Beltane – Sacred Sex

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles. This one was originally written in 2012.

In addition to the four Elements, on the cross-quarter days of the Wheel of the Year this year I’m going to explore four major themes or concepts that I think are deeply important in Wicca. Please note that Wicca is not the only kind of Paganism that there is and that even within Wicca interpretations vary widely, so this is not authoritative about anyone else’s practices or beliefs. It’s offered as food for thought.

Wicca is not a religion based on a text. Even the forms of worship vary tremendously, with nothing resembling a formal liturgy that is widely accepted or agreed upon. Most Wiccans, though, are familiar with a few important pieces of writing and many use them in ritual at times or consider them important reflections of the religion. The best-loved of these is Doreen Valiente’s The Charge of the Goddess.

The Charge exists in many forms and has been revised over the years by different practitioners. Here is a version by Starhawk, a famous feminist Pagan author. I’ll note that some people use the whole thing, but I personally only use the section from “Hear now the words of the Star Goddess…” to the end. In British Traditional Wicca, the Charge is read at each ritual, and others may use the Charge similarly, especially near Beltane. The reason is simple. One of the most oft-quoted lines of the Charge says:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

In Wicca, sex is sacred. This has a lot of metaphysical connotations: the union of Goddess and God is seen as the source of everything, and stories of that union take many forms. But it’s also about the purely human. Beltane is traditionally a fertility festival, even more so than Ostara, perhaps; as we begin to enjoy the longer days and warmer temperatures of spring and summer, it’s natural to be interested in making whoopee. And as we noted at Ostara, our nonhuman neighbors also tend to engage in acts of love and pleasure with great enthusiasm around this time of year.

But for me, it’s important to understand that this valorization of sex is about a lot more than it can seem. Yes, “all acts of love and pleasure” certainly refers to intercourse, and it also refers to a lot more than that; any loving act of pleasure is included, regardless of the genders of people involved. It doesn’t say “acts of love and pleasure that lead to conception” or even might lead to conception. To me, it’s a bit misleading to say that this is about fertility – unless one expands the concept of fertility to mean a lot more than simply making babies.

One of the ways I like to express this is to say that it’s not as much about having sex as it is about making love. My partner and I make love with each other in all kinds of ways that happen fully clothed and outside the bedroom: he makes dinner, I do the laundry, he gives me a foot rub, and we go to sleep having expressed our love for each other with great depth and passion, just not with “sex” per se. Don’t get me wrong – sex is one of my favorite ways of making love – it’s just not the only one, or the most important one for all situations.

Think also about the meanings of the word “intercourse.” Yes, it is usually used only to refer to sex these days. But historically, its meanings have included what today we might call “dialogue” or “exchange,” where people engage with each other in any number of non-physical ways. To me, these too can be acts of love and pleasure. When two friends have an engaging conversation that leads to the creation of a work of art, I can see that as a kind of non-sexual “intercourse” which has also brought forth something new in the world. And if a work of art has a life of its own, as we often express it metaphorically, then this too is a kind of fertility, of bringing new life into the world.

These expanded ideas of intercourse and fertility make my understanding of Wicca one where sex is sacred not because of sex acts themselves, but because it is one of the most wonderful, vital examples of a whole class of activity – all acts of love and pleasure. Wicca is about connections: connections within nature, connections to deity, and connections between individuals. All acts of love and pleasure that create and celebrate connections between people, especially ones that are fruitful or productive in those people’s lives, are sacred.

This weekend, participated in a ritual that included dancing the Maypole. The Maypole has a long history as a fertility symbol. But what struck me about it, as I steadied the pole and my friends whirled around me, was not the pole itself, but the network we wove as we did so. This wasn’t just about union between two people; it was also about community, coming together to celebrate how our interconnections are important to the fabric of our lives, and how those interactions bear fruit in so very many forms.

