Remembering the Sun

I look up from the keyboard as the shaft of late afternoon sunlight slants through the window and hits the screen of my computer, blinding it. Irritated, with a teaching session to plan, an article to write and one of my mothers threatening to go into labour, I sigh and move across the sofa as far as the lead on my laptop will let me. It allows me about 10 minutes work before the ray of sunlight again moves across my vision. Annoyed now; “I don’t have time for this!”, I jump up to move chairs, pulling the lead out accidentally as I go. My laptop flicks off and I lose the last half hour’s worth of work. I slide onto the floor wondering whether to laugh or cry in frustration. “Slow down, Priestess”, She smiles, languid from the corner of the room, all amber gold hair and a dress as grey as the stormy sea, She smells of the world outside, that I have so far cocooned myself away from for the day; “there’s time… look”. She indicates out of the window and across the field where the lazy afternoon breeze rustles the grasses in the meadow, “no rush”. I frown, I am about to retort that I don’t have time for this either, but she jokingly blows the paper I was working on across the floor. ‘Ok, enough!’ I laugh, forgetting my need to be hassled and serious. I pick up my phone, pull on my boots and head out to the pond in the meadow below. By the time I reach the gate, the sun is warm on my skin and the breeze ruffles my hair, I wonder at how I could have found it an intrusion not five minutes before. 

Reading back over my last post on sacrifice, I realise just how limited a blog post is, and just how it is almost impossible to do a subject justice in what really just amounts to a short article, usually of around 1500 words or less. It is inevitable that at some point, the writer will have to identify what their readers will understand and what deserves more full an explanation, making the decision about what to leave out more than what to leave in. Sometimes we make the right assumptions and sometimes we make the wrong ones. Either way, we have to chose what is the most pertinent and relevant otherwise we end up writing a book.

Having read today’s latest posts on the Sacrifice discussion, I realised that for those who don’t know me or my craft well, discussing the idea that something can be ‘made sacred’ might seem like I have disappeared off on an unfortunate dualistic tangent. The idea that a being (I prefer the word ‘being’ to ‘thing’) can be designated sacred or even mundane in its nature is about as at odds with animist thinking as it’s possible to be unless of course we understand that this is entirely about our perspective rather than the actuality.

At the heart of Animism, lies the experience that the world, every tiny speck of it is animate, alive, to some extent conscious of itself. This is not the simplistic perspective that is often trotted out as animism, that ‘everything has spirit’ for this is dualistic in itself, it is a language which belies a belief in spirit on one hand and matter on the other as if the two can be separated. No, this is the understanding that matter cannot exist without the humming spirit of intention, that it is this intention in itself, which forms the skeleton upon which all matter is built. To the animist, everything is sacred because everything has purpose, a sense of self, an individual ‘ishness’, a wish to be, a value and a place in the world.

So working from this principle that all is sacred, how do I then come to the understanding that to sacrifice is the art, for I do believe it is that, of making sacred? Simply, that as humans, it is impossible to live in a state where we are experiencing all to be sacred all of the time. We bumble through life, consuming without thought, swearing at the idiot who cut us up on the motorway, stressed, irritated, hurt, afraid wounded. It is hard to acknowledge any of these things as sacred, let alone understand their purpose or hear their intention, their own stories, or why something behaves as it does. It is just too difficult unless we take the time to stop and listen, paying just one or two things our full attention for a while, meditate if you like, on the relationship. For me it is my relationship with something that allows me to understand it as sacred in a very real and tangible sense and not just a theoretical one. The more difficult a situation or thing, the more important that quiet and considered meditative attention becomes.

Take the sun, that’s an easy one. As I found today, it was easy to forget its sanctity, swept up in the moment of ‘too much to do and too little time’ it became an irritation preventing my work. I forgot how often I had danced in it, lay out and sunbathed in it, thanked it for growing the beans, waking the hedgerows and evaporating water off the sea to make rain. My Goddess, of course, reminds me to slow down and take a moment to remember, pushing me off and outside to find it and rekindle my relationship, to once again find its sanctity.

