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The Season of Samhain: Speaking to the Spark within the Darkness

Published October 27, 2013 by ireneglasse

This morning I was very honored and grateful to have an opportunity to speak at my church on the subject of Samhain.  Video of my talk is below, the transcript below that 🙂

My name is Irene.  I facilitate the monthly full moon labyrinth walks here, teach the Thursday morning yoga class and I’m a member of CUUPS – the Covenant of UU Pagans.  As the natural world around us begins to shift toward darkness and the cycle of stillness, one of the Pagan high holidays is upon us.  I’d like to talk to you this morning about Samhain.

When I was 13, one of my closest friends lost a lengthy battle with childhood leukemia.  It was my first big death.  The one that changes everything about how you see the world.  I come from a wonderful family, but a bit of a WASP-y one.  We are understated and rational.  And like many families in our culture, we didn’t really have a way to talk about grief.  My experience of mourning within this culture was that you’re given a month, maybe more, to be upset.  And then you’re expected to get on with it.  To just get better.  Get over it.  And by that I think we mean repress our feelings so they don’t trouble anyone else.

But my own experience of grief is that it doesn’t end.  It doesn’t go away.  It transforms, slowly, over time, but it never ends.  It never just goes away.

I think part of what initially drew me to Paganism, to Wicca, at age 15, was the holiday Samhain.   As a whole, Pagans believe the soul continues after death.   We also honor the cycles of nature, the Wheel of the Year, and connect to its turning on a very deep level.  At this time in the world around us, the leaves are falling, leaving branches to clatter in the wind like so many bones.  The growing season is ending.  Shifting into the season of death, and increasing darkness.  We believe that at this time, as death appears around us, so too do the souls of those who have gone before.  We believe that the Veil between the living and the dead grows thin.  Thin enough, that those who have gone before can hear us, can see us, and can sometimes speak across that great divide.

We build ancestral altars at this time.  Both for our distant ancestors, and for the dear ones who have gone on ahead of us.  Altars can be simple or complex.  Sometimes it’s just taking out the old photos and putting them on the mantle where everyone can see them.  Sometimes it’s a special table covered in pictures, decorations, objects we associate with our lineage.  We make our loved ones’ favorite dishes for family meals.  We visit cemeteries to clean off the graves, and decorate them anew.  And most importantly, we have a space for grief.  For allowing those places inside us to breathe.  A space to speak the words aloud: I miss you.  And to know that they are heard.  A chance to connect.  Every year.  A visit with the Other Side.  I spend a lot of October talking to my friend, to my grandmother, in the quiet spaces of my day.  I can feel them in the air.  Sense them drawing near.

The night of the 31st is when the Veil is thinnest.  It’s why it’s called the Witches New Year—our cycle ends, and then begins, at the death of the growing season.  Samhain Night sees big rituals honoring those who have gone before.   Some traditions do a Recitation of the Dead.  A calling of names.  Others create a Dumb Feast: a table laid out of doors, beautifully decorated for the season, and carrying the dishes our lost loved ones and ancestors most enjoyed.  That they may eat, drink and be merry, in their own way, when they visit.  Personally, I gather with a close group of Pagans.  We stand in a circle, and we speak about those we wish to honor.  We talk to our families, to our friends who have gone beyond.  We pour out libations on the ground to each.  We cry.  We laugh.  We tell the old stories, and sing the old songs.  And every year, that aching place inside us that is grief has a moment to be soothed.  A chance to breathe.  A moment between one year and the next, between the worlds of time and place, when we come to stillness and communion.

It is that stillness, that inner quiet, that we carry with us into winter.  For Pagans, the dark season is a time to go within—to do deeper, more personal work on ourselves.  Like our furry, four-legged brothers and sisters on this earth, we hibernate.  We turn inward, and seek our own illumination there.