And those are what I celebrate this Beltane. Yes, I include plenty of bawdy humor and making love both in and out of the bedroom with my partner, but I also celebrate the ways that I connect with others: through song and story, image and word, through all the myriad interconnections that make my world the vibrant, vital place that it is. One of those is the Slacktiverse, and so I celebrate each and every one of you, too, this season. With that, I wish you many acts of love and pleasure, of many different kinds. Bright Beltane to you all!

Rooted in the Body, Seeking the Soul published

Bad news first: Crossing the River has been delayed slightly, because the publisher had to deal with another anthology first. We’re shooting for January now.

Good news: The anthology Rooted in the Body, Seeking the Soul, edited by Tara Masery Miller, has been published by Immanion Press, and it includes two of my pieces, “Speak for Yourself: The problem of victim-blaming by magical practitioners,” and “Sick or Well: False Dichotomy.”

Here’s the opening of “Speak for Yourself:”

Blaming people with disabilities for their conditions happens all too often. Some common metaphysical interpretations of disability and disease – as indicative of a person’s power, purity, or lack thereof, or as signs of past wrongdoings that are being worked out – carry tremendous potential to hurt people already facing difficult circumstances. Although some tout these understandings as empowering, even narratives intended to be helpful can easily degenerate into victim-blaming. To counteract these destructive potentials, I suggest that anyone who uses these potentially problematic approaches be very careful not to impose it on anyone else; if you are going to use these interpretations, speak for yourself.

Recent labors

I’ve been quiet here lately, mostly to work on my dissertation (a finished draft of a chapter  is such a satisfying thing!), but I’ve also had a few things appear elsewhere.

At PaganSquare, I’m tentatively trying a new kind of short commentary on different works. This approach will be less comprehensive than my reviews usually are, aimed at introducing some lesser-known works to a generalist audience rather than critiquing common materials. I tackle Israel Regardie’s compendium of Golden Dawn material to start:

Overall, Regardie’s compendium can be a paradox: nearly impenetrable to the casual reader, seemingly outdated and irrelevant, for those who have the interest and the patience to immerse themselves in it, it is fascinating and invaluable.

Read the whole thing.

In the fall issue of Circle Magazine, my article “Guarding the Theshold – Everyday Warding for the Home” is featured as part of the Home and Harvest theme:

I live in a busy urban area, so warding my home is vitally important to me on many levels. Creating a sense of mental and emotional privacy is a necessary part of urban life. More than that, though, my warding designates my home as a space set aside, defined by my intention, as the place I and my partner live and love. Casting and maintaining this magical boundary is not just about defining the edges of our home, but about shaping the very meaning of home in our everyday lives.

The full article is available through free download from the Circle website.

Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend, if you celebrate that, and if not, enjoy the turning of the seasons. May your labors bring you a bountiful harvest!

Brigid ornament

I’ve had my hands full lately, between working on my dissertation and coping with some personal things. One of the things I do to relax is embroidery, and I wound up stitching the following design as a prayer to Brigid for healing:

brigid ornament

I didn’t realize until I started that the three miniature emblems around the edge are symbols of the three countries of the UK – Irish shamrock, Scottish thistle, and English rose. That’s very appropriate for Brigid given her Celtic roots.

I hope to blog about a few other things soon, including how great Fertile Ground Gathering was. For now, here’s a photo of me teaching.

lit teaching fgg 2013

Many thanks to all the organizers who work so very hard to put on a truly magical event, and to all the wonderful folks I got to work with, teach, learn from, and play with.

Balancing, moving to the light

This week the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about striking down DOMA and Prop 8 in favor of marriage equality. I concentrated some of my Ostara work on this subject, and I will be taking part in an interfaith event to show support for marriage equality. There will be another event the night before. If you can come out and show support, that’s wonderful. If not, please consider directing some energy to this important event. Here are three ways you might join in this work:

Include support for marriage equality in your intention for either Ostara or the full moon:

The world is poised at the turning of the year towards increasing light, with warmth that will nurture many new lives. Let our symbols of new life in seeds and eggs remind us not just of physical fertility, but the possibility of new life brought about by love. In our own lives, let our love make space for new arrivals and open the way for new possibilities.

