Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lughnasadh: Burning In, Burning Out

In the small open space of the gallery, I find myself stopped in my tracks by a painting--thin shining layers of oil on canvas--entitled, "Song of the Sun." I remember this, I think ruefully, shrugging my sweater closer around my neck. Chill mist drifts in even now from the harbor, sliding in under the door. The floor boards in the silent gallery creak when I shift my feet. The painting is like a memory of summer, it feels warm and salty to the eyes. Stunted pine trees list out of frame, their dark trunks obscured by moss and rough branches, their roots draping red and raw over the hard corners of granite cliffs that drop in short bursts and end abruptly at the sea. The sunlight is golden and long, casting satisfying shadows to every edge. I feel as though I remember summers like this, watching the sunlight linger on the stone, watching it seep into the deep spaces of tree bark like the godmother of sap and, much later, of autumn. These were days of long views, evenings when the ocean seemed to curve infinitely towards the horizon, when mountains loomed throwing their bulky shadows over lake bottoms. Sunlight got into everything, into muscle and bone, leaves, water and rock--heat and light lurking just beneath the gritty flesh of the world. And you could extend the painting forever beyond its frame, and still never come to the sun itself.

My summer vacation this year was early, damp and ribboned with fog. I spent much of it in small, carefully cultivated gardens and sparse art galleries, rather than hiking the usual rough trails that wound up the granite mountains lurching along the Eastern seaboard of Maine. Each morning, I went out onto the deck of our rental house to wake myself up gently with my own deep breath and a bit of yoga, pressing the heels of my hands into wood planks that were dark and spongy with dew and overnight rain. Each night, I lit a candle and sat in meditation while the bug-repellent scents of lavender and citronella wafted around me, incense smoke indistinguishable from the mist in moonlight beyond my window. The earth was so green, every limb and nook of tree carpeted with moss, every square inch of the forest floor thick with ferns. Everything so silent, so dim and so glistening that they seemed to almost shimmer with an unseen light. I'd almost forgotten.

It's been close to a month now since I got home, and the quietness and smallness of that week has slipped away again. The summer is hot now, and the sun always seems to be breathing hot down my neck like some intruder trying to eat my skin off. Each morning, I have to slather on a coat of spf 50 sunscreen to preserve my spiraling blue tattoos from fading away. I have to tie up my hair so that it doesn't hang limp with sweat plastered between my shoulder blades. I have to seek shade (us pale Irish types do, you know) and remind myself to drink water before I feel thirsty. And meanwhile, it's like the sun is egging me on: I'm in busy-busy-busy mode, taking on projects and cramming the days full of plans and bullet-point lists of things to get done (painting Jeff's apartment, building do-it-yourself furniture, helping my best friend move, organizing shelves and shelves of books, dinners and weddings and movies in the park and rollerblading--and in all of it, hardly time to write a word). "Make hay while the sun shines," the high white-burning hole in the sky whispers to my twitching nerves. And those moments of stillness and solitude, those gentle mornings, have all but burnt up under the intense gaze of dogged days.

I want the harvest, I want autumn to come, finally, I want it to arrive with all the force of an apple breaking open. I want the sun, with all its heat and light, to set with the color of apples, the moist fleshy fruit inside the fragile skin holding that memory of sunlight when the source has ceased to burn.

I think this is the nature of the Divine in its transcendence, its limitlessness. When the mystics talk of union, sometimes they speak of rain plunging forever into the ocean, dissolving, losing definition, uniting perfectly and indistinguishably with the source. But sometimes, they talk of light. Blinding brilliance, burning purification that strips away the skin and bleaches the bones. Sacred fire. The kind that consumes the self, reduces it to dust and ashes. The holy is ruthless; it could utterly devour you. I haven't met with this ruthless burning light in the polytheistic deities I've worked with (at least, not yet), nor did I find it in Christ as a practicing Catholic. But I found it, then, in God as Father, the Godhead, pouring itself relentlessly into every bursting, buzzing atom; and I find it now, as then, in the world, in the landscape and the seasons. When I meet it there, I think I understand a little better the trembling awe of Old Testament psalms, the songs of praise, of triumph so complete it could be heartless.

Sun and sunlight. Their relationship always changing, with every fire festival. At Imbolc, the sun seems small and fragile in a vast shivering dome of air; at Belteinne, we close our eyes in ecstasy and invite the sun inside, into our blood and breath, warm on our tongues while our eyes are closed. But by Lughnasadh, it's been burning in our bodies for months now. It's time we begin to let it go again, or it will burn us out. We need this mitigation, this separation from the sun--the sun is blinding and will make us a desert if we try to cling too long. We cherish memories of sunlight soaking the rocks, dust motes floating in front of a grimy window, long evening twilights dotted with rising fields of fireflies. We love these shafts of sunlight, these bits of light and heat embodied in the world around us. They let us come close to the sun, to the Divine, to the Source, without burning up. I think this may be why the gods I've known have been gentle and loving: they are particulars, immanent and close. They hold within them the light of the Source, as we all do, but they are kind and nurturing with it, restrained, not devastating, not cruel. This is why the apple nourishes us, when the unmitigated sun might burn and eat us to ashes. The world of intimate particulars, of individuality and diversity and limits, refreshes and renews even as it darkens and veils.

And all the while, holiness is burning within us, deep inside the soft earth of our bodies, fueled by our breath, washed with the tides of our sorrows and joys. The harvest is coming, darkness will settle as the apples drop, and soon we'll have the space and quietness to remember that we, like the sun, also shine.


  1. With the hot, dry summer that we have been having, I am looking forward to harvest and autumn as well. The sun is powerful and beautiful, but sometimes we need to go into the darkness to rest and prepare for the next cycle.

  2. "triumph so complete it could be heartless" is such a perfect phrase. It certainly tracks with the literal Deity-blessed ethnic cleansing of the Old Testament.

    Also interesting in how you merged that pure destruction with the workaday apparent world and with the sun at high summer into one consistent theme. I love the autumn too as the humidity drops out of the air and the days become crystalline, bright blue sky against red and orange maple leaves.