Last week, I led a pair of goddess workshops focusing on four of my favorite celestial ladies: Quan Yin, Lakshmi, Persephone, and Isis. It was a lot of fun, and not the kind of teaching work I usually do, but I found that I really enjoyed it. While journaling about Quan Yin during the workshop, I started thinking about what it means to be compassionate, and I had a light bulb moment as I considered Quan Yin’s story.

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(C. Jen McConnel)

She was on the brink of enlightenment, ready to become one with source and leave the earthly realm behind her, when she pulled back. She opted to remain on earth until EVERYONE could reach enlightenment, and that act of love is often cited as sacrificial proof of the deep compassion she has for all living beings.

However, as I realized last week, there’s another way to read this: it isn’t necessarily about self-sacrifice. Quan Yin’s story tells us that we must continue to exist if we are to help. Think about that for a moment; so often, when I think about compassionate acts, I think of things that are greater than myself, things I can become lost in in service to the greater good. But, if Quan Yin’s example is to be believed, I will be of more use if I hold onto myself and serve in the most human ways I can.

What if we were to re-frame the idea of compassion not as an act of self-sacrifice, but as an act of self? Loving and living in the unique way that only we can is, I think, more powerful and potentially healing for ourselves and our world than any act of sacrifice. Think about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is said to be the current incarnation of Quan Yin; even his virtual presence in an image on the Internet is enough to open my heart and bring a smile to my face. Would his grace and power be as effective if he locked himself away from the world, or if he weren’t so open to human emotion?

Compassion comes in many forms, but I’m going to try to remember the lesson of Quan Yin the next time I feel the desire to subsume myself in the name of compassion; to really give of myself, I have to remain myself.


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After I toss the pills and decide to live, things don’t get better for a while. Eventually there comes a day when I sit in one spot on the couch all afternoon, grasping that I was in an abusive relationship. Then, comes the time I dare saying ‘no’ to him and I suffer the consequences; with that comes the realization that he will not change. And then, there is that moment I see him for the last time:  he drops me off at the airport, waves goodbye at his wife of ten years, and walks away with the words “well, have a good life!”

In my introductory piece, I wrote about the day I lost my Christian faith. I didn’t become a Pagan right away, even though that would have made a great story:  a heroine’s quest. Sheltered and disempowered girl from a small town in Germany leaves Christianity, divorces her abusive husband, and discovers Witchcraft in a dramatic moment of conversion. I would probably buy that novel, but my life isn’t a novel. Mine is a story of apostasy, of conversion, of empowerment, and of transition, experienced from different angles all at once.

As I am sitting here writing this, I want to skip over the long season of confusion. I want to write the next chapter in which the story flows from despair to hope, from darkness to light. In reality, I tumbled from one to the other for weeks, for months. I have images, snapshots; I want to weave them into a tale. And yet, my faith journey is as much the story that is left out as the one I am weaving. I can’t settle a clean story arch, and I have no universal road map for conversion, but I can offer another snapshot of my journey.

A black cat on a space heater
Arwen on the Heater

After moving in with my parents, I spend weeks doing what Arwen, my cat, loves to do best. Together we sit on the heater in my old room, staring out the window, watching the sun rise too late and set too early. Germany’s coldest winter in decades. Whenever my parents leave the house, I secretly turn the heater to its highest setting, hoping against hope it will invoke in me the sense of a warm, beating heart.

Most nights, I cry myself to sleep. Days go by in a blur. I think about him all the time. He’s in all of the nightmares. My waking moments are filled with my hatred and my longing for him. Codependency. It’s a new word in my vocabulary, and I don’t really understand it. I reminds me of the time I was studying to become fluent in the English language. That was the year I lived in Seattle, and Seattle was where we met, where we had our first date, our first kiss. Every thought leads back to him. One night I can’t take it anymore, and I think of going upstairs and crawling into my mom’s bed and begging her to fix me. Codependency.

Then, the ice melts and the snow turns to mud. Grey and brown and slippery. I go outside sometimes, but the flashbacks come unexpectedly. His fist punching through a wall. His face coming toward me. The scenes in the bedroom. I am too afraid to drive, and I don’t walk far from home. When the hardened layers of earth are punctured by sprouting weeds, I feel a stirring of hope. Flashes of light in the darkness. At times, the contrast is so bright I feel ecstatic, if only for a moment. These moments tell me there is a life for me, life after my choice to live. There are moments in which I feel a hint of being myself, moments that feel like heaven. “Someday I know I shall actually take up residence here”, I write in my journal.

Annika's church in Germany
Annika’s church in Germany

Easter arrives, the festival of the resurrection. My family takes me to an old Lutheran church and we enter in silence, an hour before midnight. Instead of a sermon, we listen to bible passages, starting in Genesis, leading up to the resurrection. A story from beginning to end to resurrection, told in a place, a religion, a town where my own story began. We sing traditional German hymns and recite parts of the liturgy. Words I don’t remember but have heard as a child.

Once the story approaches the resurrection, the sound of a violin pierces the darkness, a cello moans, and then an orchestra proclaims the coming joy. A light flickers as the first candle is lit and tears spring into my eyes. I watch as the first candle lights another, and another, and another. Flame to flame, light to light, passed from one person to another; and the darkness flees. A wave of tiny fires bathing the ancient walls in an eerie glow.

“He is risen,” the pastor proclaims. “He is risen indeed!” The proclamation is passed just like the flame, from person to person. I am no longer sure if He is risen indeed. I haven’t known Him since the day I wanted to die. But, I want to let myself feel this ancient hope, older than the stones of this church.

Ancient mortar and bricks have witnessed these words for centuries, spoken by pastors and princes and paupers. There is a sense of hope all around me. I feel it coming from the stones, as if they remember. Year after year, through the dark ages, the famines, the plague, and the wars, through Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, they have heard these words.

I think of widows, who lost their spouses in war. I think of peasants oppressed by the heavy rule of princes. I think of orphans and knights and young maidens and old crippled women. There are stories held in these walls, stories of pain and stories of hope. I waver between them. Pain and joy, hope and depression. We heard a story today, the story of God’s creation and His plan for His people and His Son, but there are other stories here. Stories that were lived in and around this church. Stories that found expression in resurrection vigils, voices that filled this space ages ago. They were stories that no book will ever contain, no scripture will ever declare, just like my story. And they are calling to me. I can’t make them out, it is the noise of too many decades, held in the thickness of these walls, thicker with memory than stone.

I don’t remember if I give the proper response that “He is risen indeed.” My mind is elsewhere. There is a resurrection here. There has been life and there will be again, and the stories held in this space – they are also mine. I come from these stories, I was born here. These people, these walls, these memories run in my blood. I was a part of something ancient once, older than the story we read today, older than the stories of this place, older, older still, as old as humanity.

