Crafting New Practices
(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.