(last post was about what was involved in authorizing myself to do this, this post is about what I’ve come up with)
Minus a five year apostasy, roughly ages 16 to 21, I was Catholic for 47 years. And I was no “cultural Catholic.” By age 10, I was invested enough to be doing the Stations in the Cross in lieu of recess during Lent. Not that this was a huge sacrifice; recess was no picnic, and the cool, dark and quiet of the church suited me, and Jesus-the-victim resonated strongly with a kid who couldn’t fit in.
Consider, then, the effect on the nervous system of decades of Catholic devotional practices. I don’t mean this ironically. I am used to a liturgical calendar that matches the seasons of nature to the events of salvation history to the various moods of an individual life. Seasons for birth, for repentance, for suffering, for dying, for transformation and renewal. And good old “ordinary time.” I’m used to the Stations of the Cross, a cycle of (among other things) deep empathy with oppressed and suffering humanity. I’m used to the rosary, a cycle of celebration, mourning, wonder. I’m used to “set” prayers which form the backdrop to something far too deep for words; rote recital which acts like ripples on the water, while I sink farther into the depths, and find renewal there.
I have prayed the rosary so often, that the mere feel of beads in my hand has a quieting, grounding effect– so much so that when I left the Church, I bought some Buddhist prayer beads (for mantras, though I mostly use them now to practice naming the chemical elements).
When I lost my faith, as the saying goes– or rather, pursued my faith in truth, in compassion, in integrity to the point that the old beliefs were no longer sustainable– I felt as though these practices had simply to be discarded. Even if I tried to revert to them, I couldn’t believe the things that gave them life, so they no longer lived. An assortment of magick practices began to speak to me, but these sometimes stood my Catholic beliefs on their head, so that I felt alienated from my own spiritual past. The new rituals held great promise, but there was still an awkwardness. I would cast a circle, and then not know quite what to do inside it.
As I’ve used (among other things) this blog to work through my cognitive dissonance, I’ve opened a space where I can build a bridge between what I had then and what I have now. Here’s the best I’ve got, so far (and for me, it’s really, really good):
A rosary has 50 beads of “Hail Marys,” divided by 5 beads of “Our Fathers” and “Glory Be”s. It has, outside the circle, an “Our Father” bead, three “Hail Mary” beads, and a final “Glory Be.” The end of this short, 5 bead chain is a cross.
I couldn’t use the beads while the cross was on them. I don’t mean any disrespect to Jesus, but I couldn’t wrap my fingers around the symbol of the instrument of his torture, a torture deemed necessary by the supposedly loving “Father,” couldn’t use that as the starting point for reclaiming my dignity as a woman. So I cut the cross off my rosary, and put it away.
Now the problem was what to say. I don’t say “what to pray,” because since I see the goddess as a symbol, I don’t actually believe my words are being received by someone– and that makes “prayer” the wrong word. A practice. A meditation. Not a prayer.
Well, what was the central point of witchcraft, for me? That nature is what there is, and nature is a whole, even though nature organizes itself into discrete dynamic structures, and some of these are sentient, and even have the experience of “self.” This is not, as Buddhism would have it, an illusion, pure and simple; there is a reason that certain biological processes produce such a subjective experience. But the experience is not the last word on reality, and is destined to give way, in death. We stop being “selves,” and everything we are composed of is redistributed into new, temporary structures.
So how do I express this, meditate on this?
Ok, laugh all you want at this, but I’m not too proud to get my inspiration from wherever I find it. There is, in season four of Buffy (it’s ok, laugh away), a spell performed by Willow and Tara, with these words: “The inward eye, the sightless sea / Ayala flows through the river in me.” This couplet had haunted me for years. But who the hell is “Ayala?” I looked into it; there’s no such goddess legend, at least not that I can find. It appears to be a Joss Whedon invention, like the demon M’Fashnik.
Alright, then, what do I use in place of Ayala? “The inward eye, the sightless sea / the goddess flows through the river in me.” If the goddess is the metaphor for all that is, that works; we are, as Joni Mitchell says, stardust– the atoms that live and recombine in us have been around since the Big Bang. “The inward eye, the sightless sea / All things flow through the river in me.” Either of these couplets makes a perfect substitute for the “Our Father” beads.
