The Longest Night of The Year

Samhain                                                            Waxing Moon of the Winter Solstice

In my sacred world the holiday season has begun to climb toward its crescendo, or, rather, descend.  Would that be a descendo?  As I gradually shifted my view of sacred time from the Christian liturgical calendar to the ancient Celtic calendar, at first I celebrated Samhain, Summer’s End, as my foremost holiday.  It is the Celtic New Year, representing the end of the old year, too, Janus like, like our January 1st.   The growing season ceases and the long fallow season begins as Beltane ends, the season of growth and harvest.  I liked this simple, incisive division of the year, growth and rest.  Samhain also sees the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead, between this world and the other world, between our reality and the reality of faery.  Life takes on a numinous quality around the end of October and the beginning of November.

In the years when I celebrated Samhain as my chief holiday I began novels then, ended projects begun in the earlier part of the year and thought a lot about ancestors and the delicate, egg shell nature of life.

Samhain still represents a key moment in my sacred year; but over time, as I worked with the Great Wheel, an expanded Celtic calendar that added Imbolc and Lughnasa to the solar holidays, equinoxes and solstices, my soul begin to lean more and more toward the Winter Solstice.  At some point, I don’t even know when, I began to look forward to the Winter Solstice as I once had to Christmas and after it, Samhain.  This was a quiet change, driven by inner movements mostly below consciousness.

Now the longest night has that numinous quality, angel wings brushing by, contemplation and meditation pulsing in the dark, taking me in and down, down to what Ira Progroff calls the inner cathedral, though for me it is more the inner holy well, that deep connection drawing on the waters flowing through the collective unconscious.  I’ve been to a few solstice celebrations, but none of them grabbed me, made me want to return.

I’ve become what the Wiccans call a solitary, practicing my faith at home, according to my own rhythms and my own calendar.  At times I’ve shared my journey through preaching at UU congregations or writing seasonal e-mails and sending them out, but now I write something on this blog and post it on the Great Wheel page.  Otherwise, on the Winter Solstice, my high holy day, it’s a candle and some reading, long hours of quiet.  This Tuesday.  The longest night of the year.

The Value of Increasing Darkness

Samhain                                         Waxing Thanksgiving Moon

The daylight is gone, twilight has fallen and night is on its way.  Now that we have entered the season of Samhain, the leaves have vanished from the trees and the clouds, like tonight, often hang gray in the sky.  Samhain means the end of summer and in the old Celtic calendar was the half of the year when the fields went fallow while the temperature turned cool, then cold, hope returning around the first of February, Imbolc, when the ewes would freshen and milk would once again be part of the diet as new life promised spring.

In between Imbolc and Samhain lies the Winter Solstice.  The early darkness presages the long twilight; it lasts from now until late December as we move into the increasing night until daylight becomes only a third of the day.  This has been, for many years, my favorite time of year.  I like the brave festivals when lights show up on homes and music whirs up, making us all hope we can dance away our fear.

The Yamatanka mandala at the Minnesota Institute of Art gives a meditator in the Tantric disciplines of Tibetan Buddhism a cosmic map, brightly displaying the way to Yamatanka’s palace grounds.  In the middle of the palace grounds, represented here by a blue field with a vajra (sacred thunderbolt) Yamantaka awaits our presence.

In the Great Wheel as I have come to know it, we visit Yamantaka on the night of the Winter Solstice, that extended darkness that gives us a foretaste of death.  Our death.  On that night we can sit with ourselves, calm and quiet, imagining our body laid out on a bed, eyes closed, mouth quiet, a peaceful expression on our lifeless face.

We can do that, not in suicidal fantasy, but in recognition of our mortality, our finite time upon the wheel of life, awaiting our turn as the wheel turns under the heavens carrying us away from this veil of samsara.  If we can do that, we can then open ourselves to the thin sliver of light that becomes more and more, as the solstice marks the turning back of the darkness and brings us once again to life.

