What a joy it is to feel the world waking up once more! It’s a wet and windy day as I write this, but still, the evenings and mornings are getting lighter, the snowdrops are in delicate full bloom and the sun is starting to feel warm on my face as I walk or sit.
This midwinter – just – gone felt exceptionally dark and quiet to me, in a way that felt deeply nourishing and soul-restoring. After a deep meditation at our last Mindful In The Green workshop I realised that I had slowly but surely over the years slipped into the mindset of seeing Christmas as a chore, an extra burden in a busy life, an imposition that necessitated recovery This saddened me. I had always adored the excitement and the stillness both of Christmas and at that moment I made a vow that I was going to consciously reclaim this.
It worked wonderfully. It required planning and forethought. It required living in an awareness of the moment. I handmade some gifts, I took time out to walk and think, I sat by the fire. We saw family and friends, shared presents and food and had the fun but weird experience of ‘doing Christmas’ in a new house, when all of a sudden you don’t know what decorations go where or how Father Christmas will successfully and stealthily negotiate a creaky set of Victorian stairs for what will most likely be the last time before our children go through their first initiation into older childhood with the seasonal Revelation of an Inner Truth (ahem).
And so, following my core Wheel Within philosophy of ‘as without, so within’ that allows us to follow the natural rhythms as natural creatures ourselves, I decided to adopt this same pattern and try and keep my life as small as simple as the responsibilities of home and work would allow and set my step upon a path which I have been thinking about for some time, of simplifying and quietening my life.
It had become clear to me that I had a number of behaviours and habits which, while had often been enjoyable, or purposeful simply no longer served. There are, or were, some fairly deep reasons why I’m susceptible to noisy inner displacement and distraction activities, especially those that cut out mental chitter chatter. However it had become clearer and clearer that really, I was just fuelling those particular fires, and really, it would probably be better to sort them out.
My behaviours and habits (yours may be the same, they may be different) were Facebook and the considerable amount of time I spent on it; drinking alcohol, not to a destructive level but very regularly; and a magpie tendency towards shopping quite a lot for little things that caught my eye. My aim was not to cut out these things entirely from my life, but to move towards habitually not doing them rather than habitually doing them; to do things mindfully and in a planned way rather than out of impulsive and compulsive habit; to see what happened as a result.
Reader, it has been quietly but significantly transformative. I am calmer (mostly – quite a lot of unexpected stuff came to the fore that had been effectively masked and concealed so that was a bit tumultuous); more focussed, especially towards my loved ones; able to think more clearly.
I am also, much, much more sensitive. In all sense of the word. I feel slightly more vulnerable to the knocks and bumps of everyday life, and more emotional. I don’t think I’d realised to what an extent all those noisy habits were shielding mechanisms. So I have to look after myself a bit more in that regard, and am learning lovely lessons about how it is okay to be all sensitive in safe and loving places. I am more sensitive to environment – to the feel of places, of atmospheres, both in an every day and an esoteric sense. My more magical practices have gone up a notch – my card readings are clearer, my relationships in that respect feel richer, more ‘real’. My dreams have been full of portents and signs; some of these have entered real life I dreamt that I stood on a huge birch branch with a gauntlet of holly. I dreamed of a door in an Oak tree – a few days later I found a literal door in an actual oak tree (carved by a loving parent in the trunk of an oak as a tooth fairy door)- I found a knife at a crossroads minutes after a friend texted to speak of Hecate. Some things I used to do no longer feel comfortable; other things are new and exciting.
One of these is a coming to the fore of a long brewing call to explore Christianity more This feels almost a heretical thing for a druid person to say! In many of my circles (largely educated, liberal, pagan or atheist), Christianity is a bit of a dirty word, ironically. People really don’t like it! And understandably; the ways in which the teachings have been twisted and abused are almost too numerous to list and the effects devastating, Not just for individuals directly affected, because arguably the church has shaped our current culture to such an extent that we have all been affected. So it isn’t always easy to find places to share my thoughts, which is a vital bit of my learning. Much of my reflections have focussed on the differences between what the original Christianity may have been, and the Church which has resulted from the early move towards a body intrinsically enmeshed with and a powerful part of political and secular power which has caused much wreckage and ruin alongside the good.
At heart, I believe, Christianity and paganism not only share much (as do all religions and faith when stripped of their outer forms), but are also our cultural, religious inheritance in Britain. I believe that they share a love of nature, including humans and their lovely bodies, and see the world as a the most beautiful expression of the creative force, whatever that may be (I haven’t quite worked that one out yet, but seeing as the worlds best philosophers have wrestled with that throughout time, I am happy to explore and wonder without providing answers!).
