• Tag Archives cyclical
  • Imbolc 2011

    Imbolc                                                                              Waning Moon of the Cold Month

    This is the holy day of Bridgit, the triple goddess; she of the eternal fire at Kildare, a goddess who tends to the fire of creativity at home, for the poet and in the smithy, the place where things are made by hand.  As with so many things Celtic, the Roman Catholics appropriate her, given her a birth story.  Her father, the story goes, was a druid, her mother a good Catholic.  She became a Catholic woman known for good deeds and miracles.  After her death she became a saint.  Many Catholics know her only as St. Bridgit, but her origins as a religious figure had their beginnings and much larger compass within the ancient Celtic faith.

    It was the Celts who first tended the eternal fire at Kildare, devoting men and women to the task.  Later, in the days of the Celtic Christian church there was a double monastery there, men and women in separate units, abbot and abbess respectively.

    Imbolc itself means in-the-belly, referring, as I wrote a few days back, to the lamb in the belly of the ewes.  The quickening of the ewes meant fresh milk.  After at least three months + of stored food, little meat, and chill weather a small cup of milk or its use in cooking must have been a reason for great celebration.  The lambs also were a reminder that the rebirth of spring would come again, just as they had come.  Nature’s cycle could be trusted.

    We can buy green beans, strawberries, fresh fish, eggs, milk, butter, bread in a brightly lit store.  Aisles and aisles of food, so many versions of cereal, peanut butter, spices and salts, rice and pasta, beef, turkey, chicken, pork and, yes, even lamb.  In some vague way we know this food arrives at the grocery by truck, packed in cardboard boxes.  The workers remove and open the boxes, distributing the food to shelves, meat counters, produce bins, milk coolers.  We pick it up, put it in our carts, pay for it, then take it home and store it in cupboards, refrigerators, pantries. Until very recently there was not much attention given, at least by most of us, to the source of the food.

    The buy local movement has focused our attention especially on produce and meat.  Was the beef grass raised?  No antibiotics?  The eggs.  Were the chickens free range?  The leeks and the tomatoes, the lettuce.  Who grew it?  How far did it travel?  Is it organic?  Did the salmon come wild from Alaska or farm-raised from the Atlantic?

    As we once again allow the blurred image of our food sources to come into focus, I hope we will also allow the blurred images we have of the natural world to come into focus.  We may see that the sacred is not a notion found in texts, but in the world.  We might feel our way toward the vitality of the dog, the raven, the oak, the tulip, even ourselves, a vitality that emerges, has its day and then absorbs back into the world;  the universe represented here, for us, by our planet and its sun, by the web of life sustained by the inanimate, but also sacred world of rocks and water and air and fire.

    The Great Wheel, the cycle of solstices and equinoxes broken up the cross-quarter holydays of the Celts:  Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain turn us not outward or upward, not away from ourselves and our world, but inward and downward, toward ourselves and our world.  These holydays root us in the changing world, that, paradoxically, changes back into the world of last year, each year.  In this sense time for the Great Wheel cycles and recycles, never moving into tomorrow, always returning to yesterday.  We need this reminder, the Great Wheel’s reminder, because we are so much in the grip of chronos, the swift moving river of time that sweeps us along towards the gulf of our mortality, a great dead zone at the end of this wonder we call life.

    The Great Wheel reminds us that while our life will end, life itself does not.  That as we die, a birth occurs.  As tears fall, laughter rings out.  After the winter, the ewes will freshen, there will be milk.  And flowers.

  • What Time Is It?

    Summer                         Waxing Strawberry Moon

    A bit more on time.  Cybermage, Woolly Brother and sheepshead player William Schmidt begs to differ on the notion of cyclical time.  He references the geology of Minnesota and, I imagine, the information about the evolution of the universe which he so wonderfully makes understandable with lights and rope.

    It is difficult to understand the two apparently conflicting ways of understanding time, the cyclical view that I suggested yesterday over against the deep time recorded in our genes,  our own earth’s mantle and the red shifted lights in the heavens.  Let me see if I can be a little clearer about what I think.

    Instead of time as a characteristic of the natural world, that is, an experience of things occurring in sequence:  t1, t2, t3, t4 out there, beyond the reach of our sensory apparatus, I see it as a means of ordering that same sensory experience, a means imposed on it by our mind’s need for order, order that can have a useful meaning for us.  In other words, time and space, both, in this view, exist to help us survive in a world of chaotic events happening in overwhelming numbers.

    They create a sort of mental short hand that gives us a way of predicting, in a probabilistic manner, the outcome of things we perceive as happening outside us, things important to us as an animal:  will that animal be beyond that tree when I shoot this arrow? will the arrow actually travel through the apparent intervening distance and strike the animal?  how long will it take me to hike to the berry patch?  Or, contemporary equivalents:  do I have enough time to go to the grocery store after work and before the kids get home?  Can I fit in a round of golf before the rain predicted at 3 pm?  how long does this flight really take?