Someone touches my arm. It is time to leave the church. Lent is over and we are each given a freshly baked bread roll, baked with yeast. We gather around a bonfire, lit on the church grounds. I long to feel the joy of the resurrection like those around me, but there is heaviness on me, a density.

An acquaintance makes a beeline toward me, pulls me into an overjoyed embrace, tells me how excited she is that my husband and I are here. She points at a visitor she has mistaken for my husband. This is all wrong. I want to go back to the fire. The heaviness of the walls still cling to me, and the dance of the flames is calling me. I can’t feel the joy that everyone around me is exuding. I feel a depth, a heaviness as I stare into the fire. This fire is so old, so young, so new, it changes, every moment and every second, and yet it is as it always has been. My body burns with grief, always, and I ache to know the joy and hope of the resurrection. Joy and hope doesn’t come to me, and yet the longing tells me I am still alive.

There is no conclusion of hope here; no expectation that this moment changed the arc of my story. It is true that something stirred in me that night. I suppose a Christian would say that it was Jesus showing up in a way I didn’t appreciate, in the walls and in the fire. A pagan interpretation would talk of trance, a calling from the ancestors, a connection with place. Maybe both are true or maybe neither. I had lost my religion and my framework for understanding, so that night came to me uninterpreted, divorced from all meaning, just like myself. It was a time outside of time, after my Christian narrative had died. I wouldn’t gain a new framework until the day I stepped into my first circle where encountered the unexpected and saw my narrative be reborn.

Germany's coldest winter
Germany’s coldest winter

Born Again Witch is published on alternate Mondays on the Agora. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

All images courtesy of the author.

I happened to hear a story on today’s today’s Interfaith Voices (a radio program I recommend highly, part of my usual Sunday afternoon NPR binge) about a couple who fell in with a cultish Buddhist teacher; and how one of them, Ian Thorson, ended up dying on a sort of meditation hermitage retreat in the Arizona desert.

It was a sad tale, but all I could think of as I listened was how much certainty in their teacher — indeed, not just in their teacher but in their understanding of what he had to say– it took to follow these bad ideas all the way into death.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

You should never be that certain of a religious or philosophical teaching. (Or a political one, for that matter.)

Zen has something important to say on this topic. Its origin myth has Emperor Wu of Liang interrogate Zen’s “First Patriarch”, Bodhidharma, about Buddhism. (It’s quite possible that Bodhidharma never actually existed, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from learning from this myth.)

Emperor Wu was an enthusiastic convert to Buddhism: he wrote about the topic, gave lectures on its scriptures, and is credited with collecting the first canon of Chinese Buddhist writing.[Creel, 159] He wanted to hear that this had racked up a whole bunch of “merit;” that he was guaranteed a favorable rebirth or something.

(Image courtesy Shutterstock)
(Image courtesy Shutterstock)

But this was not the sort of Buddhism that Bodhidharma was preaching. So Bodhidharma told the emperor that all this effort had earned him no merit. (It’s a brave thing to tell a guy who can have you beheaded on a whim that he is Doing It Wrong.)

When the Emperor dismissed him by asking “Who are you?” — i.e., “I’m the Emperor, jerkwad, who the hell are you to tell me what’s what?” — Bodhidharma gave an answer that has echoed through the centuries: “I don’t know”.[Watts 91-92]

Some teachers have called this “don’t know” the very heart of Zen. The 20th century Korean Zen master Seung Sahn often expressed the importance of “don’t know” mind, e.g. “Don’t know is before thinking. Before thinking is your substance and the universal substance; its name is primary point. So, don’t know is the absolute, the correct way, and true life.”[Sahn, 741] In budo Zen we refer to it as shoshin, “beginner’s mind”. The Karate master Tadashi Nakamura quotes Zen master Shunryu Suzuki’s famous admonition that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few,”[Suzuki, 21] and adds “When we gain a little knowledge about someone or something, then the mind puts up barriers; it forms opinions, preconceptions, and judgments, which inhibit true knowledge.”[Nakamura, 22]

There are many layers to this “don’t know,” but one of the most important is its warning against certainty. (After reading the @pentametron Twitter feed for a while, I ended up phrasing this as a couplet in iambic pentameter:

The road to hell, it seems to me,
Is often paved with certainty.)

Certainty is what leads to the burning of heretics and the harsh punishments of well-intentioned prohibition laws: we are so sure that your soul will be damned to eternal torment if you pray the wrong way that we will torture you into repenting. We are so sure that drinking a beer or smoking a joint or having sex with the wrong people or in the wrong way will ruin your life that we will break down your door and haul you off at gunpoint to stop you.

It’s what leads cultists to self-mutilation and suicide and soldiers and terrorists to commit massacres.

I think we could all do with a little more “don’t know” and a little less certainty. Maybe, just maybe, the teaching you’re following is wrong. Maybe the teaching is right but you’ve misunderstood it.

Even if you think you’ve heard the direct word of God(dess)(s/es), please consider that you may have heard him/her/them wrong.

Of course we can’t be paralyzed by indecision, we have to go forward with our best understanding of the information available to us. But, we should always leave room for the possibility that new empirical data will overthrow our theories. We must beware of irreversible commitment — such as death — to an idea.

References

Creel, H.G. Chinese Thought From Confucius to Mao Tse-tung. New York: Mentor (New American Library), 1953.

Nakamura, Tadashi. Karate: Technique and Spirit. Tokyo: Shufunotomo, 1986.

Sahn, Seung. Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Kwan Um School of Zen, 2008. <http://www.kwanumzen.org/online-resources/teaching-resources/teaching-letters-of-zen-master-seung-sahn/>, <http://www.kwanumzen.org/wp-content/uploads/0401_0500.pdf>

Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill, 1988.

Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. New York: Mentor (New American Library), 1961.


“The Zen Pagan” appears every other Friday. You can keep up by subscribing via RSS or e-mail.

More on the story of Bodhidharma and the development of Zen can be found in my book, Why Buddha Touched the Earth.

My next scheduled events are the Free Spirit Gathering in June and Starwood in July.

If you do Facebook, you might choose to join a group on “Zen Paganism” I’ve set up there. And don’t forget to “like” Patheos Pagan over there, too.

[Editor’s Note:  Please welcome our new columnist, Conor Warren, and his column, Spear of Athena.  His work will be posted on the second and fourth Thursday of the month.  You can subscribe using the links at the bottom of this post.  Welcome, Conor!]

I’m a gamer. Not the kind that occasionally plays a game on a tablet or Candy Crush, but a pretty hardcore gamer. When I was in high school, I frequently just played video games for hours on end and would probably fall back into that habit if it weren’t for having life goals and responsibilities and stuff. I mean, I knew how to play video games before I knew how to read, so I’ve been playing them for around 18 years now. My love of video games naturally lead to a love of technology. I’m not too tech trendy, but I can figure out how stuff works, and I’m excited to learn more about all things tech, though my boyfriend has to do the installation for me. So, it always bothers me a little bit when I see Pagans take highly anti-tech stances sometimes even to the point of proudly proclaiming themselves Luddites and accusing all (or most) the evils of society on technology. That just isn’t something I can let slide by.