Pray to Columbia:

Hail Columbia, matron goddess of your district and of our government! You represent our highest ideals of freedom and liberty, calling us to fuller expression of equality. Columbia, help us change our laws to honor all forms of partnership, giving all acts of love and pleasure equal status under law.

Pray to Justice:

Justice, be not blind, but look into our hearts with piercing gaze to discern the ill intent of those who would rule over us with theocratic mandates full of hate. Redress the wrongs and balance the scales to provide equal recognition for all partnerships formed in love.

Bonus: as Hecate suggested, if you’re in the area, you might also consider visiting the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the first human rights documents in history, and empowering it as a symbol of the progress we’ve made and hope to continue making.

Ostara salt scrub

Happy Ostara!

I haven’t developed this into a full ritual yet, but here’s an idea you might try: an Ostara salt scrub. Why not try a little “spring cleaning” on your body as well as around the house?

Seriously, though, when I look at the imagery of Ostara, all those eggs and seeds, there’s a piece of the story that is seldom told. The first thing a chick does is break out of its shell. The first thing a seed does in order to sprout is split open. My beloved cherry blossoms start as buds that burst open to unfurl their tender petals.

And for all that vigorous language – breaking and bursting – it’s often made possible by a softening. We see this in the plant life. With many seeds, with many kinds of buds and blooms, the prerequisite is a change in the surrounding tissues, which become thinner and softer, so that the opening is more gradual and gentle.

A salt scrub is a simple way to experience this in your own body. Take relatively coarse-grained salt, like kosher salt, and mix it with a little oil, just enough to make a paste. When you start your shower or bath, before you turn on the water, rub the paste gently across areas of your skin that you want to exfoliate and soften. The coarser the grain, the stronger the scrub will be, and you can scratch yourself with this, so go slowly. When you’re done, wash with soap and water, and the skin should be refreshed – it might even be tender.

That tenderness has something to teach us. Think about how the new buds feel when their coverings are peeled away for the first time – they are tender and delicate, easily hurt. The transformation of Ostara isn’t just a process of scrubbing away or breaking through, it’s a process of softening into the change, and continuing that softness, that gentleness, afterwards as part of nurturing the new things that are coming into being.

If you want to make this into a ritual, I suggest you do it for your hands and feet. You might want to soak your feet to soften the calluses, then dry them off and do the scrub. Think about what you’re scrubbing away, but also think about how you can soften, how you can open to new possibilities in gentle ways. Take care of your softened, renewed skin by putting a little moisturizer on it, and think about how you’ll need to care for whatever this new thing in your life is.

When you’re done, ground and center – and if possible, go outside and put your scrubbed feet on the ground to do it. Feel how the refreshed, softened skin is much more sensitive. Maybe you’ll feel a new ability to root down into the ground, growing a few more tentative tendrils like the new shoots of springtime seeds.

Feel the new sensitivity in your hands, too. Think about the new possibilities available there. What are you aware of when you touch the world around you that you couldn’t feel before? Maybe you will put your hand to a new task. Maybe you can reach out in a new way. Whatever you do, be gentle with it. Remember the tenderness you feel; remember that other kinds of new life, new possibilities, new alternatives, feel just as tender and tentative in their own way.

Ground, gently, and renew yourself. Reach out, gently, and nurture the newness around you. Blessed Ostara!

Landbase whispers: Spring is here

My landbase told me that spring arrived last Tuesday.

cherry blossoms in bowl

On Monday, I was walking in the rain, and I thought about something
Michael Smith mentioned at Sacred Space, alluding to the way a
religion that recognizes the divine immanent in nature has sacred
times not just marked by the predictable things measured on calendars
but also unpredictable sacred times that arrive in nature’s good time.
I was reminded of the way my friend Hecate is a keen observer of her
garden’s time, and how she wants to have impromptu parties to
celebrate the organic events that mark the times of the landbase.

