A lifelong atheist once asked me, a former Catholic, what “Eucharistic Adoration” was. I said it was the practice of praying in the presence of the Eucharist. It was a way to tune into everything the Eucharist means: God wishing to be one with us, wishing us to be family to each other. She returned, “In other words, you were praying to a cracker.”

At the time, I felt far more bitter to my former Church than I do now, but I was still annoyed and offended. When I prayed in front of the Eucharist, I was committing myself to what I believed to be the greatest good. I was worshipping a love that wants to embrace everyone, a love that wants to heal all wounds and repair all injury. Yes, I believed that that love was specially present in the sacrament. That is not the same thing as “praying to a cracker.”

Plenty of people have noted the Catholic affinity with paganism, whether in the seasonal holidays it adopted from northern European pagans, or the gods and goddesses it repackaged as saints or demons. Roman Catholicism is a religion with semitic roots planted in European-pagan soil, and this shows up in the continuity between “sympathetic magic,” and Catholic sacramental thinking.

Sympathetic magic is a form of magic practiced in many cultures, in which an object or action takes place in imitation of what the practitioner would like to have happen. An enemy is harmed in effigy, as in voodoo; a loved one is protected by protecting something belonging to him, or representing him. An animal’s strength is absorbed by eating it, or wearing a symbol of it. Sympathetic magic thus lies in a space between unsymbolized action, where everything is literal, and a purely symbolic world (as in the world of language), where we can speak of killing without anyone’s being literally harmed, or speak of building without anything’s being actually put in place.

In the realm of Catholic belief, a sacrament such as baptism or the Eucharist both means and is– and morever, effects some change. Baptism means being washed clean, died and reborn, and it imitates these actions, while believing that on some level they actually are effected. Eucharist is about being nourished by Christ, being joined body and spirit to him and to all believers, and it is in fact effected by eating. Catholicism seeks to prevent this approach to the world from degenerating into pure superstition by tying these actions to the faith of the believer, and the will of God. Your faith and God’s love are what saves you, not just having water poured over your head and saying certain words. Sacraments are also distinguished from “sacramentals” (holy water, medals, statues, etc) which are seen as purely symbolic, effective only in the sense that they inspire the believer or express her intentions.

Of course, popular practice sometimes does collapse into superstition, with some people actually believing that burying a St. Joseph statue in the yard will help them sell their house, or that wearing a particular medal or saying a particular prayer will deliver a result as automatically as a coin in the vending machine.

Witchcraft has the same potential for superstition. It also has deep roots in pre-scientific magic. Psychologists use the term “magical thinking” to describe a groundless belief that you can make something happen just by wishing it. This common meaning of “magic” has led many witches to use the spelling “magick” to distinguish a more grounded practice. The “k” allows us to say (without sounding crazy) that we believe in magick, NOT, of course in magic!

The difference is huge. It’s what allows me, as a non-theist, still to assert that I was not praying to a cracker. The wafer had been imbued with a symbolism that did, in fact, affect the way I engaged the world. Meditating in the presence of this symbol made me more honest with myself, more open to change, more compassionate towards myself and others. This was not the only way it could have played out; I have no doubt that some Catholics who sat in front of the Eucharist reinforced their own narrowness, bigotry, and zealousness against nonbelievers. After all, the wafer was not “magic.”
When I use sympathetic magic now, I am aware that I am seeking to make a small change in myself, by enacting a truth or a commitment. The value of the exercise is in its power to solidify a good insight or intention. Its danger is in its power to solidify something not so good.

If I were to do a “love spell” to make someone fall for me, I am sure it would have no effect at all on the other. But it would solidify a wish in me to interfere with someone else’s freedom, and this would corrupt everything I mean by “love.” If I were to do a “money spell” in the belief that it was a winning lottery ticket, and that this guarantee of success would also bring happiness, I would only reinforce a very skewed sense of priorities.

I recently cast a circle and did an impromptu protection spell. In my office, using toys, I would have called it play therapy; in the circle, “spell” will do just fine. I was at a loss for how to work with a client. She had been emotionally abusive for years to a younger sister, and now that the sister had cut off contact, felt the girl had a duty to try to reconcile with her. I could hardly contain my outrage when I listened to this victim-blaming. I couldn’t find a way to be firm about the sister’s right to be left alone, without enjoying my stance as “punisher.”

Once within the circle, I felt a certain freedom to think and feel, without the pressure to be right, to have the answer. I could accept the circle as a place where my thoughts would not harm this client. Neither, though, were all my thoughts and feelings helpful.