Technology has benefits: I met my partner through an online dating site. We’ve bonded over World of Warcraft and a mutual love of video games. Skype and cellphones, as well as cars, have enabled us to have a relationship these past two and a half years while living an hour and a half apart. Aside from creature comforts, without modern technology I would be thoroughly and surely dead. I was a preemie of over two months kept alive by an incubator, attentive nurses, tubes that went into my hands and feet.

I really like that lion shirtI still bear scars from them, and when I see them I’m reminded that if I’d been born just 40 years earlier, I wouldn’t be around.  Ever since I’ve been old enough to be cognizant of it, I’ve been very grateful to be born in this age. On top of all this, the goddess I worship is the Patroness of Technology. Looking at her myths we see a pattern of her improving the works of other gods and goddesses through her inventions, and this carries on. She inspires new tech and new ideas. Technology, and the development of it, is one of her many gifts to humanity, but we are called to use these gifts responsibly.

What is using technology responsibly? Well, firstly anything that is self-destructive is irresponsible. While I don’t think Athena is hovering over every single one of her worshiper’s shoulders going “OHP, YOU WERE ON REDDIT FOR 46.73194 SECONDS TOO LONG,” I do know from experience that when you abuse (or reject) a god’s gifts, it can make approaching their altars and shrines a heckuva lot more difficult. Falling short of what you truly wanted to do can do that.

Anything that is destructive to our communities is irresponsible. Being an internet troll against other people is just an irresponsible (and antisocial) thing to do, but targeting and bullying people in our own communities is even worse. Bullying and harassment happens quite a bit online. It can be something “controversial” that makes you a target for bullying; like advocating the use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag (though it disappoints me that this has to be labeled controversial), or something a lot more simple and trivial, like ritual disagreements or disagreements on mythical interpretation. We have enough pressure and hostility from the outside, so generating more from within is not a good way to behave if we plan to survive into the generations (and if you don’t care if our faith communities survive into the generations, why are you here?). So, using the internet in these hostile ways is doubly irresponsible.

Using technology to ignore or even hurt our service people is one of the few uses that I believe is directly and genuinely offensive to Athena. I don’t like how many pointless wars we (America) fight in, but our warriors, our service people, deserve a basic amount of decency and respect. Our service people fall under her patronage and protection and so to use the resources at your disposal to harass, stalk, doxx, send death threats, or attempt to trigger a PTSD reaction is not only unethical and twisted, but it is also a great way for you to find yourself in the cross hairs of a certain goddess. What I am advocating isn’t really new or revolutionary; it is stewardship of gifts. It means using the gifts you (we) have been given responsibly to better the world.

600px-Goetia_seal_of_solomon.svgMany of you who are familiar with ecological and liberal strains of Christianity may recognize my borrowing the phrase, but it is such a dang good phrase! We must, absolutely must, learn to use our gifts responsibly. I think that is a good idea, and I’m all about stealing good ideas. I don’t want to attach moral implications to the stewardship though. I think the gods give us these gifts to do good with, but if we use them irresponsibly, they (under most circumstances) aren’t going to bring down some punishment on us. We’ll bring the hardships onto ourselves. If we make toxic internet communities, they’ll dissolve. If we harass someone and it causes them stress or mental damage, we may not only find ourselves ostracized from our communities but in some instances facing legal troubles as well.

If you can use something to do good, do good with it.

I’ll admit, readily, that I’m not a perfect steward of the gifts I’ve been given. I overindulge on video game time occasionally, sometimes I get angry and say things to folks (online and off) that are hurtful, mean, and unnecessary. I’m not perfect, but it is important to try even if you screw up from time to time. My goddess is the Patroness of Technology. I’m not going to stop playing video games, and I’m definitely going to take delight when my boyfriend gives me some silly shiny trinket or the other. But, we need to figure out how to be responsible and maybe show the Luddites that all this tech stuff ain’t so bad after all.


 

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Beltane; the birds are chirping, the bees are buzzing, the flowers are blooming, it seems that all of nature is heating up (in more ways than one). Beltane can be a hot and sexy holiday and we’ve had our share of hot and sexy rituals over the years. Think antlers, think masks, think gasping, panting, bodies entwining in the woods Beltanes; or lock the doors, open the windows and hope the neighbors aren’t home (or not so secretly hope they are listening) Beltane rituals. But hot and sexy might not be how you want to honor Beltane with your coven or your kiddos. Yes, we are a sex positive religion, and there’s is still a line.

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When it comes to Pagan holidays Beltane can be tricky one. Whether of ancient origins or modern invention, sex and sexiness and sexy sexiness is associated with Beltane. But what if boinking a beloved (or beloveds) isn’t your idea of celebrating Beltane? What if you don’t associate the arriving Rites of Spring with the the literal act(s) of, ahem, “raising the Maypole?” What (and how) might we honor and celebrate that isn’t about rutting? How can we look at the verdant, burgeoning Earth without the obligatory biological imperative to knock our collective Pagan boots?

shutterstock_108276Phoenix – Picnics – We have discovered that a picnic is an amazing, yet simple, way to honor the turning of the seasons with family and friends. Over the years, we’ve set up picnic dinners in the backyard to celebrate Beltane and enjoy the heat of the season. It is warm out, it is beautiful out; all you need is some food and some blankets. Plus, with a picnic you have the opportunity to slow down and smell the fresh grass or see the wildflowers pushing up. There’s time for playing games, create flower wreaths, make an outside altar with rocks, seeds, or flowers, or perhaps enjoy leisurely conversations about the seasonal shift. This is a time when you can talk about what is becoming, what is starting to blossom, where life is thriving. We can talk about renewal and hope and goals and dreams. This is a good time to determine what in your life is starting to grow and what you may need to cull. Simple rituals can be powerful rituals.