One of my favorite of those organic timekeepers has been the first
flurries of snow. If I were to borrow and rewrite some of the
religious language I grew up with, it might read: “It is right and
salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and
praise to you, o land, and especially to honor the first snowflakes by
dashing madly outside, running around with our mouths open to try to
catch a snowflake with our tongues, all of us, not just the
children…”

On Monday I realized that there is another of these childlike (but far
from childish) observances that I had forgotten, though. The rain on
Monday was the first rain that felt like a spring rain. It felt
different because it was the first time I hadn’t felt so bitterly cold
that all I wanted to do was bundle up and hide. I could keep my head
up, and look around me, appreciating the way the rain and wind played
together, pattering down gently enough to seem like a call to the land
to reawaken.

Comparing the two observances, and the way snow is coming less often,
but more dramatically when it does, make me worry about how these
organic timekeepers are affected by climate change. Will the next
generation of children have the memories of gentle snowflakes as
harbingers of winter, or only as the very wrath of winter’s teeth?
Will they appreciate the first warm rain as a respite from winter’s
cold, which is what makes it magical for me, or will they see is as
the harbinger of summer’s dreaded onslaught?

Now, I have no doubt that if there are people, and there are people
who are paying attention to the land – and there will always be
children who are paying attention to the land while they are playing,
because they haven’t learned to do anything different yet – then
people will find their own sacred organic time markers. I am not yet
such an old stick in the mud (although I may be becoming one) that I
will say that my time markers in this place are the only right and
good ones, and anything different that comes after me is a decay. But
I am afraid for these children of the future, because I am afraid of
the pain and heartache that are here now because of climate change,
and which will get worse before they get better.

But enough of my maunderings…on Monday, I felt the cool-warm rain,
and I remembered enough of my misspent childhood and listened enough
to the land’s sigh of relief that it was a time marker for me. And
then Tuesday…

Tuesday was supposed to be more rain all day. One of the consolations
of losing the wonder at every moment that is a hallmark of childhood
experience is the gain in perspective; “April showers bring May
flowers” was nothing more than singsong when I was splashing through
the puddles that I remembered on Monday, but now it is a statement of
promise, a different kind of wonder at the cycles of the year. But
Tuesday afternoon there was a break in the rain, and the sky opened,
and it was warm enough to go out with only a light coat.

That’s when I discovered that the cherry blossoms in the park near my
home are blooming already. Not peak bloom, and I’m sure they’re ahead
of the Tidal Basin, but enough and more than enough to fulfill all the
hope and promise of the rhyme. And the land – oh, the land was awake,
pattered into spring’s rising by the fall of raindrops as gentle and
persistent as a mother’s kisses on the forehead of a sleepy child.

And what a good reason to awake! The sun and sky made love to the land
with warmth after the rain that was enough to make the drowsiest
plants send out new shoots to savor the freshly-washed world. Some of
the cherry blossoms were knocked down by the rain, of course, but
plenty remained, and they were being nurtured with what they needed to
grow further.

Those that fell were a gift of grace, from the land to the land, and
to the people who live with the land. The land whispered, “Spring is
coming…spring is here!”

Sandy the Snurricane

I wrote this post as the winds and the snow began. The angle that my building makes with another high-rise forms an interesting vortex such that precipitation will actually rise. Yes, DC really is weird: here, it snows up. There is also standing water on US 1 with waves in it being driven by the winds.

I want to use this moment to point out something that’s been bothering me for a while. I’m currently ambivalent about the extent to which magic can change or affect the material, physical world. (I am most certainly agnostic about the means by which it does so, as I find many of the explanations which justify it to be precisely as bad as the obnoxious New Atheists mock them for being.) At the same time, I’ve done magic which, by my standards, worked. Including weather work. I didn’t get a chance to do preparatory work before Sandy as I’ve done before, but I’ll be doing more tonight.

Anyone who has had much exposure to the New Apostolic Reformation and associated/similar kinds of Christians will have seen their claims to have worked what I would classify as magic. They describe it as prayer, and we can debate the interpenetration of those categories, but they say they make changes in the world. Many of their claims are clearly ridiculous, and the sources that follow them tend to report these claims as further proof of the NAR’s detachment from Planet Reality.

