Tomorrow night is the Winter Solstice, and this year I’m looking forward to a Full Moon and the lunar eclipse that will be visible here after Midnight tonight. I hope I’ll be able to see the eclipse here, but if I don’t, JPL has an eclipse-watching site up on the web where people can put up their pictures over the course of the evening. Tonight I’m immersing myself as much as possible in the darkness of this ‘next to longest’ night of the year. The house is lit only by a few candles and the lights on the Yule Tree. To keep myself ‘occupied’ (so I don’t just sink into meditation and ‘stop’ – however pleasant that might be, tonight), I’m baking a rum cake and listening to Loreena McKennitt's CD “To Drive the Cold Winter Away.” This particular musical tapestry always tempts me to floating away into imagined mystical scenes, as if ‘on the other side of the sídhe.’ If I allow myself to follow where the music tempts me, this may be my night of poetic dreaming and travelling, tomorrow night then being more focused on the natural landscapes of Winter Solstice Night, enhanced by a Full Moon’s light!
There is a richness in the Winter Solstice Season that is difficult to fully plumb, owing to the depth and diversity of symbolic traditions associated with it. I’ve been celebrating it intentionally – under one guise or another – for 40 years. I was first introduced to it as a Pagan Sacred Night; celebrating it as Nerthusmas or – as the Druids called it – Alban Arthuan. Later, I celebrated the Season in anticipation of Christ’s birth, slated for 25 December because, in the early centuries of the Christian Movement, 25 December was the Winter Solstice (the two dates only got separated when the calendar was adjusted in the 17th century). Under both of these guises, the Winter Solstice Season was a time to celebrate endings and new beginnings, a symbolic ‘death’ and ‘new birth.’ Whether it was the Pagan Celtic god Mabon bringing light to everyone in their winter huts or the Light of God coming to Earth, becoming incarnate in the baby Jesus, Winter Solstice has always symbolized a potential for rebirth and renewal.
The symbolism of the Winter Solstice Season is enhanced and applied by those traditions that emphasize the making of a sacred journey – a ‘pilgrimage’ or ‘quest’ – during December. The Thirteen Dayes of Yule; a calendar of events, stories and rituals that has Pagan sources and that I eventually fleshed out in my book, The Fires of Yule (2001), lays out a ‘path’ to be devoutly travelled; leading the practitioner through the days leading up to and through the Winter Solstice; the journey culminating at Christmas at a symbolic nemeton called ‘The Tor.’ The old pattern of the Twelve Dayes of Christmas – which comes down to us from the Middle Ages – is also a pilgrimage, a journey to be undertaken by believers who ‘travel’ in meditative, devout ways from 25 December (The Birth of Jesus) to 6 January (Epiphany), the day when the ‘Wise Men from the East’ were said to arrive at the Nativity in Bethlehem and leave their gifts for the newborn son of God. Gifts were given during the Twelve Dayes of Christmas (as in the song) as a way of giving thanks for the Gift of Jesus and in anticipation of the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the Magi (Pagan astrologer/philosophers) would offer to Jesus on Twelfth Night (eve of 6 January).
Over the years I’ve distilled out of the traditions I’ve studied a way of sojourning through the Winter Solstice Season. First, I observe the days leading up to Winter Solstice/Christmas as a more solemn time of quiet reflection and devout preparation. Then, I keep the days following Winter Solstice/Christmas I move into revelry, rejoicing and celebration. Thus the Winter Solstice Season as a whole is characterized by a flux & flow in which Celebration – devout ‘rejoicing’ – is kept in balance with the practice of Silence, and when Revelry – devout ‘partying’ – is kept balanced against the practice of Solitude. Silence & Solitude are more associated with the days before Winter Solstice/Christmas, while Revelry and Celebration are more associated with the days after Winter Solstice/Christmas. Silence & Solitude may be seen as an expression of our anticipation of the ‘event’ of Winter Solstice/Christmas, while Celebration and Revelry are then a response to the ‘naturalistic and/or mythic ‘event’ one has been anticipating. In he first phase of the Season, there needs to be some Rejoicing & Revelry in order to keep oneself from getting bogged down in Silence & Solitude. After Winter Solstice/Christmas, we need to keep tapped into Silence & Solitude in order to ground the Revelry & Celebration and keep it from becoming desultory and self-indulgent.
While practice of the twin disciplines of Silence & Solitude should be part of any earthen spiritual praxis at any time of the year – and while they have long been integral to both devout Pagan & Christian spiritualities – they are especially appropriate at Winter’s Solstice. And so, for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been meditating in the evenings after work; settling into a quiet state and reflecting on the symbolism of the season and my own experiences of the snow and ice, the shortening of the days, and the lengthening nights. The spiritual discipline that is needed at this time is not to fall asleep. The fact that the evenings are all spent in darkness may tempt us to sleep more; and if you need sleep, that’s fine. But there is a kind of ‘wakefulness’ that both engenders spiritual insight and refreshes the soul. I wrote about a group of people spending an evening together at Winter Solsticetide in my book, Tales from the Seasons (2008). There, in the story called "A Solstice for the Deer," the men and women at Ravenswood were sitting in the front room of their farmhouse, resting after a day’s hard work, ‘listening’ intently to the Night together, and then_ something happened. While the ‘something’ that ‘happened’ would probably still have happened, had they not been engaged in meditative resourcement and being attentive to the Night, their response to what happened left a deeper spiritual imprint on them because they were attempting to stay awake in their immersion in the darkness at Winter’s Solstice.