I set out three stones, one for the “victim,” one for the “abuser” and one for the “rescuer” (those who work with abuse will recognize this triangle: the roles we get pulled into when we do therapy for abuse). I had, in front of me, the dilemma. The client saw herself as the victim. I saw her as the abuser, and in turn, wanted to rescue her sister and punish her– in other words, I became the abuser. There seemed no alternative to these roles, and simply to empathize with her felt like joining her against the victim.

Then I found myself reaching for a new stone, to represent the sister. It occurred to me that she was no longer in actual emotional danger from this woman. She had cut off contact. She had protected herself. I placed her far away from the triangle, and with my wand, circled her three times to reinforce my awareness that she was safe. I placed her near the goddess.

And now, I found myself outside of the triangle, looking at it. I no longer felt confined to the roles it presented. It dawned on me that I can be angry with my client, yet not act; not until I’m ready, not until I have something to offer besides anger.

I placed a sprig of heather, for peace, in the middle of the stones. I circled each with the wand three times, on the third time letting the wand drift outside the circle, to free them from their roles. Then I was ready to open the circle.

I do feel the change in myself, since doing this spell. I still struggle with difficult feelings, but I’m better able to help myself and my client reflect on what we’re doing, instead of just mindlessly acting out. The representation of the situation allowed me to work with it symbolically, but in a way that reached me deeply– that effected change. This is what I mean by magick.

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The Portable Altar

July 13, 2013

Don’t know if you’ve encountered this problem, but after I established a home altar, and some really cool rituals to do there, I found myself at sea when I didn’t have time or the setting to cast a formal circle, with all the cool equipment.

Here’s what I came up with:

Taking a page from Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, in which a young man from an oppressed indigenous tribe in Jamaica, uses three simple stones to ground himself and his people, I adopted a few stones which would be my “altar.” (May I just say, in passing, that I do not mean to compare myself to this young hero, or to compare my situation to that of these people? I am just a middle class, first world white lady, trying to craft some meaning in relatively benign environment). I keep these stones in a little sack, along with some prayer beads, and one additional stone: the “witch’s broom,” a type of black kyanite that looks broomish. I set up four central stones (I won’t elaborate because you should choose stones that mean something special to you); place around them four stones for the points of the compass; use the “witch’s broom” to cleanse the circle (i.e., use it to trace the circle, deosil). Then I invoke earth, air, fire and water, and cast the circle.

I use the beads (a Catholic rosary, with the cross removed) for my meditation. For the single beads on the chain: “The inward eye, the sightless sea / The Goddess flows through the river in me.” For the grouped beads, “Wind and wave / Star and tree / Earth and stone / Live in me.” (for a fuller description, see The Skeptical Witch blog, “Crafting New Practices”)

Then I reflect or read; then open the circle. All very simple, all neatly containable in one three-by-four-inch bag.

A Tarot Reading

May 13, 2013

If you follow “Skeptical Witch,” you will have divined that I don’t believe cards can read the future. But I do see tarot cards as a well-crafted tool of reflection. The Rider-Waite deck contains a wide range of scenarios, conveyed in suggestive but ambiguous images. In the context of the Celtic Cross spread, they invite us to consider any current dilemma from the vantage point of past, present and future, conscious and unconscious wishes, our own gifts and what others have given us, and possible obstacles. It even leaves room for what we have not yet considered, but need to know.

I don’t personally believe that anything guides the distribution of the cards except the luck of the draw. No matter; each spread of the cards conveys a story, which may or may not correspond to our actual situation, but then, literature invites us into stories so that we can discover whatever we might need to discover. In the case of the cards, there is less explicit guidance than in a good novel. You look at the pictures; decide what their surface meaning is; decide whether the card means itself, in this story, or its opposite; and decide– like the viewer of Galadriel’s mirror– whether it refers to things that have happened, things that will happen, or things that will never happen unless the viewer turns aside from her course to prevent them.

So when I do a tarot reading, I begin by asking that I will learn from the story I am about to see, whether it is true or false.

And now, for a reading. I am about to shuffle and lay out the cards. I am thinking about a particular situation in my life. There is someone I want to help– a psychotherapy client of mine– but I find that I have overcommitted, and am failing to come through with things I offered. I’m already embarrassed, and want badly to salvage the situation; I suspect that the only way to do this is to rethink what I can offer, and be clear with this person.

Three shuffles, three cuts. And now, to lay them out: the center card– “this is me.” This will state my current situation. The card that crosses it– “this crosses me.” This card will suggest either obstacles, or potential helps– though with this card, one is especially careful to see the “downside” even to what look like strengths.

