Beginning Thoughts from Cornwall

The 21st has come and gone. A new quarter begins.

I stood at the sink washing the dishes, looking out at the stump and bush from which the Horned One was staring at me. I apologized that I would be neglecting him. He continues to peek out at me. My instincts tell me to greet the land and offer milk and mince pies, but that just doesn’t….. seem Christian.

So I sit and stew about this conflict. My sensibilities have changed since last I practiced Christianity exclusively. I tried, I really tried, but my deepest religious and spiritual experiences were almost always of a different nature. I tried to fit my experiences into a Christian context and then I gave up. So do I try to mingle them together now? Do I ignore my sensibilities and what I’ve come to experience – my allies and gods? That seems rude and unwise. But Christianity is quite clear about several things – not having any other Gods besides Yahweh and Jesus being one of those things. (I know – they’re the same, but see? My sensibilities are different.)

Standing at the sink I decided to talk to Jesus. I was always told to do that, to talk to Jesus like a friend and develop a personal relationship with him. I never once experienced that, despite years of trying and seeking. On the 21st I said, again, that I’d like to meet Jesus and get to know him. We’ll see what happens this time around.

I’m still unsure of how I want to practice this quarter. I’ve decided to start praying the Lord’s prayer, the Hail Mary and two prayers I learned from my time worshipping in Eastern Orthodox churches, the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner) and ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy.’ This seems like a fair and honest beginning.

I don’t have any set Christmas traditions. No one thing that I’ve done every single year. In fact, I realized during our move that my son has spent each of his four Christmases in four different places, with different people: Australia with my family, two different houses in Wales, one with my in-laws and one just with us, and now Cornwall with good friends. Outside of the quite secular Christmas tree, presents, and the carols that I sing this time of year, I don’t have any set Thing That I Do at this time of year.

So it’s a delight to have my friends here share their tradition. M, is half-Jewish and was raised as a Baba Lover. She and her husband, C, follow Meher Baba. M honors her Jewish heritage by observing Hanukkah; she light candles each night at sundown. She honors the spiritual tradition of her heart by reciting three specific prayers given by Baba. The prayers are simple and beautiful.

The first one lists attributes of the One who is without attributes; is an apophatic prayer. I’m fond of apophatism. While there is some language I personally find problematic (‘Lord of Lords’) I happily join in the spirit of honoring the monotheistic Non-Dual.

The second prayer is one of repentance. Repentance – even using the word itself – is something that I’ve quite let go of. I certainly believe in accepting responsibility for my faults and the ways I’ve hurt others, and I work to get ‘right’ with myself and others. But the word ‘repentance’ is so entwined with language of worth/unworthy, right/wrong, your will/my will dualisms, that I struggle to remember the helpful aspects of repentance. This prayer also uses much of these ideas of repentance. But I dive into its meaning. These concepts of worthiness, repentance and sin are a non-negotiable part of Christianity so I accept them and pray them with a sincere heart. My I be forgiven every insincere word, malicious thought and wish, every false gesture, and all my hypocrisy. May I be worthy of union with You.

The third prayer is a short prayer to Baba to love him ‘more and more, and more and more, and yet more.’ Avatar Meher Baba kaji. I start my mornings with my private litany of Christian prayers and end my day with communal candles and Baba prayers. It’s peaceful and a gentle introduction to my monotheistic, avatar-based quarter.

I may not get back to this internet cafe before Christmas – or even before I leave for the US. I wish you all every happiness this holiday season.

A Goodbye

The boxes are packed. We came to Wales with twelve boxes, four suitcases, two cats and one child nearly two and half years ago. We leave with 14 boxes, three and a half suitcases, one cat and two kids. These final days are the busiest, most chaotic. My friend, Haloquin, arrived for dinner and magic last night in the midst of people moving furniture out of our house, me feeding the baby and the three-year old running around in his green, footed pajamas. My energy was frazzled and frayed.

Halo and I had decided to make some magic together. She too has studied Anderson Feri, with the same teacher I did! Halo is one of two other Feri practitioners in all of Wales (not including me) and she happens to live in the same small Welsh town as me. It’s been a comforting gift, having her presence here.

