Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bemused by Brigid: How I Met My Goddess / What I Did to Keep Her (Part Two)

courtesy of qthomasbower, via flickrAlmost three years ago I began this musing and stumbling over polytheist theology, utterly unconvinced and unsure. Not that I thought others were deluded in their worship — quite the opposite, in some ways I was almost jealous. I pictured myself in a quiet grove penetrated through with soft fog amidst the twining green, my form draped in blue, my skin tattooed with spirals and other elusive but beautiful signs, perhaps now whispering gently words of adoration and gratitude, now reaching my arms up and out to touch the surging sense of divinity, now leaning down to tend the lighted fire and scatter offerings of herbs into the flames, their smoke trailing off like prayers to linger in the mist.... I imagined myself a shaman or priestess, a Druid in her nemeton, sure and at peace with herself and with her gods. And somehow, unseen except in the peripheral shadows of unsteady imagination, was the murmuring, dancing throng of the Many shining opalescent among the stars and beads of morning dew.

All these romanticized imaginings were probably as silly as the God/dess Fandom I found difficult to take seriously in others. I've heard it suggested by other Pagans that the expectation of intimate, personal relationship with deity is merely a unshakable bad habit of a Christian childhood and that it was better to move on, finding other ways to be meaningfully "religious." Yet there were also women and men who seemed to "get it," whose relationships with the gods seemed not only real but deeply meaningful and beautiful, and I knew that this yearning for an aesthetic sense of beauty and poise in muddy, misty, earth-centered ritual was a vital aspect of sacredness for me. If I was going to work with gods, they would need to be Gods, with the same kind of presence and awe and ecstasy in them that I was able to find already in poetry, or in a woods that was alive and enchanted without seeming full of deity. Still, "deity" to the polytheist is something different in kind from what "deity" means to the monotheist. And having once lost faith in the simple Bearded-Sky-Man version of the latter, I was skeptical of ever being able to step into a belief in the former by a sheer act of will. I could not very well invent my conviction out of nothing, and yet the woods and the night and the sunrise seemed to need no gods behind them to be enough for me.

Then a year ago, at the very beginning of February, I discovered almost by accident that I might find the gods swimming in the flux of particulars, like dust motes transformed into tiny jewels in the wash of illumination stirred up against the dark. And without even realizing it, I began to give myself permission to imagine, to indulge in a kind of deep play in my practical work, and it was as though, still uncertain as I was, I had lit a candle in my heart and begun to shine its light in the right direction to catch the sight of dust stirring.

Deity & Practice

It was not long after I had "revamped" my meditation altar and begun daily ritual work that things began to change — and rapidly. Longing for that sense of sacred earth shot through with thriving divinity, I began pouring daily libations at a simple altar dedicated to the three realms, following that same intuition that spoke to me voicelessly on the tops of mountains overlooking the sea. I held the water in a tiny white porcelain pitcher cupped between my two hands, breathing gently over it, infusing it with my energy, my hope, and my longing. When the pitcher's cool sides seemed to be thrumming with warmth and the water humming with an inner life of its own, I raised the pitcher away from me, just for a moment, to catch the flickering light of the candle nestled in its hand-thrown sun-etched jar. And then, I poured the water in a single, slow cascade over the small pile of smoothed river stones, collected from the local stream and built into a cairn resting in the round base of a flowerpot dish. In the silence, I listened to the sound of trickling water working its way over rock. I watched the stones grow dark and glistening with that lingering touch of moisture soaking deeply into their speckled skins. I felt heart-aching, peace-singing gratitude, and I gave that gratitude to the stones themselves, and to the waters running from between my hands, and to the tiny candle with its hungry flame.

