that both paths inform who I am now though neither shall ever define me.  Still, adherents to both views think they are forever living at opposite ends of the spectrum so much of the time, unless you are having a Christmas-Solstice dinner with Dar Williams…

Winter Solstice: Mary, Mother Earth, and the Stories that We Tell

In the end, all we have is nature.

My teacher offered this wisdom during my healing class a few weeks ago, and only by going in the opposite direction, by dipping into myth and stories and ideas have I begun to understand the profundity of this statement.

I was blessed with the most incredible, nourishing Winter Solstice I could have possibly prayed for. The snow continued to fall while the Christmas lights glowed all day in the cozy house. I had the luxury of spending hours in my sacred little room: lighting my Advent candles, meditating, drawing, writing, discovering new territory in the realm of spirit.

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This December has offered me previously unimagined insight into the power of both the Solstice and Christmas.

For some time now, I have been experiencing visions of Mary. In them, she tells me that she is not just that silent, blue veiled vessel with the alabaster brow. She is the Mother who carried the weight of the world between her hips and who gave birth to a God. She is not some distant creature to be locked up in churches. She is a vital ally, a friend to all life. Mary is the supreme realization of the Divine Feminine.

Never before would I allow myself to get close to Jesus’s mom. A girl who got tangled up in all that Biblical stuff just because she was passively filled with angel dust? Not my style. Instead, I sought the Goddess in myth and legend, rock formations and prehistoric art. The statues of the blessed virgin that graced the churches I passed were just dull marble decorations that helped other kinds of people through their day.

But Mary has been insistent, and I realize how foolish I have been to refuse her. I now allow myself to drink deep her story.

Two phenomenal posts that I came across today, both based on today’s Gospel reading about the Annunciation, opened new doors of understanding for me: Christine at Abbey of the Arts and a blog that’s new to me, Magdalene’s Musings.

The more deeply I fall into the stories of the Annunciation and Jesus’s birth, the more overcome I am by their power. Suddenly it makes sense that these events would form the basis of a faith that endures 2,000 years later.

At the same time, my understanding of these miraculous moments is colored by the new “relationship” that I have with Mary herself. As she becomes something other than an iconic character for me, and instead emerges as a face of the feminine aspect of God, I realize how the stories that bind her to history are just that: stories.dsc01518

The time I spent soaking in Paganism and Celtic magic left me with a strong understanding of the way the Church strategically scheduled Christmas to coincide with a holiday as old as the earth itself: the celebration of sun’s return around December 21. The overlapping events and the connections between them are becoming increasingly clear to me:

The earth is tilting back on its axis so that the sun shines longer in the sky each day.

Mother Earth is offering up her Child, the Sun.

The Feminine Divine is making way in order to give us the Divine in human form.

Mary gives birth to the infant Jesus in a manger.

When I fully realize that the nativity story is not about shepherds and stars, but is instead a beautiful allegory for the cycles of the seasons, I arrive on a new plane of respect for Christianity and for all of nature. The interconnectedness of humanity’s stories with the basic laws of this earth make me stop and allow tears to fill my eyes for the incredible beauty we are all permitted to be a part of.

Did those events in Bethlehem really happen? I would not deny it. And if they did, I believe it was because God knew humanity needed to watch the power of his love enacted in human form. The passing of the seasons and the miracle of the earth’s rebirth of the seasons is too abstract a miracle for us to understand. What genius and power, to give us these holy beings, Mary and Jesus, to guide our story-loving souls.

solstice sun setI stood outside as the sun set on this shortest day, and I understood completely that the only sure thing is the natural world. The ideas, the living beings, the manufactured things, they will all fade away. Only the mountains and the seas, the sun and the moon will remain.

But still, I know I feel more connected to God and to the rest of this beautiful world better by holding in my heart these stories that we tell.

Gospels and Advent and Oneness, Oh My

The Universe was pushing me along today, and I tried my best to let her take the wheel.

Maybe it was the hush of a Sunday morning, but I happened upon two blogs, Barefoot Toward the Light and Abbey of the Arts. Both offered wisdom about the Gospel reading of the day and reminded me that it is the first day of Advent.

At most, I can be described as a reluctant Catholic who takes small sips from the cup of her childhood religion. Googling the Mass readings is not something I ever thought I would do, but here I was today trying to track down this bit from Mark in which Jesus declares “Be watchful! Be alert!”