GwionGetting out in it. In Northern California, where we live, we’re really blessed with beautiful regional parks, beaches, and redwood forests.. There are literally thousands of hiking trails, nature walks, and different beautiful landscapes that we can explore. We don’t have to overtly say that we are going on a hike to honor and celebrate Beltane, but it’s a really good excuse. If you hold that Beltane is about celebrating the Spring and the return of life after a long, cold winter, then getting out and about is a great way to do this. For me, Beltane is about the pure, unadulterated joy of being embodied. Our bodies are amazing, no matter what our genders are, what our skin colour is, our level of physical ability, or the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies. We all have bodies, and that’s pretty amazing. We are all embodied and can feel the warm sun on our skin (even if just for a moment, or through a window). Whether it’s by getting out and hiking or smelling fresh cut flowers in our homes or just marveling at the blue sky above or stopping long enough to hear birdsong or eating, we can engage with Beltane through our own bodily experiences.

shutterstock_213158269Phoenix – Food – There is a food focus in many spiritual traditions. Think about it, what is Christmas without a big dinner, what would Passover be like without gefilte fish? Over the years we have developed our own special meals for the major holidays. Yes, this works for Beltane, but it could easily be stretched to all of the other Sabbats as well. During the High Holidays we like to make large family dinners, gathering with even our non-Pagan friends and relatives. Often we draw on the recipes from the Celtic Folklore Cookbook to give us some inspiration and ideas. Special meals are another way to get small kids, who may not be so into the ritual aspects of the holiday, involved. Cooking is fun, you can get a little dirty, and add blessings and prayers into the food. This has always been a good way to get the kids involved at our house.

GwionArts and Crafts – Ok, so I really don’t like arts and crafts, this might be my kryptonite of the Pagan lifestyle, but I have to admit that making crafts with a group, a coven, or the family can be fun and celebratory. Making head wreaths of flowers, creating small flower baskets and doorbell ditching these on the neighbors doorsteps, decorating the house, making small faerie houses for the backyard, and so on can bring a group together in one creative process.

There are many ways to honor Beltane. Some ways might be more appropriate than others to involve the whole coven in, some might be a more private affair. However you celebrate Beltane, may it be joyful, fun and full of just the right amount of “Beltaney” juiciness for you.


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All pictures are courtesy of ShutterStock.

Together we have gathered for a ritual; we begin the trance journey. We climb down the roots of the world tree. Down, deeper down, we journey into the shadow, the deep within. Together we sing, we feel the hum of divine connection in the center of our chests, we connect to that deep well of wisdom and inspiration cradled in the deep earth.

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Recently, I facilitated the main ritual at Paganicon, a Pagan conference in the Twin Cities celebrating its fifth year. I never know how rituals like this are going to go until they happen. As a ritualist and event planner, I’m always prepared for ritual facilitation disasters because anything could go wrong during a public ritual.

When planning a ritual, I’m often unsure what the space looks like, how big the room is, what kind of acoustics I’m working with. I don’t know how many attendees will show up or how willing they’ll be to chant and dance and sing. I’m often working with volunteer ritualists who take supporting roles as well, and many times, these aren’t folks I’ve had the chance to work with before. When I step in to lead a public ritual, I have to be prepared for any number of things.

Planning a big ritual can be a lot of stress, and I occasionally wonder why I put myself through it. I ask myself, what good is ritual? Why is religion important at all?

Sometimes, though, the ritual just flows and re-inspires me for the work I do.

Sometimes a ritual goes well in ways I couldn’t even anticipate. The rituals that I host tend to not be primarily celebratory; they tend to be deep, intensive, and introspective. In this case, the Paganicon ritual was themed after the journey into the Underworld and the return. My hope, with these rituals, is to make space for catharsis. For connection. For divine communion. For self reflection.

I often say, I’m not there to tell people what to believe in, theologically; I’m just there to help get them to the “doorway,” as it were, to that something larger, that something deeper.

After this ritual and throughout the entire weekend, I was honored to hear from a number of people who had intense, transformative experiences. It’s when I hear from these folks that I’m re-inspired not only for the work that I do as a ritualist and teacher, but also for religion and spirituality in general.

When I see some of the conflicts that come up within Pagan groups, or in the broader world around us because of religion, I sometimes have to wonder if religion causes more harm than good. But, when a ritual participant comes up to me and tells me that they felt the divine, that they connected to their ancestors, that they were able to work through something that had been causing them pain, I see the good work that ritual and religion can do.

Ecstatic Ritual and Mysteries

The rituals I facilitate are ecstatic, participatory, cathartic. There is singing and moving and dancing and drumming, there is trancework and hands-on experiential work. There’s a phrase, “It’s a mystery,” that is often used within Pagan groups. Sometimes it’s unfortunately used as a way to dodge a question or look more educated/illuminated/special. But often it just means, “This is something I can explain to you, but the words won’t do it justice, you’re just going to have to experience it for yourselves.”

That being said, sometimes the right words at the right time can give us a glimpse into a particular mystery. While I can’t replicate the sound of the ritual, the experience of walking through it, I can tell you a story. The story of when we journeyed together down the roots of the World Tree, down to the Underworld, down to the sacred well beneath the world.

Will you join me?

The Ritual: Return to the Root

Almost two hundred of us gather together and sing. We fill the room as we chant, we connect, we move. We share breath and pulse, we share space. We move to the heartbeat of the drum in our bones. We ground into the space, into our bodies, and we connect together as a community, a tribe, even if just for this night’s work. We sing and speak and move together to invite the elements, and to invite the archetypes of the Gatekeeper, the Water Bearer, and to evoke the spirit of the Seeker within us all.

And then we stand before the World Tree. The Gatekeeper. The portal opens and we begin to journey down. Deeper. Down and further down….

Down the roots of the tree, down into the depths, down toward the land of shadows, of ancestors. Down and deeper, how do you journey? What do you see here? What do you feel in your body, what do you hear or smell?

Before you can go further, there stands a challenger before you.

Someone or something that halts your path. Who is it? What is it? Do they ask you a question? Do they remind you of a time past? And how do you move through this challenge?

hornedoneDown, deeper down, you begin to feel the wildness. The primal nature of the mysteries of the down below and the deep within. Deeper you travel, step after step until you face another challenger. Does this one have a name, or a face, or is it simply a sound, a metaphor? How do you move past it?

Can you feel the essence of the depths calling you deeper, calling you forth? Is it a sound or a song or a scent? Is it a resonance in the center of your chest?

What draws you deeper still, deeper into the wildness, deeper into the below? You face one last gate, one last challenge, before entering the depths of the Underworld. What faces you here? And how do you move through?

And can you feel that wildness rising up within you, the howls and cries of ecstasis?

What is it to be fully in your body, to feel, and to remember? What are the sounds of grief, of joy, of anguish, of lust, of love, what are the sounds that rise forth? What are the primal mysteries coiling within that demand release? What would it be like to express that sound, to be heard and to be joined, to howl or laugh or weep?

The land of the Underworld is the land of ancestors, the land of shadows. It is the land of memories, of fears, of our past, of the emotions we bury deep down. It’s the shushed whispers of “keep quiet” or “don’t embarrass yourself” or “pull yourself together.”

Together we howl. We weep. We laugh.

And from that place of wildness, we venture further into the Underworld to do the work that calls to our spirit. What inner work has called you to the land of shadow, the land of ancestors?