Next come the four surrounding cards. Below the central two cards: “This drives me.” This card is about my unconscious wishes. To the left: “This is behind me.” This card is about my past, and what it has contributed (for good or ill) to the current situation. Above: “This lures me.” This card represents conscious wishes. And to the right: “This is before me.” This card suggests an immediate future– where things are headed at the moment, given my wishes and my past.

There are four cards to come, but let’s look at what we have so far.

“Me.” I turn over the Ace of Wands. Wands are for the element of fire, or spirit. This card presents a mysterious hand emerging from a cloud, bearing a wand sprouting leaves. It suggests promise; beginnings; a magical offer of success. And I have been wishing to be a magical savior of sorts for this person. What crosses me?

“This crosses me.” The Queen of Swords. Swords are the element of air, of intelligence. The Queen holds a sword erect, but her face expresses sadness. Her left arm and hand are extended, as if in offering, or in a gesture of question, uncertainty. I thought I had something to offer; but the magic hand of the Ace of Wands gives way to the hand of the sad queen, who is less sure of herself, however committed she is to fight for …. for some good or other.

“This drives me.” The Moon. One of the greater arcana, and one of the more ambiguous cards. The moon is frowning; the dogs baying at it look savage. A lobster emerges from the water in the foreground– a sign of something more primal than even the wild dogs. Yet a path winds onward beyond the moon, into the mountains, and twin towers flank the passage beyond. The card may be about error– am I driven by a delusion of some kind in my wish to help? Are my real wishes far more primitive than I want to believe? Is the whole interaction about gratifying some need of my own, rather than being a help to someone else?

I don’t know, and the cards don’t know more than I do; but so far, the story is about someone who wanted to deliver magical aid, and found they couldn’t– and had to face a much less auspicious journey to an unknown end.

“This is behind me.” The Ace of Swords. Another ace? This time, the hand from the cloud delivers a sword, creating a bridge between the Queen of Swords who crosses me, and the Ace of Wands who represents me in this moment. The sword bears a crown– a suggestion of victory– but what have I won? Have I had past successes (real or imagined) that made me believe I could perform magic this time?

“This lures me.” Justice. This card is about fairness, equity, giving others their due. Which I have certainly wished to do– but the Aces suggest that what I really wanted was far less moderate. I wanted to be the deliverer of a new life, new hope, I wanted to believe that I had had such success before. And the “Moon,” representing my unconscious wishes, tells me that these fantasies covered deeper wishes and beliefs. I am not simply the grounded figure of “Justice,” however much I may wish to be. I am not, as I had hoped, someone who could be counted on to do what is right.

“This is before me.” The High Priestess. I was not by any means expecting such an auspicious card, caught up (as I was) in a frenzy of self-doubt and self-blame. The high priestess suggests secret wisdom. She bears the triple moon crown of Isis– a curiously affirming twist to the “Moon” card. Perhaps the unconscious wishes are not all bad– perhaps an endeavor rooted in primal needs (to be needed, to feel powerful, to feel that I am “good”) can be turned to good account, when these needs are brought to awareness and properly channeled. The High Priestess knows mystery, yet is grounded. She figures more depth than the “Justice” card– a richer, more creative goodness.

Now it’s time to lay the final four cards– to the right of the cross, starting at the bottom. “This I bring.” These are the gifts and/or faults I bring to the situation at hand. The Page of Swords. Another sword–? This suggests that I turn to my intellect, chiefly, to resolve this problem. The pages are apprentice-like figures, more youthful, more hopeful, even playful. They are learning; less earnest than the knights, queens or kings. This one is learning to wield a sword. He has not yet faced the limits of his power, as the Queen has. This suggests to me that my naivete about what I can do sometimes gives me the energy to persevere, though I will need to learn to face my limits (“what crosses me”).

Next– “This I have been given.” This card is about the resources others have given me, or perhaps, what they expect of me. The Six of Swords. Swords again! But unlike the other sword cards, this bears three figures with their backs turned. We don’t know how they feel. What we see is a man in a boat conveying two passengers, a woman and a child. Their heads are bowed. Six swords stand upright in front of the boat. We see the land to which they are headed; we don’t know what they will find there, whether it will be good or bad. We know that there is labor on the way.

