I drew this mandala during a seaside retreat with the Women’s Sacred Circle in Maine this September. We were there during the autumn equinox (Mabon in the Wiccan calendar) and it was a pretty magical weekend. The last morning I was there, I took my final swim of the season. The water was so cold I got pins and needles, but it was worth it.
the god-shaped hole
must remain empty
so that god can pass through
it widens like the ozone
the world ends
and begins again
the guard opens the gate
and you make your way
to the pond with its
face of glass stillness
once before you came and sat
until the birds darted
over the gulf between bushes
and a red-winged
blackbird winked at you
now the water itself gulps
and returns to stillness
in the empty space of the evening
Of all our holidays, Samhain is the most obviously pagan in its origins. Halfheartedly assimilated by Christians as Halloween (or “All Saints’ Day” for the truly pious), the focus on the underworld — on death and dying — is hard to reconcile with a tradition that promises everlasting life.
The thing that makes this holiday essentially pagan is its acceptance and observance of death as a natural part of the cycle of existence. Like the Death card in the Tarot, it does not mean stagnation and decay. Rather, it symbolizes the difficult yet rewarding pain of transformation — think of a snake shedding its skin. At Samhain, we shed the remains of what we’ve harvested in the previous year and turn toward the inner work.
It’s a time of endings and beginnings. With darkness encroaching but not complete, it is the twilight time — not one thing nor another. In the half-shadows of the shorter days, with the final flare of the summer sun alive in the changing leaves, and the chill of late autumn in the air, we become aware of the thinning veil between this world and the next. We remember those who have passed before us, grieving their passing and celebrating the brightness they have brought to our own lives.
This October as we strolled under a corridor of yellow leaves, I bemoaned the passing of summer’s warmth and light to a friend.
“Maybe it’s important to focus not just on what’s passing, but on what’s germinating,” she replied. “This is the time of year for apples, and cider, and gathering inside with your tribe around the fire.”
As I continue through a major life transition, I see my tribe changing and shifting. I’ve had to shed some things in order to make room for others. The empty spaces leave me trembling and terrified. But even as I weep and grieve, I see how the Goddess fills those spaces with new life, new energy. I look ahead to what is germinating, trusting in the the wisdom of all the crones who have gone before me, and who gather with me now behind the Veil.
A while back, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she wanted to indulge in some “emo femme shopping,” but that she was resisting the impulse. And she summed up the post with a phrase I wish I were uninhibited enough to write: “world love me NOW!”
I knew immediately what she meant. This friend and I have a lot in common. We’re both queer femmes, we’re both plus-sized girls, and neither of us had Mrs. Cleaver for a mother. Her post also made me aware of how I’d been indulging in my own emo femme shopping for quite a few weeks. And what, pray tell, is emo femme shopping? It’s an attempt to lift one’s mood via the purchase of a pink/fluffy/sparkly/cute/fashionable item. And given the nearly unlimited number of pink/fluffy/sparkly/cute/fashionable items available via the miracle of the Intartubes and Paypal (not to mention the nice bump in salary I enjoyed when I came back to work full-time this April), it can reach dangerous proportions.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of attempting to change our moods via some outside mechanism. Some of us use booze. Some of us use food. Some of us use sex. And some of us use things like this! or this! or this!. I’m actually not very interested in any of these items, but they do a good job of representing the kind of twee, impractical things I tend to crave when I’m in a particular kind of mood.
Emo femme shopping can very quickly turn into the hell of the hungry ghost — a hell of intense craving that’s impossible to satisfy. A tiny mouth and a huge belly. Like most hells, it’s an illusion. In this case, it’s the illusion that more material possessions will fill the god-shaped hole inside of me.
I go in and out of the habit of posting gratitude lists on this blog. I usually include the word “gratitude practice” in the title of these posts, but I wonder if perhaps that sounds pretentious. People refer to a yoga practice, or a meditation practice. I think it’s important remind myself that order to retain certain skills I must practice them constantly. It’s one thing to know in theory how to align the parts of the body in order to achieve a particular asana (yoga pose). It’s another thing to experience the sensation of that alignment — and all the individual variations of mind and body over the course of days as I practice it again and again. Likewise with meditation practice. Likewise with physical exercise. I can’t keep being able to run a mile in 10 or 15 or 6 minutes unless I continue to do it every day.