Perhaps we are there to speak to an ancestor, to one of the beloved dead. Or to listen to the wisdom an ancestor has for us. Perhaps we are there to cut away something that no longer serves, to let that energy fall to the ground as compost. Perhaps we are there to speak a secret. In the dark cave beneath the earth, is there something you can tell no living person, but the burden is too heavy? What would you speak here to release it?

Perhaps we are there to look into the mirror of our deepest selves. What are we afraid people will see when they look at us? What are the shadows that haunt us? If we can name them, if we can connect to them, can we move past their hold on us? Perhaps we are there to acknowledge a sacrifice, to let something go or to name what it is we are willing to give something up for. What are our life’s dreams? What do we give of ourselves to make those happen?

shaunaauraknight_grailandtheworldtree-2Together we sing, the sound holds us and cradles us like the rocking of the waves. And slowly we return to the center, to the community. There are guides there with bowls of what looks like red clay or blood.

“What do you initiate into?” they ask us. “What mysteries have called to you, what did you come here to seek? Will you be marked as an initiate?” And if we choose, we are marked wherever on our bodies is right for us. We are marked for having made this journey.

The mysteries cannot be unseen.

As we gather together with red marking our foreheads, our hands, our chests, the sound begins to shift.

We have gathered around the sacred well, the deepest well at the center of the world. This is the well where the rainwaters fall, and it is the well that feeds the taproots of all the trees of all the worlds. This well reflects the burning stars in the nighttime sky above. This is the well carved from centuries of water flowing through rock. It is the well of unbound life force.

It is the well carved into our hearts every time we make this sacred journey, every time we heal an old wound, ever time we connect to the divine. Every time we crack open our hearts and make room, we carve the well deeper still.

If you were to drink of this well, this grail, this sacred life force, what would you use this power for? This energy? What sacred work calls to you? Building community, working for justice, creating art, healing old wounds and renewing our spirit?

If you had all of the world’s deep life force held cupped in your hands, if you could claim this magic for your own, what would you do with it?

What power and magic would you claim? And will you drink those sacred waters? What would change in your life if you did?

Together we sing this magic, we become the singing bowl, the sacred well, the fire that heats the waters and we rise back up the tree to return to ourselves.

Together we have brought the magic. We fought our way down the roots of the tree, we faced the shadows that hold us back, and we brought that cupfull of water back with us into our lives.

Why Does It Matter?

Why ritual matters, why religion matters, is that sound of two hundred people singing a chant together in harmony. That feeling of hundreds of feet pounding the ground, people moving and dancing and singing to bring up that life force. Why it matters is people looking across the circle at one another as they sing, meeting eyes, seeing the divine in one another.

Why it matters is in the moments during and after ritual when people stay close to that center, holding one another, weeping or laughing, connecting. Why it matters is in the hours and days after the ritual when people tell me that the ritual shifted something within them, that they felt the fingertips of the divine and it made their lives better.

How can you bring the magic? What would you do with the energy of those waters of the sacred well?


Seeking the Grail is published on monthly on the third Monday. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Images courtesy of the author.

'Betty Boop' Rose
‘Betty Boop’ Rose

We have all heard the phrase, and some even quote it: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”  In the famous play, Juliet uses this line to ask Romeo to change his surname as if it didn’t matter. Often today the quote is used as if to say that one lovely flower, although different, is as good as another despite a change in name. Sometimes this ‘lovely flower’ meaning is stretched to mean ‘women’ or ‘love’ in general. But, roses can be very different in name, and some don’t smell at all.

Ah, William (if that is indeed your name) truth is:  you got it wrong.

Although, in Shakespeare’s day it was closer to being true.  Back then, the almost scent-free hot house rose we see commonly today would not be tolerated. Simply no room in the carefully tended medieval garden for such nonsense.

Ever wondered what apples, strawberries, blackberries, and pears could possibly have in common? If fire blight had once been through your yard, then you know the answer already. These, along with rose hips, are all the fruit of the Rosa family of plants.

Rosa is among the first and most common botanical family for our favorite Western fruits. And roses have always been especially magickal, the plant itself being a symbol of both Mars (for its blood red blossoms and protective thorns) and Venus (for its scent, beauty, and tasty fruit) with the five petals of the most ancient varieties a symbolic reference to her celestial body.

Red Climber
Red Climber

As above, so below; or so the saying goes. Venus, in her meandering across the sky, is never far from the sun, and in the course of one Earth year, traces (are you ready?) a pentacle in the nighttime sky. And if you slice an apple in half cross-ways, it can also become an instant pentacle for your picnic altar cloth.

I don’t make this stuff up, I just report it.

Among the flower’s rosy fruit, strawberries are most odd. Not only is the shape of the fruit decidedly, er, male…. And, because the fruit actually forms in-side-out and all the seeds are stuck out there upon the skin, I would definitely call this variety of rose plant masculine.

And speaking of Mars, thorny vines can keep you safe if your home is deep within them, but what does it say as a symbol of Love that the thorns are shaped just so as to let you reach an arm deep within the twisted branches with nary a prick, only to scratch and claw at you viciously when you dare to pull away? Golly, this sounds familiar too.

The thorns of a rose or berry vine, I was surprised to find, are nothing more than undeveloped leaves gone wrong. Or gone right, if you like a thorny barricade.

Transplanting the ever-forgiving rose is a relatively easy task. Make sure you clip back about 60% of the above ground growth before digging up an established shrub, and be sure to dig wide so you don’t damage too many roots as you go.

Joseph's Coat
Joseph’s Coat

Reposition your rose in its new place with a nice big hole, where it will grow nicely with the affections of you as gardener, the sun, and a little water; just don’t cover the root-crown with soil! You will know that your plants are getting enough water if the new leaves show rose-colored around the edges, fading as they age to a deep, glossy green.

Once in the rose garden, if you notice a branch of leaves browned and shriveled as if by fire then you have likely got a case of fire blight in your yard.  Take care of this right away!  Here is what you do: immediately get a large paper bag, a pair of garden gloves, your pruners and, some rubbing alcohol. Clip away any damaged foliage. Being careful not to contact the plant with your clippings, place these in the paper bag right away.  Burn the bag to destroy the blight virus, and clean your pruners with rubbing alcohol to avoid spreading the disease.

The oldest roses are still available today. Rosa gallica, called the “Apothecary Rose” was the type mentioned by Greek historians, used in dark age monastery gardens, and found in medieval physic gardens. This is the type most used for the fragrance of their essential oils and in healing preparations at the time. And today, when the roses bloom in Bulgaria, armies of old women go to the fields picking 250lbs (115kg) of petals to distill for each single ounce of essential oil.

Rose Hips
Rose Hips

The hips, containing vast amounts of Vitamin C, are best eaten fresh and raw, as heat and age will break this vitamin down quickly.  This vitamin is also used today on skin to topically reduce wrinkles.  Long considered a beauty aide, the leaves plucked early in the morning and placed over ones eyes are “cooling” and  said by Hildegarde “to relieve puffiness.”   The petals are edible too, and may be added to salads or desserts for color and flavor.