Sacrifice is the same, it is finding or remembering something’s value and worth to us. Or taking something that already means so very much and recognising it, and it’s intention, purpose, individuality as sacred. To the point where we understand we cannot own it. Yet the act of sacrifice is about more than that, intrinsic within it’s meaning is the act of giving up or letting it go. It is about saying to our gods, ‘this is so big and so important, I don’t want to ever forget how sacred it is, please help me remember’. Or ‘I love you so much, this is the biggest thing I have, please take it as a symbol of my devotion’. Devotion is not about imagining that the gods care for us, it’s about not minding and loving them anyway. If we let something go, return it to the keeping of the gods, we allow it to be itself, in its own intention and ‘ishness’ no longer hampered by our need or perceptions, but shared with the world to become what it will. This allows us to consciously and permanently make it sacred so that we don’t forget. We make a sacred vow which means that it cannot be taken back without consequence, there is no slipping out of sacred relationship.

Of course I cant sacrifice the Sun, but I could sacrifice suncream (not only made by big pharma, sold by large corporations, with the products of the oil industry – already a good reason) but in not protecting my skin from the sun, I am forced to remember its power. I cant ever take it for granted lest it burn me to a frazzle and with my red hair and fair skin, that’s fairly likely. 17 years ago, my vows not to eat meat began as a sacrifice, an offering to the power that is life. It was really hard and although I knew I needed to, I didn’t want to. Sacrificing meat was about remembering that all life is sacred and capable of suffering and choosing not to be a part of that wherever possible. I didn’t need it to live, so why take a life? It seemed pure selfishness. Now it is second nature, the sense of the cow or the sheep as a being, filled with life and purpose and sentience is utterly sacred to me. If I had simply made the decision to be vegetarian, I could take that back anytime I wanted, but the fact that it is a sacrifice to the gods, sacred, reminds me every day not only of why I choose not to eat meat but also of my devotion to my gods. Apologies to those uncomfortable by the vegetarian polemic, but it’s a good example of sacred vows and the sacrifices that often accompany them. For me it was about saying ‘no matter how busy or forgetful I am, I will always remember and have time for this.”

Ultimately, sacrifice, is about learning to live in a sacred way. Understanding that we cannot perceive the world as all sacred all of the time. But it is about placing the markers and sign posts along the way to help us remember, as often as possible, that it is.


To make sacred

I have been reading with interest Nimue’s postings over the last few days on sacrifice, offerings and dedication, here http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/no-sacrifice/ and also Cat’s words here http://druidcat.wordpress.com/ Sadly I missed Cat’s original words, so can only respond to her current post.

*edited to say that Miss Cat has now re blogged her original http://druidcat.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/sacrifice-2/#comment-531

For Nimue, sacrifice is a word that she would happily see dropped from modern Druid vocabulary, evidently  it doesn’t float her Druid boat, and that is fine. For Cat is seems to be something she uses in her daily devotions. For me, it is absolutely integral and central to my own craft, expressing and cementing a number of my personal relationships with my gods. Rather than drop it from use, I would invite us to reclaim it, considering instead its ancient meanings, steeped as they are in the deeply religious and devotional, releasing some of the fear that perhaps the word invokes in us as Pagans, which organised, monotheistic religion has so effectively instilled in us and society. I have no idea how closely my own practice and understanding matches the rest of the Druid community, but I feel Sacrifice to be a beautiful, religious concept, full of love, and gratitude, speaking powerfully of change and transformation, and what we dedicate and devote to being sacred in our own lives and what we release, leaving behind us in order to allow growth and change.

To look at the etymology of the word, at its root, we find the latin sacer meaning holy; it is the same word from which we draw our modern word ‘sacred’. We also find facio, to make or do. So the act of sacrifice is to actively dedicate something as sacred or holy. This is reflected in the most common use of the word found in translation around the world; that is, to give a gift of something deeply valued to a deity. For me too, this is sacrifice at its simplest and most powerful; the act of devoting a thing to the Gods so that it becomes sacred, set apart, no longer mundane, entrusted to a deity for safe keeping, transformation or simply as a gift. To me it is distinct from the small every day offerings and dedications I give, the food set out for my ancestors, the seeds shared with the birds and spirits of place, the prayers made as I kindle the fire, my daily affirmations of service to gods and community. Sacrifice is about the big things we give, it does hurt, it changes things because we release, let go and make space for new growth. Change is not easy, we shy away from it, it makes us uncomfortable but it is also necessary, a part of nature; the amount of space we make being directly proportional to the amount that we may grow.