So what goes in between? What came to me was this: “Wind and wave / Star and tree / Earth and stone”– then what? “Tree” is easy to rhyme, so you could go lots of ways: “Live in me;” “Carry me;” “Speak to me;” “Blessed be!” Well, the last line could be adapted to what you feel. For that matter, you could rewrite the first three lines — if, say, you feel more affinity to animals: “Snake and bird / Whale and bee / Fish and lion ….” etc.
And what about the three “Hail Mary” beads that go outside the circle? I had already found myself drawn to two particular manifestations of the goddess, Kali, and Quan Yin. What moved me about Kali was the notion of a primordial creator-destroyer, who somehow had become more compassionate, more human. The story I knew about Kali was that she was married to Shiva, who loved her, in all her raw scariness, above all goddesses (as I read it: preferred to face reality, rather than clinging to a pretty illusion). When the world was besieged by a multiplying demon, she went on a rampage, and even after she killed it and its spawn, could not distinguish demon from other living things, and kept killing indiscriminately. Only Shiva was able to stop her, by throwing himself under her feet. She saw him, recognized him, was shocked and ashamed at what she was doing. From then on, she became the destroyer of illusion. Yet all things will eventually die, so Kali remains the dark, primordial mother and grave of all that is.
Quan Yin, by contrast, is all goodness and light. She is the epitome of what we can strive to be as humans. She is the Bodhisattva, the one who chooses to forego even enlightenment, if it helps her to redeem even one sentient being. Quan Yin is, to me, the summit of what we have achieved, or at least imagined, as human beings evolved out of Kali. She is our commitment to create a place of safety, of kindness, and beauty, before we die.
Well, that’s two goddesses. And my old rosary has three “Hail Mary” beads outside the circle. Plus, I was taught to think in terms of Trinity– and the law of three certainly precedes Christianity, as the triple goddess shows us. Who would be my third?
Cerridwen. If Kali and Quan Yin are the extremes of the evolving-primordial, and the summit of evolved compassion, Cerridwen is the process. She gave birth the a beautiful daughter, and a hideous son. She wanted to help her son, and so crafted a potion that would give him knowledge and insight to compensate for his ugliness. But on the day the potion would have matured, she fell asleep, and the boy who was tending the brew was in the line of fire when it spattered, and when he sucked the potion off his skin, he acquired the gifts that were meant for Cerridwen’s son. When she found out she pursued him, through a series of shape shifts, hoping to kill him. She was greyhound to his rabbit, otter to his fish, and finally the hen who ate the grain of corn he became. But the corn made her pregnant, and in the end, she gave birth to the great legendary Welsh poet, Taliessen.
Cerridwen is, for me, life as it is lived between the extremes. We have instinctual passions, and we make loving plans, but when the latter go awry, we sometimes set ourselves to destroy what disappoints us, rather than accepting the new good. Cerridwen seemed to me the best third for my new trinity.
I will summarize the new “rosary” below, but my point is not that anyone should adopt it. Rather, this is an example of how anyone might take the spiritual resources they have, and adapt them to a new, woman-centered symbolic world. Don’t ask permission, don’t feel you have to adopt anyone else’s ritual just because it’s in a book– just start with what you have, and what you want to express. Let it simmer; and it will turn into something you can use.
My Witch’s Rosary:
(B= “Our Father” or “Glory Be” bead; b = “Hail Mary” bead; alt = alternate words for this bead; a “decade” equals B plus 10 b)
(beads outside the circle):
B: “The inward eye, the sightless sea / The Goddess flows through the river in me” 2x (alt: “All things flow ….”; OR use the names of people who have helped you, as in “My mother flows through the river in me ….”)
b: “The inward eye, the sightless sea / Kali flows through the river in me”
b: “The inward eye, the sightless sea / Quan Yin flows through the river in me”
b: “The inward eye, the sightless sea / Cerridwen flows through the river in me” (alt: any goddess names that are important to you)
B: “The inward eye, the sightless sea / The Goddess flows through the river in me ” 2 x (alt: “All things flow ….”)
