from this past Sunday’s service at the Pacific Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Astoria, OR:
Happy Mother’s Day to those who celebrate. I am privileged to have (and hopefully BE) a mother worthy of celebration. That is not always the case for people, and I’m sensitive to that today.
Mother can be a charged word, right? Almost as charged as God the Father, and I have to tell you, that image of the old, white “dad in the sky” never much worked for me. In fact, my problem with viewing a deity as a parent is a big part of what led me to an earth-centered, or Pagan, path to begin with. Well, that and a deep love and appreciation for nature, one that was fostered by my dad when I was growing up. We spent a lot of time hiking together. Sometimes I got to be on his shoulders and I still remember the way the world looked from up there, all wide open and full of promise. But usually I was down in the dirt, picking up rocks or picking flowers. And we didn’t just hike. We talked about the movement of the animals on the paths we could see in the foothills. We sat quietly and observed. We explored. And we talked about – and sadly saw a lot of – pollution. In many ways, the green warrior in me is deeply rooted in those hikes I took growing up.
At the same time I was having these hikes with my dad, I was also seeking out spiritual experiences, exclusively, I might add, in Christian churches. In those days, I didn’t even know there was a choice. But I was called to seek, and so I did, usually on my own. My parents were not fans of organized religion for themselves, but they never put a damper on it for me. Maybe they would have been UU’s, if only they’d known how cool it was and is. But I was a little seeker, and I spent the first 15 years or so of my life in the Christian tradition, primarily in Protestant congregations. And I had a LOT of questions. The kind they didn’t much like, such as, “If women are the birth-givers, and we are created in God’s image, why is God a man?” and “If it says in the Bible that we’re supposed to take care of this planet, why does God allow pollution?” and “Why would we be Christian ‘soldiers’ if Jesus wants us to love each other?” And the ever popular, “Uh, why does God seem to have a different set of rules for men and women?” And on and on. I think I exhausted a lot of ministers and church volunteers. They were probably relieved to see me go. And I persisted in trying until I was about 16. But at that point, I gave up on Christianity and declared myself an agnostic. Agnostic, notice, NOT atheist. I was still seeking.
So how do you make a Pagan out of that? You take that love of nature, add a pull towards the mysterious and wonderful world, sprinkle in a LOT of books, dab in a little budding feminism and activism, a pinch of self-sovereignty, a heaping amount of love for mythology and voila! Of course, that’s MY recipe. Yours may vary, and vive le difference! One of the things I most love about my path is that it recognizes and honors others, without the need for some sense of superiority or self-righteousness.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with this thing we call Beltane. Bear with me, I’m getting there!
My early Pagan years involved a lot of reading and working on my own. I studied like a med school student, grabbing as many books as I could find. I learned about the Wheel of the Year, which is central to many Pagan traditions (yes, there are traditions of Paganism, just as there are in Christianity). The Wheel, as we affectionately call it, is essentially a way of celebrating the seasons around us. It recognizes the quarters (or solstices and equinoxes), but also what we call the cross-quarters, which tend to be about halfway between the quarters. Many of these cross-quarter celebrations have European roots, and most are tied to the agricultural cycle. Beltane is one of these cross-quarters, happening every year on May 1st.
There’s so much I could say about Beltane, and I’d love to, but Kit would like to talk too. If you’ve seen or danced a maypole, you’ve participated in a very Pagan tradition, one that comes to us from Scandinavian countries. Did you know why the dancers were dancing? Or wonder why on earth someone came up with the idea of sticking a pole in the ground and then wrapping ribbons around it? Well, let me tell you. That pole is (as most pole-shaped symbols are) a phallic symbol. In many Pagan traditions, women help dig the hole that the pole is set in. Why? You’ve probably already guessed it – the hole is a womb symbol. The dance with the ribbons? A continuation of the womb symbology. In this case, men and women work together, to “dance” and sheath that maypole in a womb of ribbons.