Spending time watching as the cycles turn shows us this. We prune the roses so that we get better foliage and more beautiful blooms, the tree puts an enormous effort into fruit in the hopes that just one seed might find the fertile soil in which to grow. Watching as the box of baby blue tits fledged last summer right outside my window was a serious lesson in the sacrifices that parents make in order to bring their children to healthy adult hood. The babies, easily distinguishable from their parents, fat, healthy with beautiful feathers, sat at various strategic points in the garden as mother and father fed every last morsel of food they could find into their waiting mouths, keeping nothing for themselves. By contrast, the parents, thin, scrappy, and hungry, were ragged and exhausted from the hard demands of their young brood. This winter past, watching my sister go through the same process with her little boy, she is only just starting to reclaim a small sense of her own identity and self as he grows and finds some independence, she returning just a day or two a week to work. I realise how much she has given him, how little she has kept for herself and how just how much my own decision not to become a mother is about not being prepared to make that particular sacrifice.

And yet, however hard sacrifice is, it should always be willing and herein lies its power. We give, the biggest thing we can give, whether that is our ignorance, our time, our pain, our fear, our reluctance to change, in absolute freedom, knowing that sometimes it is the only way to grow. Or knowing perhaps if we do not chose to give it willingly, the frosts of winter may take it anyway which may be more painful. Knowing either way that we often hold the keys to our own bonds, the things that hold us back, keep us small. Sometimes it is easier to remain the victim, or the person who is frightened or hurt than make the biggest sacrifices to allow us to break those perceived bond, and change. One of the greatest and reoccurring sacrifices in my own life is the sacrifice of fear. Fear is an old friend, fear feels like hell, but it makes life easy. It means I can find excuses not to do the things that are challenging, that make me a bit vulnerable or exposed. I hate doing things in public, I would far rather follow my solitary nature and spend the day at home, which is daft for a person who regularly stands in front of a class of 50 students to teach, or a congregation of 100 at a hand-fasting. Yet I know they are important things to do, they are a part of my own vow of service, I value them, as do the students I teach and the couples I marry. So I gather up my fear and hand it over to my Goddess sacrificing it into the cauldron or offering it as blood onto the earth. The space that it leaves does create a vulnerability, but it allows me space to grow the courage I need to walk on. Without the repeated sacrifice of fear, I would not be doing the work that I do. More poignantly, a friend recently sacrificed her uterus to cancer, it was not a choice that she wanted to make, it bloody hurt and I do not envy her. With it she lost much of her sense of identity as a woman and she will now have to build a new identity based on what she has left, but she made that sacrifice to the gods of death in order that she might live. It was the only thing she could give. It would be nice to think that life is not meant to hurt, but the fact is that it does and sometimes we sacrifice simply to survive; sometimes the offering of an apple is not enough.

For many years I was part of a grove that hugely valued the act of sacrifice. It was something we celebrated at Lammas as being a part of the natural ebb and flow of life. We built John Barley Corn from sheaves of wheat we gathered in the field and dressed him with love and care, in fruits and flowers from our gardens as a symbol of how hard the earth works to feed us, giving selflessly, giving her bounty that we may eat and live. The small creatures that are taken by the combine, that our ‘nature loving’ society rarely thinks of, were grieved for. The sacrifice of the corn felt to be an ancient mystery, far bigger and older than any of us. To some he is Frey, to others Beowa, Yarn Kaax or Osiris. Either way, the story is fairly universal, the idea of sacrifice playing an important part in each story and to the peoples and cultures from whence those stories came. The symbol of the sickle or even the scythe is a powerful one in Druidry, linked with the first sacred cut or the harvest.

So, our ancestors standing with us as we cried for the death of the corn, that we might take it and transform it in to the bread that would feed our bodies, in deepest gratitude and thanks we made our own sacrifices to the earth in return, searching deep for the things that might in some way be sufficient exchange for what we were given. For some it may have been ignorance, others vowed only to buy second-hand clothes, reduce consumption, go vegetarian, buy organic, recycle, shower less. For each it was something that would take time, effort, that was not easy or was actually painful, inspired by what we were seeing and feeling in nature all around us.

Sacrifice is not supposed to be easy. Where is the value in what we give if it costs us nothing? Yet, neither is masochism, pain or hurt the point of sacrifice. The point is letting go what is necessary in order to move, change and grow and devoting that letting go to the gods we serve. Whilst the letting go is hard and often painful, there too can be great joy, freedom and healing in sacrifice done well. I think it is as powerful for us today as it was to our ancient ancestors.