So why is this the card for what others have given me, or how others see me? Maybe others realize (before I can) that I can’t actually guarantee where I’m taking my clients. I really, really hate to face this reality. I prefer to dwell on the successes. But when I cull the files (we’re allowed to shred the notes after seven years), I have to face the fact that there are some people I couldn’t help, and others who didn’t trust me to try after the first session or two. I don’t know why this goes in the “other people” category, except that maybe it’s harder for me to see and acknowledge than it would be for someone else, looking at me.

Now comes the card I turn to with childlike importunity, even though I know these are just pictures someone made up, in a layout someone invented. No spirits communicating with me from the beyond. Still, the card in this position is a disturbing reminder that we don’t have a handle on our lives– not entirely. This card represents “what I need to know, but don’t yet.”

The Queen of Wands. Well, the plot is certainly thickening! I’ve now got three sword cards, and two wands– and the spread includes the aces of swords and wands, and now the queens of swords and wands. This Queen looks far more hopeful than the Queen of swords. Moreover, she holds a sunflower in her left hand. There is life here, as surely as in the wand which bears leaves. Something I don’t know–? Maybe that whatever unrealistic wishes I bring to the work of helping this client, and however uncertain the outcome, I can work towards something deeper and better. In fact, now it occurs to me that the “other” represented in the Six of Swords card might be the client herself– she might be far more aware than I can be of the uncertainties involved in the journey, and yet she trusts me to convey her. And maybe, thanks to her trust, I can grow from being split between the “Moon” and “Justice” to being the “High Priestess,” who combines probity with the acceptance of mystery. Maybe I can grow from the wishful “Aces” to real accomplishment; maybe, from the sorrowful Queen of Swords to the more hopeful Queen of Wands.

And now there’s one more card– the final outcome. To tell the truth, this card is less important to me than the what-I-need-to-know card. But I’ve found it helpful, perhaps especially when it forecasts a bad end– because it reminds me that I can’t guarantee outcomes, and the integrity of my efforts matter, whatever the outcome. I turn over the card.

The Eight of Pentacles. This is the second time in a row I’ve drawn this card for a “final outcome.” What a shift, from the wands and swords! This is an “earth” card. No dynamism here– just steady, patient labor, for prosaic, earthy ends. The card depicts a workman, using a hammer and spike of some kind to imprint discs (coins?) with pentacles. The pentacle is the five-pointed star which represents the unity of the four elements– earth, air, fire and water– with the fifth: spirit. But there is no magic hand delivering the goodies from a cloud. In this card, patient labor is what brings home the goods– what brings us to a place where we can balance all the necessary ingredients in our lives, and produce something realistically good.

Look, the cards really are just cards. Whatever you get out of them is an artifact of your own, plus the artist’s, imagination. The artist has given you a rich and full vocabulary for drafting a story, but your own intuition breathes life into it– and your own wisdom (or lack of it) makes of the reading either an aid to delusion or a means of insight.

What do I get from the story it told me? That, yes, I wish to do magic for my clients, so that I can feel good about myself. And yes, I can’t guarantee that this will happen, and if any good does come, it will be through my willingness to take pains, not through some mystical charism. And yet working for the good is worthwhile, even if I am limited, even if I can’t guarantee the outcome.

Could I have come to this conclusion without tarot cards? Sure. Use Scripture; use professional reading; use whatever the hell resources you’ve got to sustain yourself along the way. Just thought you’d like to know how this particular resource works.

A Prayer

April 23, 2013

Kali Ma, you are the energy that drives the worlds, the Maker and the Destroyer. All that is good is born in you, as well as all harm; but when Shiva, who loves you above all goddesses, lay beneath your feet and looked into your eyes, you learned discernment. Now you are the destroyer of illusion.

Quan Yin, you arise, graceful, from the flames of Kali’s fire, the storms of Kali’s seas. You are all that is gentle, all that is compassionate. Resting in the great arms of Kali, you hold us little ones to your breast, and teach us to make places of safety, beauty and love, until Kali calls us back to her dark heart.

Honor, reverence and love to Quan Yin! Honor, reverence and love to Kali Ma!

A Crone’s Beltane

April 11, 2013

I am fifty three years old. Post menopausal, with the occasional hotflash. Stiff with arthritis, and increasingly clumsy with hand tremors.

My work exposes me to stories of sexual trauma, to the point that my libido is nearly dead. If it hadn’t been, an experience about five years ago would have done the trick. I was in a nursing home for a few weeks after a particularly bad arthritis flare up in the lower back, and my racist, largely senile roommate had pissed off the staff to the point where they were obviously neglecting her. One night, they left her in a filthy diaper so long that I offered to help change her. It turned out the mess had spread wide on the sheets, and– as a bonus– about six inches of intestine was protruding out of her rectum. This was not something I could manage from my wheelchair, so I propelled myself out to the front desk to shame someone into helping her. The visual from that scene tends to return when … well, let’s just stick with, “my libido is nearly dead.”