It’s easy to get distracted in the warm months—there’s so much to do!  Festivals to attend, projects to start, visits, vacations…  When the light begins to fade, though, a different kind of work can begin.  What did you lose this year?  What quiet places inside you are aching from neglect?  We expend so much energy on the needs of others.  Have you remembered to tend your own flame?  It’s okay if the answer is no.  I know it definitely is for me.  That’s the other part of why I look forward to Samhain so much.

This month, I’m redecorating my home altar and beginning an 18-day sadahana: a Sanskrit word for a spiritual practice with a specific goal in mind.  I’m working on integration; on trying to get all the pieces of me to be a more cohesive whole.  I have a sub-goal of deeper connection, on every level.  To deity, to myself, to my life.  During that 18 day sadhana, I will spend time every day focusing on my goal.  I will use prayer, meditation and physical yoga postures to help me on my way.  It’s the beginning of what I think of as my Winter Work.  My time to do some repair and upgrades on myself.

I realize that it may sound like a lot of work.  I take the inner space exploration of winter pretty seriously.  But honoring the energy of the dark season doesn’t have to be so elaborate.  It can simply be finding a little space in your morning to set an intention for your day.  To choose stillness for just a moment.  It could be turning off the TV and putting away the smartphone a little earlier in the evening to allow for some quiet time.  A space away from distraction and discussion.  You could start journaling.  Or maybe it’s time to read that book you’ve been meaning to pick up.  The season of death is also the season of renewal.

You see, at Samhain, we go underground as well.  Cycles occur in more than the world around us.  It’s so easy to forget, with all our technology, all our bread and circuses, that we are a part of nature; not separate from it.  And like the trees and animals, we need time to rest and nurture ourselves for the next growing season.  We too grow weary after a long summer.  We tire and fade, and need to go into darkness for a time.  We renew there, heal the wounds, tend the fire within.  And then we emerge again.  It is my hope to step out into spring as a better version of myself.  A more authentic, more grounded Irene.

I think most of all, Samhain speaks to the spark within the darkness.  The loved ones that exist beyond death.  The light within us that shines on the darkest of days.  The comfort of a warm hearth on a cold night.  This is the gift, and the lesson, of this season.  That the Wheel of the Year turns, and we turn with it.  That a journey into the night is not something to be feared.  It is simply a part of the cycle.

May this season see you blessed with space, with peace, with stillness.  A blessed Samhain to you all.  Thank you.


Published May 28, 2013 by ireneglasse

It is in the very air you breathe here, thickening the prana as it fills your lungs, coating every inch of flesh, seeping down into your pores, your blood, your bones. It is everywhere you look, shining out from leaves that give new meaning to the word ‘green,’ slipping through the riotous tangle of vines to earth long grown dark and porous with moisture. It emanates from the treetops far above, from the roots spreading out beneath you, from the abundance of life filling all spaces above, below and between.

It is gentle. I floated on the surface of the ocean, the swell of each passing wave lifting me toward the sky, then lowering me toward the sand, the Great Mother rocking her child with the tenderest touch. I slept to the sound of rain on leaves, mingling with the song of the night orchestra. I reveled in the long, low rolls of thunder in the distance. I watched the mist rising from the mountains in the morning.

It is fierce. I stood amazed, breathless, as it crashed down as a waterfall from over two hundred feet above, carving its relentless path into the stone. The roar filled my ears till all other voices had to shout to be heard. I strained to reach the point where cascade transformed into pool and was stopped dead in my tracks, every muscle fighting against the power of the outward-spiraling current, still yards away from my desired destination. Such power is not meant to be touched by these hands.

It is more. I stood chest-deep in a grotto pool warmed by the deep veins of magma within the earth as the skies opened above me. I felt the heat of the water rising from the darkness beneath me. I felt the cool of the rain as it poured down from above me, running in rivulets over my body to meet itself at the center. I watched the rising steam mingle with the falling rain, with the splashing surface of the spring, until above and below lost their distinction, all boundaries melting, running together.