(beads inside the circle):
B: “The inward eye, the sightless sea / The Goddess (alt All things) flow through the river in me”
b: “Wind and wave / Star and tree / Earth and stone / Live in me” (alt: Speak to me, Carry me, Blessed be)– repeat for 10 beads
Repeat this pattern for all five decades, then repeat the pattern for beads outside the circle.
Stage one of my life as a witch: I’m looking up spells and rituals furtively, as though I were googling porn. What would people think of me? Had I lost my mind? But I’m so excited by what I’m seeing. I’m hanging around New Age People, pretending to be above all that stuff, and just interested in the “serious” (read, traditional Asian religious) statues.
Stage two: My curiosity and interest get the better of me. I observe Samhain. This entails buying some equipment and writing out a spell, so it’s hard to pretend I haven’t begun to take the plunge. I’ve got a wand, two dishes for salt and water, four candle holders and candles for the points of the compass, a goddess statue, and a little selenite tower-thing. And some floral and herbal decorations. I rewrite the ritual I found online to omit references to gods and goddesses, and proceed.
Stage three: I’m finding the practice so rewarding, I start keeping a Book of Shadows. I do the rhymey thing with spells, come up with more and more meaningful objects, spend more and more money at New Age People (thanks, guys!). And then kind of peter out.
So what’s the problem, at that point? Well, I can cast a good circle, but then I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. I meditate zen-style for awhile, but I haven’t found any routine practice I can do without written instructions. And it begins to hit me that there is an art to crafting a really good prayer or image or sacred object, and maybe I’m just not that talented.
Stage four: I’m making an awful lot of wands. That seems weird; sort of a material-girl, acquisitive approach to witchcraft. But there is something deeply fulfilling in it, albeit it entails still more expenditure (all those crystals). And I feel like a loon buying stones that are supposed to “bring” me anything. To paraphrase Mole in The Wind in the Willows, stones just aren’t that sort. They know their place. And anyway, the whole notion of special kinds of energy coming off of rocks in a powerful enough way to influence human events –? No.
So why do I keep buying them, and attaching them to wands? And why do I feel such an excitement when I pick up certain stones, and nothing at all when I pick up others?
Stage five: I start thinking about placebos. Because magick– what Starhawk defines as “the power to change consciousness at will”– now seems to me like a system of crafting placebos.
Now that may sound dismissive, or trivializing, but I don’t see it that way. There are better and worse placebos. If placebo pills affect people in our culture, it is because we’ve learned to associate pills with relief of some kind, which would not have happened if medicine were a sham. Likewise, religious placebos only take effect because of people’s long standing associations, and I believe they only become effective in the first place because they carry a deep emotional resonance for the cultures that adopt them. Catholicism had to adopt some of the pagan practices of Northern Europe, because northern Europeans experience the seasons in their very bone marrow. Nothing could make a deep spiritual appeal to these people that didn’t touch that part of their being.
Ann Moura, in Green Witchcraft, writes of the way our knowledge affects which magick practices “work” for us, and which don’t:
Although there are many people who feel Ceremonial magic is a valid approach to magic, anyone who studies history and understands the derivation for the rituals of Ceremonialism is unlikely to be able to continue to use the system with any degree of success because knowledge, which is the gift of the Goddess, alters the perception. Joseph Campbell was unable to remain a Catholic after his study of world mythological patterns, and numerous historians set aside religion after discovering the origins of various faiths, so it should not be considered unusual for a person who rejects mainstream religions to also reject a magical system that has connection to those beliefs.
Okay, so me trying to root my use of stones in Deepak-Chopra-style pseudo-science won’t be effective for me. What kind of placebo is this, then?
The colors matter to me. The textures. The sheen. Color speaks to my heart at such a depth, to repaint a room feels life-changing. Not everyone is that attuned to color, I suppose, but there are certainly color affects that most people experience — red as stimulating, blue as tranquilizing, etc. That you prefer one or the other probably speaks to a biological / psychological need of yours. And I notice that the books on crystals do not work by means of a rigid dogmatism about what-means-what. Always, the recommendation is that if a stone is “calling” you, it’s the stone for you, no matter what the books say.
On the other hand, if the effect on my nervous system is “real,” is the stone a “placebo?” Or is it, rather, that human beings are affected as subjects who live in worlds of meaning, and not merely as objects, via direct biological intervention? Cathedrals are powerful in their evocation of a sense of the sacred, and they do it by means of stone, wood and colored glass. The simple arrangement of stones on my altar, or the crude attachment of meaningful stones to a meaningful stick– these are acquiring the same power for me.