Both of the bloggers I mention above do more justice to these words that I can, especially Christine at Abbey of the Arts who gives us meaning of this short piece of scripture beyond its immediate warning to keep an eye out for the approach of God. She says:

In the invitation of Advent to prepare for the birth of God into the world, we are invited to awaken to the sacred possibilities deep within us, to shake off our slumber, open our eyes wide and discover the sacredness of everything we encounter.

I know that I have expressed similar sentiments many times, though not necessarily in the context of the birth of Christ.  Only by staying open to many masters, but never tying myself to any particular religious path have I felt the freedom to talk about how I have encountered the sacred.

In this same post, Christine at Abbey of the Arts also talks about the way that the perspective of Eastern religions inform the West, and vice versa and the power of inter-religious dialog to enrich all faiths. It is the same nurturing message I found in reading Joan Chittister’s words yesterday and that I have come to know as my own truth.

Again, I am stumbling across whispers of Oneness. The religion that was the foundation of my spirituality mixes with the explorations that have marked my adulthood and I learn once more that all roads to a great divine harmony – if only we keep our eyes open to see it.

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I created a makeshift Advent wreath and placed it before my altar tonight. All of my hopes for light in this darkening time before the sun returns at the solstice suddenly had a focus in a single flickering flame.

Always we seek relief from the darkness, and ever we find the light. Where will you find the light to guide your way?

The Degree To Which We Feel the Chill

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A quick trip to the mailbox in the moments between moving from a toasty car to an almost cozy house gave me a few moments under the stars tonight. Our neighbors’ woodsmoke hung heavily in the air and the snow squeaked under my feet as it does when the temperature threatens to linger at zero. Even here on the fringes of the “country” a great stretch of the sky from the horizon to Orion’s edge (perhaps his elbow?) was shaded pink with the lights of the nearby town, but still the constellations stretched with such glory across the top of the world, all at once chilled dignity and ecstatic brilliance.

This was the end of the sort of day that almost everyone complained about. It was cold, truly cold, and though the sun shone brightly, it was difficult to find the place between suffering from the frigid air and sweating under the layers of woolen compensation once you made it inside. During the drive home, I was listening to NPR as usual and heard a piece in the “You Must Read This” series. The contributer was talking about the solace she found in reading Chekhov in Syracuse, New York while she was a teenager. I don’t have much affection for Chekhov, particularly, but we don’t live all that far from there and certainly I understood her talk of the cold. What hit my artistic sensibilities (and my general refusal to use two words when twelve might have the particular lilt I am hoping for) was her description of the climate: “Some years it got so cold it felt like someone was trying to kill us.” Clunk.

Alright, so I might have said that differently (the way the cold seemed to bent on exchanging our bones for icicles or something, but I’m not working with a three minute time limit and well, no one has asked me to broadcast my opinion of books on National Public Radio), but her word choice really just got my attention about what seems to be a broader (and less nit picky) issue.Jan 1 snow

To personify the cold as an agent trying to kill you is to plant yourself (and your city) smack at the center of the universe. It is to take the movement of atmospheric currents and the tilt of the sun personally. Somehow, that just seems a massive waste of energy (the question of climate change aside in this situation, of course). What sort of state do open ourselves to if the weather becomes such an adversary even as we sit comfortably behind the windowpane, teacup in hand? Are we so mentally and spiritually fragile that the cold can penetrate places a parka cannot protect us from?

As soon as I say this, I realize that a week ago I was dissecting the way the darkening days leading to the Solstice set me to contemplate death. Though I did not suggest that the absent sun was in on an assassination plot, I certainly offered my fate to be influenced by waning daylight and other unearthly agents.

Perhaps I am not exactly certain what I am trying to say here, beyond attempting to call for a balance between recognizing that we are creatures constantly affected by our natural world and getting tangled up in blaming nature for its crusade against our personal comfort. How do we understand ourselves to be inextricably bound to the web of all creation and yet maintain a centeredness that means we are not thrown off balance every time the wind blows?

The only answer I can begin to offer is to practice acceptance, to be present to the world around us yet know that we bear stillness within. Since my topic here is winter, maybe I do not drag the metaphor to far to think of the castle that stands firm even after one shakes the snow globe – one steady force amidst a shower of white?