Like them, I’m sitting here tonight listening to the Night, all alone with the Alone, keeping myself alert by going up to check on the rum cake (which is almost ready to come out of the oven) and writing this blog, which is keeping me centered and alert to the sounds of the night outside my windows. We heard an owl a couple of weeks ago, and I am hoping I might hear the bird tonight. I’m also remembering and meditating on the lore of the Full Moon in Celtic and other Pagan traditions, as well as contemplating the very naturalistic relations between our Earth, Moon & Sun that will give rise to a lunar eclipse tonight after midnight! It is a veritable mystery-haunted night; it is an enchanting time to be 'awake' (i.e., waeccan) in Earth & Spirit!
Silence & Solitude are difficult disciplines for people to learn in our culture, but once you really begin to experience them, you will relish the respite and resourcement that flow from practicing them. I’ve often taught the disciplines of Silence & Solitude while sitting in an endarkened room, basking in the shine, flicker and glow of the lights bedecking the Yule Tree, as midnight approached. I’ve encouraged people to experience Solitude when they are by themselves as well as when they are in a busy place full of people. I’ve led people out to quiet vistas in the woods, and encouraged them to experience the Silence we found there. While most people eventually appreciate a taste of Silence and Solitude, and grow to like it, it sometimes doesn’t go so well at first! I’ve on occasion begun to lead someone into Silence or Solitude, only to have them get anxious and even upset! They could not let go of their dependence on background noise and inner riotousness, in order to move into a deeper place; a genuine Silence—the kind that can have a real, positive effect on your psychological and even bodily state. The path into genuine Silence & Solitude can take years; but the initial taste is often irritating to people.
A ‘barrier’ seems to go up against centering and quieting down; a revolt emerges against letting go of all of the busyness and frenetic activity that so characterize their lives, whether we realize it or not. This ‘hyperactivity’ in which so many of us are enmeshed is ultimately exhausting! I’ve had people get up and leave a session we are doing on Solitude, to go ‘do something’ they ‘just remembered’ they said they would do. Whatever the reason, it is always something that frees them from the practice of sitting quietly and enjoying the Silence in Solitude! A student once told me that "to be quiet is to be unpopular." He said this with an unnerving embarrassment, as he already saw it to be a lie. Yet he knew he had believed it, just moments before, even if the thought had never before crossed his mind in such explicit terms. A friend once told me that those who like to be alone were shunned (and I suspect feared) in his high school—because "no one in their right mind wants to be alone." Yet Solitude is not about being unsocial or unpopular; we just have no language for spiritual ‘aloneness!’
These reactions to entering into Silence & Solitude demonstrate how far many of us are from a centered spiritual existence. To be centered is to find one’s ‘anchor’ in oneself; it is to be freed of our dependence and co-dependence on the constant ebb and rush of external stimulants that urge us to just keep going; to keep us hypnotized and feeling like we’re ‘doing something.’ ‘Something to do; somewhere to go’ is the mantra of an un-centered life; and it usually drones on and on without us even being conscious of it. To be centered is to unhitch ourselves from the harness of this self-exhausting obligation to be always active, always ‘doing something.’ To be centered is to set off on the road to Wisdom. Only once we are liberated from the constant ‘chatter’ in which we are inundated can we begin to hear ourselves think; to think for ourselves—and thus to find ourselves. Such self-discovery is a prerequisite for self-knowledge, which is in turn necessary to be on the Way to Wisdom.
The disciplines of Silence & Solitude are especially appropriate during the Winter Solstice Season, as it is the one time during the year when our overactive, overly self-indulgent culture actually says we should slow down and rest and even be quiet and reflective (although that same culture turns the December ‘Holiday Season’ into one of the most overwrought, overly active and perniciously selfish times of the year). Deep down, we don’t like Silence, and we fear Solitude! You have to explain to people that true spiritual Silence is not just the absence of noise or a state of inertia in which ‘nothing is happening’ (leading to boredom). Neither is Solitude just ‘loneliness,’ it is not about cutting off connections with other people and becoming a ‘loner,’ though if you practice Solitude, you may choose to be ‘alone’ more than you had done before! True Silence & Solitude are wakening, potentially enlightening states in which we learn to be quiet and alone for the sake of drinking from a Deeper Well, in anticipation of returning to the hustle and bustle of living, being more fecund and fruitful in our daily lives.
There used to be an expression, "It's so noisy I can't hear myself think." I would suggest that our whole society today is immersed in such a persistent blanket of background noise and so fraught with empty entertainments that it's a wonder anyone can think at all! We need to reclaim Silence & Solitude if we are going to become self-actualizing individuals and not just fashionable modern lemmings, rushing off toward the Cliff; our mortality – with no awareness of our ultimate end. If we can get some taste of Silence & Solitude at this darkening time of the year, we may well be better able to make a good beginning at centering ourselves and going deep the rest of the year. The Winter Solstice Season seems to call us to Silence and Solitude. The symbols and rituals associated with Winter’s Solstice promote a 'quieting down' as the days grow shorter and we are left with less and less light. Attune yourself, therefore, to the dimmed down state of the world at Winter Solstice. Relax, grow quiet; and enjoy the darkness tomorrow night. Seek out a moment of genuine Silence or Solitude and savor it. Embrace moments of Silence & Solitude wherever you may find them the rest of the year.
... The oven alarm went off, and I went up to take the rum cake out. The house now smells of rum and pine! This is the end of my active meditation for now. Later I will turn Lorenna McKennitt’s CD back on and sink into the quiet beyond the allure of tasks needing to be done. Soon thereafter, I will be in bed_ dreaming, perhaps, of my own poetic versions of ‘sugarplums’ and other such delightful things! So mote it be!
[An earlier version of this blog posted at MySpace; 12/21/2008]