Singing Down the Sun

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Slow Living. Read other perspectives here.

To me, being Pagan is honoring Nature in all Her forms: humans, animals, plants, rocks, oceans, and the Earth Herself. A necessary part of that is paying attention to the rhythms of the World, the Sun, the Moon, the tides. These set a different pace than the human-constructed world. The days of the week, the months of the year, the count of the years: humans imposed them on Nature because we are pattern-makers. Based on the moon and sun originally, the calendar has drifted further and further away from those cycles and rules our lives more than natural events.

So I ask myself, what existed before us, before people created models of the world we imposed upon Nature? Where and when does the Full Moon actually rise and set? What are the first flowers in my area, the first berries? When is the first thunderstorm in spring and the first snow in fall? How do these vary from year to year, and have they changed since I first started noticing them? Observing these is part of my spiritual practice.

As Pagans, we seek to attune ourselves with the rhythm of the seasons, which is also the pattern of planting and harvest, the sun and moon, waxing and waning. We are continually connecting to the time of year, those things that happen only a particular time of year — the maple sap running and being turned into syrup, the time when the lack of mosquitoes means we can sit outside to watch the Moon rise unhindered, seeing the young goslings in the park, eating fresh corn from roadside stands, the leaves turning from green to red and yellow and brown. Soon, we will be celebrating the Summer Solstice, the longest day and the shortest night of the year. Even though we look forward to Summer through the long Minnesota winter, we recognize that the Sun unchecked in its progression would be destructive. We seek balance and the continuation of the cycle of the Year.

My coven brother, Steven Posch, looked at his altar once, and had an interesting insight. There on the altar — which was a table — stood a chalice, a bowl of water, a container of salt, a plate (for serving ritual cakes), and an athame, the sacred knife. On the floor in front stands a cauldron. The common element — eating and drinking. Ours is a religion of life and death, we who feed, and that which feeds us. This is probably why many of our rituals are feasts, or at least include some form of food.

So we climb the tallest hill in Minneapolis, we dance, we sing, we have a picnic meal. It's potluck, of course, sharing the work; these days there is much discussion online about who will bring what. Food means cooking; it's too early for much from the garden, but there are greens, and a few other finds at the local Farmer's Market. We may still have the last jar of homemade pickles, or the last of the tomatoes frozen in September to add to that special dish. We saved a few bottles of homemade cider from the previous Autumn so we can toast the coming of Summer. For the first time, we share potato salad, gazpacho, and other summer dishes.

We begin by blessing the meal. Then we go around the table and talk about the food, what's in a particular dish, where did we get it. (This is also for the benefit of vegetarians and those with allergies.) We like to be aware of where our food comes from. Life feeds on life; everything we eat was once alive, except for salt. Our ears cannot hear the cry of the wheat or barley when it is cut down, but it is alive nevertheless, and even if we don't eat meat, we must kill to make our bread and our beer.

Cooking, baking, and brewing are part of the magic, the alchemy, transforming soil and sun and water. These require time and patience. You can't just snap your fingers and have bread risen and baked, or cucumbers pickled, or sauerkraut fermented. Real beer and cider take time and attention. And you can't snap your fingers and turn winter into spring, much as you would sometimes want to. These days, we are so used to buying everything ready-made that kneading bread by hand, or making spaghetti sauce from scratch, makes the food distinctive, more sacred, and therefore appropriate for ritual.

Then we wait, and watch for the Sun to touch the horizon. We sing the Sun down on the shortest night, just as we sing it up on the shortest day, joining our hands and our voices to turn the Wheel of the Year. We are reminded when we are in the cycle, what has come before and what will come again. On the highest hill in Minneapolis, we know where we are. Looking at each other singing, we know who we are. We want to be aware of who we are, where we are, when we are.