So imagine my delight at looking up Beltane rituals and finding that it’s all about sex! Fertility! The sacred boinking of the horny god and goddess! Whoopie!

I’m all about the Samhain, frankly. I resonate with Crone lore, I love the fall, and I’m mildly depressive, so pondering death and loss is my jam. How on earth can I pull off a good, solitary Beltane? Can’t do a maypole, solo; can’t eat high-carb oat cakes; and won’t “make love in the woods,” as one website suggests.

I’m the Grinch of Beltane.

So I decided to return to the source of my witchy inspiration, in search of a reason-for-the-season. I am referring, of course, to the Jethro Tull album, Songs from the Wood.

The song “Cup of Wonder” is essentially a Beltane carol, which I will quote in full. I should note that the line “pass the lady,” which I always took to be a bit of rock-star-groupie macho bullshit, actually (probably) refers to the May Day custom of bringing a veiled doll from house to house, and asking the inhabitants if they would like to see the lady:

Cup of Wonder (Ian Anderson)

May I make my fond excuses
For the lateness of the hour
But we accept your invitation
And would bring you Beltane’s flower
For the May Day is the great day
Sung along the old straight track
And those who ancient lines did lay
Will heed the song that calls them back

Chorus:
Pass the word and pass the lady
And pass the plate to all who hunger
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom
Pass the cup of crimson wonder

Ask the Green Man where he comes from
Ask the cup that fills with red
Ask the old grey standing stones
That show the sun his way to bed
Question all as to their ways
And learn the secrets that they hold
Walk the lines of Nature’s palm
Crossed with silver and with gold

(Chorus)

Join in black December’s sadness
Lie in August’s welcome corn
Stir the cup that’s ever filling
With the blood of all that’s born
But the May Day is the great day
Sung along the old straight track
And those who ancient lines did lay
Will heed the song that calls them back

(Chorus)

I’ve loved this lyric since I was a Maid and a Mother. Now it gives me a suitable Crone’s place in Beltane. With some experience behind me, I’m one of the old grey standing stones; I’ve known August’s fruition and December’s sadness. But I also “stir the cup”– I have my part in tending the new– children who are striking out in the world, animals my husband and I have made a home for, full grown trees and new seedlings. I feel their exuberance, though at the end of the day I like to take my place on the sideline– watching, then going off to ponder.

I feel my body decline like the waning moon, even as I take more care to exercise and feed it well. Its best is not very good these days. And in any case, since having my first child at twenty-five, the skin on my belly hangs like a popped balloon, streaked with silver-blue stretchmarks. My breasts lie heavy on my prediabetic belly.

But these days, I’m learning about how all things wind down and feed the new. I’ve been learning about how isotopes decay, and about carbon dating; about how early gases on the earth reduced and, with the help of lightning and steam, recombined as amino acids; about how enzymes break starches down into glucose, to feed cells. This year I’m making my own compost and mulch, instead of buying wood chips. To have absorbed the sunlight of the spring and summer, then to fall to the earth where young things grow– Not only is this an acceptable life and death, but it seems all the wealth is in the waning. It’s the breakdown phase that opens you to mystery, allows you to let go control and send the young off with a blessing, bidding them to be and do things that are beyond your previous imaginings.

So I’m going to spend Beltane communing with the young shoots, loving the way they rise up out of the compost, and loving that now it’s my turn to be the compost.

Prepare four cloth dolls.

Place them on the altar, around the cauldron. Light some sage, and candles at each of the four points. Position a crystal ball about a foot away from you, and dim the room.

Cast a circle.

Begin gazing into the crystal ball. Choose an area of the ball that seems to draw you, and hold your gaze, breathing steadily, and deeply, until you notice that the dolls are talking.

One of the dolls is speaking, softly, as if to itself:
“’God from God, light from light, true God from true God ….’”

Another doll looks up:
“That’s pretty.” This doll looks about fifteen. Big bug-eyed glasses, thick, dark rings of hair, jeans and hoodie. Red socks.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” intones an older doll in jewel-green rayon. “The cadence, the threefold repetition … they give it power.”

The first doll is now wearing the white habit of a Dominican friar.
“’God from God, light from light, true God from true God …’ They wanted to counter the heresy that Jesus was not really God. Listen to how they drove it home: ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God ….’”