It is me. In the fruits I so eagerly reach for every morning, in the sweet rush of every bite, it fills me, becomes me. My heart the waterfall, my blood the relentless current, my breath the rocking of the ocean, my spirit the rising warmth from Center. I hear the crashing waves inside me, I watch the world from the green pools of my eyes, I touch with skin soft from moisture, and the song rings through my mind:

River is flowing
Flowing and growing
River is flowing down to the sea
I am River
Flowing to eternity
I am River flowing down to the sea

How to make a canvas Labyrinth for $200

Published November 30, 2012 by ireneglasse

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”  That phrase rang unusually true for me this past week.  I facilitate monthly Full Moon Labyrinth walks at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick.  We’d been using a borrowed canvas Labyrinth for our indoor walks.  It was suddenly called home to its owner (for use in her church) three days before a scheduled Labyrinth walk.  It became necessary to find a suitable substitute on very short notice.  Thanks to my mother, sister and sister’s-boyfriend, we managed to work a minor miracle and now have a lovely Classical Labyrinth for use at the church.  It cost slightly less than $200 in supplies and took my family and I 4 hours to make, start to finish.

Here’s how to make one.

All of my supplies came from my local Home Depot.  You will need:

*6 9′ x 12′ canvas drop cloths.  I paid $21.98 each.  Make sure the canvases all match in color.  Different brands may have a variation in hue.

*1 roll 60 yds white duct tape ($6.97)

*Colored duct tape.  This part is a little tricky.  I created a rainbow Labyrinth.  Each circuit is marked out with a different color of tape.  If you choose to go that route, you will need 40 yards (2 20 yard rolls) for the three outermost circuits.  Each circuit thereafter will only need one 20 yard roll.  So, for mine, I had: 2 black, 2 red, 2 orange, 1 yellow, 1 green, 1 blue, 1 purple, 1 silver, all in 20 yard quantities.  20 yard rolls cost $3.57 each.  If you’re using all one color, you will probably need about 120 yards or 6 rolls.  Save your receipts in case you need to return any unused tape.


*measuring tape

*graph paper

*some friends!  This goes a lot faster with a little help.

*a big, empty room

Step 1:

Graph out your design.  This will help you keep track later on, as well as explain to any helpers what you’re trying to accomplish.  In this graph, the canvases are in purple ink, the circuits in pencil, and one square = 1 foot.graph

Step 2: Lay out your canvases on the floor, ‘wrong’ side up.  Like sheets, the canvases will have visible seams and tags on one side.  Put that side facing up in the layout your Labyrinth will take.  DSC04932

Step 3: Using the white duct tape, tape the edges of the canvases together.  Because these are painter’s drop cloths, the canvases aren’t cut perfectly.  The outermost edges of your finished Labyrinth won’t be perfect.  You can always trim them later if it makes a big difference to you 😉  I began by taping the long, center seam of the canvases, then working out from there.

taped edges

Step 4: Carefully (this is where having extra hands can help) turn your now-one-whole-piece canvas over.  The ‘right’ side will now be facing up.  Using the white duct tape, tape the edges of the canvas together.  This reinforces the seams and smooths over any uneven edges.

Step 5: Using your chalk and tape measure, mark your circuit spaces from the outside edge in.  In this design, the circuits are 15″ wide.  So, starting a couple inches from the outside edge at the top of the canvas and both sides, mark a line every 15″.  You’ll have eight marks (for the seven circuits) on each side.circuitmarks

Step 6: Measure the center space from edge to edge to find the exact center point.  Using your yarn, make a rough compass by taping (or having your helper hold) one end at the exact center.  Attach your chalk to the other end right above one of your marks.  Run a chalk line from center mark to center mark using your rough compass.  It will make a circle.

Step 7: Using your tape measure (or tape measures if you’re having helpers assist), mark out the rest of the circuits in chalk.  Mark them out a little over 1/2 of the way around to the center bottom of the design.  Leave that space blank so you can mark in the turning points.

Step 8: Draw in your center cross, L-shapes and dots, remembering to leave 15″ space on all parts of the path.