When we can visit Yamantaka’s palace, sup with him in this throne room and see death as he, the conqueror of death sees it, we are finally free.

Samhain: 2010

Samhain                                                    Waning Harvest Moon

In the ancient Celtic faith Samhain (October 31) and Beltane (May 1) were the only holidays.  W. Y. Evans-Wentz gave a folklorist’s account of that faith in his first book, . Evans-Wentz wrote this amazing work, little known in spite of his later and famous first translation of the Tibetan  Book of the Dead, after wandering several months through the Celtic countryside, staying in the villages and modest homes and listening to these stories as they were told around fires of peat, voices passing on a tradition and whiling away the dreary winter months in a time before electricity.

Think of such a time as the cold begins to bear down on us and the leaves have fallen, the vegetables brought in from the garden now lying in their dark storage.  Imagine if those vegetables and what grain might be stored as well, imagine if they were your food, your only food, for the next five to seven months.  Though the Celtic winters were not as severe as the ones here in Minnesota, they were just as fallow, the earth no longer yielding fruits, all hope of new produce gone until late spring.

It’s easy for me to imagine this because I harvested the last of our vegetables yesterday.  I would be in a panic r if we had to survive on the few carrots, beets, potatoes, onions and garlic we have stored dry.  Yes, we have honey, canned tomatoes and some pickles, but even for the two of us, we would have to be almost magicians to live off this amount of food.  At best we would enter spring mere shadows of our October well-fed selves.  As supplements to our diet, our stored food is wonderful, a blessing; as sustenance alone, it would be meager.  At best.

Among the Celts this was, too, a time when the veil between the worlds thinned and passage eased from the Other World to this one and from this one to the Other World.  Like the Mexican Day of the Dead, celebrated on the same date, it was a time when ancestors might visit.  To keep them happy their favorite foods and music and dress would be available.  The Celts also believed that, in addition to the dead, the inhabitants of faery could come and walk among human kind.  They might steal children or lure unwary persons back across the veil, back to the world of faery where time passes so differently than it does here.

We have the faint memory of this holiday today.  The costumed remind us of the strange and often scary entities of the Other World that flit, often unseen, among the living on this night.   The jack o’lanterns have descended from the Samhain carved turnip (a rutabaga to us in the U.S.) which, when lit with a candle, glows yellow, much like a skull.  The carved turnip and the parshall were put on or near the lintel (sound familiar?) to keep those roamers from the Other World at bay.

On a personal and spiritual level this can be a time to consider the past growing season, Beltane as the Celts called it.  What came to maturation in the last six months?  Have you taken time to harvest and store up the fruits of those efforts?  It can also be  a time to consider the fallow and bleak time ahead, Samhain.  While Beltane might be the Baroque or Rococo time of year, heavily decorated with lots of shadows and light, winter is the minimalist season, a time when the canvas might even be bare.  Then we might confront our world as a Mark Rothko painting, an inward time, of seeing the other as it resides in our Self, or going down to the well of the collective soul and replenishing ourselves for the year ahead.

A paradox rears itself here.  A paradox most neatly stated in the observation by certain Western thinkers that September 29th, Michaelmas, the celebration of the archangel Michael, is the springtime of the soul.  Thus, as the growing season wanes and finally extinguishes, we follow Persephone under ground, down into the cathedrals of our own souls.  There we can recharge oursSelves in the deep waters.

Following the Old Religion

Lughnasa                                            Full Back To School Moon

Summer has three endings:  Labor Day which marks the end of summer vacation for many school children; and, for many adults like myself, kicks us into serious mode as all those years of conditioning continue to affect our attitude;  Mabon, or the Fall Equinox, which comes tomorrow, that point when day and night balance each other, neither claiming dominance, though the trend matters and at this equinox, the balance tips toward night as the darkness increases, pulling us toward the longest night, the Winter Solstice on December 22nd and Samhain, or Summer’s End according to the old Celtic calendar which divided the year in half, Beltane-Samhain or the growing season, and Samhain-Beltane or the fallow season.  Samhain comes on October 31st and, like all Celtic holidays lasts a week.