And gratitude is the same thing. It’s a practice. It has benefits in the same way that aerobic exercise has benefits. If you practice gratitude yourself, perhaps you’d like to articulate those benefits in the comments below. For me, one of the major reasons I practice gratitude is so that I will refrain from behaviours that are harmful to myself or other people.
Someone — a woman I’d never met in person, but interacted with on the internet fairly regularly for a few months — once characterized my comments as “preachy.” I suppose the reason her words cut me so deeply were because I know that I often talk about spiritual matters and spiritual practice. But if you met me in person, you’d know that I do so because I’m a very earthy person. I sit with my legs open more than a ladylike lady-girl should. I wear a size 20. I like things like sex and food and digging in the dirt. And I have other tendencies that have gotten me into a lot of trouble in my life. So if I focus on spiritual practice in my posts on this blog, or on Facebook, or on GooglePlus, it’s because spiritual practice is something I need to remind myself about constantly.
Which brings me around to Jesus. In theory, Jesus and his teachings are quite wonderful. But whenever I hear or read someone describe themselves as a Christian, or as someone who trusts in Jesus, I can’t help but have a certain knee-jerk reaction to same. I don’t hate Jesus (despite what the title of this post might imply), but I have had many unpleasant interactions with many of his followers — including the Catholics who first taught me about things like God and souls and whatnot. Because of certain accidents of birth, I’ve also found myself at odds with the teachings of conservative, Evangelical Christians. When it comes to the culture wars threatening to tear this country in two, it’s pretty clear what side of the divide I belong on. In the 20-plus years since my Confirmation ceremony, I’ve come to terms with this negative-Jesus-association. But on some level, I think that words like “Jesus” and “the Lord” will always evoke a visceral response in me quite different than the one that might be intended by Good Christians(TM).
I went through a brief period of atheism in my early teens, but soon after I was introduced to the notion of a God of my own understanding. It was an incredibly freeing notion, and after much soul-searching I realized that almost none of the things the Catholic Church had to say about God had much to do with my own understanding of the Divine. The God of my understanding today is infinitely vast, infinitely complex and unknowable. In spite of God’s, vastness, I have a relationship with it. And I have directly experienced God’s infinite love for me, personally. I believe that God cares about me and my own well-being. And I don’t care if that belief is true or correct in some objective sense, because my spiritual beliefs and practice are fundamentally pragmatic.
I do and believe what I do because it makes me a better person in the world. It makes me more useful to my fellow human beings. And that is one of the reasons why I practice gratitude. Because a grateful heart is a generous heart. When I pay attention to the things I do have — gifts that were given to me regardless of whether or not I earned them — I’m more likely to find room in my heart to be of service to others. Sometimes being of service just means showing up to work on time and doing my job, or listening to someone who needs to talk. But it’s always easier to do these things when I feel replete. Feeling and being useful is something I’ve been focusing on lately, when I pray to the God/dess of my own understanding.
Publishing houses have been complaining about losing money since the dawn of the printing press. For about that long, authors have been complaining about how hard it is to make it into print. Many more authors make it into print only to see their editions languish on the discount table. That’s because publication isn’t the same thing as marketing, and publishers don’t always have the budget or the inclination to market every book they put out. So it’s often up to authors to market their books themselves. And herein lies the rub. In general, the qualities that make someone a great writer — especially of non-fiction — aren’t the same qualities that make someone great at marketing their work.
That’s where I’ve been particularly impressed by Andrew Himes. I first became aware of his work with the Voices in Wartime project, which is how I ended up on his mailing list and heard about his book The Sword of the Lord, ready for wide release on May 15, 2011. This is a book that manages to make history personal. Himes, whose grandfather John R. Rice was founder of the Christian fundamental newspaper Sword of the Lord, combines his own personal story with that of his ancestors, creating a seamless picture of a people forged in strife and trauma and adamant in their beliefs in the face of historical pressures. A more in-depth review is forthcoming.
