Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Reveling in the Light: Reflections at MidWinter (2 February 2010)

It is time to revel in the waxing of day light; the lengthening of the days!
This evening as I was walking home after work I noticed just how much lighter it is at 6 PM than it was a month ago, and was thus reminded that we are at Mid-Winter; that time of the year commemorated in myths and stories as a time for ‘awakening’ as the light of the sun grows ‘stronger.’  Standing about half way between Winter’s Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, I turn to reflections on the symbols, stories and rituals that have been used to mark this turnstile in the Wheel of the Year, in both Pagan and Christian traditions.   The first days of February have long been occasioned by the lighting of fires, hearths and candles.  It has been connected with spiritual awakening; waking up and turning toward the light that is growing day by day—in the hopes of wisening in our ways.

In ancient Europe, 2 February was called “Imbolg;” a word that has pastoral associations and that alludes to the lactation of ewes.  In Celtic traditions, this day was known as Bridgetmas (Pagan) or The Feast of Saint Bridget (Christian), and was associated with wisdom, arts & crafts, and the hearth – all of which have something to do with ‘light;’ i.e., wisdom is light to the mind, the inspiration necessary to engage in arts and craefts is sometimes spoken of as ‘illumination,” and the hearth of course contains the fire that lights the house as well as providing heat.  As Bridget was a goddess/saint of the hearth, this was also a time for the blessing of home and hearth.  The Mediaeval Church dubbed this day “Candlemas,” celebrating it as a time to light candles and meditate on the Light of God illuminating the world in and through Christ.
Here in western Pennsylvania, “Ground Hog’s Day” has become a popular event.   On this day participants get up early in the morning to go out and see whether a ground hog ‘sees its shadow’ or not, as this is supposed to tell us whether there is going to be six more weeks of winter or not. (LOL)  To which I usually say, of course there is going to be six more weeks of winter; because there are still six weeks or so left until the Vernal Equinox!  Duh?  But, whatever!  Even this commercialized superstition marks the Mid-Winter point; of course with all of the mythic associations and spiritual significance – much less naturalistic awareness of the season – drained out of it.[1]
As I flesh out an earthen spirituality, I find that the old symbolic associations of the seasons and old festivals continue to be relevant, reconsidered in naturalistic ways.  For instance, though I have no connection with farms and therefore no experience of the lactating of ewes, I am able to reflect on milk as a symbol of sustenance; both physical and mystical nourishment—seeing it as symbolic of a boon which helps us get through winter’s deprivations.  Bridget used to be associated with the milking of the cows, and some stories symbol the tasting of fresh milk as a foretaste of wisdom.  It comes ‘from the source’ and thereby awakens us to primal things; a prerequisite for wisdom.
In keeping with the traditions of Bridgetmas and Candlemas, I light candles on my meditation table and elsewhere in the house on the nights of 31 January, 1 February and then 2 February.  I use Yellow and Purple as colors especially appropriate to this tide of the year.  Yellow stands for sunlight and all of the deep mythic resonances of the Sun and of Light.  The use of purple is often symbolic of penance, self-denial and self-discipline.  Use of purple as a symbolic color in the last half of winter probably stems from the fact that in agrarian societies the last half of the winter was often a time when food stores and reserves were running low, and so fasting sometimes became necessary.  Self-discipline was required in order if people were to survive through to the Spring.  This is the likely the source of the custom of fasting during Lent, and one of the liturgical colors for Lent happens to be purple.
I took a different way home tonight so that I could walk down the street by the Catholic Church and see – along the creek below it – the old Willows standing there that I have known since childhood.  There they were, still hanging onto the bank, all encrusted in snow and ice, and I was pleasantly surprised to notice that the catkins were out, even in this harsh weather!  Catkins are small flower-like structures that bud out on the branches of certain kinds of Willows.  They are the ‘first flowers’ (though they are not flowers in the technical, botanical sense) of Spring—and thus an old folk sign that winter is passing.  Catkins apparently bud out on Willows in response to the angle of light from the sun, not in response to warmth—thus they come out about the same time every year.  Willows, in Celtic symbolism, stood for wisdom, fire, and the inspiration to create music (as the wind blowing through their long, supple branches often produces sounds which can be, under the right circumstances, somewhat like music).
After supper, while listening to lectures, I sat and watched the light from our electric fireplace (an insertion that simulates the appearance of a hearth fire) dance about the room, and as it did I meditated on the significance of the hearth in more rustic times; as a place to cook food and as a place to gather together on cold, dark nights.  The hearth still symbolizes for me our ‘inner fire’ (metabolism; the fire of life) as well as functioning as a metaphor for inspiration and spiritual succor.  The room was lit by nothing but yellow and purple candles, the light of the electric hearth insert and the glow of my laptop screen.  It was an aesthetic setting that was inspiring of poetic reflection.  As the wind continued to blow outside, whipping around the walls of the house, I immersed myself in this symbolic ambiance, and reflected on the ebb the flow of each season in is natural course.  The winter might be harsh or easy, but Spring does not come until the Vernal Equinox.  To believe otherwise is to be frustrated with the natural course of things!
I do all this to remind myself that we are about half-way through winter’s course.  I revel in the light!  Seeing the candles lit about the house is especially refreshing this year, as we’ve had ice and blowing winds and rough roads for the last couple of days.  Candle and hearth light leads me to think about warmer days to come and also about spiritual illumination. Sitting here tonight in the Hut of Dwelling (see my blog, 23 Nov 2010; “Enclosure”), I meditate on the fact that we can find much of the inspiration we need to persist and flourish in our experiences of the natural world.   Recalling the symbols of Mid-Winter has refreshed me and prepared me for the ongoing journey.  Watching the dimming away of the day as I made supper and as the birds at the bird-feeders outside our windows got their last meal of the day, opened me to night-time possibilities, just as the rising of the sun tomorrow will ‘awaken’ me to the day’s possibilities and responsibilities.  A naturalistic spirituality accepts the flux & flow of time and of light & dark as inevitable, and rejoices in it.  We do what is possible and make the most of every turn in the tides of days, seasons and years.
At Mid-Winter it is good for the soul to acknowledge that Winter is half as long as it was at Winter Solstice, and revel in response to the growing light.  Whether you like, love or dread winter, it will always – under ordinary circumstances – pass and give way to Spring.  To revel in the light at Mid-Winter is to remind yourself of this fact.  _And it is always good to be lifted out of our ordinary rounds of work, play, and rest by contemplation on the ‘bigger’ patterns in which our lives are lived, and in which they will play out their course.  Such is the purpose of ‘holidays.’  We make a day ‘holy’ by the way in which we relate to it; by an acknowledgement of its symbolic import as well as its practical implications.  This is no less true for a naturalistic spirituality than for a religious spirituality.

[1] The ground hog is associated with the Earth considered as a Goddess; it is one of her ‘manifestations,’ like the rabbit at the Vernal Equinox and other animals more generally – the bat and the snake, the frog and the owl, etc.  The ground hog is a hibernating animal, and watching for it to come out of its winter sleep was the naturalistic basis for associating the animal with this time of the year, when winter is half finished.  The idea that whether it sees its shows or not has anything to do with how long winter is going to last, is just another superstition.  Yet even that hearkens back to the Pagan wisdom about Nature and the seasons: the shorter the animal’s shadow when you first see it, the higher up in the sky the Sun is, and the shorter the time until Vernal Equinox.

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