The rose has enjoyed various cultural significance through history. In Roman times, it meant success; in later days perhaps to excess as Nero nearly broke the state with his obsession for the flower.  The early Christian church, for this reason, condemned roses as depraved…until adopting the white Rosa alba as the emblem of the Virgin Mary.

Different meanings  were ascribed to each color of a rose in the Victorian era. These are the meanings largely used today: red roses for romantic love, white for your mother or someone who has died, and yellow roses for a friend. Now, there are also roses that bloom a silvery violet grey and some so dark that they bloom nearly black. I wonder what to make of that.

Musk Rose
Musk Rose

Planted in the yard, rose bushes, shrubs, and vines will all attract fairies. Fittingly, it is also said that roses grown from stolen cuttings are the ones that grow the best. There seem to be love analogies waiting in that one, too.  And, here is a secret from a Gypsy friend of mine: the petals of a rose, picked for one’s true love are the most potent aphrodisiac of all. Careful now…

For the modern Crafter, the rose has many uses.  The wood is very hard and may be used for making a protective and prophetic wand. Associated also with prophecy, a string of dried rose hips worn as a necklace will allow a young lady to “see” her future husband in dreams, as will drinking a tea made from rosebuds. And, Scott Cunningham assures us that even a single rose bud upon the altar will help greatly with love spells; just do be sure to remove the thorns first!

Resources:


Adventures in Wortcunning is published on alternate Fridays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail.

Images courtesy of the author.

 

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

 

I’ve written a number of times about our communities struggles with stability and longevity. It’s a long standing issue that, due to its complexity, remains a relevant topic of discussion even after all these years. In my previous article I listed three major factors that often influence the lifespans of so many of our local community organizations. (Size, distribution, and interpersonal relationships.) Another factor has recently made itself incredibly apparent to me.

 

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Leadership

It’s a trait I’ve noticed throughout much of the general Pagan community, but particularly among my fellow Heathens. Everybody wants to be a chef. Everybody wants to be the priest, or the head of the Hearth, or the teacher. One of the biggest problems in our community is that nobody wants to be the person who pays the priest. With so many people wanting to run the kitchen, we end up with nobody left to manage the myriad of tasks required to make that kitchen function.

 

Being a spiritual leader is a FULL TIME JOB, and without the proper infrastructure it can be a nearly impossible task to take on while also keeping food on the table. Providing that kind of devoted service to the community requires a real support crew, just like any business. Any long standing religious facility will have an entire roster of people who fulfill the necessary functions to keep the place afloat while the ‘spiritual leaders’ focus on doing exactly what their title implies.

 

We have a glut of ‘priests’ and not enough accountants.

So many teachers, and so few administrators.

So many brilliant ideas, and almost no financiers.

 

We need people who are willing to work in the background. We don’t need more chefs, we need kitchen managers who can keep an eye on the business while the chef worries about the food. I’ve been asked a number of times if my goal is to someday run my own Hearth. The answer is no.

I’m no Gothi. Never have been. Never wanted to be.

My goal is to someday help my local community build up a lasting temple where people can come for celebrations and guidance from professionals who are trained to offer those services. If I do my job properly, the Gothi/Gythia will be able to do their job without worrying about the technical details that can bog down a religious ritual. If I do my job properly the lights will stay on, the fliers will go out on time, and not a soul will know my name.

 

I believe THAT is what our community needs.

 


Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!


A few years ago, I felt compelled to make the switch to a vegetarian lifestyle. Most people who know me assumed this choice was motivated by my ever-deepening yoga practice, but the truth is, yogic philosophy was only a secondary component to my decision. The main reason I stopped eating meat was the Rede, the guiding rule of Wicca: “’An it harm none, do what you will.” I don’t consider myself a Wiccan, but when I first found the Pagan path, that was the bulk of material I read and absorbed, and much of it resonated for me. I still strive to live by the Rede, and I decided that if I truly wanted to avoid harm, I would stop eating animals.

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I made the choice shortly before the Winter Solstice that year, and I was just beginning to establish my new eating habits when my husband and I traveled to Egypt. For whatever reason, despite how careful I was (even brushing my teeth in bottled water), I got desperately sick toward the end of our trip, and spent a few miserable dehydrated days curled up on the hotel balcony, rather than out exploring. Looking back, my body may have even then been protesting my dietary change, but I clung stubbornly to the idea that a vegetarian lifestyle was essential to my core spirituality.

A few months later, I hadn’t really returned to full energy levels, so I had my iron levels tested, but there was no evidence of anemia. So, I carried on, for close to a year, before I finally admitted that, in my quest to do no harm, I’d been harming myself. Despite an active, healthy lifestyle and carefully prepared nourishing meals, I’d been perpetually sick and exhausted during my year without meat. Perhaps a supplement would have fixed things, but I was already an ardent consumer of a daily multivitamin coupled with fish oil, and I didn’t want to get more of my nutrients from pills. My inner voice started prompting me to reevaluate my diet, but I’m stubborn, and I resisted for a good long time before I finally sat with myself and considered what would be necessary for me to feel well again.

Since nothing seemed to be medically wrong with me, it didn’t make sense to begin popping different supplements in an attempt to fix the problem, and my inner voice argued quite compellingly that what I really needed was to consume meat again. I wasn’t happy with the idea of integrating meat back into my diet, and the first time I did, I half hoped that my stomach would reject the flesh, giving me further justification for remaining meat-free. But despite a year without meat, my body consumed the first bit of turkey I offered it happily, and I had no ill effects.

The Goddess Is in the Details: Wisdom for the Everyday Witch
The Goddess Is in the Details: Wisdom for the Everyday Witch

Deborah Blake addresses the tension of working with the forces of nature while at the same time consuming them in her wonderful book, The Goddess is in the Details, and one statement she makes particularly resonated with me while I was struggling with my diet: “On those occasions when I do eat [meat], I always try to take a moment to say thank you to the animal that died so that I might continue to live.” There’s really no one-size fits all diet, and I think it’s important to make food choices with the same mindfulness I give to my magical practice since, after all, nourishing our bodies is a beautiful kind of magic that we engage in every day.

Slowly, I began to mindfully and thankfully integrate poultry and seafood into my meals, although I continued to eat vegetarian about three quarters of the time, and not so slowly, my health improved. I now eat meat consciously and sparingly, always trying to buy as close to local and “happy” as possible (my husband and I joke about the cage-free happy turkey we supply each year for the family Thanksgiving), and although I occasionally regret that I cannot live a fully vegetarian life, I’ve also acknowledged that in my quest to do no harm, I have to remember not to do harm to myself.


The Busy Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail! Or, check out her Facebook Page for writings, ramblings, and more magic! Drop by and say hi!