Suddenly you realize the fourth doll has been chanting all along, though you hadn’t heard the words before:
“Gate, gate ….” *
He wears a saffron robe.
“Gate, gate ….”

The green lady, who has been listening to the friar sympathetically, now interrupts:
“But we’re all divine ….”

The friar continues:
“’…begotten, not made, one in being with the Father …’”

“Patriarchy,” objects the lady.

The friar’s answer flows seamlessly from the creed, as if he were still quoting:
“…and, indeed, we are all feminine– that is to say, receptive– before God, who is pure action…”

The girl begins to redden.

The lady:
“Then you relegate women to passivity …”

The girl faces the friar, jaw set.

“…. paragate
parasam gate ….”

The friar:
“These teachings have been associated with sexist views, but they can be redeemed by further interpretation. Revelation is always subject to new understandings, though the core truth is more important than how it has been used politically ….”

The lady:
“The personal is ALWAYS political.”

The friar:
“…abusus non tollit usum …”

The girl:
“I don’t believe in God.”

The lady:
“I don’t like the word believe …. There are things I know, my truths, not anyone else’s. I’ve always known the goddess…”

The girl:
“See, that’s what I have trouble with. Calling something ‘true for you’ … it’s like we’re all living in our own fantasies.”

The lady to the girl, patiently:
“We need to consider different forms of truth. Sometimes what’s “true” for us is simply what works ….”

The friar, to the girl, patiently:
“…by faith, which is a gift….”

The girl:
“That’s just what people say when their arguments break down.”

The friar:
“All that is seen and unseen …”

The monk drones on:
“Gate, gate ….”

The girl:
“Don’t you care at all whether it is true? I mean, fact-true?”

The lady:
“What’s true is change …”

And the saffron-clad monk looks up at the lady, smiles:
“Bodhi, svaha!”

She nods and beams:
“All being is energy …”

The monk:
“…movement…”

The lady:
“…flux…”

The monk:
“…like clouds, like moving water …”

The lady:
“…and it’s all one…”

The monk:
“Gate, gate!
Gone, gone; gone beyond; gone utterly beyond…”

Now the lady hesitates:
“It should say ‘here, here’; the truth is immanent …”

The monk:
“Exactly. The trees in the garden.”

The lady:
“Then why do you say, ‘Gone beyond?’”

The monk:
“Beyond illusion… beyond self…”

The lady:
“No such thing. Besides, women have been asked to put aside their ‘selves’ for too long …”

The girl:
“I used to want to be a saint. Or a bodhisattva …”

The friar turns benignly toward her:
“You are drawn to the truth, and to the emptying of self which must occur for you to be receptive to the truth.”

The girl, as if seizing her opponent’s bishop:
“It’s a trick, a trick to make women think more submission is the solution to everything.”

The monk:
“’Does a woman have Buddha nature?’ … ‘Mu!’”

The girl:
“What is a woman, anyway?”

The lady:
“Goddess, pearl of the sea, pearl of the moon, lady of the tides, bearer of fruit …”

The friar:
“Mother of mercy, star of the sea, arc of the covenant, gate of heaven …”

The monk:
“…jewel in the lotus…”

At this point in the spell you abruptly snuff out the sage and open the windows. You feel a tightness in your throat, around your eyes.

Put the dolls away, the way you always did as a little girl, so careful to make them comfortable. Warm, and close together, so they won’t be lonely or afraid.

Now grab the staff, and summon the spirits in a state of semi-irony, semi-longing. Rap the ground at the north point three times, asking for … what goes with earth? Patience … yeah, right, like women are always supposed to be so goddamned patient … and endurance– like enduring labor pains? And strength. Strength. You summon a little self-command so as not to offend the spirits, even though you know they are fiction. Seriously, how is the spell even going to yield insight if you do it with a sneer? Ask for …

ask for …. help untying the knot.

A child, lifting the knot up to a grown up, the way the cub scouts did, when they discovered your genius for unjumbling lanyards. They lined up, waiting, little mouths ringed with orange Hi-C, sticky hands uplifted. A tribute to your skill. An offering, a supplication; a plea.

Here’s your gift to the goddess: the mess you can’t untie.

Move deosil to the east, and rap the ground three times, summoning the spirits of the east. You clarify, though, that of course the spirit you are summoning is really the sum of all your own resources. All you’ve inherited genetically; all you’ve gleaned from several decades of journeying in different directions. And your instincts.

Now to the south … the cauldron that is you … Now to the west…

And you lay the staff against the window and take your seat at the north. Back straight but relaxed, feet flat on the floor, hands flat on the table …. No, that doesn’t feel right. On knees. Eyes closed.