Of course, this is also something that causes a lot of mainstream thinking to dismiss all magic as “woo” and hence to think Paganism is entirely ridiculous. But I don’t think all of this is entirely “woo,” so let’s stipulate the possibility that the NAR, like other kinds of magic, can affect the “real” world. (Thank you, Hecate, for teaching me that it’s all real; it’s all metaphor; there’s always more.)

And given the context of this storm, if Jesus wants to help out moderating its impact, I’d gratefully take his help.

So I was asking myself why it bothers me so deeply when I see Cindy Jacobs asking her prayer intercessors to “rebuke” the storm. After all, I think my magic can make a difference, so maybe hers can too, and I’d be stupid to refuse help, right?

I think I found the answer in another headline from today: Hurricane Sandy is God’s Vengeance for (insert that Christian’s personal hobbyhorse – QUILTBAG rights, abortion, etc). Again, if you’ve been around these kinds of Christians much, you’ve seen these kinds of condemnatory headlines. In fact, they’re much, much more common than calls to ask their god to help potential problems that are developing.

Worst of all, they almost never show any sort of compassion for the people who are killed, hurt, or otherwise impacted by these disasters and tragedies. It’s the most despicable kind of appropriating others’ pain in order to “lesson” the rest of us about moral decay.

This isn’t just a failure of theodicy. It demonstrates a worldview with a propensity for bullying, a propensity learned directly from their twisted, malignant vision of deity. Even when they do issue calls to try to importune their god for help, I cannot escape seeing an implicit threat. “If you don’t do what we want, I mean, what HE wants, we might not be able to hold him back next time,” this cycle of pin-the-blame-on-the-sinner says to me.

Of course, it’s also a failure of theodicy. This is another aspect of the same incoherence that crops up when people try to square the circle of an omnipotent, omniscient god which doesn’t intend the rape but does very strongly intend the pregnancy that follows from it. There are coherent theological responses to this; I respect Christians who are willing to grapple with this with eyes open to the realities of the world they are trying to discuss, and some of them are fairly successful at it. But many aren’t, and too many of those are closer than we realize to the abhorrent, bullying view that makes my skin crawl even when they say they’re working for (my) good. This is all one worldview, and if you don’t think it’s a problem, you’re not paying attention.

But we can’t let our attention – or our intention – be occupied by that alone.

And now, having faced that little piece of my shadow (thank you, Samhain, thank you, people who have helped me do shadow work recently), I am going to sit with this amazing, awe-full and awful storm. I am going to reach out in love, with responsibility, and with my fear – of the storm, of the people who scare me and open old wounds, of the uncertain future that this storm makes all-too-apparent – with all of those, and work. For myself, for others, for the world, for all of us. Together. Here. Now.

There are birds taking flight off the roof of a building nearby. The clouds are so low that their wild flight in the face of the wind disappears almost immediately. I want to try that: what kind of flight would be possible in this unique storm that we could never think of in “normal” times? What kind of magic can ride in its wings?

What are you doing tonight?

Updated after the storm: We were safe and sound; although there were risks of flooding, none affected us. (Key safety tip: knowing when the full moon is and how it affects the tides is practical, real-world knowledge!)

My thoughts and prayers went out to those who were hurt by the storm.

Virginia recognizes me as clergy!

My reapplication today was successful! The Arlington County Court has officially granted me authorization to perform marriages.

Literata with authorization

The process was not entirely painless. Once again, the person who handles the paperwork – I’m not sure if she’s a secretary or what – asked for my congregation’s physical location. I told her that I had applied before, and that there was some confusion over this, because my group worships in multiple places. She then asked where they could contact me if they had any questions about a marriage license. (Note that she didn’t ask that the first time I applied – if all they had wanted then was my contact information, I would have gladly given it to them.) I indicated that my personal contact information on the letter I had included with my paperwork would be the way to contact me.

She had to go get approval from someone else; she said that the person who wrote the reply to Americans United for Separation of Church and State had to review my new application and paperwork. That took a little while, but she came back and said that it was approved, and then it was a matter of paying the fee, taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia and to do my duty fairly and impartially, and then I got the official authorization!