    Does this a priori understanding of time and space invalidate deep time?  I don’t know.  Does cyclical time invalidate deep time?  I don’t know.  I admit there is one part of me that says, Oh, come on.  The earth is 3 billion years old or so.  The universe 13.5 billion years.  Whatever those words mean, they mean the beginning of  both was a long, long time ago.  Yet, another part of me, ascendant right now, wonders if our conclusions about the passage of time mean what we think they mean.

    This much I know for sure, on this planet, at this latitude and longitude, in 365 + days, we will spin around to the summer solstice again.  This I can experience as a non-linear mode of time, a mode of time that relies on the cycles of the natural world rather than on the progression of anything through vast stretches of the  past and on into the infinite future.  This cyclical mode of time I can referent, whereas the notion of yesterday and tomorrow seem to me to be no more than place markers, file cabinets for data.

  • Summer. It’s About Time.

    Summer Solstice                                      Waxing Strawberry Moon


    The longest day of the year.  Light triumphant, streaming, steaming.  The darkness held at bay.

    Summer Solstice

    This is an astronomical phenomenon transformed and translated into a spiritual one.  We humans have over millennia taken solstice and equinox alike as moments out of time, a sacred caesura when we could review our life, our path as the Great Wheel turns and turns and turns once again.

    The Celts first divided their year into two:  Beltane, the beginning of summer, and Samhain, literally summer’s end.  As their faith tradition developed, they added in both solstices and equinoxes.  Since Beltane and Samhain occurred between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice respectively, they became known as cross-quarter holidays.  Imbolc and Lughnasa filled in the other two cross-quarter spots.

    It is the eight holidays, the four astronomical ones and the four cross-quarter, that make up the Great Wheel.  In the most straight forward sense the Great Wheel emphasizes cyclical time as opposed to linear or chronological time.  This seems odd to those of us raised in the chronological tradition influenced by Jewish and Christian thought in which there is an end time.  With an end to time the obvious influence on our perception of time is that we progress through the days until they become years, which become millennia until the Day of the Lord or that great risin’ up mornin’ when the dead live and time comes to a stop.

    That this is an interpretation rather than a fact rarely crosses the mind of people raised on birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations of one year as it comes followed by the next.  Our historical disciplines from history itself to the history of ideas, art history, even geology and the theory of evolution all reinforce the essentially religious notion of time as a river flowing in one direction, emptying eventually into an unknown sea which will contain and end the river.

    Immanuel Kant, in attempting to reconcile the dueling metaphysics of two apparently contradictory philosophical schools (rationalists and empiricists), hit on the notion of time and space as a priori’s, in a sense mental hardwiring that allows us to perceive, but is not inherent in the nature of reality.  That is, we bring space and time to the table when we begin ordering our chaotic sense impressions.  My interest in the Great Wheel and in the traditional faith of my genetic ancestors came in part from a long standing fascination with the question of time.  We are never in yesterday or tomorrow, we are always in now.  What is time?  What is its nature and its correct interpretation relative to the question of chronological versus cyclical time?

    I have not settled these questions, not even in my own mind, and they continue to be live topics in philosophy.  Learning to pay attention to the Great Wheel, to the now, and to the specific place where I live has pushed me toward the cyclical view, as has gardening and now the keeping of bees.  It is, today, the Summer Solstice.  Again.  As it was the last time the earth visited this location in space (ah, yes, space.  another conversation which we’ll bracket for now) and as it will be the next time.  This is a literally cyclical view of time based on the earth’s orbit around the sun, one which returns us, over and over to much the same spot.

    Next summer when the solstice arrives the asiatic lilies will be ready to bloom, Americans will be getting ready to celebrate the fourth of July and kids will be out of school.  The mosquitoes will have hatched, the loons returned and basketball will finally be over.  These kind of phenological observations depend on the repetitive, cyclical character of natural events.  There is a real sense in which this time does not move forward at all, rather it exists in a state of eternal return, one solstice will find itself happening again a year later.  Is there any progress, from the perspective of the solstice, from one to the next?  Not in my opinion.

    I don’t deny the intellectual value of arranging knowledge in what appears to be a rational sequence. It aids learning and explanation, but it may well be a mistake to think that sequence exists outside our mental need for it.  It may just be that time is, in some sense, an illusion, a useful one to be sure, but an illusion none the less.

    Even if it is, we still will have the Summer Solstice and its celebration of light.  We will still have the Winter Solstice and its celebration of the dark.  We can see each year not as one damned thing after another, but as a movement from the light into the dark and back out again.  We can see the year as a period of fallowness and cold (here in the temperate latitudes) followed by a period of fertility and abundance.  This is the Great Wheel and it currently makes the most sense to me.  That’s the light I have today anyhow.  Let’s talk next year at this time.