And you see yourself walking into a wood at night. Lantern light on decayed leaves on the path, earth and smoky smells, night sounds. You’re trying to pace deliberately, in real time– though it’s hard not to get ahead of yourself, because you already know who has come to meet you.

And in the lantern light you first see her feet, her legs, coal-black not skin-black, but alive like skin. The bloodless hands dangling about her thighs, the severed arms hanging skirt-like from her belt. Then her arm raised in greeting. Her ebony belly and breasts. Her face– dimly, because here the circle of lantern light fades. Her face, pure attention.

And you walk together further into the woods, like sisters, and you know she knows, you feel consoled, as if you had cried as long and hard as you needed to.

And you smell smoke, see light ahead, hear soft voices in conversation. You and Kali approach the campfire, where Jesus and Quan Yin have been talking.

And now you’re stuck, because while you can see her clearly, standing in sea-foam colored robe and Galadrielesque serenity, holding her pitcher– smiling on you– you don’t know what Jesus should be wearing. A robe? No. Jeans, and a work shirt? No, now he looks like George Harrison on the cover of Abbey Road.

You settle on the robe, and you see him seated staring into the fire, because when you picture him greeting you, you flash to the “Buddy Christ.” So he gazes into the fire, and no one speaks.

Jesus’ body is still smooth and untorn, and he’s shorter than you thought. Lithe. You feel as though he should dance. But as he rises, raises his arms, the leg he extends catches on his robe. You try the jeans again, but they don’t allow for the range of movement he needs.

Linen pants. Wide, wide-legged, with elastic and drawstring waist. And a white t-shirt, close fitting. And shorter hair, a trimmer beard. He looks gay now, and oh, can he dance! Leaping, pirhouetting, strutting, jiving, and his dancing generates its own drum beat … in 4 … in 6 … you can’t follow it.

Quan Yin gets tired, sets down the pitcher, lies down and stares into the leaves overhead. Relaxes her face, lets go of the smile.

Kali sits on a tall stone (there are stones now, because you needed places to sit). You sit on a lower one. Jesus winds down, stretches, and drops cross legged onto the ground. Sits awhile. A good while.

Then you all rise together, join hands, gaze into the fire awhile. A good, good, while.

Then Kali walks you silently back out, like sisters, to the place where she’d met you before. She raises her hand in farewell.

You walk out to the edge of the woods, look at the sky.

Now open your eyes. The candles have burnt out, and the smell of incense grown faint and stale. Thank the spirits, open the circle.

Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again.

———————-
Pronounced GAH-tay, GAH-tay

Last night:

Full moon, on a Wednesday.

My husband, who left a soul-killing job several months ago and is looking for something in a new field, jokingly asked for a prosperity spell. I went to work.

Looking up correspondences– now, I don’t, myself, believe that stones have actual magical properties, at least not in the hocus-pocus sense of “attracting business;” but I do believe that any symbol can have magical properties in the witch sense, of altering your own mindset and realigning your efforts with the possibilities that nature and other people offer. So the question was, what do I wish for him? (That’s apart from the other question of which stones does New Age People carry at a price I can afford).

Malachite: money, prosperity, self-confidence, energy, focus; an end to depression. Maturity, wisdom. Tiger Eye: self-awareness, an end to stubbornness (he took that well), an increase in self-confidence. Releasing guilt– he had talked about the choking guilt and shame surrounding the memory of how he’d sometimes mishandled the job. Tiger eye is for balance. Sodalite: release of guilt and anger, stress, inner conflict, and other negative energies. Learning. And a silver dime for financial prosperity.

And now selecting things for the spell had become a meditation, a reflection on what we need to work in a balanced way, and more concretely, what I knew of his particular struggles. This movement toward his actual needs became an exercise in compassion, something I had been short on at times when hearing about his work stress.

Herbs and incense: this was less of a stretch for me than looking up stone correspondences, since I resonate with plants. And with smells. Scent is connected to the deepest emotional centers of the brain, so I have no problem saying that mint is for energy, rosemary for healing the past, and so on. As for incense– patchouly is the money scent (or, as my husband called it, “the power of positive stinking”).

Animals: crocodiles and alligators are earth elements, and stand for money, prosperity, and patience. Patience was the first thing I’d looked up in tables of correspondences. I wanted work and rest, diligence and patience. Alas, New Age People was fresh out of alligators and crocs, and there was no time to order. Ditto, bees (patient labor). But they did have dolphins, and these are supposed to convey you from rough waters to smooth, which is where he seems to be heading. I bought one made of tiger eye, to combine its healing of guilt with the dolphin’s movement to easier waters.