Given my own personal journey around matters religious and spiritual, I think it a ringing endorsement that Himes could make me see this particular religious group — one which tends to demonize people like me — in a spirit of compassion. Himes’s sense of compassion, as well as his willingness to engage in a meaningful email correspondence, is what won me over to him as a person and not just as an author. He agreed to answer a few questions for me:
Frances Donovan: I can tell that you researched this book very thoroughly. Can you describe your research and writing process?
Andrew Himes: I decided from the beginning of researching and writing that the stories and references in the book needed to be beyond dispute. So you might disagree with my analysis of conclusions, but you should still feel confident that the narrative is a truthful and accurate recounting of history. So I read and annotated almost 250 books in order to write my one book, and I read countless articles and posts and historical documents online. I visited the archives of The Sword of the Lord newspaper several years ago to get copies of a number of specific issues I was interested in, and read four biographies of John R. Rice, two of which are unpublished dissertations, and I delved into Rice family archives in the possession of various family members.
Finally, I showed various drafts of the manuscript to several family members, including my mom and all of my aunts — the daughters of John R. Rice – plus my sisters and brother and several cousins, and got extensive critical feedback. I had hundreds of hours of conversation with various church historians, professors, and pastors so I could deeply understand the historical and religious issues I was writing about.
My writing was a process of exploration and transformation. I had no plan in the beginning other than to use the story of my life and my family’s in order to illuminate the story of fundamentalism. So I followed one story or book or historical incident to the next, almost as if I was using stepping stones to cross a shallow pond, but without knowing where the next stone would be until I was ready to step on it.
Frances Donovan: The ending chapter gives us a sense of your own spiritual and political journey. You talk about trading one kind of rigid belief system for another, and it’s obvious both from the overall tone of the book and from your grandmother’s example that compassion is an important spiritual value to you now. Can you tell me a little more about your own spiritual beliefs and practices today?
Andrew Himes: Compassion is absolutely at the center of my own spiritual practice, and I’m aware that I inherited this focus from both my granddad and my grandmother, as I recount in the book. And compassion is not merely a feeling. It’s an action. The Latin from which the word comes means literally “co-suffering,” and if when we are in deep communion with someone else who is suffering we are driven to act in order to relieve the other person’s suffering. So the very heart of the gospel as we have it presented in the New Testament is Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a verb. Compassion is an action.
Frances Donovan: Do you think there is a difference between religion and spirituality? How would you describe that difference?
Andrew Himes: Wow! That’s a question that might require several thousand books to answer. .I suppose the crucial distinction is that spirituality describes the path of an individual towards salvation and enlightenment, while religion is a communal and community-based response to the fundamental questions of human existence, including the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the moral foundations of life. I believe that every single human is built to be both spiritual and religious and connect with the notion of God, a mystery much bigger than our individual lives, the idea and reality of God a mystery beyond anything any of us can imagine or understand. Even people who claim to believe in no God are nonetheless driven to ask these big questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, how to understand their connections with other humans, and how they might be held accountable for their actions.
Frances Donovan: It was especially engaging following the thread of your own ancestors’ story within the greater context ofAmerica’s political and religious movements. Is it possible to relate their story to the challenges faced by Muslim Americans in this day and age?
Andrew Himes: My ancestors came to America fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic disaster. They came to find a new world where they could live in freedom and thrive by taking advantages of new opportunities. The same story can be told of countless new immigrants to the United States, including Muslims from many countries. The faith of Muslims is no more alien to the dream of America than was the faith of my ancestors. We all share in this dream of freedom.
If my son is a lantern spilling light and warmth
throug the rose panes of his skin
if combustion is a chemical reaction involving oxygen
and if its byproducts are heat and carbon dioxide
if we also exhale heat and carbon dioxide
if we are fire, converting the molecules around us
if the flames banked all day leap in me at night
and if I am too tired to rise and write
if I carry the spark in me, conserving it,
but its bright engine keeps changing the fuel of my life
into ashes, ashes–if the first conflagration is over
and the long deep burn is underway
if I feed with my breath, if I burn hotter,
if I smother it, if I keep changing air into spirit
— Lesley Wheeler
Note: Interview with the poet coming soon.