The growing season has this triple farewell reflected too in the holidays of Lughnasa, the festival of first fruits, Mabon, the peak of the harvest and harvest home, and Samhain, the end of the harvest season and the end of the growing season.  No matter how you notice or celebrate it these real changes in the agricultural year still happen, they still have critical importance for our human community, and they still deserve our attention.  Why?  Because our ages old relationship with agriculture is what separates us from the hunter-gatherers.  Agriculture allows us to live in villages, towns and cities by producing surplus food on farms in much the same way that the honeybee produces surplus honey while still making enough for the colony to survive on throughout the winter.

Without those who farm, there would be no surplus food.  With no surplus food we would have to revert to subsistence agriculture, growing what we needed every year or hunting and gathering.  This would prove daunting since most of us have forgotten or never been taught how to grow food, how to hunt, how to identify edible plants.

This is the great hidden reality for many, if not most, urban dwellers, who make up, since 2008, over half of the world’s population, a projected 5 billion people by 2030.  Without  a healthy eco-system, one that can support intense tillage, that is, sustainable tillage, the world’s urban dwellers will be bereft of something they cannot do without:  food.  Add to that the pressure on the world’s fresh water supply and two fundamental sustainers:  food and water are at peril.

Granted following the holidays of the Great Wheel will not work magic–sorry to all my Wiccan friends–but it would remind us all, 8 times a year, of the source of our sustenance.  That would help.  Naming our days after these holidays (I do it in the upper left of each post) keeps that reminder fresh.  Our sustainers, mother earth and father sun, do not require us, do not need anything from us, yet they will support us if we live within their limits.  These holidays began when our ancestors realized the need to remind themselves of the delicate, fragile harmony required for human life to flourish.

Over the course of the years and centuries and millennia since, hubris has lead us further and further away from the old religion; we have replaced it with  idols, fetishes, really.  We will, at some point, pay the price for our blasphemy as we upset that harmony, creating an environment that will no longer sustain human life.  Only if we step back from our profligacy can we ensure our survival.

Knowing the rhythms of the natural world, of the agriculture that feeds us, of the systems that keep water fresh and available, is our only chance to avoid apocalypse.  Will we do it?  I don’t know.

Samhain Comes

Fall                                                    Waxing Dark Moon

The last night of fall, tomorrow morning will be Samhain.  In my personal sacred calendar Samhain marks not only the end of summer, but the first day of Holiseason which runs until Epiphany, January 6th.  There are so many holidays, family times, solitary days and days of spiritual pilgrimage in Holiseason that I decided to celebrate the entire two months plus.   The Winter Solstice has become the key holy-day in my sacred year, really I should say holy-night, because it is the darkness and the length of the night, the cold of winter that puts the magic in it for me.  No matter what holiday you celebrate during Holiseason, put your soul into it.

See you when the veil thins and the faery folk cross over.

The Beginning of Summer’s End

77  bar rises 29.83 3mpn NNW dew-point 61  sunrise 5:58  sunset 8:39  Lughnasa

New (Corn) Moon

As I note in the Lughnasa entry now posted on the Great Wheel page, we have come to the beginning of summer’s end.  The Celtic word for summer’s end is Samhain, also the name for the last of the harvest festivals celebrated on October 31st.  August 1st finds those of us with gardens and farms involved in some manner or another with our early harvests.  The first tomatoes, the garlic already in here, beans, beets, carrots and onions.  This is a time of thanksgiving, a day of gratefulness for the earth and for the plant life which offers itself to us and to our fellow creatures so that we might live.