courtesy of »dolfi«, via flickrThis was not idolatry exactly, at least not as the Christians would understand it. I did not offer gratitude to the stones as Gods or Spirits, or imagine them to be the home, the physical dwelling place of something Supernaturally Other. I did not petition the stones for blessings or guidance, except perhaps in a secret prayer so silent even I could not hear it, one which begged them only to continue being stones, to continue offering that kind of presence that only river stones, unobtrusive and full of round gravity, can offer to the eye and to the ear, to the fingertips and palms. I sat simply with the stones themselves, with the pitcher of water and the candle in its jar, and allowed the sacred act of ritual to frame and raise them, to sharpen my focus to this moment, to the movement and relationship that existed uniquely and powerfully in this space. I turned my attention to these things, allowing my imagination to settle in among their ways of being as I might in a poem or a piece of art — not taking or mistaking them for mere symbols, but seeking something, some inner quality, or rather yearning to slough away all that was between us, all the associations and assumptions and agendas until I was touching the uninterrupted, uninterpreted truth and meaning of stone being stone.

Through this practice, returning again and again to a place of receptivity and contemplation before ordinary objects that I loved, without imagining them to be anything more (or anything less) than ordinary and beautiful, I learned the art of attending. When I longed for the mountains rising up out of the sea, when I longed for warm sunlight beating down on my shoulders, I let that longing be the uninterrupted, uninterpreted truth and meaning of being who I am, and this is what I gave to the water, to the candle, and to the pile of rock that seemed, at those times, to resonate with similar memories and to respond with a kind of kinship to my desire. It was memory, then, that became my prayer. The activity of imagination gave us — the stones, the flame, the water, and me — a shared life, a life of offering and exchange. These objects became for me an open doorway into immediate, embodied presence; yet it seemed they entered into me, as well, into my memory and thought as that space in which they might touch in some way the things which they had been, and those things they would become. I wonder now if it is the ability to attend — to be present, to listen, and to serve — that is the first real step towards a relationship with deity, and so with the divinity of the Many. For within the solid, wet-granite reality of that still pile of stones, there was something shining opalescent on the edge of perception, something that reached out to me in the same breath that I was reaching, too.

But this was still far from believing in the polytheist's gods in any literal sense, or even believing in them as useful archetypes or metaphorical energies. A stone I could hold in my hand, even if I could not adequately describe the experience of its vital presence, but the gods seemed less substantial, more elusive, perhaps not even real — and the fact that no one seemed able to describe the experience of such a deity either, let alone how to effectively seek one out, didn't help. Nevertheless, I was intrigued and challenged by the idea. Something prompted me to get in touch with a fellow Druid blogger who, from his posts and guided meditations, I judged to have more experience in "finding" these deities and establishing a connection with them. I had tried guided meditations before, but the beings I encountered always struck me as so obviously part of my own psyche, I still wasn't convinced. For the sake of an experimental and open mind, I asked him to be my mentor for time.

Soon afterwards, two things happened. First, he began to confide in me that a new deity had recently begun to appear in his meditations, one that he had very little experience with before and that seemed, according to Her own communications, to be tied closely to me. "Brigid," he told me, "has something in store." This was not news I was particularly receptive to. Incredulous, in fact, is probably the word I would use. Being told such a thing, even earnestly and a bit shyly, feels very much like having someone constantly glancing past your shoulder, insisting you have a large, invisible rabbit named Harvey following you around. Still, our mentor-student relationship continued, and when prompted I took his suggestion to experiment with creative writing again, having largely set aside my poetry and short-story writing since graduating college. It was just past the snow-melting, sun-hinting days of Imbolc and the year was rounding quickly towards Alban Eiler, the spring equinox. In the local landscape, the streams were waking up from the dark slumber, the mud was seething and the crocuses and snowdrops were pushing their way towards the light. I wrote the story of Yewberry and her journey through death back into life. And then I wrote a poem.

What's Coming

So it begins:
the snowdrop,
glistening dew,
the heavy slips of white,
the dip of moon, suspended,
cool as dusk, and just as still,
the lingering chill of listless death
quite overcome,
each perfect round and dimpled budding breath,
like fog, like mist
that's drifting in from aging night.
So we begin.

So we begin,
with seed
and sewing deep,
the dark and ground,
comes aching, breaking open
at our rough and clumsy feet,
turned over, crumbling moist
and new between our hands,
and going under now, this weaving,
fearless dreaming that we do,
that has us hovering just a petal's width
beyond our gentle paling skin.
Let it begin.