There are certain times of year that I feel this crossover and commonality between Christian and Pagan very strongly. Midwinter/Christmas, Easter/Spring Equinox , Samhain/All Saints and, of course, our present season of Candlemas and Imbolc – beautiful feminine time of purification and cleansing and rebirth, through the scouring of snow, the wash of the thaw, the small light of candles, a clear, sharp chiming of snowdrop bells. Water, fire and air, methods of purification shared by many cultures across much time and space.
Through a number of writings I had come across, in particular Jacqueline Durban over at Hedgetemple, and the words of Father Christopher at the children’s school church (possibly the most small-child-confusing name for a priest at that time of year that could possibly be conceived), I learned that the Christians saw the whole Epiphany period up to Candlemas as a kind of extended Midwinter. You weren’t really expected to come out and wake up until after this time. People went back to work of course, and there’s some notable days such as Plough Monday and Distaff Day to celebrate this slow return to the everyday, but things remained pretty quiet. We can see this in a continued dreaming of the ongoing dark throughout January, that so many people struggle with and which starts to lift now, at Imbolc, and it is of course echoed in Mary’s period of confinement following the birth of Jesus which ends with her purification at Candlemas.
In the past, I’ve felt an uncomfortable knee-jerk reaction to what at first feels like an oppression of women. The idea of ‘purification’ doesn’t sit well to modern eyes, what with connotations of uncleanliness, that we are somehow contaminated witb the real, fleshy, earthly reality of childbirth, post-partum bleeding and breastfeeding.
But this year, having actually thought about it rather than simply reacted, I find it is more another facet of the new year, a spring time, the cleansing energy of Imbolc.
All of a sudden, I realised that my drive and desire for simplicity could be seen as a process of cleansing and purifying. Last year could best be summarised as a process of stripping away, of discovering what lies beneath, of clearing some long standing crap This work having been done, this Imbolc, I set an intent to explore the reasons behind my habits (and indeed the crap) that I wanted to ditch. I called upon Mary and Bride, Mother of all mothers to help me do so. The weather was on my side – a heavy snowfall provided the backdrop to my spiritual tasks.
I visited the Lady Chapel in the magnificent Gloucester Cathedral, and sat in contemplation for some time. The power in that Cathedral is enormous. Some of it is the sleek, well-fed, dynamic power of wealth and land, and some of it the power of a piece of and that has been used as a centre of spiritual activity for centuries. Potent stuff! I walked the Common, and tasted the changing air, and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. I saw catkins, crocuses and a buzzard overhead. I heard birdsong. I went to a beautiful service in the Christian Mystic tradition at our local church, St Lawrence’s in Stroud, where we sat in silence, and in song, and in prayer. I lit candles for the Goddess in her form at this time by our own little spring in the garden. I consulted my Tarot cards, who gave me insight, direction for healing, inspiration on what to do to cement my insights into this world.
I discovered this – as any psychologist would probably have told me without going through such a circuitous route, but as ever the scenic route was most definitely worth it – that at the heart of this was a sense of loss, a fear, a need to accrete things around me, a need to assert my voice to prove myself, and at the heart of that in turn was a mother-wound, a perceived abandonment and a reassurance that a perception is all it is. Not exactly exciting, but personally speaking, it has changed the way I see myself in the world.
Back to simplicity. My new sense of calm, and the mental spaciousness I feel, are steps towards this in itself. Alongside this, I am playfully exploring a way of modern life based loosely on the Benedictine Rule. They liked simplicity too, and based each of their days on manual labour to sustain the community (paid work, house work and in my case crafts); contemplation and prayer (or mindfulness and meditation if you want to take a secular view) and spiritual reading (a more intellectual take on things to be applied in whichever direction you find stimulating and interesting if religious reading isn’t your thing) It’s early days, but so far it’s working well.
This Sunday I will end my formal Imbolc and Candlemas celebrations and contemplations at my beloved Druid Grove, where I’m providing the ritual this year. Doing such a sustained period of work requires time, planning and all the other things that make work feel worth it. Finding commonality and a bridge between a Christian and a pagan approach has been so enriching, the personal benefits have been huge, and I feel thankful. And then it will be time to slowly start turning towards the Spring proper, and the Equinox. Traditionally this is a time of unsettlement and upheaval for me, the winds seem to get in me and I can’t settle. I am looking forward, as ever, to finding out what next.