Yeah, it’s all about sex. Of course it is, right? Because what are we seeing around us at this time of the year? The birds are singing “hey baby, hey baby” looking for a mate. Frogs too. And the bugs. Our ancestors noticed too… and recognized that their own “sap” was on the rise at this time of year. Most customs were geared towards “helping” the recently sown crops grow. I already mentioned the maypole, which represented human fertility, and which the humans hoped would also encourage the crops to be fertile. Sometimes that “help” looked like driving a herd of cattle between two giant fires called bel-fires, again to encourage fertility in the herd. And sometimes it looked like peasants having sexy time right out there in the fields, to help fertilize the land. And so we have Beltane, a celebration of love, union and passion.
But that’s a little simplistic for me, and I quickly moved beyond simply performing the customs of Beltane in my personal practice. I want my spiritual life to have depth. And, I want it to help me grow as a person. The older I got with my practice, the more I realized how the Wheel of the Year is more than just an agricultural cycle. It’s also about the cycles of our lives – the cycle of a year as well as the cycle of a lifetime. As an example, some magic I’ve done over the years has involved treating my goals or ideas like seeds. (Now magic as I’m using it is not about stage tricks. In earth-centered traditions, magic is sometimes called the art of changing consciousness at will, a definition often attributed to Dion Fortune. As I said, what we call magic is not what you see on stage with the hat and the rabbit – it’s more like a prayer with symbols and symbolic action.)
So with my magic, I start thinking about what goals represented by seeds I want to “plant” or DO in early February, on a holy day we call Imbolc. This follows a year review I do at Winter Solstice, when I see what went well for the year, and what I may want to change in the upcoming year. I think about different areas in my life and decide what goals I’d like to pursue in the year ahead. On the Spring Equinox, I actually sow the seed, formalizing my commitment to my goals. By the time Beltane comes around in May, I’ve begun to see growth, but I want to help it along a little. I also may start to notice which seeds might be having trouble “sprouting” and come up with strategies to help the seedlings. Come Summer Solstice, everything is in full, glorious bloom. Come Lughnasahd, another cross-quarter, in August, I’m ready for the first harvests, and I know there’s a long way to go till the final harvest at Samhain in late October. In this way, I have a physical representation of my goals – the seeds. And taking care of seedlings is a great lesson in tending to your goals. Why is this one doing better? Did I plant too many? Do I need to thin them out? What weeds are creeping in to steal energy from my seeds, or goals? And so it goes.
This is what we call a spell, or magic, and it’s often formalized with ritual elements – which we simply call ritual. In my tradition, what are often called “spells” are simply what anthropologists call sympathetic magic as I’ve illustrated here. In my case, I have seeds that represent the things I wish to grow in my life. I physically tend them, and I pay attention to how they’re doing… and let that leads me to paying attention to how I’m doing with my metaphoric seeds – the goals – so that I can take corrective action if need be. The ritual around it is not so different from the ritual that we have here, every Sunday, with songs and meaningful actions. Not so scary when it’s broken down, eh? You might even find that it’s something you’d like to introduce into your own practice. I’m always up for conversations about that. There are SO many ways to find spiritual truths and inspiration in the cycles of nature around us.
Many Pagans, such as myself, are drawn to the Unitarian Universalist faith because we see from the Sixth Source – Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature – tells us we’re welcome here. We also resonate with the 7 Principles, and the 7th in particular because it recognizes the interconnected web of life, which is sacred to us. We even have groups in congregations sometimes – called CUUPS groups (for Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) – and these groups gather together to celebrate the Wheel of the Year, life passages, and a host of other things. I’d love to see a group like that in Astoria.
But today, we’re talking about Beltane, and the beautiful warm sun, and flowers and the green growing things we’re tending. I’ll close with a poem from A Book of Pagan Prayer by Ceisiwr Serith:
The warm time is here
Time to work and time to rest
Time to celebrate outside
Time to prepare for the harvest.
All about us, the Land Spirits are singing.
All about us, the deities are speaking.
Help me to list, all you divine beings.
May I hear your voices.