Saturday, 22 June 2013

"Blessed be"

"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."
(From "The Desiderata", Max Ehrmann)

Yesterday, 21st June, was the Summer Solstice. A solstice occurs twice a year when earth's semi-axis is most inclined towards the sun, when the sun reaches the highest position in the sky as seen from either of the poles. The summer solstice occurs on the day that has the longest period of sunlight outside of the polar regions, although the solstice itself is effectively an instant in time. The word derives from the Latin for sun-stopping - "solstitium".
The June solstice marks the first day of the summer season in the northern hemisphere. On this day, the sun doesn't rise precisely in the east, but rises north east and sets to north west, enabling it to be in the sky for a longer period of time. In the southern hemisphere, the June solstice is the shortest day of the year, when the sun is furthest from the equator.
The solstice has remained a special moment in the annual cycle of the year since Neolithic times. The solstices and equinoxes were essential to the development and maintenance of calendars. The seasons and weather played a huge role in people's lives, particularly in the cultivation and harvest of crops. Over the centuries, the June solstice has been a time of ritual, celebration and festivities. In parts of Scandinavia and the Baltics, it's the most important holiday time after Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Originally a pagan holiday, in Christianity the mid-summer solstice became associated with the birth of John the Baptist, whose feast occurs on 24th June: the gospels imply that John was born six months before Jesus. The celebration of St John's Eve evolved from the ancient festival of Midsummer's Eve; summer solstice. On this night, people gathered "magical" golden-flowered plants such as Calendula and St John's Wort, still renowned for their healing properties. Bonfires were traditionally lit to guard against evil spirits, and witches were said to be seen gathering or meeting with other mystical beings. In the 7th century, St Eligius warned the newly converted people of Flanders against pagan solstice practices, saying there should be no dancing or leaping on the feast of St John the Baptist.