The weather here has been cold and wet – sometimes hailing, sometimes sunny, sometimes lashing rain. Halo and I hoped to get outside, and the weather cooperated. We went to the Fairy Tree, a spectacular oak, half alive, half dead. We walked in the dark, through the cemetery, behind the housing estate, over the stream, through the ankle-deep mud, over the trash left behind by partying teens, and around into the ‘arms’ of the tree.

My Fairy Tree, Lampeter, Wales, during the summer

We lit candles in jam jars, nestling them in the soggy grass and the crooks of branches. And we stood. And listened. And felt. Halo rang her singing bowl, the vibrations soothing my frenetic parts. We invoked the Old Ones, the Fey and the Spirit of the Land.

There’s no way to talk about my experience without sounding completely daft. It was an unexpected, tender, and bittersweet experience. The branches looked like extensions of dryads, dancing, writhing and pointing the way. I felt the Old God. I felt the Fey, I heard them. Water murmured beneath our feet. Oak wrapped around and over us. The Spirits appeared, listened in, and then retreated.

I came close to tears, which for me as a non-crier was a big deal. This land is so wild, so alive, so beautiful. I’m not ready to leave! And yet, I am. It is beyond clear that it is time to move on: due to a mistake on my part we are leaving one day earlier than expected. I hear you, Wales! We’re going already!

Halo sounded the bowl again. We offered ourselves to the Old Ones: we would know, we would learn, we would serve. Yes, this path is for me. For some reason the word ‘baptism’ came to my mind. This ritual felt like a baptism of sorts. Maybe all the water around us – in mud, rain, damp wood – was what did it. One more step closer to the Heart of things.

Such a simple ‘ritual.’ We left behind offerings of sweet short bread biscuits. We said our goodbyes. And back we walked in the night. I love that tree. I will carry it with me, in my spirit.

Sing, Ye Choirs of Angels!

After worshiping the Dark Mother Kali at a full moon Hindu puja, it was rather jarring to sing about the birth of the King of Light at a candle lit Christian service the next day.

The Lampeter university chapel is a lovely community, and I’ve sung off and on there for the last two and half years. This was my third carol service – and my third year singing the opening ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ solo. While I’ve gotten musically rusty here, I wasn’t sick this year! A Christmas miracle!

St David's Chapel at the University in Lampeter

I love high church – the ‘smells and bells’, the liturgy, the robes, all of it. However, the more comfortable I get with myself, witchcraft, and what I really believe about the world and the Divine, the less I can stomach a lot of the God language and concepts. I was particularly distracted this year and I did my best to zone out during the scripture readings. While I might not agree with all of the lyrics I still adore singing the traditional carols. Many of them were written or arranged by Big Name ‘classical’ composers and they are such fun to sing. I believe in the Christmas spirit – peace to all men – and so I feel warm and fuzzy when all the voices together sing out loudly about love, peace, joy, hope and tenderness (which is what the story of the Nativity means to me).

After the service there was mulled wine and minced pies for all. A friend of mine here, a member of the church, spoke with me and mentioned her surprise upon discovering that I am not a Christian. She shared with me her story of joining the church and how she doesn’t see God like most of the other members do and that she too zones out during parts of the services. I think this is more common than I realize. I don’t think all people see God in the same way. Clearly, you can have people sharing the same pew in the same church and have widely different views. Why is this so hard for me?

For all of my both/and thinking, I tend toward all or nothing thinking when things get close to my heart. The closest thing to my heart, the thing that I feel most vulnerable (aka stupid) talking about is this: everything I write about on this blog. Do I fail to join in because I want it all my own way? Or do I refuse to settle for something that isn’t a good fit? I’ve been thinking about this for two days now and I think it’s the latter.