I sincerely hope that this means Wiccans and Pagans applying to the Arlington County Court will have less trouble having their authorizations granted in the future. I’m delighted to have my official recognition, of course, but this was never just about me. It’s small steps like this that break new ground along the path to full recognition, where Wicca and other Pagan religions are afforded the full benefit of equal treatment under the law.

For anyone who wants to apply in Arlington in the future, here’s what I took with me: Certificate of Ordination; Letter of good standing (to show that I am “in regular contact” with my religious organization); Certified copies of the articles of incorporation of the Order of the White Moon, the most recent business filing with California showing that the Order is still active; Copies of the letter from the IRS granting OWM its 501(c)3 tax exempt status and the most recent filing with the IRS showing that OWM is still active and exempt; Letters of support from Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Ivo Dominguez Jr. of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and Sacred Circle bookstore, attesting to my standing as a priestess and the ministry I do; and a letter of support from a coven sister who also lives in Arlington, because the court insisted that I show “a connection between [my] ministry and the Arlington community.”

My coven sister went with me to support her letter and act as a witness, and my husband also came to be a witness. I cannot thank them enough for taking time out of their busy schedules. Their presence helped tremendously, and I am sure that her letter showing a direct, personal connection to Arlington was a key piece of evidence to meet the court’s standards.

I am also deeply and sincerely grateful to everyone who supported me, especially Selena Fox, Ivo Dominguez, and my sisters in the Order of the White Moon; my thanks also go out to everyone who put energy into resolving this issue and making a positive difference for Pagan civil rights. The personal and magical support I got was amazing, and it made all the difference in the world. Thank you all.

I would like to particularly thank Americans United for Separation of Church and State, especially Ben Hazelwood, who worked with me directly. They sent the letters that showed the Arlington County Court in no uncertain terms that their actions were legally indefensible and got the court to clarify its requirements so that I could make this reapplication successful.

This is not the first time they have gone to bat for Pagan rights, either, as they were intimately involved with Selena Fox and the Lady Liberty League in bringing the Pentacle Quest to a successful conclusion. I strongly encourage all Pagans to support these organizations that are doing the hard work of defending our rights when we need it most.

Authors you want to love, but can’t

I’ve been reading more Dion Fortune as part of my research. She’s an intriguing author. I want to like her work, I really do. But I can’t.

There’s not a whole lot of magical fiction, and she writes it pretty well. If you really get into the text, she can carry you along in the spirit of a ritual, which is often the point of magical fiction, and is certainly the point of hers. So I want to like it, because it’s good at one of the major things it sets out to do. But I can’t.

It’s not the Christianity; in fact, most of the ritual work in her novels is so thoroughly little-p pagan that it has been shamelessly mined by Pagans since, well, there were big-p Pagans. It’s not even the sexism, although that gave me a pretty hard ride in the latest work I read, The Winged Bull. Admittedly, it is the bad guy who says that a particular woman needs “a sheiking” – meaning abduction and rape – but it is the good guys who talk about how if that woman objects to them manhandling her (for her own good, of course) they will simply spank her in public. That’s hard enough, but they don’t actually do it, so I can sort of tolerate it.

What I can’t tolerate is when she tells me – in the voice of that female character, no less – that “there is no blessing on a marriage when you close the gates of life permanently against incoming souls.” (322-3)

This weird bit seems like a line from her Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage wandered over onto another page and another book entirely, and she decided to wedge it in where it doesn’t really fit. I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons – and maybe I’ll think about them, on another day – about why in English society at the time she couldn’t get away from including this last soupcon of morality when concluding a novel. But today, I couldn’t get over her telling me that my own marriage is a sham, or immoral, or at least “unblessed” in some way. And while I certainly don’t need her approval, her insistence on including that last ruler-smack of disapprobrium definitely keeps me from giving her too much of my own approval in return.

What about you? Are there writers (teachers, speakers) that you want to love, but just can’t?