Let it begin this way
the same as past, the sudden
spirit rising, sip of wind and gasp,
the lips of every blossom turning loose
and sweet and singing, parting, self-forgetting,
kneeling to the urge of season, to the spring
and warming, to the summoning of pulsing blood
and gathering waters flowing, to the sun
that slides so slowly with his long and searching fingers,
pacing dawn at the horizon, to the trembling earth
that shivers, waiting, wet and rolling like a sea,
anticipating fire, anticipating green,
to the thrumming of her edges,
to her secret silent longing, humming,
sound and energy,
let it begin.

Let it begin, this re-learning,
this unfurling of our bodies, the utter music
of our skin, our muscles tightly strung, our tongues
unknowing instruments, wandering blind,
our histories unwinding, all before us slipping
clear and quick over streambeds rumpled, low and welcoming,
disappearing, turning over, we are growing, we are going under now,
we are following it down, we are blurring into beauty, we are losing definition,
we are sliding, tossing, taking, writhing, waking, climbing, blooming, sunning, shining,
we are swept along the surface and then pinned against the sky,
we are frightened we are naked we are cunning sharp and sly,
we are humming we are humming we are humming life becoming,
we are hanging among starlight
praising everything that's coming.

And then, the second thing happened: we fell in love.


  1. Oh, dear, sweet fountains of Spirit! You've been told that "the expectation of intimate, personal relationship with deity is merely a unshakable bad habit of a Christian childhood and that it was better to move on, finding other ways to be meaningfully 'religious.'"???

    OK, I know there are Pagans for whom the gods do not speak, who feel forever distant from them. I know Pagans who have no use for gods, because they are too busy engaging in the kind of every-minute attending to the spirit of simple, real things that you've just described so well--the attending to the ordinary sacred in individual living and non-living things.

    But to be told that there is something wrong with craving that personal and intimate relationship with our gods?

    I'm sitting in front of my keyboard with my mouth agape.

    And I'm damned glad I came into Paganism surrounded by joyfully ecstatic Pagans, immersed in personal relationships with deity.

    Are there ever moments of self-delusion, of wishful thinking? Well, duh. Aren't there in all human relationships?

    But still... it's not for their fashion sense that I've hung around the Pagan community for so many years, and it's not because I love hearing the same bad drum circles.

    It's because I love the gods, and I need to be with other people who get that.

    If I didn't have personal relationships--with the god and goddess I work with most often, with the spirit animal who flies with me sometimes, with the Light I am flooded with in Quaker worship... well, would there be a point? I don't know. I'm grateful as can be I don't have to answer that question; I admire the Mother Teresa's who go on being faithful to their idea of god long after she lost her sense of his reality... but I don't envy her.

    It is interesting that your goddess story is also a love story. I've said for years that the one "proof" I have--and it's a personal one, not one I can offer to others convincingly--of the miraculous, is my own love story.

    (Then there's the fact that I fell in love with Peter and with the god we both love, Herne, at the same time. Like we were set up on a blind date, or something...)

    Resonances. Your story is not mine, of course, Ali. You and Jeff are very different people from Peter and me. But there are resonances, surprising ones, delicious ones...

    Go on telling the story. It's a wonderful story. *very happy listening face!*

  2. Cat! What an awesomely long comment! :)

    Yes, in general I think I share your reaction to this claim that seeking personal, intimate relationship with deity is "too Christian" - it made me wonder, well, what's the point then? I have had some Pagans tell me that they do not see themselves "in relationship" to the gods because relationship implies mutuality or exchange, and the gods are so wholly beyond us that we cannot possibly offer them anything... which also seems... not quite right to me. If this is true, if the gods couldn't care less about us, then aren't we indulging in worship as a kind of feel-good self-help routine with little deeper purpose or meaning to it?