It isn’t that I don’t think there’s room for all in the Church (or any particular faith or community), it’s that I don’t want to have to translate every time I go to share in spiritual community. I don’t want to have to feel left out – and while theologically most priests ‘know’ that God isn’t a gendered male, all that male God language privileges the gender and body that I am not. I don’t want to pledge my allegiance (through baptism) in order to share in the bread and wine. I don’t want to have to engage with texts that suggest God okayed genocides (in the Old Testament) or think that this world isn’t our home (the New Testament). I don’t want feudal or martial language, because it’s mostly used as exclusionary and furthers us v them thinking. I don’t want to have to use words that repeatedly convey my ‘unworthiness.’

It looks like my Christian quarter has started early. I will cling to my Feri quarter for as long as I can – eight more days. The next quarter is going to be a lot more muddy, theological and challenging for me.

Full Moon Kali Puja

What do Kali, elephants, and robots have in common? Me!

I can’t help but love the richness of my life.

Saturday started with a ‘robot party’ for my son. It was his going away party. My husband made a cardboard box robot chassis for each of the kids, but only my son was interested. Instead of designing robots, the party was a huge play fest – noisy, messy and sugar fueled. Just the way a three-year old likes it.

Straight after the party I met up with some friends and together we went to Skanda Vale, a nearby Hindu temple and pilgrimage site. By nearby, I mean a 35 minute drive involving dark, windy, unpaved roads for the last half of the journey. It is a beautiful, wild, peaceful site, and I encourage you to click on the site and look at the pictures. I’ll wait.

What the land looks like around Skanda Vale

We arrived in the dark and the cold. The Maha Shakti temple, which houses the large Kali Ma murti, is at the top of a hill. A short walk through the forest up a windy dirt path lit by lamps leads to the site, and provides a quieting mental preparation for the ritual to come. I walked up in silence, taking in the trees and the Spirit of the place. We were walking east, into the rising full moon.

We arrived early and waited in the terrace for the temple to open. There were some families there waiting as well. The children were leading some chants – all in Sanskrit! – and the singing was lovely. I missed my kidlets.

I’ve never been to a Hindu temple or service before. So the entire experience was new and out of my comfort zone. Even though I had just enough book knowledge to know the gist of what was occurring, I really couldn’t follow along very well. I listened for words I knew and if the chants went on long enough I could find my way in, usually just before they moved on to a new chant. I also noticed that while the majority of the priests, nuns and monks are white, the majority of devotees were of South Asian descent. I got the impression that most of them were regular attendees and so must come from the larger south Wales area. It is not that common for me to be in the racial minority. I think being outside of my regular everyday conditions is a good thing. I kept quiet and followed what the others were doing.
The ritual itself was stunning. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The temple is beautiful, from what I could see. I was not able to go in as I hadn’t kept vegetarian for the required three-day minimum (I had planned to be, but then thought the trip was off and so ate meat). The terrace has a screen that focuses on the Kali murti so I could see her up close. The chanting was enhanced with a speaker for those of us outside. I got lost in the chanting, feeling the buzz of the drums, bells and kirtan (call and response chanting).

I felt overwhelmed with the intimacy and tenderness with which the priests undressed and washed Kali. First they removed all the little murtis from around her, then the flowers, clothes, and jewelry. They washed off all the red dots and the coloring from her outstretched tongue. They poured hot water over her and then a series of various liquids and substances – rose-water, yellow water (turmeric or saffron?), milk, honey, yoghurt. At one point she was bathed in a thick bright red substance – I’m guessing it symbolized blood, as it looked quite like it. Kali bathed in dripping red was a fierce reminder of my fragile humanity. Later, after many rinses, she was coated in a thick white paint-like substance. That too was dramatic in its beauty – a visual reminder of our purity. Over and over again the priests poured water and bathed her. First in this, then in that. Occasionally the run off was collected for later use.

Once all the different baths were done the priests tenderly dried her off and began rubbing oil all over her. It was intimate and the oiliness had a touch of the sexual about it, though none of this was obscene or vulgar in any way. She was spritzed with perfume, flames waved in front of her. The red dots were repainted and her tongue carefully repainted, first with a bright yellow powder, then with a bright blood-red powder. A coconut was set on fire and waved before her. She was redressed and adorned with myriad beautiful flowers.