Step 9: Connect the circuits to your center cross, finishing off the design.  Walk the Labyrinth to be sure everything got connected correctly.


Step 10: Duct tape over your lines in the color pattern you’ve chosen.  It’s great to have help for this part!



















Step 11: Walk/dance/run your Labyrinth in joyous celebration!


Step 12: Fold/roll your Labyrinth up.  Canvas Labyrinths are very sensitive to soot and moisture.  Make sure to store it in a waterproof plastic bin and to remind folks not to wear shoes on it during walks.  Only use your canvas Labyrinth indoors.

Here’s the finished Labyrinth at a Full Moon Labyrinth Walk, photo courtesy of Elisa.  The lights are little flickering LED tealights we place on the Labyrinth during a Walk–they’re not actually attached to the canvas.


Ta da!  Not as sturdy and flawless as a canvas made from heavy-grade sailcloth, but still quite usable and resilient.  This one comfortably fit 5 walkers at a time.

Beltane Alchemy

Published May 7, 2012 by ireneglasse



noun, plural al·che·mies for 2.

1. a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold and with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life.
2. any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.

It is the nature of life to transform.  Living things are a constant growth process–cells replace themselves, size changes, color shifts.  Our outlines flicker and adapt, grow and diminish.  Slowly to our eyes, of course, but we are always in flux.

It is the nature of matter to transform.  Apply the right forces, and rough ore from the heart of the earth becomes sword or plow.  Sand becomes glass.  Wood becomes coal.

It is the nature of spirit to transform.  We pass through trials and wonders on this path, and each high or low point leaves a mark.  We come through the other side as different people.  Our value systems change.  Our outlook is forever altered.  And when we look back, we do not recognize the past self gazing into our own eyes.

It is a simple thing to create a Labyrinth.  A Labyrinth is a sigil in the truest sense of the word–a drawn design that, once etched, has power independent of the hand that drew it.  Labyrinths can be spray-painted on the ground, drawn in the sand, chalked on the driveway. They can be made to last, or made to be ephemeral.

This past weekend, I had the honor of presenting a Labyrinth and Labyrinth workshop at Fertile Ground Gathering, a Beltane festival in Northern Virginia.  The festival takes place in a State Park, so the Labyrinth needed to easily melt away after the weekend.

Robin (my working partner) and I created ours out of 80 pounds of flour, sprinkled in the timeless design of the 7-circuit Cretan or Seed Labyrinth.

It was easy to lose sight of intention as we sweated in that field, slowly walking the curving arms of the Labyrinth, stooped to pour the flour on the ground.  Easy to forget the purpose of the design while we focused on creation in that hot, humid clearing.  Easy to lose sight of the 5000 years of history as I walked, barefoot, across the design again and again, to find sticks and sharp stones that might distract other walkers.

But no matter the creator, or process of creation. The sigil of the Labyrinth is true.  After we’d finished building the Fertile Ground Labyrinth, showered off the sweat and flour and changed, we came back to the field.  I breathed deeply at the entrance and placed my foot upon the path.  And there it was.  That just-below-hearing hum I’ve come to associate with Labyrinths.  That sense of deepening.  As I walked, I felt the knots of the day slipping away.  I felt my consciousness slipping into a dream state.  The moss on the ground was soft beneath my bare feet and muffled my footsteps.  As ever in walks, I passed through thoughts and emotions as well as the turns marked out in flour on the ground.

As one foot fell after another, I found myself walking other Labyrinths in my mind.  My very first one, so like the Fertile Ground Labyrinth: flour in a field.  My home Labyrinth, laid out in brick and earth.  The canvas Chartres Labyrinth we sometimes roll out at the UUCF.  The Dancing Woman Labyrinth.  The creaking wood floor of the Chartres inside the church in which I became a Labyrinth Apprentice.  The sigil holds true, always.  This pattern, this ancient design, connects to a spiritual practice so old that its original name has been lost to the mists of time.