Photo of fruit courtesy of shutterstock: shutterstock.com.

[Editor’s Note:  Please welcome Annika Mongan to Patheos Pagan and to the Agora.  Her column, Born Again Witch, will be published on the second and fourth Mondays of every month.  You can subscribe using the links at the bottom of this article.  Welcome, Annika!!]

The day I lost the last piece of my Christian faith was the day I almost died. Every time I talk about my past as a Christian minister, ordained in a Southern Baptist Church, I am asked the same question: What happened to make me leave Christianity and embrace Witchcraft?

Standing in a circle
Standing in a Circle

I love studying religion and faith journeys, and the questions I am asked are also the questions I ask myself: Why do people leave the religion in which they were raised? What makes people stay? How do people grow within their faith traditions? When do religions support spiritual growth and when do they fail to do so? And most of all, how do transitions between religious paradigms take place?

When I am asked about my own conversion, I always give a slightly different answer. There were so many moments of transition, a theological shift here, a loss of trust there. Depending on who is asking, I might talk about the questions that came up for me when I studied the bible or I might tell stories of religious experiences. I will be exploring both here, theological ideas and stories from my own journey. But today I set out to find the decisive moment in which I ceased to identify as a Christian.

I didn’t want to leave Christianity. Even as I was growing apart from the beliefs of my childhood and youth, I kept hanging on by sheer will and desperation. I feared that I would end up in hell if I let go. But, on the day I almost died, hell as a place in the afterlife didn’t matter to me anymore, because hell had already become my here and now. And, so the last thread of faith tore and I fell. But, it wasn’t a falling from grace; it was a falling into insanity. And, when I rose again, I was no longer a Christian.

It is bright and sunny outside, but I have no idea what day it is. I am in bed, holding my shaved head in my hands. I am struggling against falling over as my muscles rebel against sitting up. I drift in and out of my body. Inside there is nothing but pain, outside there is nowhere to go. I haven’t eaten in days, I don’t remember how many. I realize that this is a first. Food has always been my comfort, when in doubt, stuff it down. I never understood how some people will stop eating when they are in distress. Now, I do. Just the thought of putting food in my mouth nauseates me. My muscles hurt, and I am loathe to move at all. I just want to lie down again, but I make myself sit. If I can do this, I tell myself, I will lie down again, never to move aching muscles again.

I am still exhausted from my crawl to the bathroom. When I decided to make that trek, I forgot just how weak I was, and I had tried walking. That was a mistake; I had been forced to my knees instantly. Crawling the whole way had taken a long time. It was the thought that I would never have to do it again that kept me clawing at the ground and dragging my body forward. I had almost given up by the time I reached the bathroom, and I rested with my body slumped over the toilet. After a while I was able to pull myself up, reach into the medicine cabinet, and retrieve the little jar of pills.

I think the prescription was from my husband’s surgery. Or maybe they were given to us by a friend for recurring back pain. Either way, there would be enough. I remember the time my husband threw his back out and, underestimating the strength of the pills, he took two. He couldn’t move, his heart was beating too slowly, his speech was slurred, and it took more than a full day before he could get out of bed again. I remember how terrified he was. He thought he wouldn’t be able to walk ever again.

And, here I now am, after my return from the bathroom, sitting on the bed, holding the jar in my hands. If two pills knock someone out for a more than a day, surely a handful will end my pain. It will be like sleeping, only better, because sleep is filled with nightmares, and waking is never a relief.

Relief. Just this morning I felt a little relief when I woke up to the sound of the front door. I had been clawing at my pillow in my sleep, scraping bloodied fingers across blankets, bedposts, skin, hoping he’d come home. And, when I woke up, it was true, his key was turning in the lock. After spending all night out, he had come home. I tried to prop myself up on the bed, hopeful, hungry for his attention. When he came in, he stared at me with cold eyes. Pity and hatred. He despised me. He said something, I don’t know what, but I soaked up the sound of his voice like the parched grass in our yard waiting for the next thunderstorm. He patted me on the shoulder, like a displeased but indulgent owner of a disobedient dog. For a moment it felt like a passionate, loving kiss. And then, he was gone again. And I hated, hated myself for needing him like this. That’s when I first started thinking about the pills.

The lid is screwed on tightly, but I get it open. Big white ovals in my emaciated hands. I would never need him again. Maybe he would grieve. Maybe it would make him hate me more. But, I would be done hating myself. I raise my hand. I try to stop myself. What is there to hang on to? What is there to stop me? I think of Jesus. He hates me, too. Or worse, He doesn’t care. Either that or it was all a lie and He doesn’t exist. Jesus used to be my hope. My joy. My love. My raison d’être, my reason for being. My life. When He left, all those things left with him. He didn’t just leave a “God shaped hole in my heart”. He tore it out and trampled it and left me to die inside a heartless body.

I remember having spent the better half of a decade trying to find Him again. “If God seems distant, guess who moved?” I remember praying, reading through the Bible, in German, English, and parts of it in Hebrew and Greek. I would meditate on His Word, singing His praises, begging for His mercy. I would repent, of sins known and unknown, searching for hidden sins, confessing them all. I once stole a pencil from my little brother. I thought sexual thoughts before I was married. I listened to secular music. I think of all the times I received prayers of deliverance, the laying on of hands, the casting out of demons. I had tried so hard. Then, I had repented from trying so hard. Finally, I waited for grace. Cultivating patience. Spending years in darkness, longing for Him.

My husband once said that, since I was married, it was only right that God should express His presence through him, my spouse, instead of directly through Christ. But, now he tells me he has “earned the right to be with other women”. That I “deserve to be beaten”. That our marriage vows mean nothing because “his love for me has died”. I know it is bad theology, but that’s exactly how it feels to no longer sense Jesus in my life.

The pills in my hand, I pray to Jesus anyway. I repented from putting too much trust in my husband months ago. I repent from it again now. If that was my sin, I beg for forgiveness. It’s what I was taught, but I take responsibility and repent. I crave forgiveness. I crave hope. I wait, “wait for the Lord;” it’s what I do these days. It’s what I have done for years. It’s what I’m supposed to do, but I’ve only ever had so much strength, and now it is gone.

I open a Bible and wipe away the tears so I can read. The words feel empty, meaningless. The pills lay warm in my living hand. I let myself slip off the bed, onto my knees and I cry out to Him. I cannot bear the pain any longer. I am out of strength. It is now or never. Anything will do, a whisper of hope. A hint of His presence. I beg with the last of my breath.

And then I can wait no longer. Despair consumes me and I know there will be no answer. Now there is no one left to stop me. I raise my hand to my mouth. And so it will end.