I was able to help pass the offerings through to the temple. Trays and trays of food and flowers. One of my friends who has been to Skanda Vale several times told me that the temple provides literally tons of food to various charities every year. I had brought four oranges, one for each member of my family, as my offering. If I had known what could be offered I might have brought more! After all the offerings were placed at Kali’s feet the aarthi (sacred flame) was passed around, then powders for blessed markings on the forehead, and lastly the juices collected from Kali were spooned into the hands of devotees. Because I was one of the few people present unable to enter the temple a priest came out to me and I was able to wash myself in the flame and taste the weirdly delicious and blessed concoctions.

Maha Kali at Skanda Vale

On our way back down hill we passed by the temple elephant’s house. Skanda Vale has an elephant, named Valli, given by the Sri Lankan government. It’s been there for over 30 years! Our timing was perfect: the elephant’s caretaker opened the door and we were able to see it. And not only see it: we were given a blessing! Holding a carrot behind our back we walked up to Valli and using her trunk, she blessed us. My head was ‘palmed’ by the trunk snout and then I gave the carrot to her, stroking her trunk as she whisked it away. I adore elephants and this was a tremendous treat.

Valli, Skanda Vale's resident elephant

Afterward there was a vegetarian meal to share – various tasty curries, rice and humus. After two and half hours of ritual in a cold space I wasn’t sure if I would ever be warm again and the spice of the curries hit the spot.

What struck me about the service is how much like church it felt. That’s really what it was! This particular, in-depth service only occurs on the full moon, the daily Kali pujas are truncated versions of this one, I think. But it had many elements of what I consider ‘church’: sacred space, priests performing the ritual while the laity participates only peripherally (or at all), blessings given to the laity from the deity via the mediation of a priest, and a sense of community. I didn’t feel any great connection with Kali, but the entire experience was suffused with joy.

I am so glad I had the opportunity to experience this before I leaving. If you are ever in Wales, I recommend a day long visit to Skanda Vale.

This evening, the full moon ritual on a dark night for the Dark Mother contrasted with my Sunday: a candle lit carol service for the Lord of Light in which I sang, which I’ll talk about tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Looking ahead

When I first envisioned this project, this virtual ashram, I set up my order of traditions with a specific purpose in mind. I deliberately wanted Feri to overlap with Samhain, I wanted Christianity to overlap with Christmas and Lent, and I wanted Place to occur in the spring, when getting outside was more enticing. I was looking forward to Christianity because it is the one spiritual form that has ‘easy’ community. I have been involved in the local Church of Wales off and on as a singer, and in a community this small I now know many families there. I thought for sure this would be an interesting foil to the usually solitary nature of practicing Hinduism in a Western country or practicing witchcraft.

Of course, the best laid schemes of mice and men oft go askew. On December 21st, the day that my practice turns to Christianity, my family will say goodbye to Wales. As this project moves on I find myself dreading the Christian portion. But I’m committed to what I set out to do, and I will do it with an open mind and heart. I’m not sure how my practice will look in a new town, but at least the material will be familiar. So much for community.

I look forward to Place in the spring, as I’ll have a new land and a new place to get to know. I had hoped to dive into Wales and its mythology and secrets. I’d hoped I’d get to see a badger! Alas. What secrets does Washington hold? It has a mythology and language all its own, and I shall attempt to learn it.

Already the fold into Christianity begins. In the run up to Christmas I am singing with the chapel for their carol service. I love to sing and I love Christmas carols, even as I chafe at the words. I find myself having to translate theological language in order to get into the spirit. It’s much easier this time of year – who doesn’t have a prayer in their heart for the poor, the outcast, the suffering? I can happily open my heart to Light and Love. And still I dread the kingdom language and Father God language.

LastSunday night I took my son to the children’s Christingle service. He isn’t old enough to appreciate the songs or story, but an orange with lollies and a candle? That is some fantastic stuff right there! Afterwards there was a little party for all the children and wine for the adults. These festive, communal parts of holidays are what is missing from my life. I may be able to go without, but seeing the excitement on my son’s face as all the kids had their candles lit was beautiful.