I knelt in the center, in front of the round altarcloth, cauldron and white flowers, and felt myself sinking into that immense sea of time and space.  The wonder of the Labyrinth, the transformation of design to form to spirit, filled my mind.  Labyrinths humble me.  To be a part of a tradition so much older and greater than myself is more Grace than I know what to do with.

To be able to help others into that Grace by creating the sigil and guiding weary souls onto it is equally humbling.  My part is small.  The transformation of a Labyrinth walk can be breathtaking in its scope.  Some walkers found answers to problems.  Some healed.  Some prayed.  One tearful, grateful whisper; “My Mom is here.”

That is the power in the pattern.  The true alchemy.  It is not just the matter in which the Labyrinth is created.  The alchemy is in the spirits that pass through the pattern.

It is the nature of life to transform.  It is the nature of matter to transform.  It is the nature of spirit to transform.

Alchemy.  Flour into spirit.  A miracle small enough to be overlooked and large enough to change a life.

It is the nature of Labyrinths to transform as well.

Terrible Beauty

Published April 13, 2012 by ireneglasse

My family didn’t really discuss religion when I was a child.  I was baptized Presbyterian, and when I was a tweeny we went to a nice church, but our attendance there had more to do with community than faith.  The church had a wonderful youth group–I’m still friends with several people I met there.  That lack of familial theological discussion left me free to figure out my own beliefs in my own time and space.  And for that I am incredibly grateful.

Today, I’m thinking about my first glimmer of Deity.  Specifically being aware of that higher power, and perceiving something of its nature.

When I was 13, one of my close friends at school and church passed away from leukemia.  It was my first ‘big’ death, my first encounter with the incomprehensible finality our bodies are subject to.  I remember the shock, and the inner silence that for me accompanies grief.  I’m a chatty creature–even if my voice is silent, chances are my mind is still blathering on about something.  But when I grieve, everything gets very quiet inside.  I feel a slow, dull ache in my chest, and a hush that mutes the rest of the world.  It’s as though that pain is able to somehow turn down the volume on reality.  As though my heart doesn’t so much speak as silence.  And in the stillness, I feel.  And I grieve.

Shortly after my friend’s passing, I was sitting in math class, looking out the window.  That silence had taken up residence again, and I was having trouble getting my mind to lock onto anything but the pain inside me.  My gaze was drawn to a sapling outside the window.  It was early in the day, and the sunlight was tracing patterns on the bark.  The sky was a perfect, crisp winter blue behind the brownish-gray of the branches.

As I sat and stared out the window, I wondered how something could look as beautiful and perfect as that tree while I was in so much pain.  The sudden perception of that dichotomy seemed to open a window inside me.  The concept expanded in my mind to more than a sapling and my own grief.  It came to me as a single force–an all-encompassing Power that was at once creator/destroyer, growth/entropy, joy/pain.  And two specific words echoed within me: the phrase that I have used ever since in my private thoughts about Deity – the Terrible Beauty.  For me, Deity is not a set of polarities that pull on us.  It is One that surrounds and permeates us.

Again, today, my soul aches with fresh bruises.  My thoughts have gone quiet, and I lose track of time, sitting in silence.  Outside, the colorful sunlit riot of Spring is in full force.  The trees are newly clothed in flowers and fresh, delicate leaves.  Tulips and daffodils turn their bright faces to the sunlight; birdsong is everywhere.  Here, on this interconnected web, friends offer up love, comfort and solace.  And that outpouring of compassion is as beautiful to me as sunlight on branches.

And within me, I feel that dichotomy again.  Pain and love.  Sorrow and gratitude.  Life and death.

The Terrible Beauty, in all its horror and magnificence, shines in my inner silence.  I feel it within me, see it everywhere.  And though I grieve to feel such pain, I rejoice in the beauty that comes with it.

For me, the balance is worth it, and inspires reverence for the joys as well as the sorrows. And for that, most of all, I am grateful.