mourning

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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.

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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.