    It seems to me that, whatever else is true, relationship must be at the heart of worship and practice, and it must be a relationship that changes us or shapes us in substantive, meaningful ways. What can I possibly offer to a rock, or the wind? And yet I began to realize, when I finally started to allow myself to engage in the experience authentically, that even seeking relationship with such mundane, ordinary things had profound effects. I'm not sure I can talk about them very well (yet.... but then, I have lots of years still to figure out how to say it well ;), but I certainly experience them. It's taken me more than a year to even begin to tell this story, and what I'm experiencing now as part of my ritual and worship might not make it into this blog for another year or so at least... But I'll keep working at it, anyway.

    When you wrote, I fell in love with Peter and with the god we both love at the same time. Like we were set up on a blind date, or something... I just had to laugh! And Jeff, who was busy reading your comment over on his computer, read that line out loud when he got to it. :) Yes, we feel the same way, like some mutual friends got together and decided it was about time us two silly love-birds got together. ;) Since then, I have to say, there are aspects of my life (not just worship and ritual, but whole swathes that might reasonably fall under the heading of "Life Purpose") that seem to have fallen into place since we began our relationship. It's strange, and amazing, and unpredictable, and I love it! :)

    There is more to come with this series, if Brigid will have some patience with me. Part Three is where things finally fall into place and become something that other Pagans might reasonably recognize as "polytheism," though still only the soft kind. Those events took place almost a year ago now, and it's strange looking back and remembering how different things were! But anyway, glad you're enjoying the series. :)

  3. This is a beautifully written memoir! I really enjoyed reading this.

  4. Thanks, Jupiter! :) There's more to come... though at the rate I've been going, it may be another few months. In case you haven't already, check out Part One, written back in early February! :)

  5. It´s so inspired and touching, that I can´t help but ask -- will you give me your permission to translate it into Portuguese and post it in my blog (http://endovelicon.wordpress.com/) with all due credits and a link to the original here?

  6. Endovelicon, Yes, that would be wonderful! :) Please do leave a link to your post here once you have. (I don't speak Portuguese, unfortunately, but my partner Jeff is a linguist who might be able to read it. :) It means a lot to me that you found the piece moving enough to translate. Thank you very much, and best of luck with the work! :)

  7. It´s done :http://endovelicon.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/23/
    (at the end I added a note: "text by Alison Shaffer, written and posted on the blog Meadowsweet & Myrrh on May 18, 2010, translated into Portuguese by Endovelicon on Mau 20, 2010, with permission from the author;reproduction for non-profit purposes ONLY with permission from the author and translator, with all due credits and links to the original post and translated version mandatory" --that´s OK to you?
    Once more, thanks for the permission!

  8. Hi,

    I've just started reading this blog and it is so wonderfully written that I'll be back regularly to get a dose of this beautiful prose (and well-stated poetry too). Great work

    A question, if I may. Given that you were reluctant to get involved in this arena of study (and I know that feeling so well) what NOW do you think Brigid is? An energy form? Something inside or outside of you? A guide, or a god?

    Gwas Myrrdyn (The Hedge Druid)

  9. Gwas, welcome! I've been following your Hedge Druid blog for several months now, though I admit sometimes the technical aspects of energy work and dowsing are a bit outside my realm of experience. :) It's nice to see you over here!

    Your question is a good one, and honestly, I'm not sure I can really answer it yet. There is a reason it's taken me a year or more to be able to articulate what I have so far - believe me, I've been trying to write these posts for weeks and weeks, and it seems they are stubbornly determined to come at their own pace!

    But to attempt a kind of vague, half-formed answer for you... I have come to understand Brigid as a goddess, a deity, though exactly what that means is still fuzzy in my mind. There are times when she seems very much an aspect of myself, a kind of idealized form, and other times when she seems wholly outside of myself, almost distant but always powerful, almost 'blazing' in nature. Not so much an "energy form," I think I would borrow the terminology of the Catholic trinity and say she seems to me to be a Person. Just as I have a sense of my own personhood, and the personhood of other human beings around me, I get a distinct experience of her Personhood.. but unlike ours, which is inextricably bound up in our physical bodies and a manifestation of those bodies, her Personhood seems... freer, more fluid, so that sometimes it can manifest through physical form, while other times its presence can be felt more... "directly."

    I'm not sure if any of that makes sense. I'm still working through these experiences! :)