Green candle for earth; money.

So now the question was, what to do with all this stuff?

I already had a chant for patient labor: “Plant and pull, plant and pull / Garden fallow, garden full”– but how to add the work and rest? “Work and rest, work and rest / Patient labor’s yield is best.” We could chant that outside, after using the full moon to charge the elements.

And would I make him a talisman to carry? I didn’t think he would, and besides, would it really engage him at the right depth just to put something in his pocket?

“Plant and pull, plant and pull ….” So what about planting? I bought a basil plant, for energy and prosperity, but also for love. I have reacted to years of work stress by pulling away; choosing basil was a little scary for me– it made my love, my engagement, an essential part of the power of the spell.

I prepared a pot of soil, and placed all the things I had bought– plus a dime– in a bowl. I put an offering of compost in another bowl.

I cleansed and cast a circle that ran around the perimeter of the backyard, came into the house, and included the sunroom, where I keep my altar.

We carried out, over the icy back steps, the two bowls, a small cauldron of water, the candle, and my athame. (Also a crystal ball to charge beneath the full moon, but that’s another story). The moon was just rising. The dogs came with us– the older dog is a stargazer, a night sky lover in all weathers, so I regard her as my familiar. She can sit for hours just watching the night horizon, completely attentive, as if she is receiving something.

I offered the compost, and dumped it in the bin. This entailed trudging through deep mud, as well as patches of still unmelted snow and ice. Difficult footing; it needed care. It needed care.

Rejoining my husband, I held up the small bowl of herbs and stones to the full moon. At which point his eyes widened apologetically, and an attack of the runs forced him inside. So I continued to stand there, lifting the bowl to the moon, wondering how long he would be in the bathroom.

When he returned, I placed in the cauldron of water a sprig of rosemary; one of mint; one of parsley (for money and business); of sage (for wisdom and balance); a bay leaf (for success); and a cinnamon stick (to augment the spell). I stirred it with the athame, blessed it, held it up to the moon, expressed the hope that it would bless my husband’s efforts. Then we went inside.

He buried the herbs and the dime in the soil, planted the basil, and watered it with the contents of the cauldron. He arranged the malachite, tiger eye, sodalite, and the dolphin in the soil around the plant. He and I each drank water from the chalice, and I poured the rest around the plant.

Thanks; blessing; opening the circle.

He said he thought he’d been “purged,” both physically (the runs) and emotionally. We forgot, incidentally, the chant; no matter– it’s more important that the spell “flowed.” My husband had never seen me do a ritual or spell, and was impressed by the “reverence.”

He will have to tend the plant, which was the point: magic is not passive. I can’t do something to make employers hire him, or to make him work effectively, or to make him let go of the guilt, anger, or fear that might get in his way. But I can act out with him the process of realignment, and prepare a daily reminder of the inner qualities he will need to be at peace in work or out of it, and of the renewed love and concern that go with him.

He said he felt calmer, and appreciated the care I put into it. I feel more heart whole for his having valued my effort. And now it’s just a matter of tending the basil.

About this blog

March 14, 2013

This blog, and its companion, “Skeptical Witch,” are my contribution to the diverse world of the Craft.  In Skeptical Witch, I explain why I have chosen the designation “witch,” and post reflections on how I reconcile the practices of modern witchcraft with critical thinking within an atheist world view.  Anyone who is looking for companionship on a similar journey is welcome to read and respond.  In it, I write not as a leader or scholar, but as an explorer-practitioner, recording the day to day growth in my understanding of these practices.  What does it mean to me to “cast a spell,” work “magic,” undertake a “shamanic journey?”  These are phrases that would have had me rolling my eyes not long ago, and the Skeptical Witch is born of my recognition that these practices could mean something very different from the reality-proof superstitions I took them to be.  I have found plenty of presentations of them which confirmed my worst suspicions, but plenty of others which have shown a rational awareness combined with psychological insight, allowing me to accept something I already found inexplicably compelling.

This blog, Solitary Witch, is less concerned with creating a safe-zone for my intellect, and more about sharing meditations, spells, and anything I find inspirational.  This is the realm I enter when I have answered my doubts to my own satisfaction, and begin to practice freely.  You could think of it as the difference between a theologian crafting arguments, and a theologian at prayer– at this site, the thealogian sets aside argument in order to experience, and is enriched.

Welcome.