I would like to remember what happened next as a Hollywood-esque scene with heart wrenching music. As my hand rises in slow motion, Arwen, my black cat, comes sprinting across the room, leaping onto my lap, licking my tears and thus saving my life. I think I have told the story like this a few times. But I’m afraid this is not how it happened. There was no dramatic moment that saved me. I would love it if there had been; then I could leave it open for interpretation. Arwen could have been sent by Jesus, thus vindicating the faith of my Christian friends and family with Christ’s answer coming at the last second. Or, Arwen could have been sent by the Goddess, or some other deity. Or, she could have come on her own, thus revealing the pagan mystery that all the earth is alive and interconnected. It would make such a great story, easily adaptable by different religious views.

In all honesty, I don’t remember how it all happened. I remember snapshots that I now, years later, weave into a story. I do remember the prayers. I do remember the crawl to the bathroom, the opening of the jar, the warmth of the pills in my hand. And, I vividly remember the endless waiting. I can still see my hand rising to my mouth, but I think it happened more than once. And, Arwen was there and she did lick my tears, but I am not sure that she did it in perfect heroic timing. I must have gone through cycles, deciding to do it, and then backing down again, and then coming so very close, and then deciding to wait just a little longer.

I know I was looking for reasons to live. I existed in that last scene of the movie, where all is lost, but you know the hero will come in some miraculous and unexpected way. He simply has to; the movie wouldn’t work if he didn’t. And, so I stretched that final moment into an eternity. A part of me really wanted it to be Jesus. Then we could have our happy ending and go on living happily ever after. Except that I knew we wouldn’t. I knew I was too human to simply go back to the way things had been. You don’t have someone disappear from your life, ignore you for a decade, and then resume your relationship as if nothing had happened.

I wish I could at least stay alive for my family, but I couldn’t. They were all bound to the same Jesus. I couldn’t live with Him anymore and my family wouldn’t be able to live with the knowledge that I was no longer a Christian. It was better for me to be dead and potentially in heaven than alive and an apostate.

Arwen
Arwen

In the end I found a reason to return the pills to the jar, if only for a little while. And, that reason was Arwen. I didn’t trust my husband to take care of her when I was gone, and I hadn’t thought to make other arrangements. I don’t remember how many cycles of “almost I went through, but in the end I decided to find a place for Arwen before I would follow through. I didn’t find hope, but I found a reason to postpone.

I put the pills back in the jar and let it drop from my hands. I watch it fall and roll on the tiles. More pain hits me just when I think I cannot possibly experience more. I am still alive. It is not yet over. It may still end soon, but now I carry the additional burden of finding a home for Arwen. And, something else has changed. That smallest of smolder in the dying embers of my faith is gone. The fire is out. What once was hot flickering passion for my Jesus, my love, reduced to embers throughout my Dark Night of the Soul, is now a pile of cold black coals. I stir them, just to be sure, but there is no glow, all has gone out. This fire can never be rekindled. It is dead. He is dead.

“Jesus” I cry into the void as I grieve my loss. I had waited most of my adult life, and now it was over. I let myself fall out of bed unto the cold hard ground. I writhe and claw at the tiles and lose all sense of time and space as I dive into a hell of unrefined pain. I hear darkness. I see emptiness. I used to think hell was a place of eternal fire. Now, it is a place so dark that fire cannot exist.

I don’t know how long I exist in this state, but my body is still alive and it is cold. I have been lying on ceramic tiles. I need to move, but I can’t think. I feel lost in this body. I must have crawled into the living room some time ago and this thing I am grasping is the leg of a desk. There are dry erase markers on it. My hand reaches out and takes them. I see my fingers pulling off the cap and touching the marker to the ground. A dot of color appears on the tiles and then another. A line. If I still could, I would giggle. Isn’t it funny that I just changed something about my surroundings?

CIRCLES! The thought comes out of nowhere and my fingers obey. It looks like I have drawn a circle on the ground. I wish I wasn’t in too much agony to giggle. Another one appears, drawn by my hand. Circles. I am making circles. One here, one there. Circles. I am insane. Why am I drawing circles? The movement calms me and I take control over my hand. Now I make the circle go where I want it to go. I make a small one. I make a bigger one. Circles. Circles. Circles. The floor is filling with circles.

This is crazy. I can feel myself thinking it. I have gone insane. Somehow that thought makes me want to laugh. Maybe insane hurts less than being alive? I am on a mission. I now have different colors, and I am making circles everywhere. Where the circles are, the darkness is a little less dense. So I make more. I make a big one and I crawl into it and then I let out a frightening sound that was meant to be a laugh.

This is it, I just know it. If I can make a circle, I can find hope. If I can make a circle and get into it, I can be OK. Circles that are safe. Circles that are free. Circles where I can stand. Circles where I can be. I am forming thoughts again. The circles help me think. I imagine that each time I make a circle and crawl into it, I am a little better. It feels real. The idea of circles feels real to me, and I think of circles that are not on these tiles. Circles made with something other than dry erase markers. Circles that are strong and that can hold me.

I can see them in my mind’s eye. What if there are others? Other people? People who can teach me how to make circles? I don’t know what they would be made of. Something powerful. Circles yet to come. Circles that have always been. What if I could find those circles? What if I could learn to make them? Circles where I could be whole, even without him. Circles that exist, not in death, but in life. If I could learn to make those circles, I could live. It would be worth living for. I could grow in those circles.

I have no idea where these thoughts are coming from, but they feed me, and they feel real. I keep drawing my circles, symbols of circles yet to come. I am in the middle of another circle when the front door opens and he walks in. My husband. “What the HELL are you doing?”, he shouts as he drops his bags. I sit in my circles and smile. “Circles”, I say. “Don’t you see?” He just stands there and stares. I go back to drawing, muttering “they’re safe, if I can just get into the circle, don’t you understand? I need to learn how to make circles!”

A sharp pain in my arm makes me look up. He has grabbed me and is yanking me away from my circles. “YOU-” His spit is flying in my face. It reeks of alcohol again. “Don’t you dare! Don’t you DARE do this to me!” He pries my fingers open and takes the markers from me.

Ha, at least you used dry erase markers,” he barks. His face is so close to mine. His lips are trembling, and his fist is raised. He lifts me off the ground and drags me into the bedroom. There will be no more circles for me tonight.

I see Arwen dashing out of the room. She always does when my husband comes home. He drags me into the bedroom and slams the door shut. And then he does things. Things that only happen behind our closed doors. Things we never speak of, because they make him look bad. But this time, for the first time, they don’t really matter. I stare at the jar of pills on the tiles. I know I won’t use them. I will throw them in the trash later. My faith died today, but I didn’t. I decide to live, for I know that someday, somehow I will learn to make circles that neither he nor anyone else can erase from these cold white tiles.

A circle, a fire, and light in the darkness.
A circle, a fire, and light in the darkness.

Born Again Witch is published on alternate Mondays on the Agora. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

All images were taken by the author.

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