Stage six (present stage): Bringing a new energy to finding practices that “work”– and finding that I do this best by starting with what I have, not by starting with other people’s rituals (though I read about those, too). More on that in another post.
“She has changed the way I think of Africa,” Fanny said. “She’s changed the way I think about a lot of things!”
“Good writers do that,” he murmured, distracted.
But he did not want to change the way he thought of Africa. Besides, when he wanted insight into Africa, he’d read a man.
But why should he try to read all the books that changed her life. She had time for those kinds of books. She taught literature! He had to read the books required by his profession. The teaching of American history ….
…..He wanted American history, the stuff he taught, to forever be the center of everyone’s attention. What a few white men wanted, thought, and did. For he liked the way he could sneak in some black men’s faces later on down the line. And then trace those backward until they appeared even before Columbus. It was like a backstitch in knitting, he imagined, the kind of history teaching that he did, knitting all the pieces, parts and colors that had been omitted from the original design. But now to have to consider African women writers and Kalahari bushmen! It seemed a bit much.
Both excerpts from Alice Walker (1989), The Temple of My Familiar. New York: Pocket Books.
It’s kind of a comfort to me to know that the only people on earth regularly following this blog are two of my four kids, and (I think) one sister. It takes the pressure off when I stall out for awhile. And I’ve stalled out recently, partly because the whole premise of this blog has become problematic to me.
I presented the blog in my “intro” as a contribution to the witch world, and that contribution was supposed to be intellectual rigor. I’m beginning to feel ashamed of the arrogance in this, as I read the works of witches (Starhawk, Ann Moura, and others) who show historical, scientific and psychological sophistication– and who are in any case better writers. But more troubling to me is the way I find myself, when I write, trying to justify myself to an internal tribunal of male academics. And the members of the tribunal all share the sense that a subject that only women write about can’t be serious.
I am the daughter of an academic, and grew up around his male colleagues. When I was very young, I simply didn’t see female professors, and when I began to meet female intellectuals, they rubbed me the wrong way. They seemed so competitive, so defensive; what was missing, I see now, was the easy air of authority that comes with knowing you’re the lawful inheritor of the world of the intellect. Women had to fight their way in, while the men could just assume the mantle.
I was a loud advocate for women’s rights in middle and high school, but somewhere in the course of college life, I drank the koolaid. The problem, I think, is that since my life was in disarray, I was vulnerable to the spoken and unspoken view that I had brought these on myself by being rebellious, non-believing, and non-compliant. I saw sexism and misogyny all around me, but could not carry these awarenesses gracefully– and why should I have? To carry them at all took considerable strength and courage; to be the kind of person who effects change around them (rather than being written off as a nut) was beyond my teenaged abilities. There was very little help to integrate my perspective into an adult identity; the pressure was to give it up.
So I found a way to persuade myself back into conventional belief. I became a “scholar,” studied the classics and pooh-poohed feminist readings of them. The point was to master “the canon,” which left little time for books by women, books by non-European authors, books by contemporaries. One had to climb the mountain and sit at the feet of the masters, and I put phenomenal energy and patience into doing just that.
I feel silly, at 53, finally coming back to what I knew at 17, and part of the process involves not blaming myself for being human, then and now. I struggle with a load of shame for having turned on myself the way I did, just the way abused children or oppressed people feel ashamed for having been powerless, or for having used their strengths to adapt to oppression. I feel the same shame they feel to find themselves repeating their own victimization as adults– as though they should have been, somehow, above carrying lasting hurt. I know what it’s like to feel that you have somehow morphed into the oppressor you hated. I cringe when I remember using my hard-won learning to defend the indefensible in my church and in western culture– to try to exonerate it from the clear reality of its determination to suppress women, then and now. I feel deep shame for having minimized or argued with women who were laboring to see through the bullshit.
Yet here I am, trying to show The Man that my interest in witchcraft is not just some silly chick thing.
Whatever intellectual rigor means to me, it can’t be allowed to become the code word for the male academic stamp of approval. It’s time to dismiss the tribunal.