Courage in the Gathering Light

Because I am still trying to work with this unique period that I described yesterday, when we are swirling through celebration even as we are plunged into the darkness of the dying year, I sought out a yoga podcast that is rooted in this particular time. Over at Hillary’s Yoga Practice I found a class from December 23, 2006. I needed to find words that were wrapped in winter, offering the wisdom of this season. Her topic was courage and I realize that it was exactly what I needed so that I could establish the proper perspective as we move away from the Solstice into Christmas and then onward to the new year.

Upon examining my preoccupation with mortality over the past several weeks, I realize that though such emotions were valid, I was walking a line between exploring such territory and wallowing in the darkness. I allowed myself to become unmoored in my ruminations and I forgot to call upon the resources that can protect me from sliding too deep. Now, it appears that the element that eluded me was courage.

Caroline Myss speaks often about our addiction to victimhood and the ways that we allow our “wounds” to control our experience as well as manipulate those around us. I see such patterns in my own life, and I know that they were at work when I invested in bleakness disguised as contemplation. Something as organic as courage would have been the lamp in the night that saved me from becoming entranced by the waning cycle rather than looking to the hope on the other side. It just seemed too difficult to flex that sort of muscle at the time, however. All too often, courage seems to go out the window when it is most required because acting courageously would almost certainly upset the mundane balance that marks the lives of so many of us.

Yesterday I was taken with the way the joyful, bustling holidays are at odds with our animal instincts that demand we honor the absence of the life-giving sun. Today I am less interested in that paradox, in dwelling on how hard it must be for us to deal with the conflicting messages of nature and culture. Instead, I am drawn to that very human emotion called courage that causes us to seek and create light from darkness. Beyond that, I am awed by the power of the Divine that roots such a power in our hearts and shows us again and again the constant rebirthing of the universe.

Solstice: Returning from the Darkness

This week I have been pulled into an unsettling spiral that set me to thinking about darkness and death even in this season of joy and franticness. Despite the piles of Christmas cards and the antics of a kitten discovering his first box of wrapping paper supplies, I felt oddly bereft and adrift. I was not sure what scared me more – the emotions themselves or the fact that they should set upon me during this time of year when it is all about extending oneself by dragging through stores and baking that extra batch of cookies and generally “being in the spirit.” There is nothing worse than being called a Grinch or a Humbug in the weeks before Christmas, but sometimes it seems we slap those labels on one another because we are so terrified of acknowledging that we are having trouble hearing those distant sleigh bells ourselves.

One reason I started this writing project in the first place was because I became aware of the way so many things I thought I already knew had a way of sneaking up on me to appear as a totally new burst of wisdom. So here’s another epiphany that I have “known” for years but clearly never found a meaningful resting place in my soul. Today we have reached the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year when the earth stands still for a moment before tilting back on itself to reveal to us in the northern hemisphere longer, sun-kissed days. The weeks approaching the Solstice are full of darkness both in the celestial and spiritual sense. We feel called to slumber and reserve our resources in this bleakest time. I celebrated Midwinter for years, but I do not think I really understood that stillness of the earth that stands so close to death until now, and I certainly never felt its pull like this before.

If we are as connected to nature as I believe, it is inevitable that we should be affected by the slow winding down of the world around us. Of course, the reason I can speak of death so blithely is that it is just one turn in the cycle away from the rebirth that means an earlier dawn and an inevitable spring. We honor the birth of Christ at this very moment exactly because of this return of the sun. This sense of celebration sets us in a great paradox, however, as we fight our animal natures that tell us that winter is the time for hibernation and the contemplation of mortality. Human nature seems set to defy the wider rhythm of nature in so many instances, and this is no exception as we distract ourselves from the shadows with a festival of light. Wait, that sounds too critical, because I love that we are such ingenuous creatures who recognize the need to kindle a fire rather than curse the night. I just think it necessary to recognize that something more primal than western style consumerism or religious holidays may be at work on our souls right now. Some of the Scrooge impulse is certainly born of burn-out and weariness, but some of it may be that the secret parts of our spirits that have always listened to the sun and the moon and watched the trails of the stars are now yearning for quietude.  We all feel the loss of loved one who have passed on more keenly in December.  Part of that sorrow is the bittersweet memory of how they my have looked by the glow of a Christmas tree, but this remembrance of how death has touched our lives may also spring from the Earth itself as it whispers to us in these moments of deepest darkness.