Across Europe there are various locally adapted solstice celebrations around the feast of St John. In Ireland, many towns have midsummer carnivals and in rural areas bonfires are still lit on hilltops for St John's Night. Bonfires are also lit on the high hills of Cornwall. The week-long festival "Golowan" is celebrated in Penzance and runs from the Friday nearest to the feast of St John: the festival was originally called "Gol-jowan", after the saint. Midsummer festivals are celebrated in many parts of Scotland, notable the Scottish Borders. St John's Eve traditionally has a mystical significance and inspired Sir Walter Scott's well known ballad of that name.
No self-respecting neo-pagan would pass on a trip to Stonehenge at summer solstice. My blogger friend Annie was there to see the break of day yesterday, along with 20,000 similarly spirited people. Annie is a lovely girl who says she is a "leaped" rather than lapsed Catholic: she says she's jumped back to the celebrations of nature and Spirit which existed before Christ was born but don't contradict the existence of the Creator or of the Son of God. I have a lot of time for Annie. I've always felt an affinity for Desmond Tutu's very simple vision of "The God who existed before any religion"; who was not concerned that a deeply spiritual man such as Gandhi was not Christian because He was not a Christian. When Annie emailed to say she was going to Stonehenge, I asked her to say a couple of prayers for me at dawn; she said the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Gloria Patri. Once a Catholic, eh Annie?
Stonehenge is now known to have been a Neolithic burial place some 8,000 years before the birth of Christ. By 3,000 B.C. the henge was a sacred place and also a mighty sundial and celestial calendar. I've only been there once; the stones were already roped off from visitors, but I felt it was a common holy ground. There are further celebrations planned there over the next few days: this June's "supermoon" is seen as auspicious by many. The moon's own orbit of the earth is oval, so at certain points it can come much closer to us. Scientists say that supermoons are the result of coincidence; this solstice weekend, the supermoon will coincide with the full moon on St John's Eve. The moon should be thirty percent bigger and therefore much brighter than usual. The next supermoon will be in August 2014.
When I email Annie, I sometimes end with "Blessed be" instead of the usual "God bless" to good friends. I appreciate it's a combined greeting and farewell used by many pagans, but I comfortably use it as a Catholic. It's primarily a blessing, a wish for goodness; what could be lovelier than that? I see a lot of so-called New Ageism around Brighton, often cultivated in the shadowy place between despair and hopefulness. There are a lot of younger people who seem drawn to the old ways of wicca, almost in rebellion against Christianity and mainstream religion as a rite of passage.
I have no problem with the term "wicca"; in fact, I respect it's origins in the old Saxon and Norse words for wisdom. Wiccans, also giving rise to the name for witches, were originally those who knew about the land, the elements and the stars. The forefathers of herbalists, homeopaths, astronomers, chiropractors, acupuncturists, spiritual healers.... Sageness, intuition and mysticism gave way to suggestions of sorcery. Everything light will have it's dark side if people look for shadows, whether that be to hide in or to expose others.
I tend to mention my Scottish granny Barbara because I often think of her, although I never met her. Her way of knowing things, apparently passed from her own mother, was accepted by Mum although she worried that I'd inherited it. In short, it spooked her, but it's never disturbed me. When I was at convent school, some girls messed around with teenage spells and even ouija boards; the latter in particular horrified me. I'm quite clear that I should never have any truc with them: I don't believe you should ever take it upon yourself to call people, past or present, or material things to you. What your heart knows and your soul recognises are within you by the grace of God. We should protect our own wisdom and instinctive knowledge; I appreciate faith as the deepest intuitive feeling a person may have.
The solstice marked a double-whammy of firsts in Brighton. English Heritage unveiled a Blue Plaque yesterday at Tyson Place, just down the road en route to the pier, commemorating Doreen Valiente, called the Mother of Modern Wicca. This is apparently not only the first time  a Blue Plaque has been notably dedicated in the field of paganism and wicca, but also the first to appear on a council block. Only in Brighton blah blah. It's been said that pagans were the original Green Party; perhaps they'd have responded to the recent refuse dispute in a more emphatic and organic manner.
I don't know much about old Doreen. She was originally from south London, born to religious parents; she absconded from her convent school when she was just fifteen. The Anti-witchcraft Act of 1736 was repealed in 1951 and she then spoke very publicly about being a witch. She distanced herself from any malicious works and was keen to emphasise that wicca shouldn't be employed to create darkness or misery, stressing that it had nothing to with the "black  arts" or Satanism. Apparently her neighbours at Tyson Place regarded her as a "white witch" and a good person. I see no harm in Doreen's Blue Plaque. Perhaps I could have one for wittering.
Personally, I don't believe in the strength of black magic, unless we're talking chocolate. I don't believe in curses, but I understand the great harm caused by ill will and malice. I don't believe in sorcery but I believe in blessings. I believe that prayers are wishes put to God and that miracles are magical. I believe that each soul has it's own history and it's own path. The universe is a vastly beautiful place created primarily to unfold the mysteries of love to us: nature is God's work and therefore sacred. I believe we carry the seen and the unseen within us as well as all around us. None of this seems to dilute my own Catholicism. I feel sure that Annie's prayers at the henge on the solstice were intended for and heard by the same God I pray to at church or in my garden.
The creatures I've heard and fleetingly seen moving around my garden at dusk are not the Little People but in fact some tiny toadlets. They seem to have taken up residence in spite of Ginger from next door and Jonathan Seagull and his hooligan mates. I've been told by a delighted Annie that they've come because they sense protection; apparently toads are very loyal creatures. So I've now set about making them a small waterhole and a toad-house. In return, they seem to be naturally dissuading East Sussex's tenacious slugs away from my garden. This morning one of the little toads burped at me before he scurried away to shelter. I think it was a greeting. Blessed be.
*To Annie, Croce and Dempsey the cat*
Summer Stolstice Prayer
In gratefulness we lift our eyes;
With loving thoughts in heart,
We give thanks for all things good.
For blessings the Creator imparts.
Let our hearts be ever glad.
For beauty that abounds
And gives a taste of heaven's glory
When summer comes around.

"Crystal" Stevie Nicks
"Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.
"No-one else has access to the world you carry around within yourself; you are its custodian and entrance."
(John O'Donohue)

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