A dish of green beans, onions in a salad perhaps garnished with tomatoes, garlic used to flavor a sautee all remind us that food does not emerge from the ether, rather it grows with care and attention, care and attention meted out over a growing season, not all at once.  It is not a matter of a moment to grow food.  Vegetables only reward those willing to practice attentiveness, to stay in the now.  The plant needs what it needs today, not tomorrow.  The pests that infest today will become worse tomorrow.  Act now.

Today is an all Heresy Moves West day.   The story of Unitarians and Universalist as they follow the frontier, especially the pioneers from New England, makes an American saga.  America’s exceptionalism often takes the form of manifest destiny, our version of Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, but a truer idiosyncrasy of this country lies in our embrace of religious freedom.  We take it for granted, imagine that if it’s not the case in another place, they just haven’t gotten around to it yet, but in fact we are very much the outlier when it comes to the firewall between the state and religious institutions/faith traditions.

That a peculiar brand of new thought that changed the flow of a millennia old faith tradition–the Judaeo-Christian–could not only flourish but spread as the country grew, that the new thought itself would become fractious and splinter along unpredictable lines, and that it would find its most radical expression in the Midwest rather than its place of origin in Boston and surrounds could only happen here.   The chance to tell this story makes me glad, for it is a story of vision, of unfettered thought, of reaching beyond the boundaries of the mind, a story that transcends its makers by breaking open new sources of authority for those searching for a place in this vast universe of ours.

Tending to Plants and Animals, So They Will Tend to Us.

79  bar rises 29.79  0mph WNW dew-point 64   Sunny and warm

Waxing Gibbous Thunder Moon

Finished The Thief of Baghdad last night.  This movie, a 1940’s special effects pioneer, has its roots, loosely, in the Arabian Nights.  Just occurred to me that the same title might be used for a documentary on the Bush years in Iraq.  It is an engaging story,  though the actor playing Ahmed, a co-star with Sabu, who plays the thief,  Abu, didn’t seem heroic enough to me.  My favorite character was the Sultan of Basra (this movie has many contemporary reference points), who has a Wizard of Oz like persona.  He loves mechanical toys.

I bought the Criterion Collection discs.  This is all in my hit and miss attempt to educate myself as a cineaphile.  I have a small library of books on cinema.  It has books on theory, history, technique and genre, but I’ve done little with them as a group.  The most I do now is watch the occasional old movie, like the Thief of Baghdad.  My 60th birthday present was 50 films chosen by the Janus Corporation as the most influential art films distributed by them in the last century.  I’ve watched 4 or 5.   I have to figure out a routine for watching more movies and I find that difficult because it interferes with my TV jones.  Problems, problems, problems.

Don’t know about you, but some residual collective memory got triggered by the photograph of folks lined up outside the IndyMac bank to withdraw their savings.  A bank run signals danger to this child of depression era parents, a danger sign I didn’t know existed until I saw this picture.  The older man sitting on a metal folding at the front of the line, thick soled black shoes, gray trousers and a white shirt, worried look.  Ooff.

Kate’s in food preservation mode.  She bought a pressurized canner to complement her older, hot water canner.  She’s been busy making jams and preserves, canning green beans and in general wiping her hands on a calico apron while waving a wooden spoon in the air.

As the crops begin to mature, we are both more focused on how to preserve what we have grown and the lessons we have learned from this year’s crop.   Fewer onions next year, for one.  Do not know why I got so carried away on planting onions.  More beets and carrots.  About the same on beans and peas.  Garlic again, descaping this time.  Add some crops, though what, I do not know.  Harvest is the fun part.

On August 1st we celebrate Lughnasa.  This is a first fruits festival that provides a festival around the time of the first maturation of crops.  There are three harvest festivals:  Lughnasa, Mabon (Fall Equinox) and Samhain, the Celtic New Year on October 31st.  A full quarter of the year has the harvest as a dominant theme and idea.  An old acknowledgment of the value and necessity of tending to plants and animals, so that they will, in turn, tend to us.